Between me and a day off in Branson, MO were a mere 90 miles. Should have been pretty routine. However, when that morning's perusal of the Weather Channel revealed a 100% chance of rain, I knew it was going to be a sloppy haul.
Thankfully, the first third of the ride, though overshadowed by looming clouds, was dry and rewarding. The Missouri tableau feels familiar to a kid who grew up on the east coast. The county roads I navigated were quaint. That said, this state has a patent on the rolling hill. The ride though only gaining 90 feet of net elevation, promised over 7,000 feet of climbing from rollercoaster apex to apex.
As I settled in to a rhythm, modern meteorology fulfilled its promise and a howling tailwind rushed in a veritable torrent of cold rain. It was the kind of storm that renders the road surface so unfit that you can't help but cackle to yourself as you press on. It just got plain silly at times.
So, rather than take the traditional half hour lunch stop, my buddy Tim and I decided to quickly stuff our faces and push back out onto the road right away. Pain is temporary. Warm showers and beds are forever. At least, that's what we kept telling ourselves on each pull up the hills through the singularly beautiful Mark Twain National Forest.
With 10 miles to go, it became clear we were in the vicinity of Branson when the billboards besieged the roadway creating a virtual funnel toward the most aggressively Real American entertainment destination in the world. I could barely focus on the pavement as my eyes darted from promotion to promotion. Imagine a ceaselessly dazzling yet apparently timeless array of performers each with their own permanent theaters. (Wikipedia lists 39 permanent venues in Branson!) Families who sing and dance, pets who perform comedy, caricatured redneck a capella country revues with flat rate pricing for your whole brood!
I grew up minutes from Niagara Falls, and by proximity was regularly immersed in the inescapable gravity of extreme tourism. I have been countless times to Vegas and both driven and walked the Strip experiencing its pandering assault and commercial battery. Neither can compare to the ride into Branson.
My delight and wonderment was interrupted by an unfortunately timed flat tire. Under 5 miles to ride and the sharp crushed stone of Branson's streets sliced through my tube and left me wrestling with wet rubber and CO2 cartridges in the downpour as Ma & Pa McSpendy drove their "America Bless God" Buick from the gravy-plumbed lunch buffet to the chocolate shop where, and I assure you this is the case, they now sell fudge by the foot. Yes, wickedly caloric vending in units of length.
A newly reinforced wheel on my steed and I was back rolling into the heart of this grand institution. Marquees illuminating the unabashedly gray skies with names like Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis. Sure you thought these guys were dead, and they may very well be. Just not each day at 2:00 & 8:00 (though dark on Mondays).
With a mile left to go, I flatted again. But, I held a vote among my numbing fingers and, though the ensuing debate was uncharacteristically acerbic, and despite one abstention, they voted overwhelmingly to skip changing the tire and ride in on a flat. How right they were. Minutes later, I found myself basking in the climate-controlled and passive-aggressively Muzaked lobby of the Hilton Promenade. Earned warmth.
After a delicious meal which I complemented with a bottle of our Lowercase Roussanne (follow @lowercasewines on Twitter to learn more about my winery) I returned to my room preparing for anachronistic hibernation. Checking the Tweets one last time before the stop at Snoozeville and I see a note from the mayor of Branson (@bransonmayor). Holy cow did I get a kick out of that.
I was particularly impressed that the mayor was still very welcoming and hospitable to me despite the Tweet that alerted her to my presence pointing out that this must be the whitest city in the country. Let me pause there to defend that remark. I am not merely stereotyping this place as a god-fearing figment of Sarah Palin's most tantalizing fantasies. I empirically assert that in the more than 24 hours I have been here I have yet to see a single black person. Not one. And, they certainly weren't on any of the billboards. (Though, to be fair, Yakov Smirnoff is featured twice on the way in.) Wikipedia says that African-Americans comprise .84% of the population here, but my hours of strolling about town have yet to reveal any. Not saying I get the sense they aren't welcome here. Rather, I am guessing they tend to opt out. I was actually looking forward to interviewing the first black person I encountered.
For now, as I pack away the jackpot of western shirts I purchased, and prepare for tonight's 8:00 show at the Presley's Country Jubilee (owned, in fact, by the Mayor), from outside my hotel window, I am being serenaded by a boggling display of synchronized fountains and 20 foot high choreographed bursts of fire all set to classic rock. Branson's peculiarity and unapologetically branded celebration of our trademarked heritage demands that I come back again and dive into this place for a few days. Not kidding. I will be back very soon. This place just cannot be missed.