Yesterday I drove 266 miles in a steady rain throughout southeast Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest, towns like Rolla, Winona, Eminence, and Fredericktown. The landscape was just gorgeous, rolling forests and old barns tucked onto bright green pastures, the Current and Jack’s Fork Rivers along curvy backroads, what Missouri writer William Least Heat-Moon calls blue highways.
Rain at first put a literal and figurative damper on my day of research and exploration: I was supposed to be checking out hiking trails, canoe companies, and camping spots. But it turned out, as I drove south from Salem, Missouri, towards the upper fourth of the Current, the rain brought a needed sense of serenity, quiet, and even dripping beauty.
The stormy day reminded me how to travel well in the rain.
1. Make mad dashes.
(Photo by Taylor Bruce)
Keep your eyes open for opportunities to dart into the pelting downpour. Yesterday mine was to help a turtle cross the road, a pastime I’ve never been able to shake since mom and I rescued the slow movers from traffic when I was a child. Also, if you stop for a local lunch, park 20-30 yards from the door and make the run refreshing. Most people think a few raindrops will ruin their day; it doesn’t have to be this way. Kids love this game. If you stomp in a puddle near them, they will forever think you are the king of the world. (Help a turtle too.)
2. Stop and talk to locals.
(Photo by Taylor Bruce. Salem, MO.)
Mr. Peters was the first Ranger assigned to the Ozark National Scenic River by the National Park Service back in 1964, the first time the NPS protected a river system. He stuck around Shannon County after his service ended and started Running River, a canoe and kayak company off Highway 67. I stopped by and talked to Mr. Peters, a white-haired, gruff gentleman, as I bought sunflower seeds and a bottled water.
“The Osage Indians called it the Running River,” he told me. He also shared about his three kids growing up here, how his business sent them to college, and how it was a good place to live. “Our son was killed a few years ago,” he also said. I didn’t ask about Mr. Peters’ son, but the quick moment gave real meaning to the day and the place, and it added a sense of reality and emotion to a normal rainy day. This only happens when we stop and talk.
3. Find the classic theater.
(Photo by MJW of Rio Theater in Center, TX)
In Washington D.C., the one-screen Uptown Theater in Cleveland Park showed Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones film last time I walked by. The screen is humongous and the room cavernous. Many small towns and bigger cities have these throwback cinemas, which often show independent and art house flicks. Try this excellent website to find a reclaimed movie theater on your travels: Cinema Treasures.
Even if it’s the newest megaplex, a matinée on the road is a wonderful break in a rainy day. To find a nearby theater, try texting Google from your phone: Dial 466-453, type in “movie theater, city name, state name,” and wait for a reply text. Usually works. Google text is a lifesaver on the road.
4. Indulge the bookish in you.
That book you’ve been “reading” for the past four months, days like yesterday in Missouri beckon you to nestle into a local coffeehouse for an hour or two of overdue reading. Currently, I have three books going (When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, Apex Hides the Hurt, and Invisible Man). Each could have used the Rolla, Missouri local bookshop and café The Readers Corner on Pine Street. Or one of Nashville’s many coffee shops. Even a Waffle House.
5. Find the quirky museum.
Seems most towns have some sort of museum dedicated to some esoteric or bizarre historic tidbit concerning the area. Find these on rainy days. When you see the sign for the tow truck museum (Chattanooga, TN) or the ventriloquist museum (Ft. Mitchell, KY) or “devil’s rope” (McLean, TX’s barbed wire must-see), pull the car over and give it a whirl. These stops rarely disappoint. If nothing else, you have a small factoid to share at a dinner party.
6. Rule the rain and go for a hike.
In the summer, the woods are full-leafed, and sometimes, a rainy-day stroll on a short loop is absolutely fantastic. You get complete solitude. The sounds of rain dripping and creeks running make for nature’s best soundtrack. And the air is crisp. Rainy day air on the trail is perhaps the closest to how it was 300 years ago.
If I could hike anywhere on a rainy day, I’d try Ellijay, Georgia’s Bear Creek Trail off Gates Chapel Road. If you don’t find yourself in Gilmer County, look for a local state park office or, even better, an outfitter’s store and ask advice on a short, tree-covered hike. If you have them, wear waterproof boots. If you don’t have gear, buy a small pack of trash bags and cut out a hole for your head and arms. The homemade rain jacket will heighten your experience, especially for the kids.
7. Call me weird, but find a cemetery.
Cemeteries often are a town’s more beautiful green settings. On a rainy day, the gravestones and granite memorials hold a renewed sense of mystery. If you’ve never done this, slowly drive through a local graveyard and let your imagination run. Who were Bernard and Myrtle Cunningham? How long were they married? Are their children buried near them? Something about spending a few minutes thinking about the past makes the present more real. And it sure is spooky when you see your last name out among the deceased.
8. More tips for rainy driving.
The basics: go slower than the speed limit; turn on your lights; replace wipers; don’t follow too close. For a full set of tips, go here.