On the Rhode: Blackwater, MO
I skipped town this weekend, hitched a flight to Colorado and immediately drove back east with my cousin Abi, who is moving to Rhode Island after several years in Ski Country. Her sweet but skittish husky mix, Stella, joined us for the ride. We spent most of the trip along Route 70. But after an exhausting first day of travel, we decided to change paths and explore a .3 square-mile corner of the country called Blackwater.
We barely noticed cigarette-burned sheets and the prickle of our wool blankets. There was no room for fuss; our exhaustion wouldn’t allow it.
We drove off Interstate 70 and into Independence after ten hours in the car — and, for me, also a four-and-a-half-hour flight. We’d already spent an unholy amount of time scouring the Kansas border for a warm bed, but the Sunflower State wouldn’t have us. A sassy hotel clerk in Topeka reported that college football had taken over the area, with the University of Kansas Big 12 opener against Texas Christian University scheduled for the next day. No room for us in Kansas, but a dodgy motel in Independence, Missouri, took us in just fine.
We curled up in our beds and reflected on the day. Though the trip through Kansas had been a bit of a yawn — never-ending wheat fields, broke-down eighteen-wheelers and crumbling farmhouses — we already felt nostalgic for the whistle of flatland wind.
Independence gave us fast food, Wal-Marts, the hum of traffic and noisy neighbors — the makeup of Anytown, USA — while Kansas felt like a different world. Folks honked a hello and didn’t tailgate on the highway; gas station attendants called us “sweetums” without a stitch of condescension or ulterior motive. I hoped out loud we would see more of the old Midwest in the twenty-three hours of driving ahead of us.
When Abi and I awoke Saturday morning, we’d clocked about three full hours of sleep. It was still dark when we checked out of the motel, but as we rode the curve back onto 70-East, the sun started to peek over Missouri.
It wasn’t long before our stomachs ached for a hearty, home-cooked meal — we’d survived the previous day on road food. Maybe it was procrastination, and maybe it was a hunger for familiarity, but we drove about an hour and a half into Missouri and called it quits. We were ready for breakfast.
We happened upon a small highway sign for a historical town and popped off in search of food, new sights and some local color. The town of Blackwater, population 199, was three miles off the route, but we knew we were onto something special about half a mile in. “What is that? This is the second one I’ve seen,” I said, pointing to the front yard of a dilapidated colonial. Lucky for us, a speeding turkey just happened to be crossing the road, so the distraction likely saved a life and some damage to Abi’s Jeep.
Still shocked from the turkey run-in, Abi slowed to a crawl so we could check out the sculpture: a tree stump with a polka-dot painted ceramic mushroom top fixed to it. Oh, and there were little elvish statues loitering around. This was the second of its kind that we’d seen. I wanted to see more, and there were at least half a dozen others sprinkled around.
We blazed through the rest of town and arrived at Main Street just as a screeching train passed through. The day was otherwise sunny, but when we stepped out of the car to explore, a cloud passed overhead and cast an eerie light on the few shops still standing in what I assumed was an on-the-brink ghost town.
The only shops open were the post office and the Backroads Grill, which — mercifully! — was serving breakfast. We followed the scent of griddled delights, seated ourselves and looked around. The three others in the restaurant, all sitting together, were staring at us from across the room. We were outsiders; everybody notices a new face in a town that boasts a population of 199 on its welcome sign.
I shouted a cheery “Good mornin’!” across the restaurant and they gave us a shy nod. The young man at the table then stood up; he would be our server and would give us an abbreviated history of Blackwater as it stands — including a six-word explanation of the little elf houses we found along the route: “Gnome homes. They’re everywhere. Folks like’em.”
As we ate our eggs and toast, our host livened up and shared the history of Blackwater, which was incorporated in 1887 as a coal and water stop for the Missouri Pacific Railroad. The peak population was 600 residents in 1920. But because of new diesel technologies, he said, trains no longer needed to stop for fuel in Blackwater and so merchants could no longer survive in town.
Our host said the town was at its worst in the late 1980s, when only a few shops were still in business and downtown buildings were crumbling. But with the aid of a few residents, government bonds and housing grants, Blackwater regained a bit of its small-town charm and is now home to three restaurants, several antique shops and a bed and breakfast. The population numbers are still low; our host suggested that the 199 number was high, and he was right. The 2010 census lists the head-count at 162.
I immediately thought of the Main Streets in Rhode Island: Wickford Village, East Greenwich, Wayland Square in Providence, Bristol, Water Street on Block Island. I imagined them as forsaken as Blackwater once was, and I felt for the residents of Blackwater who worked so hard to keep the greatness of their town alive.
As we left Blackwater, I sat quiet for a moment and memorized Main Street. Now the image is preserved in my head, should it succumb to a sad, certain fate and cease to exist by my next trip down Route 70.