Days 104-107/ June 10th-13th – St. Joseph, MO to Rock Port, MO: Mutton-bustin’

Thirty-two days and 450 miles from St. Louis, we could almost taste the West.  A neon sign beside I-29 advertised the White Cloud Rodeo in Iowa in three weeks’ time, and by the counter at the diner in Forest City – where a table of elderly farmers gave us the kind of astonished stares usually only seen on the faces of small children on their first visit to an abbatoir – there was a poster promoting another rodeo at the end of July in Burwell, Nebraska.  A lead article in the Fairfax Forum trailed next week’s Tarkio Rodeo Days event just over the border in Iowa, where one of the star attractions was evidently an event called ‘mutton-bustin’’.  Polite enquiry revealed that this involved strapping children of six and under to the back of an enraged sheep, which they would then attempt to ‘break’ in front of a large and appreciative crowd in the rodeo arena.  Sally and I swore to each other a solemn oath that we would not leave the United States without having witnessed this spectacle with our own eyes.

Diner in Forest City, Missouri

The Forest City diner: Try the ham, eggs and toast

The diner was the best of three eating options in Forest City recommended by Google, though as the other two turned out to be the Sur-Gro Plant Food Company and a food bank operated by Hope House Ministries, the choice was not a difficult one.  It offered a perfect example of the paradox of the ‘infinite choice of limited options’ that we encounter almost daily at American diners: there were more than fifty meals on the menu, every single one a different combination of ham, sausage, bacon, eggs, toast and hash browns.

Grain silos in Forest City, Missouri

The deer eventually learned not to go near the grain silos

We should really have waited for the Squaw Creek Eagle Nest service station by I-29, where the menu invited diners to order ‘Ethyl’, a four-pound cheeseburger (‘If You Can Eat It All in One Hour, Ethyl is Free!  If not $16.99’).  We declined the challenge, on the grounds that they threw in half-a-pound of fries, which seemed somehow unsporting.  Ethyl was a mere snack, however, compared to the ‘Wide Load Challenge’ (the Eagle Nest, as you may have guessed, catered to a trucking clientele), which involved the ingestion of a 72-ounce steak, a baked potato and – here was the mark of an evil genius at work – a salad.  A ‘Wall of Shame’ next to the kitchen featured several photos of burly men who had failed to finish the Load, looking sweaty, sheepish and slightly shocked; the ‘Wall of Fame’ on the opposite side was still entirely empty.

Signs outside the Eagle Nest announced that it was ‘owned and operated by the Ioway tribe of Kansas and Nebraska’.  Since leaving St. Joseph, we’ve been walking across the ancestral lands of the Ioway and Sac & Fox tribes, which had been acquired by the US government in 1836 in a transaction known as the Platte Purchase.  They received $7,500, and were promptly moved across the Missouri onto reservations furnished with ‘five comfortable houses for each tribe’.  The United States got 3,000 square miles of prime riparian farmland, which now forms the six counties that jut out of the north-west corner of Missouri.  The Eagle Nest at least enabled the tribe to exact an ingenious form of revenge on the arteries of the white man.

For several days we walked north along the Missouri flood-plain, following the railway line beside fields of knee-high corn.  Apart from the occasional startled raccoon or deer, we were the only living things on the roads, and when we waved to passing trains, we were almost always rewarded with an answering hoot from the driver.  There could be, we agreed, very few simpler pleasures in the world.

Freight train in Missouri

A slow freight train costs us five precious minutes on the way out of Missouri

For the first time on the walk since central Virginia a thousand miles ago, the gaps between motels became too great for us to cover in a day.  We put our faith in Darryl of Campbell’s Transportation in St. Joseph, and on the dot of five he appeared as arranged at the dusty junction of Highway T and Quail Road in the River Breaks Conservation Area to drive us back to civilization.

“I’m sure glad you guys were here,” he said as we got in. “’Cos my phone just died, and I couldna called back to base for any directions.”

Darryl dropped us off at the same spot a little after dawn the next day, and left us with some advice about Nebraska.

“Lotta cornfields.  It’s not too bad a state.  But be careful in Omaha.  It’s not a real safe place.”

Hilly road in north-west Missouri

Walking along 290th Street (no, really) outside Fairfax, Missouri

Later on that day we met David, a portly farmer in dungarees and a Sur-Gro cap, who puttered over to see us on his mower while we were resting in the shade in his front yard.  He shared Darryl’s dim view of the surrounding area.

“Just a little way down those hills,” he said, pointing east, “you’ll find the drugs people.  They used to make moonshine, now they make meth.”

Our last day in Missouri was spent on Lonesome Road, a dirt track through hills and corn-fields, some as steeply tilted as tea plantations.  An hour after dawn, the morning light was snuffed out completely by a five-mile-wide circle of billowing dark cloud, which scudded overhead and then seemed to tumble directly down onto us in a tight pillar of roiling fury.  It was like hiking into the Book of Revelation.

Dark rainclouds in north-west Missouri

'In my wrath I will unleash a violent wind, and in my anger hailstones and torrents of rain will fall with destructive fury.'

We were relieved to arrive in Rock Port, a small town tucked in a shallow, wooded valley overlooked by the Loess Hills Wind Farm, whose four languidly rotating turbines give it the distinction of being the only town in America to get all of its electricity from wind power.  We fell asleep in our motel room, dreaming of Iowa, and of small children riding large sheep.


One Response to “Days 104-107/ June 10th-13th – St. Joseph, MO to Rock Port, MO: Mutton-bustin’”

  1. David Says:

    Hey you two, hows it going?

    I’ve been slack getting around to sending a quick note. I like reading your blog its entertaining.

    The weather here is is crap at the moment (particularly kiwi thing to say). I’ve got the heating on and my feet are cold even with my ugg boots on. Anyway, all your pics are nice and sunny and it makes me long for summer.

    See ya. I’ll keep reading.


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