Head out for open-air adventure and recreation in Missouri’s hills and lakes.
Gear Up For: Bass fishing, golfing, and other good times
Get Out To: Big Cedar Lodge in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains
With Side Excursions To: Catch country music in Branson and the Wonders of Wildlife Museum in Springfield
Perfect For: Dads and post-college friends looking for a good getaway, with or without kiddos
In a long enough timeline, even the closest friends lose touch. It’s not necessarily from a falling out, nor is it even a matter of being lazy. Sometimes it’s just that as time marches on, life gets in the way of friendships: Kids’ schedules take precedence, and any downtime is usually spent catching up on all the other things that get neglected in our desire to maintain order on the home front.
On that same long-yet-too-short timeline, friendships come and go, and once geography is factored into the mix and new friends are added to the stable of stalwart old friends, never the twain shall meet.
That’s the situation I found myself in as the work piled up at home and it seemed that all my social activities were made either with my kids in mind, or their friends’ parents became my new social network. If I want to grab a beer after work, these days, I do it in my suburban Dallas neighborhood with one of the other dads.
The thing is, certain triggers make you long for your old friends and your old life, like when there’s a big college basketball game on TV, or when there’s a new movie about a fraternity or a bachelor party. I like the neighborhood Dallas dads, yes, but I miss my old meathead buddies spread across the state of Missouri. Truth be told, I miss Missouri, especially this time of year.
I needed to re-connect with the outdoors, with some friends — old and new. I needed to recharge my batteries, and I wanted to get back to the Ozark Mountains for a spell, maybe catch a few fish and play some golf.
As the friend in the group with the most travel experience, I was tasked not only with finding the perfect location for a quick guys’ weekend away, but also with tapping the crew that would embark on this whirlwind trip.
The location I picked was one that’s more known for family vacations than for being a guys getaway destination: Big Cedar Lodge in Ridgedale, Missouri, just a hop from booming Branson and a skip from cosmopolitan Springfield. But the reason I picked that location is because of the gang that committed: Ryan, J.R., and Matt.
It’s not often that I’ll pick a travel destination based solely on the hotel, but it does happen from time to time. This trip was one of those times.
Big Cedar Lodge is like a Bass Pro Shop with beds. That’s most likely by design, because the owner of Big Cedar Lodge is also the founder of Bass Pro Shops: Johnny Morris, a legend in the state of Missouri. I’d been to Big Cedar Lodge once before with my dad to watch the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf tournament at the Top of the Rock course. Back then, I managed to get about an hour of fishing in on Table Rock Lake before heading to the Bass Pro Shops Shooting Academy to fire some 12-gauge shotguns at clay targets. And back then, I remember thinking, I have to come back when I have more time to actually play Top of the Rock, to actually catch some fish, and to actually relax at the pool and eat in several of the elegantly rustic restaurants. I also wanted to partake in activities I didn’t know existed but I knew would be fantastic because Johnny Morris doesn’t undertake any project unless it’s done to the extreme.
Which brings me to my guys’ group and why Big Cedar Lodge would be perfect for Ryan, J.R., and Matt.
Ryan and J.R. are my newer Dallas “dad” buddies. Ryan’s from Connecticut, J.R.’s from Detroit, and I moved to Dallas from New York City. Matt was one of my best buddies from our days in the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house at the University of Missouri back in the mid-1990s. He’s now a family man as well. Though Matt had never met Ryan or J.R., we were all family guys who could appreciate a fun, outdoorsy trip that would also serve as a recon mission for a return trip with our broods. Call it the dad M.O.: two birds, one stone.
Matt lives in Carrollton, Missouri, and he picked up the Dallas contingent at the Springfield-Branson National Airport. It’s an hour from Springfield to Big Cedar Lodge — ample time for Ryan and J.R. to be introduced to Matt’s friendly-but-sarcastic demeanor, and for Matt and me to catch up.
The approach shot to Ridgedale, only 11 miles from bustling Branson, is like driving into a Robert Frost poem. The foothills of the Ozarks grow taller and the mounds round out as they gently slope onto the shores of Table Rock Lake. It’s quite the bucolic scene to be sure, and the sheer lushness of it all looks more like County Cork, Ireland, than southwest Missouri.
Ryan, who had never been to this part of the country, asked Matt if all of Missouri looked like this. “Well, it does if you just take away the hills, most of the trees, and a lot of the lakes.”
We checked into our spacious cabin at Big Cedar Lodge and took a moment on the back patio to absorb our surroundings. This is truly a beautiful part of the country, and the cedar and elm and walnut and dogwood trees that hem the 43,000 acres of Table Rock Lake — all of which was right there in front of us — made us curse our neighborhoods back home for not being prettier.
There’d be many more conversations on that patio over the course of the two-day guys’ trip, but at that moment, we needed to change and get ready for the type of meal hearty enough for four Ozark Mountain men.
Although Missouri is considered the Midwest, this part of Missouri considers itself part of the South, and they have the Southern cuisine to prove it. We took a table on the elevated deck at the Devil’s Pool restaurant and requested an order of the famous pan-seared crawfish cakes and pimento cheese and smoked-trout dip before we even opened the menu.
Historically, Missouri was a state divided. During the Civil War, this border state hosted some of the bloodiest and most violent, most personal guerrilla battles. And while the battle lines are long gone, Missouri remains divided in terms of its provincial associations. Make no mistake, Springfield, Ridgedale, and Branson all consider themselves Southern, and the region is punctuated with plenty of Confederate battle installations and old cannons to prove it.
But back to the food. We snacked on our appetizers while marveling at the hand-forged wrought-iron chandeliers and the huge stone fireplace, both of which did a fine job accenting the 100-year-old mahogany bar. We tipped back a few scotches at that bar while awaiting our main courses: blackened catfish for Ryan, prime rib for J.R, roasted duck breast for Matt, and fried chicken and waffles for me.
Full and happy, we walked downstairs to Buzzard Bar to hear some bona fide country music. Replete with the same rustic ambience as Devil’s Pool (and appointed with a familiar collection of mounted heads and stuffed furry and feathered animals), Buzzard Bar is a cowboy bar, with a singing cowboy (or other entertainment) every night of the week. More scotch and bourbon were consumed. I brought some cigars, but Buzzard Bar, like all the other places in and around Big Cedar, is nonsmoking, so the cigars would have to wait until our back porch and the view of Table Rock Lake later that night.
Morning broke early. The sun amplified the maple trees on the banks of Table Rock Lake and caused their shadows to look towering on the water’s surface. There was a slight breeze blowing in from the north, and the temperature at that hour held steady at 55 degrees. Perfect fishing weather.
Table Rock Lake is internationally known in fishing circles as one of the best bass lakes in the nation. There’s a variety of largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted bass in these waters — so many, in fact, that you’re almost assured a catch if you fish a full day.
Because we only had a half-day to spare before our tee time, we hired a fishing guide to take us to the best spots on the lake. Professional fisherman Tony Weldele was up for the challenge of getting all four of us geared up and positioned to reel in some smallmouths.
“How long does this usually take?” asked J.R., the high-powered businessman among us.
“Hopefully not long,” Weldele replied. “I’ve never taken anyone out who didn’t catch a fish, so you’re in good hands.”
“I bet Matt will be the first,” I chimed in, only half-joking. Matt has been known to buck the luck trend: One time in college, a tornado hit his house while he was sleeping on the second floor. He woke up lying on his mattress, which was now perched atop the rubble of what was no longer a house. That was unlucky. What was lucky was that the only injury he sustained was a cut on his cheek.
Matt instantly got the joke — and the irony. “I bet you’re right,” he said laughing.
I was half-right. Ryan, J.R., guide Tony, and I all caught copious bass. Matt caught mostly bluegill — the kind of fish your kids could catch just by dropping a line in the water with some bread on the end.
“At least you caught something and kept Tony’s perfect record in place,” Ryan quipped.
“That’s right!” I said. “But Orlando Wilson you’re not.”
Lush bluegrass roughs surround the bentgrass tees and greens, and the untrammeled views of the Ozark Mountains and Table Rock Lake make this nine-hole golf course appear otherworldly. The Chapel of the Ozarks stone church, which flanks the clubhouse, completes the postcard-perfect aesthetic.
It says something that Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Tom Watson teamed with Johnny Morris and spent seven years creating a par-3 golf course together. What it says — combined with the fact that this is the only par-3 course to be included in a PGA championship — is that this is the best par-3 golf course in the world.
It doesn’t matter that this course is a par 3: It’s darn tough. Matt, who was his club’s champion in Carrollton, Missouri, for close to a decade, agreed.
“This is one of the most beautiful courses I’ve ever played,” he said, followed by, “though I can’t remember when a 170-yard hole gave me so much trouble.”
We grabbed an after-golf beer at Arnie’s Barn, the actual 150-year-old barn from the backyard of Arnold Palmer’s boyhood home of Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Johnny Morris had it moved and reconstructed, plank by plank, to its original frame and form.
In front of us were the rolling Ozark Mountains, the geographical counterpart of the St. Louis Gateway Arch: gateways to the rugged West, and still what I think of as the lines of demarcation between agrarian Middle America and the great Western frontier.
We’d be heading home in the morning, and there was a steak dinner in our near future at Osage Restaurant. But, seeing as how we were visitors to this part of Missouri (including Matt), and because the topography here is unlike any other in the country (hills, caves, bluffs), we grabbed a golf cart and took a 50-minute, self-guided tour of Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail.
The 2.5-mile ride wound us through the Ozark Mountains and took us into an Ozark cave, where we drove around a four-story-tall waterfall and drank in the sites of an oft-overlooked state (and some Missouri-brewed Budweiser beer, sold from the cave equivalent of a golf-course bar cart). Minus the cave cart, this struck us as the perfect excursion for our kids, each of whom was missing Daddy and wondering where he went this weekend.
In a long enough timeline, old friends come and go. The trick is to take the future-reaching end of that timeline and pack it with people who have common interests. This guys’ trip to Big Cedar Lodge cemented our new crew for years to come. And who knows — in the future, it might also serve as the venerable tie that binds. Next time, though, we’ll try it with the kids.