Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Ozark Mountain Daredevil

©2013 Text and Photos by LeeZard
Friday August 2 – Fredonia, KS to Lebanon, MO
This Lebanon resident has nothing to do
with this post but how could I resist?
I have mixed feelings about leaving Fredonia, KS. While theirs is a very sad situation, I met some nice people who shared very intimate stories and feelings. One thing I am learning (or reaffirming) on my journey, however, is that we Americans are a very resilient lot. My kind thoughts will always be with the fightin’ Fredonians but I am ready to move on.
U.S. 400 continues on a straight-line east from Fredonia, cornfields and other crops still lining the two-lane highway. As I enter Missouri, The U.S. route suddenly ends and I am on State Highway 171. My GPS quickly routes me south on a narrow road with no shoulders. I suspect it is a county road but GPS identifies it as State Highway M. Hmmmmm.
I haven’t seen a town in hours. I ride Highway M for 27 miles, cattle and crops on either side with the occasional farmhouse along the way. I finally hit U.S. 160 east, which quickly brings me onto I-44 and into Lebanon, MO. What a long strange trip it’s been.

Saturday August 3-Tuesday August 6 – Lebanon and Laclede County, MO
There are 33 churches listed in the Lebanon Daily Record. In this town of 14,500 that boils down to approximately one church for every 424 people. I raise this point because as I drive along Jefferson Avenue through the heart of town and then northwest into rural Laclede County both sides of the road are dotted with bible quotes on small signs a la Barbasol and many more on large billboards (tightens his bible belt to make room for them all). 
Community Baptist Church

The Baptists dominate with 44 percent of all local churchgoers. There’s the Community Baptist Church (very large), the First Baptist Church, the Second Baptist Church and several baby Baptist churches.

The recession hit Lebanon beginning in 2007. The hit was dramatic and got worse if you look at single family new construction permits (According to
  • ·       2006     71 permits
  • ·       2007     37
  • ·       2008     25
  • ·       2009     18
  • ·       2010     18
  • ·       2011     6.

Manufacturing is the big economic driver. Lebanon is the nation’s largest producer of aluminum fishing and pleasure boats. As a result, metal fabrication also plays a significant role. The largest employer, however, is Emerson Climate Technologies (air conditioning). Agriculture accounts for only about five percent of the local economy.
In late 2010, as the recession deepened here; Emerson temporarily laid off nearly a third of its workforce that peaks at about 1,100 in full production. Overall unemployment in Lebanon is still in double digits.
Another key sector is transportation. Thirty-five year old Nathan is a supervisor for Conway Freight. He voluntarily left a job in 2010 as driver for a moving company to land this much better position. “They were looking for guys with degrees or who were veterans and I’m both,” he says.
“But I can see the results of the recession with our customers. Nobody is hiring and we’re moving less freight. Last year we moved about 350,000 pounds and that’s down to 250,000 this year.”
Thirty-eight year old John Simon used to manage a retail store but when he was moved down to a sales position as the company tightened up he quit and went back to school. “I went from bein’ able to do anything I want to clipping coupons out of the Sunday paper,” he says. "Now, I work part time selling for the Mars Candy Company so I can pay for school. I’m just scrapin’ by. I used to go huntin’ and fishin’ just for fun. It’s still fun but now it also puts food on the table.”
Joyce Fritzy is 60, out of work and living on disability benefits. She used to work for a company that made seats for Chrysler but she says, “They closed down and moved to Canada.”
“My income went down by $30,000 a year. My husband is retired and he’s got a pension but not a very good one. We don’t spend money on anything unless we have to. Our kids are grownup but they’re havin’ trouble payin’ bills and we can’t help ‘em.”
“So, what have you learned from all of this?” I ask.
Without missing a beat, she says, “We’re all getting’ older and we’re all goin’ broke.”
Lebanon, Missouri is in The Ozarks – Hillbilly Country. The Ozarks are called “mountains” but, in reality, the region is actually a large plateau of green, rolling hills running through southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas. The tallest ‘mountains” are about 2,500 feet.
I use the term “hillbilly” gently; it is often considered derogatory. Technically, hillbilly refers to “people in any poor mountainous region but is especially associated with Appalachia and The Ozarks.” According to
“Origins of the term "hillbilly" are obscure. According to Anthony Harkins in Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon, the term first appeared in print in a 1900 New York Journal article, with the definition: ‘a Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.’”
Today the term is iconic in American culture and has lost some of its negativity. Hillbilly Music is resurgent, especially with the likes of banjo-playing Steve Martin winning Grammys, touring and recording popular albums.
Driving west on Missouri 64 and away from Lebanon I spot a dirt road heading south into the woods. I take the left turn. The road runs several miles up and down hills, in and out of thick forest and connecting with a network of more dirt roads in all directions. Surprisingly, the scenery runs the gamut from abandoned cars and equipment and many worn out, tired looking trailers to a couple of large farms and one shiny new home that would fit nicely in any suburban development. 
This is a hillbilly hunt so I look for signs of life around the trailers. It is very quiet but when I am just about to turn around and quit I spot a man walking out of a small trailer with his wife, small daughter and three little Dachshunds.
James Andrews is a 51-year old farmer/rancher. He leases a few acres to raise a variety of crops and a small herd of beef cattle.
“Everything just gets out of whack,” he says, “everything goes up, fertilizer gets high, prices go up in the stores and beef prices are still low. Ya can’t sell nuthin’ right now, nobody ain’t got no money so ya just keep the crops and feed the cattle.”
“How does this affect your personal financing?” I ask.
“Well, it changes everything. Insurance is getting higher, gas is high and diesel is high. I barely get by just stayin’ at home.”
Having James recession story, I am about to step onto what may be a slippery slope. “I want to ask you a stupid out-of-stater’s question,” I begin tentatively. “It’s about the word hillbilly. I’ve heard it could be negative to some people…..”
James cuts in right there, “Oh, it don’t bother me none.”
Emboldened, I query, “Are you a hillbilly?”
“Well, I guess I’m hillbilly as anybody else,” he says.
“Can you define the word hillbilly for me?”
“Kinda like what we are out here. We just stay in the country and mind our own business and do our own thing. Everybody says we talk a little different, I don’t know if we do or not.”

Wednesday August 7 – Laclede County, MO

I wrote the above early this morning – thought I was done but the adventure evolves. Unbeknownst to me the Laclede County Sheriff’s Department is looking for me, has been for the past four days. The manhunt ended with my “apprehension” a short time ago. While I had no idea of the manhunt’s scope, I wasn’t really that surprised.
It began four days ago when I was first haunting the back roads looking for some hillbillies. You saw my sole success above, James Andrews. I initially passed Andrews’ trailer and drove another quarter mile or so before I could turn around. Along the way a blonde woman, dressed in a red workout outfit, was power walking in my direction. She waved and I responded in kind.
As I made my U-turn, I noticed in my rearview mirror that she was watching me over her shoulder. Can’t say that I blame her – strange vehicle, out-of-state plates, a big cargo box on top, starting and stopping miles from the main highway.
I turned into the Andrews’ driveway and spent about 10-minutes getting my interview. As I turned left out of the driveway – toward the highway – it struck me that James used a term I didn’t quite understand. Good reporter that I am, I made another U-turn to ask the follow-up question. At the same time, the power walker had turned around and was heading home. As I headed back to the Andrews place, she was now in front of me, still looking over her shoulder. I did consider driving ahead to assure her that I was no threat but I also thought that might freak her out.
James’ ATV was gone and there was no one around so I sat in the driveway for about five minutes and waited. I finally turned to leave and as I repeated my left-turn to the highway I saw the power walker stopped in the middle of the dirt road, mobile phone to her ear. I knew she was reporting my “suspicious” behavior. I considered U-turning yet again to explain my presence and again I rejected it; now it would really freak her out. I drove off and put the incident out of mind.
Over the next two days I was intent on getting some more interviews back in them there woods but it was as if they knew I was coming and headed for the hills – other hills. I did make another stop at the Andrews place, hoping for clarification on that one point but I never saw James again. This morning I made one more drive down the dirt road, taking pictures, did not stop at the Andrews’ trailer.
Heading back to Lebanon on Highway 64 I noticed a County Sheriff’s car heading north on a side road. Thirty seconds later another Sheriff’s car passed me heading in the other direction. Glancing in my rearview mirror I saw him make his own U-turn. I instinctively knew why. “He’s comin’ to get us,” I said to Trooper.
I’ve made it my habit on this journey to stay within five-to-ten miles of the speed limit. In this case I was spot on 55 MPH and a good thing it was; sure enough that cruiser was right behind me, blue lights flashing. I immediately signaled my intention to pull into the next driveway, a Conoco gas station.
Just as the older, white-haired deputy pops out of his car, another Sheriff’s cruiser pulls in right behind the first. That deputy exits his vehicle and stays a safe distance behind his compadre, watching the Jeep intently. “Now this is getting interesting,” I think to myself.
I quickly lowered my window, driver’s license in hand. “Good afternoon, sir,” I opened the dance, “I certainly wasn’t speeding.”
“No sir, you wasn’t speedin,’” came the reply, “but we’ve had some complaints that someone in a green Jeep with Washington plates was goin’ around askin’ some silly questions like ‘how many people live here?’ and ‘how old are the children, how many are there?’ We’ve been huntin’ you for four days.”
That did take me by surprise. In fact, it alarmed me greatly. “Deputy,” I said as reassuringly as possible, “I have been going around asking question but certainly not THOSE questions.”
I immediately explained my purpose and detailed exactly what questions I was asking. As I talked, I noticed his body language relaxing. At this point, another cruiser pulled in. Deputy #1 still had my license in hand and I was determined not to lose control of the situation. “Why don’t you go run my license,” I suggested.
On the way back to his radio, #1 explained the situation to #s 2 and 3. They, too, relaxed and leaned back against one of the cruisers. A short time later #1 returned with a smile on his face. “You’re good to go but if I were you I wouldn’t go back there no more; folks don’t like it.”
I started to apologize for any trouble I might’ve caused but he cut me off, “Ain’t no trouble at all. We’ve got an escaped convict on the loose and people ‘round here are more than a little nervous. We’ve got to check everything.”
Shaking his hand and thanking him for his service to the community, I had to ask, “By the way, just how many calls did you get on me?”
“Well,” he paused to consider, “we got one four days ago, probably that walker. Then, we got several more calls two days ago and another one this morning. We’ve been lookin’ real hard for ya.”
By now he was talking in a much more friendly manner and I decided to take advantage. “Ya know deputy, I’ve been wanting to get a law enforcement perspective on the recession. Can I ask you a few questions?”
He seemed pleased, “Well sure but I only have a few minutes.” His mobile phone rang and he looked toward me after checking caller ID, “Just a minute, it’s the sheriff.”
As he walked away I heard him speak into the phone, “Yessir, he’s writin’ a book. Yessir, yessir. Will do sir.”

Returning to my open window the deputy was back to official business. “Alright, sir, I’ve got to be moving along. You stay away from back there, y’hear, and have yourself a nice day.”
Sidebar.1: The Rain in Spain Falls Mainly in Missouri
This will sound funny coming from a Seattle guy but I haven’t seen this much rain since 1954 when I was a kid in New York City and Hurricane Connie dumped more than 13 inches in one day. Of course, I wasn’t living in a tent then as I am now. Last night I thought the tent was coming down, either from the force of the rain, the wind or a lightning strike. YOIKS!
Let me put it another way; this part of Missouri had about six inches of rain in the entire month of July. Between 4:30 and 7:00 (CDT) this morning 7.32 inches of rain fell on my humble domed domicile. It’s rained off and on every day here since I arrived four days ago, some of it quite heavy, but this morning was something else and then some.
At the height of the storm the rain was so heavy, coupled with a steady wind of 25MPH, that one wall of my tent was so far inward it touched the floor. The entire tent was leaning sideways. Trooper and I have been mostly dry to this point but at that moment it was if the tent just gave up and water started blowing through the fabric.
We’ve also witnessed considerable lightning this week. It was only a prelude to this morning; it wasn’t merely flashes, the entire landscape was constantly aglow and flickering like an old light bulb. As the heart of the storm passed overhead the thunder and lightening were simultaneous.
Have I told you how much Trooper hates thunder? The poor guy tried to crawl into my sleeping bag. I helped him in and held his trembling body until the worst was over.

Sidebar.2: Chillin’ in Lebanon
This is also my post-recessionary story so I must pause here because I must pause here. That means I am halting my narrative – and my journey – for several days until my finances catch up with the calendar. I am paying for this amazing road trip with my monthly Social Security benefits, my only source of income right now. I’m not whining; it is what it is.
My money arrives the second Wednesday each month and while that’s nice and predictable it’s also problematic when there are five weeks between Magic Wednesdays, like this month. I am down to my last $120 with 10-days to go. Fortunately, I’m paying only $5.00 a night for my tent site. My cooler is full, my gas tank half so. I will hunker down until things stabilize. Luckily, there are only four weeks between benefits over the next two months.