CC Road Trip Diary: A Middle Aged Man & His Elderly Van; Or, Sharing A Slice Of Rural America

A reluctant admission:  This is my third article in a row to document various travels.  Such wasn’t the intent.  Where the prior two articles outlined adventures in new places, this one is remarkably different.

How so?  I could have made this trip with my eyes closed.  It is a trip I have made, with some variation in route, more than any other over the last thirty years.

This trip took me from Jefferson City to Cape Girardeau, both of which are in Missouri and neither of which are prime tourist destinations.  However, that doesn’t mean there is nothing new to see and learn.

Google shows three primary routes for this trip – for those who seek expediency.  There are countless ways to travel between those two points, but none of them are overly direct.  Wishing to avoid interstate highways, and also – more importantly – with my task oriented demeanor needing to chill a bit, I took other routes.  My chosen path completely avoided any interstate for this trip…well, for the way down, anyway.

Here’s how I went.  The difference in time was less than forty-five minutes and it was infinitely more stimulating.

A macroscopic view of the locations might be beneficial.

US 50 cuts through Jefferson City, which is somewhere near the mid-point of the 3,019 miles it runs from West Sacramento, California, to Ocean City, Maryland.  Heading east on 50 the first town I traversed was Linn.

A moment about my steed.  It’s my 2000 Ford E-150, a vehicle I have owned for thirteen years and fifty-thousand miles, a conveyance which has endured the abundant pejoratives I have hurled at it over the years.  A conversion van, a true dinosaur of the automotive kingdom, it was converted by Osage Industries in Linn.  Osage is currently making ambulances.

While Linn has one of the best signs I’ve ever seen for an antique mall (located in a former school building), they do currently have another claim to fame.

State Technical College of Missouri is experiencing profound growth as reflected with the dozens of apartment buildings springing up in a town having a full-time population of only 1,350.

The school started in 1961 and split off from the local Osage County School District in 1995.  In 2018 Forbes magazine ranked State Tech as the third best two-year technical school in the nation.

In making trips, one can encounter all manner of unique items.  One is the 1955 Ford Thunderbird I met on US 50 east of Linn.  Of course I have no pictures, so I suppose you’ll have to take my word about having seen it.  But I did.

That’s the downside of traveling alone; taking pictures isn’t always an easy proposition.

Turning south onto MO 19 began another leg of my journey.

The town of Owensville was about ten miles down the road.  At 2,700 residents it has twice the population of Linn although this still is not the first place one would expect to find a Plymouth Prowler.

Here’s the front.  It sits even lower than I remember…then again, I was sitting up high.

Owensville is the type of town in which finding a 1956 Chevrolet is more expected.  This house has had several interesting chariots parked out front over the years.

Life in rural Missouri undoubtedly has similarities to life in other rural areas around the world.  People tend to know each other or, if they don’t, they often know somebody you know.  That’s just how it works.

It also makes for a small world at times, which is both good and bad.  At work recently I called somebody for a reference check about a prospective new employee.  Her location was near Owensville, thus about sixty miles away from me.  The lady’s last name was not common yet was one I recognized.  Upon the conclusion of our conversation I asked her if she knew so-and-so having the same last name.  It was her husband.

My recent post about traveling to Fort Worth (here) touched upon Old Route 66.  Chalk this up as another such reference as I ventured through Cuba where this series of sculptures (statues?) greet those exiting westbound I-44.  While there are no Castro’s in Cuba, there is a lot of Route 66, such as the Wagon Wheel Motel which served as inspiration for the Wheel Well Motel in the movie Cars.

There was also this early to mid-1980s Ford F-150 parked at a commuter lot where I turned around to get a better angle on the sculpture above.

Turn the white to silver and this would be a scary close approximation of the ’84 F-150 my father had years ago.

I have wanted to share this mural for a while.  The ’59 Ford is a personal favorite and the ’59 Dodge patrol car is undoubtedly based upon this Dodge I wrote about several years ago.

When stopping to take these pictures, a lady approached me asking about the murals due west of us and along the Old 66 alignment.  We chatted a bit with my learning she lives in Tucson and was touring Cuba as part of her trip.

Continuing south, I realized my attempt to chill wasn’t working out so well.  I looked down only to see this.  It seems I have about one speed regardless of road type, a speed that has increased considerably the last twenty years or so.

It’s been said driving a slow car fast is a great fun.  Driving my glacial slow, 2.3 liter powered 1989 Ford Mustang many times along this same hilly, curvy journey certainly gave me opportunity.

Further, I submit it is equal to greater fun to make a poorly handling vehicle dance like a ballerina.  That Ford van handles like a drunk hippopotamus on roller skates, so tackling hilly, curvy roads keeps one on their game.  Plus, I made far better time in this poor handling Econoline than I ever did in that infuriatingly pokey, nosebleed Mustang.

Yes, I am sometimes on the Struggle Bus when it comes to relaxation.

In my lifetime I have driven hundreds of different cars, pickups, and vans.  Of them all, this Ford van is the toughest to maintain a consistent speed in any type of hilly terrain – unless traveling at the speeds shown in the above picture.  It gains considerable speed going downhill although climbing hills requires little additional throttle input.  If it does downshift, it will quickly regain momentum even if backing off the throttle.

Even at such speeds, one is able to still take in the scenery.

The speedy fun temporarily halted when going through Steelville.

Proclaiming itself as the Floating Capital of Missouri, these decorated canoe halves can be found throughout Steelville, but primarily on Route 8.  The speed limit was about 30 mph and in town is about the only place you have to be worried about getting tagged for speeding in that country.

Floating on the nearby Meramec River, either by canoe or inner tube, is a definite part of Steelville’s economy.  The Huzzah Valley is east of Steelville and does, so I hear, a tremendous business on the weekends.  This can be corroborated by the 25 or so retired school buses parked on their lot, all used to ferry floaters around every weekend during the summer.

Also, from what I have heard, the Huzzah Valley campground has two areas – the family area and the party area.  I can only imagine which one buys more beer.

The thirty-five mile stretch from Steelville east to Potosi is the longest segment I traveled not having any towns.  This stretch is also the most desolate as one can go for most of that distance without cell phone reception.  If you hit one of those pretty little deer you will likely see, just sit and wait.  Somebody will be along soon enough.

If one watches the national news within the United States, they may have heard of Potosi.  It’s the home to the most maximum security prison within the state where the really bad boys go to chill.

Several years ago I toured the prison.  The abundance of jagged wire circling the place drove the point home about things being serious.  A day or two prior a turkey had flown into the wiring which has several thousand volts of electricity running through it.  Naturally that poor turkey exploded, with his remains being flung all around the complex.  There were still feathers blowing everywhere outside.

The two guards for our group of eight warned us we could see anything.  While we saw plenty, one humorous thing stands out.  Walking through the gymnasium while full of inmates on their free time, a huge, phenomenally ripped and shirtless inmate walked out of the weight room toward one of our guards.  Being at the end of our group, I heard the inmate whisper “hey, boss, need me to scare the shit out of these guys?”.

The guard’s answer was “no, not today.  These are big boys, they get it”.  The prisoner smiled, said thanks, and went back to his weight set.

The prison in Potosi also has a very successful program which trains guide dogs for the blind.  It was said the program acquires many of their dogs from the Humane Society in Cape Girardeau.

While I didn’t get pictures of the prison (for obvious reasons, plus they are a few miles north of Route 8), I pondered that prison tour all the way to Park Hills.

Park Hills is the name chosen for a group of four towns that consolidated in 1994.  Prior, this house was in the section of town formerly known as Flat River.  While I picked this house at random, it was along this stretch of road where my paternal grandparents lived after getting married in 1942.

Remember the Al-Queda attack on the USS Cole in October 2000?  That ship entered service in 1995 and…

…was named for Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Darrel Cole of the United States Marines.  Cole won the medal for having conducted a highly successful one-man assault on enemy forces during the Battle of Iwo Jima, although he ultimately lost his life.  Sgt. Cole was born and grew up in what is now Park Hills.

Also from Park Hills was country-western singer Ferlin Husky who attained peak popularity in the 1960s.

Finding this video is the first time I have knowingly heard Husky sing.  He does have a distinctive voice.

My father and grandfather in 1948.

My grandparents lived in the Flat River section of Park Hills for only a short time.  They were gone by the time my father was born in late 1943.

While that grandfather died long before I was born, and my grandmother would never talk about such things, I’ve often wondered if my father was conceived here.  I suspect so as they moved back to familiar territory on the Illinois side of Cape Girardeau shortly before my father was born.

Again heading in a southern direction, Farmington was the most populated town I traveled between Jefferson City and Cape Girardeau, with a population of just under 20,000.

The east side of town presented me with this worn but presentable Dodge Aries.  Yes, these K-cars used to be as common as dirt, but when was the last time you saw one?

Seeing this Aries made me wonder how many of its derivatives are now extinct.  It isn’t like any of them are a common sight.

The setting for this Aries was somehow appropriate.

In the best of VFW traditions, a tank was on display nearby.

It was somewhere around Fredricktown, about fifteen miles south of Farmington, when I realized I had been in complete solitude the entire trip.  Yes, I was alone but I had also never turned on the radio.  It was blissful.  The only sounds I had were wind noise, the occasional downshifting of the van’s 5.4 liter engine, and my tinnitus.

Such quiet trips are highly rejuvenating.

My picture taking grew less intense as I made my way closer to Cape Girardeau.

A while back I saw a book outlining the author’s experiences traveling to visit every courthouse in each of the 114 counties within Missouri.  I should have looked at it closer, particularly about the counties in which I have lived.  I mention this as Jackson is the county seat of Cape Girardeau County, and it is another one of the many small towns I drove through.

Jackson has grown considerably in my lifetime and it reflects a longterm trend as growth has ranged from 12.5% to 32.8% every decade since 1930.  The population is currently still modest at 15,500, just a few thousand less than Farmington.

The Cape Girardeau Metropolitan statistical area, as defined by the US Census Bureau, consists of Cape Girardeau County and adjacent Bollinger County is Missouri, along with Alexander County in Illinois.  The area’s population is nudging 100,000.

Part of this growth is reflected in US 61 between Jackson and Cape Girardeau.  I can remember the days when this section was a two-lane road with little to no business development.  These two towns have now grown into each other.

One of the few developments in this area at that time (which would have been the late 1970s and early 1980s) was Johannes (pronounced Jo-Han-Us) Auto Sales.  The Rolls-Royce is how I remember their location so well.

Here is the Rolls in 1982.  Johannes has touted themselves as the “Rolls Royce of salvage yards”.

Just east of Johannes is the interchange for I-55 and US 61.  If this all looks odd (and this picture is admittedly limited in scope) it’s because this interchange was recently upgraded to what has been dubbed a “diverging diamond”.

Here’s a better graphic of it.  There are currently 202 of them worldwide with most being in the United States.  The first one built anywhere in the world was in Springfield, Missouri, in 2009.

These greatly reduce delay and eliminate the inherent risks of making left-hand turns.  It takes only one trip through to figure them out.

The reason for my trip was to see my parents.  This square body Chevrolet sits down the street from them.

When running errands, I made use of my parent’s 1998 Dodge Ram.  They purchased it new and have driven it to Alaska plus every province in Canada while it packed a slide-in camper.  Comparing the oil change sticker to the odometer revealed this Dodge has traveled very little since May 2021.

Despite being amazingly filthy, it does not act its age at all.  Maybe it’s that prophylactic film of funk that has kept it so youthful.  It’s 360 (5.9 liter) V8 pulls like a train and is a throwback to the V8 days of yore – low revving with abundant torque at idle.  Getting on the throttle with gusto winds the engine out to a lofty 2,500 rpm before it upshifts.  Really sticking the spurs to it on an entrance ramp got it up to about 3,700 rpm before upshifting.

Like all things, my journey had to conclude.  I did acquiesce to prudence by taking I-55 for part of my trip back home.

Since I didn’t take many pictures on the way back (due to fatigue, rain, and darkness), let’s still go full-circle by stopping by 1701 Lacey Street.  This takes me back to the beginning.  It’s just a different beginning as this is the hospital where I was born.  Naturally, it looks different as hospitals are always being remodeled and there have been fifty years of remodels since I made my grand appearance.

One of the few pictures I took on the way back was upon entering I-44 and a reminder of why I took alternate routes on the way down.  This was just west of Fenton, home of the former Chrysler assembly plant.

Perhaps this picture is more descriptive.

I also discovered I don’t drive much faster on desolate sections of interstate than on two-lane roads.  Those trucks scrubbed 15 mph from this and forced me to chill in the right lane for miles.

Maybe that’s how I achieved 18.9 mpg on the way back – after 15.0 on the way down.


The journey was between 7 am and 11 am Monday, July 24, 2023.