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.