A little too much adventure
Watching kids cycling to school, and seeing big yellow buses with lights flashing as they make their early morning routes inspires me to reminisce about my misspent youth, when I would return to school with mixed emotions.
When I was 13, my friend Brian and I were allowed to venture out on our bicycles to spend the summer fishing and camping without supervision. The freedom was euphoric.
The following year, our plans were mundane compared to what really happened. That summer had the makings of an adventure novel. We left the suburbs of St. Louis the day after school let out and pedaled our bicycles down old Route 66, the only highway at the time that went in the direction of Meramec State Park near Sullivan, Mo.
We hugged the shoulder of the road and prayed that a sleepy driver in a speeding 18-wheeler wouldn’t turn us into a stain on the asphalt. After two days of hard riding, we decided to treat ourselves to a burger at a truck stop.
A trucker at the next table eyed us suspiciously.
“And what kinda rig are you boys drivin’?” he asked.
“Bicycles,” I replied. “We’re riding bicycles.”
“Now where in the world are you goin’ on bicycles out here in the middle o’ God’s country? You aren’t runnin’ away are ya?”
“No,” I replied. “We’re just goin’ fishin’ on the Meramec.”
We talked for a few minutes and he said that if we wanted to go another hundred miles we could do some serious fishing in the heart of the Ozarks on the Big Piney River.
“It’s wild down there. You gotta watch out fer bears. It’s not a family campground,” he said. “It’s undeveloped national forest.”
That got our attention. He was talking about the wilderness. The Big Piney River flowed through a national forest where true adventurers went fishing. There were no noisy families, picnic tables or barbecues. This was the real thing.
He offered to give us a ride within three miles of the river and we accepted, breaking our parent’s number one rule: Do not accept rides from strangers. It was also against the law for anyone under 16 to hitchhike. Technically, we did both.
Nonetheless, we rode in a big rig, and nothing was cooler than that. On the way, we heard a radio announcer say that the police were looking for two men in a blue Ford pickup with a driver’s side front fender painted with red primer. They were suspects in a foiled armed bank robbery.
“Good luck findin’ those boys,” the truck driver said. “They’re holed up somewhere in a thousand square miles of rough country.”
The trucker dropped us off and we headed down the rocky road as he instructed. Riding our bicycles was nearly impossible, so we walked most of the way, and pushed the bikes.
We pitched our tent amongst some trees above the riverbank and marveled at the isolation. We didn’t discuss it, but I think we were both worried about bears and other large critters. We slept like dead men and awoke to the sounds of the forest greeting the day.
When we crawled out of our tent, not a hundred yards upstream we saw a blue pickup with a red front fender. It perfectly matched the description of the truck on the radio.
We quietly packed our gear and made our way to the rocky road without incident. We saw one of the men on the riverbank fishing, but we didn’t know if he saw us. I took note of what he was wearing.
We all but ran the three miles to the main highway. With hearts pumping to the max, we eventually flagged down a farmer in a truck who was nice enough to drive us to a telephone seven miles down the road. There, we called the police.
Although they took our information seriously and apprehended the bank robbers, they treated us as if we were runaways. Our biggest fear was that our parents would learn of our run-in with the bank robbers and bring our search for adventure to a screeching halt.
Much to the credit of the Missouri State Police, they never did call our parents. I don’t know if they couldn’t be bothered, or if they appreciated our tip, but we were allowed to continue with our summer of adventure, growing up in a system we can’t understand.