Into The Ozarks (USA Day 40)
It was sitting in the only open café in St Louis yesterday, getting ahead on route plans, that we came across a problem: a package waited for us in a post office in Rolla, Missouri, about 130 miles away. We’d arranged for Amy’s mum to send it there because, well, it was a week and a half ago and we figured that’d be a decent enough place on the route to collect some post. Plus it had a cool name. Well, that’s as may be, but our planned ride took us past Rolla either at the very end of Saturday or the beginning of Sunday. Rolla’s only post office, the building where the parcel currently lives, closes at 12:30pm on Saturday only to open again on Monday morning.
So, here’s the challenge. Get from St Louis to Rolla in a day and a morning, or be forced to wait a whole day and a half for the post office to re-open as punishment. 130 miles is doable, but there are hills: about 7,000 feet of them. This should be fun.
We punctuated our exodus from a ridiculously sticky St Louis with trips to a bike shop and a Dick’s Sporting Goods, to top up on the important things: various types of grease. That took time, as did a foray into a state park only to find the river trail flooded, as they all tend to be these days. By this point the hills had begun: halfway up an early one we saw signs for a ski resort, which seemed hideously out of place for the heat and ominous for the remaining gradient.
In Eureka we sat down for barbecue in a shack and had our minds blown: a rib sandwich that melted in the mouth and a ‘DGS Ball’ (obviously I messed up and asked the waitress for a dog’s ball. Obviously) which seemed to be some sort of a cheese wrapped in a pork wrapped in a bacon performance. They had seven different home-made barbecue sauces and cornbread that was gritty in a good way. I was in heaven.
But while we made regular stops, the clock did not, and after our rural ski trip the rest of the miles ran along horrendous service roads tracking the highway. Where Illinois treated its Route 66 towns like beloved antiques but let the roads rot into bumpy chunks, Missouri has let the towns die and kept the roads smooth as silk. We passed almost nothing that moved, almost no thriving businesses, no industry. Plenty of tarmac. Beneath grey skies and with nought to see but dilapidated roadside motels and unrelenting hills, we were struggling mentally. It had reached quarter past seven by the time we rolled into St Clair, one town before our destination, and as I picked up some dinner from the supermarket the server predicted about sixteen miles left on our ride. A lot more than I’d thought.
The sun came out from the clouds as I did from the shop, only for it to set and me to panic. I threw the food in a pannier and we absolutely booked it, time-trialling the final stretch at a pace we’d not managed since arriving on the continent. Between yells of encouragement we zoomed up and down the rolling countryside, past dozens of wholesome banners for local attraction ‘The Meramec Caverns’, promising buckets of family fun. However by the mouldy looks of the front entrance, nobody had managed a minute of fun there for years. By the roadside, too, sat abandoned toy museums and creepy waxwork displays, boarded up and sad, next to mildewed motels fit to collapse.
We raced the sun and won, euphoric and amazed at the ghostly surroundings, arriving at Sullivan’s fire station in the dying light and setting up our tents in about as many seconds as we had left before our eyes drooped closed. We ache. We’re still out of breath. This was by far the biggest ride we’ve done so far, not in terms of miles, but certainly effort. And the daunting part is that we’ve got to do it all again tomorrow.