As Ozark novelist Donald Harington pointed out, everything in the Ozarks meanders. Perhaps that is a statement of the obvious, but it bears examination, for like the obvious, it is frequently missed for being under our very noses.
Rivers meander in their babbling journey to either the Missouri or the Mississippi. Roads meander as they follow ridgelines or make their sinuous S curves around hillsides. Snakes meander in their crawling toward wherever it is their serpentine mind and method are taking them. Grapevines meander snakelike among sycamore limbs, which in turn meander, making shade over Ozark streams. Butterflies meander from flower to flower like a hillbilly meanders from still to home after tasting its nectar. Good stories meander in their telling, and any devotee of Mark Twain knows they are the better for it.
Though this book is largely the story of Branson, that small town on the old White River that has become the number-two vacation destination in the United States (according to the American Tour Association in 2005), it is also about the greater Ozarks.
The name for this 55,000-square-mile area of steep and rugged terrain between the nation’s two great mountain ranges, the Rockies and Appalachians, is fairly recent, though the area is old. An explorer in 1815, S. H. Long, is credited as being the first to use the term “Ozark Mountains.” The 19th-century explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft ventured into the area in 1818 and 1819, three years before statehood, to explore part of Thomas Jefferson’s bargain land purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803. Though he explored much of the Ozarks, including the Branson area, Schoolcraft never used the term “Ozarks” for it in his voluminous journals. Another explorer some 75 years later, the legendary one-armed explorer of the Grand Canyon, John Wesley Powell, who was a noted geologist and the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey, called the region “the Ozark Mountains” in his writings. Somewhere in a period of 75 years, the term Ozarks became the accepted name for the region. Most etymologists believe the word is an abbreviation of the French phrase “aux Arcs” (pronounced like the Ozarks of today), meaning “to the Arkansas,” referring to the French territory on the outposts of that river named after the American Indian tribe, or meaning “to the arcs”—the bows (arcs) of the area’s meandering rivers and creeks in general. This meandering makes possible a 20-mile float on the Gasconade River, with the takeout point being only a mile’s walk from put-in point, and floaters often marvel at the meandering miles of Ozark streams. Missouri’s tourism slogan, “Where the rivers run” (1998), doesn’t take into account their roundabout method of doing so.
Today Branson and the Ozarks are almost a unit. You can’t say one without thinking of the other. And so we meander in the History chapter among other nearby areas of the Ozarks the way the great White River meanders among the Ozark hills. Branson’s history is intertwined with the story of the Ozarks. Enjoy the meandering. The shortest point between “A” and “B” may be a straight line, but it’s not usually the most interesting.