WaKeeney, KS to Branson, MO – I decided to stay in WaKeeney and try not blow away that night. I set up my tent in my designated grassy slot between the windbreaks. The woman at the WaKeeney KOA front desk called it the “safety zone”. I shared the tenting area with two music majors from Carnegie-Mellon who were headed to Aspen for the music festival.
The next morning, it was easier to fill up the French press at the gas station than try to talk woman at the front desk into letting me warm cup after cup of water in the office Keurig machine. I said goodbye to WaKeeney. From there, I drove east on I-70 to Topeka, hoping to drop south and over to Branson, MO. My hope was to catch a bluegrass show. In my mind, it would be like the Country Bears Jamboree in Disneyland with old families from the Ozarks coming out to pick a little and sing “Keep on the Sunny Side”. I couldn’t wait to hear some banjo.
I passed signs announcing birthplaces of three astronauts: Joe Engle, Ronald Evans and Steve Hawley. Kansas loves her astronauts. In Topeka – the site of Brown vs. the Board of Education, I dropped south onto state highway 75. I kept an eye out for weather and other curiosities. One billboard announced that a Kansas farmer feeds 155 people a day. The tagline to Bert’s Tavern in Yates Center stated, “We Only Look Expensive”. They didn’t.
I cut east on state highway 54 to Nevada, MO, skipped the Bushwacker Museum, and dropped south on state highway 71 toward Joplin. President Truman was born along this stretch of road but I was more concerned about tornados until I could see the Ozarks in the distance. Hill-country, that’s what I looked forward to as I took a left toward Springfield.
Springfield was hot, full of traffic and somehow I missed the first and easier turn to Branson. One gas station attendant pointed south and seemed to think I wanted to drive through the whole town during rush hour. Back on the highway, I finally found state highway 65 south and eventually Branson.
By the time I made it to the Branson KOA, it was obvious that this would not be Country Bears Jamboree. There was no bluegrass in town and the roads curved around different flashy venues for country artists, the famous ones of whom had their own personal variety show halls. The KOA was on Animal Safari Road which started to give me a feel for the place.
Always game for a recommendation, I paid $33 for a ticket to Clay Cooper’s show, a country artist recommended over the BaldKnobbers by the woman at the KOA desk. She also was the second person to tell me that I didn’t want to drive through Arkansas. Why don’t you head back to Springfield and jog over to St. Louis? There’s really not much in Arkansas. After setting up my tent in a very dirty site – this KOA catered to RVs – I donned a jeans skirt and cowboy boots and headed into town.
Branson is like Las Vegas with an agenda, and it’s not “What happens in Branson, stays in Branson.” Instead there is a go-out-into-all-the-world component of which I was not aware.
The Clay Cooper show began with decent comedy and then covered songs by Conway Twitty, Oak Ridge Boys and other great and favorite country artists. At intermission, I snapped a picture of a sign with a green circle around a handgun stating, “CRIMINALS BEWARE: Concealed carry permit holders are welcome here!” Framed photos of the Reagan’s and the Bush’s hung at the top of the stairs with the United States flag and a set of mounted longhorns.
After intermission, Clay Cooper read announcements, including several 50-year plus anniversaries. People cheered and the husbands of the couples looked dazed and attributed their success to reading the Bible every day. Marriage between a man and woman was considered the crowning achievement of this crowd. What else could there be? It’s the happiest thing! Clay Cooper was happy. He sang a love song and his wife danced around him with in a gauzy purple dress. Is this what wives were supposed to do – look pretty and dance around their man?
Clay’s band is good – no doubt about that – and his bassist went into a plucked version of Amazing Grace. Beautiful. And then the show took a turn…to praise and worship time – including what I thought was a negro spiritual sung by white people in choir robes. I looked around, stunned but the crowd was into the show. Clay Cooper’s website billed the show as “hysterical…unbelievable…down-home” but Country Bear Jamboree it was not. Images of a pretty-white Jesus with a large nose and then three crosses flashed on the screen behind the band. After a praise time, Clay’s son led us in the Pledge of Allegiance. The band went into a patriotic song written by Clay’s wife called “America Stand Strong”, complete with an image of the word “Jesus” written in a heart in the sand and then a crown of thorns. Clay sang, “Remember the reason this country has survived…” and a cross draped with a white shroud flashed onto the screen. His red jacket resembled a confederate soldier’s uniform with tasseling around the shoulders. The crowd rose to cheer. Remember, you can get your DVD of the show in the back. I left in shock and awe.
Before leaving Branson the next morning, I drove across town to find a strong cup of coffee. In a grocery store Starbucks, I made small talk with the barista.
“So, coffee’s not a very big thing in this town?” I couldn’t find a local coffee-shop on Google.
“Oh, yes it is,” he told me. “It’s a really big thing. We have another Starbucks in the downtown too. It’s a very big thing. Where are you headed?”
“Arkansas.” I waited to see his reaction.
“Really? Why? The roads are awful.” He looked disgusted that I didn’t want to stay in Missouri.
“Thanks for the coffee,” I told him. I saw two dead armadillos on my way out of Branson. It was time for a new state.