Road Trips - A Learning Excursion


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Road to the Promised Land
Author: John Drake Robinson

VisitMO editor’s note: This article is by John Drake Robinson (J.R.), a past director of the Missouri Division of Tourism. J.R. has driven every mile of every road on Missouri's highway map and written two books about the experiences. For details and links to his blog, and to order his books, go to

Road to the Promised Land

I pointed across the street. “See that big concrete slab? That's where Moses is buried.”

Moses?” My grandson's eyes got big. “That slab would cover a carport. Why?”

Moses Austin is the Grandfather of Texas,” I answered. “Over the years, body snatchers kept trying to take his body down to Texas.”

We were in Potosi, Missouri. Our big family vacation had just begun. And like the Texans who came to claim Moses' body, we had reached an impasse.

We'd just left the comfortable groove of Route 66 and headed down Highway 21, one of the most attraction-packed drives in Missouri. We knew where we would lodge for the next week. But aside from overnight accommodations, we had no itinerary.

I was okay with that, preferring the open-ended take-it-as-it-comes relaxed vacation. Some of my favorite trips were spontaneous. But among our party of twelve, the planner types yearned for structure.

“Let's huddle over lunch, and come up with a plan,” one of our daughters coaxed, as two children tugged her in different directions.

“There's a great barbecue restaurant down the road,” I suggested.

In minutes our caravan was rolling toward the Arcadia Valley. At the junction of Route 21 and Route 32, on the northern fringe of tiny Caledonia, Missouri, we reached a roadside memorial; a sign using an alphabet the vast majority of Americans have never seen. “One quick stop?” I pleaded with Cheryl. During our 38 years of marriage, she's endured hundreds of these roadside quick stops.

The Cherokee Indian language survives only in pockets of this nation. Chances are, you heard the Trail of Tears story told in our land's newer, more dominant language. This sign marks a spot on the trail where, in 1838, local European settlers prepared baskets of food for thousands of American Indian families who passed through here on a forced march westward to an unfamiliar territory. The Cherokees listened for the Nunnehi, the invisible spirits that would lead these displaced travelers to safety. Our grandkids were fascinated by this alphabet, and this tragic story. But they also were hungry, so we rolled downhill into Caledonia, the gateway to the Arcadia Valley.

Caledonia scores heavily when it comes to the three most important factors in real estate. The town has a choke-hold on the main route between St. Louis and one of Missouri's favorite backwoods playgrounds, the Arcadia Valley. Arcadia unfolds at Caledonia's southern doormat, and mixes stunning beauty, startling history and an impressive collection of natural wonders.

With a city limit sign that confesses only 158 souls, Caledonia could have become little more than a wide spot in the road. From smack dab in the middle of town visitors can almost see the city limit signs from every direction. So Caledonia relies on its stop signs. They're everywhere. No, not those red octagonal stop signs; these signs shout “antiques,” “home cookin'” and “come on in, it's fun inside.” Most of Caledonia's antique stores are antiques themselves, including the historic Old Village Mercantile. There is enough to see and do in Caledonia to keep you busy all day.

Our caravan parked along the highway, next to the world's smallest former Phillips 66 Station. Our entire family was primed for the slow-cooked ribs at the Caledonia BBQ Company, since the aroma hangs around town like perfume.

Between bites, we mapped our vacation strategy....

Down the road, we would roll into our headquarters. Months ago, we decided we'd stay at the Fort Davidson Hotel, tucked snugly into the town of Pilot Knob, in the Arcadia Valley. The motel fit our big-family budget. The property showed some age, but it was clean and friendly, had a nice pool, and we could get a good breakfast next door. Directly across the road, the ghosts of Fort Davidson awaited, at the site of the single most bizarre escape in Civil War history; the Battle of Pilot Knob.

Patching together our itinerary was fun. With so many options, I was glad we had more than one vehicle. We left our barbecue paradise and, in no hurry, scoured half a dozen antique stores in Caledonia.

Then we drove south into Arcadia, which is a Greek word meaning “pastoral peace and simplicity.” Though not towering like the Rockies, the St. Francois Mountains frame this beautiful valley. These mountains are among the oldest exposed rocks on earth. That guarantees highly-diverse ecosystems, visible along delightful loop trails at the Buford Mountain Conservation Area, Pickle Springs Natural Area, Hawn State Park, and the can't-miss, kid-friendly “playgrounds” of Elephant Rocks State Park—Mother Nature's best boulder museum.

The cluster of little valley towns assured we would be well-fed, including another planned BBQ stop at Baylee Jo's in Ironton, less than a mile from our overnight headquarters.

We'd check out Millstream Gardens Conservation Area, home of Missouri's whitewater championships for canoes and kayaks. Maybe some of our gang would hike part of the Ozark Trail—the Appalachian Trail's newer sister—which drapes over Taum Sauk Mountain, Missouri's tallest. We might canoe along the Black River.

But another treat awaited: Our youngsters had never seen Johnson's Shut-Ins. Among Missouri’s state parks, it’s a star—one of the greatest natural water parks in the world, where a rushing stream tries to force through a canyon, around boulders the size of Lincoln Navigators.

“Safety first, of course,” I reassured the wide-eyed moms in our entourage as we unpacked in the motel parking lot. “Who's ready to explore?” I offered.

No takers. The kids made a beeline to the pool, and the adults followed.

So did I.

There's plenty of time for organized activities. “So let the relaxation begin,” I said to myself, as I settled into Missouri's spectacular Arcadia Valley, land of peace and simplicity.

“Where's the cooler?”


  • Travel with J.R. on his fascinating, educational and often comical journey along the highways, byways and side roads of Missouri. His books, "A Road Trip into America's Hidden Heart" and "Coastal Missouri: Driving on the Edge of Wild," are available at most book stores, on J.R.’s website; also online by searching "John Drake Robinson" at and
  • For thousands of things to do, sights to see and adventures to experience in Missouri, spend some time on, Missouri’s only official tourism website.


  Fort Davidson Hotel
We are in the beautiful Arcadia Valley of the St Francois Mountains. All guestrooms have more than 100 ...

  Battle of Pilot Knob State Historic Site
The Civil War Battle of Pilot Knob was fought here when Confederate troops attacked the earthen fort ...

  Pickle Springs Natural Area
This 256-acre Designated Natural Area offers a two-mile Trail Through Time, with scenic views including ...

  Hawn State Park
Set in eastern Ozark sandstone country, this park is located between Ste. Genevieve and Farmington on ...

  Elephant Rocks State Park
At this park, giant, billion-year-old granite boulders stand end-to-end, like a train of red circus ...

  Baylee Jo's BBQ & Seafood Grill
Baylee Jo's meats are slow-smoked using cherry wood, which imparts a sweet, cherry flavor. The baked ...

  Millstream Gardens Conservation Area
Millstream Gardens Conservation Area is a 697-acre tract of land in Madison County, about halfway between ...

  The Ozark Trail
The Ozarks, in a word, are splendid. The Ozark Trail system contains more than 390 miles of trails, ...

  Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park
Carved into the rock by the flow if the Black River, the shut-ins are a great place for swimming and ...