A couple months ago, I had the privilege of attending a conference in Branson, Missouri. I don’t get to travel out of state very often. Twice in 16 years to be exact. So I jumped at the chance. Especially since I’ve never been remotely close to the area and it’s always fun experiencing new things.
It’s difficult to fly into Branson, they do have a commercial airport now, but flights are only offered on certain days. This turned out to be a good thing because I was able to fly into Springfield, and then get a rental car for the hour drive into Branson. Usually, when I travel for work, I’m locked into sites around the hotel vicinity and wherever the free shuttle service will take me. Having a car to explore gave me a certain amount of freedom I wasn’t used to.
I took off very early on a Sunday morning last September. The flight was uneventful and I arrived in Denver for a couple hours layover. No offense to Denver, but I’m less impressed with that airport each time I go. United has so many flights in and out of there, it is packed to the gills with people. I don’t like crowds on a good day, so this really taxed my patience. The airport was so clogged with travelers, it was almost impossible to walk anywhere. I’m a fast walker and get stressed out when traffic prevents me from going at my usual brisk pace. I bought a large Americano from Starbucks so that helped my nerves a bit. The side terminal where my departure gate was standing room only, (just barely) so I went to the main terminal area where I found a spot to spread out a bit to check email and wait out my layover. Thank goodness for wireless Internet access. I passed some humorous moments teasing my co-workers hard at work while I was on my adventure.
The flight to Springfield was a repeat of the trip to Denver, not much to write home about. You get into a flying tube and get out in another part of the country. I loved the Springfield airport, very quiet and not at all crowded. Evidently, it’s not the busy season for Branson tourism so that was a benefit to me. I went to check out my rental car, and spent too long arguing with the guy that I didn’t need any insurance since I was covered by the State of ND. I had my cards to prove it but he still had to take issue with it.
I was given a KIA Optima. He asked if I wanted to upgrade to a Camaro, but I’m sure I would have had a hard time getting reimbursed for that.My car was black and not quite as flashy as the one above, but basically the same. It was a small car for my tastes, but I’m sure it gets fantastic mileage. Everything was just weird. The shift, blinkers, wipers, cruise, and headlights were not even remotely close to what I’m used to. I kept turning on the wipers, when I wanted to signal. Later that evening, when I went to get some groceries, I needed to turn on the headlights and kept spraying washer fluid. When I got back to the hotel, I finally broke down and actually read the manual. I didn’t have any more car trouble after that. I’m a huge instruction book reader, so it surprised me I didn’t read it before I started. I got a chuckle when I saw the license plates. I’m from North Dakota, on a trip to Missouri, and my rental car had Indiana plates.
Getting out of Springfield was a challenge. Traffic was hectic after leaving the airport. They had road construction going on just like in North Dakota. However, where some of our highways go from two-lane to one-lane when under construction, Springfield just re-painted the lines and made the two lanes smaller. It was a little unnerving driving so close to other vehicles at highway speeds. The directions I got off the hotel website were very good, and once I was out of town on a different highway, the construction stopped and it became like the highway driving I’m used to.
Before looking at the hotel directions, I was looking at some other road maps and it looked like the most straightforward route to the hotel was by going through Branson. So I was curious when the hotel directions routed me around the NW corner of the town. It seemed out of the way, but trusted to the judgment of the hotel. I was instructed to turn off the main interstate highway 65 and go west on state highway 465 otherwise known as the Ozark Mountain Highroad. This is a winding road as you would expect through the Ozark “mountains.” I use the term loosely because like our Turtle mountains in North Dakota, rolling hills is a more accurate name. But the drive was quite breathtaking nonetheless. The scenery was fantastic and I would recommend this route to anyone. Plus, you don’t drive through Branson at all, which I was to find out, gets very clogged up with traffic. So I drove through the Ozarks around Branson, and drove right up the hotel in short order.
The conference was at the Chateau on the lake Resort an extremely nice place. I haven’t stayed anywhere this nice since a conference in Portland, Oregon that I attended about 8 years ago. I got checked in and took a glass elevator up to my room. The elevator looks out on the atrium which has a gorgeous waterfall in the middle of it. It was about supper time and I hadn’t had anything all day except some pop and coffee and a small bag of pretzels. So I got my city of Branson map and hit the road again.
My first stop was a grocery store. I always like to have a few munchies in my room but I don’t like the exorbitant fees on the hotel vending machines. This time I did go through the main drag part of town with all the tourist attractions. Would you believe I drove through the whole town without seeing a single grocery store? Evidently they want people to just focus on the attractions rather than worry about buying groceries. As I eventually turned North and was about to drive out of town, I turned off on a side street. I had only driven a couple blocks when I realized Branson has two parts of town. There’s the part they want tourists to see, and another part that is for the people that actually live there. I could see right away I had finally entered the part of town frequented by “locals”. It stopped looking like Branson, and started looking like any other residential area. I saw a Wal-Mart, and then a little ways further, found a Country Mart grocery store. This was a delightful place, with very reasonable prices. I got a 6-pack of pop, some chips and cookies, and called it good.
Now I was very hungry after browsing the deli and other food items at the grocery store. My primary rule when traveling, is to try very hard to avoid any eatery that is also available in my home town. The whole point is to experience new things and that means eating somewhere I’ve never been to before. I saw a Sonic drive-in on the way into town and didn’t feel like driving down “tourist boulevard” again so that fit the bill. I’ve never been to a Sonic before.
They had a jalapeno, bacon, cheeseburger that was a special, limited time thing. So I went with that along with tater tots, because I’ve never had tater tots at a burger joint before, and a coke. It was ok, it had been a long day so it didn’t dawn on me that this was truly a drive-in, meaning no inside seating. So I ordered my food and slid my card in the convenient slot provided. A few minutes later, a guy came out with my order and I had to eat in the car. The burger was very good, but not really any different than any other fast-food place, I’ll probably never get tater tots with a hamburger again, I should have went with the french fries. Sorry Sonic, I probably won’t be back for a return visit.
Now it was dark, so I had to turn my lights on before driving back to the hotel. This was hilarious because I kept turning on the washer fluid and wipers. What kind of maniac puts the headlight switch on the same stick as the windshield wipers? I may be dim-witted, but I don’t see how that makes any sense. KIA aficionados probably think this is great, but it was utter lunacy in my opinion.
Somehow, I got the lights on and the wipers off, and made it back to the hotel. Then I got the manual out and read up on everything I had trouble with. Then I practiced with the lights and wipers and where the cruise control was. Finally, convinced I had mastered the controls, went back to my room, called my family, and went to bed.
Breakfast was included with the registration, so I went down and enjoyed some delicious scrambled eggs, broasted potatoes, fruit, bacon and sausage. Then I had some grape juice and my beloved coffee. I got a few curious stares as I filled my own personal thermal coffee mug. The cups they provide at meetings and conferences are just too small and the coffee gets cold too quickly. So I’ve gotten into the habit of dragging my coffee mug with me when I travel. It's the perfect size to get me through until the next break.
The conference started with the general session involving everyone. After some words of welcome from our host, the deputy director of the Missouri Department of Conservation, the mayor of Branson, Raeanne Presley gave the keynote address. In addition to being the mayor, she married into the Presley family which was one of the first entertainment groups that set up their show in the Branson area. She mentioned that tourism is Branson’s only industry. I could see this very clearly because every local I had come in contact with, the people at the hotel, the grocery store, and the Sonic drive-in, were so completely friendly and accommodating. It seemed as though everyone made it their personal mission to ensure I was enjoying myself and if not, they needed to know why so they could correct it immediately. Absolutely everyone I met was extremely polite. Except maybe one person at a place I visited which I will tell you about later. The mayor continued with some interesting historical facts about Branson and wished us to enjoy our stay.
The next speaker was Bob Priddy, radio journalist, humorist, and historian. This guy was absolutely, gut-busting funny. You could tell he made a living out of talking to people. He took us on a very thorough history of the state of Missouri and Branson, and had us laughing all the way. I really enjoyed listening to him.
Then the training and development coordinator from the Missouri Department of Conservation gave a presentation about dealing with workplace stress. Also something I got some value out of and extremely humorous as well. I firmly believe, if you ever have to give a speech or presentation, even a serious one, it is almost always beneficial to interject humor into your talk.
It was time for lunch, which was also provided. It was a delicious soup, salad, and sandwich buffet. They had a raspberry vinaigrette that was pretty tasty on the greens. Iced tea seems to be a staple down there and was offered all day with the water and coffee. I enjoy unsweetened iced tea very much so I actually took a coffee break, I mean a break from my coffee and went for some tea.
After lunch we went into the breakout sections. Small groups according to your job description. As a computer guy, I was in the Information Technology group. I’ll spare you the details. The content of these meetings is extremely boring to most of the known world. The one thing I will say is how enjoyable it is to talk to my peers from other states. As a technology person in the fish and wildlife industry, I have a fairly unique set of job duties. It’s difficult for me to talk about my job with people who don’t work in the field because it’s boring, or they just don’t understand what it is I do. It is very nice to speak with people who deal with the same kind of day-to-day problems I deal with and understand what it’s like. It is quite therapeutic. As a general rule, I don't care for meetings, but the breakout sessions were quite enjoyable.
After the meetings were over, it was time to head out to the conference banquet, a fish fry at the Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery. On the menu was catfish, hush puppies (fried dough balls), french fries, cole slaw, and assorted fruit cobblers. No offense to the fine state of Missouri, the catfish was good, but I was born and raised on walleye and there really isn’t any comparison. I’ll take walleye any day of the week. Fruity desserts are my favorite, especially the wild berry variety. There happened to be a wild berry cobbler that I thoroughly enjoyed. Peach is a close second so I couldn’t resist a small sliver of peach cobbler also.
Then they started giving out door prizes. When your name was called, you got your choice of an item from the prize table. I selected a very nice pair of insulated, water-proof gloves which I’ve gotten great use out of the last couple days. The gloves are toasty warm and strangely light enough so you can still manipulate most objects with your fingers. It was a pretty good score.
Very full, I caught the first shuttle back to the hotel so I could open a video chat with my family and help my daughter with her geometry. The next day I found out they were giving tours of the hatchery which would have been very interesting, but evidently, it was a last minute thing they decided to do to occupy the people who were waiting for the next shuttle. Oh well, North Dakota has 2 hatcheries and I expect I’ll get a tour of the one in Riverdale at some point.
When I was back in my room, I got some ice and poured myself a strawberry crème soda before calling my family. In a few minutes my pretty daughter was on my computer screen and we commenced some geometry ciphering. It actually didn’t take that long. Geometry has gone very well this semester. My daughter either is finally starting to get math or her brain just has an easier time understanding the geometry concepts. Getting her through algebra the last two years was nothing short of torture for both of us.
I had another great night’s sleep in a very comfortable bed and breakfasted the next morning on fresh fruit and biscuits and gravy. They were good, but not as good as my dad’s. But there was plenty of hot gravy to drench the biscuits in. After breakfast there was more tech talk with the breakout groups and the main part of the conference was over. We had the afternoon free.
Lunch was on our own so I hopped into my KIA, much more familiar with the controls, and headed out on the main drag. I was in the mood for pizza so I found a Pizza World that had a lunch buffet. It was ok, but nothing to write home about, our local Pizza Hut and Pizza Ranch do a much better job in my opinion.
After lunch, I was very excited to take in the one tourist attraction I really was not going to miss, the Titanic Museum. Cameras were not allowed so all I was able to get were a couple pictures of the outside. The museum building is on dry land but is shaped like the front part of the ship.
This was absolutely the part of the trip I enjoyed the most. There are a few of these museums around the country and I highly recommend a visit if you have the opportunity. Even if you’re not that interested in the Titanic, it is almost impossible to see this museum without being affected. You are given a boarding pass when you enter, that has a passenger or crewmember’s name from the fateful voyage, along with a brief history of who that person was. At the end of the tour, you find out if the person on your boarding pass survived.
I was delighted to be assigned the captain of ship. Edward John Smith. A 62-year-old highly respected captain. From what I read, he was very good at what he did and was well thought of by both passengers and crew. You’ll have to keep reading if you want to find out what happened to him.
The museum is self-guided with stewards stationed at various points to answer questions. They also rented audio devices for $5. Throughout the museum, there were symbols with a number printed on them. When you punched in the number, you got to listen to a recording with additional information about what you were looking at. I had to get the full experience so I handed over $5 and collected my device.
The first part talked about the ships construction and had a full scale replica of one of the massive screws which propelled it through the water. It’s hard to describe the size of that thing. The ship really was enormous. The next section went into launching the ship. 22 tons of tallow and soap were used to grease the rails so the ship could slide in the water.
There were descriptions of the boarding preparations, all the food and supplies that were required, everyone was subjected to a brief medical exam to make sure they were healthy. Then they had a window where you could see the museum mascots, Molly and Carter.
Aren’t they adorable? They are 2-year-old King Charles spaniels and pay tribute to the 12 dogs that were brought on board. My memory is fuzzy, but I believe only 3 dogs survived. Molly and Carter were sleeping when I went by the first time, but they woke up shortly after and were brought out. They were extremely well-mannered and seemed to love all the attention they were getting.
There was a replica of a 3rd class cabin. Just barely room enough for 2 bunk beds on each side and a wash basin on the back wall. You could stand in the middle and almost touch all three sides without moving. But according to most passenger ships back then, they were luxury accommodations. The Titanic was also one of the few vessels that provided food, usually 3rd class passengers had to bring their own. There was only 2 toilet facilities per floor, one for men, one for women and had to be shared by over a hundred people.
Then you got to see what the 1st class passengers enjoyed. Quite a difference from 3rd class, two bedrooms, private bathroom, walk-in closets, and a sitting room complete with fireplace. They didn’t have a replica of 2nd class but said that there wasn’t that much difference between 2nd and 1st class.
They had some actual menu cards recovered from survivors. 3rd class was served excellent food but wasn’t anything like the 11-course meals 1st class enjoyed.
Parts of the museum were interactive. There was a room you went into that was made to look like you were walking the deck outside. The temperature was even the same as it would have been that night, very cold. The whole room was black and used ultraviolet lighting on the walls to make it appear like you were looking at the night sky. You couldn’t stay in this room very long before the cold started affecting you and you had to go back where it was warm.
There was a replica of the ships wheel that you could spin, and then the displays started getting into the accident itself. The iceberg didn’t actually puncture the hull. It scraped off hundreds of rivets that allowed water to start pouring in. The hull was designed in sections that could be sealed off to prevent the ship from sinking, but they didn’t work. Water began to flow into the various sections anyway.
They had sections of deck that were built at angles representing different stages of the sinking that you could walk on. There was also full-scale replica of a life boat you could sit in. There was a pool of water kept at the same temperature the ocean was. You could stick your hand in and see how long you could keep it in there before taking it out. I lasted just over 15 seconds and it was several minutes before I started regaining the feeling in my fingers.
You could test out a Morse code device. The distress signal at that time was “CQD”. The “CQ” was the standard call for assistance but the letters don’t actually stand for anything, contrary to several web sites saying it means, “come quickly”. The “D” at the end was used to indicate a distress situation. The familiar “SOS” was just starting to be adopted and was also sent out from the Titanic. I had fun punching in and listening to the signals, and spelled out my name.
There were various displays of artifacts recovered. There were 8 crewmembers in the orchestra and there was a listing of different songs they played, all the musicians died because they wanted to keep playing as long as possible to try to comfort the people trying to escape. They initially were playing jazzy, swing songs from the day, but switched to hymns once people realized the ship was going down. A popular one they played over and over was “Nearer my God to Thee.”
The last stage of the journey detailed various recovery efforts and location of the wreckage. There are plans to raise the Titanic going on. Time is of the essence because it is very quickly turning into a pile of rust.
Sadly, my captain was not among the survivors. He did indeed go down with the ship. There are conflicting reports of the actual circumstances, none of which can be confirmed. Some survivors said he fell into the water, others said he locked himself on the bridge after giving the command to abandon ship. Yet another interesting story, probably more legend than truth, was that after he fell in the water, he surfaced and grabbed hold of one of the life boats. He apologized to the people sitting in the boat for what they had to endure, and then let go and went down.
The steward that was collecting the audio devices at the end said to me that it looked like I enjoyed my visit. I was so moved I couldn’t say anything. I swallowed a few times and was able to choke out a response, “It was amazing,” was all I could say. She nodded in an understanding way. They recommended to reserve 90 minutes to walk through the museum. I was there a little over 2 1/2 hours.
My next stop was the world’s largest toy museum. Cameras were not only allowed, but encouraged, so I’ve got lots of pictures of this. I’m a child at heart, so toys are still something I enjoy.
I had a fairly large Hot Wheel car collection in my youth, complete with the orange track you see at the bottom. Everyone who has ever owned these seems to have a story of sword fighting with the track sections. My brother and I were no different, they really stung when you got swatted with a piece of that track. My son has a bunch of cars too. He’s no long interested in Hot Wheels, but I still plan on keeping them.
Ah yes, who can remember PEZ dispensers? These were the rage when I was in high school. I was into the Warner Brothers Characters, so I had Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Sylvester. I also had a little truck with wheels that I remember shooting across the floor in band. I played the trumpet and my buddy was in the trombone section so it had to go across the room for him to get his PEZ fix.
There were bible verses placed throughout the museum. Branson is very much a faith-based community. The entertainment and shows are all family friendly and have to pass strict guidelines before performances are allowed.
I’ve always wanted a train set, but have never had the room to spare to build anything worthwhile, you almost need an entire basement or a good sized room to build a decent railway. Train sets today are nice, but I still like the old “larger than life” Lionel train sets from the 60’s.
Beanie babies stuffed animals. These were the bane of my existence. My beautiful wife went through a “collecting” phase. We had several plastic totes filled with these creatures, stacked from floor to ceiling. Thank goodness for eBay. I was able to sell almost all of them when we decided we didn’t need them anymore.
As did this shelf underneath the ViewMasters. I had an Etch-A-Sketch and I was also in cub scouts and sported one of those blue cub scout baseball caps. I had that exact same barrel of Tinkertoys also. They were amazing. I always enjoyed building things. There are also Lego’s represented. My best friend had one of those Merlin, the electronic wizard games (red game, bottom shelf, next to the tic-tac-toe board).
This museum was wonderful. They claim anyone of any age should be able to find toys they played with in their youth. There was an old man, barely able to walk, who came up to me and said he needed to show me something. He was very determined, so I allowed him to take me to an ancient train set. He beamed with pride as he went into a very detailed story from his childhood, when he owned a set just like that. It appeared he was enjoying his visit also.
My next stop was a go-kart and mini-golf park. Here’s a shot of the KIA I was driving. In the background was the reason I was there. A 3-story wooden go-kart track called, “The Lumberjack.” Branson has a chain of attractions called the Track Family Fun Parks. They have a few different tracks but I was interested in the two huge wooden ones. They have another one called “the Wild Woody”, but that track wasn’t open.
Here’s another shot of the track. Note the 3-story corkskrew. It was a blast. The track was made of wooden boards so it made a cool bumpbumpbumpbumpbump sound as you were driving over it. The cars were a little slow for my taste, especially going up-hill. But spinning around as you were coming down was fun. The car picked up speed and you had to let off the gas just a little bit or you would lose control.
After my ride, I had time for a quick 18 holes of mini-golf. It was set to a wild west, gold mining theme. I saw my name on a fake grave marker, so I had to snap a picture of it. The golf course wasn’t very exciting, but it was challenging. I finished 19 over par, but I blame it on the fact I was trying to hurry, so I’d make it back in time to catch the shuttle for our evening showboat dinner cruise. There was a pirate’s cove golf course, but I would have had to drive in extremely busy traffic to get there, and I just didn’t have time. The attendant at the fun park was the first person I met who didn’t have the “customer service” mind set. He was rude and didn’t seem to care that he was keeping a line of people waiting to buy tickets.
After turning in my putter, I had to high-tail it back to the hotel so I could make the shuttle to our evening dinner cruise on the Branson Belle. Traffic was horrible now, everyone was trying to make it to any one of a huge number of shows that were getting ready to start. The average speed was around 5 mph.
I did make the shuttle and got in line for my boat ticket. The boat was enormous, a huge stern-wheeler with four decks. I got my seat and they started to serve the meal. This is a shot of the band that played music while we ate. It sounded great. I play trumpet in a big band that plays a lot of the same music, so I recognized every tune they played. I got a chance to talk to the trumpet player later as they were taking a break. A fine, personable fellow that exemplified the Branson hospitality I was getting used to.
The meal was great, especially after the lackluster pizza I had for lunch. A salad with the ships signature sweet onion dressing, roast beef and gravy, a chicken breast, mashed potatoes, vegetables, and lemon raspberry torte for dessert. Complemented by fresh sourdough bread (my favorite) and large quantities of iced tea.
The only downer about the "cruise" was that we didn’t actually leave the dock. Some kid had stuffed a shirt down one of the toilets during their afternoon trip, and it got jammed down into the main plumbing line and took out every toilet on the boat. They are not allowed to leave port without functioning rest rooms, so we had our dinner cruise tied up to the dock with spiffy biffs outside if you needed to relieve yourself.
After dinner, there was a break before the show. I didn’t want to drag the camera around so you’ll have to make do with lousy cell-phone pictures. It was very dark, so most of the pictures I took didn’t turn out. This first one is a picture of one of the paddle wheels.
When I’m left to my own devices exploring, I have a tendency to wander where most people wouldn’t go. I found this interesting motor boat tied down an empty passageway. I try to obey most signs, so I kept clear as I wasn’t a member of the crew.
Sorry for the blurry image. I’m sure I was walking as I took the picture, which is kind of a dumb thing to do when you think about it. But I’ve told you before, pictures just aren’t my thing. This looked like some crazy, all in one, music contraption. There were drums, horns, and a keyboard with pipes. Unfortunately, it wasn’t playing. I sure would have liked to hear it.
Then they called us back to the main hall for the show. It was kind of like the Medora musical we have in ND. There were singers that performed a bunch of songs. The theme this year is Broadway showstoppers so they sang songs from various musicals like Phantom of the opera, Oklahoma, Mame, and Little Orphan Annie.
Then we were entertained by Todd Oliver and his talking dogs. No, the dogs don’t actually talk. Todd Oliver is a ventriloquist. This show was so funny, my stomach was sore the rest of the night from laughing so hard. This is his last year with the showboat and will be opening up his own show in Branson next year. He is extremely funny if you ever have a chance to see his show.
Back to the hotel, more geometry with my daughter, courtesy of the Internet and video chat, and bed. There was a light breakfast the next morning with fresh fruit and assorted breads, pastries, and muffins. We had our closing meetings and it was time to catch my flight home.
I gassed up the rental, turned it back in, and got in line to enter the airport terminal. I waited about 15 minutes to go through security and finally realized I hadn’t got my boarding pass or checked my luggage. So then I had to go find the United Airlines window and get rid of my luggage. Another wait.
I got through security and only had to remove my shoes, coat, and belt. Fortunately, I wasn’t subjected to any body scans or pat-downs. I got dressed, grabbed my carry-ons and got to my gate just in time for initial boarding.
The flight home was uneventful. Denver was just as clogged with people. I had lunch at Que Bueno Mexican Grille. A beef and bean burrito combo with chips and salsa and a ginormous pop. The burrito was good, but not quite up to Taco Del Mar (Bismarck restaurant) standards. The chips and salsa were very good, except I didn't have nearly enough sauce.
I caught my flight home and arrived just as my family was finishing up the Wednesday evening church activities so they were able to pick me up fairly soon.
That’s about it, a good time was had in Branson, but it was very nice to be back home with my family and comfortable bed.