When I told my friends that I was planning a cycling visit to Branson, Mo., the Bible Belt’s answer to Las Vegas, they couldn’t believe it. “You’ll be bored!” they cried. “You’ll starve!”
But my biking connections swore that the town has crazy-fun roads and high-caliber stage productions. And if restaurants lacked vegan options, I’d make do with trail mix and protein powder.
Branson may be famous for its live shows, but its outdoor spectacles offer cyclists terrific backdrops: rugged Ozark bluffs, rippling lakes, emerald valleys. For an introduction, Downhill Bikes owner Craig Erickson suggested Branson Bicycle Club’s free group rides. “There’s the Five Ugly Sisters, 13 miles mostly uphill,” he told me. “When riders ask if the first hill’s a sister, I say, ‘No, just a cousin; we haven’t gotten to the sisters yet.’ Then there’s the Jasper Disaster. . . .” Hmmm, think I’ll ride solo.
I loop around historic downtown’s quaint shops and quirky hipster-hoarder paradise, Dick’s 5 & 10. On Lake Taneycomo, people picnic, boat and stroll the boardwalk to Branson Landing’s shiny new shops and fire-and-fountain shows starring blasts from fire cannons and 120-foot geysers.
Pumping westward up Main Street, I enter the Strip, the car-clogged theater district. No casinos on this folksy-glitzy Vegas counterpart, but alcohol’s served.
Branson theater debuted in the 1930s to amuse railroad workers ferried up the White River on floats. Float trip operator Jim Owen — before his long stint as mayor — opened the first playhouse, preserved downtown as Owen’s Theatre. Later came music-comedy jamborees and “Shepherd of the Hills,” Branson’s heritage play about late 1800s Ozark settlers and vigilante “Baldknobbers,” outlaws named for the bald Ozark summits (it’s complicated). Now high-tech outdoor extravaganzas, these productions still draw crowds, as do stages built by Roy Clark, Andy Williams and other enterprising celebrities.
Forget the notion that Branson’s all country-kitsch for golden-agers. The kitsch spans all genres and ages. But the current 100-plus shows include spectacles rave-reviewed by elitists: Shanghai acrobats. Aerialist-violinist Janice Martin, who has performed at the White House and the National Gallery of Art, though not while suspended by sashes playing “Stairway to Heaven.” The endorphin-spiking tribute to the Eagles at God and Country Theatre. Liverpool Legends, a faux Fab Four handpicked by Louise Harrison, George’s sister. “The Legend of Kung Fu,” the martial-arts Beijing Olympics opener so exhilarating that after the show I biked miles beneath the starry deep-purple sky.
But that first day chugging up the Strip, hunger stopped me at Nature’s Sunshine Health Foods. I locked my bike beside the “God and America”-bannered topiary. Directing me to vegan energy-bars and entrees, the clerk said, “You’d be surprised how many restaurants have vegetarian food, even vegan. I love Thai Thai!” Just a block west.
Several curries, tofu and phad sounded promising, and bargains at less than $10. “Are these vegan, meaning no milk, eggs, animal-derived?” “Yes,” replied the hostess, “and I know what ‘vegan’ means.” Ginger phad = perfect lunch.
Farther west, a signboard flashes “Vegetarian dishes.” Elenita’s Mexican Cafe opened this spring. Anything vegan? Nine selections? Jackpot! I get carryout for dinner: delectable, light spinach fajita and brown rice. Another diner says that La Iguana, also on the Strip, makes a good bean-avocado-cilantro burrito for vegan customers.
I definitely won’t starve. Web-surfing revealed vegan options at several Strip-area dinner theaters and Showboat Branson Belle. At Silver Dollar City, the mega-theme park’s master baker Sondra Noroian (a vegan who makes sprouted breads at home) and quinoa-loving food director Sam Hedrick say that vegan and gluten-free offerings are in development.
Branson’s attracting rockers, too. Near Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede and Dick Clark’s American Bandstand is Riggs’ Monster Tattoo. Owned by Mike Riggs, Scum of the Earth guitarist and Rob Zombie alumnus, the shop houses a heavy metal/horror flick museum. One local tattoo customer, I learn, is a chef with vegan-cuisine chops, Portland transplant Nate Read, who’s at the Hilton’s Level2 Steakhouse downtown.
What’s a nice vegan girl doing in a steakhouse? Savoring fresh-picked morels, herbed peppers, asparagus, microgreens — everything locally sourced, except for the Australian sea salt.
Sated, I had energy a-plenty. At Stockstill Park, dog walker Tom Rose revealed a local secret: acres of au naturel Ozarks just south of the Strip.
Sure enough, a stone’s throw from gridlock stands a “Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area” sign, to which I lock the bike. Disappearing into the wood, my trail involved descending and ascending 315 hand-chiseled stone steps laid between Aug. 5, 1937, and Aug. 10, 1938, a fact etched in a step. (Another advised, “These Steps Were Made Not of Mortar Alone but of Sweat and Blood and Agony.”) I trekked the cliff-hugging lakeview path in solitude, turtle excepted.
The next morning, I pedaled a medley of routes: 65, 248 and 465, the Ozark Mountain High Road. Roadside attractions illustrate Branson’s broad heritage: Yakov Smirnoff’s comedy theater, quarries, farms, wildflower meadows attended by black butterflies, an old-timey lounge with a billboard praising Jesus, rough Ozark bluffs. On stretches lacking shoulders, drivers of farm trucks, motorcycles and vintage convertibles agreeably shared the road.
Along the High Road emerged Fred Scharbrough. I took the Branson Bicycle Club member’s tip to bike around Table Rock Lake — after some vegan noshing at a Christian college.
On the southern edge of Branson is College of the Ozarks, nicknamed Hard Work U because students work there instead of paying tuition. Founded in 1906, the school lures visitors with rustic-elegant family-size guest suites, a restaurant where culinary students create dishes from campus-harvested ingredients and free access to the lakeside campus. You can tour the museums of Ozarks antiques and tractors, a waterwheel-powered mill, farms, orchid greenhouses and kitchens that produce 30,000 fruitcakes a year (not vegan).
Handcrafted furnishings, stonework and wood beams ornament the college’s Mabee Lodge. Helming the Dobyns Dining Room is Robert Stricklin, National Harbor-bound until he changed course to teach here. I start with the signature soup. “What’s more American than tomato soup?” Stricklin smiles. “We cold-smoke vine-ripened tomatoes with hickory and applewood.”
The vegetable platter featured mushrooms and cloud-like hummus. Carb-loading for a 40-mile cycling day justified the heavenly rolls made from whole wheat ground at the campus mill and sweetened with sorghum, and crustless melon-blueberry tart.
Post-lunch, I skirted pastoral Table Rock Lake, crossed the dam and uphilled to the Titanic Museum. Built to half the size of its namesake, the legendary ship that sank in 1912, it towers above the Strip. Inside are artifacts from the wreckage. Plus sinking-shipdeck-shaped wedges on which some ’tweens and I pull ourselves up prows; a baby buggy ferrying Carter and Molly, King Charles Spaniels serving as living tributes to the Titanic’s lost canine passengers; and this heat-relieving treat: an iceberg that’s frosty, touchable — and totally vegan.
Soslow is a Washington writer.