February – the shortest month of the year. However, while we are in the midst of it, it seems to be never ending, lingering on and on, day after gloomy day. Why is that? Have we forgotten that daylight can extend past 5 pm? Or maybe all those seed catalogs that begin arriving in the mail and piling up on the kitchen table make us grow ever more impatient for spring as they taunt us with their glossy rainbows of flowers, fruits and vegetables. Reminding us that there are colors other than brown and gray, that the sun can warm the earth enough for green stuff to once again emerge from the currently frozen, barren soil. Whatever causes this annoying phenomenon, I have long ago gotten in the habit of planning in advance for this end of winter funk. Some time in the fall we make plans for a late winter weekend retreat. Not to a sunny tropical destination but to someplace semi-local where we can reaffirm our appreciation for the changing seasons and the beauty that can still be found even in the gloominess of winter’s final months.
This year the destination was the newly constructed lodge at Echo Bluff state park in Eminence, Missouri. The park is in a beautiful area right in the middle of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways and the Mark Twain National Forest. Needless to say, we were very excited to get out in the fresh air and do some hiking and sightseeing.
When we arrived at the lodge, we were greeted by the little band of wild horses that like to hang around the park. I have heard these horses are descendants of once domesticated farm animals that were set free during the Great Depression. They are now protected by law and are maintained by a local organization to prevent the herds from getting larger than 50 animals. When this happens, some of the them are caught so they can be tamed and put up for adoption by local residents, where they rejoin their domestic ancestors. I suppose you could argue that these creatures are really more “feral” then “wild”, but nonetheless there is something rather romantic and nostalgic about the notion of horses roaming freely throughout the countryside. Yet, the bond that was broken nearly 100 years ago may not be quite so fragile and some of these animals still seem to trust us silly humans, at least a little bit. I watched as they approached a group of people starting a campfire and was, of course, inspired to attempt a connection of my own. I must admit they look a lot more impressive from a distance. Up close you can see the ravages of surviving in this mountainous Missouri terrain. Their manes and tails are tangled up with burs and leaves and they look like they could really use a full-blown spa day, complete with mani-pedi – unshod horses tend to have some pretty gnarly nails. With freezing rain and ice predicted for the following evening, I couldn’t help but wonder where these poor creatures slept at night.
We were quite a bit luckier, we knew exactly where we would be sleeping. The lodge is a gorgeous new log and stone structure, cozy and warm with a giant fireplace in a two-story great room and amazing views of its namesake bluff and Sinking Creek. Our room was on the second floor, overlooking the bluff and creek. Despite the impending winter storm, it was an unusually warm evening, so we sat on our little balcony, adult beverage in hand and enjoyed the view as the sun slowly sank in the sky and the horses meandered down the creek, wandering off into the night to wherever it is they go.
The next morning was exploration time and we needed to get an early start so we could be back at the lodge before the inclement weather hit. Sometimes the best trips are the ones with no set plans – you just tend to go wherever the road leads. This trip was no exception to that rule. We started off in the general direction of Rocky Falls for no other reason than I saw a sign and it sounded interesting. Along the way, we saw another sign for Alley Spring. This I had heard of, so we decided to take a brief detour and check it out. All I can say about this place is “WOW”! It was like standing in the middle of a picture postcard. It was so amazingly beautiful. You don’t realize how color blind the winter gloom can make you until your eyes are once again acquainted with blue water and green plants. This has got to be the most colorful place that Missouri has to offer in these dark, dank months. A bright red mill, reflected in a pool of naturally blue spring water with lush green plants! There was even a slight mist floating just above the water. It was simply jaw dropping and pictures cannot do it justice. I would love to come back here in the fall to see how the autumn color enhances it even further.
In the winter, daylight is a limited commodity, so we were forced to press on in our unscripted agenda and continue to Rocky Falls. At this point, we realized we were truly “off the grid” because we had lost cell phone coverage and I had to rummage through the litter in the glove box and dust off the paper map of Missouri. This moment always makes me a little elated. I just love having to unfold that darn map and not have to rely on Siri to get us lost. Our misdirection now depended on my navigational prowess and the cartographical accuracy of Rand-McNally. Onward to Rocky Falls!
Rocky Falls was pretty much just that, a rocky waterfall. There was indeed water and rocks and a fall, but it wasn’t running at full strength. Probably much more impressive in the spring when there’s a little more water. We had a short amount of time between other visitors to get in a few pictures, but when a camo-attired horde came roaring up on a dozen or so ATV’s we figured that signaled the end of this particular photo shoot.
Just like that, it was back to the beloved paper map to see what other natural wonders this area had up its sleeve. And there on the map, highlighted and bolded in blue as a “point of interest”, was Blue Spring. What could that be? It must be worth checking out if it was truly a point of interest. So off we drove in search of a blue spring, curving and winding through the back roads of rural Missouri. It was somewhere along this route that I learned how you know when you have actually reached Rural Missouri – it’s the moment when you see a dead, rotting coyote carcass impaled on fence post as a warning to all his pack mates and kin to stay the F*** out of Rural Missouri. Yikes…Doubt there are many PETA sympathizers in these parts.
Blue Spring is another of Missouri’s natural wonders that lives up to its name by virtue of being both blue and a spring. In my experience, many of the springs in Missouri are blue, so what makes this one different? Well the signage is happy to tell you! This is the deepest spring in Missouri (over 300 feet), it is so blue that the native Americans called it the “Spring of the Summer Sky” and it discharges 90 million gallons of water a day! It truly is quite an amazing shade of blue. On this, the grayest of all winter days, it was the bluest of any spring that has ever sprung. The water is so clear, you can peer straight down into its azure depths, where the blueness seems to increase the deeper you try to stare. Even the fish shimmer like sapphires as they dart about in their beautiful little basin of blue. Definitely another awe-inspiring photo destination to add to the lineup for the Eminence area.
Time always seems to fly when you’re having fun. With no cell phone coverage, an outdated map of Missouri and inclement weather on the radar it was time to follow the trail of dead coyotes back to the sanctuary of the lodge where a special Valentines Day dinner was being prepared.
Later in the evening, after enjoying an overabundance of filet mignon, lobster tail and decadent desserts, we hunkered down by the massive stone fireplace to ride out the storm. As the ice began to tap against the windows, we reflected on the adventures of the day and how, with all the stunning and colorful natural wonders that this beautiful place had to offer, we had gained a whole new perspective on the concept of “winter blues.”