Eight Million Visitors a Year – Branson, Missouri, USA

Popular, awful and scary
Shortly after moving to St. Louis, Missouri, I read that the little town of Branson is one of the top vacation destinations in America. How could a place that I had never heard of be the 20th most popular leisure destination in the U.S., with eight million visitors a year! It was a little like that old line about Nixon getting elected even though no one you know voted for him. After a bit of research I discovered that one of my friends remembered seeing television commercials for Branson’s wholesome live shows, which seemed to involve washed-up country singers and performing farm animals.

More delving suggested that the town was not merely awful, but downright scary. Though logically I knew I needed to be wary of claims made by strangers on the Internet, I was a little apprehensive about what I read. Apparently Branson was, well, a judgmental kind of place, and if the wrong type of person were to venture there, bad things might happen. I couldn’t really tell who the wrong type of person was, but I had an inkling that it very well might be me. I also was not sure what I was meant to be scared of, but it was clear that Branson was considered a Bible-Belt nightmare to be avoided at all costs.

This mecca of tackiness was only a few hours away. Although I had no rational reason to go, I felt I should experience it. I had come across an intriguing fact: Branson has lots of shopping. I was a New Yorker; I’d grown up in a town where shopping was practically a competitive sport. Even St. Louis, perfectly civilized and full of shopping options, had struck me as a bit remote when I’d first arrived. This could be a plausible excuse for a little trip – an experiment, even. Could a city girl get her shopping fix in the Ozarks?

After driving a few hours during which I was almost run off the highway by a trailer full of cows, I made it to my first stop: the Tanger Outlets, which I had chosen for their non-threatening nature. I wanted to acclimate slowly into this strange new culture. I noted with apprehension that these were shabbier than other Tanger Outlets I’ve seen. (Yes, I’ve spent far too much of my life shopping and am duly ashamed.) But I was relieved to find that once inside, they were the same as outlet stores everywhere, with similar clientel. It was sort of comforting to know that no area of the country is entirely free from gaggles of women in size zero jeans, who wave their credit cards about while nonchalantly piling heaps of Coach bags next to the cash registers.

I could have been anywhere
Emboldened, I went in search of more shopping, trying to ignore the flashy theatres and dingy shopping centers along Highway 76 (a.k.a “The Strip”). I drove through town, slowly, braking every few blocks to allow small groups of senior citizens with canes and blue-tinged hair to cross the road. I eventually reached Branson Landing, a recently built outdoor mall on Lake Taneycomo. The area felt new, like a pair of stiff, shiny shoes. Construction was still underway; a convention center was rising, ensuring that more people who had never heard of Branson would be traveling there in years to come. Pop music blared from speakers above a fountain, part of a nightly light show, complete with fire. It wasn’t scary at all, unless you are frightened by rampant commercialism and public spaces completely lacking in distinguishing features. Clean-cut teenagers roamed in packs outside familiar chain stores. Families sat on the boardwalk that curved along the lake. A little trolley drove back and forth along the faux-cobblestone street. I could have been anywhere.

Having made it through the morning and half the afternoon without being run out on a rail or tarred and feathered, I decided to explore the few blocks that constitute historic downtown Branson. It had that haphazard, stuck-together feeling typical of mountain towns: the ramshackle buildings, the fact that something off in the distance is always on fire, the slight fear every time you park your car that it might slide down a hill. Because downtown was located in between the glitz of the Strip and the newness of Branson Landing, I thought it must be a modern re-creation of an Old West town. But it was vintage 1880s. I could almost imagine the way Branson used to be, before it became a G-Rated version of Vegas.

I had a more superficial interest here
This was all well and good, but I had a far more superficial interest here: the three sprawling flea markets. These troves of other people’s former treasures are usually not my cup (or my floral patterned gilt-edged demitasse) of tea. However, as I strolled through the narrow aisles, I became inordinately excited with the idea of furnishing an apartment with bits of retro Americana. Amid stables of My Little Ponies and shelves of empty beer cans, I discovered an abundance of funky decorating options, from old license plates and cast-iron cookware to old-school toys and tools. I realized I could outfit an entire kitchen with quirky mismatched plates and glassware for the price of one Williams-Sonoma serving platter.

I lingered long enough in the flea markets viewing objects I would normally have scorned. They began to look positively adorable. Kitschy Midwestern ceramic roosters crowed with irony; they looked like French Country. Even the John Deere memorabilia started to appear quaint. I heard one little old lady coo to another, “Oh, I just love places like this, don’t you?”

Although I had decided to avoid the amusement parks, shows and other famous Branson institutions, I made an exception for Dick’s Oldtime 5 & 10, where cramped shelves were packed floor to ceiling with all manner of trinkets, notions and sundries. There was candy from every era I could remember, and many I could not: hobby horses. Coca-Cola lunch boxes, everyday household gadgets and greeting cards and Route 66 souvenirs and an entire section of Betty Boop paraphernalia. Dick’s was remarkably crowded. I recalled the first time I’d come to the Midwest from the East Coast. I had felt that the streets were deserted and the towns had been emptied of people. It was a disquieting experience, and I’d wondered to myself “Where is everyone?” Now I knew. They were in Dick’s Oldtime 5 & 10.

Before I left Branson, I stopped at the Engler Block, a maze of craft shops where local artisans sell jewelry, quilts and leather goods, among other things. I entered a blown glass store, not on purpose, but because I was lost in the interconnected corridors. Among fanciful bottle stoppers and multicolored pitchers, I found trays of rings that swirled around my fingers like living molten beings. I bought some to send to friends who would never be among those eight million yearly Branson visitors. It was the perfect confluence of place and souvenir that vindicated my idea of coming here in the first place. The gifts would now reverse my journey, sparkling little pieces of Ozark tourist traps cautiously making their way out, venturing into the scary world of the city.

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