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Cabin fever in the fall



TOM UHLENBROCK
Guests in The Treehouse at River of Life Farm near Dora, Mo., watch the parade of floaters below on the North Fork of the White River.
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Cottages in the woods, houses in the trees, even a Conestoga wagon cabin at river's edge.

Our annual drive through Missouri in search of the best fall colors and off-the-beaten-path places to stay led all the way to Dora, deep in the Ozarks near the Arkansas border.

The route avoided the traffic and billboards of the interstates in favor of rural roads that rolled up and down the hills, over glistening spring-fed streams, in and out of patches of the Mark Twain National Forest.

The drive was in late summer, too early for the autumn color show that reaches a finale around mid-October. That gives you plenty of time to plan your own road trip and sample some of the unusual finds along the way.

Here's the itinerary, from start to finish:

Bluejays and breakfast in the morning

The drive began on a fall favorite for many St. Louisans — Route 94 heading west through St. Charles County into Missouri's wine district. The road wound along the bluffs between Defiance and Augusta, passing more than a half-dozen wineries, with their vineyards tucked between the fields of corn and soybeans.

So much wine, so little time.

At Dutzow, I headed north along Route TT to D, then left to Heaven On Earth Bed & Breakfast.

Judy Jones ran Gramma's House bed-and-breakfast in Marthasville. Now she's relocated a short drive north, building two cozy cabins on a five-acre wooded hillside with a stream at the bottom.

The Cowboy Cabin features rockers on the front porch and a wood-burning fireplace inside. A Jacuzzi tub built for two sits next to a quilt-covered, queen-sized bed. The room is decorated with cowboy paintings by Jones' son, Dave, and the well-worn boots and hats he's donated from his home on the range in Texas.

"I cater to couples living in the city who don't have time to be together — this is the ultimate date," Jones said. "With the fireplaces, we really do good in January, February and March. People want to get out in the country in the wintertime."

Heaven On Earth has a second cabin, the Ranch House, separated from the first by a grove of trees. The Ranch House has a front-porch swing, a fireplace and a tub for two.

"I'm eight miles from Augusta or Washington, five miles off the Katy Trail," Jones said. "The stay includes a full breakfast, and I bring the cooking to the cabins each morning."

Before settling in, I headed across the bridge to Washington for dinner at American Bounty, which has an excellent wine list and a criminal chocolate-raspberry cobbler.

The night was cool, so I slept in the Ranch House with the windows open. In the morning, a bluejay fussed in the woods, and I realized how long it had been since a jay had visited my Kirkwood backyard. West Nile virus has decimated the bluejays, along with the crows, in St. Louis County.

Walking on fog

My destination the second day was Rock Eddy Bluff Farm near Dixon, where Tom and Kathy Corey offer wooded retreats for overnight guests. "We have 150 acres, and a lot of it is vertical," Kathy said. The land sits on a majestic bluff overlooking boulders in an eddy of the Gasconade River.

The couple offers the Tree House Suite, consisting of three rooms on the second floor of their own house, which is perched so high that you can see the turkey vultures circling below. The Indian House Bluff Cottage and Turkey Ridge Cottage both have three bedrooms, full kitchens and fireplaces in woodsy settings with a view.

The Line Camp Cabin is for the guest who wants to escape everything, including electricity and plumbing, and experience life in the 1880s. The caboose-sized cabin sits at the end of a rugged lane through the forest. Kerosene lamps provide light, a wood stove gives warmth, cooking is done on a propane stove and a privy and solar shower are out back.

"That old tub is the same one I used as a kid," said Tom, who grew up on the land. "Folks either love Line Camp or say they wouldn't stay there on a bet. They'll get here from St. Louis when it's dark, and we'll light the kerosene lamps. Their eyes get real big, and you can tell they're thinking, 'What have I got myself into?'"

But the Line Camp has proven so popular, the Coreys are reconstructing an 1850s log cabin, which also will rent without benefit of electricity or plumbing.

Dinner that night was at The Point, a restaurant four miles south of Dixon that has excellent steaks and an even better view. The next day, we floated four miles of the Big Piney River, finishing up with a two-mile stretch of the Gasconade.

Because it was still muggy, the Coreys had recommended against a night at Line Camp in favor of their Tree House Suite. Coffee was served the next morning on the deck 200 feet over the river valley, while at least 30 hummingbirds fought over two feeders.

"In the fall, when it's cool, the fog forms a layer over the valley," Tom said. "It looks like you could just step off the bluffs and walk on it."

Stalking the wild trout

While the Coreys do have a house in the trees, I found a truly remarkable treehouse at a place called River of Life Farm at the end of a dusty gravel road on the North Fork of the White River south of Dora.

Owner Myron McKee had his own remarkable story.

"I grew up on the next little farm upstream," said McKee, 51. "In 1958, July 1, my father was crossing a flooded stream with a 10-foot rise. His horse showed up riderless. They found his body three days later."

The family separated, and McKee ended up in the housing projects of Phoenix, Ariz. For a while, he picked fruit from California to Florida, before an uncle died and left him 80 acres along the White River. He returned home, had seven children — including a son who just served an 11-month stint in Iraq with the 3rd Infantry — and built River of Life Farm.

Two years ago, he finished Tree House, which stands on steel beams some 20 feet in the trees overlooking the river. Twenty-four wooden steps take you to the deck, and an electric dumb waiter is available to tote up your luggage.

A pair of hickories, which would be blazing yellow in fall, sprout through the deck, and the inside smells of cedar. Local craftsmen Dave Kohler used cedar cut nearby to make the furniture, cabinets, doors and stairway, which is a work of art with polished slabs of cedar molded into steps. A bedroom, bath, full kitchen and stone fireplace are on the first floor, and a double and twin beds are in the loft.

Paths through the woods lead to the recently completed Treetop Hideaway next door, which is of the same construction but with a canopy queen bed and a tub for two. River of Life Farm also offers four other rental units — Wren, Eagle's Nest, Mountain Log Lookout and the Chalet.

While the lodging is impressive, the real draw is the river below. The North Fork of the White River is fed by springs, with crystalline water rushing over a bed of limestone and gravel. The stretch near River of Life is one of the only river systems in Missouri where rainbow trout reproduce — a paradise for anglers who favor wild trout over the stocked variety.

From the deck of the Tree House, guests can see the parade of floaters on the gurgling river and watch as fly fishermen stalk the wild trout.

"I've had people fly in from Glasgow, Scotland, to stay in the Tree House," McKee said. "It's so popular, people build their vacations around its availability."

A labor of love

There was one more stop on the way home. I headed up Route 19 to Eminence, the base camp for floaters who visit the Current and Jacks Fork streams in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, the country's first national park created around rivers.

Alan Peters had built a new addition to his River's Edge Resort, which already offers 13 motel rooms, three deluxe cabins and eight camper cabins with a shower house.

Peters led the way to a Conestoga wagon cabin with a view of the Current out the front door. The cabin, and a second one sitting back in the shade, has a double bed and TV, with guests using the bathroom facilities at the shower house next door.

"I saw a Montana sheepherder's cabin on the Discovery Channel; it looked very cozy, and that sparked the fire," Peters said. "We originally built the first one for ourselves; it was a labor of love. We've had such a favorable response renting them out this summer, we might build a third one."

Reporter Tom Uhlenbrock

E-mail: tuhlenbrock@post-dispatch.com

Phone: 314-340-8268



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