WILLOW SPRINGS, MO - Remember how I said I was going to get off Larry's truck at the next terminal we stopped at so I could get another trainer? Yeah, that didn't happen. Instead, I am spending the week in rural southern Missouri, at the only motel in the closest town to where Larry lives.
Willow Springs has a population of about 8,000. It's an hour and a half away from any interstate, nestled in a warm back pocket of the Ozarks. There's a couple blocks' worth of Main Street, most of the businesses shuttered, and a set of railroad tracks. I ate breakfast at Main Street Cafe this morning, and the other diners were talking about farming and politics. One of the men said, "If Nancy Pelosi wants to live in a communist country so much, she ought to move to Canada." I shoveled eggs and toast into my mouth as quickly as possible and got out of there before they smelled California on me.
Outside in the heat, I walked around and took pictures of all the decay and strangeness, the overgrown doorways and broken windows. Then I saw the words "natural food store" and stopped in my tracks. Inside the small shop were organic soaps and essential oils and herbs and handmade jewelry, and I felt so comforted I wanted to cry. The shopkeeper, a older English woman named Erica, told me she used to do much better business before the state built a highway bypass between West Plains and Springfield, because none of the locals actually shop there.
She moved here from England 15 years ago because of an ad she saw in an organic gardening magazine that promised cheap land, fruitful soil, and a long growing season in the Ozarks. She packed up her two small children and crossed the ocean. Most of that ad's promises were not met, but her kids did grow up living off the land and playing outside, which is more than she could have done for them in the outskirts of London. And now, she said, she's got her house and her garden and her shop and her daily routines, and uprooting herself yet again just seems like too much work. Besides, once you turn the world off and just take comfort in the small oasis you've built for yourself, it's not too bad.
Erica rents out the apartment on top of the shop to a young woman named Janis and her son. Janis is from Minnesota but lived in California for 7 years. She moved to the Ozarks to live off the land. (Oh that eternal hippie pipe dream of living off the land.) She has taken on the small empty lot next to the shop as her personal project, building a gazebo and a beautiful flower garden there. The boy showed me his pet turtle named Betty, who lives in a walled flower patch. Tonight, I am going to help Janis plant new flowers.
Erica and Janis told me the local public library would be my best bet for getting online, so here I am. On the way here from the shop, an old black Cadillac limo pulled up to where I was walking. Inside was a man with unkempt long hair and two small children, a preteen girl and a boy under 10. The man asked me if I knew of a place that could buy old silver and gold. I told him I wasn't from around here, and he sped away.
I got here on Tuesday afternoon and wanted to throw myself under a train. But I feel better now. There are stories coming out of the cracks in the pavement here. Just as anywhere else, finding kindred spirits is just a matter of knowing where to look. And goddamn, my life is just such a strange and absurd journey.