Our plan to connect Appalachia with the Rockies finally coalesced after quite a bit of scenario gaming. It would’ve been easier had we more time to meander, and I still can’t quite get my head around the fact that we don’t… a year seemed like plenty of time for everything and more in the early dreaming stages. I can assure you that it isn’t though, and so we found ourselves with some long drives ahead and only a few stops possible.
Not quite making the cut, and with no small measure of regret were:
- Memphis (wanted to see Beale St and try some more BBQ!)
- Nashville (though we did do a quick stop there)
- Hot Springs National Park, AR (looks unique, I’ve never been to Arkansas, and who doesn’t like hot springs?)
- Dallas (family and friends there, but it’s starting to get a little too hot for Texas)
- St. Louis (never been, and the Gateway Arch is iconic, but the idea of driving through busy city streets again is rubbing me wrong)
Ultimately what pushed us over the edge to our chosen route was a desire to see an old Navy friend who happened to be my Flight Engineer for most of my initial squadron time as an Aircraft Commander.
A quick, or maybe not so quick tangent on P-3 Flight Engineers… The Flight Engineer / Pilot relationship in the Navy’s P-3 community is truly unique. In civilian aviation the Flight Engineer is (more accurately “was” – commercial aircraft that require a Flight Engineer are now all but gone, at least outside of the cargo world) generally the junior pilot on the crew, who sits in a third seat in the cockpit with his/her own set of gauges, monitoring and manipulating various systems. It’s a stepping stone to “the right seat” (copilot seat) and thereafter to Captain. In the P-3, however, the Flight Engineer is an Enlisted sailor who generally starts as an aviation maintenance specialist, then at some point applies for and is accepted into the FE program, which is quite challenging, though not nearly as challenging as the extended FE syllabus within the various operational squadrons. Earning the title of qualified FE is a supreme achievement, and they take great pride in knowing everything there is to know about the aircraft. In each crew’s cockpit, there are two Flight Engineers and three pilots, with one of the FEs generally being the senior one training and supervising the junior one. Senior FEs command a tremendous amount of respect. They sit in between the two pilots in flight, presiding over the center console. While there are enlisted aircrew working with officers on flight crews throughout the military, I would be very surprised to find a relationship like this one outside of P-3s. Though the pilots all technically outrank the FEs, everyone knows where the expertise is, and it was common, as a pilot who hadn’t yet earned Aircraft Commander status (which generally takes at least a year and a half) to be quizzed relentlessly, for 4-5 hours out of an 8-9 hour mission, by your FE on P-3 systems operation, performance characteristics, procedures, and minutiae. They tend to be an extremely tight knit group within the squadron, and they not only police themselves, but they know all the pilots and both their flying and personal quirks. They’re often cocky, generally for good reason. They watch over us and mold us, and the good ones take pride in developing “their” pilots.
With the P-8 (essentially a Boeing 737 modified for military use) phasing out the P-3, there are very few Navy FEs left, and they will soon be gone, which is a shame.
At any rate, my friend mentored me well, as all P-3 FEs ought to, but more importantly he’s just an incredible person, and flying with him made some long deployments far more palatable. For better or for worse, you don’t spend that many hours sitting next to someone day after day and night after night without getting to know them very well, and in this case it was very much my gain. After his Navy Retirement, he had moved to Cuba, Missouri, on the northern edge of the Ozarks and a bit southwest of St. Louis. He’s now a pastor there when he’s not riding his motorcycle through the hills or hanging out with his family.
My never having seen the Ozarks made me more partial to taking this route as well. It’s one of the only parts of the country in which I had never set foot, and considering myself a mountain person, I’ve enjoyed checking out the various American versions of mountain country. Though even more than Appalachia, calling the Ozarks “mountains” is a stretch. They’re very much hills, and are referred to as such even by the locals.
I was looking forward to driving through and making a few stops. Here’s what that looked like.
I need to give a shout-out to Chattanooga, even though we only blew through. I’ve got a very good friend from flight school and squadron days who has settled there and commutes to Atlanta for his airline job, and we tried hard to coordinate a visit. We couldn’t quite manage to align our schedules, but in the process of researching where we might stay in/near Chattanooga, I came to the conclusion that it’s one of those very cool towns that flies beneath the radar, or at least the West Coast radar. I had seen it included on various “Top Ten Towns for Adventurous Folks!” type lists you see in various Men’s Journal / Outdoors-ish magazines. And to be completely honest, my West Coast snobbishness bias always made me skeptical when I saw towns that weren’t in the “real” mountains. I figured they were just trying to be inclusive and branch out from Jackson Hole, Telluride, Moab, Tahoe, Vail, etc. Give the little guy a chance… But I have to say, from what little I saw and read, they’re absolutely right to include it. It looks awesome. River, cliffs, mountains, woods, trails, lakes… and even some history to round things out. I wish we could have stayed and explored. Plus I bet you could buy a decent house there for less than a million bucks. Take that Telluride!
Thereafter came Nashville, and again I had to resist the urge to stop and stay awhile. Granted, by this point my leg / sciatic nerve was hurting me pretty badly again (it’s not getting better), but more than that it just looked booming. And it’s another pretty area. Not to mention I was told it has developed quite the foodie scene. All that + music and I’m thinking we could’ve easily done a week there. Alas, not to be.
Though I would have preferred to log more westward mileage since we were somewhat in “go” mode, we’ve decided both for my pain issues and the kids’ sanity to avoid drives longer than eight hours unless it’s absolutely necessary. This brought us to Land Between the Lakes, which is a rather large area that is exactly what it sounds like and spans the border of Tennessee and Kentucky, though the majority of it sits in Kentucky. Yet another well-appointed lakeside campsite awaited us there, but we didn’t have much time to enjoy it, as we headed out the next morning.
And at last we reach the Ozarks. Here’s the description of how the area got its name, which I found pretty interesting. The area is karst (“a” karst? I’m not sure about the usage…), which is something else I’ve only recently learned about. Without getting too geological up in your grill, karsts tend to be quite hilly, but with many, many closely spaced and small hills rather than large ridges or ranges. They’re mostly limestone underneath the surface, and the water, rather than draining downhill directly into rivers, tends to be absorbed into the ground, only to return to the surface at various springs. Hence you get lots of caves, sporty terrain, and spring-fed streams and rivers, some of which are crystal clear. I like all of that.
Then as a bonus there’s the whole Mark Twain / Tom Sawyer / Huck Finn thing, which I know is more about the Mississippi River, but I know Twain was born in and hung out in Missouri, and I always mentally pictured that whole world taking place in a setting like this one. I loved those books back when I read them.
After departing from Land Between the Lakes, we took a route that brought us to the very southern tip of Illinois, near Cairo, which if I remember correctly, figured heavily into Huckleberry Finn. What’s cool about it is that it sits at the confluence between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, which is kind of a big deal, river-wise. We spent only about 5 minutes and 3 miles in Illinois, but at least we can check it off the list. Not that we have a list.
Our first stop before turning north to get into the hills in earnest was a National Park Service visitors’ center, at which we were greeted by an enormous black snake that surprised us by climbing a tree to get a better look at us (and to claim the high ground – he clearly didn’t trust us not to mess with him, and probably for good reason).
Just down the road was one of the aforementioned clear streams upon which tubing was evidently popular. With the temp in the high 80s and the humidity continuing to creep up, taking a long, wet detour was highly appealing. But of course (again), we didn’t – we had a campground up near Cuba to check into. Onward.
The family’s opinions on the Ozark roads varied widely. And by that I mean that I absolutely loved them and no one else did. Which is completely fair, they were winding and roller-coaster steep. Short, steep ups and downs and lefts and rights that weren’t long enough to really put me hard on the brakes or gas pedal, and were therefore a blast to drive. But for everyone who wasn’t concentrating on the road and looking out at the horizon they were essentially a vomit comet. Fortunately not literally so, but after nearly an hour on a road designated only by a letter, everyone was thrilled to turn onto something big and straight enough to earn a numbered route designation. And they were even more happy to stop once we reached our destination on the Meramec River.
I wasn’t familiar with the Meramec before our arrival, but it’s exactly the kind of pull your inner tubes up to the rope swing and take a mad leap before you explore the cave sort of place that I had hoped we would reach at some point in our journey. Fortunately we hit our campground right before Memorial Day, which is apparently the official beginning of river floating season and quite the madhouse. We were assured that we would have the run of the campground as long as we checked out on Friday by noon, but that if we wanted to stay longer we would be out of luck. Truly spoken – we arrived to an empty campground, though we were surprised at how saturated the ground was, pretty much everywhere. Walking without soaking your shoes was impossible, and some campsites appeared to be the type you would not want to drive into unless you didn’t mind staying awhile or being towed out. Not having seen much rain in the previous few days, we asked what the deal was, and were surprised to learn that the entire place had been underwater, as in under the level of the river, just a few days prior, and that this is a normal thing in the Springtime. It even sometimes happens in the Summer if you there’s enough rain. Wow!
Our Navy friend joined us at the campsite for a bit just after our arrival, and he made plans to join us on our river float, along with his daughter, the following day – perfect. Tacco covered most aspect of our float well, so I’ll try not to be redundant.
But I do want to emphasize how much I enjoyed it. Catching up with him, getting to know his daughter a bit, watching Keeper float in his kayak while no-kidding reading Tom Sawyer…
And that spring. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that sort of a temperature differential, at least in the cold direction. You had to know exactly where it was to find it, so it was fortunate we had local guides, but once you knew and began heading that direction on the river, it was as if an air conditioner had been turned on, but out in the open. The water had been a steady 80-ish degrees, and near the spring it plummeted to about 50, with the air around you cooling as well. Once we pulled into the spring area itself and explored the cave out of which most of it was emerging, the temperature dropped even more. It really was amazing.
All told, another outstanding experience and yet another long time friend visited on their home turf.
I can’t say I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s trek across Kansas. Not because I’m anti-Kansas, but because there is just no way to avoid a long drive and the associated leg pain. I have a two-day trip to fly (commuting from Denver, ideally) beginning on Memorial Day, and for the first time I’m wondering how that will go for me and beginning to consider whether I need to look at seeing a doctor and taking some time off. So far, thankfully, it hasn’t reached the point it had the first time I experienced it a few years back, in which my foot began to go numb. I’m considering that a red line, as it indicates the beginning of nerve damage, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t others that I don’t yet know about.
Moreover, we’re rolling into Memorial Day weekend without reservations, which is a first for us on any weekend, let alone a holiday. We have some potential stops marked on the map and are hoping that Kansas is vast and sparsely populated enough to make finding a suitable stopping point feasible. But, fingers crossed.