Stuff I Liked in Missouri

Entry sign on the road to Big Cedar Lodge. Not total hyperbole.

I went to Missouri to speak at the Governor’s Conference on Tourism. They flew me in a few days early so I could get a look at the place. All my travels, meals, accommodations, were paid for by the tourism board.

Hotel Vandivort: My room had a weird view of the HVAC system and the neighboring parking garage, but it was a gorgeous room with a super comfortable bed, a nicely appointed bathroom, and it was walking distance from all the good stuff in downtown Springfield. The building is gorgeously renovated brick and there’s a super hip bar and restaurant in the lobby. I can’t speak to the food or drink on site — I ate elsewhere — but the hotel itself? So nice. Also, Springfield feels like kind of a cool town, a person could hang out there for a while, see some small shows, eat some good food… I liked it.

Black Sheep: I am super mad that I wasn’t hungrier and/or didn’t have company to eat with at Black Sheep. This is epic diner chow, updated all fresh, all delicious, all about 9000 calories more than you need but whatever. My sandwich had truffle oil and goat cheese on it, for crying out loud, and I am still pining for the fries I could not finish, though I made short work of the sandwich. Next time, I am going directly to the milkshakes, do not pass go. Or, maybe for a long walk, first, so I have an appetite worthy of the delicious mess this joint serves up.

Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield: There’s nothing like a Civil War site to make a person philosophical about American History, especially in an era of division. The war felt more real to me when I visited Vicksburg a few years back — there, the battlefield is covered with markers that indicate a person who died. But I will always sit through a National Park produced educational film and I love — with my whole heart — the rangers and volunteers who help you learn about where you are. I spent a long time talking with volunteer James about Sterling Price, a Missouri leader who was pro-Union until he wasn’t anymore. I am so grateful to have heard that story.

Big Cedar Lodge: This gorgeous property (just south of Branson) presents itself as a “wilderness lodge” and because I live in the Pacific Northwest, I was all, “Oh, sure, I’ll be the judge of THAT.” I’m a jerk. The winding approach takes you past a spectacular viewpoint over Lake Taneycomo, and then down to an immaculately manicured property that’s like a national park lodge fell in love with a Restoration Hardware catalog and had babies who took up taxidermy. I gawked at the lobby like a yokel and my room, in a building perched on a sunset facing rise, was perfect. I sprung for a massage at the spa and while it wasn’t cheap, it was a very good massage and the facility is immaculate. I had a respectable cocktail at the bar, an okay catfish po’boy, and a very good plate of fried green tomatoes. A lovely stay.

Top of the Rock Ozarks Natural History Museum: Adjacent to Big Cedar — and run by the same management company — is a jaw dropping collection of Native American artifacts, art of the west, Civil War bits and pieces, paraphernalia from the golden age of Western movies, um, what else was there? I was gobstruck, I swear I walked through a seemingly endless collection with my mouth hanging open, rarely have I seen such a staggering collection. The curation is super weird, though — for example, I found a Thomas Kinkade romantic painting of teepees in one room of artifacts, and work by a living Native American artists with no recognition of their backgrounds.  The whole collection was once private so I suppose it hasn’t needed to be contextualized, but it could sure use it now that it’s on public view.

Dimitri’s Greek Gyros and Deli: Contrary to popular wisdom, I decided to eat at the restaurant that wasn’t crowded in downtown Branson. I was not sorry about my choices. It’s functional inside — though I liked the generations of family photos over the counter. The woman behind the counter was a delight, peppering her conversation with lots of “darlings'” and “sweethearts” and “hons” — Missouri is sort of the south, after all, and Greek roots or no, that’s how you do in the South. Also, yum. Greek is a nice option when you’ve been living on fries for a few days.

Billygail’s: I had to wait for a table in this funky ramshackle diner on a country road about 20 miles outside of Branson. I ended up sharing my table with two couples who were not traveling together. “How on earth did you end up here?” one of the men asked me. I’d been sent by @MoTravelGuy when I asked him where to eat breakfast. I am a terrible monster about carbs and the pancake here — which filled my plate clear to the edges — was perfect. The coffee wasn’t bad either. Also, when I left the table, the same guy who asked me how I’d ended up there said, “Now, when you get back to Seee-attle, you tell them you had breakfast with a real live hillbilly.” I greatly enjoyed my breakfast with that hillbilly. Also, sir, done and done.

Coffee Ethic: Simply put, the best coffee I had on my travels. On the square in downtown Springfield.

Druff’s: The barista at Coffee Ethic sent me here and yeah, probably his buddy or his girlfriend work here, but that doesn’t mean it was bad advice. It’s a grilled cheese sandwich place. With a full bar. What a brilliant idea, Seattle, get on it. Again — travel regrets — I was solo and had driving to do, I would have loved to have a drink with my excellent grilled cheese and turkey sammie. Did I mention this is a genius idea? Why don’t we have a bar with grilled cheese in Seattle? Why?

Wonders of Wildlife: I had to race through this brand new aquarium — though maybe not at quite the pace I ended up keeping — because I had to be at the airport that same afternoon. This attraction is freshly unwrapped and everything is immaculate. The critters are displayed in facsimile environments, so when you head to see the alligators there’s hanging moss and swinging bridges and it’s all beautifully immersive. The whole thing is appended to a flagship Bass Pro Shop store, it takes up an entire city block. I love aquariums, just love them, and to see one so new is a delight. I found all the sport fishing stuff at the entrance a bit odd, but whatever — sport fishing is huge in this part of the country, so it makes sense. Heads up, it’s a bit pricey and it’s going to take you at least half a day to get through it if you see the wildlife exhibits too (I did not have time), so plan accordingly. But wow. Just wow.

Ozark: I like to dig up pop culture touchstones when I go visit a new place; the only current thing I could find was the Netflix series, Ozark. I’ll bet the tourism board hates it. I can’t speak to the characters — I was not at any money laundering resorts or strip joints — but do think they capture the landscape well. Plus, the show is riveting.

I highly recommend getting out of your bubble to see the United States and meet your neighbors. It’s such a privilege to get to do so and I am never sorry to explore a part of the country I might not otherwise find myself in. I’ve been to Indiana, Mississippi, and Missouri. What’s next? Oklahoma? Nebraska?


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