In the middle of March, I went an oft-deferred road trip to visit my father’s family in southwestern Missouri. On our way westward, we completed the Mean Population Center expedition that I’ve wanted to undertake for years. We visited all twenty-four points that have been decennial National Fulcrums, including my estimate for 2010, getting as close to each point as GPS and public space would allow. Our census-themed trek was very fascinating. We stumbled upon several points of interest that we had no idea existed, and we got a four-day taste of what it was like to drive across America before the Interstate was built. Photos of our journey, and notes of our discoveries and follies, are available HERE on FaceBook.
Our ultimate target was Branson, Missouri, aptly lampooned on The Simpsons as "Las Vegas if it were run by Ned Flanders". It was in this area that my dad’s family decided to settle in, and though March is far from an optimal time to visit, we did see many points of interest.
We toured three different caves, of which the Ozarks has in plenty: Fantastic Caverns, Marvel Cave, and Talking Rocks Cavern. I rate caves by two factors: the Formation Factor (how many stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, crystals, etc, are visible in the cave), and the Crawl Factor (how adventurous the cave is to tour through, based on climbing, stooping, and general terrain challenges). From best to worst, the Formation Factor was Talking Rocks/Marvel/Fantastic and the Crawl Factor was Marvel/Talking Rocks/Fantastic. Yet, each cave had its gimmick. Fantastic Caverns is one of only four drive-through caves on Earth. Marvel Cave has a chamber large enough to fly hot-air balloons in and also features an underground waterfall (pictured above). Talking Rocks was experiencing technical troubles with their lighting, and so issued headlamps to visitors that day, which make the Crawl Factor on that cave much higher!
As an awesome cream icing on the pineapple upside-down cake that was Talking Rocks, the cave grounds also features a Speleo-Box, a wooden apparatus that simulates the contorted confines of a cavern. If you can make it through this, you can squeeze into a real cave on a spelunking expedition. Evelyn went through thte Box twice, clocking at four minutes and thirty five seconds. I’ve never seen anything like this before, and all present thought it was the highlight of the day. Here’s a video of two teen girls attempting a similar SpeleoBox challenge.
Branson seems like the unlikeliest places to build a large museum dedicated to the RMS Titanic, and yet, rising above the Branson theaters is the two-funneled scaled version of the infamous liner. The closest claim to hosting such a museum that Branson has, at least that I can tell, is that Unsinkable Molly Brown is a Missouri native, having hailed from another part of the state. At any rate, like the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Virginia, the Titanic Museum excels at large dioramas, featuring full-size mock-ups of a first-class stateroom, and third-class bunkroom, the grand staircase, the radio room, bridge, and lookout watch station. There were sloping deck samples that you can climb, to experience the degrees of list that the ship heeled to as it sank. There was a cistern of water chilled to North Atlantic temperatures. Most people only put their fingertips in the icy water for a few seconds… my dad immersed his arm up to the elbow and held it there for nine and a half minutes. At the beginning of the museum, there was a 1:40 scale model of the ship, and at the end was an equal-sized scale model of its wreck. Upon entrance, each museum visitor is issued a dossier with the name and biography of a Titanic passenger or crewmate. It gave an interesting individual focus to the exhibits, trying to discover the fate or your assigned role. (My role was as Jack Philips, chief telegraphist, who perished.) Even a naval architect like me learned something new. Did you know that the Titanic’s sister ship, RMS Olympic, was used to determine the width and depth of the Panama Canal?
We spent one day at the frontier-themed theme park, Silver Dollar City. Evelyn and I rode three of the park’s roller coasters and watched glassblowers demonstrate their proficiency. Silver Dollar City cashiers give out dollar coins in change! That’s great!
We toured Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum, Branson’s installation of that 20th Century freak show which held its public patrons to a higher standard that P.T. Barnum did his patrons a century earlier.
On the return drive, which only took two days, we visited the St. Louis Arch. Tickets to the top had sold out long before we arrived, but we still enjoyed the 1870 mercantile’s old-timey products (we bought a pie birdie for Mom) and the excellent museum dedicated to America’s legacy of westward expansion. The museum is organized in concentric semicircles and radiating spokes. The spokes divided the exhibit by subject matter, such as farming, mining, and soldiering. The circles radiated outward from the center, and divided the exhibits by era. 1800 was at the epicenter, representing the Louisiana Purchase, and the each circle out from there was ten years into the future, culminating in 1900 at the outer rim. There was a really cool timeline, and a very balanced gallery about Indian peace medals.
Nifty Wikipedia Thing: The Queens Giant
Amusing Internet Video: T-Shirt War
Movies I’ve Seen: (part of my Blaxploitation Appreciation Night)
Super Fly (1972)
Black Shampoo (1976)
Black Dynamite (2009)
What I’ve Been Reading:
"Otis: Giving Rise to the Modern City" by Chris Goodwin