Ozark Winter Travel Part I: Southwest Missouri

In mid-January, we were fortunate enough to take a week off and travel a bit through southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. This was the longest time we’d been away from the farm together in over two years, and was thoroughly worthwhile. This was possible in large part through two friends who were happy to farm-sit, taking their own mini-vacation for a snowed-in week here; our deep thanks to them. After the enthusiastic response from our short fall trip’s writeup, it seemed worth writing up this longer experience as well. There are so many interesting and enjoyable back corners of our region to explore and enjoy; to make this manageable I’m dividing it into two parts (Missouri and Arkansas).

We began by attending the Great Plains Growers Conference in St. Joseph, Missouri, at which we’d been invited to give a talk on our methods of analyzing crop choices. Although “Assessing the Economics of Crop Choices on a Startup Market Farm” was scheduled for the last session on the last day, we had a nearly full room (50 people?) and a lot of good comments and discussion afterwards. In brief, we presented a spreadsheet-based model for comparing the relative profitability of potential market crops that could help small/start-up farms like ours make more informed decisions. We’re currently working on writing up a version for publication in Growing For Market, a monthly journal for market farmers.

We left St. Joe late Saturday afternoon, and headed for Kansas City, where we intended to have dinner at Bluebird Bistro, a very local-farm-based cafe/restaurant on the edge of downtown. The meal did not disappoint, as both my vegetable curry and Joanna’s ravioli were perfectly done, with complex but not overdone flavors and no trace of screwy seasonings or additives. Joanna’s salad appetizer was superb, while my roasted beet bruschetta were mildly disappointing. The bread was too soft (bruschetta should be like toast), and the beet topping (while good) was spread thickly in sections but completely lacking in others. It appeared that they’d taken a very large piece of bread (almost like Texas Toast), mounded the topping in the middle, then sliced it like pizza. Quite attractive, but impractical for eating as one had to nibble lone bread along half of each slice to get to the then-too-thick topping on the rest. Bruschetta should be thin, crusty bread with the topping spread evenly along it.

My only other complaint was the service; despite being far from busy overall, our waitress was continually rushing us. She kept pressing for an order even when we explained we were in no rush, brought our main dishes out when we weren’t even halfway through our appetizers, and prominently deposited the dessert menu with us halfway through our main courses. It was annoying, but didn’t detract from the excellent food and the clear commitment to year-round local supplies (they were hosting a large dinner soon at which diners could meet & greet some of their winter farmers, a long list). With a few forgivable quicks, this was excellent and well worth a visit the next time you’re in KC.

Staying at a cheap motel south of KC that night, we headed for Prairie State Park in the morning. This had long been on our list, as the largest remaining tract of tallgrass prairie in the state. It was a raw day, with a bitter wind gusting from the northwest over thoroughly frozen ground, which simply meant we covered more ground hiking fast to stay warm. The winter landscape is beautiful, a sea of bluestem and other plants flattening in the wind, while an impressive population of hawks and other birds stayed active enough to be seen (Joanna birding, below).

One herd of the park’s bison were clearly visible on the next ridge over, along with a lone male in the opposite direction. We gave these impressive animals a wide berth but enjoyed watching them through good binoculars. A Northern Harrier gave us an especially good demonstration of its ability to slowly drift and hover low over open land, scanning for prey. We were nearly frozen by the time we finished our long circular hike through the eastern portion of the park, but it was a wonderful experience to traverse so much natural prairie and experience something close to the original nature of much of Missouri.

Human history remains in and around the park, as well. The Missouri, Kansas, & Texas railroad’s abandoned mainline bisects the park, offering a forlorn yet beautiful scene as the grasses slowly reclaim it. This could be the southern extension of the Katy Trail State Park rail-trail system if a short section of the line south of Clinton, MO, were not still in use by the Missouri & Northern Arkansas, a modern short-line railroad. Above, we’re looking north toward Clinton, Sedalia, and eventually Boonville.

Southwest Missouri and southeast Kansas were once major mining districts, and we passed many abandoned strip mines for coal and other minerals in the area. They don’t photograph well, but are now impressively geometric sets of lakes and ridges much like those throughout central and northern Missouri at places like Finger Lakes State Park, practically in our own backyard. More information on the coal mining history of eastern Kansas can be found here; a quick trip with Google Earth is suggested as well (look for Mulberry, KS).

We continued south to Carthage, Missouri, then and still a center of mining and quarrying activity. Beautiful limestone blocks are quarried here, and you could tell long before reaching the city by the memorable stonework remaining in many barns and houses on the back-roads, built back when it mattered that farms look good. The courthouse in downtown Carthage has to be one of the prettiest buildings in Missouri; view it on the city’s home page (upper left).

Carthage was also home to an early Civil War battle, in which a badly outnumbered Union force dispatched from St. Louis fought a nearly 24-hour running battle with a much larger Confederate force led by the secessionist Governor of Missouri. The Union forces retreated over ten miles toward Carthage, breaking through every attempt to surround them, finally fighting street-by-street through the city as the day wore on. Eventually they reached the low line of bluffs just southeast of downtown, on which they mounted cannon in a last-ditch attempt to cover their retreat down the adjacent road:

As night came, this stand held, and the Union forces escaped amazingly unharmed into the night. Both sides could claim victory, as the larger Confederate forces had removed the only obstacle blocking their rendezvous with another force moving north from Arkansas, while the Union had avoided what would have been a disastrous story of true defeat. One of those small, yet significant local battles that affect the course of history but are mostly forgotten. Battle of Carthage State Historic Site is well worth a visit for those interested in this period of history.

Finally, we headed for Roaring River State Park, where we finally left the plains and descended into the Ozarks proper. Roaring River is a large spring, normally averaging 20 million gallons of outflow a day; a large MDC hatchery uses the spring to raise 250,000 rainbow trout annually. However, unlike central and northern Missouri, southern Missouri has been exceedingly dry over the past year, such that at the entrance to the spring (below) we were amazed to see water actually flowing in reverse back into the spring from the holding pool beyond. Joanna grew up just across the Arkansas border and has been here many, many times, but had never seen that before. We found a hatchery employee who simply shook his head and lamented the large numbers of fish they were losing; the hatchery was having to pump water up into the spring from the river just to keep water levels high enough to preserve even small quantities of fish. . Too bad we couldn’t even out our own weather patterns with them.

Roaring River is also home to some great hiking; we took a short jaunt up to the Devil’s Kitchen, a long-known rock formation that used to resemble a large room before suddenly collapsing in the ’80s; Joanna remembers the excitement that surrounded this event. Now it’s an impressively tilted pile of limestone blocks that are great fun to scramble around on:
From here, we continued south across the Arkansas line, heading for a brief visit with Joanna’s parents before heading deeper into the Ozarks toward the Buffalo National River. Our time in Arkansas will be covered in Part II.

One last note, as I won’t have room in the next piece. Being ourselves, we brought all our food and had a wonderful week’s worth of farm-based travel food. Sausages, bacon, eggs, meat, yogurt, cheese, jams, frozen soups, bread dough, canned tomatoes, applesauce, pickles, dried applies, sweet potatoes, and much more formed the basis of a week’s worth of delightful meals that cost us very little and were far better than we could have found otherwise (Bluebird excepted). It’s not hard at all to bring your own food, and we get great satisfaction from the self-reliance and quality of the results.

2 thoughts on “Ozark Winter Travel Part I: Southwest Missouri

  1. Sounds like a lovely trip already. My main response, though, as tangential as it may be, is that you should spend some time, perhaps in Part III, talking about how you used your farm food. Soups are reasonably obvious, but for others interested in travelling with good food it might be good insight…

  2. Joshua,Fair idea. I'll see if I can reconstruct exactly what we did. In general, we partly used lots of precooked/prepared items that are easy to reheat and/or eat cold, and partly planned the trip to have access to a kitchen most of the time (as you'll see in Part II). However, even without a kitchen this is pretty doable as more and more motels have microwaves and minifridges; when Joanna still worked for the USGS and was sent to remote areas for a week or more at a time, we simply sent her with a week's worth of premade food in a cooler which could easily be reheated as needed. Those experiences were what really got us used to premaking and handling travel food.