Fall trip: Ozarks & Mississippi River

We were able to take a short vacation this fall, thanks to the help of workers who took care of the farm for us. Like most of our local trips, we focused on a road trip exploring interesting landscapes and historical locations, with lots of opportunities for photography. Past short trips have included northwest Missouri, the Niangua River, Royals baseball, lots of birding days,Kirkwood by rail, north-central Missouri, and now the eastern Ozarks and Mississippi River corridor around St. Louis. We write up these trips partly to inspire others, especially newcomers to the area, to discover the rest of Missouri outside Columbia. Read on for a (mostly) photo essay of the diverse and interesting places we explored in just a couple days. Continue reading

Kirkwood by rail

Last Tuesday we took our first day off since late May. We were too tired to even take one of our normal road trips, and just wanted a good context to do & see something different while mostly relaxing and escaping the heat. So after getting up early to do milking & animal chores, we drove down to Jefferson City, and caught the morning train to Kirkwood (a suburb of St Louis), so we could indulge in our love of train travel while enjoying unique views of the Missouri River. Researching online, Kirkwood seemed like it had a nice downtown, worth spending a few hours in before heading back, so we went for it. This turned out to be a great, unusual, memorable day exploring interesting parts of Missouri, the type of day trip we love. Continue reading

North Missouri day trip

We don’t take many days off during the growing season, but when we do we often like to explore the back roads of rural Missouri to see what we can find. As farmers, landscape geologists, history buffs, and railfans there’s more than enough to keep us occupied. Such road trips let us sit down, listen to music, see scenery, and take lots of short walks/hikes that don’t tire us out, since the idea is NOT to expend energy. Past short trips have included NW Missouri, the Niangua River, Royals baseball, lots of birding days, and in mid-May this year, north-central Missouri. Continue reading

Birding day off

The first part of March was rough in some ways. The weather is certainly a mixed blessing and has been wearing us out; Daylight Savings Time messes with us too. We got a call from Trey at Red & Moe, one of our best restaurant customers, to say they’d be closing soon and thus wouldn’t be buying from us anymore (though we’ve since had better news). I fell through the prep shed’s rafters while working; it was my own fault for misplacing a foot and no harm was done (I have good reflexes), but was a harsh reminder that even a moment’s inattention could change everything. Joanna has been slaving away at organic paperwork, finishing just in time to get started on taxes, both of which tend to make us very cynical about the world given how much time and money is wasted on such needlessly complicated bureaucracy. We discovered that voles had eaten our entire remaining stock of in-ground overwintered parsnips and jerusalem artichokes, gutting a hoped-for March CSA distribution that wasn’t promised but would still have been nice to achieve. The continued heat made us worry about overwintered greens like spinach and kale bolting before we could get them to members. So when we realized we hadn’t taken a real day off since late January, we decided it was past time to do so and spent a warm, sunny Tuesday enjoying the Missouri outdoors on our own terms. Continue reading

Exploring the Niangua River valley

We enjoy short road trips, hopscotching around Missouri backroads to find interesting landscapes, locations, and views. Missouri is such a diverse state, we’ll never run out of worthwhile places to explore. Last fall we took a great overnight tour of NW Missouri, exploring a variety of state parks, conservation areas, good food, and more. This year, we headed southwest for an overnight trip to the Niangua River valley of west-central Missouri. The first day was a little odd, as things didn’t turn out quite as we hoped/expected, but the second day was near-perfect and sent us home feeling quite happy and refreshed.
Day 1, we got up before dawn, did animal chores, and hit the road as soon as we could, with the truck loaded up on sleeping pads, blankets, and good farm-sourced food. We take back roads as much as possible when we travel, as we hate and fear highways while much preferring the relaxation and scenery of normal roads. The extra time it takes to get somewhere is, in our view, more than paid back by lower risk and greater happiness. So after an enjoyable drive, we arrived at a Niangua outfitter to rent a canoe for the day.
The Niangua has a reputation as a party river during the summer, but we hoped it would be quieter in mid-October. Relative to normal, I guess it was, but there were still plenty of people around. The outfitter, who had promised us an 8-mile float until dark on the phone the day before, informed us on arrival that we could only do a 4-mile float and had 4 whole hours to do it in. So we took a very slow-paced float, pausing often to rest and watch birds, and hardly paddling at all except for one stretch of strong upstream wind. The river was still pretty populated, as we dodged oblivious fly fisherman at many riffles, eventually starting to bang our paddles on the canoe as we approached to avoid getting a backcast in the eye. We also paused often to let other floating parties pass by, trying to maintain some solitude. The scenery was pretty, the water nice and clear like a good Ozark river such that the fish-watching was as good as the bird-watching, but it was definitely the Niangua: a regular pattern of sunken beer cans along the bottom was an obvious reminder of the river’s dominant visitors, as were all the lures in the trees. It was nice to be in a canoe again, but it wasn’t the highlight of the trip.
With our shorter-than-expected float, we got off the river by late afternoon and headed for our overnight destination, Bennet Spring State Park. This was a new location for us, and we hoped it would be similar to Roaring River State Park, one of Joanna’s favorites which combines a trout hatchery with beautiful scenery and lots of good, remote hiking trails (we wrote about it here, toward the bottom). Bennet, though, felt like it belonged on the Niangua: packed with trout fisherman in expensive gear angling in the spring-fed channel for released fish, rampant screaming kids, highly developed features (the “park store” looked like a Bass Pro outlet; we couldn’t find a single book), and crowds of RVs with satellite dishes. We hiked a few of the shorter trails in the immediate spring/campground area and found them poorly maintained if not entirely neglected: badly signed/marked, with lots of ankle-threatening washouts and holes. We also didn’t see another person on these trails, despite the population density; neither did we see anyone else in the very well-done Nature Center. We shrugged, enjoyed a dinner of squash-and-leek lasgna, cabbage-pepper slaw, homemade rolls and more, before bedding down in the truck for a mercifully quiet night. Luckily I woke up the next morning before dawn, preventing the indignity of being rousted by the tornado-like “time to fish” siren.
To be fair, it’s great that state parks and other outlets provide lots of different ways for people to enjoy the Missouri outdoors. What we found on this day just wasn’t what we were looking for, any more than the long remote hike we took the next day would appeal to some others. 

 The next day, we needed to get away from people and chose a long hike into the hinterlands of Bennet, heading for an intriguing natural geologic feature miles up the valley. The trail led us through an enjoyable diversity of landscapes, ecosystems, and elevations, rambling from upland oak glades to stream-bottom forests, open fields, and lots of interesting rock outcrops. It still wasn’t well-marked and the printed trail map was poorly done and nearly worthless, but the trail itself was clearly visible and enjoyable. Photos above show the dry stream branch miles above Bennet Spring (which steals its water), and Joanna investigating a large and well-preserved stromatolite in the stream bed.

We encountered plenty of birds, including large flocks of robins & yellow-rumped warblers, along with clouds of crows and vultures more than 50 strong. This baby three-toed box turtle was a highlight, along with various butterflies and more on a gorgeous warm fall day. Then we arrived at our destination, the Natural Tunnel:

This glorious feature tunnels beneath a limestone ridge for more than 200′, forming a cutoff for the stream  branch which used to circle well around this ridge before typical Ozark karst erosion developed a shortcut (similar to our local Rock Bridge State Park but longer and more remote). Now the old stream channel is an abandoned bed, and the stream plunges through this instead. We had the place to ourselves, and spent plenty of time exploring and photographing it. Here’s my favorite shot:

We did eventually have to leave, and headed back along a different trail, which offered even more scenic, ecological, and geologic variety, including this impressive stream bluff:

 Heading north for home, we intentionally took a lot of back roads, exploring the remote parts of the Niangua valley that aren’t overrun by beer- and trout-fueled tourism. A good map, good instincts, and patience can reward you with very neat finds in almost any part of rural Missouri, and this was no exception. Small dirt roads gave us this blufftop view of the river, and these well-preserved cross-beds in sandstone.

Oak-prairie glades and savannas are common, on steep hillsides and valley bottoms, as the back roads wind through a mix of private and conservation lands. We’d particularly like to return to the 7,000+ acre Lead Mine Conservation Area, which we couldn’t do much more than poke our noses into at a few points. It’s also worthwhile to have some interesting guides and references; one of our favorites is Geological Wonders and Curiosties of Missouri, available from the Missouri DNR online store. This book is old and somewhat outdated, and many of the features described and listed are on private land where you can’t (or shouldn’t) get to them. But they’re still fun to read about, and enough are findable with some skill and patience that the book is a worthwhile asset. For example, at one point we noticed some unusually folded rocks in a roadcut, looked up the area, and confirmed Joanna’s rough memory that there were several suspected meteorite impact structures nearby.  Cool.

The entire afternoon, I was searching for one thing in particular: a good open view of the overall landscapes. The Ozarks are difficult to photograph well; in person you can see and feel the rolling topography, the glades and forests and open ground, and feel the remoteness and variety of the ground as you wind through it on dirt roads and rugged trails. As one writer noted, what the Ozarks lack in elevation they make up in steepness. But a camera’s lens is almost always too small to convey the sense of place, and ends up looking like just another forest or hill. Then we rounded a hilltop bend on an obscure one-lane gravel track, crossed a cattle guard, and hit the brakes in satisfaction. A quick hike up into an unposted ridgeline bluestem pasture, and I had my Ozark scene. Prairie grasses, rock outcrops, hills in fall color, small farms in the bottoms, and a nice limestone bluff along the Niangua in the background. Here was the Ozarks we’d been enjoying all day, captured in one perfect location.

 I could have stayed on that ridge for hours, but the sun was dropping west and we had to get home by dark to take care of farm animals. So we wound north a while longer, eventually emerging onto “better” roads that took us north, across the Missouri River at Boonville, and back into the familiar terrain of home as the sun set. A thoroughly enjoyable day, and one that nicely balanced the deep sense of place we get from rarely leaving our own farm. This is the Missouri we love.

Our deep thanks to the friends who did evening and morning animal chores so we could be gone overnight.

Union Pacific steam along the Missouri River

Next week, we’ll all have the rare chance to see real history in action. The Union Pacific Railroad maintains a few historic steam locomotives in operating condition, and sends them around the country on occasional goodwill (and good P.R.) tours to introduce/remind us all of the role railroads have played in American history. At the end of May, locomotive #844, a huge beast of a freight locomotive built in 1944, will arrive in Kansas City and then proceed along the UP’s Missouri River line through Boonville & Jeff City en route to St. Louis and then Arkansas. Here’s #844 passing through Utah under its own power (turn up the volume):

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4mCw9v9X5YQ]

For true railfans and history buffs like us, the chance to see & hear a large, live steam locomotive travelling along the Missouri river, its sounds & whistle echoing off the bluffs, is potentially a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This is a chance to see a really important but very rare piece of American history, a fascinating and captivating experience. This is not your average small tourist train steam engine; this is a workhorse steamer that is incredibly expensive and complex to operate, and well worth the experience. The locomotive will be on display at Union Station, KC, on Monday May 30, will pass through western & central Missouri on Tuesday May 31 (including stops in Blackwater & Boonville), be on display in downtown Jeff City on June 1, and head for St. Louis on June 2. Full schedule, with expected ETAs, available here.

We’ll be taking Tuesday off to chase the train from western Missouri down to Jeff City, taking photos and videos from some extremely scenic locations. Hopefully some of you will find a way to steal a few hours and see this incredible piece of history for yourselves.

Ozark Winter Travel Part II: North Central Arkansas

Part II in our January off-farm travels; read Part I here.

After spending a day relaxing with Joanna’s parents in NW Arkansas, we headed southeast toward the core target of our trip: Buffalo National River, deeper in the Arkansas Ozarks and a very familiar area from Joanna’s upbringing. Taking some back roads where possible, we enjoyed the rugged scenery highlighted by traces of snow.

We spent the afternoon hiking a long loop around and over Rush Mountain, home to a once-booming mine district. Starting in the 1880s, large deposits of zinc drew miners and companies to this remote area, lacing the hillsides with mine shafts, roads, buildings, and more. Most traces are still there, a cruel temptation to two geologists who nevertheless know better than to sneak in:
The road into the Rush area drops steeply from a nearby ridge line, and hadn’t been plowed since the recent snowfall. We considered it for a minute, and decided that the presence of other straight tire tracks leading down (or up) and the fact that the temperature hadn’t risen above freezing since the snow fell, meant the road would provide sufficient traction. With the help of 4WD, it was no problem in either direction, and we had the valley to ourselves.

The town of Rush still contains numerous buildings remaining from the collapse of the local mining industry, starting in the 1920s. We enjoyed poking around various foundations and remnants, such as this blacksmith shop:

Overall, the Ozarks are very difficult to photograph at a wide scale. From higher elevations, broad panoramas of river valleys, sheer limestone bluffs, and steep topography are clear to the naked eye, but are mostly seen through screens of trees that render cameras useless. So if you haven’t been here, you’ll just have to imagine the enjoyment of following slopes and ridge lines through the seemingly endless rugged terrain. With the light recent snowfall, every subtlety of the topography stood out sharply in the clear sun, a bonus for our landscape-trained eyes.

That evening we headed for our chosen accommodations, a small cabin at Buffalo Point, on a high ridge overlooking the Buffalo River itself. If you look closely in the photo below, you’ll see several small buildings on the far ridge, though our cabin was set just to the left along the ridge without a direct river view. Same difference. Note also in the photo below just how low the river is for this time of year; the huge exposed gravel bars are impressive.

This cabin was perfect for us, essentially one room with a small but adequate kitchen complete with stove, oven, and fridge. This latter never worked while we were there, but the outdoor temperatures hovered around freezing during the day and hit the teens at night, allowing us to keep all our food in coolers in the truck with no ill effects. They must have been spending a fortune on electricity, as the one electric heater seemed to have two settings: sauna or off.

The next day, we headed for the Blanchard Springs area, a portion of the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest including an impressive cavern system, beautiful flowing spring, and excellent hiking. We spent the morning taking the only winter cave tour, which turned out to be one of the best-run tours we’ve ever taken. Our guide, a Forest Service employee, was thoroughly knowledgeable about cave history and biology, clearly referencing various studies she’d been involved in recently and generally being professional and well-informed. We’ve taken many cheesy and uneducated cave tours, mostly in private caves, but including a real doozy in a Missouri State Park in which our guide attempted to explain how different layers of the cave walls correlated to The Flood (yes, that one). It was a real thrill to follow a professional through a beautiful cave, and we took our time enjoying each others’ company (we got the sense she enjoyed us as much as we did her).

The road into the valley was closed to vehicles due to snow/ice, though it was much clearer than the unblocked road into Rush. Odd to see the USFS more concerned about road conditions than the NPS. Thus we decided to hike down instead, and had a great time. After eating a light lunch at the truck, we secured some basic maps from the cave staff and headed off for a long loop hike down into the Sylamore Creek valley. Reaching the valley floor, we first headed up a side branch to the outflow of Blanchard Springs, which drains the cavern system in a very nice setting:
Following this, we headed off on our loop, which slowly climbed the ridge overlooking Sylamore Creek while offering excellent though unphotographable views of the region. This took the rest of the day, under perfect sun on powdery snow, and was just a lovely way to spend a day. Oh, yes, and we stopped by the impressive rock shelter near the Blanchard Springs campground. Appearances are deceiving; the opening is around 30′ high and that’s a huge bluff above it.
The following day, we left directly from our cabin to hike down in to the Panther Creek valley, heading for the Indian Rock House, a giant bluff shelter. On the way, we thoroughly enjoyed some of the more subtle geologic features, such as this sculpted creek bottom:
And this freshly-forming ice pile at the base of a waterfall, mimicking the development of cave features in fast-forward:
We took no photos at Indian Rock House, as we’d forgotten to change camera batteries and it was dead by then. I don’t think we could capture it anyway; the feature is a truly massive bluff overhang that feels the size of an airplane hangar. Facing south, it was warmly lit by the brilliant sun, and we could relax against a rock spire and eat a needed snack. On one side of the shelter, a cave stream emerges briefly into the open before flowing back into an underground passage, providing the soothing rush of water echoing throughout the chamber. We explored a short distance into several small caves leading off in various directions, but not far enough for concern or to disturb any bats deeper in their recesses. I even Googled other images of the shelter, but found nothing that remotely captures its size or the sense of awe you feel standing within it.

From here, we hiked up and over a steep ridge to the entrance of Bat Cave, which was impressive and tempting but also closed in winter (as most caves are) due to concerns about disturbing hibernating bats and the concerning spread of White Nose Disease. We didn’t like the route of the trail up, so took our own route back and thoroughly enjoyed seeing a different and little-visited landscape.

We finished this loop with time left in the day, so headed down to the Buffalo River itself to enjoy walking the gravel bars. We found a small rock shelter along this bluff (below), out of the wind and warmed by the sun, where we settled in and spent several hours reading, sipping tea from our thermos, and snacking. Despite an overall air temperature around freezing, this little pocket was so warm we took off half our layers and ended up napping. Several kingfishers were active along the river, and we enjoyed listening to and watching these neat birds.
This was our last night, and we headed for home the next day. These three days and three nights in the Arkansas Ozarks were nearly perfect, though. Ideal weather for hiking, with clear skies and temps no higher than freezing, making hiking plenty comfortable but keeping everyone else away; we saw effectively no one for three days. Light snow on the ground to bring out the topography; active birds & wildlife foraging; a diverse mixture of hikes, landscapes, and history. Despite our cabin’s mild flaws (broken fridge, tiny shower with head at chest height, hellish heater), it was cozy and perfect for our purposes, making cooking good meals a breeze and offering plenty of comfortable settings for relaxing reading (I finished Volume 3 of Will Durant’s History of Civilization and started Volume 4 of Dumas Malone’s biography of Thomas Jefferson). Just a perfect finish to the trip.

We’re glad to be home, though, back in our own bed and back to work on our long winter to-do list. The weather has been seriously wintry ever since we returned, forcing our focus onto the indoor tasks. With over 8″ of snow outdoors, up to 5″ more forecast through the weekend, and temp not going above freezing for the forseeable future, we just work on the indoor stuff and hope February will clear up some. Though given how cloudy it’s been for the last few months, I’m going to have to start taking down dead trees for firewood within a few weeks.

Good to be home.

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.

Farm wedding

Sunday was one of the best days of the year for us. We attended the wedding of two close and valued friends, on their lovely farm in the hills south of the Missouri River. We are alike in many ways, the four of us, two couples dreaming of an independent rural life and working to make it happen. We started our respective farms at similar times, building structures with cedar cut from our farms, helping each other out when possible despite the hour’s drive. We both chose organic certification as a means of notifying the world of our ethics and practices on the farm. Even our farms are similar, both set in narrow valleys with fields along the bottoms and woods/pastures along the higher slopes. And like us, they chose to celebrate the best day of their lives on their farm with a spread of friends, family, and local foods that did justice to their choices.

We gathered on a high hayfield, with the distant Missouri River bluffs gleaming in the fall sun. The ceremony, with its laughter and its tears, captured perfectly the energy and love that goes into such a commitment. One line from a reading captured my attention wholly; to paraphrase, “Love is not a matter of finding the right person, but being the right person.” That’s right; you have to earn it, not just receive it. Another reading, so familiar to me that I had not thought about it in years, was the simple words of the famous Shaker song:

Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,
Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

To hear these words, spoken simply and carried on the drifting north wind across the meadow, struck me almost as a blow in their distillation of what we (both couples) are working to achieve.

Afterwards, the crowd of friends, family, and neighbors gathered in their cedar barn for food, simple live music, and fellowship. The spread was virtually all local, sourced from a who’s who of regional farms (we supplied kale, lettuce, peppers, and chard), perfectly prepared by an insanely hard-working young woman working to build a catering business on truly good food. We stayed until long after dark, talking with folks and watching the dancing; for us the chance to put up our feet was more valuable than a chance to burn more calories. As Joanna remarked, we never stay so long at parties, but rarely are we so happy and comfortable away from our own farm.

It was a wonderful day, and we’re intensely grateful to share rare moments like this when much that’s good in life is distilled into a single experience. Thanks to our friends for including us, and may their future hold all that they hope and work for.

Happy Anniversary, Us

Thursday marked our wedding anniversary, and we really felt the need to do something fun. We haven’t gone away overnight together since a short visit to Joanna’s parents last winter, and have been feeling increasingly burned out toward the end of this difficult year.

We also needed to make a run to Smithville, MO (north of Kansas City) to pick up our order of new blueberry plants, and decided it would make sense to combine these two goals into one. The original plan was to spend the night in Kansas City proper and enjoy the city’s food & parks to relax in a completely different environment. However, with a few days to go we decided that the city would still not be relaxing enough, as well as inevitably being expensive. So we made some last-minute changes to the itinerary and followed our favorite mode of travel; poking around backroads in rural Missouri to explore Conservation Areas, State Parks, small towns, and all the interesting things you find off highways. It ended up being one of the best trips we’ve ever taken together; everything went right and we found a lot of really amazing places and things. Here’s what we did:

WEDNESDAY

Heading northwest from the farm, we passed through Fayette & Glasgow before heading north into the core pecan-growing regions around Brunswick. We’d hoped to find some pecan stands open, but there was little activity and judging from the various groves we passed, most pecans are still on the trees. The river bottoms around Brunswick are beautiful, with scattered pecan groves dotting the rich fields active with farmers happily harvesting corn & soy in this mercifully dry weather. We explored some quiet back roads, and found a series of pecan trees overhanging the road and just starting to drop nuts:

And so we were able to gather a nice collection of fresh, raw Missouri pecans without trespassing or stealing. Here they are in their native state, showing the outer husk that opens to release the nuts, which are still encased in their inner shell. We cracked a few and found them delicious, and will use the rest for a special meal later.
Next we headed further north for a trio of related natural areas: Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Fountain Grove Conservation Area, and Pershing State Park. The first two are managed primarily for migratory bird habitat, and we were hoping to catch some early fall migration populations (we’ve been seeing migratory songbirds passing through the farm, as well as wood ducks). We didn’t see much in the way of waterfowl, but saw a couple good raptors. We’re fairly certain we saw a Golden Eagle riding thermals over Swan Lake, and that’s a rare sighting for the refuge. It was a large bird with slightly upturned wing tips and two-toned coloration on the back. We also saw several Northern Harriers during the course of the day, including one that we followed for about half a mile as it flew and hovered over a bottomland field. The weather was gorgeous and it was simply thrilling to explore these areas on a perfect sunny fall day.

Next up, Pershing State Park exceeded our expectations. It preserves a rare northern Missouri landscape, an un-channelized river bottom with associated wet bottomland forests and the largest (and only?) significant remaining tract of native wet prairie, over 800 acres. We followed a well-constructed boardwalk through the wetlands and out to the prairie edge, which doesn’t photograph well but was lovely with a light fall breeze blowing across to the horizon.
We drooled over the 6+ mile hiking trail that follows Locust Creek down to connect with Fountain Grove CA, allowing longer backpacking trips into the Conservation Area (another time) and enjoyed scouting a nice mixed flock of birds in the woods on the way back.

Next up was Locust Creek Covered Bridge State Park, the longest of four remaining covered bridges in Missouri, built in 1868. As a history & transportation buff, I can’t get enough of exploring 19th century technology and customs, so had a great time exploring this well-preserved site. Especially interesting was investigating the Howe Truss construction, with which I’m familiar from illustrations of period railroad bridges but had never seen up close before (or used in a covered bridge). It’s quite different from Union Covered Bridge in northeast Missouri, built with a Burr Arch truss (I’m possibly the only one reading this who cares, though).
Throughout both days, we indulged in our second-favorite observational pastime after bird-watching: train-watching. North-central Missouri is home to a number of busy and diverse rail lines, including the seriously busy BNSF mainline from Chicago to Kansas City, a parallel secondary line, another busy Norfolk Southern route from Moberly west, a Union Pacific line, and the somewhat busy Kansas City Southern line through Marshall and Glasgow. So we did our best to parallel and stop along these routes, eating lunches and snacks where we could sit and wait for trains, and in general had very good luck, such as this freight we caught up with west of Sumner, MO.

By late in the day, it was time to stop exploring and head west toward Smithville, where our next big treat awaited, dinner at the famous Justus Drugstore restaurant, a premier example of farm-table done right. We truck-camped in the town’s basic campground, paying $12 for the privilege of rolling out a few foam pads and sleeping bags in the back of the truck, thus saving the rest of the money we’d have blown on an urban hotel for use at Justus. We spent 2.5 hours enjoying possibly the best meal we’ve ever eaten out, savoring every bite and talking to several of the staff about our farm and farm-table in general. More about this meal sometime if I get around to it. Around 10pm, we crawled into the truck and spent a warm & comfortable night sleeping off the food, wine, and thrill of a fantastic day off.

THURSDAY

It didn’t frost Thursday morning, but was nicely chilly when we cracked the truck cap open. A relaxing breakfast of homemade coffee cake, hot tea, and an Uprise Bakery cinnamon roll got us started, after which we drove the short few miles to Waters Blueberry Farm and picked up a load of young blueberry plants to add to our growing orchard area (there are four already established). That accomplished, we headed for our other major destination of the trip, Watkins Woolen Mill State Park.

Now this place…this blew us away. I’d found it online doing research on 19th century Missouri mills, and had had it on my to-do list for some time. It’s a homestead and farm established in the early 1800s, grown to a prominent diversified farm & industry, including sawmill, woolen mill, grocery store, and all-around self-sufficient. The buildings and history have been remarkably preserved, including the 3-story woolen mill with a spectacular collection of original equipment inside. The grounds are immaculately preserved, the visitor’s center is excellent, and the staff seem to take very seriously their mission of preserving and interpreting the entire site as an example of a real 19th century self-sufficient yet prosperous farm. You might imagine our interest, as both history buffs and the rare modern Americans who do many of the same things this family did in 1860. Here’s the mill and mule pasture:

And here are the house & heirloom gardens.

I could spend all day raving about this place, but will stop. This should be a required visit for every Missourian interested in their rural/agricultural history, and for anyone remotely interested in such things. Really a fantastic experience, with a tour guide for the mill who had clearly done his homework and held a large store of useful knowledge (I’ve been on far more NPS or MO State Park tours where the guide knows little more than what they read in the brochure, if that). The associated park, with campground & long hiking trails, beckons us back for the many days it would take to do this place true justice. Make a point to go there.

By the time we finished with Watkins, it was time to start heading for home. We snuck in a bit more train-watching, parking in downtown Hardin, MO, along the joint BNSF-NS line, and home to a modern loop-loading grain elevator we’d hoped to see in operation but no luck. Lunch this day, as on the day before, was a collection of interesting cheeses & crackers from World Harvest (our anniversary treat to ourselves) with home-baked bread, pickles, and more. We stopped a few more times along this line as we followed it east, and logged a respectable amount of trains, representing every major railroad in Missouri except Kansas City Southern, and I had hopes of checking that off, too, before the end.

Knowing that it was harvest season, and that every elevator in the region had a non-stop stream of grain trucks pulling through, we knew there was an especially good chance of seeing action at towns with elevators. Slater (north of Marshall) has long been on our list as a good train-watching spot, given its small yard and multiple elevators, but we’ve always just passed through on our way to and from Kansas City, and never stopped to wait. This time, on the way home, our trip had a perfect conclusion upon arriving in Slater to find a KCS freight picking up cars from the elevator. We hung out by the old depot for a while watching the switching, then paced the train east toward Glasgow, arriving just in time to head out to Glasgow’s river overlook for a great view of the long freight crossing the old Missouri River bridge (it’s been a life goal of mine since moving to MO to see a train on that historic bridge).

Thus satisfied, we headed for home perfectly happy. Thanks to our friends who did morning & evening chores, all the animals were happy and nothing was amiss. We did the normal chores, ate a simple dinner, and went to bed still gushing about how perfectly enjoyable, relaxing, and interesting that simple two-day trip was. And the only money we really had to spend was gas (unavoidable), World Harvest (good local investment), and Justus Drugstore (Oh, heavens, worth every penny). I’m still buzzed, and it was great to return home Thursday night to the knowledge that we weren’t going to turn around and face the stress of market right away, but could spend the next week focusing on important farm projects.

Happy Anniversary, us. This was one to remember.