The beautifully choreographed intricacies of circumstance continually amaze me. If it hadn’t been for the twice-postponed travel conference that finally took place at the end of April, I might not have orchestrated my job exodus and resulting three-week roadtrip through five states. Despite some significant setbacks and lessons learned, I pulled it off and wouldn’t change a thing. I’ll try to take you on an abridged journey of how it all transpired.
When I found out that TravelCon 2022 would be held in Memphis–a city I’d never been to before–I ran to Google to see how far of a drive it would be from my hometown. Excitedly, I made plans to visit my mom before and after the conference and fill the time between with a grand roadtrip to celebrate leaving my stressful job of six years, visit a few new states and see some old friends.
The original plan was to drive through south-central and southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas to Memphis, then head to northern Mississippi and northwest Alabama and back to Kansas through central Arkansas and southwestern Missouri. This was a bit too ambitious. After all, I needed to squeeze some client work time in there as well as down time from all the driving. I also didn’t take getting COVID into consideration!!
I made it to Memphis as planned, in my typical stop-everywhere style, with three overnights instead of two. The first night was a bonus because Henry Rollins had a stop in Lawrence on his tour and I took it as a sign that I had to go. I’d never seen him perform, and had never been a huge fan of Black Flag or his solo band, but I’d heard he put on intense shows and had traveled the world. It seemed fitting to add to my trip, plus I love Lawrence.
The show was a riveting two-hour nonstop monologue at a machine gun pace, filled with anecdotes of his personal life, travel (an impressive 88 countries), politics, and social issues. A large part of the story centered around his real life experience with a stalker, which was both terrifying and hilarious. The show was at legendary Liberty Hall in downtown Lawrence. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was thankful for the serendipity that brought us together. I also got to try out new-to-me Black Stag Brewery & Pub for dinner and a flight of four beers.
I was an angry molecule of curiosityHenry Rollins, 2022 “Good To See You” Spoken-Word Tour, Lawrence, Kansas
The first full day of the roadtrip included some time dedicated to client work, for which I had to get creative. Luckily I found a Starbucks in a grocery store in Clinton, Missouri, where the wifi was good and there weren’t any other people sitting at the counter. It was kind of funny to set up my earbuds right there between the check out register and the entrance, but it totally worked. Living the location independent dream right here!
Before I found the workspace, I ambled around downtown Clinton. As with many small Missouri cities, the focus is the courthouse and surrounding town square with its shops and cafes. As seems to be the newer trend, colorful murals of new and old could be found around the brick buildings. The town was called the “Baby Chick Capital of the World,” because it was where the first commercially successful chick hatchery started in the early 1910s.
After quick stops in Deepwater and Lowry City, I found a barbecue lunch at Sugarfoot in Osceola. I got a basic pulled pork sandwich, but it was the sauce that I fell in love with. I honestly could have drank it like soda it was so good. There were actually four different kinds, but the Caribbean Fever was my favorite. Chunks of spices were visible in the thick sauce, which contained brown sugar, pineapple, Worcestershire, and bourbon. I may have consumed a pint of the stuff with my food.
Nestled on the Osage River in a cove of the southwestern part of Truman Lake, Osceola is another county seat town, albeit much smaller than Clinton. In 1861, the town was sacked in an event that eventually inspired the movie The Outlaw Josey Wales starring Clint Eastwood. It’s also the birthplace of Rooster Cogburn from the novel True Grit, which has been made into two movies.
I discovered that the name of the town Humansville was not for the species, but for a particular one, Judge James G. Human, one of the early settlers. It was the site of another Civil War battle and in 1910 was visited by President Taft. It’s still probably the only place with such a name.
I made brief stops at other Saint Clair and Polk county hamlets on my way to Springfield, including Dunnegan, Fair Play, and Morrisville, hometown of country singer Wynn Stewart. Near ghost towns like Vista and Eudora speak to an era long gone. A few crumbling buildings remain where small but sturdy commercial business districts would have served their rural population base.
Springfield is Missouri’s third largest city and of significant importance as the birthplace of the historical Route 66 highway. However, its history encompasses much more than that, with ties to the Trail of Tears, Civil War battles, the Wild West days and the expansion of the railroad. It was also the site of the unspeakable lynching of three innocent African-American men in 1906 and a gunflight in 1932 that killed six officers.
It’s called the “Queen City of the Ozarks” for a reason. There are many caves and lakes in the area, and it’s only about 45 miles from Branson. As you could imagine, there are a lot of outdoor activities in the area. It is the headquarters for Bass Pro Shops and O’Reilly Auto Parts, the location of three universities, and has strong ties to country music and evangelical Christianity.
I stayed at an Airbnb in the Brewery District near downtown, conveniently within walking distance to many of Springfield’s breweries. Duh! Fortunately for my liver, only two of them were open on Mondays so I didn’t cause too much damage. I was last in Springfield when I was about five years old. The only thing I remember was being tired but having to move out of our hotel room because some black ooze was supposedly dripping from the ceiling of the bathroom. I was pretty upset with my parents for not showing that to me.
Zigzagging through the streets of downtown as the late afternoon sun started casting its shadows over the public art displays, I caught glimpses of the tall brick facades being illuminated from behind. Skateboarders congregated in the town square, along with a few homeless people. It was mostly quiet. After about 45 minutes, I found Hold Fast Brewing where I sat down for a sampling of four beers and a cup of mustard pretzels. About an hour later, I found myself at Springfield Brewing Company for more samples and a proper dinner.
In the morning I walked about 10 minutes to have breakfast at Rise, which had decent reviews and healthy breakfast options. It was located in what could have been an old bank building right on the square, which was completely deserted except for a lone dogwalker. What it lacked in ambience, it made up for in charm and delicious food. Actually, it was a great concept to be located in such a building. If the temperature had been a little warmer, I would have eaten outside.
It was time to move on to several stops ahead and a meeting with a client to fit in somewhere along the way. Just east of Springfield is the tiny little “station” of Turners, which is essentially just a general store next to the railroad tracks, surrounded by woods. Inside the store was a small postal counter, where I certainly obtained my postmark, mailed a couple letters I’d brought, and bought a book of stamps. I browsed the shelves, which were mostly convenience store goods mixed with some homemade items. I bought a fabric-covered jar opener as a gift. There was a deli counter too, but I’d just eaten breakfast so I took some photos and went on my merry way.
At the Rogersville post office, I learned the postmaster shared my unique hobby of postmark collecting. I don’t meet that many people “in the wild” who have this obscure collection. The town’s nickname is the “Raccoon Capital of the World,” yet I did not see any. At the next town of Fordland, the postmaster shared that he collects signed photos of famous people as well as train pictures. Us collectors are everywhere!
I didn’t expect to spend so much time in Seymour, but it was such a quaint little town and I had planned to take my client call there before it was reschedule. Nonetheless, the extra time there allowed me to walk around and explore the businesses and brickwork. I’ve noticed that I really love brick architecture, so these small towns are always a treasure trove for that aesthetic. Surprisingly, I found the Old Depot Coffee Company, which was like an oasis of city coffee culture in the midst of a rural Ozark town. I bought a bag of coffee along with a to-go cup of freshly brewed, high quality brew. So good!
As you may have noticed, many small towns adopt a slogan or catchy name for themselves. Seymour calls itself the “Summit City of the Ozarks,” which may seem odd since I did not see any mountains. However, the elevation happens to be the highest of any of the other communities in the area. It’s only 1,644 feet, hence the lack of snow-capped peaks. At least that’s more accurate than the Kansas state flag with its mountainous background.
The “Treasure of the Ozarks” was my next stop, for both my postponed client call and lunch. Ava, Missouri, is another county seat town, although the courthouse was on a side street. The town square’s centerpiece was a gazebo and parking lot. Ava has a more rustic and earthy vibe.
After walking around the town and appreciating its uniqueness, I found a lunch spot called True Brew. It’s a cafe with sandwiches, coffee, and ice cream. I learned that it’s actually all-volunteer staffed and has the faith-based mission of providing for those in need. I love supporting local businesses, but this charitable angle was even better to learn about.
The rest of my afternoon became a spaghetti-shaped route from Ava to Gainesville and eventually to West Plains, dipping north and south eastward to hit several tiny hamlets that I hadn’t been to before. Squires was the first place south of Ava, which I had passed through on a mid-1990s road trip from Kansas to Nashville to visit my dad’s sister. It was unclear whether Spurlock’s Store was open for business, but the post office definitely was. That’s all I could tell was there. There wasn’t even a sign welcoming the passerby to Squires.
Zanoni’s post office recently closed, and sure enough the only thing there was the old post office building in the front yard of the town’s seemingly only house. I like that the town was named after a relatively obscure novel from 1842 by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. I did not make it to the nearby Zanoni mill.
The rolling hills of northeastern Ozark County took me past the stunning Hodgson Mill just outside of Sycamore, which is reportedly the most photographed mill in the state. I could see why. It sits immediately to the east of the main road, with a picture-perfect vantage point to take in the mill and small waterfall.
I couldn’t resist venturing a little further north to Dora. As an explorer myself, it seemed fitting! Several other towns were on my list, but not much remained of many of them. Pottersville did have its post office and some buildings, but I can’t say the same for Cureall or Arditta. Highway 142 runs through the southern tier of Howell County communities of Leota, Moody, Lebo, and Lanton. Each one offering little to see but for a road sign with the town name. I pulled into West Plains as it was approaching 7pm.
Downtown was completely deserted as the sun was getting low in the sky. After a little sightseeing there and an initial failed attempt to check into a motel that turned out not to be accepting nightly guests anymore, I found the 1950s-style West Plains Motel. It was definitely no frills but good enough for a sleep. In driving around, I found a shopping center that had what looked like an open microbrewery. Score! What’s more is that Wages Brewing Company had live music and pizza from a local baker. I actually spent much longer there chatting with the owner and assistant brewer, reminiscing about travel and beer. The music was a nice bonus, and the singer was shocked to hear that I was from Maryland, since most of the patrons were family or friends.
The Middle of Nowhere Never Tasted So GoodWages Brewing Company slogan, West Plains, Missouri
West Plains on a Tuesday night was an unlikely place to have had one of the best experiences on the trip, but that illustrates perfectly the beauty of this type of travel. You just can’t plan for things like this! I guess their slogan “Make It Happen Here” is a truism after all.
As with many places in Missouri, the Civil War affected its history and while there were no major battles, the city was frequently the site of warfare and had been burned down. The city’s most infamous moment was arguably the 1928 dance hall explosion, which remains a mystery to this day. Books and songs have been written about this occurrence, which was said to have caused a blast so powerful it was felt 10 miles away. There were 37 deaths, including 20 that were never properly identified.
Dick Van Dyke and Porter Wagoner were born here, as were several musicians and baseball players and one novelist. In 1982 a tornado struck the city and three people were killed as a result. As with most southern Missouri locations, West Plains is not far from outdoor recreation and nature, though as the namesake implies, the city itself is on the plains.
I should have listened to my new friend from the brewery and gone to the Sugar Lily Bakery for breakfast. Sometimes the lure of a free breakfast overpowers the part of the brain that screams “you get what you pay for!” Still, it was enough to get me going and on to my litany of small town stops on my way to Memphis.
Koshkonong, or “Kosh” for short, had always been an interesting name on the map for me. While the locals I asked didn’t know the name origin, I learned from Wikipedia that it was from a lake in Wisconsin. The skinny cylindrical water tower, fire station, park sign, post office, and public library spelled out the exotic sounding name. I had a jovial interaction with the postal employees before stopping at the convenience store to clean off my bespeckled windshield and heading on to Couch.
I arrived too early at Myrtle to get a hand cancel on the Mother’s Day card I had, so I just barely slipped it into the narrow, old-fashioned mail chute inside the small postal lobby. I stopped next door at the only open business “downtown”–the library. For such a rural community, it had a decent collection. I chatted with the librarian for a bit before getting some gas and crossing on into Arkansas.
The first stop in “The Nature State” was tiny Dalton, not much more than a vibrant garden shop / convenience store and a couple abandoned buildings on the main street. It was worth a quick detour before heading further south to Pocahontas.
Thanks to Atlas Obscura, I found out about the “meteorite” of Pocahontas, Arkansas. Sitting in a small enclosure in the front yard of the Randolph County Courthouse, this large boulder supposedly fell from space in 1859. Despite scientists’ claims that the half-ton object is nothing more than a regular rock, the legend officially persists and makes for an interesting story and stop in the cute little county seat town.
Walking around the picturesque town square, I saw a historical marker about Sir Henry Morton Stanley of the famed “Dr. Livingston, I presume” fame. He had been drafted in the Confederate Army here, fighting with the state’s forces at Shiloh until he was captured and imprisoned, later switching sides to become free.
I was unable to find coffee and it was slightly early for lunch, but as I walked around I did find Mildred’s Spice Shop, which had all sorts of things like sandwiches, soaps and tea. I bought some lotion for my dry hands and continued. I stayed in Pocahontas longer than expected, and while I didn’t find coffee, I could have had an old fashioned soda from the soda counter. Instead, I decided to wait for lunch in the next place.
It was an unlikely event that gave Walnut Ridge its permanent fifteen minutes of fame. The town has capitalized on what might have been a rumor if it hadn’t been for the irresistible gossip that spread like wildfire in 1964 when the Beatles landed at the airport to go to a nearby retreat. Upon their departure, the entire town showed up at the airport to catch a glimpse of the wildly famous Liverpudlians. This event has etched its way into the heart of the community, which was in turn embraced it along with its place along the Rock n’ Roll Highway 67.
Walnut Ridge adopted the slogan “Where Abbey Road Meets the Rock N’ Roll Highway” and features Beatles Park, a series of art installations that highlights this infamous visit. There are many other music-related vignettes and murals around the town. The historic Hotel Rhea and the Wings of Honor World War II Museum are also located in Walnut Ridge.
Within view of the Beatles Park, Moni’s Grill was surely the local favorite. It was the peak of the busy lunch hour, but I patiently waited for my reuben omelet. It’s true: my lunch consisted of a platter of corned beef folded into eggs, topped with a creamy white sauce and crispy hash browns on the side and four halves of rye toast, all dripping with the kind of grease only found in the best diners of small town America. I’d never seen that on a menu, so naturally I had to try it out.
After lunch, I crossed the railroad tracks to get that much needed coffee at Ridge Coffee Company, a tiny trailer set up in a parking lot a block south of Cavenaugh Park. On my way back to my truck, I walked the frets of the 115-foot guitar-shaped walkway that highlighted several of the most popular rock ‘n’ roll singers from the area, such as Elvis and Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison.
I admired nearby murals and the historic depot before heading on through adjacent Hoxie, notable for it being the location of a voluntarily desegregated school two years prior to the newsworthy incident in Little Rock. Despite LIFE magazine bringing attention to the town with an article about it and subsequent segregationists protesting, they stuck to their guns and remained desegregated.
My next destination was the uniquely named town of Marked Tree, Arkansas. Several people I spoke with were happy to tell me that it was the only one in the world with that name, which was due to an actual tree carving, possibly by Native Americans to indicate a location that had to do with the twin rivers that flow here–in opposite directions I might add. The origin may be debatable, but I’m a sucker for towns with names like this and that’s really why I wanted to stop here.
The front street had several little shops. I walked about five blocks to the post office and obtained a clear postmark for my collection. I didn’t see the lock and siphons that were built after a series of devastating floods in the early 20th century. The town also has the Delta Area Museum.
It was getting humid and warm as I left Marked Tree after filling up on gas. I made a few stops in places like Tyronza, Turrell, and Marion. I hadn’t looked up much about West Memphis, but I drove through the main boulevard, lined with banners and a few decaying buildings. It wasn’t hard to tell that this town had fallen on hard times and that seemed to fit with the little information I had about it.
I kept thinking of the Alkaline Trio song “Prevent This Tragedy,” which was about the West Memphis Three–three teenage boys who were wrongfully convicted of murder and ended up serving 18 years in prison. Not a very good association for the city!
In fairness to West Memphis, it is on the mighty Mississippi and has a long riverwalk, nearby trails, and it looks like they’re about to open a casino. However, I was surprised there wasn’t a downtown historic area by the river. Perhaps it was flooded out too many times. It’s likely much more affordable than Memphis itself. One thing vividly noticeable after leaving West Memphis and before entering the bridge to Memphis was the bright yellow fields of canola.
Aside from a typical downtown skyline and the mammoth Mississippi River Bridge, the first thing you see coming into Memphis from the west is the Bass Pro Pyramid. Memphis gets its name from the ancient Egyptian city, so the pyramid is intentional. Little did I know how unusual and fascinating this city would be, from start to finish.
Long associated with the blues, barbecue, Martin Luther King Jr., and Elvis, among many other things, Memphis seemed poised to be legendary. I was fortunate to have been lured to the river city by TravelCon, and I was eager to explore and get to know this city.
I stayed in an Airbnb in the Evergreen neighborhood, not far from the Crosstown Concourse. Since it was rather late, I walked over there for the evening to grab some dinner and see what exactly it was. It used to be a Sears distribution center for its popular mail-order catalog from 1927 to 1993. The place is enormous! Today there are several restaurants, apartments, a hotel, a high school, a health center, a radio station, a nightclub, and several shops.
After my dinner at the Wolf River Brisket Company, I walked around the lobby to get a feel for the size. Many of the shops had already closed for the day, but the radio DJs were still going strong. I walked the length of the building outside, making my way to the adjacent Crosstown Brewing Company.
This concludes Part I. Stay tuned for the next installment, where I will attempt to portray my experiences in Memphis and the rest of the road trip through Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri.