Cross-Country, COVID-19, & Sweet Lemonade
Part 2 – Missouri and Kansas
by Christina Fain
After a pizza and a good night’s rest in St. Louis, we continued west. The Missouri landscape soon began to change from our familiar rolling hills to an ebbing and flowing terrain of green hills settling into miles of flattening fields.
We knew little legs would need frequent rest stops, so we had planned to find some out-of-the-way natural attractions that would allow us small breaks to relieve the monotony that is I-70.
In Columbia, Missouri, we stumbled across Rock Bridge State Park. This was the perfect place to eat lunch and embrace the afternoon. No social distancing is necessary when you enjoy a picnic spread out on green grass with sunshine peeking through the trees.
After lunch, we discovered the area was full of trails, caves, waterfalls, and a natural phenomenon called the “Devil’s Icebox,” a double sinkhole in a cave that is the home for endangered grey bats. So, this brief stop for lunch soon turned into hours of hiking, and cave-exploring.
We cautiously spent time navigating the slick rock and dark caves, testing each stone before taking a full step. In the end, we discovered that we would have had to cross through a waterfall to continue the trail to the Devil’s Icebox. The image of digging dry clothes out of stuffed suitcases was enough to keep us on one side of the falls.
On our hikes, we encountered quite a few people, all wearing masks. Although we couldn’t see faces, it was good to meet others sharing the same adventure. But we couldn’t help but wonder if we were witnessing the beginning of the “new normal,” since it was apparent that face coverings were not deterring nature lovers from doing what they want to do.
After giving up on our search for the Devil’s Icebox, we passed a group of Mennonite women headed toward the slick cave with unstable footing we had just emerged from. In their long dresses, bonnets, and masks, they trekked into the cave with no apparent worries. Moments later, we heard hymns echoing from the cave walls. Everyone around stopped to listen to these young ladies enjoying the cave in their way. They certainly got our attention. We tried to capture this moment on video to record audio but without success. Sometimes the best moments do not need documented proof.
After an unexpected but memorable afternoon in Columbia, we drove straight to Salina, Kansas, for our last hotel stay before our ultimate destination, Littleton, Colorado. When we went to sleep that night, we had no idea what the next day would hold. And we were perfectly content.
The next day, as we traveled through Kansas. We knew not to expect a lot of scenery, except for the unrelenting flatness of the land. About halfway through the state, however, a memorable sight sprung up on both sides of the highway—windmills! It was the Smokey Hills Windfarm, miles and miles of windmills, stretching as far as the eyes could see over the prairie. You may think a windmill is a dull thing to behold but seeing thousands of them as we drove by was an extraordinary sight. They were huge, their blades moving slowly in the wind. But rather than seeming artificial or out of place, the sight outside the windows appeared serene. We passed a large truck transporting an unfamiliar piece of equipment, only realizing later that the truck was carrying one massive windmill blade. This gave us an up-close perspective of just how big these machines are.
The windmill scene went on for miles and had a mesmerizing effect as they waved us on down the road.
An hour or two later, we left I-70 to visit a natural landmark called “Castle Rock.” The four- and five-star reviews described this as “a beautiful sight to see” and “a little off the beaten path, down a 13-mile dirt road.” Secretly, I felt this might be a warning, but I kept that to myself. After all, we were up for an adventure. I had faith we could handle a little dirt road. We were from Appalachia, where we play on dirt roads for fun.
Following GPS directions, we exited off 1-70, turned left as the computerized voice instructed us, and drove through the I-70 underpass. Straight ahead was nothing but “the dirt road,” which looked more like a mud bog. A fast-moving rain shower had just passed through the area, and our hope was that the ground would dry out soon.
We started down the wet, mucky, rutted road, our little Kia filled with nervous laughter, a lot of “What have we gotten ourselves into?” thoughts, and eight-year-olds navigating from the back seat. It slowly dawned on us that this was our first questionable parenting moment on the trip.
The internet explained that our destination was on private land but welcomed visitors, so we kept thinking, “How bad can this be?” At six miles in, we had no cell service, but we trudged on anyway (questionable parenting moment no. 2).
Convincing ourselves we would be fine and that, since it was private land, someone would come along should we get mud-bound along the road, the Kia somehow pulled us through. Finally, to our sighed relief, we reached an old, rusty sign identifying Castle Rock. But we did not see it. We spent 20 minutes kicking tall, dry wheat grass out of the way to get to that sign for pictures.
In the distance, we could see where the Kansas landscape changed from flat prairie land to a hillside protruding as if it were out of place. We approached what turned out to be a hillside barren of trees but filled with solid rock and more muddy dirt road. We passed a few new items, like oil wells and fenced-off black boxes. These sightings gave us the confidence to move on.
A mile down the road, the odometer told us we should be there. We knew we were somewhere, as the land was vastly different than what the interstate had to offer. We approached a fork in the road and decided to agree with Robert Frost and take “the road less traveled by,” but only after walking along the well-traveled road to find ourselves on a cliff. A very abrupt and high cliff. Imagine walking through your yard and looking down to see your next needed step gone. That is where we were. (Questionable parenting moment no. 3).
Wrangling the kids from the edge, we stopped to look around and noticed an isolated pillar of limestone on the level ground below: Castle Rock. Castle Rock and its environs was our first glimpse of the rocky, striated terrain we would experience later in the trip. It gave us the courage and curiosity to continue down the rutted road to its base.
We explored the towering pillar (which really does look like a castle), its cavernous areas, the insects scuttering about, and generally just enjoyed and appreciated the beauty of this natural landmark. The base of Castle Rock was wet, with some deep puddles and drying ruts of cracking mud. At one point I lost one of my shoes in quicksand. I can laugh about this now but admit I had flashbacks of Gilligan in quicksand up to his neck.
Other areas offered sandy slides of soil and a meadow of prairie grass standing two feet tall. The field reminded me of the opening scene on “Little House on the Prairie,” where the girls run down the hill, and little Carrie falls.
My daughter loves to run, so I encouraged her to sprint through the field so I could get it on video. Little did I know, we were in prime rattlesnake country—I only found out a few hours later. The “what if’s” of this moment still give me chills. (Questionable parenting moment no. 4.) But she loved it.
The sun was getting hot, and the kids were getting hungry, so it was time to take a break and picnic. We found a spot at the base of a million-year-old rock and ate our lunch. Just as we finished we heard a faint “moo” in the distance. We quickly learned that the local cattle were not fond of visitors.
By the time we had scooped up the picnic and thrown the kids in the car, they were upon us, stomping and mooing and generally being very pissed-off cows. You have never really traveled through Kansas until you have had to yell “shoo” and honk at 25 snorting mad cows to get them out of your path.
Thirteen miles later, we were back on I-70, thankful for the excursion but oh so relieved to be back on a nice, paved highway and headed for Colorado.
Photo credit by: Jack Sloop (California, US) @jaxk.jpg
Tina began creative writing at a young age. Professionally, she has written for legal professionals spanning more than 20 years. As an over-thinker, mother of two, she draws her inspiration from her adult son and much younger daughter, as well as her personal experiences trying to navigate life’s beautiful complications. When not writing, she spends her time reading, hiking with her family and planning her next travel adventure.