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