Take a Flying Leap

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I suppose you could say I was a cautious tomboy. Raised in Jefferson County, I spent my childhood biking through woods and dirt fields, running around neighbors' backyard shed-raisings and scaling chainlink fences. But it took growing up and falling in love before I understood that blood-deep joy of making a big jump.

Before I met the guy, in fact, I had never heard the word "gainer." But that first summer at his house in St. Louis' central corridor, far from the vast spaces of deep south county, we walked to the Brentwood Swim Club (2100 South Central Avenue; 314-961-1740 or www.brentwoodswimclub.org), where there was a diving board. Baking on a lounge chair, I watched him perform acrobatics from the low white plank. Because it wasn't a high dive, he jumped on the board once, twice, three times for height before launching into back flip/half-twist/can openers and double gainers, somersaulting backward twice in the air while moving forward, splashing down into the pool to the cheers of neighborhood kids. Clapping, I couldn't understand how he maneuvered his body through space with such precision — I was seventeen, after all, young enough to embody awkwardness and old enough to know it could hurt when you smacked the water.

Later that summer, we crossed that milestone of every St. Louis couple: Our First Float Trip. We drove southwest down Highway 44, randomly turned off at a side road five miles down Highway 19 south of the Cuba exit, and discovered Lucky Clover River Resort (69 Lucky Clover Road, Steelville; 888-404-9154 or www.luckycloverriverresort.com). Unlike Bass River Resort, Lucky Clover is both inexpensive — $9 per person to camp, $25 to float — and blissfully uncrowded. Playing guitar around the bonfire on a secluded point and taking late-night dips in the lake, our rowdy group seemed to be the only campers there.

The next day, our Busch-heavy rafts took a run down the Meramec River. We stopped at a small cave with a cool, clear spring. We stopped to pee on a gravel beach enclosed by bright-green Missouri hills. And we stopped at a twenty-foot cliff, with about six feet of water below. I was worried as he climbed up the hill, but I took a photo as he jumped — arms out for balance, in a seated position to slow himself from hitting the rocky bottom. When the photo was developed, he was a solid blur, suspended among water, trees and sky.

An invitation to join his family vacation at the Lake of the Ozarks signaled another leap. Venturing far from the dam and the hubbub of Jet Skis and tidal-wave-generating cruisers, the guy's family steered the boat straight into the Lake of the Ozarks state park (www.mostateparks.com/park /lake-ozarks-state-park). With no glass houses or boats in sight, we dropped anchor near a sandy cliff face. He and his brothers scrambled up the overgrown hillside and emerged from the trees, miniature at the edge of the 30-something-foot drop. He never pressured me to jump, but somehow, when the boys hurtled into the lake, arms flapping out of their life jackets, the stakes suddenly felt high.

Maybe my hesitation to jump had been formed during my adolescent years in Oakville, a strip-center outpost of St. Louis County, nestled among I-255, the Meramec and the Mississippi rivers. Hidden on these suburban bluffs, in the shadow of an Ameren Union Electric tower, there is a castle. In high school, we used to sneak into the strange ruins, taking an unmarked trail through the woods in Bee Tree Park (2701 Finestown Road; 314-615-4386 or stlouisco .com/ParksandRecreation), veering past the "No Trespassing" sign, ducking through the underbrush and climbing over a spot where the chainlink, razor-wire fence had been trampled by teenagers for decades. Once through, we followed a low stone wall until the trees opened to reveal a grand staircase, sweeping down into a courtyard with 30-foot walls, a sunken fountain, a plaster-roofed stone gazebo and columns that have only been toppled and graffitied in the past five years. Except on those occasions when we were chased off by a patrolling UE employee, we spent countless hours teetering on the stonewalled edge of the bluff, staring out over the Mississippi to Illinois farmland, or getting vertigo looking down 100 feet to the riverbank below. Later I found out this castle was the aborted construction project of George F. Wood-Smith (www.dupontcastle.com/castles/woodsmit.htm), a millionaire Scottish immigrant. But it was the legends of suicide that stuck: rumors that told of a labor of love, an unfaithful wife, a lost child. The story always ended badly, with a rich man hurtling to his fate on the rocks — one final leap from a great height.

So a couple of years ago, when I set off for the Off-Sets — we can skip the metaphors — I was scared shitless. With new friends, I was really on my own. Otherwise known as Mine La Motte (2578 Highway 00, Mine La Motte; 573-756-8300 or www.theoffsets.com), the Off-Sets is located between one and two hours' drive south of St. Louis down I-55 and U.S. 67 — and the only reason to go there is to jump off a cliff. Between May and October, hoosiers and wannabe hoosiers from all over the region pay $10 to descend on this former quarry to get drunk on Budweiser, redden their necks and re-create Jackass clips by submitting their bodies to the effects of gravity.

The huge hole is filled with dark-blue water that runs 50 feet deep, surrounded by cliffs of varying heights. (For more technically inclined thrill seekers, a zip line costs $35 for the first run from the top of the lodge, which provides general supplies and inner-tube rentals.) I spent a long time standing at the edge of a less-than-twenty-foot drop. Finally, with a countdown and coaching from friends in rafts below, I stepped off the ledge. Immediately, I pointed my toes and clapped my arms to my sides like a No. 2 pencil. Before I knew it, I had surfaced from the cold — spluttering with water up my nose, but just fine. I spent the day warming up with these smaller jumps, getting to know my first set of post-college friends.

At the end of the day, the time had come to face the Off-Sets' biggest challenge: the 50-foot monster death cliff on the far side of the quarry. I paddled over, climbed the crumbling hill in bare feet, clinging to a rope. "Don't think about it too long or you'll never do it," I heard people saying. I reached the top of the cliff, looked over the edge — and paused. Waited too long. Started to freak out. The CD in someone's battered boom box skipped from "Free Bird" to "Free Fallin'." The wind felt different up here; it would blow me sideways, break my arm. Then I remembered all that the guy had taught me about jumping: body position, breath, timing — that with the right balance, I could be fearless. So without thinking, I ran for the edge and leaped into oblivion.

In those airborne seconds, I only had time for one thought — not to hold my nose, not to take in the blur of landscape rushing overhead, just this: The next time I jumped, it would be with him. —Katie Moulton

I'm standing in a field in Eureka with my cheek pressed against the butt of a shotgun, right eye closed, left eye focusing in the distance. A man stands behind me, waiting for me to call out the word that will signal him to send a fluorescent orange clay disc soaring. That's when the question arises:

What the hell am I doing here?

Growing up in the comfortable suburb of St. Charles, I was never exposed to guns, neither for hunting nor for protection. But what the heck — it's summer, and my inner hoosier is itching to be unleashed. What better way to embrace the redneck inside me than going out and, well, shooting stuff?

On my first outing, I take my lifelong friend (and fellow gun newbie) Crystal to an outdoor shooting range called the St. Louis Skeet & Trap Club (18854 Franklin Road, Pacific; 636-271-4210 or www.skeetrap.com), which is located about five minutes away from Six Flags. After we explain that we have no idea what we're doing, the staff at the club is more than happy to acquaint us with the guns.

The gun we get to use is a break-open shotgun. With this type, you have to flip a switch that makes the gun break at the beginning of the barrel, where you load the shell and snap the barrel straight again. It makes you look super tough. And shotgun shells, I learn, are actually cylindrical canisters filled with hundreds of tiny pellets. With the shells we're using, the pellets are supposed to spread to a 30-inch radius. So if our shots are anywhere even remotely close to the target, the target will break.

Trap and skeet are two different sports, although both involve aiming for those soaring clay targets, which resemble small orange Frisbees. In trap shooting, the target is shot away from you, whereas in skeet shooting, the target is shot from side to side. Both conceptually seem easy enough. It's just like Duck Hunt, right? As I will learn in the next few hours, however, things get a bit more difficult when you have the eyesight and aim of a 90-year-old man.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

First, our instructor, Pat, shows us how to figure out if we are right-eye or left-eye dominant. It's pretty easy: Hold your thumb out at arm's length, and focus on an object in the distance. Now close your left eye. If your thumb shifts when you close your left eye, you are left-eye dominant. But if your thumb doesn't move when you close your left eye, you are right-eye dominant. I am left-eye dominant, while Crystal is right-eye dominant. Knowing that helps with aiming.

Pat then teaches us how to hold the gun. The end of the stock is supposed to be nestled into the little nook just under my collarbone, right above my armpit. Not only is the gun heavy, but between kickbacks from shooting (which aren't as bad as I expected) and removing the gun to reload after each shell, I guess the gun must have, you know, slipped. Either way, I'm not holding the gun right — and I'm left with the bruises to prove it.

After all the prerequisites, we get to start shooting traps. I load a shell into the barrel and snap the gun shut. I get situated with the gun and look out toward what resembles a submerged baseball dugout. Inside, the mechanism that releases the targets oscillates from side to side, so each time a new target is released, it comes out of a new area. I take my aim and yell, "Pull!" to Pat, who presses a button that releases the clay target. Closely following the disc as it flies into the field, I pull the trigger, and...

I miss.

This continues for the next fifteen shots — following the target and missing, and then missing again. I console myself by thinking no one hits targets the first time they go shooting. So I let Crystal take over and, much to my dismay, she hits almost every target. So I just suck.

When we finish off our box of 25 rounds, Pat takes us over to start skeet shooting. (In the neighboring trap-shooting area, five high school kids are taking turns calling out, "Pull!" and destroying every target in sight. These guys — and girls — are serious. Pat informs us that these shooters are with a collegiate Olympic league.)

Skeet shooting, fortunately, is a lot easier than trap shooting.

In this game, the targets come out of buildings on either side of the shooting area. Depending on where you stand, the targets are either shot toward you or past you. I have no idea what I do differently, but I probably hit two-thirds of the targets coming toward me. But still, Crystal, a regular Annie Oakley, beats me again.

No matter. A little success is enough, and the following weekend I go shooting again. This time, I go with two coworkers, Matt and Paul, who have also never shot before. Their friend Danny owns a few guns for hunting and has some property around O'Fallon.

This time we're shooting at paper targets stapled to a wooden board, so it's a lot less discouraging. (And though this scenario sounds sketchy, I assure you Danny is an experienced shooter and teaches us a lot about gun safety and etiquette.)

I shoot four different guns this time around, all with calibers that mean nothing to me — a .22-caliber rifle that was pretty easy to aim and shoot, a .22-caliber pistol that makes me look and feel like Kate from Lost, a 12-gauge shotgun, and an unnecessarily loud and ridiculous 30.06-caliber rifle that requires bullets that cost $1 each. According to the bullet holes in the targets, I'm not too terribly bad with these guns, especially the rifle and pistol. They aren't exactly bull's-eye shots, but at least I'm hitting something.

Anyway, the boys, who are more concerned with blowing up golf balls and soda cans, came in with low expectations for my shooting. Because anything girls can do, boys can do better, right? In reality, I'm at least as good (if not better than) both Matt and Paul.

And after two weekends of shooting guns of all sizes, I think it's safe to say that this girl from St. Charles is now a bona fide badass. It's totally worth it, too. Not only is shooting a fun new experience, but it's also pretty cheap. Even if you don't have a friend who lets you shoot for free, some ranges are really convenient for amateurs — they allow you to shoot without a license, have affordable gun rentals (around $5) and bullets. Really, it's cheaper than a case of Miller and a bag of White Castle.

You have no excuse not to try shooting at least once this summer. Your inner hoosier demands it. — Julia Gabbert

Anyone who has grown up outside the city should be willing to vouch for this: Summer ought to consist of at least a little dirt, dust and mud. Everything from hiking to attending rodeos to driving four-wheelers helps you actually earn that daily shower. Best of all is getting off-road — riding or driving an all-terrain vehicle through acres of rough land, the wind whipping by and cooling you even as the sun blazes overhead. The open air and roar of the engine make you feel invincible as you power past trees and lakes or take control of hills.

The best days for off-roading are the ones just after a rain, when the ground is still wet and the mud splashes up the back of your arms and legs. It's great to get muddy just for the sake of getting muddy. You'll feel a surprising sense of accomplishment after successfully ripping through a giant puddle, coating yourself and your vehicle in the sloppy mess. Mastering an ATV takes practice, old clothing and the constant reminder that, yes, mud always washes off eventually.

If you're stuck in the city and dreaming of a way to get off the asphalt path, the ideal situation for popping your off-road cherry might be a rental. Unfortunately, we couldn't find anything near St. Louis with ATV rentals, as the insurance is too high.

But you've got another option: Motorcycles are available for rent through Doc's Harley Davidson (www.docsharleydavidson.com/Rentals). And if you're committed to riding through mud puddles with the wind in your hair more than a couple times a year, the alternative — buying a new or pre-owned off-road vehicle — is not difficult. Only a 30-minute drive down I-44 from the city, Fenton Powersports (1324 West Lark Industrial Park, Fenton; 636-533-0486 or www.fentonpowersports.com) can help you find the ATV of your mud-loving dreams. They go for about $600 to $10,000 new, and you must be at least eighteen years old to make a purchase. ATVs are titled, so once the paperwork is done, which takes about ten minutes, you'll need to present the title at the DMV and pay the sales tax before you are ready to ride. No special license is needed, but a class and safety equipment would be wise.

Once you get your vehicle, St. Joe State Park (www.mostateparks.com/park/st-joe-state-park) is one of only two Missouri state parks that contain trails for off-road vehicles. About a 75-minute drive outside the city down Highway 55 in Park Hills, visitors with ATVs such as four-wheelers, dirt bikes and even motorcycles can ride 2,000 acres of trails for a $5 daily ride permit. Open Saturday through Sunday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., the park also offers picnic sites, four lakes and hiking trails. Plan your trip after a rainfall to ensure the trails are extra muddy; they have rinsing stations for your new toys if you want to keep the mud where the mud happens. Before heading home, cool off with a milkshake and burger at Hunt's Dairy Bar (1300 East Main Street, Park Hills; 573-431-4011), a retro drive-up burger stand. It's the perfect place to show off your dirty tires.

If you don't want to drop the cash on a new off-road vehicle, you can always opt to get the truck sitting in your driveway a little messy. Check out the biannual Buchanan's MudFest (www.buchanansmudfest.net) in Robertsville. The family-owned farm opens to the public for this event twice a year and provides trails, tracks and obstacles; it's basically an excuse to sling some mud from your truck tires and really test them out. It's scheduled for June 11 this summer, and you only need to pay $15 per person to participate in races or pulls. After the competition, play around in the free-for-all slosh pits. Bring the kids; they will appreciate the parent-approved chance to go mud wild. Power washing is required before leaving the grounds (for the trucks, not the kids), but it's free, so there's no reason to complain. And though concessions are available, no alcohol is allowed. If you want to finish off your night with an ice-cold beer and maybe some live music, stop by the Third Rail Bar & Grill (East Osage Street, Pacific; 636-257-9909) on your way back to the Lou.

For those who would prefer to be a spectator rather than a participant, head down to the I-55 Raceway (Herky-Horine Road, Pevely; 636-479-3219). Admission is $12 to $30, depending on the night's race, and food and drinks are also cheap. Get up-close (and dirty!) as the cars race around the oval dirt track. Prepare to get covered; the dust is kicked up all night as different dirt-car and stock-car models turn around the course. Most nights the track opens at 5 p.m., and races start at 7 p.m.; see www.i55raceway.com for more details. Once you've had your share of dirt-filled air, keep the fuel-scented night going at nearby TJ's Bar & Grill (8641 Commercial Boulevard, Pevely; 636-475-3648). Have a beer and peruse the Friday night (or Sunday) bike shows; maybe you'll see something that inspires your next free-wheeling purchase.

Finally, check the annual mud-volleyball tournaments at Outlaw Off-Road Park for full-body mud exposure without the risks that come with a swiftly moving vehicle. It's a full-day event held the first Saturday of every month, May through September, at the park just outside of Jackson. All ages are welcome, and $10 per person will register your team. Games consist of a best-of-three set, but if you are eliminated early, don't worry: This park offers plenty of other outdoor entertainment, including concessions, campgrounds and a kid-friendly zone. And if you still haven't scratched your mud-loving itch, the park has more than 30 miles of ATV trails and 20 miles of truck trails. Visit www.outlawoffroadpark.com for directions and more information.

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