Note: This (really long) blog post is about my trip to Missouri and the writing is primarily centered around my photography with a fair bit about my experience there as well. All photos here are not modified in any way. I personally consider it unethical to do so. You can see all my photos from the vacation in high res here.
So I went on a vacation. I had worked for 15 days straight without a break – partly by choice and partly by force. And I was looking forward to some travelling and photography. Fortunately or unfortunately, nobody I know of shares my flexible work schedule – which meant that I had to go on my vacation alone. I had done it once before on a 1 day 800 mile trip to Minneapolis (and back) via a long detour on Highway 61. And I did not mind doing it again. Also, I needed complete freedom to spend any amount of time to my liking taking photographs. So I packed my gear and set off. My equipment involved a Nikon D3100 camera, 18-55mm and 55-200mm VR lenses, Omega Tripod, 1 UV filter, 1 ND filter and 1 Polarizing filter.
I was initially deciding between North western Nebraska (and surrounding) – which housed The Jewel Caves, the Devil’s Tower, Mt. Rushmore and the Chimney Tower- and Missouri – which housed Lake of the Ozarks, Mark Twain National Forest, Ozarks National Scenic Riverways and Meramec Caverns. I realized I only had resources for a 3 day and 2 night trip. So I chose the latter.
I left Des Moines, Iowa at about 0730 hrs. My GPS was set to the Lake of the Ozarks as the first day destination and immediately, it suggested the fastest route to be taking the Interstate. But that was not my intention. An alternate route suggestion on the GPS involved going through US highways and some county roads down right through the center of Missouri. That sounded good and I hit the gas.
The drive was initially non descript. The sun was already getting on its bright yellow and heading into the white. And for those unfamiliar with the Iowa landscape, this meant that there was absolutely nothing to admire on the flatlands that zipped by endlessly on either side of the road. The road took me east for a while till Ottumwa and through it I turned South to Missouri.
Following US 63 S into MO, the contrast in the landscape between Iowa and Missouri was hard to miss. I am not exaggerating here. But there was about maybe 10-15 miles of grey area on either side of the border. But apart from that, it was all flat and completely barren on the Iowa side and rolling green hills on the Missouri side! My guess is the topography was the deciding factor while drawing the border!
The road took me through a few Amish settlements. Spotted quite a few Amish horse drawn carts and the stereotypical long bearded Amish men. The road also made me narrowly avoid a totally drunk red neck who was trying extremely hard to figure out which side of the road he was supposed to be driving on.
I cannot term the road to be scenic. It was peaceful and easy at best. I was on cruise control for the most part and the traffic was light. I reached Lake of the Ozarks by about 1330 hrs and headed straight to the welcome center where an old man showed me all the places to go to find a good view. The sun was beating down at that time and though the welcome center offered a neat panoramic view of the lake, I did not fancy getting any great shots in that light. It was definitely more than 1000 F in heat index but in spite of it, I spent about half an hour trying to get a few good compositions to make up for the bad light. I changed my lens from the 18-55mm to the 55-200mm and presently, a bunch of people started parasailing and boating in my direction. That, with the buildings on the other side of the lake serving as the backdrop, did the trick. In the end, I did get a few half decent shots and a couple of good ones as well (thanks partly to my new polarizing filter).
I drove around a few places there for about an hour or two and did find a few good spots to get good views of the lake and the few buildings adorning its shoreline. But at 1530, the light was at its worst and no subject would have looked good in that light. So I found a small bar and downed a couple of Sam Adams beers with my lunch.
I had a map of the lake which showed all the tourist and scenic points. The Lake of the Ozarks is a significantly large lake which snakes its way through a few cities generating more than a few bends and turns. There were a couple of public beaches that got me interested and so I decided to check them out. One of them, (in the photo) offered a good swimming area and lay between 2 forests/hills. The sun was setting in the direction directly facing the beach which meant I could not take any useful photos of the other side. So I went for a swim and just hung around in the water for a while till the light started showing signs of the rich golden yellow every photographer yearns for. So I quickly got setup and took a few shots of the beach side with the sun angling its golden rays on the beach and the trees. Unfortunately, I still could not shoot the other side and I knew I had to come back early in the morning to do it.
By about 0800, I knew it was time to get to a good spot to shoot the sunset. The sun was already getting into its orange self and I was running out of time. I was frantically searching for a half decent spot to setup my camera and I eventually turned to a parking lot and got setup just in time to take a few good shots of the sun setting. I suppose I could have done a better job if I had gotten setup a bit early but I was fairly satisfied with the result. However, it was only after the sun had set that I found that I had got my tripod setup right next to garbage bin!
I narrowly missed capturing the sunrise the following morning, thanks largely to not waking up early enough. I immediately headed out to the public beach I had been to the previous evening and found a welcome sight of the sun angling its golden beam on the other side of the beach. I was able to get a few good shots, but I have to admit it was only the light that made the photos look good in the absence of any useful subject. So I headed out to some of the view points of the lake which I had missed out the previous day and found a few nice compositions. The photo below seemed to perfectly capture the quiet of the early morning at a nearby boating center.
I headed out to Big Springs at about 1000 and reached it in about 3 hrs time. Big Springs is a place near Van Bruner in central Missouri. It houses Big Spring, which as the name suggests, is a big spring. Not in terms of area of the spring waters, but in terms of the rate of water gushing out. It ranks as one of the largest in the world in this aspect. It is situated right next to the Current river (which it eventually flows into) which is more popular as part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverway. What this means is that this river flows through some very scenic spots (usually between two tree covered hills) and flows at a very slow pace and is largely shallow. And by shallow I mean anywhere between 0.5’-5’. All this makes it very conducive for activities such as kayaking, tubing, canoeing and boating. So I decided to go tubing along the Current river for about 3 hrs.
The route took me through some really scenic and picturesque views. The water was bluish green all the way through and you could see the river bed all along the way. Unfortunately, I could not take my camera with me as it was not water proof. I missed out on a few very good shots in the process. Sitting in my tube and drifting along the river while taking in the beautiful scenery passing by for about 3 hours, however, pretty much gave me all the relaxation I needed. I suppose it could have been a better experience doing that with some good company but it was not to be.
Also, be aware. Alcohol consumption during the 3 hr drifting can sound like an appropriate thing to do. But do think of the part wherein you are stuck in a tube all the time without any opportunity to access a restroom. (Do I speak from experience?) Also of note is one lesson I learnt about the waters the almost hard way. Never under estimate the current of the water. It may look like it is just floating harmlessly but trust me when I say that you simply CANNOT assume you are going to be safe.
The only disappointing part about the tubing was that it ate into the sunset time. I was told of a really good spot to capture the sunset and I quickly set out to find it. After a bit of driving roundabout, I reached the spot. The spot was everything one can hope for to capture a good sunset or sunrise. Mountains and hills rolling all the way to the horizon with no trees or other obstacles blocking the view. A couple of houses below the viewing area that could serve as foreground subjects. And directly facing west. And I was too late.
I honest to god, had a strong urge to take a gun and blow my brains out to have missed what could have been the most beautiful sunset. I kept cursing myself to no end for having gone tubing the past few hours. I just could not believe I had missed it. The light was already fading and was almost gone. I could see the faint orange of the sky barely hanging over the horizon and I knew I had very little time to do anything at all. So I tried to capture a silhouette of my car with the twilight sky over the horizon as the backdrop. However, there was a lot of reflected light coming from behind me which made it impossible to get a perfect silhouette, irrespective of how much I tuned down my exposure. In the end, this was what I was able to get. Not a bad shot I would say, but could have been so much better.
I headed back to my cabin in the middle of the forest. Spending the night in a cabin amidst the wilderness of the forest was an experience I had missed for a very long time. So was reading a good book. And so I finished half of Fahrenheit 451 that night sitting in that cabin in the middle of nowhere. I was particularly happy that there was no internet service in that cabin. Else, I would have found a strong urge to post to my Facebook and Twitter accounts about my whereabouts and plans, all the while missing out on just enjoying the peace of the forest.
I woke up pretty early the next day to ensure I didn’t miss out on another sunrise. A map of the forest area indicated that there were a few hiking trails which led to a few viewpoints. So I decided to check out the ones which faced east. After a not so long and not so hard hike, I settled on 2-3 viewing spots with the Current river running below me. I setup my tripod and camera and waited for the sun to come out. Unfortunately, the viewpoint was not as elevated as I had hoped it would be. It made me miss the mellow orange of the sun emerging out of the distant horizon. Instead, I caught the sun coming out of the hills in front of me during its transition to the delicate yellow. It was still beautiful and I set about capturing the sunrise from different viewpoints. I caught a few silhouettes this time – mainly of trees and leaves. This one shot made me stop and think for a while. The leaves appear to be tendering to the sun in its innocuous infancy, nurturing it to rise further in the sky, blissfully oblivious to how harsh and ravaging the sun was to become in just a few hours time.
I took a few more shots of the place, one of them capturing the waters arising out of the Big Spring joining and losing its identity to the waters of the Current river. After being satisfied with the quality of shots of the sunrise, I headed to the Big Spring itself. I had no idea how it would be and how good the light would be there. I had not seen any pictures of it online and did not know what to expect. But when I did arrive at the Big Spring, what I saw simply took my breath away.
The water was pristine blue. The spring was gushing out water relentlessly as if it was on a never ending mission. The sun bestowed its golden rays angled directly on the spring. Beautiful color, a captive subject and golden light. It was a photographer’s paradise!
I do not know how many photos I ended up taking but it must have been about 150. I know I spent close to 2 hours there and I do not remember pausing from taking photos of the place. So much so, I never really just sat and enjoyed the view.
I was all alone, and for those 2 hours, the entire world outside of me, my camera and the spring ceased to exist. The light and the color was so overwhelming that I took photographs from all possible angles with all reasonable combinations of exposure. The first shot I took was that of the sight that greeted me. The water was gushing out of the spring extremely rapidly and in large volumes. And I knew THAT was what sparked the life in that scene. And so I did a slightly longer exposure of the scene in order to capture the motion of the water gushing out of the spring. The sun beams were angling in on the spring waters, lighting it up even more. The result was one of the best photographs I have taken so far.
But perhaps the best photograph of my entire trip was still to come. I went around the spring, now with the sunlight coming from behind me. And what I saw, was not only simply unbelievable but also completely invisible from my previous spot. Maybe it was the direction of the light or the direction in which I was viewing the light that made the difference. But standing on the other side of the spring and viewing it in the direction of the light, I was convinced that the light was playing some kind of a trick on my eyes. It was no mirage or illusion. It was just too good to be just another sunlight pattern. What I saw was a well of sunlight angling in from both ends of the spring, circling (or was it an ellipse) the spring waters and converging exactly at the point where the water was coming out. The sun light was dancing on the waters, without moving an inch. That sight was, for the lack of a better word, orgasmic.
A few years back, I might have been able to come up with a mathematical term for the exact shape the sun rays formed. Do leave a comment if you can now. I must have spent some half an hour taking photographs of that sight. And trust me when I say I just couldn’t get enough of it.
I eventually came around to take some self portraits. If I ever have to put up a profile pic on a matrimonial website in the future, I think I know which one is going up there. The spring water behind me makes me look a thousand times better. (I am betting on the girl falling for it).
In due time, the sun had risen far up in the sky and in spite of the spring still looking beautiful, I knew I had to leave. Next on the agenda was a drive through Mark Twain National forest to Meramec Caverns near St. Louis.
It must have taken me all of 3 hours. But how those hours zipped by. It felt like the shortest 3 hr drive I had ever done. And I thoroughly enjoyed it for more than one reason. First up, I switched off my GPS. I had decided to use a map. I actually sat down and marked my route to the caves through a pen on the map and wrote down the roads on a sheet of paper. My objective was to maximize the drive through the forest area. So I avoided all US highways and deliberately chose county roads going through the forests. And eventually, when I started driving, I realized I was enjoying it more than ever primarily because I was a lot more involved in what I was doing. I was taking in the scenery without glancing every 3 mins at the GPS to see how far was the next turn. I was more observant of the road and the drive as I was making sure I did not miss any turns. And it was a really satisfying feeling doing that. It was the same feeling I get when I read a book holding it in my hand instead of reading it on the computer, or when I go play football outside with my friends instead of on my computer.
The drive was scenic to say the least. It was filled with twists and turns and was by no means easy. It was not a drive you could do on cruise control. A two lane road for the most part, it cut through the dense forest areas, climbing and descending alternately. It is not a drive where you stop at a scenic view point and take photographs. There are no such viewpoints all along the way, even though the whole drive was set in beautiful surroundings. If anything, the route was particularly lacking in that department. But it was not meant to be that drive anyway. So I drove through it, without stopping once. I didn’t need to. With Pink Floyd’s Echoes playing in the car, driving through Mark Twain National forest was a surreal experience just in itself. And I hope to do it once more in the fall.
When I eventually got to Meramec caverns, the sun was blazing. I went to the caves with high expectations from what people told me about it. But in the end, it turned out to be the biggest disappointment of the entire tour. For the most part, the caves was nothing out of the ordinary. Actually, there really wasn’t ANYTHING out of the ordinary there. I took just one shot of note, and that was almost by accident too. Do you spot a face in this photograph? I am thinking Iron Maiden’s Eddie in one of its various forms.
And then at around 1600 I headed back to Des Moines, this time making deliberate effort to take the interstate and US highways. I drove through the city of Hannibal in MO, and if I had more time then, I would have stopped and looked around. I was told it was a beautiful small city. Perhaps some other time. When I eventually entered Iowa, it was just about time for sunset. With the sun’s golden rays peeking through the storm clouds that were rapidly building up, the flatlands that zipped by endlessly, again, looked particularly enchanting. I realized I was headed straight into what appeared to be a massive storm. But the best part about it was that I got to see the most spectacular lightning ever all the way to Des Moines. I had half a mind to stop the car on the freeway and setup my tripod to capture the lightning. It would have been an easy shot, with a simple long exposure, and it would have been a spectacular one too. But alas, I guess I just didn’t do it. Some other time for sure.
I eventually reached Des Moines at around 1030 and was pretty tired. And so after 3 days of awesome vacationing in the beautiful state of Missouri, I was convinced once more of the strategic position Iowa was in the United States. A lot of places to see and visit around it. Just nothing IN it!