It was the summer of 1975 and my best friend Vickie and I had just turned 16. Vickie invited me to come to Lindenlure, a popular swimming area on the Finley River situated between Ozark, Sparta and Rogersville, Missouri. Vickie’s mom, Nora, drove us, along with Vickie’s sister Elaine, to the river just 20 minutes from our hometown of Springfield.
Lindenlure Lake dams up the Finley River, but then pours over the edge with varying flow volume depending on current water levels, creating a cascading 8-ft waterfall from river’s edge to river’s edge.
From the waterfall, the river flows below the Highway 125 bridge and continues downstream beside several hundred feet of some of the best “beach” a river can tout. There are the usual gravel banks, but before you reach the gravel, there is an unusual amount of flat stone, perfect for spreading out a blanket for sunbathing and a picnic lunch.
Driving south on Hwy 125, just before the bridge, exit right (west) onto a dirt and gravel road to reach this summer playground. Cars line the road as well as create a makeshift parking system on the gravel bar below the bridge each summer day.
Lindenlure plays host to so many lovers of the outdoors -- some there to play in the water with friends and family; some there to fish from the banks or from some type of watercraft like an inner tube, and an occasional canoe or kayak. But with the waterfall upstream, and significant river obstructions downstream, few bring boats.
At least that’s how it was in 1975. I’ve not been back since. I’ve driven over the bridge a couple of times. I’ve played at the waterfall once as an adult.
Something occurred that day further downstream that has significantly impacted my life and I’ve never wanted to go back.
Something occurred that day further downstream that has significantly impacted my life and I’ve never wanted to go back, but forty-one years later, as I’m writing this story, I’ve decided it’s time. I’m going with my daughter and three other girlfriends today, Sunday, 3/5/17. We will take the hike down the road that runs parallel with the river. I will get the pictures I want and leave the negative memories behind. The best memories have been etched in my mind and heart forever.
After our picnic lunch and playing in the water at the “beach,” Vickie and I decided to take the inner tubes out. There are a few fairly still areas along the river bank, as well as eddies just beyond big rocks, where you can paddle around and not be too far from the picnic blanket homebase. Elaine, three years younger (a mere child in our just-turned-16-year-old-minds), stayed with Nora.
The river current that summer day was moving its typical slow pace. While we have many great floating rivers in Missouri to enjoy whitewater rapids, this is not one. Unless there has been significant rain, this is a fairly relaxing river with not much to think through other than the occasional snake swimming by or falling from a tree. It has a general Difficulty Rating of I, except for the occasional Difficulty Rating of III due to obstructions.
Vickie and I have talked about this day a few times over the past four decades since then and neither of us can recall exactly what our return plan was for our relaxing inner tube float that day. If you’re moving downstream, then the only way back is . . . to paddle back upstream, I guess.
Yep -- no plan whatsoever.
We were finally 16 and all was most right with the world!
We were drifting downstream further from the laughter and squeals and other generally happy sounds at the “beach.” And now, after some river bends, we were out of sight as well. We had found peace and freedom. We were finally 16 and all was most right with the world!
We had been on our journey for what felt like 20 minutes when more than a smidge of nervousness came over us both. We were floating by a group of four men, maybe in their mid-twenties, sitting on the river bank to our right. They were whistling and taunting and saying things there’s no reason to repeat, but we definitely felt more than a bit uncomfortable. We didn’t look their way; we kept our gaze downstream, thankful to be floating in the middle of the stream (maybe 50 feet from them), rather than close to the bank.
With more distance from them, we began to relax back into our lazy day. After about 10 more minutes, we floated by two more people who were fishing on the right river bank. This time we engaged in light conversation about the beautiful sunny day we were all experiencing. With just a little bit of back and forth, we picked up that they were family -- a grandfather spending the afternoon with his young grandson, sharing his love and appreciation for fishing and the outdoors.
We still had not discussed how we would make it back.
Another 20 minutes passed and we were coming upon what the “Difficulty Rating III” means for the Finley River -- excessive river obstructions. There are no river outfitters on this river. In other words, no one wants to work this river to clear the obstructions that would be required to offer a good float to patrons. Water still technically passes through the fallen, waterlogged trees and swamp-like mess ahead of us, but we weren’t small enough, let alone brave enough to journey through it. I love the outdoors. We both do. But the parts of the outdoors we do not like are snakes and other camouflaged creatures that creep along in the weeds and hairy habitat in front of us!
We had reached the end of our journey and now there were no other human beings around. No one within ear shot.
Obviously, it was time to bring the adventure to a close. We had reached the end of our journey and now there were no other human beings around . . . no one within earshot. We hadn’t seen a single soul since the grandfather and grandson. We hand-paddled ourselves to the right river bank, lifted our inner tubes, and started to walk onto the river bank’s muddy edge, through the weeds and trees.
It made sense to us that the dirt road we took off of Hwy 125 to get to the “beach” area, likely continued further west, since the people we saw earlier on the river bank had to get to their spots by some means. We were right. The distance from the river bank to the dirt road, through the weeds and trees, was only about 40 feet. We were glad to see the road.
The first thing we noticed was that this is where the dirt road abruptly ended. To our left was a fence and gate clearly and repeatedly marked with “NO TRESPASSING” and “PRIVATE PROPERTY” signs. Straight ahead of us on the opposite side of the road and for as far right as we could see, was the same fencing with the same big NO signs. The weeds, trees, and river were behind us. Had we been able to float further downstream and then ended our journey, we would have been stepping onto private property without an obvious path back.
The only option, and the logical one for us, was to our right (east), which was the direction toward Nora and Elaine, the “beach,” people, car, safety. It would be a long walk, but we loved to walk, talk, and were ready to get back. Besides, without a cell phone, we had no means with which to call Nora to come get us. What would those words combined, “cell phone,” even have meant in 1975?
We knew in our gut we were in trouble. We knew no one would hear us scream. We knew that moving forward meant our paths would cross that much more quickly.
As soon as we pivoted right (east) and took a few steps forward, we looked up and saw the four men who taunted us earlier, walking on the road, coming toward us! They were about one-fourth mile from us. Even from that distance they looked much taller and larger than we. Walking forward (toward them) was our only option; we quickly began to voice our distress to one another. We knew in our gut we were in trouble. We knew no one would hear us scream. We knew that moving forward meant our paths would cross that much more quickly.
We had walked only about 30 feet on the dirt road when we decided we had to go back to the river. We turned around, went back into the woods and realized that was an equally bad plan.
Without divine intervention, our lives, if we lived beyond that day, would take a much different trajectory.
A few seconds later, we walked back out of the woods, turned right again, started walking toward them again, and FERVENTLY began to ask God to help us. I can’t remember whether that was out loud, in my mind, together or separately. I just know that we both knew this wasn’t going to end well without an actual miracle. Without divine intervention, our lives, if we lived beyond that day, would take a much different trajectory. We had been friends since the 9th grade, but we had very few conversations regarding our beliefs about God. That said, we both knew the other person had a relationship with Him. We both had some measure of faith in God. We both drew on that measure of faith in that split second.
We still hadn’t moved more than the same 30 feet the second time, but the men were getting closer to us and seemed to be speeding up. We could now pick up their voices, although their words were still indiscernible. There was nowhere to go. There was no one around. There wasn’t anyone on the river or river banks. There wasn’t any activity at all on this desolate portion of the river.
They were bigger, stronger, and outnumbered us two to one.
Even with the river’s slow current, there is still a current. So attempting to work our way back upstream to get to safety would be difficult. The men were bigger, stronger, and outnumbered us two to one.
If we crossed the “No Trespassing” gates and fences, where to then? On the second pass through the woods and weeds, we did notice beyond all the gates and fences, much further off in the distance, through fields of tall grass, what looked like an old abandoned farmhouse and barn. The “NO TRESPASSING” signs all screamed loudly “do not even think about coming onto this property.” Even if there was someone living there, and that person happened to be even the least bit sympathetic to our situation, could we have made it that far in time?
At this point, only about two, maybe three minutes had passed since we first came out of the river. In those minutes, we had walked through the 40 feet of woods, observed the road, the signs, walked 30 feet east toward Nora, saw the men, walked back into the woods, back out again, and forward the same 30 feet. We were now motionless, completely struck with fear.
We knew we were extremely vulnerable. Without options. All we could do was pray and ask God to help us, to protect us.
Adrenaline rushing, we both knew that forward (toward them) would mean our doom. We knew we were extremely vulnerable. We were WITHOUT options! All we could do was pray and ask God to help us, to protect us. Without discussion, we turned around to walk back into the woods we had just covered three times in the preceding three minutes.
As we turned around to retreat again, just coming out of the woods (somehow without making any sound at all) and only a few feet from us, was what appeared to be a middle-aged mom with her teenage son and pre-teen son. What? I mean WHAT? Are you kidding me right now?
We hadn’t seen or heard a human since the grandfather and grandson. There were no people around. No smart person would have chosen to do this journey that ended in a heavily river-obstructed area. There had been no inner tubes or watercraft of any sort following us on the river. There were no cars at the end of this road. No life. No one. We had just been in the same woods three times within the past two minutes! Where had they come from?
They looked like they had just walked into a department store, had the clothing pressed, picked bright-white Keds and white socks to match, walked out of the store, and somehow dropped into the scene.
They were dressed in crisp, clean summer wear and looked like they were perfectly-groomed models heading to a photo shoot for J.CREW or perhaps headed to attend a prestigious tennis championship somewhere else. That’s the best description I have. They wore shorts and polo shirts, all bright primary colors. They looked like they had just walked into a department store, had the clothing pressed, picked bright-white Keds and white socks to match, walked out of the store, and somehow dropped onto the scene. They had come from the direction of the river and forest, but they weren’t wet from the river. Their clothing had collected not one cockle burr, nor had their white shoes and socks been smeared with even one speck of mud from the river bed. Their hair was perfectly in place. The mom and oldest son were taller than me. They carried nothing with them -- no inner tubes, no purse, no backpack, no water, nothing.
With the eye contact and slight nod, there was a sense of knowing.
All of those observations occurred within a split second. We immediately asked if it would be okay if we walked with them, since they were apparently headed in the direction we needed to go. The mom made eye contact with me, but didn’t speak. She seemed to nod slightly. With those simultaneous split-second indications, there was a sense of knowing, and we felt confident and safe to move forward. And just in time. Within the next 30-45 seconds, we were making safe passage past the four men who just kept walking toward the end of the road where the gate and signs were. The men never spoke as we passed.
We continued walking together with the three people, without speaking a word. A few minutes more passed, when we saw the grandfather and grandson walking towards us. While we were still several feet away, the grandfather yelled, asking if we were okay. He explained that he had become worried for us because while he and his grandson were fishing, they had overheard the men, walking on the road behind them, discussing their malevolent plans for Vickie and me.
By now we were standing with the grandfather and grandson as the grandfather finished by saying that he doesn’t need to share the details, but was relieved to see we were okay. As we quickly began our explanation of our welcomed encounter with the trio and turned to motion toward them, they were nowhere to be found. They weren’t on the road ahead. They hadn’t crossed over onto the private property. They weren’t in the river. Just gone! We were safe now, so we understood it was okay that they had left us.
But we had so many questions . . . questions that we were not going to get to ask . . . questions that would remain unanswered to this day . . . .
As suddenly as they appeared, they disappeared!
Perfectly in step with us, they then vanished!
But we had so many questions . . . questions that we were not going to get to ask . . . questions that would remain unanswered to this day . . . .
After thanking the grandfather and grandson for their willingness to check on us, we quickly moved down the dirt road as the two watched. We made it back safely to Nora and Elaine.
As I’ve thought about this and told the story occasionally over the past forty-one years, I keep learning more about the character and nature of God. If you’re interested in reading more, check back in a few weeks. I’m working on describing how that experience has impacted my life since that summer of 1975.