Remember how we took a mini vacation for the New Year? Yeah. Well.....
In truth, I was excited about our cabin in a gated community. I could even get on board with the fact that we wouldn't be soaking in warm mineral pools on account of a jetted tub and fireplace making up the loss. Plus I'd be able to cross traffic jam pie off my "Taste of MO" list, which made me happy. But Branson, ohhh Branson.
Branson is one of those places that is a mix between a carnival and a boardwalk (without the beach). Billboards boast gospel singers, celebrity impersonators, and redneck tenors. It has the feeling of a family-friendly Vegas, with neon lights and bold colors, but I wasn't convinced. Desolated water parks and miniature golf courses made our off-season visit more noticeable. If that wasn't enough, vacant motels with dingy for-sale signs dotted the landscape. Restaurants and kitschy shops were nearly all shut down for the season, leaving only the sketchiest of places open for business, with the exception of the sprawling Outlet Mall. Every turn we took I couldn't shake the eerie feeling. What was this fabricated place and why did people come here? Meanwhile, the voice inside my head kept growing louder, repeating You're a stranger here.
The rain prevented outdoor activities, which meant we watched movies, read books, and played board games. We ate Indian food and continued our fondue for two tradition. I even made it to midnight, which is kind of a feat for me. And then it was all over. We loaded up the car and I secretly vowed to not return any time soon.
On the road heading north, we decided to take a brief detour through the town of Springfield. I knew the little Red Velvet shop would be closed, but I still wanted to see the facade of the famous blogger sisters. So we drove through the seedy sections of town and eventually found what we were looking for. Window displays filled with vintage radios and 1940s clothing. I pressed my nose against the glass and looked in. I could see the bake shop to the right waiting for a freshly baked batch of honey cupcakes. I imagined going inside and browsing through collections of carefully curated finds, all perfectly suited to the hipster vibe of the two-year-old shop.
Since it was lunch time on New Year's Day I figured we should stop for a bite to eat. On the way into town there was one corner that I'd seen with several people inside, which is usually a good indicator of a tasty local spot. We turned around and headed back up the road. Again the place was packed. So we parked and walked towards the entrance. I envisioned locally sourced produce and a menu reflective of the season, complete with an assortment of delicate homemade sweets. Bundled against the cold day we walked past the window and I glanced into the frosty pane to get a better sense of what type of meal we'd be enjoying, and I noticed several yellow cafeteria trays. Oh, I thought, comfort food. Well, that won't be so bad. Once inside the lobby I knew something was amiss. The tiled entryway and grand staircase reflected that we were in fact inside the Hotel Missouri, as the outside sign indicated, but the odd smell and rundown appearance didn't match my conception of what a charming place this would be. There had been so many people in the dining room, certainly it was a favorite spot among the locals. Undeterred, I asked the woman at the lobby counter where the restroom was. (Hotels are notoriously great places for scouting out clean restrooms when traveling in unknown cities.) She gave me a strange look and said "No, I'm sorry ma'am, but this here's a homeless shelter."
Suddenly the bedraggled folks came into focus. I looked into the dining room and sure enough the guests were not enjoying collared greens and mac n' cheese, but canned globs of color separated into square compartments. I eked out a mixed apology and thank you before turning to leave. Using all my willpower I managed to get outside the building before bursting into great wide laughs.