The International Writers Magazine
USA Road Travel

Ozark Adventure
Ari Kaufman on the road again

Before journeying to California, New York and Bogota for the holidays--then subsequently starting a full-time job in Indianapolis--my fiancee and I (well, maybe just me) felt it incumbent upon us to embark on one final road trip to what many call “the heartland.” This four night, five day sojourn would mostly encompass the outer midwest, great plains and the Ozark mountain region of America. Being the middle of winter, this was an intrepid undertaking, especially considering we were both leaving town (she for Chirstmas in Colombia; me for familial matters in San Diego and New York) fewer than 48 hours after we planned to return to Indiana.

Iowa City

On a pleasant, mid-December morning, we headed up the western spine of the Hoosier State on Highway 41, turning west and engulfing our neighboring state of Illinois about 45 minutes later. As we headed into the sun and mid-40s temps, I re-confirmed my belief that, outside of Chicago and some of the Shawnee National Forest’s hills in the very south of the state, Illinois is as bland and dull as states come. It doesn’t present Florida’s level of disinterest, but is rather close for comfort.
We headed nearly 200 miles west on Interstate 74--a short interstate that begins in Cincinnati, crosses through Indiana (and central Indianapolis where it becomes a street) from southeast to northwest and ends at the Mississippi River as you exit the western edge of Illinois into Iowa. We meandered past the Illinois college towns of Champaign and Peoria (the latter where my mom attended college at Bradley University), finally hitting some hills as we trudged north after crossing the Illinois River outside of Peoria. As we entered the outskirts of Galesburg, Maria and I stopped to “play” on the makeshift rest area playground’s seesaw. I split my pants trying to avoid tossing Maria from the structure. That may have been an omen for some of the mishaps of this trip.
Another 50 miles or so north, we crossed through the very intriguing Quad Cities region where Illinois becomes Iowa. Two Illinois cities (Rock Island and Moline) sit on the southeast side of the Mighty Miss and two Iowa cities (Davenport and Bettendorf) great you to the Hawkeye State as you make your way west of America’s largest and most famous river. On a gray, late afternoon, we resolved to admire the region from the car and pressed on westward on Interstate 80 into Iowa.
After passing the original “Iowa 80 truck stop,” we stopped for dinner in the trendy college town of Iowa City. Picture Iowa in your mind, then do a 180 degree reversal to obtain the proper image of Iowa City. I’m not saying this is for the worse, mind you, but this semi-small town, whose enormous university was known as the #3 “counterculture” school of the 1960s era, is quite the shock.
The people, stores, restaurants, bumper stickers and even hills, remind anyone of Berkeley, plain and simple. Thankfully, inside the stores and pubs (where we dined and drank amongst collegians “letting loose” at the conclusion of Finals Week), you still found that pleasant midwestern decorum rather than the angry, elite behavior of New York City’s Greenwich Village or the condescension and pedanticism of Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue.
We were “liberated” from Iowa City a few hours later and chugged another 80 miles west to a hotel in Newton, just about 25 miles east of the capital city of Iowa.
Unlike my visit to Des Moines on a steamy August day in 2005, Saturday morning, December 16, was a gloomy day, but temps were “warm” for this time of year, about 50 at 11am when we hit the capital area, topping off much warmer later in the day. Nonetheless, with mist in the air, construction around the massive, gold domes that hang atop the Iowa capitol building, Maria a bit tired and chilled, the experience, although excellent because of the views from atop the capitol building's steps along side the war and Lincoln monuments. Seemingly every midwestern state is now claiming Honest Abe as their own—he grew up in Indiana and don’t forget it, Illinois, Iowa and Kentucky! The stopover would be ephemeral as we gazed, gawked, snapped shots (the usual) and then drove through a modern, clean downtown, across the Des Moines River and back onto the interstate, heading south of I-35 toward the Missouri border and eventually Kansas City.
I’d admit that Des Moines capitol building and immediate surrounding area tops Indianapolis’, but Indy’s War Memorial Plaza, compact downtown, and so much else makes it America’s finest city in my view, just ahead of places like Des Moines, Pittsburgh and Chicago. Yes, I’m weird and biased, but all things considered, there are no better places to raise children and live your life. I’ve lived or spent extended stays (at least two months) in 12 major US cities, eight of them in the past 18 months, visiting basically all of them, have written a book about the topic, and discuss and read about them daily, so I have some credibility.
It should also be noted that, like Southern Indiana, Iowa has undulating hills. It lacks the forests, state parks and wondrous rivers of the Hoosier State, but even Interstate 35 had twists, turns, ups, downs and surprises you wouldn’t think you’d find, especially on an interstate in the plains.
As we pulled into a rest area just before exiting Iowa for Missouri, I waited for Maria and observed an interesting Historic Marker about Mormonism and “Communal Living” in Iowa.
Summarizing, with the aid of some internet research and notes I jotted down that day, after the murder of Joseph Smith, from 1846 to 1869 tens of thousands of Mormons blazed a trail from Illinois to Utah. These pioneers made one of the most significant migrations in American History. The completed journey from Nauvoo, Illinois to the Great Salt Lake Valley covered a distance of 1,200 miles. On their way to Utah, they crossed the southern portion of Iowa leaving a lasting influence on the area's cultural history. The Mormons braved the hazardous journey, and in doing so they opened new lands for settlement.
On this hully bluff, still a hundred miles or so from the Missouri River but not far from other smaller tributaries and hills, I read on about all of the failed “utopian” communal living experiments that occurred in this region and others nearby. I won’t get socio-political, but it still amazes me that after all the myriad failures and minimal, if any, successes, people still think that Communism is the best way to govern society.
They should realize that scribblings on paper or typed in manifestos do not equal reality, especially when you consider the innate desire of competition every human has, so that we may prosper and provide for our families and future generations. Only a public school teacher or college professor, so removed from the world, could be so naïve. But enough on that ugly topic.
Our plan to dip into Nebraska so Maria could add her 43rd state was derailed by time constraints and an impossible roundabout detour; so instead, before hitting Kansas City, and after luscious cheescake bites from Sonic, we drove by the Sports Complex just a few miles east of Kansas City where the Royals and Chiefs play, then a mile or two north to Independence, Missouri: home of President Harry S. Truman and his library/museum.
Exiting the highway in Independence produced one of the ugliest towns I had ever seen. Fast food, dollar stores and run down gas stations surrounded abandoned warehouses, empty lots and cigarette-smoking denizens. Could this be the Independence that I heard was a tourist spot?
Yes, it was, as after a brief circle in front of the modest-looking library where outgoing United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan had recently given a despicably hypocritical, America-bashing speech as his last “duty,” (he never really had duties as leader of this useless organization aside from stealing oil in the oil-for-food scandal and blaming Israel and America for everything while cozying up to the middle east’s most rouge autocrats—hopefully we’ll never hear from him again) we drove by the 33rd president’s boyhood home, then moved into the historic and quaint downtown.
There was an old theatre, many “historic” baptist churches, families riding in horse-drawn carriages, boutiques and a pleasant view of downtown Kansas City, perched on a hill over the Missouri River, in the distance as we left the slightly elevated town square.
On the historic side, these excerpts come from the City of Independence’s website about President Truman, who died in 1972:
“President Harry S. Truman grew up in Independence and in 1922 was elected judge of the County Court of Jackson County, Missouri…Although he was defeated for re-election in 1924, he won back the office in 1926 and was reelected in 1930. Truman won personal acclaim for several popular public works projects, including an extensive series of fine roads for the growing use of the automobiles, building of a new County Court building in Independence…He later returned to the city after two terms as President. His wife, First Lady Bess Truman, was born and raised in Independence.
Truman grew up in the area, held his first job at Clinton's Drugstore…In 1934 he was elected to U.S. Senate and by 1944 he was elected as {Franklin Delano} Roosevelt's vice-president…During his eight years in office, Truman used his Independence home as a summer White House and when he returned home at the end of his term, 10,000 people met him at the train station.  His library and home are now two of the biggest tourist attractions in Independence.”

And then we were off for a 5pm driving tour of Kansas City, Missouri on an unseasonably warm later December afternoon of roughly 64 degrees. We drove through the hilly downtown perched atop a hill and then parked at a point that overlooks the Missouri River and Kansas on nearly all sides, replete with statues honoring Lewis and Clark’s westward expeditions and much else. It wasn’t a particularly breathtaking view - even on a warm day - but certainly resonated on the “historic” side of things. That I had stood in this very place before I knew Maria nearly two years ago to the day on my way to catch a flight from Kansas City to Nashville, made it more special that it might have normally been.
That evening, after stopping at our room for “evening beverages” at my preferred midwestern hotel chain, the Drury Inn, we, upon the advice of our server, decided to go five miles or so to the east, over the border (and across the Missouri) into the state of Missouri to a famous Christmas light-infested spectacular outdoor mall. Even in a light long sleeve polo shirt, I was fine and Maria’s sweater kept her warm enough in the mid 50 temps. Much walking, some shopping and a nice Italian dinner at a crowded restaurant later, we were back on our way to the hotel, into Kansas and the gorgeous suburb of Shawnee and its perfectly-lit streets of Holiday décor.
As we settled in to sleep, the weatherman told us and the rest of the region that the weather would cool down tomorrow with “mother nature reminding us that it is mid-December and not spring.”

In the morning we drove as far west as we’d go on this trip—nearly 600 miles west of Indianapolis—through Lawrence, Topeka and eventually Emporia, Kansas, before cutting south down a state highway that stood about one-third of the way into Kansas. The highlight of the day was, as planned, our trip to the University of Kansas, which sits charmingly atop a hill in Lawrence, Kansas, about 40 miles west of the Missouri River and state line. Yes, atop a hill…in the Sunflower State where Dorothy hailed from. As I said earlier, there are a few hills in Kansas, believe me or see it for yourself.
The University of Kansas looked rather bleak on a cold, cloudy day, but Phog Allen Fieldhouse, built and named for the legendary KU hoops coach 50 years ago when he retired, stood as I remembered it: antiquated, charming and right in the center of campus, ala Pauley Pavilion at UCLA.
After a brief glance at the baseball field, which looked enticing when a warm day might roll around in roughly five months, we tried to gain entry into the Fieldhouse and the hoops Hall of Fame which was added since I last visited on a 98 degree day in July 2003. But alas, all doors seemed locked. However, people seemed to be milling about inside, so we found an unlocked door, asked if we could gander at the court which was about 15 steps from where we now stood. The answer was “no” as there was a women’s game starting in two hours. However, after I explained “how far we had come” for a glimpse, they obliged, if not briefly.
A picture or two, a chat about the history of my favorite college hoops squad with the elderly man who accompanied us to the entrance as we looked around, and we were off with our memories up the hill to the student union, passed many red-roofed architectural gems that line the upper campus of KU. Phog Allen Fieldhouse was great, not quite as historic as Indianapolis’ older Hinkle Fieldhouse (the only other true Fieldhouse in college basketball, built in 1928) in many ways, but also bigger and more “prominent” as Kansas home tilts are often on national television.
State Highway 75 from Emporia, Kansas down to the bottom of the state near Independence, Kansas was actually a fairly scenic, windy, hilly road on a suddenly warm(er) and sunnier afternoon. After rolling through much prairie and through the town of Parsons, winner of the “2006 Main Street of the Year” (Kansas or nationally, I do not know), the sun set as we swerved east then south on highway 69 before finally planning to cut back into Missouri and our accommodations in the city of Joplin, close to the border of Oklahoma and Arkansas as well.
But along the southbound side of Kansas Highway 69, in complete darkness, we came across a deer in our headlights, literally. Jerking the car left to miss him, then back right to avoid an oncoming car, I lost control of the car and it slid into a ditch off the road then up onto a completely dark grassland, eventually catching enough mud and dirt to drive it to a stop.
It was rather scary, perhaps the scariest moment either of us had experienced in a vehicle, but we survived by the grace of G-d. And not to our surprise, being that we were in the part of America (the middle and rural) where people still care about people, a couple that saw our car going haywire stopped, turned around and rushed out with a flashlight to see if we were okay. Would this happen in Los Angeles, New York or even Indianapolis? I’m not so sure. That they also knew precisely how to maneuver my Nissan out of the muck and eventually back onto high ground, these people were saints in every sense of the word. Then they waited for us to depart, wished us well, and headed back home as they were returning by car from Texas after a cruise. There are good people in America and then there are better people. Most of the latter live in small towns that coastal elites mock, and many are religious and non-college educated.
And perhaps that’s what makes them noble folks. As someone who was raised fairly secular, with parents and immediate relatives who had Ivy League educations and law degrees, lived along the coasts for the first 27 years of my life, I can be blunt and admit this. Would I have turned around to assist? Likely not, but give me another year. I’m changing for the better.
On day four (of five), we opened the day at “Mike’s Auto Shop,” also known more recently as “Seneca Foreign Auto Supply.” Cleverly, I had eschewed the Goodyear, Walmart and Nissan dealers in Joplin (population 45,000) for local assistance on a side road in the foothills of the Ozarks at Mike’s near the town of Seneca, population 2,000, on the border of Oklahoma and one of the Cherokee Indian Reservations.
Two cold hours in Mike’s Garage later, after good conversation (Mike and his wife actually hailed from California but moved in 1979) and much “muck” removed from my car’s hood and engine, we settled up with Mike as he hosed down our car and refilled my tires.
 “How does 20 bucks sound?", he asked.
 “Great!”, I exclaimed. (He has spent two hours working, after all)
 I was shocked but overjoyed as I offered him at least $25 in the form of a check, but he wanted cash and I could only dig out $12 while Maria had only $2 thanks to the bill at last night’s Italian restaurant with the Kansas City yuppies.
 So, $14 was all we could muster and Mike obliged. We smiled, thanked the lord again for our good fortune last night and this morning, then cautiously rolled down the hill for lunch at “Barney’s” at the edge of town before dipping into Oklahoma, then back to Missouri and eventually south through the heavy rain into the Ozarks of northwestern Arkansas.
The northwestern portion of Arkansas is clearly the wealthiest and prettiest, sans perhaps some parts of the Little Rock suburbs. We hit “Wal-mart country” and numerous golf courses near Rogers, then Bentonville and finally the college town of Fayetteville, about 30 miles south of the border.
The campus was pretty, the athletic facilities seemed top notch and the hills around the school – where professors likely had their homes – were rather rustic and immense, providing decent views which would likely be stellar in the spring, summer or definitely fall.
And then we were on our way again, this time down Interstate 540 south along the western edge of “The Natural State” toward the beginning of the Arkansas portion of I-40 at the Oklahoma/Arkansas border town of Fort Smith.
The rains ceased from time to time as we climbed and descended through the grandiose hills of the Ozark range for 55 miles until we took a very slight detour to see the “historic” town of Fort Smith. (Remember, in 2006, ALL towns are “historic” since we can’t have anyone or any town be better than another, even more historic.)
According to the “fort portion” of the city’s website, “The scrappy border town of Fort Smith grew up around the area’s first frontier fort, established in 1817 to promote peace between warring Indian tribes of the Osage and Cherokee. Remains of the first fort lie within the Fort Smith National Historic Site perched on a bluff overlooking the Arkansas River.”
Fort Smith’s early frontier jail was once called “Hell on the Border” because of its accommodations and the intense summer heat. But now, as the rain subsided and the temps were nearing 70 at 4pm, it was heaven to me, especially after we crossed the Arkansas River into Oklahoma, for the sole reason of coming back into holiday-decorated Fort Smith and its huge—you guessed it—FORT.
The Fort, used by various people including Lewis and Clark, was a way to oversee the Oklahoma territory as the United States expanded west 200 years ago. It also served as a prison with gallows and is now on the National Register of Historic Places as it is run by the National Park Service, with the grounds and museum open weekdays from 9-5.
Fort Smith actually had a reasonably “thriving” downtown, replete with bars, restaurants and people milling about amidst the many lights that also lit up the city park down the road we passed on the way back to the highway. There is also an imposing Catholic Church at the end of town.
As we returned to the darkness of I-40 East, the rain began to come down heavily as we climed Mount Magazine, the highest point between the Rockies and the Appalachians. As the rains pressed on, so did we, but after they showed as little quit as “Rudy” in his 1994 football movie, we decided to avoid any further mishaps on this day. We stopped for dinner and a motel near Russelville, about an hour short of Little Rock in the “River Valley-Twin Peaks Region” of West Central Arkansas and prepped for the long, 600 miles ride home on Tuesday.
Image: Little Rock Hideaway 

We awoke again to rain, and I went down for some hotel breakfast before Maria was awake. As I ate cereal and muffins (breakfast of champions?), an old man with a severe limp hobbled over and said, "Well, done all your Christmas shopping?" He seemed like just another local fellow, but he lacked the southern accent, so I asked him what brought him to the area. He noted that he was a retired Navy man of 33 years and was looking at propety to buy down in this region so he could "fish all year." After picking his brain about the military, he told me he lived just outside Bemidji, Minnesota, a town which I would never have heard of or known just how northwest and remote it is in Minnesota if I hadn't quickly recalled its location on a map from some school shooting that occurred there last March.
We proceeded to chat about the culture and climate up there versus down here in Arkansas, which enlightened me, not to mention his remarkable honor of serving my country for over three decades. This guy was only a few years older than my father, but looked at least 20. He was a real man, far more noble and braver than I or 99% of my friends and family. It's important to realize that since some think their Harvard degree and anti-trust law outfit in downtown is what makes them a better American than he. That's about as egregious as claiming the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have a more storied history than the New York Yankees. But these people likely would shun and scoff at a man who lives in rural Minnesota and is saving all his pension checks to move half the year to West Central Arkansas, while they would prefer half in Long Island or Brookline and the other in Boca or Naples (Florida). Shame on them. But though they're completely naive and arrogant themselves, two wrongs do not make right (my mom told me that once), so I apologize for the digression.
We were soon checked out and, after a stirring conversation with an Americorps member about the morally bereft Ms. Nevada/USA lady who had her crown taken for risque photos (I deemed her that; Mr. "tolerant" from Americorps said the media had ruined her life and tainted her name), we drove east for the next hour to Little Rock, cruised by the capital and through the renovated downtown, then parked and walked down the Arkansas River.
We literally did walk down from the edge of town near the River Market and the enormous William Jefferson Clinton Library to the river where we actually found the “Little Rock” as we stared across the river to the city of North Little Rock and the coliseum where the city hosts sporting events and concerts.
Little Rock derives its name from this small rock’s formation on the south bank of the Arkansas River called La Petite Roche (the "little rock"). The rock was used by early river traffic as a landmark and became a well-known river crossing.
We had soup and tea on this cold day, then crossed the Arkansas into North Little Rock which was surprisingly a quaint little town. I had fully expected, like many midwestern cities (Memphis, Chicago, Saint Louis) for the “sister city” of the major city on the other side of the river to be the area where the ghettos and run-down areas resided, but such was not at all the case as far as I discerned. In fact, the views as we drifted back toward the interstate looking back down a small hill at Little Rock proper were rather pleasant. I suppose West Little Rock, the last portion of the “Brothers Rock” might be the wrong side of the tracks in this tri-city area with a population of more than 600,000.
The next two hours of I-40 as we moved east and away from the Ozarks, down toward the Delta Region and the Mississippi River was ugly. I cannot put it any other way, though at least there were trees alongside the road and about half a dozen rivers to cross over the 135 miles before hitting the river and the state of Tennessee.
After we crossed the Mississippi – for the first of three times this day – and toured Memphis (which, although cloudy and cold, impressed me much more than it did in March 2005, especially the architecture and hilly streets emanating east from the river), we took Interstate 55 north toward Missouri and Illinois, which made the previous part of I-40 look like the PCH or Blue Ridge Parkway. It really was brown; it surely was flat; and it undeniably was bleak, to put it bluntly. Sixty miles later as we crossed into the 35 mile portion of Missouri’s contribution of Interstate 55, it didn’t get much better. Thankfully, it then got dark. Unfortunately, that made a daytime view (or even a sunset view) of Cairo, Illinois, impossible.
But as we crossed the Mississippi again into Cairo, so close to the Ohio River, it would stand to reason, I should explain what this town of 3,632 folks and dropping each year has of interest.
Firstly, the city's name is pronounced differently from the English name for the capital city of Egypt. The correct pronunciation is “Care-O” or “Cay-ro.” The city is located at the confluence of the Mississippi River and the Ohio River. That makes it unique, if not special and at least worth a two mile detour off the highway. An aerial view of Cairo shows the city as a skinny piece of land between the two behemoths of American rivers, and it abruptly ends about a half mile after one passes the last building when you hit a westbound bridge over the Mississippi to Missouri OR a southbound bridge on your right over the Ohio River into the state of Kentucky.
By my guess, Tennessee and Arkansas are also no more than 40 and 80 miles, respectively, from this spot and the edge of Indiana is fewer than 100 miles away. It’s basically the Chattanooga, Tennessee of the midwest, though you cannot see seven states; though I have never believed in my two times atop Chattanooga’s Lookout Mountain that you can anymore than five states, even on the clearest of days.
The southernmost town in the state of Illinois, Cairo might as well be on a different planet than Chicago for a bevy of reasons, none the least of which is statistics. The Windy City, roughly 30 miles shy of the Wisconsin border to Illinois’ north, is nearly 400 miles up I-57 from Cairol Memphis is less than half as far at a paltry 165 miles. Further, the population of Cairo, certainly unlike Chitown has been in decline every decade since the 1920s—in 1920: 15,203; in 1940: 14,407; 1950: 12,123. According to wikipedia, “there is a movement to stop this slow abandonment, and restore Cairo's architectural gems, develop tourism focusing on its rich history and bringing new opportunities back to the community.”
One example of a "positive attribute" would be where the rivers converge at what is the southernmost point in Illinois at Fort Defiance State Park, a Civil War fort that was commanded by General Ulysses S. Grant. Though nighttime, I was able to pick it out right alongside the bridges and river, and notice how unique it must have been and still is. This was confirmed to me later by two friends who have been camping there in the past.
Chicago’s ghettos are some of the worst in the nation, not just the midwest, but Cairo, for such a small town, faces many significant socio-economic challenges, including poverty, teenage pregnancy, education, and a lack of jobs, accorinding to numerous websites. By the numbers, of the population as a whole, 33.5% lives below the poverty line, as compared with 27.1% of families, nationally. 
One of my favorite authors, and all-around curmudgeon that would have made Thomas Hobbes proud two centuries later, Charles Dickens, mentioned Cairo rather unflattering in American Notes (1842) when he pointed out that Cairo was: "...a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulchre, a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise: a place without one single quality, in earth or air or water, to commend it: such is this dismal Cairo."
Chuck, that’s a bit harsh.
Like many delta towns along the Mississippi in Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana and Missouri, Cairo’s residents are majority black. After all, it is geographically a southern town, despite being in a state that borders Lake Michigan on its northern edge. Latitudinally, Cairo is well below St. Louis, equal to southern Kentucky and Norfolk, Virginia. Undoubtedly, it’s another world from Chicago, though as it sits closer in mileage to Jackson, Mississippi than Chicago. The only thing they have in common from my perspective is that, in as insipid a state as you’ll see this side of Florida and Delaware, it is disparate.
And that is why, on one of my sojourns, where my goal is to enjoy our unique nation just as my first book referenced, Cairo was on my “to do list.”
After Cairo, a long, dark trek through the Shawnee National Forest - truly the only hills part of Illinois as you move north away from the Mighty Miss - awaited us, while we salivated in anticipation of a dinner that never came until we exited 60 miles later. Then 110 more miles to Effingham (the crossroads of the Midwest where 57 and I-70 meet) then the last leg east into Indiana, “back home,” 2,000 plus miles, four nights, five days, one near-death experience and many memories later.
© Ari Kaufman Jan 2007

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