We all hear stories about weird things that happen in the woods. Whether its the Pacific Northwest or the Appalachian mountains, it seems the farther from civilization one gets the more likely one is to experience something primal and dangerous.
Last week, something unusual happened to me and my wife on our vacation to the Ozarks. So I thought I’d recount my story — at great risk to my personal reputation — in hopes of saving others from a similar fate.
To celebrate our eighth anniversary, I arranged a short getaway for my wife and I. The whole trip hinged on seeing Fantastic Caverns, in Springfield, Missouri. But when I started looking at hotel options, I decided to extend the trip past Springfield to stay at what appeared to be a nice little resort.
My wife and I love adventure, so we set our sights on a whirlwind tour that was going to be our most kitschy vacation yet. Rachel decided we would do every touristy thing we could find in the short time allotted, and she compiled an itinerary to hit some landmark tourist traps.
After visiting the caverns, we ate a late lunch in Ozark, Missouri, at Lambert’s Cafe (The Only Home of Throwed Rolls®). The restaurant was an experience unto itself, and we left feeling overfed and in good spirits. We had another half hour or so to go, so we set out for our final destination: Branson, Missouri.
Please note, my wife and I aren’t “Branson people.” We don’t listen to a lot of country or bluegrass music — however, I am partial to some Alison Krauss and Johnny Cash.
I don’t think either of us was quite ready for what we discovered in Branson. We found a series of hotels, restaurants, theaters, attractions, and shopping destinations covered in strange lights and faded glitz — and each one was advertised repeatedly on billboards for miles around.
Don’t get me wrong. We fully expected to find some kitsch in Branson. Our vacation plans relied on it. But we didn’t expect the sheer opulence of Ozark ostentatiousness. It looked like Nashville and Las Vegas had an illegitimate child and left it with Granny to be raised on whiskey and Pop Tarts.
On our first night, we opted to avoid any of the overpriced shows and spent a quiet evening shopping and eating frozen custard. We had a great time, and expected the next day to be equally silly. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
The following morning, fate drew us into a tangled web. After a horribly greasy breakfast that must have been deep fried in lard, we were roped in to a conversation with a woman who offered us discounts on some tickets to the previously mentioned overpriced shows. We begged off, but mere eye contact had sealed our fate with this creature.
Having pulled us in to her sphere of influence, she began telling us about an “open house” they were having, and wouldn’t we like the opportunity to see these houses?
“And don’t you look pretty, the two of you together, so much in love. We need people like you to see these houses. Come, see our houses. If you go right now, we’ll pay you $120 dollars for your trouble and give you a free two-night stay. Wouldn’t that be nice? Of course it would. You’ll love it. And all I need is a $20 deposit, for good-faith, and we’ll give it back to you afterward.”
We handed over $20 — not really sure why we were doing it — then we took the map she offered and headed over to the office marked by a big red star. When we walked in, a girl greeted us by name and said it would just be a few minutes before someone would be along to talk to us.
Forty minutes later, we were considering all possible exit strategies — weighing how much we really wanted to get our $20 back. But we were sucked in and we couldn’t escape. That’s when Chris showed up.
Chris promised us it would be a short discussion — only 90 minutes — and he apologized for making us wait so long. Chris wanted to get to know us. Chris wanted to be our friend. Chris was on our side.
At this point, we knew what we were into. This wasn’t an open house. This was a timeshare (uh, excuse me, “vacation ownership”) proposition. And we couldn’t leave. Ever.
The promised 90 minutes turned into two hours, then three. We answered questions. We watched a video. We drove over to the property and see these delightful homes, each one decorated with the exact same nautical-themed interior design. By the time we got back to the office, Chris promised us it would only take three more minutes as we finally started talking money.
At this point, a large chunk of our day was gone. Our vacation was gone. In compensation for losing our vacation, we were determined to stick it out and collect our reward for this insane quest.
We listened while Chris told us how little we had to pay up front. We listened as Bud, his supervisor, came over and made some magic to offer us an even better deal. We politely declined, explaining that it wouldn’t be financially responsible for us to buy vacation property when we were still renting and trying to buy a home.
Chris said he understood and took us to the “gifting office” (I could not make this up) where we received our money (two 20-dollar bills and two checks, each for $50). We were given our instructions for our free two-night stay. We were also offered discount-priced tickets to the show of our choice, but — as this was our last day in Branson — we didn’t take them up on the offer.
All told, our unexpected adventure sucked away more than four hours of our lives. We would never get it back.
Making the Best of It
The experience took its toll on us mentally and emotionally. We really needed this vacation. Rather than relaxing and enjoying ourselves, we had spent the better part of the day fending off predatory “vacation ownership” salespeople.
It would have been a total loss, but I forced us to make one stop before going home. We went to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium.
We shared our tale of woe with the ticket lady, who was very understanding. She gave us a discount on our tickets, and as we went inside I overheard her telling one of her co-workers our story.
But then, they’re surrounded by unbelievable things every day.