Day 1- Colorado Springs to Dodge City, Kansas
We headed a bit south, and then a long way east on the last Friday of June. For our drive out to visit family in Ohio and Michigan, we would take the scenic route through eastern Colorado, Kansas, and Missouri, before joining thousands of other cars on a soulless interstate for the final stretch to our destination. Our detour would add only about 4 hours to a 20 hour drive, but offered hopes of seeing the Great Plains and Ozarks a bit more intimately. Because of the luxury of being off from work for the summer, I had plenty of time to prepare for our trip in advance- mostly searching out and downloading new and location specific podcasts (These Ozark Hills and Ozark Mysteries), and even going a bit old school with some freshly burned CDs, my favorite aptly named “Ozark Mix 2019” (an eclectic mix of old school Ozark bluegrass, my favorite Body Pump hits, and Tiësto).
We left on a warm and sunny Friday evening, after an early dinner, somehow avoiding much of the last minute chaos and stress that usually accompanies packing up the car while simultaneously keeping the house clean with little kids. Our route through eastern Colorado and Kansas would (or should have… more on that later) follow Route 50, through Pueblo, Colorado, and Coolridge and Dodge City, Kansas. If those Kansas towns sound familiar to you, you must be as big a fan of National Lampoon’s Vacation as I am.
Dee-ee-eep river, my home is over Jordan!
For those not in the know, Coolridge is that small town in the middle of nowhere Kansas where Cousin Eddie lives in that old farmhouse with his ever growing family, and Dodge City is where Clark gets shot at for calling the old timer bartender “yellow belly” or something to that effect. Oh yeah, we were going to do it all, Griswald style, in our own Volvo version of the station wagon (minus, you know, the dead dog behind the car and great aunt on the roof, because that would just be messed up). I wanted to do it all- share a drink with some Kansas outlaws, swim in the Black River, get lost in the Ozark hills, hear the banjos play… (okay, maybe not that last part).
Our first stop was just a bit under 3 hours from home, at John Martin Reservoir State Park. We didn’t know the area, and picked probably the most obscure way to reach the shoreline, but were rewarded with complete solitude, minus a curious herd of cattle, looking like they were ready call it a night, plus a few nasty potholes. The late evening air in the far eastern plains was warm and breezy with the faintest hint of moisture, already feeling different from where we call home, closer to the mountains. After some rock skipping and attempts in vain at keeping the boys from some dead, washed up fish, we left the reservoir and headed to Lamar, Colorado to gas up for the late night drive to Dodge City. August would repeatedly mention those fish in the days to come- “mama, it’s so exciting that we got to see some real fish at that lake!”… a clear indication that Jerry and I really need to brush up on our fishing skills so that the boy can at least verify that yes, there are live fish in there!
Sometime leaving town, I must have gotten distracted. It was roughly 50 minutes into a true crime podcast about a dad driving his family into a remote lake (like I mentioned- location specific podcasts) and one 16 ounce cup of gas station coffee that I looked up in the pitch dark sky and saw a sign for the town of Springfield, Colorado. Hummm… that’s funny, we really should be in Kansas by now, and I don’t remember seeing that town on the route I traced. I quickly opened up my map and a flashlight and scanned for Springfield… yes… I’m sure it’s right… OH CRAP! Instead of heading east from Lamar, we hopped on the wrong route and headed straight south! We were now a mere 30 miles from the Oklahoma state line- a state we were totally NOT planning on driving to. Jerry was understandably a bit upset, to which I tried to explain myself:
A tad, Laura?! You drove almost a 6th of the way across the country in the wrong... DIRECTION!!!
Okay, so the conversation didn’t go exactly like that (Dumb and Dumber quote, hello!), but there was a bit of commotion as we tried to figure out where the heck we were, and how the heck we were going to get where we needed to be for the night. At this point it was nearing 11 pm, and that was before the time change that would steal another hour from our night. After our little “detour” my estimate was we’d arrive in Dodge City just before 2:30 am. Oops. And how, you might be thinking, does this type of mishap happen in the 21st century, in a world full of GPS and smartphones? It’s simple- I’m in stubborn opposition to devices giving me directions, and much prefer plotting my own routes via a map, or printed or handwritten directions. Unfortunately, I don’t think this did much for Jerry’s confidence in my navigating skills for the remainder of the trip (early in the day, me: today’s route is simple- just follow 50 the whole way, how hard could it beeeee!). I started thinking nervously of the wild Ozark routes I’d ambitiously dreamed up, one with no less than 30 turns on different roads within a 3 hour drive… and vowed to do better.
The rest of the drive was mostly quiet, as the boys finally passed out and I was more than happy to fulfill Jerry’s music requests, mostly some country and Pink Floyd. We finally reached Kansas, and the time change, and blazed through the black, empty night with nothing but eerie flashing red lights from the fields of windmills, and a sparkling star studded Milky Way, so bright and brilliant in these dark and remote skies, it could be seen right out the car windows. We arrived, tired, but otherwise fine, at our Motel 6. Even in the middle of the night, the air was hot. We eventfully all settled into sleep (the boys always wake up during these “transfers”), and set an alarm for just enough time to hit up breakfast in the lobby and a quick swim.
|Oh yes I did!|
|Storms over John Martin Reservoir|
|Is this a good skippin' rock mama?|
Day 2- Dodge City to Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri
Kansas was noticeably buggy. We stumbled out into the bright sun, bleary eyed and carrying coffee, and made our way to the outdoor pool, and quickly submerged ourselves in the small, but welcoming cool water that we had to ourselves. At only 10 am, it was already feeling hot. Leaving town, we debated on the Boot Hill Museum (a rebuilt 1800’s town with authentic relics) versus the Boot Hill Distillery. Considering we’ve visited numerous real mining towns and ghost towns throughout our travels, we opted for the distillery. We had a short but enjoyable visit, as Jerry and I shared the whiskey sampler, which also included moonshine, a rare prickly ash bitters, and gin. All of the spirits were made with local spices and ingredients, and the whole experience felt authentically Kansas, gearing me up for the day’s drive. Heading east on 50 (this time on the right road, which seems oh so obvious in the daylight), we drove and drove through the flat prairie lands of Kansas. Kansas does not have a good reputation typically with road trippers- most shudder in disgust when mentioning the state, exclaiming “it’s just so boring!” Sure, I appreciate that perspective, and even more so when barreling down I-70, but taking the state routes felt mostly enjoyable and peaceful. I actually love the openness, the charming farming communities, and towering grain silos. And I really love the prairies, which is why I planned our route to take us past Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve before leaving the state. When we pulled in the car read 108 °F (although I think it was closer to 100), and this was not a Colorado dry heat that we are used to. This was an instantly sweat in every crack and corner when leaving the comfort of your air conditioned car type of heat. Remy of course wanted to be carried, so I reluctantly loaded him on my back as we all piled on the sunhats and sunscreen. Like I said, I really like a prairie, and was willing to go through a bit of discomfort in order to get out in it. You can certainly enjoy the beauty of a prairie from the car, but to really appreciate it, you have to get in it. This preserve contained more than 70 miles of trails, first starting as a wide, gravel path leaving the visitor center, and then curving and splitting into numerous foot paths, where it was possible to really find some prairie peace and solitude. I love the wavy grasses, and the bright flowers- the hairy, Dr. Seuss looking pale purple colored ones are my favorite, along with the regal looking Echinacea flowers. Just as we were settling into the discomfort of the heat, and an urge to go further, it was time to head back to the car and hit the road. We still had 4 hours of driving, plus a stop for dinner, and it was nearing 5 pm.
Heading into eastern Kansas, the prairies and farmland began to close in on us as small limestone cliffs and massive deciduous trees took their place. We stopped right before entering Missouri at a casual steakhouse with games, pool tables, and a huge deck looking into some thick woods. Seeing as we were less than an hour south, I ordered the Kansas City strip steak with baked potato and side salad, and thoroughly enjoyed every bite. We entered Missouri with full bellies, and calm little boys in the back seat. I haven’t mentioned much of the boys’ behavior thus far, as it was really all pretty uneventful on the drive out. They are good little travelers, and would throw fits and fights here and there, but nothing extreme. Neither boy slept after our late dinner, but stayed awake for our last few hours into Missouri, on dark, wooded and winding roller coaster roads, zipping us past numerous lakes and little resort towns. Just prior to midnight, we arrived at our stay for the night- Lodge of the Four Seasons, Lake of the Ozarks. We were all excited for this stay- a sprawling resort with multiple pools, overlooking the expansive Lake of the Ozarks. We walked into the massive lobby to check-in, and then spent a good 20 minutes checking out the pools and lit outdoor walking paths with Asian gardens and mini waterfalls. Eventually we got into our air conditioned room, a drive up the hill from the main building, and finally got the boys asleep, with promises of much swimming time in the morning.
|Motel 6, Dodge City|
|Boot Hill Distillery|
|Remy is deciding between a milk, neat versus lemonade on the rocks.|
|Like an outlaw.|
|It's time to get the heck out of Dodge.. sorry, had to work that in somewhere!|
|Poor kid isn't used to a heat index of 280 degrees.|
|No big deal, I've just got a sweaty 30 pound child sleeping on my back.|
|Every inch of me is covered in sweat, but I'm still enjoying it!|
|Walking around Lodge of the Four Seasons, Lake of the Ozarks|
|Massive lobby area|
Day 3- Lake of the Ozarks to Johnson’s Shut Ins Park, Missouri
We awoke in our comfortable beds and quickly opened up the patio doors to our view of the lake. Best explored by boat, and preferably over the course of multiple days, we would not even scratch the surface of what the lake had to offer. Admittedly, after watching both seasons of Netflix’s Ozark, twice, I had overly romanticized visions of a lake scene that was probably set in an area much more off the beaten path than where we were staying. Nevertheless, Jerry was able to finagle a late check-out at 1 pm, which gave us plenty of time to enjoy the resort pools which were surprisingly empty just days prior to July 4th.
Leaving the lake we ventured deep into Ozark country. We enjoyed Music of the Ozarks, These Ozark Hills, and Ozark Mysteries- with one especially terrifying true life story about an area spree killer, Billy Cook, who is said to have inspired the movie Natural Born Killers, and also a good reminder of why you don’t pick up hitchhikers. Our first stop would be Devil’s Elbow, a historic bridge crossing on an original section of Route 66. My first step out of the car reminded me again of just how unforgiving the heat is in these parts. We snapped a few photos on the practically deserted stretch of road, and continued on the relentlessly winding and rolling roads. Our drive to our next destination, Johnson’s Shut Ins State Park, would be a short one, at just over three hours. After a delightful dinner stop at a windowless bar and grill, including one delicious fried green tomatoes appetizer, we ploughed through the last hour of driving for the day, to arrive at our lodging, for the first time on this trip, before sunset. I had booked our state park cabin months in advance- there are only 6 available, and they fill up quickly for the summer season. Because it was a dry cabin (no running water/ bathroom) and required that you bring your own bedding, I was a bit hesitant to book, as I didn’t know if the extra effort of bring sheets, blankets, and pillows and hassling with a community bathroom (campground style) would be worth it. But at only $80 and in a prime location, while also considering there was absolutely no other lodging in the area, I decided it would be worth it. Best decision ever! Looking back, it was my most favorite stop of our trip. The cabin was relatively large, with a living room with futon connected to a kitchen area (minus the sink), and large dining table. Vaulted ceilings led to the one bedroom, equally large. It also included a huge covered porch with seating, and picnic table and grill. Honestly, it was perfect for what we needed, and I envisioned easily being able to really unpack and stay for a week. Johnson’s Shut Ins is an amazing state park, deep in the Ozarks amid thick woods and hiking trails that lead you to the shut ins- a series of black boulders and cascading waterfalls and pools. It was too late to venture out to the shut ins after arrival, but we set an early alarm for 7 am (yikes!) so we’d have time for early morning porch coffee before our hike in. We unloaded into our cabin, lowered the AC, layered on the bug spray (a bottle that has been collecting dust for the past eight years in our closet in Colorado), and poured a couple of whiskeys, before heading out to explore the campground for sunset. We found a very pleasant trail that cut into the woods and continued on for some time. I starting thinking about where I grew up- in Michigan, in what I always considered to be “the woods”. I thought about how I think of these dark, lush, humid forests of mostly deciduous trees, with plentiful frogs and bugs, as “the woods”, while everything in Colorado and west is, to me, “the forest”. Hiking in the forest is so different- little to no ground cover other than pine needles, all evergreens, few bugs, and no frogs or humidity. I love them both, but realized on our walk how much I did miss visiting the woods and all of its hidden treasures.
It soon became dark and our path began to feel more like a walk through a dark cave than trail. Lightning bugs were everywhere- another luxury of these humid parts that we miss in Colorado. We spent a good hour on our walk, well into the dark, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, despite the fact that I was sweating profusely, and it was after sunset (that’s just not normal!). We settled back into our cabin and it’s delicious AC, and read through the visitor book stories while the boys went a bit berserk, riding the suitcase on wheels between our two rooms on the smooth wood floors. Later in the night, with all but Remy and I asleep, I decided to head outside to check out the stars. I hadn’t looked at a dark skies map prior, and really had no idea we would be in such a prime location for the night skies. I knew we were remote, but somehow didn’t realize how little light pollution there would be- one of the few places in Missouri, or really anywhere east of the Mississippi, that is undisturbed by humans and light. Remy and I walked out to the picnic table with our headlamps, and there it was, the Milky Way, streaking across the sky between the tall covering of trees. I excitedly turned off our lamps and set up my camera for some long exposure shots, kicking myself for forgetting my tripod, but adapting by using the table and Remy’s doggie for balancing the camera. We spent a good 30 minutes in the dark stillness, with only with the sound of croaking toads. Remy was quiet and peaceful, and seemingly enjoying our time with just the two of us. At one point, a lightning bug got curious with my camera, and showed up in the shot, as bright neon green streaks, lighting up multiple times during the 30 second exposure. It was after midnight, we were on vacation in Missouri, and I couldn’t be happier.
|Morning views, Lake of the Ozarks|
|Our first pool stop of the day.|
|Our favorite pool area, and a nice break from the hot sun.|
|Devils Elbow, Route 66|
|Fried green tomatoes- just, yes.|
|Our state park cabin for the night!|
|Johnson's Shut Ins night skies.|
|My favorite shot- the Milky Way and a lightning bug.|
Day 4- Johnson’s Shut Ins to Dayton, Ohio
The alarm seemed to ring awfully soon after my late night sky photography session, but I was motivated to get up, knowing that there wouldn’t be another chance to swim the Shut Ins before leaving. I stumbled around the kitchen to make coffee, and then all four of us scrambled to the front porch in the warm morning light. We pulled out at 8:30 (almost on time!) and arrived at the trailhead minutes later. I wasn’t quite sure about the trail length, but planned for about a mile, as we headed out into the deep woods trail, almost empty on this early Monday morning. The last length of trail was a boardwalk that led through the final stretch, and then down multiple flights of stairs to the water. It was pretty much just- find the easiest way in, from there. We got in at a shallow spot, then swam in to the deep end of the large pool, and began to climb the large and smooth rock boulders into smaller pools and waterfalls. It was heavenly, and I really could have stayed out there all day. We stretched it out as long as we could (check out was 11 from our cabin), excited once we realized that if we counted this as our shower, it would buy us a few more minutes. Around 10 am (much too soon) we hiked out, packed up while making a simple lunch from the cooler, and hit the road for our final stretch into Dayton. We had eight more hours on the road, but only less than one on those quaint Ozark roads, before a much too abrupt entrance onto interstates that would zip us past towns and big cities and other hidden gems the rest of the way. I have driven from Colorado to Ohio numerous times, but this was the first time I really got to feel like I was on an enjoyable road trip. Best part- we were able to visit family at the end!
|An early morning, but our spirits are high.|
|Hiking to the shut ins.|
|Johnson's Shut Ins|
|Could stay here all day!|