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No Metropolis Needed in Southwest Missouri

Saigon and Neon

We drove through Carthage, a popular stop for travelers doing a Route 66 itinerary through Missouri. The 66 Drive-In Theatre, complete with neon sign, is just one of several stops these travelers seek out. It is remarkable how much travel this old highway generates. International groups from China, Australia and European countries build entire vacations around Route 66, as do motorcyclists, recreational vehicle travelers and motorcoach groups.

Consider Boots Court, which still stands at the intersection of Route 66 and Highway 71. Built between 1939 and 1946, this motel entertained Clark Gable not once but twice and is still popular for its rooms with ceramic tile bathrooms and radios.

Red Oak II, an artists village in Carthage, is another stop for many pilgrimages on Route 66. This picturesque enclave was assembled by shade tree artist and Carthage native Lowell Davis, and re-creates 20th-century simplicity complete with a church, a service station and a general store.

It was something else entirely in Carthage that most fascinated me. Hundreds of Vietnamese refugees arrived there after the Vietnam War, and their families have since grown and dispersed throughout the United States. Each August, thousands return and gather in this small town to have what amounts to an immense family reunion.

“Many came originally from Saigon, and they gather at the Catholic seminary here to spend four days celebrating their faith and native Vietnamese foods and music,” said Wendi Douglas, executive director of the Carthage Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They also create a huge farmers market on the monastery campus. Visitors and townspeople are welcome to stop by and enjoy an event that is extraordinary for a town this size.” This year’s dates are August 2-5.

Murals and Memorials

We made our way westward on historic Route 66 to Joplin, where several of us were captivated by a work of the noted American artist Thomas Hart Benton, who lived from 1889 to 1975. Born nearby, Benton got his career start in Joplin as a 17-year-old cartoonist for the local newspaper. The town leaders convinced him at the age of 82 to create a mural that depicted Joplin at the beginning of the 20th century. It hangs prominently in their City Hall.

“I figured I was too old to go on climbing up and down ladders. And I was,” he said at its dedication.

It is a huge work — 14 feet long — and depicts a Midwestern city filled with promise: laborers at work, streetcars and horse-drawn wagons, dirt roads and bright skies. It was the last great mural the artist painted.

Our local host in Joplin, Patrick Tuttle of the Joplin Convention and Visitors Bureau, took us to Cunningham Park, which commemorates the city’s darkest hours in 2011 when a monster tornado zeroed in on this neighborhood and destroyed it. On Sunday, May 22, an EF5 multiple-vortex tornado obliterated hundreds of homes and businesses, taking 161 lives and doing an estimated $2.8 billion in damage. It was the deadliest tornado in the United States since 1947.

Six years later, Cunningham Park commemorates the lives of the victims and sits on a hill overlooking a vast area of reconstruction. Outdoor facilities have been built for picnics and reunions, a restoration fountain greets visitors, and a butterfly garden offers a tranquil place for reflection.

Tuttle treated us to dinner at a landmark steakhouse in Joplin. Wilder’s has been around since 1929 and offers excellent food in a decor I’d describe as Route 66 redux. I had its rib-eye with a Wilder’s Wedge salad. Tuttle knows the proprietor well and knew it was a suitable place for a bunch of writers. It’s the only restaurant where I’ve dined and the server has handed me her business card.