The name Van Meter State Park in northwestern Missouri predicts nothing about the park’s remarkable gifts. I approached it on state road 122, rolling La Tortue through undulating farm fields that were broken only by occasional brush and trees gathered in wet draws. Mostly, this was engineered habitat for soybeans and corn.
We had our pick of the 20 campsites. The park was empty.
Once, a village of Missouri Indians inhabited the knoll behind the campsite. From this vantage, they were above the constantly changing river floodplain, could see far across the prairie and were in reach of the rich resources offered by the river. In 1673, two French colonial explorers (Jaques Marquette and Louis Jolliet) found remnants of just such a village near another bend in the Missouri River and transcribed the name they heard as “oumessourit.” With this context, I began to see the French verb sourir in the place name Missouri. To smile.
As the sun dropped, the marsh west of the campsite began to stir with bull frogs, peepers and many songbirds Warm temperatures had brought a sudden gush of life to the marshes and I was witnessing the wake up. The sound increased as the sun dropped lower, until I could hardly hear myself think. At dusk, things grew a little calmer. All night long, I was woken by fragments of excitement coming from the marsh. Once, in the near distance, I heard the ghostly hoot of an owl.
Marshes and floodplains are some of the most productive, life-giving ecosystems on the earth. I woke grateful for Annie Vanmeter (the true spelling), who donated 369 acres of farmland to the state of Missouri in 1932, in memory of her husband Abel. Today, the park encompasses 1105 precious acres of marshland – an ecosystem that agricultural values have nearly eliminated from the Missouri’s once naturally meandering path.
As I walked with Dellie later along a boardwalk encircling the marsh, she found the stinky shell of a dead armadillo. I found poetic spars of oak and maple, choked off by the marsh’s perennial dampness. You can decide who had the most fun.