Although I visited the Ozarks with my parents when I was 15, I don’t remember very much about that part of the trip, except that the Volvo overheated and we had to wait by the side of the road for the engine temperature to drop down before we could proceed. In any case, neither Elbie or I had ever visited the Ozark National Scenic Riverways
, so we decided to check the area out. Plus, after driving 2,311 miles in four days, I decided I needed a bit of a break.
The drive through the Ozark hills was really beautiful, even though it was pretty rainy and grey. The forest was green and lush, and there were more than a few picturesque Ozark cabins and antique shops. There were plenty of hillside compounds as well, which we steered well clear of, and more than one riverside canoe stand featuring dozens of colorful red canoes.
Since we didn’t quite know where to go, we ended up picking a spot pretty randomly. The Alley Mill
sounded like it might be a good spot for some hiking and a few nice photographs, so that’s where we decided to go. There were actually a lot of really amazing spots to choose from, including several caves, but none of them were as convenient to drive to from where we were as the Alley Mill and, as it turned out, all the cave sites were closed anyhow.
The Alley Mill turned out to be a fantastic choice. First we took a nice short hike along the river that flows out of the alley pond. The river was full from all of the recent rain, though apparently not as full as it had been a week ago when it had entirely overflowed its banks. Spring wildflowers were everywhere, delicate shapes inspired into the most baroque forms by the long and specific evolutionary demands of place.
When we rounded the trail and came into view of the mill pond, we both stopped for a second before realizing that even though there was a substantial river exiting the pond, there was no equivalent amount of water visibly flowing into the pond. Instead, the water in the pond was bubbling up from below, like a boiling cauldron.
Here’s the National Park Service description of the Alley Mill Hamlet:
The cold, clear water of Alley Spring churns from a funnel-shaped basin at an average flow of 81 million gallons per day. Because of its abundance of fresh water this site has been inviting a variety of people through time. Archeological evidence suggests that native peoples have been present around the spring for centuries.
Early settlers built a grist mill at the edge of the spring about 1868. In 1894 the steel roller mill was constructed on the same site and still stands today. Steel rollers that ground the grain were powered by a turbine rather than a waterwheel. The turbine can be seen beneath the porch on the east side of the mill.
The presence of the mill led to the addition of other services. After designation of a post office in 1884, the area became known as Alley. Eventually, the community that developed around the mill contained a general store, blacksmith shop, and school as well.
Because of early preservation efforts, Alley Mill remains as a symbol of our heritage. In 1924 Alley Spring became one of the first Missouri state parks. In 1964 it was given to the National Park Service and designated as part of Ozark National Scenic Waterways.
The water (81 million gallons a day!) boils up from limestone caverns and a series of underground rivers, but apparently no one has been able to accurately map the system. Divers have dropped down into the boil before, but apparently none of them has ever reached the bottom and found the source of Alley Spring.
As the water wells up from the caves below, it generates a series of currents, some of which turn back on themselves, creating mini gyres that in turn trap whatever falls into the water, eventually creating small islands of natural flotsam. These islands were really amazing — like tiny pieces of floating lawn that were in the process of generating their own green microclimates, bonsai islands covered with miniature trees and hillocks formed from the softest moss. If there had been some way to shrink myself down and spend a day floating on the islets, I surely would have.
Instead, Elbie and I had to settle for a hike above the mill pond, where we could get a bird’s-eye view of the entire area. In the middle of the forest, we ran into two local boys, one of who worked at the canoe stand down the road during the summer. When he asked where we were from and we told him California, his voice became animate:
You’re from California? My dad was born in Coalinga. He’s the head of the fire department here now. He ran for local office, but he lost. Folks around here call him “Hollywood.”
Elbie concluded, with a bit of a wicked gleam in her eye, that were I ever to move to the Ozarks my nickname would inevitably become “Frisco.”