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It’s … OK

July 20, 2014

We woke up early Friday morning so that we could get a lot in before sundown. We were staying in yet another surprisingly nice Super 8 just outside of Springfield, MO, and we planned to spend the morning doing a couple of interesting-sounding things in Springfield.

The first was a tour of the Pythian Castle, a real stone castle that’s right next to a military base in the middle of town and, we learned, was built in 1911 as an orphanage/retirement home by a national fraternal order called the Knights of Pythias. We went there for the first tour of the day, and we were the only ones on the tour. The castle was cool, though, and the tour guide was not only very nice and very knowledgeable but, in a surprise twist revealed at the end of the tour, is also the owner of the castle. But ultimately it was just not as interesting as we’d hoped it would be.

Next up was Fantastic Caverns, the only drive-through cavern on the continent (there are a few others around the world, we were told). For the hour-long tour everyone piled into a long cart with a low bench running lengthwise down each side, which was pulled by a little Jeep being driven by our tour guide, Elizabeth. Elizabeth meant well but she was rather annoying. She used an announcer voice rather than a normal human voice, which led her to overemphasize roughly half the words in each sentence. She also kept asking, “Is there any more questions?” I can overlook this grammatical atrocity if it’s done once accidentally, but she used the exact same phrasing every time, which was at least half a dozen times. Also, most of the other people on our tour were rather annoying as well. One woman never stopped talking to her adult son for even a second. A little girl whacked into Sam repeatedly for most of the hour. Several other people laughed uproariously at everything the tour guide said, none of which was even slightly humorous Five men on the tour had large, bushy mustaches that looked like push brooms, which might have been cool or at least interesting if these men were travelling together as some sort of cavern-loving barbershop quintet. But alas, these were five individuals who each, on his own, decided that a push broom mustache is a good look for him. All of this would have been much more tolerable if the cave itself was really impressive, but in fact the cave was just average. I mean, an average cave is still pretty awesome, and this was, but it was easily the least impressive cave I’ve visited. Sam enjoyed the cave more than I did; however, like the castle it was enjoyable but not as cool as we’d hoped it would be.

When I originally started researching things to do in Springfield the first thing that caught my eye was The Butterfly Palace, which is literally a building full of butterflies, plus various exhibits and whatnot. I was pretty excited for it, but then I discovered that it’s located not in Springfield but an hour south of Springfield, which is of course the wrong direction when you plan to motor west. So I crossed the Butterfly Palace off our itinerary a few weeks ago, but I spent a good chunk of the morning wondering if we should’ve gone there instead of the other two places. So if you ever find yourself in Branson, MO, please visit the Butterfly Palace and then let me know if I made the right call.

Anyway, after the cave it was right back on 66 for one more stop before we left Missouri: George Washington Carver’s childhood home, which is now a National Monument. It’s about 20 minutes south of Route 66, and on the surface it would seem like an odd entry in our itinerary. But I figured it was veering off for, for two important reasons. First, there are two foods that are deeply and universally beloved by all four Hofstetters: fried chicken, and peanut butter. There are plenty of other foods we enjoy, but these are foods we get excited about, foods we think about when we’re not even hungry, foods we savor every single time we eat them. To avoid an early demise, we severely limit our fried chicken consumption despite our love. But peanut butter is a staple in our house, and on our road trips. In our house, peanut butter is a meal, a snack, a dessert, and an ingredient in marinades, stir fries, cookies, brownies, and whatever else we can think of. So I figured Sam would enjoy learning a bit about the man most closely associated with turning peanuts into other foods and products. The second reason is that Carver is often (appropriately) hailed as an important black man in American history, not just for his agricultural discoveries and advancements but because of his effects on race relations. As we learned in a biographical film at the Visitors Center, Carver’s testimony in Congressional hearings about peanut farm tariffs won over a hostile and racist Congressional panel and did a lot to earn respect for his race as well as for his crop. I grew up in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Queens, NY, a borough known for its diversity. But Sam is growing up in a disturbingly homogeneous suburb where racism and other prejudices are far too common, and because of that I make an extra effort to expose Sam not just to racial and ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, but to our country’s history of prejudice and intolerance. Visiting Carver’s birthplace was a way to sneak some of that into a fun conversation about all the fun stuff that can be made from peanuts. In fact, the most fun we had while we were there was when we learned that Carver developed both ink and paper made from peanuts, and we were joking about whether you can even see something that’s written with peanut ink on peanut paper. And as we were leaving, we each dug a spoon into a jar of peanut butter and “toasted” Carver.

Warning: Peanuts in Use

  Warning: Peanuts in Use

To George!

To George!

We did have a little trouble finding the place, though. See, I’ve mostly been ignoring the GPS directions because they keep telling us to get off Route 66 and onto the Interstate. This time I ignored them a little too long and we ended up passing the place by several miles. However, for the rest of the day we didn’t leave Route 66 for more than a few blocks. 66 took us from southwestern Missouri into southeastern Kansas–specifically tiny Baxter Springs, the town where Mickey Mantle played Little League and, at age 15, was discovered by a scout for the Yankees. We stopped off briefly at the Baxter Springs Heritage Center and Museum, which was surprisingly large and nicely done, to see its mini-exhibit on Mantle. However, we found a couple of vehicles on the museum grounds that were a little more interesting:

Caboose Tank

The rest of Radiator Springs–er, Baxter Springs, is extremely, well, I don’t know how to say this except Route-66-ish. The road runs right through the center of this tiny town and acts as the main drag. The stores are both quaint, kitchy, and mostly out of business.


This cute cafe has been designated an official Route 66 attraction, but it's no longer in business.

This cute cafe has been designated an official Route 66 attraction, but it’s no longer in business.

Another former Route 66 business in Baxter Springs

This soda fountain is another defunct Route-66-ish business in Baxter Springs.

This cheesy flea market is still in business, but was closed when we passed by, which was at about 4:30 pm on a Friday.

This cheesy “flea market” is still in business, but was closed when we passed by, which was at about 4:30 pm on a Friday.

Even the Route 66 road sign was falling over.

Even the Route 66 road sign was falling over.

It wasn’t more than three minutes before we were not just out of Baxter Springs but out of Kansas entirely, as Route 66 turns south from southeastern Kansas into northeastern Oklahoma. The first town we hit in Oklahoma was the ironically named Commerce. I’m going to be polite and say that there is not a lot of commerce taking place in Commerce. I was actually excited to see the town because it’s where Mickey Mantle grew up; his first nickname was the Commerce Comet. I knew he came from humble beginnings but I’m going to be polite again and say that I underestimated the humility of his beginnings. His boyhood home, which we visited, has three small rooms and is easily the nicest house on the block.

Mickey Mantle Home


When we parked outside Mantle’s house there were three boys of clearly different ages riding bikes up and down the street. I made a remark to Sam that something about those boys made me think they were trouble. A few minutes later, when we were getting back into the car to leave, a police car rolled slowly up the block, and the oldest boy, who was maybe 11, yelled to the others, “The cops are here! Let’s go!” I’ll never know what that was about but let me just say that Sam and I will not be begging the rest of the family to move to Commerce anytime soon.

The stretch of Route 66 that goes through Commerce is named Mickey Mantle Boulevard. It runs past Commerce High School, which has a big statue of Mickey Mantle outside of its ballfield. I bet you can’t guess what the field is named. Give up? It’s Mickey Mantle Field!

A minute or two later we were out of Commerce and in Miami, Oklahoma, which is just as ugly and run down as Commerce (OK, I guess I’m done being polite now) but it’s bigger, so it has several cheap motels. We ended up staying in a Hampton Inn, and as we drove up I kind of wanted to say to the hotel, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”

So, yes, if any Jews ask, I spent Shabbos in Miami.

Shabbos was perfectly pleasant and very relaxing, but a little boring. In fact, most of the time Shabbos on our road trips can be described that way. We bring games and reading material, packed in a backpack that we affectionately call “The Magical Bag of Shabbos Fun.” We eat a lot, we sleep a lot, we read, we play. But we also miss Mommy, and we get a little sick of our hotel room, which we leave as infrequently as possible because of the difficulty of getting back in with an electronic key.

This is the first time either of us has been to Oklahoma, making it my 46th state and Sam’s 45th (Wisconsin being the difference between us). The state motto is “Oklahoma is OK,” which I think is supposed to be a hilariously clever pun on the state abbreviation but is in fact one of the saddest of all state mottoes, as it declares the state to be mediocre. What were the mottoes that were rejected in order to go with this one? “Oklahoma: meh.” “Oklahoma: whatevs.” “Oklahoma: it’s aiight.” “If you like tornadoes, you’ll LOVE Oklahoma!” “Oklahoma is shaped like a cooking pot.” “Oklahoma: just keep driving for a couple more hours and you’ll be in Texas.”

I’m expecting the next couple of days in Tulsa and Oklahoma City to be a lot of fun, with minor league baseball, cattle auctions, horseback riding, weird roadside statues, and maybe even a drive-in movie. But Friday and Shabbos were, as the motto says, OK.




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