Just-get-to-Joplin, day 2 of 3. What’s in Joplin? Route 66, the fabled road that will lead me straight to California. I could have picked up 66 in St. Louis, but then I would have missed the Katy Trail. From the end of the Katy in Clinton to El Dorado was brutal. On Day 2 I leave Eldo for Lamar, and am prepared with liquids even if I don’t ultimately need them.
I’m rattling over a gravel road, turn a corner and come upon a house with a commercial sign that looks out of place. Dogs dash at me and I’m going too slowly to outrun them. I get off the bike to stop the chase before it starts. Can I appease the animals?
Their owner, an elderly woman in periwinkle pajamas, is feeding the chickens.
“Alice, stop that right now and come here!” she yells at the largest dog whose name is Allis like the tractor brand. She inherited the dog from her deceased son who loved the brand.
I begin chatting with Madeline, who is wondering what I’m doing on a bicycle in these here parts. I’m wondering what parts am I in.
Madeline’s family used to have a feed store and gas stand until Mother Nature robbed them in 2006. The tornado was supposed to hit nearby Montevallo, but struck here instead, and the DX sign was the only thing left standing. Madeline hit the bedroom floor of her 100-year-old house, which was destroyed while her son got pinned by a pickup truck in the equipment shed, which collapsed.
“Oh, it was terrible. Just terrible. The storm just flattened everything that there was,” she recalls. “I hope to never experience anything like that again.”
I take this opportunity to quiz her about local roads, an alphabet soup of letters, hoping she can steer me away from gravel that shakes the bike and my body.
Madeline offers to make me a sandwich, but I’m all set. We part ways just as a giant tractor lumbers down the road ready to roll over anything in its path.
“I wish you safe journeys and I hope you find your way,” she calls out over the machinery noise, referring I think to my path in life as well as the way to Lamar.
Down the road I reach Montevallo, home to more barking dogs and other signs of hostility. A tombstone-style marker notes that Vernon County, which includes this tiny town, fielded more Confederate soldiers proportionate to its population than anywhere else in Missouri. Across the street is a handmade anti-abortion sign painted in blood red. I want to get out of here, like yesterday.
More than super
I roll into Lamar ahead of schedule and stop at a Super 8 to ask about rates. There is a cheaper motel across the street, but letters on the sign are falling off. You know what they say about first impressions.
To my surprise, the clerk at Super 8 is not only competent, but also delightfully professional. Upon hearing my budget, she gets to work trying to land me a discount, and finds a “first-timer” coupon to narrow the gap between the lower rate across the street. Fresh brownies on the counter are free for the taking, and I can’t have just one. I’m sold on Super 8.
This is no ordinary chain property. I mean, these might be the best brownies west of the Mississippi. (They cannot compete, however, with those irresistible Fat Witches in NYC’s Chelsea Market.)
On the wall I notice an award for the third best Super 8.
“Is that in the country?” I ask.
“In North America,” the clerk replies. “Out of 1,800 locations. We’re also rank really high on TripAdvisor.”
Indeed, this is a top 25 bargain hotel in the entire country on Trip Advisor, and one of only three chain properties to appear on the list. (Two months later I will stay at #8, the historic Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, NM.)
Our 33rd President
A little more Internet research reveals another thing I didn’t know about little Lamar: birthplace of Harry S. Truman. The Truman Library and homestead are in Independence, but his boyhood house is here. I ride by the museum, which has closed for the day and won’t be open tomorrow. I satisfy my curiosity by peeking in the windows to view period furniture, and feel thankful I grew up with video games and in more plush surroundings.
Dinner is an easy decision. I want it local and I want it good. I get both at Tractors BBQ that’s run out of a Shell gas station. When I was in high school we took a family trip to Alabama (yes, we really took a vacation there). I remember my dad guiding us into the back of a gas station for collared greens, corn bread and greasy meat. My mother was mortified and refused to eat, but my father still has fine memories of that day.
This gas station experience in Lamar doesn’t disappoint, and I leave happily stuffed. Night is falling as I circle Lamar’s central square.
Lamar, founded in the 1850s, is named after the second president of the Republic of Texas, Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar. The city is home to Redneck Blinds, a respected brand that assures customers, “Despite our unique name there is nothing Redneck about our products.”
If you’re knowledgeable about interior decorating and have never heard of this brand of blinds, you need to get out of the house. These are hunting blinds that resemble lookout towers or hay bales, where men sit for hours drinking Coors Light and talk about guns, NASCAR and titties until an unlucky turkey, deer or elk saunters into range and gets fired upon. Or that’s what I’m assuming happens, but I’ve never been hunting and only have experience with blinds of the bedroom window variety.
Classic car aficionados may know of Fast Eddie Hot Rod Shop. Based right here in Lamar, Eddie restores vintage and dream machines brought to them from all over the world.
Decline of small towns
On the sad side of local business, I learn about a manufacturer of furniture that couldn’t keep pace with cheap Chinese imports and went out of business. Local restaurants have suffered, too, like The Peppermill, which one Yelper called, “Probably the best small town restaurant in a 30 mile radius.”
Trio’s Pizza also closed this year and fortunes must have changed abruptly. On their Facebook page in the span of a week they expanded their hours, put out a call for job applicants, and ultimately put customers on notice: “Due to our decline in sales we are unable to stay open. Please come in and grab your favorite pizza while you can.”
Both restaurants faced Lamar’s expansive central square. With night falling, I ride around in a circle and survey the economic distress first-hand. Dark storefronts with vacant windows face ample parking but no cars.
It’s here where the destruction of small town America hits me. I’m staying a mile away next to the interstate where fast food and limited service lodging cluster. These chain properties set up on cheaper land on the outskirts of town and, thanks to the interstate system, pick off convenience-minded travelers and prevent them from reaching local businesses. Main Street starves. Except for a movie theater, downtown Lamar is mostly bones.
I’m proud to avoid interstates and instead travel on secondary roads that feed into town squares that replenish me with food cooked from local recipes. I keep an eye out for small ice cream shops, diners, general stores, B&Bs and breweries.
You would think mom & pop shops and small batch restaurants would be hard to find, but I’ve rarely had a problem avoiding food from chains. With a few exceptions of eating at Subway and Dairy Queen in extreme circumstances, I’ve patronized no drinking or dining chains unless it is a regional chain that I’ve never tried, for example, Culver’s. If I ever get to California, I will try the much anticipated In-N-Out Burger.
There’s no local lodging in downtown Lamar. I give my condolences to Main Street and pedal towards back-lit signs hoisted high above the interstate. Uniformity and convenience is the modern American standard. I lock the bike to the pool fence at Super 8 before plucking one more brownie off the counter with the justification that it’s pre-ride fuel for my triumphant push for Joplin tomorrow.