Up at dawn and gone. The night had passed blessedly uneventful minus ruffians, raccoons, foundering horses or caterwauling whistles leaving them refreshed and encouraged what with Arkansas now within their reach. Crossing a border however intangible never fails to create a sense of unequivocal progress as anyone who’s traversed eastern Colorado, the Texas panhandle or anywhere in Oklahoma will attest. Sadie’s transit through Missouri would be a short one, and each step of the journey an unfolding of what seemed an exotic and utterly foreign land with its own disparate cultures, architecture, landforms and unrecognizable flora and fauna.
They rolled early into Joplin on Main Street. It was a city on the move, much of it vertical with each new business or Victorian mansion vying for altitudinal bragging rights. The city was founded on lead and zinc mining that left 75 percent of its footprint undermined by hundreds of miles of tunnels, shafts and chambers some of which continue to collapse to the detriment of the overlying infrastructure. Within a short span of its genesis it was hailed as the lead and zinc mining capital of the world, and Main Street the epicenter of its booming opulence. The street was famous for the three-story House of Lords saloon whose various pleasures and iniquities were relegated each to its own floor. Trolley lines embroidered Main Street beneath a dizzying web of cables and rigging. Joplin was fabulously rich and prosperous, its streets bustling and hectic, and one of Charles Chambers’s horses not at all prepared for the unexpected activity.
“We branched off east when we struck the street car lines,” Sadie wrote. Charles Chambers found a trader and swapped his team of spotted ponies for a blue mare and some “boot,” a term once used to denote cash and now considered archaic. According to legends (or tall tales) the designation derived from the method—or, more specifically, the location—used by cowboys to store excess cash after successful horsetrading endeavors.
They traveled east and departed the city passing between twin outlying hills known as Moonshine and Swindle. The elevation gently dropped toward Turkey Creek though the land had been so utterly uprooted that it resembled a moonscape of craters, quarries, diggings, pits, excavations and mounds of unearthed materials in all their sundry hues, each encircled by shacks and clapboard structures of dubious permanence. The cloying smoke of smelters fogged the air. What is now a modern metropolis was a half-formed wasteland.
“We came through Duenweg and Pierre,” Sadie wrote, the latter seemingly expurgated from the historical record. “Duenweg was all zinc gravel dunes and miners shacks. The soil is black on top for about a foot then it is small rock and red dirt. We saw loads of ore.”
Our own passage through the metropolitan area was largely on the northern fringes where cloned strip malls and myopic two-acre ranchettes fabricated a tedious panorama of hackneyed sameness. Gone were the mines and the tottering shacks, the pocks and scars paved over under a sea of concrete, curbing, turn lanes, fast food joints, gas stations and, since we were in Missouri, churches. The latest iteration in urban planning, that of anchoring Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid or Valu-Rite chains to prominent intersections, contradicts logic to disclose the inevitable evolution of an anesthetized society of rats. If suburbia can be said to have a singular defining characteristic it is the irrelevance of creativity and originality. Block after block, mile after endless mile of indistinguishable mediocrity and interchangeability, uniformity the new Holy of Holies, with the same polished SUV with the same blonde-haired soccer mom on the same corner waiting to turn onto the same wretched stretch of road.
I’ve been told that my view of cities is unduly harsh. While there’s some truth in it there are also underlying reasons most of which revolve around almost three decades of a career that alternated between the homes of millionaires and the deepest, darkest reaches of the inner city ghetto, and whose streets and alleyways I nightly wander in my nightmares. Fortunately for those like me who can no longer stomach the excesses and inanities of metropolitan life, America’s most underrated freedom grants us the unfettered right to live wherever we want (and can afford), which is why I now live in a small prairie town.
Once Sadie and her cohorts passed beyond the boundaries of Duenweg and ourselves beyond the clutches of Joplin’s farthest influence, the land rolled like ocean waves, verdant and green, but it was different land. The vegetation was different, the soil different, the rocks different. The Ozark Mountains, actually a riven plateau with four distinct physiographic regions, thrusts up through limestone and dolostone bedrock to form seamed and weathered outcrops the color of hardened ash. Shadowed forests of dogwood, oak, pecan, sassafras and cedar huddle around clearings and pastures of big bluestem, Indian and porcupine grass and everywhere the trickle of freeflowing streams. Like Sadie I kept rubbernecking to scrutinize the unfamiliar vegetation, admittedly riskier behavior at 65 miles per hour.
Sadie was entranced with the unfurling of the Ozarks. “We have seen lots of nice land and the nicest of timber,” she wrote that evening after they made camp. “We have had gravel roads all day until just this evening. We have seen fine corn and plenty of pebbles about the size of your fist. We saw one log house. We have had a very crooked road to follow the last few miles.”
From here on crooked would be the definitive term for the path they would take. Not so our own which was arrow-straight once we merged onto the interstate toward Mansfield, or mostly so, a detour in Springfield sending us on a tangent and lane closures threatening my sanity. For a city pervaded with every sort of Americanized religious institution, Springfield’s arterials were an unholy mess. When I wasn’t seething, blaspheming or calling down inventively dire calamities on a cosmic scale, I placidly studied the revealed sociocultural indicators of Missourian mores like an amateur sleuth. An amused sleuth to be sure, for from the anarchic proliferation of billboards defiling the otherwise lovely countryside, some of staggering proportions, it was apparent that Missourians are besotted with sex, redemption and explosive entertainment. For every Jesus billboard there was a subsequent larger one notifying an upcoming porn shop (Get off now!), and two for fireworks enterprises the size of small rural communities. It always comes down to finishing on a high note.
(To be continued)