Gratuitous Merlin Content

In anticipation of a series of posts about culture, ideology and hegemony I am writing up an account of Merlin’s first camping trip, a two night affair in the Ozarks.

Sometimes you land upon a book that really gives you the gift of seeing in a new way. I spent hours in the car as a kid, first as a passenger (between my mom’s house, my dad’s house, various places of parental employment, etc) then as a driver (I spent half my time with my dad, who lived on a farm 50 miles from my mom, my high school and various places of teenaged employment, later I had a job that involved driving to rural courthouses, during which I would log about 1000 work miles a week). Driving was both a chore and a source of constant financial worry–my budget was strained to the maximum with car insurance, car repair and gasoline.


Kristina bought a house within walking distance of the brewery, which was one of the biggest quality of life improvements I have ever experienced. Merlin and I go most places on foot and by bicycle and I associate driving with traffic and the soul-sapping landscape around interstates.


William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, which I finally got around to reading after a decade of good intentions, provided me with an account of the joys of exploring state highways, using a 13,000 mile cross-country tour to, in turn, try to discover something about himself. His way of seeing small-town America around the next bend of a state highway helped me step away from the lead-foot “get as many miles behind you so you don’t have to do it any more” mentality.


I decided to load up the station wagon and drive Merlin to Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, about 2.5 hours SW of STL.

We took Broadway South until it turned into MO 231, which eventually merged into State Highway 61, leading South into the Ozark plateau. Lots of mining towns en route. We jumped over to 67, which felt like an interstate, then escaped onto State Highway 21, which took us past historical re-enactors re-fighting the Battle of Pilot Knob. Merlin was still asleep so we didn’t stop to fire cannon at the Confederates.

Our first stop was at the Dhamma Sukha Meditation Center, where I dropped off supplies for the monks and retreat goers while Merlin played with the monastery cats.
I did a 10 day silent meditation retreat when Merlin was in utero and found it to be of extreme value.

It was very nice to catch up with David, who runs the retreat center and wrote an excellent guide to meditation.

I think David enjoyed showing Merlin around. Merlin certainly liked it.
We then headed down to Lesterville, where we walked around town, and split a fried catfish platter and a milkshake for dinner at the Stray Cat Cafe.

We camped at the hike-in sites up the ridge in Johnson’s Shut-Ins, and I learned that Merlin is not interested in hiking up trails. So I lugged the kid and all our stuff (which took two trips) up to our campsite. The geography of the area requires you to camp on wooden platforms, it turns out I am too old and fat to really appreciate sleeping on plywood with no mattress, but Merlin was totally fine with it.

I will admit to forgetting what camping in an Ozark valley is like–it gets dark incredibly fast and stays pitch black unless you happen to get some moonlight through the valley and the trees. It also gets misty and quite cold–according to a local it was about 47 degrees our first night. Merlin ended up in my sleeping bag with me, as his wool sleep sack wasn’t quite up to the chill. He had an excuse to wear a bitchin’ sweater at breakfast, though..

I let him pick out his own camp mug and camp spork at REI. And in one of those STL coincidences, the only other people camping in the hike-in sites were Tom and Ellie, among the first people I met when I moved to STL. They were camping with the guy who helped me track down some last-minute camping supplies at REI, along with his partner and their nine-month old. Small world.

We spent the morning hiking the scour trail. In 2005, Ameren accidentally overtopped a reservoir, washing 1.3 billion gallons of water down the side of Profitt Mountain and through the original state park campsites.

The whole area was wiped clean of structures, vegetation, top soil and loose rock, leaving a mile-long expanse of bare bedrock, which is slowly turning into a glade.

We spent a decent amount of time exploring the scour and throwing rocks into puddles. I brought a baby-carrier for the hike but Merlin insisted on being arm-carried the entire 2 miles of the trail. On our way back up the side of the valley we stopped, ostensibly to look at trees but mostly so I could shake my arms out.

In the afternoon we went to Elephant Rocks State Park and drove around until we found Caledonia, MO and a sign that said PORK RINDS AND ROOT BEER FLOAT, which is what we had for lunch. Caledonia has a real Stardew Valley feel to it and a pumpkin festival every October. Then we went to the shut ins.

Shut-ins are a geologic feature created by forcing moving water through very hard stone like granite. The water forces its way into cracks in the rock and cuts narrow channels, which eventually creates a waterpark type situation. Merlin was pretty overwhelmed at this point so we splashed around for a bit and headed back for dinner. We also practiced patience by waiting for marshmallows to toast:

I don’t typically camp with other people and I almost never build a campfire–woodsmoke is a migraine trigger for me and I find campfires to be inefficient for most of the camp cooking I prefer and at cross-purposes to what I am looking for when camping. Backpacking stoves do an excellent job of toasting marshmallows and it’s much easier to keep your kid from setting himself on fire. Also you can sneak it into MOBOT for their concert series, make smores and be the envy of all the blankets around yours.


On our way back out of Arcadia Valley, we visited Taum Sauk Mountain, which at 1772 feet is the highest point in Missouri. Merlin stood on it.

We also followed some signs to an MDC Observation Tower, a real pants-shitter of a climb. Merlin was VERY upset that I wouldn’t let him take the rickety, poorly-railed stairs on his own. The view was nice, though.

We had a hard time finding suitable lunch on the drive home, but we found this incredible sign on the courthouse square in Fredericktown. Shut down, though I’m not sure I would have tucked into midweek seafood in a small town in southern MO even if they had been open.

Fortunately for us we discovered Hunts Dairy in Farmington on our drive back, which serves corn dogs, a “western burger” and malteds.

Overall a very excellent time!