For our last trip (but not our next) of 2020, Dan and I plan to visit Johnson Shut-Ins, a Missouri state park located about 2 hours south of our home. Johnson Shut-Ins was very much in the news back in December 2005. That’s when the Taum Sauk Reservoir broke and destroyed the nearby Johnson Shut-Ins State Park.
As background info, Taum Sauk Mountain is the highest point in Missouri and is located in Taum Sauk Mountain State Park. Also, in the area is Johnson Shut-Ins State Park as well as the Taum Sauk Hydroelectric Plant where the reservoir resides. That’s the reservoir that broke in 2005 and sent 1.3 billion gallons of water down the mountain. But this story, which is also a calamity of sorts, begins well before 2005….
Growing up, there wasn’t a lot of extra money, but that didn’t keep my parents from being active and making memories. We usually had just one family road trip a year (to Michigan), but throughout the year, we would take “day trips” on the weekends. We would go to 5 o’clock mass on Saturday afternoon (a new thing back then) and then head out Sunday morning. My mom would pack up a picnic supper and off we’d drive to visit somewhere new, often a state park.
I was about 10 years old when my parents decided we would go see the Taum Sauk Reservoir. Now, I had been there on a school field trip some time before our family trip, but I was still very excited to go. These day trips were adventures, and I was always happy for one. I was number 4 in our family of six. At this point in our family history, these trips were with my parents, and “Betty, John and Joe.” That’d be me and my two younger brothers.
After a couple hours driving in the car, we somehow ended up on a gravel road. Remember, there was no GPS back then; although, I’m pretty sure we would have taken a map. The gravel road was windy and hilly. Very windy and hilly. There was discussion with worry, and everyone was wondering if we were going the right way.
I remember my mom and dad asking me if this was what it looked like when I went there with my school class. You know they had to be getting desperate asking a 10 year old these questions! I remember them asking me multiple times, and of course, I really didn’t know. I’m not even sure what I said, but it may have begun with “I think so.”
Next, one of my younger brothers started not looking too good. He was flush, complaining of his stomach, and then…you guessed it – he got car sick. I think there was some yelling. “Quick! Roll down the window!” “Put your head out!!” “Rich, stop the car!”
I’m not sure how much longer we continued driving after that, but eventually we decided to give up – or at least go in another direction. But then… the car started acting real funny, too. My dad pulled off the 2 lane highway road in front of a home with a large gravel area in front of it.
There was a bit more yelling at this point. I remember my dad saying something about Jim. Jim was my older brother who had driven the car at some point in the past. Whatever had happened to the car, whatever made it break down, at that moment, was Jim’s fault.
Once everyone calmed down, my dad knocked on the door of house. An older lady lived there, and my dad explained what was going on. The lady offered to call her son to drive us back home which was about 2 hours away. That was so nice, and we were real happy to have such good luck. We decided to eat our supper on a picnic bench in her side yard while we waited for our ride.
I know we were all hungry at this point, and our supper tasted really good. We usually had potato chips with our day trip dinners, and that was a real treat. Eventually, the good son showed up, but . . . he was drunk. My dad thanked him for coming, and then told him to go back home and enjoy the rest of his Sunday. Desperate as we were, my dad wasn’t going to put his family in a car with a drunk driver.
At this point, my dad’s idea, the five of us all stood on the two lane highway and put our thumbs out. We must have looked pretty pitiful with two parents and three stair-step kids. It took about 30 seconds for a car to stop.
The car was a couple who coincidentally lived about 15 minutes from our home in south St. Louis. We all squeezed into the car, and they drove us all the way home. Right to our front door. The next day, Dad and Jim drove to the car, fixed it and brought it back home. There was no more discussion about it being Jim’s fault because it wasn’t. A couple weeks later, my parents had our rescuers over for a steak dinner. While we continued going on weekend day trips, we never did try to visit Taum Sauk Reservoir again.
Planning our trip to Johnson Shut-Ins reminded me of the Taum Sauk reservoir breach and of that fated day trip with my parents. Our day trip is one of those stories that’s a great laugh – years later.
I’d like to visit that reservoir when Dan and I go to Johnson Shut-Ins this October. Why? My visit would be in honor of my parents who tried to take us to Taum Sauk Reservoir so many years ago. While we didn’t make it there that day, in a way, in so many ways, I am there now because of them.