I. Getting There.
Leaving 9:25a, cloudy…we’re listening to the radio…the market is mixed, I did a bit of work this morning, B is driving…”I Touch Myself,” I have an inexplicable memory of getting off a plane when I hear this song, of disembarking at the moment when you say “bye now” to the stewardess…and I remember my mom saying she thought this song was “stupid,” which I don’t dispute…but the song was a success…I’m talking about it, hearing it, however many years later—20 years? 1994 or so?—I can’t remember who sings it…the Divinyls?… It’s playing on 90.7 HD2: HD radio in the Subaru…I miss the Jeep emotionally, but not functionally…It’s an eclectic mix on this station, one song was a collection of racket, like bad Beach Boys mixed with poseur Middle Eastern rhythms. As we cross the Meramec River close to its Terminus with the Mississippi, we enter Jeff Co. and Arnold—where Pat got Frozen Castles for our camp at St. Francois State Park. And the Heartless Bastards come on. This song goes out to you, P Hole—thanks again for that ride home from pool Wednesday night.
This is a good time to be on Interstate 55—it’s about half the volume versus last time I traversed it, three weeks ago plus six hours en route St. Francois S.P. We’ll go past St. Fran on our way to Sam A. Baker.
I can start to see some hills peaking out due south, lightly cloaked in a foggy mist. Silver Hills, is what Ida called them…
…I’m in here and I’m not talking…
“You don’t have much to say,” she says.
“No, I don’t.”
“Then why’d you come in here.”
“I came in for him. He—his dad died. He just found out, a couple hours ago.”
“Yeah. He wanted to come in here. I don’t know. It’s not where Ida ended up. Or if I had—I’d be a lot drunker than he is.”
“Maybe you should buy him a drink.”
“Maybe you should buy me one, too.”
Just riffing there, a little fictionalized memoir. But which parts are real, and which aren’t. Ah-ha-ha-ha-hah. It’s 10:07, sixty-seven degrees. To Farmington, a mile away.
Fort Find It. Dillo. We’re about to pass St. Francois State Park, which is on the left. See ya. No Francois but we will be fishing, swimming in, and floating the St. Francis River. We pass a metal fabricator. We pass Cherokee Landing, an outfitter. It was that name we saw painted on the sides of canoes putting in on the Big River at St. Francois S.P. Bonne Terre. A used car lot displays a pink polka-dotted-elephant. I think of that National song, “Pink Rabbits.” Drinking pink rabbits in some kind of chair. Is the singer drinking pink rabbits or is his erstwhile flame drinking them? Does it matter? A little sun for the first time all day. Still rocking the 90.7 HD2, so-called “Exponential Radio.”
Farmington. There’s a turnoff via 221 for “Arcadia Valley,” the constituents of which I’ve largely heard—Johnson’s Shut-Ins, Taum Sauk State Park—but I’ve never heard it called Arcadia Valley. St. Joe State Park is over that way, too. I was telling B that St. Joe is an ATV destination. And that it’s also polluted. Past Farmington we crossed the St. Francis, and we just crossed it again. We also lost the signal for exponential radio. We’re on 67, headed south. It’s two lanes each way, separated by a healthy gray median. There is a steady feed of cars and trucks but the traffic is not heavy. Plenty of room out here. There’s rain out to the west, somewhere. South, too. But we press on. Sprinkles. S bar F Scout Ranch. I say with nearly complete confidence that I’ve never been on this road before. In college, for the rock class or two I took, we came down 67, and eventually made our way on over to Johnson’s Shut-Ins and Elephant Rocks—but I don’t believe we were ever this far south. Coppermines Church. It’s 10:57.
The median, past Fredericktown (which makes me think of my father, whose middle name is Frederick, oddly), is no longer green. It’s lined with a maroon, igneous rock blasted out of the earth not far from here. And it’s been sprayed, because there is no green at all, just dead brown weeds in some spots and parched white grass in others. It’s twenty-eight miles yet to Highway 34, our turnoff. To Poplar Bluff, 61 miles. Does 67 go all the way to Arkansas, B wonders. I don’t know. From the glove compartment I remove a map of the great state of Missouri. The answer is “yes.” Twelve Mile Creek. The map indicates we are about to pass through Mark Twain National Forest. And it seems there are camping options there—Silver Mines, one of the Arcadia Valley constituents I did not know. Every day, every day.
A mobile home in a state of decay. Collapsed, flattened, the stuffing turned inside out. Immobile. Trucks going the other way turn up mist in their treadwake. It rained here, very recently. Between the raindrops we shall go, dancing wanly, to and fro. I am pondering the Twain Forest. I’ve always regarded it as some sort of alien land, inhospitable, a dense green nowhere. A small sign on an unmarked road advertises, “Camping—Paw Paw Park.” We’ll pass on that. I suppose the campgrounds within Mark Twain Forest would be listed on recreation.gov, like those along the Current. The Feds have got their paws all over Missouri parks, haven’t they? A sly move, I’d say.
Smoke on the near horizon. We’re hurtling downhill toward the origin, but I can’t quite see it. Some local is burning a pile, apparently, out behind an old “Fireworks City” store. The speed limit is 65. Having two lanes in either direction, so that the enterprising can pass us on the left, is a big plus. Wayne County. But there’s no one behind us anyway, hasn’t hardly been anyone behind us since Bonne Terre. There’s something in the road up ahead. It’s a blown-out tire, one big piece and lots of assorted shreds. Cedar Creek. A sign for a conservation area. There is some blue sky to the west now. It’s 11:19. I think that conservation area was Coldwater Conservation Area. Lodi. That tells me that we have already traveled through much of the swath of Mark Twain National Forest that I saw on the map. But I never saw any signs indicating as much. Strange.
Camp Lewellen Boy Scouts Camp. “I guess they own the property,” says B. It’s kind of like a Social Precurity system for boys, involving outdoor activities and other endeavors facilitating preparation. Here’s the land, gents, do something with it. We see the turnoff for 34—Piedmont, Marble Hill. The road has slimmed, the median is just a parapet now. We’re…veering…right. We see signs for Sam A. Baker State Park. We see signs for Clearwater Lake and Dam, an Army Corps of Engineers production. Maybe that’s a place for us to go with Tyler when he’s got the boat. An old sign for “Camp Wood, 15 stks, $5.” We cross the St. Francis River again. This is the takeout point for the float, I realize. The 34 bridge. The river looked OK, not really hustling much, but just OK.
Ragwort and Queen Anne’s Lace alongside the road, an unnamed creek. A place called “The Back Table,” with billiards on offer. We’re on 143N now. NV Circle Ranch, full RV hookups. Now we’re hemmed in by forest, no more red clay. Five hens. The Winking Owl, some sort of store—the sign said closed but the door was open and a guy stood along the doorframe smoking a cigarette and watching us as we coasted by. Sam A. Baker, we’re here.
We hiked the Shut-Ins trail but veered off somewhere along the way. The Shut-Ins are somewhere along Big creek but I don’t think we arrived at the right spot. As I was walking along I knew I hadn’t seen any blue blazes in a while but we could hear voices of river play and we followed them. Big Creek is clear, cool, and it moves—the recent rain probably helped put it in a good light. I gradually worked my way in and as I leant more and more of myself to the water I could feel my cultivated toxins flee further and further up my body until they were all in my head and then out the top of it as I finally put my head under. It was a restorative bath. There is a moment every year when I have a craving to go put myself into a body of cool water. But I had never before identified this urge as a craving for a specific form of forced, physical catharsis. If I miss any aspect of swimming laps it is the simple fact of placing myself under water. I miss the shock of immersion. It is a powerful, benign, constructive act.
It’s past five here on Friday night. We have tunes going—vintage Tom Petty. “She’s gonna listen to her heart. It’s gonna tell her what to do-oo-oo. Well, she might need a lot of lovin’ but she don’t need you.” A dog a ways away, a yipper, is going crazy. That’s not nearly as bad as Hatfield and McCoy waking up at cross-purposes amidst their hungover family reunion about a campsite block away. Right when we got here two guys over there were throwing down—like, for real. And we’re looking at each other thinking, “What did we get ourselves into now.” Someone, maybe the camp hosts, called the park ranger and he was over there pretty quick. Ohhhhh: now we’re getting hit with some tasty camp cook smoke. B says it’s burgers. For lunch we did cured meat, Triscuits, English sharp cheddar (eat it, Russia), cucumbers, and carrots. Not bad. The summer sausage was courtesy of Milwaukee.
It’s humid, there’s no sugar-coating it. But there is a breeze stirring now and we’re on the other side of two hours of hiking. It’s time to kick back and dip into our finest provisions. There are remnants on our site of an epic silly string battle—blue vs. pink. The loser I imagine had to shamble his or her way through dank patches of poison ivy and a minute army of poison dart frogs to the St. Francis River for a dunking, in view of our site, number five. I don’t know for sure, I haven’t even spent a night here yet, but it seems to me that Big Creek is nicer than the St. Francis River. I’ve the notion that when Big Creek is floatable—which isn’t often—it’s a lot like floating the Current. We had planned on doing the five-mile of the St. Francis tomorrow but we are probably going to audible and hike along Missouri’s tallest mountain instead, Taum Sauk.
I’m into my second Shift, a pale lager from the New Belgium brewery in Fort Collins, CO. B is working on Weed and water. Dinner is Castles. I bought 20 sticks of firewood at the park store for $6.34 (including tax). In terms of volume it’s equivalent to three of the pre-wrapped bundles but only about half the price. Let’s see, though, how it burns before we go around patting each other on the back.
A melange of topics I wanted to talk about but won’t get to before I fall asleep: Bugs on the Mudlick Trail drove us batty; the hosts told us about putting dryer sheets in our hats; site 87 here looked good; there’s a tiny kid at the site across the way that loves tearing up and down the road on his tiny tricycle. There’s lighter fluid in the air. B likes the smell of it, she makes the wafting motion with her hand, as if she were testing a rue. “What kind of trees are those? I feel like they’re California trees.” Yeah, I tell her, I was gonna say they were ponderosa pines. At eight o’clock exactly we went down to the river. The moon looked so peaceful, lofted there above it all, nearly full.
III. Sat Morn, 6:21.
It was not a very good night’s sleep. We got bit by the late arrivals bug again. They pass their site, turn around, come back (going the wrong way now on the one-way road that loops through the campground), and fumble around with their tent in the last of the day’s light. B and I both fell asleep pretty easily but as I drifted in and out of sleep I was aware of kids giggling and screwing around with their flashlights in the neighboring tent. Eventually B and I were both awake and I figured it was 9:30. I was incredulous when she told me it was three. I got up. It was just two young girls over there, eleven years old maybe. At one time there was a mom, or an aunt, or some adult because we saw her and one of the girls carrying a huge air mattress down the road to their new abode. But the old lady was gone now. The two girls went over to the bathroom. The bathroom that’s near us is duplex style, one flush toilet on either side, clean enough. The girls both went in to the left half. When they came out I started walking toward them and they froze. I kept my voice down and I didn’t get mean. I asked them to listen. What did they hear? Nothing. Crickets and frogs. I told them the only reason my wife and I were awake at this hour was because of them. They really were the only people in the campground making any noise, and had been for hours. One of them apologized, the other one didn’t say anything at all. It struck me that they didn’t know any better. I blame the mom, or whoever the adult is who puts two girls in a tent and walks away.
I hate to do this, I really hate it. But I’m staying on the Complain Train because just as I sat down to write this—let me back up. We didn’t pick a very good site. We’re too close to the bathroom. The doors are quite loud against their frames when someone exits the bathroom and lets the door swing closed behind them. I heard that sound once or twice at four or five this morning. I didn’t want to put earplugs in because there are these frogs down in the boggy area along the river that are nocturnal and make these crazy banjo-croaking sounds all throughout the night. That’s the kind of sound I can only hear when I’m sleeping out in nature, that’s why I do this. I want to hear the crickets and the katydids chirping and blirping and buzzing and just before it starts to get light I want to hear the birds that are getting up earlier than anyone else.
Along with the thudding doors is the bathroom’s exterior light, which lights the area outside the bathroom a little too well. And then there’s a little parking area just to the side of the bathroom. There are eight spots, including one handicapped spot. As I sat down to write I saw a large mini-van parked there with MN plates. Someone popped out of it right as I sat down to write this, a young lady. Then another young lady popped out the other side. I’m thinking they just decided not to stay in a tent last night, they’d just sleep in the van instead, they don’t like sleeping in tents, whatever. But over the course of the next fifteen minutes six more people clambered out of that van! Eight people, I’m not exaggerating. A mom, a dad, and half a grade school class. There I am getting out of my tent in the morning, after listening to little LaVerne and Shirley play grabass all night and I crush a Doubleshot and get to thinking I’m gonna enjoy some peace and quiet while I write about yesterday a little bit. And I grant that these people talked hushedly as they took their turns going into the bathroom, but it’s a sliding door van, a mid-nineties model that rolled off the assembly line long before the push-button close was invented. And those doors made a sound like a manual garage door being shut. Do the math on how many times the door has to open and close as eight people go to and fro to use the bathroom in the morning.
I’m feeling a little snakebit right now. I reiterate that this was not a very good choice for a site. But between the left-to-themselves-to-screw-around late arrivals and the Minnesotan Octagon I’m sitting here thinking WTF.
I don’t want to be a whiner—whining, or being “whiny”, is a trait someone has called out in my recent travel writings. I want to accentuate the positives. I need to regroup and restate the objective of my travel writing. I’m here to describe things.
Our site backs up to a marshy, fensy, woodsy bank that rolls a bit until it reaches the St. Francis River, about thirty or forty feet away. The river at that point doesn’t look to be moving much. [Editor’s Note: I need to mention two things. First, B asked me to define what “fens” are. Fens are “low-lying wet land with grassy vegetation; usually a transition zone between land and water.” Second, what I have described just now as the St. Francis river wasn’t actually the St. Francis River, it was a spring-fed sideshoot of the St. Francis River, a sort of side-channel that itself feeds into the St. Francis River about 100 yards away, at which point one enters the St. Francis River via the boat ramp and is met immediately about their feet by delightfully cool water from said side-channel/spring.] An ADA spot, number 6, empty, is at my right (north). Site 8, two down from us on the the other side of the ADA site, was reserved for last night, tonight, and tomorrow night—but as of this writing it is empty. Directly across from our site is that parking lot. It abuts the island circumscribed by the loop road running through this side of Campground 1. There are dozens of tall, stately, well-looked-after pines standing over the interior part of this loop. I have a small tree book—it used to be my dad’s, or his dad’s, but I snagged it—and I need to start carrying it. [Editor’s Note: Egads, I just went to go look at the little tree book but it’s not there in our bookshelf. I got rid of it, I am kicking myself.] These trees are maybe 160 feet high. Skinny. Sparse of limb on the way up. The bark is notable. It reminds me of fish scales. [Editor’s Note: Quick list of candidates includes red pine and shortleaf pine.]
It was humid yesterday, but the sun made its breakthrough eventually and stayed around ’til sundown. It was wet when we got here. There were puddles on the concrete pad under the picnic table. We did a once-over of some of the other sites in Campground 1 and some of them were heavy with standing water. You could not have camped on them last night, probably not tonight either.
It’s buggy here. Flies at the campsite were pestering us right away. House flies, or a rabid version of house flies that like to bite people. We deeted up and that fixed the problem. On our second hike yesterday, an attempted loop hike comprised of taking the Mudlick Trail from its northern trailhead and eventually cutting into the Fire Tower Trail, we were besieged by the sort of gnat that wants to house itself in either your ears or your eyes. They might have been the same little pests that were trying to get at us along the swampy Shut-Ins Trail earlier. They were even worse on the Mudlick Trail. I’ve never been bothered like that by gnats. I was wearing my bandana as a sweatband but I re-fashioned it to cover my ears. I was thinking I could have used earmuffs or one of those bands that skiers wear to keep their ears warm. My ears were plenty warm on the faux-hike; I was trying to take a landing spot away from the little buggers. We walked for half an hour and turned around. I can handle hot but hot and bugs was too much. I was expending more energy trying to wave away and swat at the gnats than I was hiking. Nonetheless, we hiked for a total of two hours yesterday and I’m satisfied with that. If we’re really going to Colorado in September, and if we’re hiking while we’re there, I need to get in shape—and quick.
I consider this a mixed-use campground: RV sites and tent sites. It’s mostly RVs. But at some sites there are both RVs and tents. Across from us and one over is a family of six that took an electric site but is not in an RV—they’ve got one big tent and one small one. I like their set up. B and I were talking about them a little. I think the guy is the father of all four but the woman is the mother of just one, the little tricycle kid. Some of the kids are much older, in their teens. B is moving around in the tent. She wanted more sleep. I wasn’t very comfortable—my neck was stiff. So I figured I’d just get up now and nap later. It’s like that movie, that terrible movie, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” Here she is, the B-ster. It’s 7:09. I’ve had my Doubleshot. Maybe it’s time to get our morning cookfire going.
There is a boat ramp 150 yards from here. [Editor’s Note: Recall that at this point I still haven’t realized that the water right behind us really isn’t part of the river “proper”, but is instead a spring-based tributary.] There is river access there. I wasn’t expecting much, based on the sense I got of the river from the snatch of it I can see from our site. It shapes up somewhere between here and there I guess because it is beautiful down there. The water is clear, and rippling, and cool. Not spring-fed cold, other than right when you step in, but cool. It’s split at that point by a picturesque gravel bar and the entire view is expansive and peaceful in both directions. It feels a lot like the river access we enjoyed at the Round Spring campground on the Current River. We walked down there at dusk last night; the moon was up and nearly full. I wanted a photo but I didn’t have my camera. I started to walk back for it but my legs were heavy by that time and the moment (last light) was going to pass before long so I stayed put. I had a cigarette and enjoyed the view.
It’s time to get a fire going. It’s time for eggs and bacon and toast and more coffee. There’s something I forgot to mention—the raccoon that came up from the banks ten feet away from us last night, at gloaming, and wasn’t afraid of us at all. I was so glad Squirt wasn’t here. It’s 7:18 in the morning, Saturday, August 9, in Sam A. Baker State Park in Missouri.
IV. Taum Sauk.
It’s Saturday, 1:18 pm, we’re heading south on 21/72. We have been to Missouri’s highest point, Taum Sauk Mountain. We did a hike there, in Taum Sauk State Park. I thought we were going to reach the acme somewhere along the trail but the “highest point” marker is actually set off to the side before you even get to the trail. The trail was a three-mile loop that took us roughly an hour and forty-five minutes. The signs leading to the trail indicated the hike would last three hours, that it was a rugged and difficult trail, and that caution was advised. Indeed it was a strenuous hike but the sign oversold the difficulty. At the beginning, a hiker could go right or left. We went right. The best vistas were on the “right half” of the trail. Approximately halfway around the loop are some falls, the Mina Sauk Falls. If it hadn’t rained Thursday and Friday, these falls probably would have been dry. It’s a good hike. The bugs were back at it, but it’s that time of year I guess. B said she had sprayed her hat with deet but still they hounded her ears. I was swatting at them, as they buzzed my ears, and with the practice I had gotten in yesterday, I was crushing quite a few of them. But there are always more, and they never stop discovering you as you make your way along the trail.
The drive from Sam A. Baker State Park to Taum Sauk State Park was about an hour. It’s 143N to 49N to 72/21. Little towns, timber, Baptist churches. Windy, curvy, rolling roads. Big Creek makes at least a couple of appearances. The weather has been good. Humid, partly cloudy. Warm. At times on the hike along Taum Sauk there was a breeze. Now we are going south on 49, jogging through Annapolis. There are a lot of stone walls out here, all along this drive. There are some stone houses. Even along a curve on 72/21 south of Taum Sauk State Park there is a pretty stone wall lining the outer edge of the curve defining the road. The stone is…I’m note sure what kind of stone it is. It’s an igneous rock—whatever the earth spat up and slobbered itself with around here. I want to say dolomite but that’s just dilettante. I really don’t know. It’s reddish. Round. We just went over Big Creek for the first time on this, our return trip. It’s a clear little riffler that Big Creek. Very inviting.
There was a rattle in the car, upfront. B, who is obviously driving, was fiddling with this and that in the console and I asked her what the heck she was doing. “Trying to figure out what that rattle is,” she says. I looked for it. I couldn’t find it. I thought maybe it was the CD that’s in the CD player (the CD player holds six CDs, but we have only one CD in there). The radio/stereo was off. I wasn’t going to eject the CD but then B did. The rattling did not stop. When she popped the CD back in, it started playing. So now we are listening to The War on Drugs, “Living the Dream.” In the last several days I’ve had two people tell me, in response to me asking them how they were doing, “(I’m) living the dream.” Chalk it up to zeitgeist. It’s a pretty cynical remark, though. I don’t think either of the two people who said it really meant it.
I just figured out the rattling. It was the sunglasses in the sunglass kitty up top. 143 and 49 intersect in Des Arc, which has 177 people and a general store. We cross Big Creek again. This is a road with moguls. There have been large swaths of road recently replaced. Signs pronounce “Fresh Oil/Loose Gravel.” The swaths are large rectangular patches of pavement that have been replaced wholesale. There is no pothole patching here. The road, overall, is in decent shape. Better than “fair”. Iron County. The St. Francois Mountains are the range that Taum Sauk Mountain is in. I have to take a minute to comment on the whole St. Francis vs. St. Francois thing that is going on in this part of Missouri. There is a St. Francois State Park. And there are the St. Francois Mountains. According to many websites, and based on what I have already written in this camp diary, the river that runs through Sam A. Baker State Park is the St. Francis River. Notice I’ve dropped the “o” there. But if you go to the Sam A. Baker State Park website and pull up a PDF map of Campground 1, it identifies the river running along the south side of the park as the “St. Francois River”. I went to the Army Corps of Engineers Site vis-a-vis Lake Wappapello, fed by said river, and they call it the St. Francis. I don’t know which is which, I really don’t. As far as the St. Francois Mountains are concerned, I’ll be direct and tell you that they’re really just big hills. They’re really pretty, though. Even up close, the way that the milky green and white lichens cover the red, igneous rock is something I can keep in my mind. There aren’t too many people on these roads. I drove to Taum Sauk State Park. You must know that; otherwise I would have written something about the drive up there. I can only crutch on B so much. And on that drive to Taum Sauk I only once had someone riding my bumper. It was a nice change of pace.
There aren’t many camping sites at Taum Sauk State Park. There is no shower house. You’re really on your own out there. The Boy Scouts had descended en masse on the park’s special use campground. They must have had 15 tents packed in there.
V. Sat Eve, 5:30.
Woodland R-4 schools. The marquee announces that school starts August 13th. I think that’s what happened at Sam A. Baker. We walked right into the melee that is the last weekend of the summer for kids and their strung-out parents. A Stihl facility. It looked like there was a factory in the back. We take a left onto 51, and then we take another left and this time we’re “really” on 51. Lutesville General Baptist had a decent crowd. Now a non-denominational community church with a pretty sparse parking lot. It seems pretty poor through here. Trailer homes, strewn trash. New Salem Baptist, plenty of cars. It’s quite a curvy stretch of road. One bend gives way to another. It’s a good test for the car in advance of CO.