Have you ever had a 2000-acre state park all to yourself? I did on a warm Saturday afternoon in early November, visiting a place where some of my ancestors had bitter experiences in the Civil War.
Earlier in the week I was perusing my new Hiking Missouri book, looking for something not too far from Bartlesville. I came across the Ozark Chinquapin Trail at Big Sugar Creek State Park in McDonald County, just west of Barry County where I’ve spent countless vacations since childhood. I’d never heard of this park, so I looked it up in Google Maps and was shocked to see that it’s adjacent to Cyclone, Missouri. That place brings forth tales of death and hardship in my family, but not from the tornado that gave the place its name in the late 1800s.
My Ancestors at Big Sugar Creek
Cyclone is nothing more than a low-water crossing and a couple of houses these days, and did not even exist when my great-great-grandfather bought an 80-acre farm just northeast of there in 1851 on a bend of Big Sugar Creek. He and his wife and children built a milldam and grist mill, using the open range to graze their cattle. My great-grandfather was born there in 1856, and his mother died in childbirth the following year. She and her infant are buried there on the farm, which today is the eastern part of the largely undeveloped Big Sugar Creek State Park. My father located their graves, marked only by fieldstones, in the years before the land was acquired for the park.
After losing his wife, my great-great-grandfather remarried and had another daughter. But the Civil War would bring a tragic end to their life on Big Sugar Creek. My great-grandfather recalled how Confederate troops who were stationed in the county in the winter of 1860 through the spring of 1861 drove up in their provision wagons, shot the family’s cattle, hogs, and sheep, loaded them up, and drove away. Limestone bluffs across the creek from the family farm allowed soldiers to establish a picket line and hold prisoners in that bend of the creek, so it became known as Penitentiary Bottom.
My great-great-grandfather and his two eldest sons joined the Union army in 1862, but someone stole his overcoat and he died of pneumonia in Cassville in late May after only two months of service. His second wife left for Kansas with their young daughter and the two eldest sons were still in the Union army, so that left six orphans alone at the farm on Big Sugar Creek. They ranged in age from a 17-year-old daughter to my great-grandfather, who was the youngest at age six.
The six orphans had only two scrubby work steers left, so they made a box bed to mount on the front axle of a wagon, loaded what few belongings they had left, and traveled fifty miles to Lawrence County, where they lived in a cabin that had formerly been used for farm slaves. My great-grandfather remembered how they had little more than corn bread to eat and he would cry from hunger after going to bed. There was a small lake nearby where soldiers would come to wash their clothes, and the only shoes my great-grandfather and his siblings had were old shoes the soldiers had thrown away at that lake.
With all of that family history swirling through my head, it was clear that my next day hike would be at Big Sugar Creek. So Saturday morning I dashed back out along US 60 and I-44 to Joplin. I could have turned off at Afton for lunch at Neosho, but my last lunch there was unimpressive and I had a hankering for the wood-fire pizza Yelp recommended in Joplin. I’ve never explored that ugly town very much, so it was interesting to head downtown to old highway 66, where I would turn east for the pizza paradise. I’d left Bartlesville at 9 am since it was supposedly two hours to Joplin. But I got to town early, which was just as well, since I got stuck in traffic downtown for 20 minutes waiting for the Joplin Veterans Day’s Parade to pass by.
When I finally reached my goal, I found a tiny restaurant with no cars in a blighted area. No thanks, Yelp! So I reluctantly drove back east to pizza choice number two, knowing it was situated, like so many other restaurants, along Joplin’s hideous Range Line Road. I had the buffet, which helps explain why my lunch consisted of salad, pizza, and, er, a cinnamon roll. Pizza parlor desserts tend to be a bit strange, don’t they?
Then I rocketed down the new US 71, which has been rebuilt to interstate standards. At 70 mph it wasn’t long until I reached Pineville, where I turned off onto the narrow asphalt of Big Sugar Creek Road and meandered twelve miles east to lonely Cyclone. The water was up over the low-water bridge, so I asked a couple at the nearby house what my other options might be. They assured me I could drive across safely. “Drive ‘er slow and down the middle, and you’ll make it just fine.”
So I reluctantly drove across it eastward, with water gurgling beneath the floorboards. The road on the other side was gravel and it was a short drive uphill to the north to reach the entrance to the old Meador farm. The state bought this area in the 1990s but has not developed much in the park. There is just the hiking trail over in the western portion, and this eastern portion has an abandoned 1950s homestead. As was the case years ago when my parents last visited Cyclone, the gate was padlocked. This time it had a notice that this is a closed portion of the state park. I considered jumping the fence, but decided it was best to follow the rules and forgo finding the grave of my great-great-grandmother. This park is administered over at Roaring River, so maybe I’ll ask there sometime for permission.
Returning to the low water crossing, I saw the walls and gears from the old grist and sawmill that was built there in the late 1800s. Gurgling my way back across, I drove to the Ozark Chinquapin Trail. A couple finishing their hike were just leaving as I arrived at the trailhead, which has two vault toilets. Nearby is an old stone outbuilding for the former Shady Grove School. I had the trail, and thus the entire park, to myself for the rest of my stay.
The three-mile loop trail’s eastern leg meanders north back and forth along a limestone streambed with one section of lumpy limestone bedrock reminiscent of Roaring River’s Dry Hollow. Much of this portion was dry on this 77-degree November day, but there was one little active stream with pleasant rippling water. Some of the ridges along there were so eroded they resembled giant gravel piles. (Reminds one of Joplin’s sinkholes and tailings from years of lead and zinc mining.) My scuffling along the leafy trail spooked a white-tail deer away from the stream and up the slope. As the trail looped around on the north, it ran along the side of a wooded hill. There I saw an interesting hollow tree and meandered off trail to reach a truly strange tree.
Then it was back down the streambed of the western leg. Here the water had carved out a small natural amphitheater and flooded it, with lovely ripples and shadows and floating autumn leaves. This stream had carved deeper through the limestone layers. With no one about, I set up my Gorillapod for a self-portrait. Near the end of the hike, I spied something odd in the streambed. It looked like a piece of sidewalk embedded in a tree. A closer look showed that a chunk of limestone had crashed downstream or out of the side of the streambed in a flood, embedding in a tree that valiantly grew around it.
Arriving back at the trailhead, I stripped off my shirt and washed up. I never expected to be this warm in November! Freshened up, I drove back to US 71 and rocketed down to Bella Vista, Arkansas. This golfers’ paradise has now incorporated, although one’s impression is still a series of golf courses surrounded by retirement homes and interspersed with box stores and strip malls. But it beats Joplin’s Range Line!
I drove into the heart of “town”, which looks like a dendritic forest on the map. There behind the dam at Lake Windsor is the Tanyard Creek Nature Trail. Volunteers constructed this trail, which wraps around the namesake creek with nice bluffs and drip walls, a small cave with an ugly tin cover over its entrance (that part was simply too ugly for a snapshot), and some impressive rocks. The trails are dotted with innumerable signposts identifying trees and natural formations. True to form, I ignored almost all of them. Walking by so many such posts reminds one of driving by mile markers on the Turner Turnpike. But the creek below the Lake Windsor spillway is quite pretty, although malodorous.
I would have liked to photograph the small waterfall there as well, but a family was hogging the cramped viewing area, blithely ignoring the rules about walking past the fence so they could take snapshots by the falls with their cell phones. What a contrast to my own refusal to break the rules and enter a closed section of an absolutely empty state park to go see my ancestor’s grave. It takes all types!
Trudging back to the car, I took one last snapshot of the rushing water as dusk closed in. After the Yelp failure at lunch, I wondered how dinner would go. But Urbanspoon’s recommendation of Las Fajitas was accurate. The place was packed, the food was tasty, and I liked their brightly painted tabletops and booth backs. It was a quick roll back to Bartlesville. In fact, I spent far more time downloading photos from a friend’s borrowed camera, editing and posting them, and writing this post than I did driving back to Bartlesville from another successful day hike.