Monday, November 25, 2013

Missouri Road Trip

Small lake at St. Joe State Park, Park Hills, Missouri.
Photos are only tangentially related to the content of the blog post.
The S.O. and I got back a couple days ago from a short trip down to Missouri to visit the Younger Daughter. She got a promotion and a transfer to a different Forest earlier this fall; by early November she'd been in her new digs in Missouri long enough to have unpacked to the point of creating enough space in the guest room for the air mattress. So we went down to check things out.

As usual, we fueled up at the Pines in Baraga before hitting the road. The Pines Convenience Center is owned by the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and invariably has the lowest gas prices in what seems to be a several hundred mile radius. People living in Baraga County used to pay some of the highest gas prices in the state; after the Pines opened, suddenly we were paying some of the lowest. I've no doubt the price-gouging owners of the Krist Oil station in L'Anse would cheerfully sell their souls to Satan in exchange for putting the KBIC station out of business. Sadly for them, based on what I've observed over the years about their past business practices, they sold out years ago so don't have anything left that Old Scratch would be interested in.

In any case, we made sure the gas gauge was on full for both tanks on the truck and headed south. The Kid is now living close enough that we could have made the drive in a day -- it is a mere 745 miles from the ranch to Farmington, but we're geezers. If I'm stuck in a car for much over 8 hours a day, I tend to get cranky. So does the S.O. It's amazing how quickly your butt starts to hurt and your legs cramp up once you hit the downhill side of 60. End result? We split the 745 miles into two days of driving, about 5 hours worth on day 1 and 7 hours or so on day 2.

Missouri Mines State HIstoric Site, Park Hills, Missouri
We've done that drive down I-39 into Illinois enough times that we know where there are some decent motels and we know a few to avoid, like a Motel 6 that has definitely seen better days. We've also reached the point were we feel like we've seen it all before, so it wasn't surprising that the S.O. wanted to throw in a deviation -- instead of doing I-39 to I-55 to US-67, he suggested we take Wisconsin 78 west from Portage and cross Lake Wisconsin on the Merrimac ferry.

Had it been June, this would have struck me as a great idea. I've always wanted to ride the Merrimac ferry, a ferry that exists for no useful reason, as far as I can tell, other than to cut a few miles off the drive from one small town (Merrimac) to another (Lodi). I've been feeling the urge to ride the Merrimac ferry since the 1960s, but I never contemplated riding it in November. My favorite channel on local cable when we stop at a motel in the Portage area is Channel 15, the ferry cam, a live feed that showed basically nothing most of the time, just water lapping at the edge of the landing.

As it was, thanks to the combination of the time of year and the fact we had stuff in the back of the truck that we were bringing to the Kid, I had doubts. Strong doubts. Not so much about the ferry part of the proposed route, but what lay on the other side of the lake: WI-188 to WI-60 back to WI-78 and eventually US-151 to Dubuque, Iowa, and then various roads down into Missouri until we were approaching Farmington from the northwest rather than the northeast. I had a hunch that all those twists and turns and picturesque little towns along the way would turn what would be a 7 hour drive on the Interstate system into close to double that using the scenic route. I persuaded the S.O. that it might be better to do that route on the way home when we didn't have a cooler in the back full of frozen strawberries and Vollwerth's hot dogs. His counter argument was that nothing was likely to thaw when even the highs predicted for Missouri were hovering right around freezing, but he did eventually agree taking a new route would make more sense when we wouldn't be risking ruining the ring bologna.
Head frame and mill at Missouri Mines SHS. The site was the St. Joe Lead
 Mine and Mill. It's an impressive place. Unfortunately, they don't do
tours of the grounds, just the museum located in the old powerhouse. 

We stuck with the Interstate and did eventually get to Farmington. As predicted by the S.O., the drive was remarkably boring. After you've seen a few corn fields, you've seen them all. They're boring in the summer when they're green, and they're boring in the fall when they're brown and dead. One nice thing about crossing the Mississippi into Missouri is that suddenly the landscape stops being flat. Say what you want about Missouri, you can't accuse the state's viewscapes of being boring (with the possible exception of the drive straight across on I-70; that's always struck me as being slightly seedy and way overpopulated with adult novelty stores).

I knew more or less where the Kid was living, thanks to a number of trips down US-67 through Missouri. When she said she'd found an apartment in the Farmington area, I figured she had to be close to the car dealer with the pink elephants. Turns out the branch of the dealership I was thinking about is actually a few miles closer to St. Louis, in Bonne Terre, but I had the general area right: Missouri's lead mining district. A huge swath of the state in the Park Hills/Farmington/Desloges area is honeycombed with hundreds of miles of old mining tunnels, shafts, and stopes. The lead mines used the room and pillar method, and some of the rooms were (and probably still are) humongous. The limestone in Missouri must be pretty stable, though, because I've never heard anyone talk about a problem that's common here in the U.P.: caving ground.

Still, those mines must have contributed to one heck of a local death rate because it seemed like every time we turned a corner, there was another big cemetery. I know a lot of the miners in Missouri died young from silicosis, and I've no doubt fatal accidents caused by rock spalling from the roof of a stope were fairly common. Then when you add in the lead dust from the mill, one has to assume the local area is a significant cancer cluster as well as having more than its fair share of kids born with various birth defects and/or mental retardation. In fact, when I mentioned to a friend who lives in central Missouri that the Kid was going to be working in the mineral area, she suggested warning her to look for a place west of her duty station if she had any plans for future pregnancies. Although the St. Joe Mine and Mill closed in the early 1970s, there are still extensive waste rock and tailings dumps, which suggests there's probably still a lot of loose lead kicking around in the environment. The waste rock is supposedly sufficiently lead free that it's okay to process it into agricultural lime, but that strikes me as being one of those convenient fictions businesses and local governments tell to keep the peasants from freaking out. The Kid tells me there are old mining sites on the Mark Twain that are closed to the public due to the possibility of lead exposure; if a smelter that's been an abandoned ruin for decades is too risky for the public to go near, how safe can those mountains of waste rock be?

Hiking in St. Joe State Park
On the other hand, St. Joe State Park has many miles of ORV trails that utilize the tailings dumps from the St. Joe Mine. Would the state develop a trail system through the tailings if it wasn't safe? It's a mystery. . . I just know I have no burning desire to go tearing around on a four-wheeler when the trails are all looping around piles of waste from a lead mine.

St. Joe State Park was one of the other places we checked out. It is a lovely park with nice campgrounds and an extensive trail system. There's a paved trail for hikers and bicyclists, there are unpaved trails for mountain bikers and equestrians, and there are the ORV trails for people who don't mind breathing possible lead dust. The other trails don't go near the mine waste. The S.O. and I have applied to be VIPs in a Missouri state park in 2014; we put St. Joe down as an alternate choice if we're not able to get into the park we'd prefer. The park we'd prefer is more rural, farther away from major highways and close to Ozark National Scenic Riverways.

The other state park the Kid and I checked out was Mastodon State Historic Site. It was on the way to Kohl's so we figured what the heck -- you can see the park entrance gate from I-55 just south of Arnold so it's not very hard to find. Mastodon is an archeological and paleontological site; there's apparently an extensive bone bed with the remains of mega fauna (mastodons, giant ground sloths, dire wolves, etc.). The excavated area has been backfilled, of course, so you have to trust that the site map is accurate and you're not just standing on the concrete slab for an old station when you walk down from the museum to where the bone bed is supposedly located. The site became known for the mega fauna bones; after the bones had been sporadically excavated for decades, researchers found a Clovis point embedded in a mastodon bone. Until recently, the Clovis people were considered to be the earliest Paleo-Indians. Mastodon is interesting, but of course you can't help but wonder what all might have been found if the site's significance had been recognized before the area around it was so extensively developed. Of course, all that suburban development might be why the park was surprisingly busy for a Saturday morning in November; there were a number of families with little kids admiring the mastodon skeleton.

Eventually we decided to do the Kid a favor and get out from underfoot. For the return trip, we did do the scenic route. I could be wrong, but it's probably a bad sign when in order to get to that scenic route you end up driving due west for an hour when your final destination is located to the northeast. Remember the qualms mentioned quite a few paragraphs up? Turned out they were justified. The scenic route was over 100 miles and almost 5 hours longer. I have absolutely no doubt it would be a great drive in June or July, but southeast Iowa and southwest Wisconsin really don't look like much once it gets to be after 5 p.m. in November. They're pretty much the same mile after mile: Dark.

About the only highlight of the final four hours came while we were zipping through Madison on US-151 and passed the Octopus ("Many Hands to Serve You") carwash* where many lifetimes ago I labored as a dash waxer. The Octopus was looking good. I quite frankly was amazed it was still there, considering how much has changed around it. A small digression about changing times: when my roommate and I worked at the carwash, we made minimum wage. With that minimum wage, we rented a  nice fully furnished apartment in a good neighborhood and had plenty of money to spare for the various pursuits two young and carefree women indulged in back in the 1960s: clothes shopping, movies, hitting the various nightspots (and Madison, being a college town, had a lot of them). We even bought food without worrying too much about what the total would be when we got to the checkout. We never felt like we were especially deprived or struggling from payday to payday. I doubt that the minimum wage dash waxers at Octopus today are living as well now as Noel and I did back then.

And now we're home. As expected, the snow was not nice enough to melt while were gone. If anything, it got deeper. It looks like the Farmer's Almanac might right: it's going to be a long, cold winter in the upper Midwest. Time to start planning the next road trip, one that aims South toward warmer weather.

[*Fighting the temptation to head over to YouTube and look for a video. . .]


  1. I use to marathon drive - sometimes on a motorcycle - key up on no-doze and stop only for gas. Now 250 to 300 miles in a day is what I consider max.
    the Ol'Buzzard

  2. Same here, although I never used No-Doz. We'd do a thousand miles or more with no breaks except for food and rest rooms. Now we drive for an hour and emerge from the vehicle bitching about our aches and pains. Growing old isn't much fun, although I keep getting told it beats the alternative.


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