Le Voyageur Meets The Coulee

Day 45 – Thursday, July 11
Willow Springs to Roaring River State Park
175.5 miles
95° Sunny, Hot & Humid

Got on the road around 10 a.m. Continued on Highway 60 West, but knew I would have to jump off before Springfield. Traffic increased as I got closer. Springfield is a metro area.

I got off in the town of Seymour which has a McDonalds, so I went inside to plot my way out of Missouri on county roads. While there, a motorcyclist named Bob stopped by to ask about my journey. He’s a retired motorcycle police officer specializing in accident investigation. He’s owned many bikes over the years but is now getting interested in scooters. He was driving a Burgman 650. He was enthusiastic and fun to talk to.

I plotted a way southwest heading to the Oklahoma border. M to U to A to 413 to D to TT to 39 to Z to W to C. That’s Burner, Sparta, Ozark, Nixa, Crane, and Purdy. It all went smoothly until W. The road turned out to be VV – two Vs. The little farm town of Crane had a very nicely appointed park with many dozens of electrical outlets for campers. Its grass was thick and full. There was no litter. I went in and rested for 45 minutes, then decided to go find out if I could camp there for a night. I found City Hall and the police station on Main Street. The police chief said, “No, that would be camping.” “Right,” I responded, “It looks like it’s set up for campers.” “Only for special events,” he said. Well, my being in town was not special enough I reckon.

I arrived in the overly patriotic town of Purdy. Every home and telephone pole has an American flag. There is a Navy jet fighter on display in the park. On the side of a commercial garage was painted, “Home of the Free Because They Are Brave.” There is a large memorial with waterfalls on Main Street. Sadly, the town looks as poor and destitute as many others I passed through. I could not account for the patriotism.

Rounding a turn in Purdy I saw in the distance the word Diner in big letters. I drove toward it. It was open. A hand made sign on the door said “New Hours.” I immediately decided I would camp close by and have breakfast here in the morning. Two men stood outside. I commented to them that the sign says new hours, but doesn’t say what the hours are. One man laughed and said he hadn’t gotten around to posting them yet. He was the owner. I said I’d like to camp close by and have breakfast there in the morning. He suggested I drive down to Roaring Brook State Park to camp. He said it was 12 miles south.

Fireworks went off and it wasn’t part of Purdy’s patriotism. I camped in Roaring Brook State Park last year and had a very good time. I was suddenly excited to go back again. The drive turned out to be 17 miles. I got one of the last campsites with shade. It is also right next to the river. In this heat, it’s ideal.

So this is a milestone. Last year’s motorbike trip – The Coulee – and this year’s trip – Le Voyageur – cross paths here. It feels right. The river certainly felt right when I dunked myself in its coolness. I’ll stay two days.

A Little Down the Road

Day 44 – Wednesday, July 10
95° Initially Overcast, Hot & Humid

Woke early, went exploring. A white mist hung over much of the river. Deer grazed. Herons flew away whenever I approached. I found the lodge. It was closed. Budget cuts? Went over the hills and into Van Buren. Found a breakfast spot with a non-smoking section in the back. Initially I was the only one in it.20130711-083338.jpg
I sat drinking coffee and writing. In time the room attracted other nonsmokers. Three fellows from somewhere in the southeast all riding Harleys sat next to me. We had a good natured conversation about motorcycle traveling. They politely thought I was nuts to ride a used Chinese scooter across the USA. Of course they are right. I don’t know why I’m doing this. I’ve lost my focus. Perhaps it’s the heat and humidity.

One fellow said the seat on his Harley cost more than my entire bike. It is an infinitely adjustable air cushion seat, like long distance truck drivers use. He said he likes comfort. I do too. I’m no masochist.

I went back and broke camp with the intention to ride west on Highway 60 for a while then divert southwest on county roads. I had no particular place to be, but was aiming to exit Missouri on the Oklahoma border in a day or two.

As I drove along in the morning heat and humidity, still at a pleasant 40 mph, I became ill. I developed a terrible stomach ache. It felt like vomiting would be a relief, but I never did. At the point I would leave Highway 60 was a motel and I decided to stop for the day and recoup. After a cool shower and a sandwich I felt normal. I spent the evening writing and trying to find a watchable show among a bewildering number of channels and sub-channels. I come from the era of three stations in black & white. I slept well.20130711-083236.jpg

Big Spring

Day 43 – Tuesday, July 9
Cairo, Illinois to Big Spring Park, Van Buren, Missouri
95 Sunny, Hot & Humid
155.8 miles

With Ruby running fine, a morning of photography, and a decent breakfast at the Nu Diner, I returned to the motel and packed up. I headed south out of town, over the Mississippi Bridge one last time and into Missouri. I am now in the West.

The day was already hot. I felt I had to drive Ruby slowly or risk the engine failing. Initially, there is only one road from the bridge, Route 60 with plenty of truck traffic. Luckily, the road is flat and straight, passing is easy. I wanted to turnoff on one of the many lettered county roads. Missouri county roads are lettered – B – M – PP – K. Any letter, there seems to be no logical reason behind the naming. These paved roads run true and straight. You want to pick one going in your direction. I needed an internet connection.

About 15 miles down the road was a small town with a large gas station. They had wifi. I plotted a series of county roads taking me to Big Spring Park in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, National Park. It would be a meandering northwest journey. My first turn was another 15 miles down the highway. Ruby was running fine, but I wasn’t going over 40 mph.20130711-073231.jpgI turned onto Y then AB, M, and PP. This took me to the little farming town of Puxico, population 1,670. A good size for this area. But not good enough for wifi. Even the library, located in a log cabin, did not have an internet connection or a Missouri map for that matter. The librarian gave me complex local directions to an ice cream stand in a park 10 miles away that may have wifi. She said it only took 5 minutes to drive there. I found her information suspect.

I drove out of town on Highway 51 South. I didn’t find the turnoff as described and continued driving to the town of Fisk. For no good reason, I assumed Fisk would be larger than Puxico. It wasn’t, population 821. A fellow at the gas station said the public library there had wifi and offered to lead me there in his pickup. He got me there and introduced me to the part time librarian and part time mayor. Yes, they had wifi.

For reasons neither of us could figure out, the library’s password would not work. I was reduced to running Google Maps on one of the library’s older Windows machines. If you don’t do this regularly it’s a hassle. The machines are on as low a resolution as possible making the screen easy reading for the visually impaired. Then they’re slow. Moving or resizing a map took time. Luckily, the air conditioning was on high.

What I decided to do was go to the next larger town west, Poplar Bluff. It was large enough to have a McDonalds where I could use my iPad. I told the librarian/mayor my plan and that I would be driving down highway 51 and BB. She was shocked. Why didn’t I use Highway 60, their newly opened 4-lane running all the way to Springfield? She said Highway 51 & BB would be filled with farm machinery. She was clearly proud of the new highway. We talked about it outside in the full sun and humidity. Someone else joined in and sang the highway’s praises. I pointed to Ruby and said I wasn’t going over 40 miles an hour. No problem they insisted. Eventually, the heat and encouragement conspired to get me to agree. I drove west on the new Highway 60.

New Highway 60 is built like an interstate, but is not limited access. There are many roads and driveways connecting to it. Also, there is very little traffic. I putted along in the right hand lane. Everyone passed me. It was easy and pleasant. I got off at the first Poplar Bluff exit and wound my way through the city to a McDonalds on the far side.

While looking at my wifi connected maps, I saw I could use a patchwork series of county roads or take Highway 60 directly to Van Buren and Big Spring. I opted for 60. I’m glad I did. The road was smooth and I could go 40 mph without much effort or fear I was holding someone up. It was a smooth effortless drive. The only issue? I am sunburning the back of my hands and forearms. I must buy & use sun block.20130711-073207.jpgI arrived in the small but active town of Van Buren. It has every amenity without any chain businesses unless you count the banks. Here in the midwest, bank buildings are new and huge. Big buildings, big signs, big parking lots, no cars. This kind of big bank went out of favor in New England 25 years ago. They are all boutique offices now. Not so here. I have no idea why.

The Big Spring Park Campground is five miles out of town in its part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, on the Current River. At the visitors center in town I was lucky enough to meet the Big Spring camp host who was there to pick up mail. She said finding a tent site was no problem and that the Campground, built by the CCC in the 1930s, had a lodge serving breakfast. She then gave me an alternate way to drive in saying it would let me avoid some steep hills with sharp turns.

Alternate routes in the south and midwest all use a Baptist Church as a landmark. If you look, you will see Baptist churches as common as robins and crows. I got to the campground safely. There were some steep ascents and descents along the way. The alternate route misses the river and lodge. I don’t recommend it.

The camping area is in a forested river bottom. It is flat. The RV area with electricity was filled with campers. All the tenting areas, without electricity, were empty. I drove around 5 empty loops. All the sites were the same with short paved pull-in areas, fire pit, and a metal picnic table. My criteria was a shady tree and a long distance from the toilets. The reason for the long distance is light. At night, park toilets are always illuminated and sometimes it can be ferocious. Being away from them and in a light shadow is a good thing.

The campsite was unkempt, the grass not mown. It looked like a victim of budget cuts. Then there were black flies. Zillions. I lathered in bug repellent. It attracted more black flies. They started to colonize my ears. I carried the cloth I use to wipe down Ruby, swatting the air every 2-3 seconds. I pitched camp with one hand while swatting with the other. I got the tent up and sleeping mat inside allowing only a million black flies in too. They congregated in the brightest corner. I was able to unzip the screen in that area and whisk them out. All-in-all, not bad.

Sweating like a human in 95 degree heat and 99% humidity, I headed for the river. It was less than a quarter mile away through some forest, over soft sand, and then across a wide stony expanse. The water was wide, cool, and inviting. It was also perfectly clean. This part of the river is fed by a – you guessed it – Big Spring. You can easily see to the bottom until it gets too deep. There is a current. I was swept in quickly. God it was refreshing.

I sat in the water up to my chin listening to nature sounds and the children of two families further down stream. No bugs bothered me. It was ideal. I walked along the rocky beach scouring ancient sedentary stones broken away from their original home, now polished smooth on their way to becoming top soil, some eon in the future.20130711-073249.jpgBack at camp I swatted black flies until exhaustion then crawled in my tent. It was hot. No rainfly on the tent. Side panels unzipped as much as possible to maximize any future air flow. A cotton sheet covered the sleeping pad ready to wrap me should a hint of coolness pass by. I lay quietly listening to evening sounds and drifted off to sleep.20130711-073308.jpg

Cave to Cairo

Day 42 – Monday, July 8
Mammoth Cave to Cairo, Illinois
282.2 miles
95 Hot & Humid

This turned out to be a long odd day. I planned to travel to Land Between the Lakes, a National Recreation Area southeast of Paducah, Kentucky. It’s a long narrow undisturbed wildlife refuge about 12 miles wide and 100 miles long between two manmade lakes. It has one major road from east to west and one, called The Trace, north to south. There is one additional paved road on the east side leading to a camping area / boat launch and some dead ends. The topography is low rolling hills completely coved in trees and undergrowth. Other than seeing water from the bridges coming in, you are encased in forest.
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I arrived about 1 p.m. I drove across to a visitors center. Food could only be found off LBL (as it’s called), some distance away. Driving in from the east I saw only one gas station / convenience store. I thought about driving out the west side then backtracking to the campground. This did not appeal to me so I drove to the campground.

The campground sits on a forested hillside beside the eastern lake. Most of the sites are engineered for level and drainage. All of the campers I saw had boats. Four days before, a tornado ripped through the area. There were no injuries, but tree limbs and logs and debris was strewn everywhere. What would I do if awakened by high winds? I decided to drive north back to the mainland.

So began an afternoon odyssey. First I turned in the wrong direction. That wasted about 20 miles. When turned around I had to plot a way to avoid the Paducah metro area. That took some creative choices, but eventually I found myself out in open farmland. From this point on I started looking for a campsite. A few cemeteries presented themselves. My problem was time. It was still early. I couldn’t hang out in a cemetery for three to four hours. I kept driving.

I realized Cairo, Illinois was possible if I drove on highways at 50 mph. So I hit the gas made it to Wickliffe, Kentucky about 12 miles from Cairo where I stopped at a convenience store. I sat down with two good-old-boys and asked for directions. We laughed at my east coast pronunciation: KI-row. They say KAY-row. Then one fellow got serious and said, “You don’t want to go there.” I thought he was kidding, but he wasn’t. He suggested I stay in Wickliffe and just drive through Cairo quickly in the morning.

Of course I didn’t take his advice. I drove the 12 miles and over the Ohio River Bridge to Fort Defiance State Park. This is the point where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers meet. It is the southern most tip of Illinois. It was getting late. I decided to look for a campsite or a motel. I turned north, up over the levy and into the city of Cairo.

Cairo is surrounded by high levies and flood walls. It hasn’t had an overflowing flood in a long time, but the citizens are evacuated just in case every couple of years. The city, a town really, is desperately poor. Half of all buildings are empty and dilapidated. The only chain business is a Subway that just opened this spring. It feels desperate and dangerous. There is one main four-lane street running north. I followed it through town and out into the country.

There is no place to camp because all the land is wet. I turned around and decided to drive back to a motel in Wickliffe. There is one motel in Cairo, the Belvedere. I passed it earlier. It is rundown, next to the street, and looks like a gathering place for drug dealers. As I approached it, Ruby’s engine quit. I coasted into the parking lot.

The Belvedere. I was buzzed into the dark office through a door that had been jimmied more than once. A short, middle-aged Indian woman, with a pleasant smile greeted me. I got a room. What else could I do? Room 108 has one light hanging from the ceiling in the far corner. The window curtains are made from a heavy tarp and stapled together. There is no art or wall paper. The actual composition of the walls is unknown. Against the back wall in a narrow closet recess is an air conditioner. I pressed on it until it started. Cool air came out. The little bathroom had its own light. It was clean. The sheets were clean too.

I pushed Ruby as close to my door as I could. I showered then walked to a convenience store. The owner and I struck up a conversation. His brother is Cairo’s police chief. Somehow, that made me feel safer. I slept well.

The next morning I went outside. Ruby was still there. I turned the key and she started. Amazing. I drove through town and over the Mississippi Bridge. Both bridges, Mississippi & Ohio, are long arching steel frames just wide enough for two lanes. No photo op. I drove into Fort Defiance State Park. Lewis and Clark were here 210 years earlier. The rivers are high, near flood stage. The water is wide, miles across. A small boat with two fishermen sat at the confluence. Three states meet at this point.
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Cleaning

Day 40 – Saturday, July 6
Layover Mammoth Cave National Park
76° Rain until 1 p.m. then Overcast, Humid of course

Beginning at 7:30 last evening the rain came down hard. It drove me in the tent. With light and moderate rain I would walk around the campsite from tree to tree feeling for the least rainy area. Stand there a while and then move on. At 7:30 that recreation ceased.

I knew I would be asleep in ten minutes if I started to read. The problem is waking at some unknown hour I hope is 6 a.m. but I know will be 11:30. Will I get back to sleep? That’s the mental game I play while camping.

This night I was awakened by white light from the sky, through my tent walls, and through my eyelids. I knew it was lightening. A moment later all went black, then a second after that a huge clap of thunder rocked the woods. It was going to be a terrible night. I braced myself. We’ve been having steady rain, but no wind, now all that was going to change.

Except it didn’t. There was no more lightening or thunder. However, the rain came down in torrents. It pounded the tent walls inches from my ears. Splatter collected on the screens and inside the rainfly. The next wave of rain knocked it inside. Sometimes I felt water, sometimes I just imagined it. Either way, this wasn’t a dream. I was awake.

The one and only remedy is to raise the interior walls that cover the screens. The higher the walls the less air circulation and the warmer you are. In this case I would also be drier. Despite my dire description, the night was delightful in its cataclysmic way. I went back to sleep, woke a few times and checked for flooding, none occurred, and went back to pleasant dreams.

Surveying other campsites in the morning, I saw that many sat in puddles. The ground was saturated. My tent was smeared from splash but my selection of a high site saved me from floating away. The tent interior was very damp. My bedding was damp. Two daddy-longlegs sat high up in the netting at the top of the tent, dry but perplexed at the world they found themselves in. I lay looking up at them, damp, but contented. Scamping at its basics.

It continued to rain lightly in the morning and finally stopped around one. I decided to stay through Sunday night and leave on Monday, which the great weather predictor says will be partially sunny. I walked back to the campsite about two and made a good faith effort at drying everything out. I took the rainfly off and stretched it out in the parking area. Then I unloaded the tent of everything. There were pools of water in two low corners and under the sleeping mat.

I wiped everything down. Next, I unpegged the tent and took it to the drive to lay on its side exposing the bottom to fresh air. I picked up the soggy and very dirty ground cloth and took it to a faucet 50 yards away. There I rinsed it clean of all grime, shook it out, then took it to my parking area and spread it out to air. I wiped it down, turned it over and wiped the other side. I wiped down the rainfly. Lastly, I wiped the tent, bottom and sides. The rain held off. I spread the now clean & dry ground cloth, set the tent on top of it, pegged it down, and placed the clean rainfly on top. It looked fresh out of the store.

I spread my cotton sheet on top of the tent to air. It was damp from sweat. The sleeping mat–the single item that makes all this tolerable–was damp on the bottom, it had been laying in water. I wiped it down, aired it out, and placed it back in the tent. I returned all the incidental items back in the tent. It looked new and fresh.

The rain has not returned and a smattering of sun burns through. Tonight I will listen to a presentation on the Civilian Conservation Corps, then return to a clean pleasant tent for a good nights sleep. Pleasant dreams scampers.20130706-191132.jpg

The New GDP

Day 39 – July 5
Mammoth Cave National Park
72 Rain, 90% Humidity, Sun at Noon Then More Rain

Staying another day, hope to wait rain out. Will take a different tour of the cave a little later today. Met Charles and Sandy, from Georgia, in the campsite last night. Had a lovely conversation and cup of coffee in their RV. My tent and bedding is becoming moist, not from the rain, but my own sweat and breath. Only sunshine can fix that.

Went on second tour this afternoon to a different part of the cave. Had to walk down a couple of hundred steps through a wet sinkhole until reaching an old dry river bed. In actuality you are not walking on the old river bed, but the remains of the roof above the original bed. When the water disappeared weak and loosened rocks fell from the walls and ceiling, covering the bed. What you see as you walk through are ragged and jagged rocks of all sizes. You do not see swirls and curved rock formations where water worked its way through.

Unlike yesterday’s tour, this part of the cave system does have stalactites and stalagmites. They occur where surface water penetrates the protective sandstone layer above the limestone. Drips and time do the rest.

While I have no desire to explore the cave by wedging myself through narrow openings and straddling bottomless crevices (something you can do with an experienced guide) I was a bit bored walking single file in semidarkness with 100 people, not being able to hear the Ranger. At one stop the Ranger said something I hadn’t considered. In the winter they give the same tours and sometimes as few as 5 or 6 people are in the group. Now that would be fun and informative.

After the tour I walked back to my campsite to wipe off the tent and the bike. I was hoping the sunny afternoon had dried everything out. For the most part, it did. After wiping down Ruby (it had been splattered by the rain even though I had a cover over her) I was putting the cover back on when I tugged on the back end. I heard a snap. Sure enough, I broke the righthand (the newest) mirror. It was hanging by a thread. I unscrewed it from the bike and carried it down to the Ranger checkin station. I asked if they had any tape. Of course they did. The Ranger and I wrapped clear packing tape around it. A solid on-the-fly fix. I’ll know tomorrow if it holds.

Last observation: sitting in the Mammoth Cave Information Center is like being at the United Nations. Every continent and subcontinent is represented, uncountable nationalities. Languages flow freely. Everybody is producing kids. It’s the new GDP.20130705-154315.jpg

Independence Day

Day 38 – July 4, Independence Day
Mammoth Cave National Park
72 Rain
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Rain struck staccato notes on tent walls in the darkness of morning. It replaced the sounds of kids and conversations and campfires the night before. Welcome sleep came easily, free from the scratching and whining of cats so prevalent the last few days. I lay listening, drifting above a forest floor, a beach landing, stone walls, ocean waves. Sweet sleep.

A car horn, a child’s cry, glowing tent walls, dawn. I planned my journey to the men’s room. What to wear, what steps necessary for maintaing a dry tent. Dressing, extraction, mission, return. I collect my things for a morning in the cave. I have a 10 a.m. reservation. I will eat breakfast at the lodge, write, check emails in the visitor’s center, then go on the History Tour. Pack camera and iPad along with my rain pants (just in case) in a plastic bag for transport from the campsite, about a half mile. Plan, execute, stay dry.

It’s the 4th of July. The Park is crowded. The restaurant opened at 7:30, it’s now 8:30, it will be filled. I walk out of the forest across a lawn and parking lot to the lodge and morning coffee. I’m wearing my florescent raincoat and carrying a large white plastic bag. I wonder if I look eminently practical or homeless. Scamping walks a fine line. It doesn’t matter. No one is out to observe or judge, not even a squirrel.

The restaurant is empty. I’m the first one there. I’m astounded. “It’s a holiday, the kids don’t get up early,” I am told. It’s true. The campground was silent when I walked out. So they seat me at “the first single guy table.” It’s in a corner near the coffee dispensers. A good place if you are Wyatt Earp and like coffee.

I eat and then head for the hotel lobby and it’s wifi connection. The time is two minutes until 9 a.m. I have one hour until my tour. Everything feels perfect except for the lack of people walking around. Then I notice the wall clock. It’s one hour behind. Surely someone else would have noticed this. I decide to tell the desk clerk. Just as the words are coming out of my mouth, it dawns on me. I change from a statement to a question in mid sentence. “Have I wandered into the Central Time Zone?”

“Rejoice! Now I have more time to meditate!” That’s another story from another time, but it’s exactly what I told myself when I realized my error.

Eventually I queued up with about 99 other spelunkers under a lovely pavilion in the steadily pouring rain. Park Ranger Thomas gave a very well delivered opening address making it clear in the most pleasant way possible that this two hour hike would not be easy and if you had any medical ailments or newly replaced organs or joints, not to go. Down into the cave we marched.

Mammoth Cave was carved out by water from limestone layers laid down after eons of ocean activity, right here in central Kentucky. They say it’s the longest cave system in the world, 400 miles. I went on the two hour History Tour, focusing on ancient and modern human activities in the cave. Ranger Thomas was excellent, super-well prepared and able to answer every question. I’ve been in a number of caves and my personal assessment is that they are dank, dark, and dangerous. The surprise for me at Mammoth is that it is dry. The interior maintains a cool, but dry, 54 degrees. Nothing is slimy. It’s dry underfoot on the well maintained walkways. There are some very narrow and low passages, but nothing slippery.

Being dry means there are no stalactites, just carved out and broken limestone rock. Lighting the interior is practical, not spectacular like at Carlsbad Caverns. Nevertheless, Mammoth Cave is a fascinating geologic wonder. I believe I only saw .5% of it. I would need to be a real spelunker to see more. Maybe next voyage.

20130704-154332.jpg20130704-154405.jpgP.S. I shot photos at 800 & 1600 ISO with 1-2 second exposures while in the cave. This guarantees high grain and blur. I did not disappoint. These photos will never see the light of day. I wonder why I even try. The dining room photo was taken with the iPad.

We carried you in our arms
On Independence Day
And now you’d throw us all aside
And put us on our way

Tears of rage, tears of grief
Why must I always be the thief?
Come to me now, you know
We’re so alone
And life is brief

– Tears of Rage – Bob Dylan & Richard Manuel