Friday, September 21, 2007

Across the Wide Missouri

Oh, Shenandoah, I'm bound to leave you,
Away, you rolling river
Oh, Shenandoah, I'm bound to leave you
Away, I'm bound away, cross the wide Missouri.

--Traditional

One of the Bridges of Madison County
Not one that's in the book
Taken 9/20/07 at Margaret Guye County Park
Madison County Iowa

Thursday, September 20th, 2007

By 9:30 the car was packed, I had said my goodbyes, and was on the road, leaving the Raccoon River Resort after a delightful six days. I almost cried. It felt like I was running away from home. The first line of the song Iowa Stubborn (which song gives us the “Join us at the picnic” line I used in my write up of the Tom Harkin’s Steak Fry) are “There’s nothing half-way about the Iowa way to greet you,” and that had certainly been my experience. Everyone I had met while staying at the Resort went out of his way to make me feel a part of the group.

My goal for the day was to visit the Court House in Carrollton, Missouri, which my Garmin Etrex Legend GPS receiver told me was less than two hundred miles away—if you’re flying with a crow. I, however, was riding with a middle-aged Volvo and my mileage would vary. After stopping in Adel to wash the car, I turned back onto US 169 and headed south to Winterset, the birthplace of cowboy actor John Wayne. Winterset is also the seat of Madison County—where all the bridges are. I would see some of the bridges of Madison County as I had programmed several geocache waypoints into my GPS unit.

Wayne’s birthplace is a rather non-descript house on a corner lot. There are brown highway signs directing you to the location, but I would have missed the place altogether were it not for the long line of fans waiting to go through. Immediately I was transported back to Efes in Turkey. Legend has it that after the Crucifixion, St. John took Mary to Ephesus where she lived out the rest of her life. Gary and I had stood in a similar line waiting to go through Mary’s house, and once inside we were herded along by a nasty little priest who kept barking out “No pictures,” and “Keep moving.” I hope the Wayne fans got more for their money. I didn’t stick around to find out for myself.

A More Traditional Bridge of Madison County
Taken 9/20/07 in Winterset Iowa's City Park

Instead, I headed for the City Park where a virtual geocache promised a spectacular view of the countryside. I should probably explain that a geocache is something that has been hidden. The person hiding the cache then notes the geographical co-ordinates for the hiding place, and uploads those to the Web. Geocachers such as myself go to www.geocaching.com and make a note of those co-ordinates. In fact, I connect my GPS unit directly to my laptop and download the co-ordinates into my GPS receiver. These co-ordinates are called “waypoints.” You can, of course, enter the information manually, but as a waypoint looks like this: N 41° 19.197 W 094° 00.249, there’s lots of room for error in the data entry. One typographical error can send you off on a wild goose chase. I speak from experience. Most caches have some sort of container which contains a log where you note that you’ve found the cache. You also go on-line and record your find there as well. The owner of the cache compares the on-site log with your on-line notation to keep people from claiming to have found caches they have never visited.

A virtual cache has nothing hidden and no log. Its purpose is to get people to see things, visit places, or learn local history. As an example, a virtual geocache in my hometown, Missoula, Montana, is located at the Missoula City Cemetery. Its name is “Sky King’s Final Landing Site,” and it is the tomb of the actor who starred in the 1950s television show, Sky King. To prove that you have actually been to the cemetery and seen the stone, you are asked to e-mail the cache owner with the name on the tombstone just to the right of the one you’re looking for.

The cache in the Winterset City Park was a virtual cache which required driving a long, narrow, steep dirt road (there are hills in Iowa) emerging at the top by a stone tower built by early residents. If you climb the tower, you can see for miles across the rolling, wooded hills of Madison County. In another couple of weeks, the colors should be phenomenal as this is all deciduous forestland. The dirt road had many puddles from recent rains. So much for washing the car back in Adel.

The Hills of Madison County
Taken 9/20/07 in Winterset Iowa's City Park

Not too far south of Winterset is the wide spot known as Lorimor. A highway sign informs you that Lorimor is the divide between the Missouri and the Mississippi Rivers. I suppose that some place has to be.

South of Lorimor is Afton, where I saw the first of several signs warning me to watch for horse-drawn vehicles. All the farmyards I passed seemed to have large pickups in the drive, but I suppose the Amish could be hiding out somewhere in the back country. I also passed a business just east of Afton whose name gave me pause: Still Living Taxidermy. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d prefer any taxidermy to be done on critters that are already dead.


Afton is also home of the Sugar and Spice CafĂ© where I stopped for lunch. It was immediately obvious that everyone in the place knew everyone in the place, except for me. Every person turned to stare at me as I walked through the door. I began to wonder if I’d grown a second head. But the people were very friendly, and I joked with the waitress, asking for her recommendation. She admitted that she hadn’t had the day’s special, a roast pork dinner, but she’d heard it was good. Several people chimed in to tell me that it was, indeed, very tender and tasty. I ordered it, along with Iced Tea and a piece of coconut cream pie. The total, including tip, came to $11.01. Such a deal. And it was both tender and tasty. It’s just a guess, mind you, but I think the cook was also the owner, and probably a relative of my waitress. I asked them which one was Sugar and which Spice, and before the cook could say a word, the waitress told me she was “spicy.”

Forty some miles south of Afton, I crossed the Missouri State Line. (That’s what their welcome sign said, “Missouri State Line.”) No welcome, no state motto, nothing but a statement of fact. Driving south on US 169, I had noted that Minnesota was kept like a country club. Every blade of grass was cut to exact specifications. God forbid that anything be out of place. Crossing into Iowa, the landscape looked “lived in.” Now, having crossed into Missouri, things looked unkempt. Judging simply by what one sees off US 169, I’d say that Iowa is not as prosperous as Minnesota, and that Missouri is on the way to being poor. Had I stayed on that highway, I’d have driven through St. Joseph, Kansas City, and eventually ended up in Tulsa Oklahoma.

The Aliens are Landing
Wind Turbines on the Farm
Taken 9/20/07 at King City Missouri

Since I was heading east this trip, I turned off US 169 and began my acquaintance with Missouri back roads, most of which seem to be designated with letters, not numbers. I took Highway D until I turned off on Highway E, for example. Looking at my watch, I decided to skip the last three geocaches I had programmed into my GPS unit, as I wanted to get to the Carroll County Court House before it closed at 5:00 p.m. I didn’t expect to be able to do any research, but at least I should be able to find out if it would be worth my time coming back in the morning.

I arrived in Carrollton, the Carroll County seat, about 4:40 p.m. It wasn’t hard to find the Court House. The largest structure in town, it towers over the city and can be seen from miles away. It also closes at 4:30 p.m. There were a couple of women chatting on the sidewalk—women I judged to be clerks working in county government, so I asked them how far back the records go. Birth records go back to 1883, I was told.

I’ve often said that the song “Shenandoah” is the story of my great-grandfather. Born in a family who had settled in the Shenandoah Valley in the 1600s, Henry L. Stephens left that part of Virginia sometime after 1850 to move to Carroll County, Missouri. The family lost several children at birth, but the oldest of my grandfather’s surviving sisters was born in Carroll County in 1857 and was named Virginia Missouri Stephens. If the Court House birth records only go back to 1883, there would be no sense in me waiting around. The women directed me to the public library which has a good genealogical collection, but while I found plenty of mentions of folks named Stephens, I found nothing on my own family.

Great-grandpappy didn’t linger in Carroll County. By the time of the 1860 census he was back in Virginia, this time in the Ohio River Valley, on a farm near the city that would become Parkersburg, West Virginia in 1863. I didn’t linger either. If I wasn’t going to find records to add to my genealogical collection, then there was no purpose to staying—not while I had daylight and miles to travel.

Crossing the Wide Missouri
Taken 9/20/07 in Miami Missouri

I set Columbia as my next goal, and perused the map looking for ways to get across the state without taking the Interstate Highway System. As most roads leading into Columbia are interstates, this turned into an interesting venture. I crossed the Missouri first at Miami (Miami Missouri that is), then again at Glasgow (no, not Scotland). Fayette, the next town east of Glasgow, is the home of Central Methodist University and Linn United Methodist Church, which sits on the campus of the University. If not the largest UMC I’ve ever seen, Linn is certainly the most ornate, looking like it would be more at home as an Anglican Cathedral in England than a college-town church in Missouri. The homes in Fayette were also large, beautiful, and altogether in keeping with a college town atmosphere. They looked about a hundred years old, but I don’t pretend to be an architectural historian.

East of Fayette, I turned onto Highway E (my second Highway E) which led me past country-club type homes into the northeastern corner of Columbia. This is the first place I’ve seen evidence of current capital in Missouri. Mind you, it’s also the second largest city I’ve been in since I left Missoula two weeks ago. Columbia claims a population of 84,000, and is the home of Columbia College, Stephens College, and the University of Missouri. It was getting dark as I approached town, and as I was feeling both hungry and very tired, I pulled into a strip mall to check the map. The question would be whether I would stay in Columbia, or press on to Jefferson City. None of the restaurants in this particular mall looked terribly appealing, but I ordered a sandwich and Iced Tea, and sat down to contemplate the immediate future. The sandwich helped with my hunger, but it did nothing to make me less tired, so I pulled into the Red Roof Inn where the desk clerk quoted me a rate ten dollars lower than what the AAA Tour Book said. I took the room.

Tomorrow it’s Jefferson City, Missouri’s capitol, doing my best to skirt St. Louis and still avoid the interstates, and crossing into Illinois. I have reservations at the Priapus Pines campground for tomorrow night, and I’ll be spending the weekend there. I have no idea whether I’ll have any internet access or not, so, be patient. I’ll be back on line at some point with further adventures from my travels.

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