It was Day 1 of our epic Southwest U.S. road trip, and we were already behind schedule.
We had just pulled out of Cahokia Mounds and were heading to our first overnight destination, so I called our contact to let her know we were running late. She was at the store picking up a balloon so she could mark the turn we needed to take.
"Just look for SpongeBob," she said.
I hung up the phone and grinned. Laura, from the Pulaski County Tourism Bureau, had set up a whirlwind itinerary for us and up until that call I knew two things: it would be 1) busy and 2) organized.
After that call, I knew it would also be fun. Anybody who uses SpongeBob to mark a sign post is OK with me.
Blue Jay Farm
Our "pineapple under the sea" was Blue Jay Farm, an historic getaway in the Ozark foothills. We found the bobbing cartoon character and followed a winding road to a stone arch. The dirt drive led through the narrow gateway and crossed a bridge to a private lake rimmed with golden-hued trees.
As we slowed to a stop, a confusion of guinea fowl investigated the back bumper before trailing off to the shoreline.
Without even stepping foot into our cabin, we could tell that one night in this bucolic setting would not be enough.
Laura greeted us warmly and introduced us to Doug, our host and one of the owners. After we exchanged a few pleasantries, she headed out for the evening and Doug introduced us to the property.
We walked through the cabins and then hopped on a cantankerous 4-wheeler called Wilma (as in Flinstone). He regaled us with stories I could share, and secrets I couldn't.
This tour was not on our itinerary. Laura knew we had a marathon ahead of us, so the original plan was to relax for a little bit on the deck, have dinner in nearby Dixon, and settle in early to be rested for the busy day, and month, ahead.
When we got back to the cabin after our spin around the lake with Doug I had to laugh. One of my steadfast rules for road trips is to be flexible because something will change.
Sometimes that's a bad thing, but other times you take an impromptu tour of a family-owned property with a member of the family, and it's more than you could have hoped for.
Tour complete, we put on our lanyards and headed out for some Doug-recommended fried pickles at Homeplate Bar & Grill.
Back to the fried pickles...
Homeplate Bar & Grill
We took the winding road back to SpongeBob and turned left towards Dixon MO, a tiny one-square-mile town that's been around since 1869.
On that Friday night, Homeplate Bar & Grill was the only place open besides the prom dress sale at the bank and the Amish meeting at the community center.
The brightly lit diner was busy, filled with families after a school soccer game. It was pretty obvious we were the only ones there who wouldn't know anybody else's name.
I have to confess: we almost didn't enter because in the corner by the front window a family was smoking. We didn't realize that you could smoke in restaurants in Missouri. My mom's allergic to cigarette smoke and I think I'm heading in that direction.
A headache began to form. We looked at the menu and considered just getting it to go, but what we wanted was fried, which meant it would be guaranteed mush by the time we made it back to the cabin.
We stayed. And it was totally worth any headache, because these were the BEST FRIED PICKLES EVER. They were crispy, with just a bare amount of grease, served with "magical sauce" that was a little bit of magic in a plastic Solo cup.
Then there was the obviously-hand-formed bacon cheddar ranch burger served on Texas toast with homemade ranch dressing, and the fresh pork tenderloin breaded by owner Heather herself.
Her son delivered the pickles; she delivered the sandwiches. If you wanted a beer, cans were two bucks; draft just two-fifty.
None of this was in the least bit good for us, and we ate every single bite and had not one single regret. In fact, I'm still craving those pickles, that magical sauce, that fresh pork tenderloin, and that hand-formed, bacon-topped, Texas toast-wrapped burger.
We found our way back to Blue Jay Farm and collapsed into our comfortable bed by 9p.m., ready to awaken early the next morning for a day full of adventure.
Day 2 began early. It was still pitch black outside and roosters were crowing as I made a pot of coffee and began reading the guest book.
Those entries from previous guests at Blue Jay Farm, detailing the peace and comfort of their various experiences in the rustic First Cabin, made my desire to stay even stronger, but we had a full morning of exploration in Pulaski County, Missouri.
That feeling - that desire to stay longer - was to be a constant refrain for the next month.
We packed up and said goodbye to the goats and guinea fowl and headed out, swinging over to Route 66 and a turn through Devil's Elbow. This minute community is named for a sharp bend in the Big Piney that gave loggers fits, not only because of the angle, but also because there was a huge boulder that created a literal logjam.
As we crossed the original 1923 truss bridge in the shadow of 200 foot bluffs, we could see why this stretch is considered one of the most beautiful sections of the Ozarks.
We then followed a newer alignment of the Mother Road, noting the 40s-era curbed concrete, and made our way to the Route 66 Diner. Located conveniently off of I-44 in St. Robert, the diner is retro personified, with neon signs, the requisite jukebox and pictures of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, black and white tile on the floor, and seating of red leather banquettes and chrome and red leather bar stools.
As any good diner should, they've also got lick-your-plate-clean chicken fried steak and corned beef hash and fluffy biscuits and beautiful over-medium fried eggs.
I took one bite of my steak and said to Jim "what is with the food here?!" and then dug back in. Like our dinner the night before, I finished every bit of it, a rarity for me when dining out.
Why did everything taste so good? Maybe it's because we were on a road trip, and everything's better on a road trip. While that may be part of it, I think the food we had was just that tasty, and we had that experience everywhere we went.
I attribute that to the locals. By putting our dining choices in their hands we were steered to their favorites and rewarded with mouthwatering meals from Missouri to California and back.
Our next three hours in Pulaski County were dedicated to its rich history. One of the most moving parts of travel is when you can stand where both greatness and tragedy occurred. Understanding the past helps us to learn and to grow, whether it's from mistakes or from successes. By hearing tales of those who came before, you can see what shaped today and a destination comes to life.
We met Laura from the Pulaski County Tourism Board on the banks of Roubidoux (pronounced Roo-bee-doo) Creek in Waynesville.
A renowned spot for trout fishing, Laughlin Park is also known for cave scuba diving. The crystal-clear Roubidoux Spring flows out from under the bluffs at a rate of 37 million gallons per day, and the cave itself has been explored as deep as two miles. The cave goes deeper, but more exploration is limited by technology.
Laughlin Park is more than a spot for recreation. It's also a place of remembrance. In the late 1830s, Cherokee camped on the banks of Roubidoux Springs during their removal to Oklahoma. It's estimated that 1,000 people struggled through the winter at this wayside stop on the Trail of Tears.
As we stood there on a chilled and cloudy day, we imagined the encampment across the creek, wisps of smoke rising from cooking fires. The tale of the Cherokee's suffering and survival is told in a series of Wayside Exhibits, unveiled in 2015. The stories are enhanced by paintings depicting the experience.
We followed the trail underneath a 5-arch concrete spandrel bridge. Like the crossing in Devil's Elbow, it was built in 1923. Originally a replacement of a removable bridge that connected Highway 14, three years later the road was designated as Route 66.
When you walk under the bridge, if the water is low enough, you can see some of the wood pilings they used during construction.
Imagine that - seeing the temporary tools of construction from nearly a century before.
The bridge was expanded in 1939, but as it ages there's concern that it may not be around much longer. As interested as Pulaski County is in preserving its history, though, I'd be surprised if they let the bridge be replaced without a fight.
Our next two stops were perfect examples of the importance this county places on preserving its past. Our first visit was to the 1903 Pulaski County Courthouse Museum. It was undergoing renovation and repair after it suffered from rain damage, but Denise Seevers of the Pulaski County Historical Society and Museum graciously opened its doors.
As we ascended the original staircase with its spindle balustrade, we could feel the gravity of what was decided within the second floor courtroom. I could almost picture the jury sitting in the straight-backed wooden chairs under the heavy oak rafters.
Outside the courtroom, the museum features exhibits that depict everyday life from the 1800s, a Trail of Tears room, an old schoolroom, and a military room, plus many more.
It's a vast collection that illustrates what makes Waynesville and Pulaski County unique, including the bullet-shattered glass from the bank that had been across the street.
Around the corner from the Courthouse Museum, the Old Stagecoach Stop is the oldest building in Pulaski County, but it almost didn't make it.
Jan and Jeanie, dressed in period costume, welcomed us and told many of the stories that had accumulated since it was first built in the 1850s. Over the years it was variously a stagecoach stop (although it was never called that), a post office, a Civil War hospital for the Union Army, a hotel, a home, and a boarding house.
By the mid-1960s, however, it was such a wreck that it stood empty, a target for vandals and Mother Nature. The city condemned the building in 1982 but two local couples bought the place and formed the Old Stagecoach Stop Foundation. Now it offers doorways to the past, as they like to say: every doorway opens to a different era.
We had hoped to explore downtown Waynesville on foot and possibly do some shopping in the unique boutiques, but we had to resume our journey. We fueled up at Roadhouse Bar & Grill with some juicy and crispy hot wings and a meat-filled pizza, and they sent us on our way with a pork tenderloin for the road.
(Note to self: get back to Roadhouse for live music on their amazing outdoor stage. And their food!)
There's so much more to this area that we didn't get to experience: Fort Leonard Wood and its Mahaffey Museum Complex, canoeing on the Gasconade and Big Piney Rivers, driving the full 33 miles of Route 66, exploring the Frisco Museum, and dining at their many ethnic restaurants.
If you enjoyed this excerpt from Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1, you should see the whole book!