I remember the days when I’d spend an hour fixing my hair and putting on makeup, then I’d slip on a sassy pair of heels, stuff a tube of lipstick, some cash, and my phone into a tiny – yet fashionable – clutch purse, grab my girlfriends, and head downtown to listen to a band, and enjoy a night full of life.
But then I had kids.
And the years passed.
My sassy heels have been replaced with sensible shoes, my clutch with a pragmatic backpack (with plenty of room for my wallet, phone, snacks, a light sweater, and a small elephant), and I can now get ready to go out in 22 minutes.
However, the places I go have also changed. These days, I’m at the soccer field or the dance studio, supporting my kids in their interests. I like my life now, but every once in a while I think back to those lively nights spent with friends, experiencing the thrill of hearing live music, and I yearn for that connection again.
Then came North Heights Porchfest. It was at this family-friendly, grassroots music festival that I discovered that I could merge the old me with the new me. I could hang out with my friends and my kids and listen to live music – and by live music, I don’t mean songs by The Wiggles, but my kind of music, like blues, indie, and rock.
Held in October, this annual free music fest is organized by the people who live in the historic North Heights neighborhood, located just north of downtown Joplin in the area between 1st and F Streets, and Main and Jackson. Here, cozy homes with welcoming front porches make great stages for local bands to play their music.
Currently, there are 145 porchfest events held in North America (and one in Australia), and Joplin’s North Heights Porchfest was the 104th to be established. Our city may be small, but our citizens understand the value of arts in the community, so the good people of the North Heights neighborhood jumped on the opportunity to bring a porchfest to Joplin in 2017.
The event is modeled after the original porchfest, held in 2007 in Ithaca, New York. The purpose of porchfest is simple: to foster community connections while sharing in the joy of listening to live music.
This year, North Heights Porchfest welcomed 24 bands, with musicians of all ages representing a wide range of music styles, from Blister Soul (rock)…
I love that North Heights Porchfest is held in the afternoon/early evening because it makes it more accessible for families, as well as for people who enjoy hearing live music but don’t want to leave the comfort of their home once the sun goes down (ahem, me).
The three-hour event was divided into three time slots, with new bands playing every hour. There was a handy interactive map and schedule for the event (there were also paper copies available at the event, too).
Because this was my first time at North Heights Porchfest, I didn’t really know what to expect. Now that I’ve gone, I have some tips on how to better prepare for next year, which I’ll pass along to you. First, bring a portable chair or a blanket. Sometimes, the music just draws you in and you want to stay put during an entire set – but your legs refuse to hold you up in one spot for an hour. Taking the load off of them allows you to completely relax and soak in the experience.
Second, you may want to bring some cash for the musicians’ tip jars. These bands are sharing their time and their talent with the community for free, so you might want to show them some love with a tip.
Third, bring a cooler for beverages and snacks. Again, you may want to listen to a band’s entire set, and having refreshments at hand is one way to guarantee that you won’t have to get up and miss anything.
But, if you don’t bring a cooler, no worries. There is a food truck area set up in the heart of the neighborhood, and you can choose from a variety of food and beverages, including street tacos from El Taco Loco, gourmet sandwiches from Danny Jim’s PBJ,
There are portable restrooms available, too, should you need them. I found this to be reassuring. 🙂
While walking around the neighborhood between performances, I stopped at some of the artists’ booths (there were 13 this year) that were set up at the festival, including Aunt Tracy’s Cookies,
and Susanna Millard Pyrography.
Being a family-friendly event, there was also a balloon artist making animals for the kids.
While we welcomed the opportunity to hear a variety of bands play that day, my friend Julie and I spent the most time listening to The Websters which, ironically, is one of the bands that we used to listen to years ago when we would get all dressed up and go out after sundown.
But on this October afternoon, with the waning light of the sun peeking through the trees, I listened to The Websters sing about Better Days.
I looked at my friend and remembered listening to that same song with her years ago. Then I looked over at our kids, hearing that song for the first time, and I knew this for sure: These days – the ones filled with activities, and homework, and chaos – these are the Better Days.
For more information on North Heights Porchfest, click here.
I step on the boardwalk and hear a plunk as a startled frog heads to the water for safety. A gentle breeze rustles the tall prairie grass in the nearby meadow, and helps carry an elegant monarch butterfly on its migratory journey. Immersed in this serene environment, I feel peaceful, refreshed – and miles away from civilization.
Yet, I’m actually within the city – at Joplin’s Mercy Park. Built on the site of the former St. John’s Hospital, which was destroyed in a tornado in 2011, the land here was donated to the city by the hospital to be used as a green space.
Mercy Park is a passive park, offering visitors a nature-filled space for rest and reflection. There’s no playground equipment or sports facilities here. However, all you have to do is walk across 26th Street (there’s a designated pedestrian crossing) to reach Cunningham Park, where you can find several types of activity stations.
When it opened in 2016, I honestly didn’t know what to think of Mercy Park. Being located in the post-tornado zone, it was hard to imagine this area, once covered in mounds of debris, transforming into a green space. But the intentional design of the park, coupled with its unique features, has made Mercy Park one of my favorite outdoor spots in Joplin.
Here, accessible walking trails lead visitors around a green space, a pond, a meadow, and up to Mercy Chapel and Gardens for a sweeping view of the entire space.
The land is quickly becoming lush, thanks to the conscientious effort to plant and seed the area back in 2016. Oak, hickory, and Eastern redbud are some of the 30 varieties of deciduous trees that, along with four types of evergreens, six types of grasses, and 22 species of prairie flowers (like wild bergamot and purple coneflower), are beginning to fill the once barren space.
Walking among the tall grasses and flowers always reminds me of the prairie lands of my home state of Illinois. But did you know that this type of landscape once covered much of Western Missouri, too?
Mercy Park’s pond supports its share of wildlife, as well, including plankton, algae, fish (such as common minnows and shiners), crayfish, frogs, and the occasional Northern water snake.
There’s a large fountain in the center of the pond to aerate it and maintain the water quality.
My favorite feature in the pond area is the 112-foot-long, PermaTrak concrete boardwalk. There’s something magical about being able to walk on the water.
There are also picnic tables under pavilions, offering picturesque dining spots.
Sometimes I like to simply sit on one of the benches and just rest.
In addition to its natural beauty, Mercy Park hosts several pieces of art to admire.
With its kaleidoscope of colors and patterns, the 10-by-20-foot mural On the Wings of Butterflies by AJ and Jordan Wood is mesmerizing. It also makes for a fun photo op.
On the back side of that mural is another one entitled Together We Create. This mural was designed by 50 area elementary students as a project through Art Feeds.
In addition to the murals, you’ll find nine bronze sculptures in the Rotary Sculpture Garden, a joint project of the Joplin Rotary Club and the Joplin Daybreak Rotary Club.
The sculpture garden begins at the parking lot and flows clockwise through the park. Here are the pieces you will encounter along the way.
On a side note, when I came upon this sculpture, it had a colorful rock balanced on it as part of an interactive hide-and-seek game for the group Joplin Area Rocks.
If you happen to find one of these painted rocks, you can take a photo of yourself with it, post it to the group’s Facebook page, then find a new hiding place for it. It’s a simple way to bring a bit of brightness into someone’s day, and Mercy Park is the perfect place for this.
Back to the sculptures…
Mercy Park encourages visitors to connect with nature and art in an effort to promote wellness without having to leave the city.
It’s an urban mind spa.
Mercy Park is located at 3002 St. John’s Boulevard. For more information about the facilities available at the park, click here.
It’s 7:45 on Thursday night. We’ve finally arrived home after an evening of softball, soccer, and dance. Tired and hungry, my family members turn to me expectantly.
What’s for dinner?
Seriously? I’d literally been with them at the ball fields and the dance studio for the last four hours; when would I have had time to make dinner?
There’s only one solution on a night like this.
Reflexively, I grab my phone to place an order with Papa John’s, which we’ve been regularly ordering from for years because its pizza is approved by my pickiest eater (the rest of us think it’s okay). I open up the Papa John’s app, and then it dawns on me.
There IS another way.
We don’t have to sacrifice taste for the sake of convenience. We can have authentic, hand-tossed pizza topped with fresh ingredients delivered to our door just as easily as the so-so pizza from Papa John’s.
A few weeks earlier, my husband Travis and I had eaten at Carmine’s for the first time. The restaurant, owned by New Jersey native Bill Carmine Cornell, opened in 2016 in a cheerful yellow building in downtown Joplin.
We were lucky to find a seat, as the family-friendly restaurant was bustling that Friday night. We each ordered a beer (a regional KC Bier Dunkel for me) and settled in to study the menu.
I knew that Carmine’s featured New York and Neapolitan-style pizzas, and I had a basic understanding of each type, but I did some research ahead of time because, well, I’m curious. Here’s what I learned, both from the information online, and from our friendly server at Carmine’s.
New York-style pizza has a thin crust that is basically uniform throughout, and is sturdy enough to support lots of cheese and other toppings without getting soggy or falling apart. Yet, it is pliable enough to fold in half and eat on the go, in the classic New Yorker way. At Carmine’s, the New York-style pizzas measure 16” and are cooked in a Baker’s Pride deck oven at 550 degrees.
We ordered the Italian Sausage, which was topped with crushed tomatoes, Mozzarella and Pecorino-Romano cheeses, in addition to the flavorful sausage.
The sauce had a nice balance of sweet and savory, and the taste reminded me of the thin-crust local pizza that I grew up eating in Chicago. There really is more to Chicago pizza than deep-dish, so if you’re ever up there, try some thin-crust from Rosati’s.
Neapolitan-style pizza has a thin, airy crust that puffs up and sometimes chars on the edges. Dollops of cheese are used on this crust in order to avoid making it soggy. At Carmine’s the Neapolitan-style pizzas measure 13” and are baked at around 800 degrees in an Acunto wood-fired oven, hand built in Naples, Italy.
Hmm, does Papa John’s have one of these?
We ordered a Neapolitan classic: Margherita. It was made with San Marzano tomatoes from Italy, fresh Mozzarella, Pecorino-Romano, fresh basil, olive oil, and sea salt. Simple, fresh, heavenly.
The pizza dough at Carmine’s is handmade in small batches (there’s a gluten-free option, too), and allowed to ferment for 24 to 48 hours before being hand-stretched and tossed and made into some of the best pizza I’ve ever eaten in Joplin.
If you’re not in the mood for pizza, don’t let that stop you from choosing Carmine’s for your next meal. Try one of the salads, like the Caprese, or a calzone, sausage roll, or maybe a meatball or sausage sandwich.
Whatever you do, leave room for dessert. With a variety of mouthwatering cakes and even Nutella Pizza, it would be a crime to pass it up.
I had heard about how amazing the Lemon Basil Sorbetto was, and it lived up to the hype. I got the very last scoop.
We also ordered the beautiful homemade cannoli,
which I enjoyed with a robust espresso.
How cool is it that Bill Cornell has brought a taste of New York to Joplin with his restaurant Carmine’s?
And how lucky that I can have Carmine’s conveniently delivered to our door via Bite Squad or Door Dash?
See you later, Papa John’s.
Carmine’s Wood Fired Pizza is located at 524 South Joplin Avenue. Click here to visit its website, and click here to see its Facebook page.
Nearly every weekend, I get the urge to get outside and hike. Because I crave variety, I like to switch up the types of hikes that I do, so before I put on my hiking shoes, I think about what type of nature adventure I’d like to have that day.
Do I want to take a walk through a shaded forest?
Do I want the challenge of navigating rocks that have been made slippery by cascading water?
Do I want to follow the banks of Shoal Creek, or do I want to wade and splash in its clear water?
Do I want to take a peaceful stroll through unique chert glades?
Do I want to climb a bluff and enjoy a breathtaking view?
The great thing is, all of these options are available to me in one convenient location right here in Joplin: Wildcat Park.
Up until 2018, when I said I was “going to Wildcat,” it either meant that I was going to walk the trails in the area known as Wildcat Park, or that I was going to visit the nature center called Wildcat Glades Conservation and Audubon Center.
Today, the center is no longer associated with the Audubon Society, and it no longer has the word “Wildcat” in its name. It’s now called Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center, operating under the direction of the Missouri Department of Conservation. So, now when I say I’m “going to Wildcat,” there’s no confusion: it means I’m going to Wildcat Park.
Are you still with me?
Good. Because this change is a work in progress. In fact, a new map of the trails in Wildcat Park is currently in development, so until that is complete, I’ll be referring to this map, which is from the Wildcat Glades Conservation and Audubon Society days.
Enough of that. Now, let’s talk trails.
If Wildcat Park is your destination, I recommend stopping at the Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center before you hike. This nature center is a gem in this area, offering lots of information about the plants and animals that you might encounter on the trails in Wildcat Park.
Rotary Centennial Trail (.36 miles)
If you exit through the rear of the visitor center, you’ll find the hiking trail that takes you through the chert glades.
We are fortunate to have access to these rare chert glades right here in Joplin, making a hike along this trail a unique experience. The chert glades ecosystem is actually dry, so don’t be surprised when you spy a cactus sprouting from a rock, a lizard sunbathing, or a scorpion scurrying for cover as you walk along Centennial Trail.
After the glades, we usually turn left and head towards the bridge that crosses Silver Creek, a tributary of Shoal Creek. The change in scenery is dramatic: from dry, sunny glades to cool, shaded forest.
St. John’s Woodland Loop (.33 miles)
After the bridge, there’s a nice, flat, ADA-accessible loop trail that meanders through the forest, offering occasional views of Shoal Creek, as well as the tall bluffs that jut out from the sparkling water, demanding admiration.
St. John’s Creek Trail (.56 miles)
You can access this trail by turning left from the woodland loop, and it will take you along the banks of Shoal Creek, all the way to Redings Mill Bridge. There are several bluff overhangs to explore; you can even peek into a cave entrance on this path. We’ve also been lucky enough to spot a fox along here.
Bluff Trail (1.0 mile)
We usually access this trail from Castle Drive, which allows us to walk through the woods to access the creek before – or after – the steep climb to the bluff. When the water is low, we like to play in Shoal Creek, and to scan the creek bed for arrowheads.
We then make the climb to the bluff. The view from here is breathtaking! There are some picnic tables just off the trail where you can eat or rest . You can also park on the road above and walk down to the tables, which is a less strenuous way to go.
Continuing along the trail, you’ll come to one of the most iconic spots in Joplin: Mother Nature’s Gap (many locals replace Gap with Crack when referring to this spot).
If you’re not up for jumping over the crack to reach the other side, there’s a solid section that will take you there, as well.
Wildcat Glade Nature Trail (.2 miles)
In writing this post, I realized that this is one trail at Wildcat Park that I’ve never explored. What?! It’s next on my list.
To access the spring, simply drive to where the road dead-ends, and the spring will be just a few feet away. There are a few steps that lead down to the spring where the water is crystal clear.
Just past the spring, you’ll come across a faint path on the right which will take you to a rocky area. When there’s been enough rain, water will cascade down these rocks, creating a waterfall effect.
I often forget about this area because we usually spend our time on the other side of the park, but I think this may be my favorite spot because it reminds me of a fairytale forest.
With so many different types of landscapes in such a compact area, you can experience a new adventure each time you visit Wildcat Park.
Thousands of I-44 drivers zoom past it every day, unaware that they are so close to this one-of-a-kind attraction: Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center, and the globally unique chert glades that surround it.
Located just south of the busy interstate, this center has been one of my family’s favorite places ever since it opened in 2007 as Wildcat Glades Conservation and Audubon Center.
In 2018, the center closed after its partnership with the Audubon Society ended, prompting many mopey faces at our house. But the time has come to turn our frowns upside down as the center has reopened with a new name under the direction of the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center is situated in front of an area containing rare chert glades.
In Missouri the term “glade” is used to describe a place where underlying rock cuts through thin soil to develop its own unique ecosystem. In the area behind the center, the rock that cuts through the soil is chert, which is extremely rare and extremely hard, and it breaks sharply. Like flint, chert was used to make spears and arrows, and archaeologists have found many in the area.
The chert glade ecosystem is very dry, and plants that are native to arid climates can grow here (yes, that means prickly pear cacti in Missouri!). These plants also attract wildlife native to arid climates, such as lizards, tarantulas, and scorpions (eek!).
Inside the center, you can learn all about this ecosystem, as well as the wildlife found in nearby Shoal Creek. The center boasts a large aquarium divided into three sections which are designed to show visitors what types of plants and animals are found in various depths of Shoal Creek: the wetlands, riffle, and deep pool areas.
While the fish in the deep pool section seem a bit skittish, the turtles in the wetlands section love to work the crowd.
In addition to the aquarium, you’ll find habitats containing reptiles commonly found in the surrounding area, as well as interactive exhibits that educate and entertain kids and adults alike.
There are large windows at the rear of the center which look out toward the chert glades, providing a picturesque vantage point from which to watch area birds as they land at the many feeders.
The mission of Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center is twofold: to inform visitors about the area’s natural history and resources, and to educate people on how to care for it themselves. The variety of programming that the center provides each month in the classrooms helps to further that goal.
Some classes and events, like the Monarch Festival, are open to people of all ages, while other programs, like “Little Acorns: Terrific Trees” and “Reptiles of Missouri” are geared toward children (and sometimes include the opportunity for them to make cute crafts).
The center offers Hunter Education sessions, as well. Click here to see a list of upcoming programs.
Before you leave the building, sneak a peek inside the gift shop for further inspiration.
We usually pair a visit to the center with an outdoor activity, like eating a meal al fresco at one of the picnic tables,
exploring the native garden out front (and getting ideas on what we might like to plant in our own yard),
or walking on the trails that surround the center in the area known as Wildcat Park.
Having Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center nearby allows us to squeeze in bite-sized snacks of nature on a regular basis, and we always leave with our spirits full.
My dad’s the type of guy who devours books about history for fun. I think he’s read every David McCullough book out there, and he retains all that information. At age 86, he’s a walking encyclopedia (or is database a more relevant term?) of historical facts.
When I was a kid, our summer vacations included stops at museums and important historical sites like Gettysburg and Vicksburg, where my siblings and I would pout because there we were, standing on empty battlefields instead of splashing in a hotel pool like our peers.
But, decades later, I find myself seeking stories of local places, and the people connected to them, and writing about these subjects for a living.
How’s that for karma?
With age comes wisdom, and while I might not read history books for pleasure like my dad does, I have acquired a healthy respect for it.
To demonstrate that (and to atone for my lousy adolescent attitude), I often take my dad to historical places in the Joplin area when he and my mom come to visit from Chicago (now via a direct flight from O’Hare to the Joplin Regional Airport – woohoo!).
Here’s what we did on their most recent trip to Joplin.
After a lazy morning, I rounded up the troops and we headed to the Joplin Museum Complex (JMC), a collection of museums which comprehensively covers the different aspects and eras of Joplin’s history.
Our first stop at the JMC was the Everett J. Ritchie Tri-State Mineral Museum, which details the extensive mining industry that put Joplin on the map. The entrance to the museum resembles a mine shaft, with numerous slabs of rocks and minerals on display. “Everything here is so sparkly!” said my youngest daughter, her eyes wide with amazement.
“Look at this,” my mom said, waving my daughter over to an exhibit. “Can you believe there once was a giant cave made of crystals right here in Joplin? They even held concerts inside!”
My daughter’s mind was blown.
My mom was referring to Crystal Cave, which was discovered in 1893. Comprised of calcite crystals, the cave was considered one of the world’s largest geodes, and was a popular tourist attraction in the early 20th century. But when the area mines closed, the water pumps that kept the cave dry were turned off, allowing groundwater to flood it. Today, an asphalt parking lot lies over the sealed off cave, with a small sign offering the only indication of the magnificent geological formation underfoot.
After learning about the industry that built our city, we walked to the south side of the museum complex to the Dorothea B. Hoover Historical Museum to see how mining impacted Joplin’s civic and cultural development. Here, artifacts are displayed from the most significant periods in Joplin’s history.
“Well, I’ll be,” I heard my dad say as he examined something in the collection. “That’s Bonnie Parker,” he said, pointing to a black-and-white photo of the woman who comprised one half of the infamous duo of Bonnie and Clyde.
“And that’s some of the jewelry that she wore,” I said, pointing to several colorful pieces of costume jewelry in the display case. “She left it behind when the apartment they were hiding in right here in Joplin was ambushed.”
“Is the building still here?” my dad asked.
“Actually, it’s the next stop on our list.”
We drove about four miles to 3347 ½ Oak Ridge Drive to the garage apartment that Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, along with Buck and Blanche Barrow (Clyde’s brother and sister-in-law), and W.D. Jones (another member of the gang) stayed at in April 1933. They were there for nearly two weeks when, on April 13, several lawmen approached the building, having been tipped off that there might be some bootleggers holing up there. The gang immediately began firing on the lawmen, killing two of them, then fled in Clyde’s Ford-V8.
In the chaos of the ambush, they left behind guns, jewelry, and a roll of film that contained photos of the gang members, including the iconic photo of Bonnie posing with a cigar in her mouth and a gun at her side.
After my dad snapped photos of the gang’s hideout, he said, “I wonder what it looks like on the inside.”
“Well, if you want to spend the night in it, you can,” I told him. “It’s listed on AirBnB.”
He looked puzzled. “On what?”
“I’ll explain it over lunch,” I said, heading back to the car. We loaded up our gang – a much less scandalous one than Barrow’s – and headed a mile south to The Eagle Drive-In.
This small drive-in may feel like a typical burger joint, but one glance at the menu and you know that it is anything but. For example, the signature beef burger here is topped with a quail egg, and from there, the burger meat choices become more exotic: elk, bison, and lamb.
My oldest daughter ordered The #6 Burger, which was comprised of an elk patty with Malbec and clover honey, caramelized onions, and Swiss cheese. I went the meatless route and ordered the Falafel Burger, topped with onion, tomatoes, feta, and tzatziki sauce.
Portions are generous at The Eagle Drive-In, and after our meal, we were ready to head back to our house, change into some forgiving pants, and rest up for the next day of exploring.
“Rise and shine!” I summoned my inner Mary Poppins as I went from room to room, waking my children, who were reluctant to rise so early on a Saturday morning. When I knocked on my parents’ door, my dad answered, already dressed for the day. He was eager to start exploring.
I wanted to get to The Bruncheonette for breakfast early, as this tiny, yet popular, farm-to-table diner often fills up within minutes of opening. We lucked out and secured a position toward the front of the line. As my parents examined the menu at the counter, I explained that the “Benny” options were variations of traditional Eggs Benedict, which I knew was one of my mom’s favorite breakfast dishes.
“Oh, this is a hard decision,” she said. “But I think I’ll go with the Benny Harper.” This version is made with bacon and avocado in addition to the traditional elements. I ordered the Garden Benny, made with asparagus, tomatoes, truffled arugula, and beet Hollandaise.
Other dishes that our group ordered ranged from the savory Darth Vato Tacos, filled with scrambled eggs and chorizo, to the sweet Crepes with Bananas and Nutella.
After breakfast, we drove just a few blocks to the historic Murphysburg district, the very first residential area of Joplin where the founding fathers of the city built stately homes over a century ago. “This reminds me of the Garden District in New Orleans,” said my mom, taking in the sight of full, mature trees, and the variety of intricate and graceful architectural styles.
“That’s what I’ve always thought,” I agreed.
In 1871, Patrick Murphy purchased 41 acres of land near what is now downtown Joplin and named this area Murphysburg. In 1873, it merged with Joplin City to become Joplin.
Historic Murphysburg Preservation, the organization that promotes that preservation of this residential district, has created a tour of Murphysburg that can be found online. While this tour can be done by car, my family was itching to explore it on foot.
We strolled along the shaded sidewalks, careful to sidestep the areas where the strong tree roots had pushed the concrete out their way in a show of dominance. I’d picked up a history guide and a brochure of the different architectural styles of Murphysburg from the Joplin Convention & Visitors Bureau to provide some additional historical details to my family during our tour.
“Ooh, that one is my favorite!” my youngest daughter said, pointing to a graceful Queen Anne home painted the color of sunshine. “Yellow is my favorite color,” she explained to my parents.
“That’s the Dr. Albert Winchester House,” I said. “Dr. Winchester reportedly delivered over 2,500 babies in Joplin.”
We saw a few more homes on that block and then headed north, pausing at the intersection of 4th and Sergeant. “That house reminds me of a castle,” my middle daughter said, referring to the imposing Romanesque style of the Charles Schifferdecker House.
“That’s because it was built to look like a castle from Germany, which is where Charles Schifferdecker was from.” One of the most important figures in Joplin’s history, Schifferdecker had come to the area at age 18 and opened a brewery, and later work in the mining industry. A successful businessman, he became one of the greatest philanthropists of our city.
At the end of the tour, the group was ready to rest and refuel before seeing more downtown sights, so we drove to Main Street to have lunch at M&M Bistro. Owned by Mehrdad Alvandi (the host with the kind smile) and his wife Minoo (the talented chef), this restaurant brings Mediterranean fare such as spanakopita, moussaka, and gyro sandwiches to the Joplin area.
The portions here are generous, but that didn’t stop us from ordering a piece of the sweet and flaky baklava for dessert. I think it might be encoded in my family’s DNA that we physically cannot resist an opportunity to eat dessert.
As we left the restaurant, I asked “Who’s ready to learn about Route 66 and how this important highway impacted Joplin?” My Baby Boomer parents enthusiastically said, “We are!” while my children tried unsuccessfully to stifle their yawns.
Their bored expressions reminded me of how I must have looked to my parents on those road trips decades ago. But despite my desire to be swimming instead of reading placards at a historical battlefield and other such places, I actually did learn things, and I did form memories that have spanned the years. Someday my kids will say the same about our travel experiences, too.
“You all know that we are standing on Main Street right now,” I began, “but did you know that this was part of the original Route 66, too? And across the street is a park dedicated to just that.”
Route 66 Mural Park is an urban space that features an oversized 45-record imprint of the iconic song (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66, plus two murals: Cruisin’ into Joplin, and below that, The American Ribbon, which traces Route 66 from beginning to end, and has a curious object in front of it – a bifurcated red 1964 Corvette (which happens to make a great backdrop for photos).
After seeing the car, my dad turned to me and said, “Remember my ‘51 Chevy?”
How could I not? He had bought that car when I was a teen, and I remember him puffing on a fat Macanudo cigar in the front seat, blissfully unaware of my discomfort in the back, the itchy wool seats and lack of air conditioning making me long for the modern comforts of our ‘80s station wagon.
But seeing the wistful look in his eyes, I didn’t dare crush his spirit by telling him how exactly I remembered his Chevy, so I simply said, “Yes.”
“Now, that was a great cruising car.” There was something about the way he said that that shifted something inside of me. Instead of using my teenager eyes and viewing that old car as an annoyance, I finally saw it through my dad’s eyes: as a virtual time machine, transporting him back to the carefree times of his youth.
I got it now.
“Want to see what Joplin looked like in the heyday of the Route 66 era?” I asked. We walked across the street to Joplin City Hall, which is located in the historic Newman Building, a building which housed a thriving department store during most of the last century.
Inside, I led them to the mural called Route 66, Joplin, Missouri, painted by Anthony Benton Gude. It’s filled with classic ‘50s images of soda fountains and classic cars cruising down Main Street. My dad’s ‘51 Chevy would have fit right in.
“The next mural depicts Joplin right after the mines started booming,” I said, leading them to Joplin at the Turn of the Century, 1896-1906, which was painted by Gude’s famous uncle Thomas Hart Benton. In it, symbols of possibility and success are juxtaposed with those of the corruption and debauchery common in old mining towns.
I pointed to the bottom of the painting. “See those men gambling? They’re doing so in the House of Lords. That’s the famous saloon that was once here.”
“I remember seeing the roulette wheel from House of Lords at the museum,” said my dad.
“That’s right. And, if you want to learn more about the different objects that Benton chose for this mural there’s an exhibit upstairs called Evolution of a Mural where you can read about it.”
I could tell that my kids were in need of a break by that point, so I sent my husband Travis (who is, ironically, also a history buff) with my dad to learn more about the mural, and I led my mom and my daughters back out to Main Street to do some shopping, popping in at their favorite local stores: Sophie, Blush Boutique, and Blue Moon Boutique.
We met back at the car a little after 5 p.m. because I wanted to make one last stop before dinner. No trip to Joplin is complete without a visit to Candy House Gourmet – definitely not for my family members!
This confectionery has been making original recipe treats for decades, including toffee, turtles, brittle, fudge, and caramels. I let each family member pick out a treat with the promise that there would be no eating – not even one nibble – until after dinner.
After shopping for candy, we went to the nearby Red Onion Cafe, a casual, urban restaurant that has been serving quality American food for over twenty years. There’s something on the menu here to make everyone happy, making it the perfect place to bring the whole family.
We ordered Red Onion’s famous creamy and spicy Smoked Chicken Dip as an appetizer, which is served with tortilla chips for dipping. The entrees ordered by our group ranged from the refreshing ROC Chicken Salad Sandwich, to the popular Dave’s Fried Chicken Salad Sandwich (made with coconut-breaded chicken), to the elegant Chicken Tuscany.
And, believe it or not, my kids convinced me to let them order dessert, despite the fact that we had a carload of treats from Candy House Gourmet: “The candy will keep for a few days, Mom, but we don’t get to have the Caramel Fudge Pecan Cake very often.”
How could I argue with that logic?
Since we’d been running hard with a packed schedule all weekend, I thought I’d make Sunday all about relaxation: a slow-paced breakfast, an easy stroll through the woods, and a leisurely Sunday drive south of Joplin.
Our first destination was Undercliff Grill & Bar, in an area close to Shoal Creek known as Tipton Ford. You might think this an odd choice for a Sunday morning, but this establishment transforms from a typical bar-and-grill to a breakfast spot from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. And, did I say it was typical? I misspoke. The Undercliff has a rich history spanning over a century, plus it’s built right into the side of a cliff.
“There used to be a general store here,” I explained to my parents. “People used to travel between Joplin and Neosho by rail,” I said, pointing to the train tracks built just in front of the building, “and they would often stop here.”
“Unfortunately, this was also the site of one of the deadliest train accidents in American history,” I said. I went on to tell them that on the night of August 5, 1914, two trains collided and a number of people lost their lives, many of whom were on their way back to Neosho after participating in Joplin’s Emancipation Park Day event.
“Well, you sure know how to be a Debbie Downer,” my oldest daughter said, rolling her eyes.
“Okay, okay,” I laughed. “Enough of that. Let’s order some food!”
From sweet, fluffy pancakes, to savory omelets, to the popular Round Barn Breakfast (consisting of two eggs, your choice of meat, toast, and a pancake), there was something on the menu that appealed to everyone.
We wrapped up breakfast, then drove less than ten miles to George Washington Carver National Monument, the first site in the National Park Service dedicated to an African American. It consists of an education center, plus an outdoor loop trail for exploring the nature of Carver’s world.
Nature was, in fact, the driving force behind Carver’s education, laboratory experiments, and lasting contributions to society. All of this is detailed in a short biographical film that we watched at the Carver education center.
“I didn’t realize he faced so many health challenges,” my mom commented when the film ended. Carver had been born into slavery to a couple owned by Moses Carver, but was such a sickly child that he wasn’t able to do chores like the other slaves. Instead, he spent his time walking around the forest and prairie surrounding the Carver homestead. In doing so, he observed and learned the properties of many plants, and demonstrated an innate ability to care for them, earning him the nickname “The Plant Doctor.”
“This sign says that he’s also known as the Peanut Man,” said my middle daughter. “I guess I should thank him for inventing the peanut butter in my Reese’s cups,” she laughed.
“Actually, he didn’t invent peanut butter,” I said. “But he did discover over 300 uses for peanuts, plus uses for other things, like sweet potatoes.”
“I’m amazed that he chose not to patent any of his inventions,” my dad added. “Apparently he wasn’t interested in money or fame; he just wanted his contributions to help others.”
My daughters ruminated on that concept as we walked outside on the paved hiking trail that led us through the woods, over a crystal-clear creek, past the old Carver homestead, and out to the prairie, which was speckled with purple and yellow wildflowers. I watched them study different plants with interest, perhaps imagining how they could experiment with them to create something impactful for the community.
I hope they’d been inspired.
On the drive back to Joplin, I asked each person to tell me one interesting thing they’d learned during our history weekend. I was pleasantly surprised to hear my daughters each come up with something different. They had been paying attention!
Then I looked over at my dad and asked, “What did you learn?”
His warm chocolate eyes filled with pride. “I learned that my daughter likes history after all.”
There are times when the planets align and miraculous things happen.
For me, that was last weekend.
My husband went out of town to visit a college friend, and my girls were spending quality time with their grandparents, so I had the house all to myself.
For weeks prior to this Miraculous Weekend, I thought and thought about how I would spend my time. I knew I wanted to do something with my girlfriends, but what?
An idea came to me as I was driving around town doing my routine activities. I noticed the leaves on the trees, swaying gently in the wind. Fall would arrive soon, and those leaves would float to the ground, leaving the trees bare until spring. I suddenly felt a strong desire to get outside, to immerse myself in the great outdoors one last time this summer.
And I wanted to do so with my friends.
“Enjoy having the house to yourself,” said my teenager (with more than a bit of jealousy, I might add) as she and her younger siblings marched out the front door and into their grandmother’s car, which looked as magical as Cinderella’s glass carriage to me at that moment.
Since my husband had already left on his trip, I was free – yes, free – to kick off my Miraculous Weekend, so as soon as the glass carriage exited the driveway, I hopped in my car and drove to meet my friend Shanon.
Shanon and I meet occasionally on Friday afternoons to celebrate the end of the work week with a different kind of Happy Hour. Instead of going to a bar and sipping a cocktail (don’t get me wrong – we sometimes do that, too) we’ll meet in the heart of the city at the Frisco Greenway Trail for a stress-relieving walk through through the woods.
On this late summer afternoon, Shanon was waiting for me in the parking lot. “You escaped!” she said, giving me a warm hug.
“We escaped,” I said, our footsteps falling in sync as our shoes crunched the fine gravel beneath our feet. I felt like a kid at recess, catching up with my friend while enjoying a slice of freedom from our schoolwork.
After our walk, we wanted to keep up the health-conscious theme we had going, so we decided to get ourselves some nutritious smoothies at Joplin Avenue Coffee Company, a hip downtown Joplin coffee house that also serves tea, sweet treats, and healthy food options from a delivery service called Fit Foods.
Shanon ordered the Dirty Monkey Smoothie, made with peanut butter, banana, and mocha, as well as a ready-made Turkey Hummus Wrap to take home with her for lunch the next day. I ordered the Berry Vanilla Detox Smoothie; packed with fresh fruit, protein and chia seeds, it felt like a nutrient infusion, and filled me up to the point to where I decided to just count that as my dinner that night. Yay! No cooking for me.
I went home afterward and lit some candles, put on soft music, and sank into a cloud of bubbles and warm water in the bathtub – a sublime way to end the first day of my Miraculous Weekend.
Another day, another hug from a friend whom I hadn’t seen in months. Johanna had driven in from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and was now at my front door. “Are you ready?” she asked.
“I just need to grab my yoga mat and I will be,” I said. We were headed to a Yoga in Nature class, held under a pavilion at Wildcat Park.
We unrolled our mats and faced in the direction of Shoal Creek.
The area between us and the creek was the chert glade, a rare, desert-like ecosystem that exists right here in southwest Missouri. As we saluted the sun, colorful butterflies danced around the flowers just outside the pavilion.
As we rolled up our mats, Johanna turned to me. “I bet with all of the rain you had here recently, Grand Falls is really flowing. Do you mind it we make a quick stop there to check it out?”
As the largest continuously running waterfall in the state of Missouri, Grand Falls is one of the prettiest natural attractions in the area, and visitors stop here throughout the year. As Johanna and I navigated our way among the chert (more chert!) outcroppings to get closer to the falls, we noticed that we weren’t the only ones enjoying the view that morning; there were a few men fishing in the creek, and some kids splashing in the shallow pools.
The roar of the rushing water was suddenly matched by the sound from my rumbling stomach. “Are you ready for brunch?” I asked Johanna.
“Definitely!” We left the falls and made our way to Finn’s, an elegant oasis located in a strip mall. The dining room is cozy, complete with a fireplace – a nice addition in cold weather, but it there wasn’t a fire going on this nice summer day.
“The Avocado Toast sounds amazing,” said Johanna, looking at the brunch menu.
“The Eggs Benedict is really good here, too,” I said. “That’s what I’m going to order.”
Our beautifully presented – and hearty – entrees tasted delicious, and provided the fuel that we needed for our next stop: George Washington Carver National Monument, located twenty minutes south of Joplin in Diamond.
We arrived there just in time to catch the end of the lab demonstration where participants were invited to make peanut milk, so we got to join along.
George Washington Carver was an educator and scientist who discovered multiple uses for peanuts and other crops, and he was born in a cabin on the land on which the monument sits. The center houses exhibits which detail Carver’s life, and the trail outside offers a glimpse of the world that Carver saw as a boy meandering through the thick woods and across the blooming prairie.
After hiking the trail, we started back toward Joplin, my appetite growing bigger with every mile we passed. “How about grabbing dinner at The Eagle?” I asked.
“You know it’s one of my favorite restaurants,” Johanna said. “Do they still have the Bison Burger?”
“They do. They also have killer Jalapeno Margaritas, if you are up for some spice.”
We lingered at The Eagle Drive-In, eating burgers and sipping margaritas until the sun dipped behind the horizon, completing a perfect day.
This was it. This was the day I was going big, putting the final dot on the exclamation point of the Miraculous Weekend! My friend Julie and I were going up a creek – with two paddles, on a Shoal Creek float trip.
But first, we needed to fuel up. I picked up Julie and we went to Club 1201 for brunch. I ordered my favorite dish, Eggs Benedict, and Julie tried the Artisan French Toast. We celebrated Float Trip Day by toasting our drink glasses which we customized at the Bloody Mary Bar.
After brunch, we drove just south of Joplin to Water’s Edge, where we got set up with our canoe. For several hours, it was just me, Julie, and the rhythmic sounds of our paddles pushing through the water. Oh, and an occasional turtle.
With just the two of us – no distractions – we were able to discuss all of the things that we had on our mental checklists to talk to each other about whenever we had the chance. And today, we had that chance.
Now we were good for a few more months.
I relished my Miraculous Weekend at home – alone, and I cherished the time I spent with my friends as we explored the great outdoors, reveling in the warmth of the late summer air. I felt refreshed and alive, and ready to jump back into my responsibilities as a mom.
Yet, even though I had a phenomenal time with my friends, nothing from that weekend compared to the unbridled joy I felt when I saw my daughters walk through the door Sunday night.
That is, until ten minutes later when they started to bicker…
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Silence engulfed me. It was 8:00 a.m. and all of my children were off to school. The house was finally still.
This was the time of day when I usually fired up my laptop and started working. But not today. I opened my eyes and reached for my cell phone. “Ready?” I typed.
“I was born ready,” came the response from my friend Julie.
Five minutes later I was at her doorstep, giddy with excitement. While our kids were at school and most everybody else we knew was working, we were playing hooky.
A warm breeze wafted through the trees, foreshadowing a hot September afternoon. “Did you pack sunscreen?” Julie asked.
“Two bottles.” We would definitely need it that day. With the sun reflecting off the sparkling waters of Shoal Creek and onto our skin, we’d be red as heirloom tomatoes in under an hour without protection.
Our mission that day was to leave the fast-paced, obligation-filled world behind us, immersing ourselves in the serenity of nature.
Just two girls and a canoe.
And a cooler with beverages and snacks, and a waterproof bag for our keys and cell phones (yes, we brought those because what if the schools needed to reach us about our kids?).
Julie and I had planned this getaway for months. This was our chance to disconnect from our responsibilities and just go with the flow, literally. We had reserved a canoe at Water’s Edge Campground, just south of Joplin, and we were going to spend the next few hours floating our cares away.
Water’s Edge is comprised of 43 acres of raw southwest Missouri beauty, with pristine Shoal Creek meandering through it. Visitors can purchase a day pass for swimming and fishing, or they can rent a canoe and spend the day floating on the creek. There’s also a campground on the property that offers RV and primitive camping.
After checking in, Julie and I were driven from the rental area to the put-in point where we began our trip. Julie got in the canoe like the old pro that she is (well, she’s not “old,” just much more experienced at canoeing than I am), but I wobbled a bit as I entered, losing my grip on the bag I was holding, sending it splashing into the water.
Julie quickly fished it out of the creek before it sank. “And so our adventure begins,” she laughed. I was thankful that my husband had given us the waterproof bag that he brings with him on his fishing trips, and all of our things remained nice and dry.
Once we got settled, we pushed off from the bank. The lush trees formed a canopy overhead, nestling us in their shade. Neither one of us spoke for several minutes; we were lost in our thoughts, hypnotized by the rhythmic sound of the paddles sploshing through the water and the occasional call of a songbird.
“…all the summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life. There was a song in every heart; and if the heart was young, the music issued at the lips.”― Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Being infused with a dose of the great outdoors was as therapeutic as a day at the spa – maybe even more so. And the fact that we were playing hooky from our regular responsibilities intensified the experience.
“We’re like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, mischievously skipping school and whiling away the day on the water, seeking out adventure,” I mused.
“But way cooler, because we’re girls,” Julie joked.
But her comment made me think (because that’s what you do when you’re floating down a river). How often do we, as working moms, give ourselves permission to have a “ditch day?”
Not often enough.
As Julie and I made our way back to the campground area, we occasionally paused to watching a turtle surface or a snake wiggle its way to shore. The wildlife seemed undisturbed by our presence, and since it was a school/work day, we only passed one other canoe the entire time – a fellow rebel.
“We should make this a yearly tradition, Tom” said Julie.
“I agree, Huck.”
I could get used to this carefree, rebellious life.
“They said they would rather be outlaws a year in Sherwood Forest than President of the United States forever.”
― Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Water’s Edge is located at 6614 Old Highway 71 in Joplin. Click here to visit Water’s Edge on Facebook.
Joplin is nestled in the rolling hills of the Ozarks, right in the heart of America. This means that while we’re surrounded by miles of trails to explore, we’re also a long way from the crashing waves of the ocean. In fact, there are seven degrees of latitude that separate us from our closest ocean access point: The Gulf of Mexico.
While it’s not easy for us landlocked Ozarkians to physically travel to the beach to enjoy some rest and relaxation, we can feel like we’re there when we visit Turtleheads Raw Bar, located right here in Joplin.
The turquoise exterior of Turtleheads reminds me of the bright Gulf water, and it offers a hint of the carefree, beachy vibe cultivated inside. With kitschy nautical decorations and neon signs adorning the walls, this is a hangout where Jimmy Buffet would feel right at home.
Recently, my husband Travis and I ate at Turtleheads. Both of us went to college in the Gulf region; he in Pensacola, Florida, and I in New Orleans, so every once in a while, we crave the variety of seafood that we had access to when we lived there. Lucky for us, the menu at Turtleheads offers several items that satisfy those cravings.
There are some appetizer options here that you won’t find anywhere else in town, like fried gator tail and frog legs. There are also oysters, both fried and on the half-shell, which Travis ordered.
He was given the choice of Gulf or Blue Point oysters, and he chose the latter. It had been years since he’d eaten some, and he was excited to be able to do so here in Joplin.
I’ve never acquired the taste for oysters, so I ordered the coconut shrimp. Served with honey and citrus sauce, it had a nice tropical flavor.
As we enjoyed our appetizers, the languid beat of the reggae song Red, Red, Wine by UB40 played, transporting us back to the day that we met on a beach in Illinois in the summer of ‘87. Ah, yet another good time at the beach.
When it came time to order our entrees, I was torn between the po’ boy sandwich or the gumbo, two of my favorite Cajun foods. I ultimately went with the gumbo, which was packed with tomatoes, celery, shrimp, and spicy andouille sausage, served over Cajun rice.
My side dish of island slaw, subtly sweetened with coconut and grapes, was a nice complement to the fiery gumbo.
The Louisiana Pan Roast that Travis ordered also had a kick to it. Similar in consistency to the gumbo, his pan roast contained shrimp and crab, bathed in a creamy – yet spicy – tomato and clam sauce, and served over Cajun rice.
His side dish of jalapeno hush puppies, served with a remoulade-type sauce for dipping, was delicious.
In addition to its regular menu items, Turtleheads runs specials on different nights of the week, such as Crab Feast on Wednesdays (with all-you-can-eat crab legs), and Catfish Fry-Days.
But eating seafood is only part of the Gulf Coast lifestyle feeling at Turtleheads; the other part is listening to live music under twinkling lights on the outside patio.
The patio is open year-round, and there’s live music played there every Saturday night.
Outside, we sipped on our beer as the balmy breeze carried away our worries. We felt relaxed, like we’d been to the beach – yet we’d never left Joplin.
Changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes, like Jimmy Buffet sings.
On this night, we mentally changed latitudes with a virtual trip to the beach at Turtleheads.
Turtleheads Raw Bar is located at 4218 South Main Street in Joplin. Click here to visit its website, and click here to find it on Facebook.
In just two short years, Deanna Marroquin has taken her business El Taco Loco from a humble food truck to an area favorite.
I like to think that I helped contribute to that success with my frequent (okay, sometimes weekly) visits. After all, once I tried the authentic, flavorful Mexican food served at El Taco Loco, I was hooked.
For instance, to break up a day of writing at home, I’ll say to my hubby Travis (who also works at home), “Let’s go to El Taco Loco for lunch.” Or, if it’s 4 p.m. and I realize I’ve forgotten to start the crockpot and now have to come up with an alternative for dinner, I’ll get El Taco Loco delivered.
I’m become such a fan of El Taco Loco that I usually suggest eating here whenever I meet a friend for lunch. Heck, I’ve stopped short of taking perfect strangers to El Taco Loco, just so I could see their reactions when they take their first bites of the savory goodness served here and say, “See? I told you it would be awesome!”
I think the reason why I, and all of the other El Taco Loco fans, appreciate the food here is because of its freshness and authenticity. There’s no need for heavy sauces to stretch the value of a bland meal (like many Americanized Mexican restaurants often do). The specially seasoned meats and the tender, homemade tortillas are the stars at El Taco Loco, and they shine on their own.
The menu at El Taco Loco is simple, and if you compare it to the voluminous menus at typical Mexican restaurants found in the US, you might think that it seems limited. But here’s the thing: when a restaurant focuses on a few things and does them well, there’s no need to complicate matters. People don’t feel the need to have more options because they are more than satisfied with what’s already offered to them.
El Taco Loco is probably best known for its street tacos. I like to order the 3-Taco Special, which comes with a steak taco, a chicken taco, and a marinated pork taco, all sprinkled with fresh onions and cilantro.
Each time I get this meal, I play a little taste-test game and try to determine which taco I like best. Each time, my brain screams at me, “Don’t make me pick a favorite! I like them all, just in different ways!”
Kind of like my own children.
The 3-Taco Special comes with homemade red salsa, which has a kick to it, and a milder homemade green salsa. Sometimes I add the salsa to the tacos, and sometimes I eat them plain. Either way, they’re delicious.
The 3-Taco Special fills me up, but if you’re looking for a meal that includes traditional rice and beans, you can try the Taco Plate, which comes with just two tacos, along with the rice and beans.
Other menu items include quesadillas, tortas (sandwiches served on Mexican-style baguettes), and burritos. We recently picked up lunch to bring home and Travis ordered a Burrito Original, which came stuffed (and I mean stuffed) with his choice of meat, rice, refried beans, sour cream, and guacamole.
It’s a dense meal, for sure.
When I handed it to him, I used two hands and presented it to him like it was a newborn.
And if the Burrito Original is like a newborn, then the Burrito Loco is like a toddler. This monster of a burrito serves 4 to 5 people. Of course, you’re welcome to eat it all on your own. In fact, El Taco Loco offers the Burrito Loco Challenge: if you eat the 6-pound Burrito Loco in under 10 minutes, then you get it for free, and get the burrito named after you.
On Cinco de Mayo in 2019, a competitive eater named Randy Santel took on El Taco Loco’s Burrito Challenge – and won! You can see the video of it here. So now I guess the Burrito Loco is officially named the Randy Santel Burrito, until someone comes along and beats his record.
You can dine in at El Taco Loco, pick up your food at the drive-through window, or have your meal delivered via Bite Squad.
If you’re up in Webb City, pop into El Taco Loco’s location there, and if you’re out and about in town, keep an eye out for the food truck that started this business, because it still travels to different events, bringing authentic Mexican food to the region.
Wherever and however you choose to try El Taco Loco, do it soon. Your taste buds will be forever changed. Not only do the flavors of the food here dance on your tongue, they do so like nobody’s watching.
El Taco Loco is located at 1221 W. 7th Street in Joplin (see its Facebook page here), and at 202 E. Daugherty St. in Webb City (see its Facebook page here). Delivery orders can be placed through Bite Squad.