Day 5: Lost and Found on Route 66, Missouri

We left Meramac after the river float and had to skip a visit to the famed caverns because we were “behind schedule.” We decided to try to make some progress towards Oklahoma, today, so we wouldn’t have to drive the whole segment tomorrow. But the day was getting away from us, it was already afternoon, and we would have to get moving if we hoped to really drive Route 66 instead of the Interstate.

Route 66 follows the route of an old stagecoash line, crossing Missouri diagonally from the Mississippi River in St. Louis through the Ozarks across the plateau region that starts near Springfield, and runs all the way to the Kansas border. The old road zig-zags across the Interstate, at turns paralleling it, then crossing it.

We were travelling through an area where the towns had mostly been developed by the railroads. This is the story of the railroad’s expansion into the western frontier. Because train engines were limited in the terrain they could cross, railroad routes were painstakingly chosen. The rail had to follow the contours of the land, avoiding steep grades, and be near enough to a water source because the steam engines required a lot of water to run. The railroad companies would “layout” a town around a rail stop, and usually first it was peopled by rail workers, and often it would simply grow up from there as folks began to settle near the stop and commercial buildings would be built to serve the growing population. Early roads tended to follow the railroad route, and Route 66 connected those early roads, intertwining itself with the train tracks, again and again, making the trains and the tracks a familiar travel companion for us on our westward journey.

Driving on the “slow road” we savored the postcard-like views as we made our way through small rural towns, trying to follow the remnants of 66 using maps and directions and road signs and “common sense.” And we STILL managed to get “lost” a lot. But “lost” wasn’t really “lost,” it was just temporarily off the track. Another turn and we were “found” again. It became a bit of a travel game in and of itself: “OK, Cactus Killer, you look at the map and see where we need to turn next. Silly Squirrel, you look out the window and try to see the road sign up ahead (you have the best distance vision of the bunch!), and I will try to keep driving without hitting anyone or anything. Oh and who has the camera? We need to shoot this… Acck, wait, Route 66 is over THERE now… everybody hold on, I can make this turn…”

Things got a bit complicated in Rolla, as we kept circiling the route and missing it in different directions over and over. We were on 66, we crossed over the Interstate, we were still on 66, then somehow we weren’t. We tried different approaches but kept finding ourselves back in the Mark Twain National Forest! We stopped to ask directions, but the young man at the gas-station-convenience-store didn’t seem to know any more than we did. He pointed vaguely, “It might be over there. But it might actually be over there. I’m not too sure. I think it is definitely that way.”

We should have been frustrated, but we weren’t. We would find it eventually. And so we kept driving around Rolla, laughing about being “lost” then laughing harder about me falling “overboard” into the muddy river earlier in the day. We laughed so hard we could barely see through our tears! Then we made the magic turn, and we were back on 66, as randomly as we had been “off” it. We laughed even more. It was therapuetic.

The road opened up ahead, endless, as we continued our treasure hunt into nostalgia for something we had never experienced.

LARRY BAGGETT’S TRIBUTE TO THE TRAIL OF TEARS

Not far from Rolla we made a stop in Jerome to look for an odd attraction we had heard about, an eccentric sculpture garden dedicated to the memory of Native Americans forced westward onto reservations, it was known as “A Tribute to the Trail of Tears.” We weren’t sure if it would still be there, as Larry Baggett, the man who created it, had passed away in 2003.

We followed directions to the site, and while abandoned and a bit overgrown, we could see it from the road. The late afternoon light added a magical glisten to the neglected garden, as if to pretty it up for visitors. We walked carefully through the stone archway labelled “Trail of Tears,” quietly respectful, as if in a cemetary.

This strange shrine was lovingly built by hand, with much thought and reflection.

Baggett hadn’t intended to build a shrine. He had bought the land to make a campground, but his plan changed after a “supernatural encounter.”

According to his own account, Bagget would often be awakened in the middle of the night by a knock on his door, but no one was ever there. Then one day he was visited by an old Cherokee Indian who looked to be 150 years old. The Indian told Baggett that his house was built on the Trail of Tears and it was blocking the path.

The “Trail of Tears” or “Trail Where They Cried” is how the Cherokees refer to the forced march of 15,000 indians, that took place in the 1830s, when the U.S. government decided the settled tribes of the southeast would have to move to make way for “pioneers.” President Andrew Jackson signed the Removal Act of 1830 which ordered the Cherokees, Creek, Choctaws, Chickasaws and Seminoles to evacuate their lands and move to “Indian Territory.” Though the Cherokees tried to fight exile through legal means, they were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama by the Army in 1838. The Cherokee were gathered into concentration-like camps, then sent on a death march to Oklahoma, during which almost one-fourth of the tribe died from cold, hunger and illness.

Baggett’s Indian visitor described how they were made to walk hundreds of miles and said that the Cherokee had camped right near this house. The Indian pointed to a stone wall that Bagget built adjacent to the house and asked him to put stairs there because the spirits were unable to get over the wall.

Bagget built the stairs to nowhere and when they were complete, the knocking stopped. He continued building his tribute to the Trail of Tears, adding a statue of himself on one side of the arch, with another pouring water from a bucket on the other side. Over time Baggett added more stone walls, more statues, a wishing well, several rock gardens, and a sign that describes the plight of the American Indians who suffered along the Trail of Tears.

Now abandoned, the memorial has crumbled a bit, but has not suffered much vandalism. It remained hauntingly beautiful, with the warm summer breeze rustling through the brush, creating the impression that the spirits were still passing.

BENNETT SPRINGS

It was getting late and we would have to settle somewhere for the night. We had identified a possible location to camp near the town of Lebanon at Bennett Springs State Park, and so we made our way there. We expected it would be a lot like the Meramec state park where we camped last night.

Arriving, we were a bit shocked as we entered an enormous park filled with Giant Campers and RVs and families fishing, crowded along streams that were stocked with fish, so that it was about as “sporting” as fishing in a fish tank! This did not seem like the kind of camping we were going to like. But, it was late and we had no choice. A bit uncomfortable, we drove up to the booth to ask for a tent campsite, and the lady let us choose between three. She kindly told us to drive up and have a look, and then just come back to let her know which one we chose.

The sites were crowded together and there wasn’t much privacy, but we picked one that had a bit of brush around where we could put the tent, so at least we wouldn’t feel like we were in a refugee camp with rows of tents all jammed together.

We pitched our tent among the families, and I couldn’t help thinking of a scene from the book, “Grapes of Wrath” when the Joads finally get into a “government camp” out in California…


> NEXT: NOSTALGIA MEETS COMMUNITY ON ROUTE 66


More from Missouri Route 66:
NOTES FROM THE ROAD: Meramec River Adventure | Nostalgia Meets Community on Route 66
AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL: Portfolio: Missouri Route 66
REFLECTIONS & OTHER THINGS: Freedom’s Road | A “Grapes of Wrath” Moment
THE GREAT OUTDOORS: Exploring Missouri Caves | Meramec State Park
PRACTICAL MATTERS: Reservations or Not?


Back to Missouri, Day 5 River Adventure | Complete Trip Log | Start at the Beginning

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