Postcard From Ozark Folk Center, Arkansas

After a good night’s rest at the Mountain View Best Western, we decided to skip the skimpy free “breakfast” in the lobby and dine at a nice little coffee shop down the road a bit. If we’re going to spend some of our money, we prefer to let a local, individual-owned establishment earn our hard-earned. We arrived at the Coffee Bean at 9:03. The sign on the door said it opens at 8:00. It lied. We left at 9:05 with the lights in the store and the power to the coffee pots all off. A half a block away, McDonald's earned our hard earned. Coffee and a Sausage, Egg and Biscuit. Yummy.

Entrance area where you can buy tickets,
snacks, odds and ends.
After a quick little drive to the Folk Center and leaving our car in the free parking lot, we walked into the General Store to purchase tickets - $26 for the 3 of us. After browsing a couple of stores, including a music store which had mandolins, guitars, dulcimers, and other instruments and making small talk with several ladies in period costumes, we jumped on one of the small buses and rode to the top of the hill to the crafts village.

We picked up a brochure in the gift shop and found that the Ozark Folk Center State Park opened in 1973 with the purpose of preserving and promoting “the Ozark way of life.” The park is located on a wooded hill about 1 mile from the courthouse square of Mountain View, Arkansas and contains 24 buildings and outdoor areas housing craft stores and showcasing demonstrations and live mountain music from the 1820 – 1920 time period. The stores offer classes in crafts like pottery, knife-making, gunsmithing, jewelry making, weaving, woodcarving, broom tying, photography, crocheting, rug-making, quilting, cooking, painting, doll-making, corn shucking and more.

Whoa Mule! An excellent, funny little 
Ozark folk band.
When we exited the gift shop, we heard live music so I followed my ears and my girls followed me until we found Whoa Mule!, a 3-man ensemble putting on a show to an audience of about 10 people. We sat down about 6 feet from them and listened as they played a selection of old folk music. I was totally enjoying it, but my girls were anxious to go shopping and seeing crafts so I bid them adios and kept my butt on the flattened log it was parked on. Their loss. With such a small audience sitting so close, the performers, all of whom were on the more experienced side of life, started interacting with us, telling stories, jokes, asking people questions and making funny comments which would somehow remind one of them of a song which they would then proceed to play. They were good musicians and really put on a great show.

The blacksmith turning an iron bar into a
hay bale hook.
When they took a break, I wandered over to the knife shop and talked to the proprietor (nice guy named Tom) for a while. From there to the blacksmith who was making a straight iron bar into a hay bale hook. I was the only visitor and he was talkative. He told me a lot about blacksmithing and the tensile strength of an iron rod and how many foot-pounds of pressure and how many strikes it took to pound flat the iron rod and how hot the fire was and how hot the rod would get – all of which I forgot within a few minutes of walking away, but it was interesting while he was talking and I enjoyed the fact that he so obviously enjoyed what he was doing.

From there I mostly just ambled around, watching a lady blowing a glass bead and then a marble; watched a lady making a quilt, learned a bit about early printing press work and moseyed around the herb garden. The most interesting store I wondered into was the broom making shop.  There were all kinds of hand-made brooms in a bunch of different colors. Most were functional, but a few were made just for show. Later in the day after reuniting with my girls, we bought one of the small “show” brooms and it is now hanging from a kitchen wall at home.

After making the rounds, I returned to catch another performance by Whoa Mule!. Different songs, different stories, different jokes so once again I really enjoyed it. After meeting up with Youngest-daughter and Mamma-woman, they informed me they were headed to the doll shop and then the sewing store so, being the sensitive totally secure in my manhood guy that I am, I said adios once again, found a place to get a coke, and sat under a shade tree by a pond with koi fish in it. In Japan, koi are considered symbols of good fortune or luck and are also associated with perseverance in adversity and strength of purpose. In Buddhism, koi represent courage. For a while I busied myself with rooting around in the flowers and bushes finding little bugs and a couple of caterpillars and fed them to the fish. I figured if I fed them, maybe some of that good fortune would come my way. They seemed about as grateful as a big goldfish can be I guess, but when I left I didn't really feel any luckier or more courageous.

I spotted a bumblebee on a flower close by so I unlimbered ye old camera and started trying to catch him in flight. Then I saw 2 bumblebees; then 3 and 4 and all of a sudden there were a BUNCH of bumblebees flying around these flowers. They didn’t seem to mind me taking pictures and never flew very close to me, but they didn’t exactly cooperate either.  I finally got tired of that pursuit and had a couple of pictures I was ok with so I walked on down the path to some more flowers and found a couple of really pretty butterflies. I took a couple of pictures then sat down on a rock and just watched them for a while. Whenever I see a butterfly, I think of “flutterby” and think that’s what they should have been named.

I finally spotted the Mamma-woman walking down a path without the girl child. She had gone to find a restroom. We walked around for a bit, but Youngest daughter didn't re-join us in what felt like the right amount of time. She didn't answer her phone when I called. I tried not to worry; she's a really good kid who almost always does the right thing. She knows about stranger danger and she's almost 13, old enough and big enough to put up enough of a fight or scream or something that good people would notice and hopefully come to her aid if an evil-doer grabbed her. We were in a fairly enclosed area with a number of people and park employees around so the rational part of me said don't be overly concerned just yet, but me the daddy was very concerned, radar on high alert, fight or flight was definitely in kill mode if some low-life has my baby. Mamma-woman and I split up to cover more ground. Within a couple of minutes, my heart beating like John Henry hammering a railroad spike, adrenaline pumping, confusion, anger, soul-crushing dread flooding every atom of my body, I headed back to the front of the park to the gift shop to alert the rangers that we have a child missing. I wanted everything locked down for 50 miles around; I wanted every Ranger here now scouring the park, I wanted helicopters, I wanted police, Highway Patrol, the FBI, SEAL Team 6, all of them here, now!
Pretty flutterby
What I got was Mamma-woman walking out of the building I was headed for telling me she had found her. The alarm bells in my head went mercifully silent; my fists unclenched; the adrenaline slowly calmed down, relief flooded in. The helicopters could go back to reporting on traffic, the police could go back to writing tickets and the SEALs could go back to killing those that need killing. Turned out when Youngest-daughter came out of the bathroom, she ran into a sweet older lady in period costume with a group of children and a few parents in tow who were headed to the auditorium to listen to stories and play a few old-timey games and the lady asked her if she wanted to come along. She tried to call us, but her phone battery was dead. She told herself we would come find her and it wouldn't be hard because the building was on the way out of the park.

When I saw her, she was perfectly safe, smiling and having a good time. I smiled at her and blew her a kiss. I took pictures. But once the activity was over, I made sure she came to realize the error of her choice. She doesn't know it, but if that's the worst choice she makes before making it out of her teenage years, I'll be one grateful and relieved Daddy.

Postcard From Zanoni Mill & Beyond!

Regretfully putting beautiful Hodgson Mill in the rear view mirror, we proceeded in a drizzling rain about 5 miles north on Missouri SR H to SR 181.  While we were there, we had been the only visitors at Hodgson Mill and on this 5+ mile drive we only saw one other car on the road. This is a very rural area, but there are homes along the way and it is a 2-lane paved road so although I love and seek out places where there are few or no other people, those places are usually out in no-man's land in Utah, Montana, or Arizona. To see basically nobody for several hours and over 5 miles of driving in this area was a little weird; not scary, just weird.
Zanoni Mill from the entrance of the 
circular driveway.

We found our destination, the Zanoni Mill easy enough, but I was a little uncomfortable driving up to it because it is privately owned, located inside a fenced property (and all Texans know, at least in Texas, if you are on fenced property, the owner might very well hurry your butt off his property with a shotgun!), and sits just a few yards from the owner's home. However, the brochure stated you can drive up a long circular driveway to see it close up so we did. The property is beautiful with woods behind the mill and a large pond in front. We didn't get out of the car since it isn't open and I wasn't about to go walking around right there by someone's home.

The brochure informed us it was available for rent for weddings, reunions, and parties and a small house behind it has been made into a bed and breakfast. I did take a couple of pictures as we drove around the driveway and back out again. We were there for only about 5 minutes, but nobody came out to say, "Hi there!" or "Get the hell outta here!" As we pulled back onto the empty road, I started thinking maybe aliens had abducted everyone. The marathon Twilight Zone shows I had watched on TV 2 weeks earlier certainly gave my imagination free reign.

It was at this point that I made the fateful decision to drive 50 miles out of our way to visit Grand Gulf State Park, often referred to as Missouri's "Little Grand Canyon" - at least that's what the Missouri Department of Natural Resources calls it. I'll quote from their brochure and you can see why I thought it would be a great place to visit.

"Grand Gulf State Park offers visitors a chance to view a variety of natural wonders. From a canyon to a cave to a natural bridge - this state park has plenty to see and much to do. The 322-acre park presents the most spectacular collapsed cave system in the Ozarks. The Grand Gulf stretches for nearly a mile with walls almost 130 feet high, making the chasm deeper than it is wide."

Sound interesting? It did to me. I wish it hadn't. This was without a doubt the most disappointing site/place we went to during the whole trip. I'm sure part of it was the fact that when we got there it was 98 degrees with humidity so high we started sweating within 2 seconds after exiting the car. It was miserable. But being hardy little soldiers, we hiked the trail to lay our eyes on Missouri's Little Grand Canyon.

Missouri's Little Grand Canyon
It wasn't a long trail; it wasn't a long hike, and it certainly wasn't much of a grand canyon. There it was. That's it. That was the reaction from me, from Mamma-woman and from Youngest-daughter. "Is that all there is" comes to mind. We hiked another trail. Same thing. We hiked a little ways down the 3rd trail and not seeing anything different except for the sweat now dripping into our faces and our shirts now plastered to our bodies, we said "I don't think so," turned around and hauled our tails back to the car. The good thing - no cost. I would have been really upset if I had paid to see that. Sorry, but if the Grand Gulf State Park is what Missourians have to be proud about, no wonder you don't here them bragging.

Happily putting Grand Gulf State Park in our rear view mirror, we headed to Mountain View, Arkansas. Not to be confused with Mountain Home where we had previously spent the night, Mountain View is smaller and is the self-proclaimed "Folk Music Capital of the World." It's one of my favorite places to visit throughout the year as there seems to be something going on almost every weekend - some kind of fun festival, a hootenanny, or just the impromptu jam sessions that happen every weekend around the town square. We've been there a number of times, but have never been to the Ozark Folk Center State Park which is located just outside of town. We intended to rectify that omission.

There are a number of nice bed and breakfast establishments in Mountain View, but we were only staying for the one night so the Best Western located just a couple of miles away from the park would do just fine. It is an older establishment and I wouldn't call it anywhere close to upscale, but it was clean, quiet, the TV with the Disney Family channel for Youngest-daughter worked  fine, the beds were comfortable, and the Internet connection was reasonably fast. What more could you want? We even found a bunch of people hanging around the pool. Evidently we were safe now from the alien abductors who, thank goodness, had not made it into Arkansas. A quick shower to wash off the dried sweat from our ill-fated stop at Grand Gulf, an iced Dr. Pepper, a good book on my iPad and all was right with the world.

Postcard From Hodgson Mill - Missouri

After partaking of the free hotel breakfast in Mountain Home, we checked out a bit earlier than our usual 10:00AM, grabbed some fruit to go from the buffet and headed north until once again we crossed into Missouri. The morning was overcast and we drove into and out of several rain showers. The distinctive smell of fresh rain came through the vents.

Heading north on Missouri State Road PP
It didn't take long for us to get back on Route 160 just east of Hardenville. Four miles later we crossed an arm of Norfork Lake, passed through Tecumseh (don't blink!) and turned left on State Highway PP. We were headed to Hodgson Mill, built in 1894 and supposedly the prettiest and most photographed mill in Missouri. We had a road, but we didn't have an address and the GPS didn't list it as a point of interest so figuring we'd probably see signs once we got in the vicinity, we simply trusted we would be able to find it. A short drive on PP and we connected with State Road H, which is the road we were told. Sure enough, we saw a sign announcing the mill and there it was off to the left.

Hodgson Mill
It was beautiful! We pulled into the very small, gravel parking lot just as another car was leaving. By the time we got out of the car, we were the only people there. No cars on the road, no cars there with us, no kids running around screaming or arguing; just quiet solitude. When we spoke, we naturally lowered our voices. It started to rain again, but just a nice, gentle, soft rain. The creek bubbling down a small waterfall and over the rocky creek bed and raindrops falling on the leaves were
the only sounds.

Fog covered the waterway so with camera in hand and leaving the mill behind for now, I followed a wooded path beside the stream. The rain stopped and soon I was inside the forest waiting for fairies to emerge, fly around, and drop pixie dust on me. A short ways in and the fog-covered creek came into view again. I was in an etheral, exquisite nature-made church, more beautiful than any man-made structure no matter how many stained-glass windows it might have. I took a few pictures, but the click of my camera seemed intrusive so I turned it off and just stood there for a time, admiring the beauty and soaking in the sounds of nature which are so quiet and peaceful.

Youngest-daughter came down the trail looking for me so eventually I reluctantly left church and walked back to the mill. Walking up a little hill I noticed an old abandoned log cabin. I looked in and saw only a few pieces of old, broken down furniture and cobwebs. Later I found out it was where early owners of the mill lived. At some point, they had an addition built onto their residence and opened a restaurant. It was supposed to be pretty good with a menu of items made from the milling and fresh game hunted in the area. Eventually they sold out and the new owners closed and tore down the restaurant portion of the cabin and lived there themselves. When they sold in the 1950's, the new owners built a new log cabin to live in several hundred yards in the woods. After it was finished though, for some reason nobody can recall, they never moved in so both cabins, one old and the other brand new, have been unused.

Old cabin
The mill wasn't milling when we were there because the water was too high. There is a small store within the mill which was open and tended by a very nice older lady. We purchased several bags of ground corn for the Momma-woman to do her magic cooking with and looked at the old photo's on the walls.

It was time to go and as we left, it started raining again. We headed on down the road to another mill, Zanoni, but this one will be fondly remembered for a good long time.

"New" cabin

Postcard From Dawt Mill - Missouri

Grist mills were once abundant along most rivers where the natural rushing waters helped with the needs of man. These mills often became the centers of community life until the automobile came along. Often, along with the mill, there would be a blacksmith shop, a general store with a post office and a sawmill or cotton gin. People would come from miles around to visit, exchange news, and even vote. In the Ozarks, the mill's main business would be grinding corn rather than milling flour as it was easier for the farmers to raise corn in the hills and valleys rather than wheat which was grown more frequently in the flatter, open areas. Many folks were particular about getting back the meal from their own grain rather than that traded to them by the miller from his holding bin, minus his toll, so they would bring their own white woven sacks and wait for their corn to be ground.

About 2 miles from the intersection of Route 160 and RR PP just east of Gainsville, Missouri, is the Dawt Mill. Perched on a bank of the North Fork of the White River, the mill is advertised by the Ozark Heritage Tourism group as being a resort with a working mill, canoeing, lodging, camping, gift shop, restaurant and deli, food and supplies.  Sounded good to us.

Unfortunately, someone at the Ozark Heritage group took extreme literary license. The good news was the restaurant is in the process of being renovated and it looks real nice plus, all of the signs seemed to have been recently refurbished.  But at the time of our visit (7/2011), the working mill wasn't and the very small, ancient, wooden-floored gift shop had a few dust covered odds and ends to go along with the chips, cold drinks and candy bars. I'm not sure about the deli because there was nobody there and the shelves and counters were empty. The campground was suitable only for tent camping. The canoes for rent seemed pretty decent, but everything except the restaurant looked to have been built in the 1940's; often the sign of something interesting, but in this case, it looked like nothing had been touched in the way of maintenance since then. The place reeked of old, dusty, tired, and worn out.

At Dawt Mill
To be fair and give it a chance however, we asked to see a room, thinking maybe the new owners had already renovated them. No, afraid not. We were shown what was described to us as one of their best rooms. If that was their best, I would be afraid to even go into one of the bad ones. Threadbare carpet, very old, beaten up furniture with cigarette burn marks along the edges, a window air conditioning unit with the face missing, the floor groaned as I took a step across it, and just like the rest of the site, it felt old, sad and very used.

The people staying there and out walking around were probably not the kind of people we would be likely to strike up an immediate friendship with - they with their bodies covered in tattoos, a cheap beer constantly in hand, and loud speech indicative of having dropped out of school in the 8th grade. I don't mean to sound elitist or full of myself, I'm sure they were all fine folks in their own ways. It's just that their ways and our ways don't usually mix all that well. We are no longer 19 years old with nothing on our minds other than running around mostly naked, drinking beer, getting dirty, howling at the moon and partying all night. Alright, maybe there was a time way back when, but that's been a good long while ago.

We were hungry and the restaurant looked good so we gave it a try. Based on my observation of the rest of the place, my expectations were not high. I was wrong. The food was wonderful! Because I didn't have much hope for it, I just ordered a hamburger - hard to really mess up a burger. That was one of the best burgers I've ever had. Cooked to perfection, the fresh bun lightly toasted, tomatoes and onions that tasted like they were fresh out of a garden. It came with excellent crispy fries and 3 amazingly perfect onion rings. These rings were worth kicking somebodies butt for if they tried to steal one. I would drive a hundred miles out of my way to eat there again. Go there. Eat there. Then go away full, satisfied, and ready to tell all of your friends about this wonderful meal you had at the Dawt Mill! We just might give it a year or so and come back. If this is a sign of what it will be like after all of the renovation work, it just might be one heck of a nice place for a long weekend!

After walking a ways up and down the river bank, the heat and humidity finally drove us away. Since we didn't get a room there, we had to find some sleeping accommodations. We were deep in the middle of almost nowhere, just across the Arkansas state line. Since we were so close to Mountain Home and we knew there were a number of decent motels there, that's where we decided spend the night. On the way, just a few minutes after leaving the mill, it began to rain. Then it poured and kept pouring. We made it to Mountain Home safely and found a decent hotel with a covered entrance. The price was ok, especially after getting a good discount by using my AARP card (I don't brag about being a member, but I sure do use my card to get discounts!) so we were "home" for the night. After dragging up to the room just the bags and things we needed for the night and parking the car with the rain still coming down, we dried off and settled in to our modern, air conditioned, very clean and comfortable room with the flat screen TV. I opened the shades to check out our view. The rain had stopped. And at the Dawt Mill, the night's party had probably just started.

Postcard From Missouri Rt. 160

The only place I had been to in Missouri was Branson so my knowledge of that state might fill up a thimble - the James-Younger gang was from Missouri as was William Quantrill, the famed guerrilla leader during the Civil War; and there's the arch in St. Louis; and the University of Missouri with their black & gold colors is somewhere in the state; and, um, nope, I'm drawing a blank now. Oh, wait, a little bit of trivia - the mean center of the U.S. population is in the town of Plato, county of Texas, Missouri. Just one of those useless facts that somehow found a home in my head. (Note to self: go to Plato, Missouri at the first opportunity!)  Missouri is just not an interesting place except maybe for those who live there. I don't think I've ever met anyone that was born in Missouri, at least not anyone who was proud enough to claim it. You never hear of folks from other countries say, "I want to come to the States to visit Missouri!"  You never hear anyone who say visiting Missouri is on their bucket list.

You may know Missouri is called the "Show Me" state. The most most likely legend attributes the phrase to Missouri's U.S. Congressman Willard Vandiver, who served in the United States House of Representatives from 1897 to 1903. Vandiver attended an 1899 naval banquet in Philadelphia and in a speech there, declared, "I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me." The version I like best though places the slogan's origin in the mining town of Leadville, Colorado. A miner's strike had been in progress for some time in the mid-1890s and a number of miners from the lead districts of southwest Missouri had been imported to take the places of the strikers. The Missouri miners were unfamiliar with Colorado mining methods and required frequent instructions. Pit bosses began saying, "That man is from Missouri. You'll have to show him."

Rt 160, coming up on a finger of Bull Shoals Lake
Keeping with that motto, it was time for me to see some of Missouri for myself. From Branson we crossed an arm of Lake Taneycomo and headed east on US Route 160, a 1,465 mile long 2-lane blacktop stretching from Poplar Bluff, Missouri to Tuba City, Arizona.  We would drive about 90 miles of it. The Route 160 number may not be familiar, but the route itself might ring a faint bell in your memory if you are old enough to remember trucker songs by C.W. McCall in the mid-1970's. The portion of this road through Wolf Creek Pass, Colorado was the inspiration for his song, "Wolf Creek Pass."

Speaking of C.W. McCall, his real name was William Dale Fries, Jr.  In 1974, he was working for an advertising agency and he created a television promotional campaign advertising Old Home Bread for the Metz Baking Company. The advertisements featured a truck driver named C. W. McCall, who was played by Dallas, Texas actor Jim Finlayson. The waitress in the commercials named Mavis Davis was played by Dallas actress Jean Capps. The commercial's success led to popular songs such as "Old Home Filler-Up an' Keep on a-Truckin' CafĂ©", "Wolf Creek Pass" and "Black Bear Road." The most famous of his songs was "Convoy."  Fries sang and wrote the lyrics and Chip Davis, who later was a member of Mannheim Steamroller, wrote the music. None of them were born in Missouri.

One of the old bridges crossing an arm of 
Bull Shoals Lake
At least along Route 160, Missouri is much prettier than I thought it would be. Considering I never really gave it that much thought, I guess that's not saying a lot, but still, it was nice. Bull Shoals Lake is interesting. It's a large lake located in both Missouri and Arkansas with numerous inlets and fingers. We crossed numerous old bridges and drove for miles beside portions of it. I always enjoy driving beside water. Maybe it's the old sailor in me feeling a little bit at home so near a body of water, even if it's just a lake instead of the open ocean. There wasn't much traffic at all and we passed through a good number of small towns that appeared to be inhabited, but seemed almost deserted. There were plenty of little stores that had gone out of business in these towns, attesting to the economic times we're enduring now. To me it feels like the heart and soul of the America we grew up with is being sucked out of existence and I'm afraid it will never return in my lifetime. It was a nice drive, but even with portions of the drive being beside the lake, I had to fight against a persistent depression.

We stopped for gas and a potty break in the small town of Theodosa. I was rather surprised to find the gas pumps were still of the old kind; old enough to not be able to take a credit card at the pump. Usually you have to go inside and pay before pumping, which is a big hassle if you are filling up and don't know how much it will take. Here though, the clerk inside the store looked out at me, waved and readied the pump to pump. After I paid the friendly lady behind the counter for my gas and we talked about the weather and the slow business, I made my way back to the restroom. Yes, restroom, not restrooms. No separate men's & women's, just the one. And I spied something hanging on the wall that I haven't seen in a gas station restroom since I was a teenager - a condom vending machine. 75 cents for two. Prices have sure gone up as they were 25 cents for two back when I bought, er, I mean, I heard they were 25 cents for two back when I was a teenager. OK, enough on that subject.

The Old Harlin House Cafe
The Mamma-woman had heard of an historic old house which had been turned into a cafe in Gainesville, right along our route. The Old Harlin House was built in 1912 and was restored in 2003 when it was named to the National Register of Historic Places. The interior has been preserved to reflect the period. She wanted to stop. We stopped. They close at 2:00 after lunch and we arrived at 1:15. There were only 2 other customers in the place so it certainly wasn't busy, but our waitress seemed to be ready to close up and kind of acted like we were a bother. She wasn't hostile, but I sure wouldn't call her friendly. No "Hi, I'm (insert name here). How may I help you?" or "What can I get for you?" or "Can I start you off with something to drink?"  Nope, not from this girl. With a totally bored look on her face she asked, "What would you like?" She answered questions in a flat, monotone voice and never came close to working one of the few face muscles it takes to smile. Perhaps she had a fight with her boyfriend. Perhaps that is just her personality. If it is, I suggest she make an effort to change it or get a different job. I didn't ask her name or even try to engage her in a conversation like I normally do. I was already depressed enough. I ordered and ate an unremarkable steak and grilled peppers sandwich smothered in some kind of cheddar sauce. I can't remember what the momma-woman had, but the fact that I can't remember much about her meal, much less my own is not a sign of greatness. It was ok, but I've had better or at least as good at T.G.I. Fridays. Maybe dinner is better, but for lunch, don't go out of your way for it.

Our destination, a water-powered grist mill was just down the road now. So far, Missouri had proven to be visually pretty with some nice, friendly folks and at least one bored, unfriendly one. Nothing bad to say about it, but nothing particularly great or interesting to say. Maybe that's the reason you never hear much about this state. It's just kind of there, lukewarm, passing time, filling in space. Maybe that would change when we arrived at Dawt Mill, supposed to be a fun, happy place on the North Fork River. Come on back when I write about it later. I know, cliff-hanger. But it's late now and I'm tired from working all day. So off to bed I go, perchance to dream a wonderful dream. Don't let the bedbugs bite.

Postcard From Silver Dollar City

Got up early (early for being on vacation anyway) for a long and hopefully fun day at Silver Dollar City, the family-oriented theme park in Branson, Missouri. It's July and hot, real hot, Africa hot, so we figured we would get an early start and beat the heat as much as possible. I dragged myself out of bed first, took a shower, shaved the tiny hairs off my face and accomplished the usual morning bathroom ritual without wounding myself.

As I headed down to the lobby for coffee and breakfast and more coffee, I woke the girls enough to be reasonably sure they would get out of bed even if I wasn't there offering my supportive and loving encouragement for them to get their butts up. After eating too much breakfast (it's hard to stop eating when the food tastes good and it's free) and returning to the room, I was pleasantly surprised to find the girls up, dressed, and ready to get the show on the road. I recorded this astonishing event on a calendar.

The park opens at 10:00 so we left at 9:30 when the temp was only 87 degrees and about 90% humidity. New Yorkers die in this, but it wasn't too bad yet for us. We arrived at the park at 9:50 and decided to save a little by parking in the free lot. There's a reason we should have paid to park close - we ended up in the south 40 about 1 mile from the gate - all of it up hill. Rather than walk 100 yards downhill to catch a tram to the gate, I was struck with the brilliant idea that since we could kind of see the front of the park up the hill, we would just walk it. More like I was struck dumb. By the time we had walked half the way, with the blacktop parking lot we were walking over, the temp must have been 100 and the humidity must have been 99%. We hadn't even made it to the ticket counter yet and we were sweating and huffing and puffing like we were trying to traverse Death Valley. We finally made it up that hill and across that parking lot, but the issue was in doubt a good bit of the way.

And then you take a left at the wooden 
roses place...
Fortunately, once inside the park, there are lots of tree's for shade and all of the buildings have great air conditioning so we were able to weave our way into the a/c every now and then as we ambled along to the rides and shows we wanted. I must say the employees, each and every one without fail were extremely friendly and helpful. Even later in the day when the heat and humidity was almost unbearable, they still stopped whatever they were doing, smiled and politely answered our questions or gave directions. A lot of them were in the senior citizen age range dressed in period clothing, but even the kid employees did the same. I was very impressed.

There are a lot of water rides to help you cool off. Compared to Six Flags, the water was pretty darn clean and smelled like, well, like water. The last couple of times I've been to Six Flags, the water looked and smelled rancid; not something you want splashing on your clothes and in your face.

The mad woman standing on the left.
The Mamma-woman and I took turns riding with Youngest-daughter so one of us could hold cameras and other items we didn't want to get wet. So I'm standing toward the end of the Lost River ride waiting on the girls to float by and hoping to get a picture of them getting squirted by this hidden water cannon squirter thingy. It only squirts about every 4th or 5th "boat" that comes by so it's just every now and then. A lady with a baby in a stroller walked up about 10 yards from me and stood right where the walk was wet from the water cannon. Sure enough, she's turned away from the cannon and looking up the stream where the boats are coming from when the cannon squirts and hits her right upside the head! She turned and with a huge scowl on her face looked for whoever dared squirt her. Once I see that mad scowl look, well, I can't help but laugh now as this is the best show I've seen since arriving here. She bent over and got her youngster out of the stroller, I guess to show the squirter she has a kid so don't get her wet or something. After looking around a bit more, she puts the baby back in the stroller and turns back to watch the boats coming down. You guessed it, about 5 seconds after turning her head she gets squirted again! Oh boy is she upset now! She's got a mean look on her face that would scare away the devil and she is frantically looking around to locate the squirter to really give them a piece of her mind. I'm about to bust a gut trying not to laugh out loud and draw her ire on me. This was worth the price of admission right here! I mean she walks up and parks herself next to a water ride and stands in the one place where the concrete walkway is wet and now she thinks some evil-doer person is just messing with her?!

An older gray-haired lady who looked to be at least in her 70's and evidently had also been watching the action walked up beside me and said in an almost whisper, "Is she just stupid or what?" as she pointed to the mad, wet mother. Well, that was the end of me holding anything in and we both started laughing out loud. Sure enough, the perplexed mom noticed us then and gave us one of her mean, drop dead looks before turning around. Sometimes the gods do indeed have a sense of humor because as she started to walk away, the cannon squirted again and got her in the back. She jumped, but kept walking away; probably never did figure out what was happening. The older lady and I talked for a few minutes after we managed to stop laughing. Ms Jean and I agreed, sometimes life can be very funny.

So what do you think about the food at the
Rib House?
While riding the lost River ride, we went right behind a Bar-b-que food place and boy did it smell good. It's been a while since I've had good Bar-B-Q so it was easy to forget one of my basic rules - never eat Bar-B-Q in an amusement park as it is always overpriced and never, ever good. It's a good rule to not forget. For $27, I got a beef sandwich that consisted of bread which was at least a week beyond it's expiration date and a few pieces of gross fat and veins mixed in with a little bit of tough meat and about 3 spoons of overly sweet baked beans from a can. Look up "disgusting" in the dictionary and there's a picture of that meal. Most of it went in the trash. Momma-woman got a pulled pork sandwich and 3 spoons of potato salad which had no taste. The girl child had chicken nuggets. The girl child loves chicken nuggets. She can do serious damage to a buffet if they have chicken nuggets. The girl child could not eat these "chicken nuggets." Go to Silver Dollar City, but whatever you do, don't eat at Riverside Rib House. They advertise "Best Bar-B-Q in the Ozarks."  They lie.

Panning for gold and gems.
Absolutely the best show was The Fabulous Wallendas, the world famous high wire walkers who have set several Guiness World Records. There were a couple of really good warm-up acts, but the Wallendas were amazing. As they performed, I forced myself to glance at the other audience members; all had eyes wide in rapt attention, most were open mouthed. I tell you, the Wallendas are GOOD and well deserve the acclaim they receive.

Warmup act did a great drum performance.

A few can do splits, but not like this!

She didn't just pose like this - she twirled
head over heals round and round.
Amazing act!

After thoroughly enjoying ourselves for over 8 hours, the heat and walking up numerous hills numerous times finally took their toll on all of us. We called it a day. Even though the walk back to our car would have been downhill, we stood in one final line and caught the tram, a wise decision as I'm not sure I could have made that mile walk and arrived still on my own two feet.  Before long we were back in our clean hotel room with a clean bathroom and fresh, clean towels and made up beds with fresh sheets. The room smelled nice, was refreshingly cool, the bed oh so inviting. I could get used to this. Jut waiting on my lottery numbers to hit...

All Aboard!

Day 3 of our Branson adventure started out bright and early as we had reservations to ride the Branson Scenic Railway and needed to be there by 8:30.  We planned to ride in one of the scenic cruiser cars and figured we needed to ride the first train of the morning before those glass-top cars got too hot under the bright summer sun. Very smart, if I do say so myself! The a/c was just barely able to keep up with the heat even when the early morning temp was just in the 70's,  it rained several times and was overcast most of the ride. I'm sure they are unbearable during the heat of the day in full sun.

After getting our tickets and while standing in line with about 100 other fine folks, a favorite way to pass the time is people watching. Other than pretty females, I'm mostly drawn to the older folks. I like to try and figure out how old they are and what kind of life they've led; the things they've seen; the things they've done; the things they've had to endure. If the wait is long enough or the person or couple is interesting enough, I make up life stores to go along with them. Sometimes, if they are standing close, I'll try to strike up a conversation with them, add some truths to the story in my head.

Sometimes you see someone who looks like someone. Within the last few months I've seen lookalikes for Dustin Hoffman, John Goodman, Matt Damon, and a young Jeff Bridges. Most of the time it's "Hey look! It's that girl who was in that movie we liked and then she had a bit part in that television show that got cancelled after 4 episodes and then she did that feminine products commercial. Remember?" Behind me on the platform this day was the world's worst Elvis impersonator! What do you think? Maybe if you are really bored and squint your eyes just right?

Youngest-daughter and her dad riding the rails.
Besides the heat factor in the scenic cars, taking the first trip of the day is advised because there is a smaller crowd. The train consists of several "regular" passenger cars, a lounge car with seats that recline, 3 scenic cruiser cars with the ceilings made of mostly glass, a car with tables and chairs, and a dining car. All together there are about 350 seats. This is important to remember for what I'm about to say. I'll come back to it later. The trip goes south through the Ozarks and into the mountains and forest of northern Arkansas and takes about 1 hour and 45 minutes.  It really is a very pretty excursion. 2 adult tickets (1 with senior discount) and 1 child ticket costs $73.47. There were about 150 passengers on this trip.  We were in the 2nd group to board so had an easy time getting to the last scenic car and choosing our seats. I wanted a window seat so I could take pictures, youngest daughter wanted a window seat to see out easily, and momma-woman didn't really care so we ended up in the 2-abreast seats with the girls sitting together and me by myself.

If the sun is out, this car get's hot!
There were 24 seats in our car. When we left the station, there were 16 other people in the car with us - 19 people for 24 seats. The last 3 people who joined us just before we left on our journey were, well, there's no way to sugar coat it, they were big people. And when I say big, I'm talking really big; big as in Biggest Loser show contestant big. The wife wasn't as large, but Dad was well over 400 pounds and the 15-year-old son had to be at least 275.

Remember I said there were about 350 seats for 150 butts? Well, guess where the son chose to sit. Next to me, of course. Are you kidding me?! Is this some kind of cosmic joke? Is God up there going, "I feeling bored today. I think I'll screw with Ken. That's always good for a laugh or two." I may not be the most sensitive guy walking around, but I'm not a total lout and feel a level of compassion thinking about the health and social and personal issues overly large people face, but really, come on, all of these open seats and the kid has to sit next to me?!! If I sit as close to the wall as possible, suck it in and hold my breath and scrunch my shoulders so close together in front of me that they almost touch, then only the side of my ass is touching him. And he is sweating; profusely. Now I'm trapped. There's no way to get past him and change seats without him having to get up and let me out and if I do change seats, then he will know why and I will have hurt his feelings. He's just a kid, a really, really, large kid, but a kid nonetheless and kids need to be protected and guided and helped along on the road to adulthood so I resolve to stay scrunched up for a while, at least until enough time has passed that I can make like I'm going to cruise the rest of the train and leave the kid with his dignity.

Going over a bridge. It had just started to rain
 - you can see rain drops on the window.
Fortunately, it wasn't all that long before the couple who were sitting in the seats behind the kid's parents decided to go to a different car and he moved over there. I could breath again and my butt was no longer touching someone else's so life was good again. As the trip continued, I noticed the physically large family taking pictures of each other so I offered to take a picture of all of them with their camera. We started talking after that and they were very nice. He said he's a fire fighter, but there's no way he could be running in a burning building or climbing up ladders so I guess he must be a chief or something - an office job. By the end of the trip, several of us that stayed in that scenic car were talking, exchanging stories, and taking pictures of each other with their own cameras. If it had been a couple of hours longer, we would have been holding hands and singing campfire songs!

Riding the rails through the Ozarks
As it was, when the train pulled back into the same station we had departed from, we all exchanged smiles and have nice days and be safe in your travels pleasantries as we exited and made our ways back to our own lives and plans; lives and plans that did not include our new found acquaintances. So many people and most of us are pretty decent folks who just need a reason to meet and speak to each other for us to find out that most of us are pretty decent folks. For all of our differences, we have a lot in common.  We'll probably never see any of these people again, but for almost 2 hours we talked, we laughed, we shared and we now have a common experience. Who knows, maybe we'll see the very large daddy and son on Biggest Losers and we'll sit in front of the TV and say, "Hey, that looks like the guys who rode the train with us!"

More Ozarks scenery.
Crossing the Taneycomo Bridge just outside

Branson 2

Day 2 of our Branson trip started nice and easy. The hotel's free breakfast wasn't bad - eggs, sausage, waffles, plus the usual cold cereal, muffins, bagels, fruit, juices and coffee. The girls slept in so I had breakfast on my own, read some of a book on my iPad and glanced at the Casey Anthony trial on the TV set up in the dinning room. My take is she's guilty. Hurt a child, be removed from society forever. End of story.

Just as I was throwing my trash away, the girls came down for their feed so I sat back down for a few minutes. Shouldn't have. Somehow the Mamma-woman and I got into a discussion revolving around politics, something we know better than to do, but occasionally fall into that trap in spite of our best efforts. I soon determined it would be best to get on back to the room so that's what I did. Later this year will be our 20th anniversary and we've been together almost 23 years. Over that time we've managed to usually figure out when it is advisable to say, "Love ya, Babe. Catch ya later" and retreat to our respective corners.

After reviewing about a hundred shows, Youngest-daughter decided she wanted to see Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede because there are horses in the show and she likes Dolly Parton. Dolly wouldn't be there herself, but the horses would and the 3:00 show wasn't sold out so that's where we decided to go. The show comes with a meal and we were still full from breakfast so no need for lunch. Mamma-woman wanted to go shopping and visit the local scrap book store so off she went while Youngest-daughter and I stayed in the room. Watched a little TV, fiddled around on the Internet, took a nice nap. Hey, I'm liking this vacation just fine so far!

Our super-duper collectible plastic
souvenir boot cup.
The wife came back to pick us up and off to the Dixie Stampede we did go. We arrived in time for the pre-show show and got a Pepsi in our free top-quality, highly desirable, extremely collectible plastic souvenir boot cup. The pre-show show was actually pretty darn good. There was a guy who juggled and told a few jokes, but what he did best was balance stuff on his head and face. I guess you had to have been there. Then his step-son, the super-duper fantastic juggler came on. Now that kid was amazing! He has a couple of Guinness Book of Records medals to prove it. He only juggled for about 15 minutes, but we all really enjoyed him. Heck, I'd pay to see a show with him as the headliner.

Afterwards, we were led into what can only be described as a somewhat upscale rodeo arena. We got lucky and sat in the very front row. Well, lucky kind of. It was a pretty decent show with a few comedy skits, lots of horses and other animals. It was mostly a contest between the North and the South, the Yankees and the Rebels. Guys and gals dressed in gray and blue competed in games of skill on horseback and in races with show skits, singing, and special effects in-between the contests.  While all of this was going on, we were served chicken, ham and half of a baked potato. I didn't like the fact that our hands served as silverware. If you have a sandwich or pizza or some other kind of finger food, no silverware is no big deal, but greasy chicken, slabs of ham and a hot baked potato is not finger food in my book. I would have thought maybe they could have afforded silverware with the money they saved on those Made in China souvenir boot cups, but no...

While eating we found out why getting on the front row may not have been as lucky as previously thought. We were certainly close to the action - a bit too close. The horses would ride right up to the railing and stop about 2 feet from us. The arena floor was, of course, dirt. When horses run at speed and stop litterly inches from you, the dirt and dust flies. When buffalo wallow in the dirt  a few feet from you, the dirt gets thrown in the air around you. The white meat of your chicken tends to get a bit dark and taste a bit gritty.

Our illegal picture.
I wish we could have taken a few pictures, but no pictures or video was allowed. When we sat down before the show started, I snuck a quick shot of the girls for posterity. The couple behind us just happened to take a picture at the same time and got busted. One of the waiters came over and let them know in no uncertain terms pictures were not allowed. We, however, skated free and clear. Snicker, snicker.

The show was entertaining and pretty much worth the money. By the end, the South had won 10 - 6. Hooray for us! We exited the building into painfully bright sun and air seemingly from a hot oven.

We returned to the hotel, lazed around for a while and then enjoyed the Jacuzzi and pool for a while. The Jacuzzi water was a bit hot even for me, which meant it was scalding for the girls and most of the other guests who tried it. The pool water was cold enough to take my breath away at first, but I forced myself to get in deeper and eventually it wasn't so bad I couldn't stand it. None of the kids seemed to mind the cold water, but they never do even when their lips turn blue. After an hour or so, we made our way back to the room, washed the chlorine off our bodies, hit the sack and quickly sank into sleep. Tweren't a bad day at all.

Off To Branson!

The night before, we followed our lists and checked off each item as we packed our bags and threw them in the back of our soccer-mom-mini-van-family-vacation-Honda vehicle.

House/pet sitter arranged - check.
Clothes - check.
Personal hygiene items - check.
Swimming stuff - check.
iPad - check.
3 laptops - check.
My camera gear - check.

Youngest-daughter and the Mamma-woman are all excited, but go to bed and promptly fall asleep. I'm not so excited and lay in bed, not thinking any great earth-shaking thoughts or even the soul searching questions we all are prone to agonize over in the middle of the night when we are all alone with our thoughts and doubts and regrets in the darkest hours.  I was just laying there listening to the night-time house noises, trying to figure out what made each one and making sure my damaged heart was still beating with some sort of frequency. The last time I looked over at the clock it was 1:47AM and I thought, "If I fall asleep right now, I can get 5 hours and 13 minutes in before the alarm goes off." It had been 9 minutes since I last looked.

I awoke at 6:27AM, 33 minutes before the alarm would start blaring. I don't know why I spent money on an alarm. It gets set all of the time, but I can't remember the last time it actually went off before I woke up and switched the switch. After a quick shower and throwing a couple of last minute things in the car, I woke up Mamma-woman. Her excitement level was evident as I only had to ask her twice to get up before she did. It only took once telling Youngest-daughter to get up. Amazingly, it didn't take all that long for us to have all of the last minute items loaded and ourselves in the car and at 8:45 exactly, like a herd of turtles, we were off to the nearby town of Conway to do a couple of errands, fill up with gas and head north to Branson, MO.

Last year we went to London. This spring I purchased a new 4-wheeler for Youngest-daughter. In between, I was single-handedly providing the hospital with its annual profit and paying for an in-ground pool for every doctor in the county while wife & daughter ensured the recession was over for our local businesses. In short, I am now financially embarrassed, so this year's vacation, while not a stay-cation, is a near-cation. Branson for a few days and then a short little road trip to check out a few old water-powered mills in the area and back home. Branson is ok, but we've been there, done that and if you know me, you know I usually do not enjoy revisiting a place unless it is some kind of an awesome nature place like Big Bend or Arches or Yellowstone. Branson does not fall into that category.

I was soon driving all alone with the Mamma-woman and Youngest-daughter in the car with me, but the drive north on Hwy 65 from Greenbrier is a nice little drive of a couple of hours over mountains and through valleys. Good thing the scenery was nice so I didn't need company or conversation to keep me awake. Soon enough, the GPS told me it was time to exit. The girls woke up when I slowed down and we were in Branson. Us and, by my conservative estimate, at least 1/2 of America. I haven't seen so many cars in one place since I was in New York City a couple of years ago. From one side of Branson to the other is about 4 miles. It took almost an hour to get to our hotel which, of course, was located on the other side of town. The broken down motor home on the steep uphill 1-lane road didn't help. When we finally passed it, the large amount of fluids below it indicated a blown engine. Poor guy.

The view from our room.
We finally made it to The Hampton Inn, a decent choice between price and quality which meets my requirements for a family stay - safe, clean, Internet connection, free breakfast. Youngest-daughter was happy when she found out Disney was included as a TV channel and there's a pool. Jacuzzi for Dad - bonus! We were several hours early, but I flashed my gold-colored Hilton Honors card and they checked us in to a room which had already been cleaned. The view wasn't exactly the best, but it was clean, had a nice flat-screen TV, a good air conditioner and two queen beds - early birds that are taken care of can't complain.

The Landing Shopping Strip
After transferring stuff from the car to the room, resting up a bit and looking through some brochures, we decided to head on down to the Landing shopping center to eat and see what we could see. We fought the traffic going back the other way this time and saw a heavy-duty wrecker towing that disabled motor home. It only took about 40 minutes to get to the other end of the strip. We managed to find an open parking space about 1/4 mile from the stores (how many people are here in Branson for goodness sake?!!) and worked up an unwanted sweat walking the blacktop parking lot in the 98 degrees and full sun. We cut through Bass Pro Shops for the A/C it offered and after a few hundred more feet walking in partial shade, we entered Cantina Laredo.

Disappointment. The hot sauce wasn't spicy at all and who serves green string beans with a chili relleno dish? Not anybody from Texas, that's for sure. When the menu says beans in a Tex-Mex place, I expect re-fried or black beans. Evidently an unrealistic expectation. We had another surprise when we walked out of the eatery - rain! It cooled things off a bit for the 20 minutes or so the water fell, but then the clouds departed, the sun returned, the heat returned, and about 98% humidity came with it. We kept window shopping, but entered a few stores we normally wouldn't have to take advantage of the cool air inside.

Kimberling City July 4th Festival
After sweating out any extra calories we ingested eating our share of chips and salsa (I said the sauce wasn't hot, I didn't say the taste wasn't acceptable), we ambled back to the car and headed to the town of Kimberling City a few miles outside of Branson. They were having a 4th of July festival with what was touted as a good fireworks show. We didn't have specific directions and we were headed where we had never been before, but we had no problems finding the place as we just followed other cars once we got within a couple of miles and followed the signs as we got close. $5 to park (money helps pay for the fireworks) on the side of a grassy field and we were at the festival.

A daughter and her daddy playing Frisbee.
It was a nice little event - nice folks, jump houses for the kids, food vendors, parents and kids playing Frisbee, people sitting in lawn chairs visiting and listening to a good band playing good music. Lots of smiling faces. The All-American festival.

We ambled along, looking around, listened to a few songs by the band and made our way across a store parking lot to a high hill overlooking Table Rock Lake. That's where a bunch more folks were sitting in lawn chairs and we had heard the fireworks show would be over the lake so we found a good place and plopped ourselves down. We sat next to a man & his wife, 4 girls who looked to be between 12 & 14 and a little boy of about 3 with long hair. I wasn't sure he was a boy until I finally figured out 2 of the girls were the daughters of the adult couple and Amber, who was taking care of the little one is a niece. I never did figure out the other girl, maybe just a friend of Amber, but I overheard enough to know the little 3-yr-old was a boy named Dudley. Dudley? Really? Guess it's a family name or something. First person I've ever heard actually named Dudley. Calling a 3-yr-old Dudley seemed kind of wrong somehow.

The band had a really good horn section!
Anyway, once the dark settled in, the fireworks commenced and as fireworks shows go, it was pretty darn good! They were shooting from a platform in the water and those things shot up plenty high enough way above the hill most folks were watching from. There was a patriotic music sound track to go along with the show and a number of people had their radio's tuned to the station and playing it loud enough for everyone to hear. Great ending with lots going off one right after the other. Nice show.

When it was all over, we easily made our way back to the car. Getting out took a while, but people were being nice and letting people on the side cut on in to the line. I got carried away in the spirit and let a few in myself. We finally made it back to the hotel about 11:00pm. Washed up a bit, brushed my teeth like a good boy and fell exhausted into bed. Good view or bad view from our window, it didn't matter as I didn't look even once before closing my eyes. No problem getting to sleep this time!