bardicvoice (bardicvoice) wrote,

The Biker Babes Do Branson - A Harley Vacation, Part One

The Biker Babes Do Branson – A Harley Vacation


Just for your reference, while reading the following tale, my sister Terry is three years older than I am, I was 43 at the time, and our Mom was 76.  Terry is the proud owner of a gleaming black Harley Ultra Glide Classic with a sidecar, and for our first vacation on the bike, Terry, Mom, and I did a week-long trip on the Harley from Milwaukee, WI to Branson, MO, and back.  Terry drove, I rode behind her, and Mom was in the sidecar.  This was my trip journal, which I transcribed from my hand-written notes when we got back to my Mom’s house.  Enjoy how I spent my Spring break!


5 May 2000, Friday


We left Milwaukee at 3:45.  (That’s AM, folks!)


Our first major funny came in Jacksonville, IL.  We took the Jacksonville exit in search of gas, but the stations were clearly waaay off the highway, so we just pulled to the shoulder to check the map and figure out where our next best shot would be for high octane.  (The Harley likes a minimum of 92 octane; it’ll run on 91, but it won’t be real happy about it for too long ...)  We were in sight of an obvious prison:  we could see the lights, the walls, and the guard tower about half a mile away.  Anyway, we figured out where our best chances would be, turned on the engine, pulled away, and made a U-turn at the nearest crossover to get back to the highway – and as we turned, we saw that a prison guard van had been approaching us from behind, lights off, as we had been parked!  Our parking on that shoulder must have made them nervous, so they sent a patrol to check us out, only we pulled away before they got to us.  We gave them a friendly wave as we got back onto the highway, and had a really good laugh; with three of us already on the bike, where would they figure we could have smuggled an escaping prisoner aboard?


We caught breakfast at an Iron Skillet around 6:30, and had the first of many similar encounters:  we got a lot of looks, trooping into a truck stop in our leathers, and started fielding questions from drivers and other diners about our biking adventure.  Favorite line from a passing trucker:  "I don't know about the legs, but I sure like them jackets!"  Pulling up and dismounting from the bike, or kitting up and hopping aboard to hit the road, were always certain to attract an audience!


We got to Springfield, IL around 10:30, signed into our hotel, and then went and played tourist in Mister Lincoln's Neighborhood – which, no lie, is what the U.S. Park Service calls the lovely preserved area containing Abraham Lincoln's home.  We walked all over the neighborhood admiring the restoration work (Terry wanted to play with the restorers, and was especially fond of some very unusual, peaked-brick chimney pots, not to mention the picket fences!), and took the tour of Lincoln's home.  Very pretty, and very informative!  A block outside the Neighborhood, we went to Parks Telephone Museum, in the local Ameritech building.  Parks was a Bell employee who had built a personal collection of historical telephones, and the little museum was an enjoyable freebie.


We caught a late lunch/early dinner at a local Schlotzky's deli, and then went back to the motel for a swim.  Terry promptly decided that she had to add one more requirement to the lodging list she gives to her travel agent, who made all our arrangements:  to put the word "heated" in front of "indoor pool."  The water temperature was a bit on the cool side!  But it felt great once you got in, so all was well.  It was a little cool and breezy for sitting outside, so we just sat by the pool for a while to dry off, watching the latest guests arriving.  The last arrival we noted was a bus evidently loaded with all the participants of an obvious senior class trip:  a stream of boys and girls, with harried-looking chaperones.  We'd gotten out of the pool just in time; minutes after we left (to grab some fresh popcorn and hot tea or coffee from the lobby to take back to our room), the horde invaded, and the pool belonged to the high schoolers for the rest of the day!


6 May, Saturday


We left Springfield between 4:30 and 5:00, creeping out past the hall monitors who were making sure that the girls stayed on the second floor while the boys stayed on the first.  We pitied the poor chaperones!


We ate breakfast at the Corner Pantry in Pittsfield, IL, and attracted a lot of attention again both coming and going.  As we were suiting up, a couple of folk actually came out to videotape us getting kitted up and settling in for the road!  By the way -- we recommend the oatmeal with raisins.


We crossed the Mississippi at Louisiana, MO, and stopped on the Illinois side to take a few pictures.  Once across the river, we were on scenic highway for a stretch that ran beside the river before turning inland.  A short way down, we pulled off by one of the locks and decided to put on our rain gear, because the sky looked very threatening.  Nothing materialized, though, so we gradually shed bits and pieces of the gear as we made gas and pit stops further along the way.  We didn't roll it back up, though; we decided to just leave it folded in the packs, so that we could grab it quickly at need.


When we got onto 94, Terry found that the tradeoff for scenic views was two-lane, twisty roads, with lots of left and right and up and down.  She proclaimed that we wouldn't be going back that way:  her knees were aching and her knuckles were a bit white before the end of the day.  (You have to understand that riding a motorcycle with a sidecar is totally different than riding a two-wheeler: the driver actually has to shift her whole body off the bike to the right or the left on sharp turns in order to keep the bike going in the desired direction!)  But the views were spectacular, especially as we got into the Ozarks.  We also learned that Missouri has a flourishing wine industry.  We can't say anything about the quality of the product, since we didn't sample any, but the scenic route was lined with more wineries than I've seen anywhere except along the Rhine, and all of them were offering tours and tastings.  You could get plastered just going down the road, but you'd better keep a designated driver, because those curves are a son-of-a-gun and there's virtually no shoulder to give you safety maneuvering room!  I learned that doing tai chi is excellent training for riding back seat on a bike:  to keep from sliding forward into Terry on downhills, bumps, and braking, I learned to set my feet and shift my weight onto my legs, just like doing stance work in the martial arts.  Good thigh and calf work; I got my exercise even sitting down!


There's also a bicycle path that seems to run virtually the whole length of scenic 94; we kept glimpsing it and sometimes crossing it.  With the sun high, it was being well used, and it was a pretty day for anyone on any kind of bike for most of the day.


In mid-afternoon, though, we put on rain gear again, and this time, we needed it, although not for long.  The real rain lasted only about thirty minutes, although we kept running into little patches of light drizzle for the better part of an hour.  (When we watched the weather reports at night, we learned that we’d managed to just miss storm fronts that dropped six to eight inches of rain on some of the places we had just barely left – God was clearly on our side!)


We reached Branson between 4:30 and 5:00, and found our motel with the help of a phone call.  Our motel – the Best Western Rustic Oak (and yes, it matters, because there are three Best Westerns in Branson!) – was right on the outskirts of historic old downtown Branson.  The old town is a quaint slice of old-fashioned middle America, served up for tourists with cobblestoned sidewalks, gift shops, restaurants, a catch-all five-and-dime store, a scenic railway station, and one major intersection.  Except for one thing, it is very different from the strip along highway 76 (known as 76 Country Boulevard), which is much newer and is lined with a seemingly endless succession of theatres, motels, restaurants, and stores.  The one way in which old and new Branson are exactly the same is that you see places everywhere offering "best deals on Branson shows!!!!" – which we learned was a local euphemism for "come and listen to our timeshare/vacation program sales pitch and we'll get you free or cut-rate tickets to the Branson show of your choice!"  The fleecing of the tourist trade ... we decided not to listen to sales pitches and to pay full price for our tickets, thank you.


We found a fudge shop for an evening treat (they boasted, "A Foot of Chocolate for $0.99" and they meant it – that special was a six-inch long, quarter-inch-thick slab of chocolate in the shape of a human footprint!), and then returned to the motel and popped into the hot tub.  We didn't want to push things by trying for a show, since we'd put in a full day on the road.  Once again, the swimming pool, although indoors, wasn't heated; gotta change those instructions!  The hot tub was nice, but getting to and from it was a literal pain:  their patio flooring was made of little tiny crushed stones, instead of something reasonable like concrete or wood.  Ouch!


The Harley was a major hit with a busload of college-age Czechoslovakians.  They were offloading at the hotel as we were heading back to our room after our fudge treat, and a few of the most enterprising among them surrounded the bike from a safely admiring distance, cameras in hand.  They were clearly captivated:  "vroom-vroom" and rotating wrists mean the same thing the world over!  Terry clicked off the alarm system, and encouraged the Czechs to hop on board and take their pictures.  They spoke no English and we spoke no Czech, so the first reaction was puzzlement, but it was quickly replaced by delight when Terry switched to body English to clearly illustrate "plunk your butt on the bike!"  They were quick to catch on and take her up on the offer, and several of them in succession had their pictures taken sitting in the driver's seat.  One of them who could speak English laughed that we should charge them a dollar each, but we said that we were having more than enough fun just watching.  Not to mention doing our part to cement good international relations!


7 May, Sunday


We took the Harley to the only Catholic church in Branson – Our Lady of the Lake – and garnered still more attention, both from residents and from the two busloads of tourists who had paused in their tour for church.  Guess folk don't expect the biker gang to turn up at Sunday Mass, hmm?  Turns out the parish has only between 250 and 300 member families, but even the 7:30 Mass was packed – and 80% of the congregation were tourists.  Once again, we came in time for a building fund drive – our vacation pattern holds true!  Any church we go to is bound to be planning to build something ... although we could understand this one, given the monster transient population.  The priest, a monsignor, was hilarious:  he could bill himself as yet another true Branson morning show!


From church, we hit the road to Uncle Reuben's place down in Solgohachia, AK.  We took 65 to 9, through Clinton.  We'd been expecting a trip of 100 miles, but it turned out to be longer than that, and it was all mountainous – up, down, left, and right, nonstop – although it was at least a good-sized highway with real shoulders.  By the time we'd gone halfway, Terry was asking whose idea it had been to visit Shorts and Jackie on this trip; her knees weren't appreciating a rerun of the day before!


Three hours after leaving Branson, we pulled into their yard, out in the middle of nowhere right on highway 9.  Shorts and Jackie weren't expecting us until the next weekend – some misunderstanding from Mom's communication with Reuben – but they were home and we had a fine visit with them (and with Niko the cat and Belle and Lily, the black and white poodles).  They took us up to lunch on Petit Jean (pronounced locally as "petty gene") Mountain.  The park up there has spectacular views and a story legend about a young Frenchwoman who disguised herself and sailed as cabin boy on her lover's ship to America because she didn't want to be parted from him and he wouldn't marry her and take her along because of the dangers of the trip. She supposedly succeeded in her imposture until she fell deathly ill at the end of their summer stay at the Mountain, and died there in the company of friendly Indians.  Whatever the truth of the legend, there is a very old grave on the mountaintop, and the story of "Petit Jean" is as good a way to account for it as any other.


We left Solgohachia around 4:00, after pictures, and took the same route home and just went to bed early.


8 May, Monday


Our hotel offered a complimentary continental breakfast, so that's how we began each day  – cereal, orange juice, coffee, and (since we were on vacation and being naughty!) a donut.  Monday morning started out a little rushy, as we set out to try to get tickets to the various shows we decided to see.  But at 11:15, we were ready to board the Branson Scenic Railroad for a twenty-mile trip up into the mountains and then back.  It was a nice ride with some very pretty views and a funny narrator who also gave historical information on the region.  Did you know, for example, that Lake Taneycomo (which stands for "Lake Taney County, Missouri") was a warm water lake until 1958, when it became a cold water lake famed for trout?  Turns out that when Table Rock Dam was built, controlling the flow of water into Lake Taneycomo, the lower lake's source became water from the dark, cold, 200-foot bottom of the new artificial lake created by the dam.  Hey, presto – a cold water lake!  The Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery provides the trout to stock it.  For another piece of local trivia, we saw a bald knob – a rocky hill on which virtually nothing grows, of which there are many in the vicinity – and learned that, after the Civil War, when the region was virtually lawless, the civilian vigilante groups (the Citizens' Committee for Law and Order) used to call their meetings by lighting a bonfire on a bald knob to summon their members to a spot where they couldn't be snuck up on or overheard.  As the vigilante groups themselves became lawless gangs, they were christened "Baldknobbers" for their favored meeting spots.  The railroad has six vintage cars, including a dining car and two dome cars, which date from the 1920's through the 1950's.  It was a pleasant and relaxing way to spend an hour and forty-five minutes.


Monday afternoon was the Shoji Tabuchi show, which was splendid!  Shoji is a violinist, and his show – a gala mix of music, dance, lighting, and special effects – runs the gamut from classical to country.  The theatre was a technological marvel, with every sound, lighting, and physical feature imaginable.  It was also one of the most opulent places I have ever seen:  the bathrooms must be seen to be believed, because they defy verbal description.  (Although we didn't see it, we were told later that just past the door into the men's room is a billiard table with a spectator's gallery, and that people really do play pool there!)


From the show itself, my favorite bits included a most unusual chamber quintet of violin, trumpets, and trombones doing Copeland's Appalachian Spring; and a pounding segment of taiko drumming.  Shoji has the biggest taiko drum on the planet – over six feet in diameter, hollowed out from a six hundred year old tree.  He said that it takes twenty years to build such a drum – and then jokingly said that you spend the first nineteen years looking for the tree!  But joking aside, the building is a twenty year process, taking into account the time it takes first to cure the wood, then to hollow it, and finally to tune it.  Incredible!


We went out to dinner on Monday night with one of Terry's co-workers, Greg, and his wife Jenny and step-daughter Chelsea.  They were all a scream, and we laughed our way through an excellent dinner at the Outback Restaurant in Branson, which is not affiliated with the national chain and which actually feels much more like an authentic Aussie place.  It even has lamb, alligator tail, and emu on the menu!  We didn't eat anything exotic, but we had a great time.


9 May, Tuesday


This was our one rainy day.  In the morning, we were making the rounds picking up the rest of our show tickets, and it sometimes poured on us.  Looking for indoor things to do, we thought we'd go take the tour of Table Rock Dam, but when we went by, we found that a tour bus had miscalculated the very sharp turn and was blocking the entire entranceway.  Instead, we went on across the dam, and found an Army Corps of Engineers visitor center on the far side with information on the building of the dam and with an indoor "nature trail" showing the passage of the four seasons in the area.  A nice place found by accident!  We enjoyed our visit, and even got a hot tip for a good lunch:  a place called Pzazz, right across the highway from the Welk Resort, where we were going for the afternoon show.  The food at Pzazz was really good, so we ate a leisurely lunch and headed over tot he theatre for the 2:00 show.  By the time we left the restaurant the rain had stopped, and the rest of the day proved to be fine.


The Welk Show was great, re-creating a lot of memories.  Some of the original Welk stars were appearing, including the Lennon Sisters (who still look good, and sound good, too!); Arthur Duncan (who can still tapdance a storm and doesn't look as if he'll ever grow old!); and JoAnn Castle (who still has the best and the wildest stride piano boogie anywhere!).  The second half of the show started out by literally re-creating an episode of the show from its black-and-white television days:  everything on stage was in black and white, although the stage personae occasionally made reference to what color they were "seeing" ("Love the red dress!" to a woman clad in what, to us, was black ...), and the songs were separated into segments by commercials.  What a lark!


After the show, we had another Harley moment.  The weather had cleared beautifully while we were in the theatre, so the sun was shining brightly, and as we started suiting up at the Harley, another couple came over asking if they could take pictures.  Turns out the gentleman was from Vienna, Austria, in the States to visit with his sister.  Terry persuaded him onto the bike, and he had his picture taken surrounded by the three of us, in full gear.  We laughed that he'd have a good time explaining those pictures to his wife, once he got back home!  We took one shot that included the sister, too, so at least his wife would know he had been chaperoned while he was with those wild American women!


On our way home, we decided to make one last try at getting tickets to a morning show that had proven terribly elusive:  Red, Hot & Blue.  We had called them on Sunday night, only to learn that the box office had closed before we called.  The ticket agent had called on Monday morning and been unable to get through the answering machine.  We had stopped on Tuesday morning, only to find the door locked, although music was filling the building.  It was on our way back to the motel from the Welk Resort, so we made one last shot – and this time the door was open and there were real people inside!  We learned that they had just installed a new computer ticketing system that most of the folk hadn't learned to run yet, and it was being balky, so they had some problems.  They also hadn't taken off the message on their answering machine from when the show had been on tour (in South Africa!) the month before, and didn't realize that the message was giving people the wrong box office hours.  But we got our tickets, so I was happy, since this was one of the shows I had marked on my personal list of "want to see" in Branson.


We weren't too terribly hungry by this time, but we did feel peckish, so we stopped at Burger King for a small burger supper, and then went back to the hotel.  We walked a bit in old historic downtown Branson to get our exercise, which amounts to more than you might think, because Branson is all up-and-down; it's like walking in San Francisco or Seattle!


Read Branson, Part Two

Tags: harley, motorcycle diaries, real life, travelogue

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