Bill McClellan

Bill McClellan.

Let me be a travel writer for a day and suggest that this is a great time of year to take the family for a day trip into grape country.

I set out last weekend to buy some Concord grapes. I headed west on Interstate 44 to Cuba.

I-44 is the major drug corridor for the country. Drugs flow east. Cash flows west. This can be an expensive proposition for the taxpayers of Missouri.

Some years ago, I wrote about Sam Dorsey. He was a resident of Texas, driving a load of pot and cocaine to Chicago. He was cruising through Franklin County on I-44 when he saw a sign announcing a drug inspection site one mile ahead.

Oh, my gosh, he thought. Then he noticed an exit just ahead and he took it. The exit led to a country road. At the top of the ramp were two police cars. And a drug dog. Dorsey had Texas plates, a startled expression and no good reason for getting off the highway.

For the next couple of years, we paid to feed and house him.

So that's a fun game to play with the kids as you drive on I-44. Guess who's carrying what.

Of course, there are real sights to see. For instance, you can stop at Route 66 State Park on the Meramec River. It's a lovely spot. Popular with bird-watchers. Plenty of picnic tables scattered around.

In another life, the park was a town called Times Beach. Thirty years ago, dioxin was discovered in high levels. The town was evacuated. The contamination was traced to waste hauler Russell Bliss, who mixed dioxin-contaminated sludge with used crankcase oil and sprayed the mix on unpaved roads to control dust. He insisted he had not known the sludge was contaminated and pointed out that he had used the same mix at his own home.

The government spent more than $100 million cleaning up the site. Unable to indict Bliss on charges related to dioxin, the government went after him for tax fraud.

Before U.S. District Judge Clyde Cahill sent the jurors to deliberate, he told them: "Whatever you may think of the question of his spreading of dioxin has absolutely nothing to do with this case."

That seemed like a mixed message.

As the jury deliberated, Bliss told a reporter he was unconvinced that dioxin was so bad.

"I wouldn't mind being sentenced to life in Times Beach," he said. "I'd like them to offer me 10 acres. I could build a nice beach house there and live out my life."

He was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison.

He is now 78 and lives just off I-44 near Cuba. He has a roadside attraction — a museum of classic cars and trucks and various odds and ends, including Coke bottles of all ages and types. Also, a neon Marilyn Monroe sign.

We chat occasionally. I find him to be an intelligent and thoughtful man.

I called to tell him I was coming to Cuba to buy some grapes. He told me to stop by.

I went to his house, and his wife told me he was at the museum. His wife's name is Rose. She is originally from the Philippines. She is 36. She and Bliss have two daughters, 15 and 12.

Bliss lost his first wife in 1991. Their oldest son is 55.

Bliss has always maintained that the health risks associated with dioxin were overblown. Not only did he spray it around his own place, but he hauled it around and he mixed it. One time a hose broke and he got soaked with it.

Scientists have been mixed on the dangers of dioxin. In 1991, Dr. Vernon Houk of the Centers for Disease Control caused a ruckus when he said the evacuation of Times Beach had probably been unnecessary. He was the official who had ordered it.

Who knows?

Exposure to dioxin has certainly not hurt Bliss, but perhaps he is an outlier. Actually, he is probably outside the norm on many levels. That's one reason I like him.

We went down the road to 4M Vineyards to buy some grapes. 4M Vineyards is a third-generation fruit stand and the largest seller of Concord grapes in Missouri.

Bliss suggested I buy a bushel. At $20, it's a good deal, he said. A bushel turned out to be two large boxes filled with grapes. I also got some jelly and a bottle of grape juice.

Bliss bought three cases of grape juice. Maybe there's a message in that.

Afterwards, I went to Missouri Hick Bar-B-Que for lunch.

On the way home, I looked for signs warning of drug inspection sites. I didn't see any. That's good. If drug mules are just passing through, why should we stop them and then pay for their incarceration?

We taxpayers have better things to spend our money on. Grapes, for instance.