Houston to Minneapolis and Back
By Ken Walker
I should preface this by stating that I've driven the route from
Houston to Minneapolis and back twice. Once in the Miata and once in
a rented Chevy Cavilier. Both times I took the same route, I-45 from
Houston to Dallas, then I-35 the rest of the way. As interesting as
Oklahoma City, Denton, Des Moines, Kansas City, and Wichita may be,
the drive along this route is B-O-R-I-N-G. There's not a hill or
curve in sight. You could set the cruise control on 110 and never
take it off.
With that said, it should be obvious now why I thought long and hard
about the route when I recently made the trip (for the third and last
time for awhile) after being offered a job here in Minneapolis. I
have roots and family in Gainesville Missouri (pop. 512) so I knew
there is some good driving paths in the Ozarks. I mapped everything
out around scenic highway 7 that runs almost the whole way through
Arkansas. If you have your maps handy, find Little Rock then look to
the southwest for a city called Arkadelphia. Hwy 7 runs from
Arkadelphia all the way to the Missouri border. Its freshly paved and
extremely curvy. There are signs every 20 miles or so that say
"Caution: Steep and Twisty Roads next XX miles." I took a picture of
TIC-TAC parked underneath one of these just for grins. I'll send it
to Keith when it gets developed for inclusion on his Web page.
Travel day 1
Normal mortals drive the route between Houston and Dallas along I-45
in about 5 hours (less if they have a lead foot). I decided to take
old hwy 75 for this section of the trip. It was fascinating to see
all of the little beer joints and bbq places along with antique shops
and quilting bees that were just a pebble's throw away from the
interstate I had travelled so frequently before. I guess its true
that some of the best things to see are right under your nose. Its
also true that any road that goes from point A to point B in Texas is
probably going to be long, straight, and flat so I didn't get to
excersise the more integral of suspension parts but I did get a
marvelous tan! Taking this route to Dallas took me almost 6 hours but
I stopped twice for pictures, beef jerky, and the like. Sampson (6lb
Yorkshire Terrier) was in the car with me so I used this part of the
trip to ween him to the passenger seat for what was to come later. I
knew I couldn't drive as well as I should through some of the testier
sections of road ahead with a dog in my lap. He eventually learned
that the view out the passenger door was just as good as the view from
Days two and three were spent in Dallas. I drove around to say
goodbye to friends and stayed at the Doubletree to watch the Rockets
play the hapless Lakers. Hell, the company paid for the gas, hotel,
and food along the way so I figured I'd stay.
Travel Day Two
Day two started early and I headed from Dallas to Arkadelphia via hwy
30. This stretch is currently littered with construction points and
the speed limit drops to 65 when you hit the Arkansas border. I was
an hour or so behind schedule, but I didn't really care because my
only realy deadline was to be in Minneapolis to check into my temp.
house by the 5th of May. Today was only 2nd so I had time to burn. I
turned north on hwy 7 at 11:30 and stopped to put the top down, get
the boot on, fill the gas up, get the oil checked, stabilize the tire
pressure and put food in my belly. I didn't want to stop for awhile
because I knew the driving would be too much fun.
After I re-filled everything and dialed in the new attitude adjustment
for curvy roads, I left the filling station and headed North up state
highway 7. I had already seen two local towns that claimed to be Bill
Clinton's home town and fully expected to see several more. The
weather was fantastic, 68 degrees at dusk with little wind to speak of
and very clear skies. I leashed the dog to the support bar under the
seat and gave him just enough slack to walk from the seat to the floor
but not enough to climb out or onto the rear parcel shelf. Away we
It took me 30 minutes or so to get used to the new configuration. I
had been used to the drone of the highway speed and the sound of the
engine in 5th at 3200rpm. The sound of the Jackson exhaust suddenly
humming up to 5000 on a routine basis was refreshing, but it took some
getting used to. After an hour or so, I was drilled into the feel a
little better and I never let her fall under 4000 after that. In
fact, I rarely had to use 4th gear at all. I was surprised at the
lack of traffic (relative to prime vacation time of the year), but I
still got caught behind the occasional RV or truck. Eventually, I
worked it into part of the task and just got used to passing people.
Later in the dusk hours, I would go for 10 or 15 miles at a time
without seeing a soul. Marvelous!
As much fun as the simple act of driving is (was) on this road, I
simply had to stop once in awhile. There was an enormous and
beautiful dam built by the Army Corp of engineers that was well worth
a look, sever crystal and slag glass rock mines were along the route
and I even stopped once for an hour or so to don the miners cap and
dig some for myself (for a very modest fee).
One of the prettiest girls I'd ever seen was working the counter at
one of these rock shops about 50 miles north of Hot Springs. She was
simply beautiful. It was her birthday (evidenced by the un-eaten cake
on the counter with a name written out in icing that matched her name
tag) and she was working alone. I asked if she had any friends or
family to celebrate with and she told me no and that her manager
brought her the cake this morning. She mentioned that she would
probably take it home, have a piece, take a bath, and go to bed. I
avoided the obvious "What's a nice looking girl like you doing out
here in the woods" drivel and asked instead if there were any hotels
or restaraunts near the rock shop. It was dusk and I was tired and
thought it might be better to stay here than to push any further for
the day. There was indeed a bed and breakfast up the road, but it
turned out later (at her suggestion) that I didn't have check in and
stay there.... she could really use the "company" at her place...
I left early the next morning and it was nice to work through the
gears without the truckers in the way for a few wind-less morning
hours. I stopped at a local Church that was having a "donation" type
car wash and let them clean the bugs off the front of the car. It got
close to 80 degrees that afternoon and my tan was getting better! I
got pretty hungry, and the car was low on gas again (amazing how much
you can burn if you sustain 4200rpm or greater for 5 hours at a time)
so I needed a place to stop. Food along the way all seems to be of
the "family style" country orientation with emphasis on bbq, corn, and
potato salad. I stopped for some ribs in a bbq shack made entirely of
wood. Wood floors, wood ceiling, wood walls, cooker, counter,
benches, tables. Aside from the bathroom porcelin there was very
little that wasn't hewn from the nearby landscape.
I was near the highest point in the surrounding country at Ozark
Canyon. There was a tremendous view of the valley below from the top!
A staired tower had been erected at the summit to let you climb even
higher to look down onto both sides of the canyon. I could see the
twisty road below, and I could also see the approaching traffic from
the other end. I waited up there till I saw a l-o-n-g stretch of
empty road between a motorcycle club and the nearest trailer behind
them. I scampered down the steps, hopped into the Miata without
opening the door and waited for the first motorcycle. After their
club had passed, I waited for that first glimps of the silver trailer
a mile or so behind them, brought the rpm up 3500, and dumped the
Arkansas to Missouri
I never quite caught up to the motorcycle group, they turned off into
a state park to camp or re-group or something. I passed by "Dogpatch
USA" a little bit later and was sad to see that it had gone out of
business. For those confused netters out there, "Dogpatch" was a
comic strip complete with some hillbilly characters right out of the
Ozarks. There was a theme park built up there based on the characters
with rides and crafts and such. As a small child, my grandfather used
to drive my brother and sister and I down there for a Saturday. It
looked a little like a ghost town because all of the big plastic
animals and the skeletons of roller coasters long forgotten still
stood in the park... It looked as if everyone just walked away and
left their popcorn and corny-dogs behind. A torn gate and weed
patches several feet high confirmed that it was not just closed for
the season. Another childhood memory, gone.
I was only 15 miles or so from the border when it started to cloud up.
It got pretty dark, and when the wind picked up I relented to the
small pleas of my poor little buffeted dog and put the top up. I
noticed that after you've driven a couple of days at speed with the
top down, the Miata is a *completely* different car when you put the
top up. Suddenly, I could feel my ears again. Of course, the sound
of the exhaust wasn't the same either...
Rain in Missouri
The first thing I noticed about Missouri was that the twisty curves
seemed to disappear in favor of longer, steeper hills. There were
stretches where I could have seen 10 miles straight out in front of me
(if it weren't for the rain) with a few long humps in between. I
think the rain started about the same time I crossed the border (bad
omen?), all I remember at this point was that I was hungry again and
with the rain pouring down it was as good a time as any to stop for a
longer period of time. I found a trucker's diner (they always have
the best fried chicken) and put the Miata at the corner stretch of lot
next to Semi Truck City. Those things look a lot bigger when they sit
next to a Miata.
The second thing I noticed about Missouri had to be the passing lanes.
The third lane would go on for a few miles or so and I could almost
leave the cruise control on 75 without ever having to adjust. There
was a bit of construction going on, but no cops and the traffic that
was present was lite and moving speedily along.
Along the route I started to notice huge (and I mean *huge*)
billboards advertising older washed up lounge acts. Acts like Mickey
Gilley, The Statler Brothers, Ray Stevens, Boxcar Willie, Wayne
Newton, even a group called "Lee Chong and the Harmonica Sisters" was
up. apparently there are a lot of theaters in southern MO, and they
must get their fair share of tourists. I suppose this is where those
acts go when they've already milked Vegas, Atlantic City, Grand Ole
Opry, and those "late night recycled album" commercials for all
they're worth. It was kind of scary seeing Boxcar Willie's 40 foot
face bearing down on you every few miles, I was certainly glad when
the "last chance to exit for..." signs starting appearing.
Antique Shops Galore!
Antiques and quilts absolutely rule the order of things in this part
of the country. If you can't quilt and you don't have an old relative
with a lot of old rusty crap stashed in a barn somewhere, you might as
well go back where you came from. In the same way that "everyone in
Hollywood is an actor," everyone in Hillbilly country whether a cook,
librarian, or fireman, is also an antique salesman. The great part is
that they're not like those professional antique dealers along 5th
avenue in New York with the polished mustache and the attitude, no!
They'll find a priceless cast iron candy scale (for example) in the
rafters of their third cousin Barney's (who died in the war) storage
shed, and barter you for it. You can find some unbelievable deals
here if you know what you're looking for!
Kansas City was the first real city I had seen in days. Literally.
By real city, I mean there was more than one interstate moving through
the city limits. It was here that I finally tired of the backroads
and merged onto I-35 for the duration northward. What a difference!
I was accidentally doing 90 before I knew it, smoother pavement REALLY
makes a difference. I lucked out and snuck in after most of the
afternoon traffic had already moved so I flew through rather quickly.
Nothing in front of me now except Iowa.
Chief Lamoni and the Iowa Border
When I got to the Iowa border I was really tired. I stopped at the
information center for some coffee and was surprised to find a workout
room, free snacks, tea, coffee, and corn. A small quilt museum, and
several smiling faces ready to help. It was hands down the finest
visitors center I have ever been to and I've seen over 20 of them.
Right down the road is the Chief Lamoni Motel. I looked for a long
time at the marquis. I looked at my watch. I stretched. I looked
back at the marquis and noticed the "free HBO" sign swinging in the
wind. I went. For only 24$ you too can stay at the Chief Lamoni
Motel. They even have printed matchbooks! I parked in front of my
room (8) and entered to see one lamp (one bulb), one towel, a small
heater, and a sink with one water glass perched on the counter. Even
Sampson paused for a minute before he bounced on in. He looked up at
me as if to say "You've got to be kidding!" The TV had cable (14
channels) but no remote control and no ESPN. The water from the
shower just sort of "fell" out of the shower head and the carpet in
the room was that squared felt-like stuff that felt like a big brown
mouse-pad. There was however, a really nice pond with a dog run in
the back for Sampson (who tried in vain to catch his first Canadian
None of this stuck in my mind for long because I was fast asleep very
soon. Its funny how a long drive will sap the energy right out of you
even though you aren't really physically excerting yourself.
If a state is on the map but nobody ever goes there, is it still a
state? I know that during the democratic or republican national
conventions, delegates from each state "brag" a little on their state
before announcing their vote. I've heard Texas Senators belly up to
the microphone and bellow "The great state of Texas, the rootnest
tootnest home of this good country's oil production, the home of this
great nation's astronaut corps, and home of the finest BBQ east of the
Pecos river casts its vote for..." What in the good Lord's name do the
Iowa caucus reps say? "The squarish state of Iowa, sort of in the
middle of the map, not home to any Freemen or weirdoes, and large
producers of corn cast their vote for..." Iowa is flat. Iowa does
have some of the most "Norman Rockwellian" American farms though. As a
child, I played with the proverbial farm toys, the little red barn,
the matching silo, dairy cows, farm house, tractor etc... Cast here on
the landscape in front of me was farm after farm that exactly matched
every child's conjured image of what a farm should be. No mechanized
assembly lines, no teams of combines churning through thousands of
acres at a time, just a great American view of the old fashioned
family farm. I figured Clark Kent would walk up any time.
When I left the motel, I was ready to be in Minnesota. Really. I
felt lucky, set the cruise control to 90, decided no stopping, no
potty, no food, just blaze through Iowa like a hot knife through
butter. I may have very well set the record, I went through the 200+
miles of Iowa in about 2 hours and 23 minutes.
Iowa was *windy* like nothing I'd ever seen. It didn't affect the car
much, but if I let go of the steering wheel for a moment it would
drift immediately to windward. There were lines of trees and
shrubbery planted strategically around houses and farms to break the
wind and keep the dirt from drifting up in piles.
Finally. I stopped at the information center and when I got out of
the car, I was cold. I was cold for the first time on the whole trip.
Its almost like they draw a temperature line at the border or
something. I stopped at the NIKE outlet store for shoes (the movers
had mine), Levi's outlet store for dockers (can't have enough of
those) and presto, 50 short miles later I was home at the residence
inn waiting for the movers to catch up to me.
Would I do it again? yea, if you guaranteed the same weather
conditions I had.
Do I regret anything about the trip? only that I don't have a turbo
How is Sampson the wonder dog? Great, no problems and he is finally
getting used to his new home.