Former state tourism director drives on all of Missouri back roads

Tuesday, December 3, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:01 p.m. CST, Tuesday, December 3, 2013
John Robinson, a former state tourism director, has written two books about his travels across Missouri.

COLUMBIA — Perhaps no one knows Missouri roads better than John Robinson does.

It's arguable that he knows the state's back roads even better than Missouri Department of Transportation engineers.

In 2010, Missouri's former director of tourism completed a mission he began in 1999 — to drive all of Missouri's back roads and see what the state had to offer along the way.

The expedition took more than 10 years, more than 250,000 miles of road and 8,000 gallons of gas.

"I just kept plying away like a termite on your house," Robinson said. "My drive was more like mowing a 68,000-square-mile lawn."

Once the adventure was behind him, Robinson sat down to embark on a new one — telling the stories he'd discovered during his time on the road. He mined his tales of wisdom, humor and peril, stringing them together in two self-published books. The first was published last year; the second was published Nov. 5.

"Coastal Missouri: Driving on the Edge of Wild," along with his first book, "A Road Trip Into America's Hidden Heart," are available on and

In his books, Robinson, 61, takes his readers from town to town, inviting them to be a literary passenger in his car on his trip on blacktop and dirt roads, shortcuts, pit stops and detours. He fit his trips in during travel for work and in between other obligations, and he almost always traveled by himself.

"In putting these stories together, those were some of my favorite times in Missouri," he said.

Navigating every back road

Robinson always thought he had traveled extensively on Missouri roads. In the early '90s, Robinson had a habit of tracing on a state map the routes he knew he had driven. One day, he looked at it a little closer.

He was bothered by how little of the state he had actually seen and how many miles of road he had not traveled. Sticking to back roads was the answer.

Robinson's quest began in earnest in 1999. He would roll out of bed at dawn to set out on a new journey, not always with a destination in mind. He'd go out of his way to avoid interstates while commuting for work or family vacations.

He often had to backtrack on roads he had already traveled to explore the ones he hadn't yet reached. If he pulled up to a bridge that was closed, he would wind through other stretches of pavement to reach the bridge and touch it on the other side.

Sometimes he drove as far as 600 miles in a single day.

"I might drive seven or eight blacktop roads before it got dark," Robinson said. "Little Route W may be three miles long, but I was going to drive every mile."

Mapping the journey

Missouri ranks No. 7 in the country for the number of miles in its highway system. The state has 33,884 miles of highway, not including county roads and city streets, said Bob Brendel, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Transportation. 

Robinson ignored all of them. He calculated his mileage on back roads with his odometer.

He kept track of the roads he explored on a state map, which he kept beside him so he could trace the lines of newly driven routes in black permanent marker. Over the course of a decade, he wore out five state maps.

He also stored 114 coffee table-sized county maps in the backseat of his car to help him navigate from the end of one blacktop road through the backwoods to the beginning of another one.

At first, most of Robinson's friends and family doubted that he could drive every back road in the state, and at times even Robinson himself doubted if he could complete the project. The number of roads he still had to drive discouraged him, and he felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of miles and the years it would take to cover them.

But as the years passed, the lines he'd traced on his maps began to spread like capillaries across the page. When he had driven over half of Missouri's back roads, Robinson started to believe that he could finish the project.

"I would show the map to people and say, these are the roads I have done," Robinson said.

He drove his last stretch on Route 1 in Clay County during the summer of 2010.

The journey becomes the story

Robinson kept a record of his travels in a collection of more than 40 steno notebooks, each inscribed with stories, observations and thoughts he scribbled along the way. Those notebooks formed the backbone of the two books he's written about the journey.

The manuscript for his first book was originally 1,000 pages and contained hundreds of stories. After  trimming it to a manageable length, the final version contained 42 chapters with several stories in each. 

"It's not that I love the stories I told," Robinson said. "I just love stories."

Some of the tales are comical, such as visiting The World's Largest Small Electric Appliance Museum, the site of ocTOASTERfest in Fidelity.

Others are sad. The Cave Restaurant and Resort in Richland is said to be haunted by the cave's original owner, who drowned in a nearby river.

"Human beings are stories," Robinson said. "We live to tell them. Oftentimes, it's the journey that becomes the story."

Still stories left to tell

After publishing the first book, Robinson decided too many stories were left untold, so he grouped them thematically to form the backbone for future books. His recent project, "Coastal Missouri," deals with stories about water.

Robinson drove through remnants of hurricanes and treacherous ice storms. Some stories deal with the tension of folks on waterways and the history of old modes of water transportation.

"I chose the name of the book because people outside of Missouri don't normally think of Missouri as a water destination, but it is," he said.

Even with two books under his belt, Robinson said he still has more notes from his journey.

"I can easily write one, two, maybe even three more books about my travels in Missouri," he said.

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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