Did eccentric businessman Don Robinson really leave the Earth in 2012, as reported, or is he simply lost and wandering in the Cedar Hill park that bears his name?
I hope it’s not disrespectful to wonder.
The Leader has written several stories over the last seven years about Robinson’s incredible bequest to the Missouri park system – an 818-acre tract of land that is considered one of the state’s most natural and unspoiled open-to-the-public sites, complete with two “moderate difficulty” rustic trails, restrooms and a couple of pavilions.
The park, nestled in hills in rural Byrnesville (redundancy acknowledged, but we’re talking really remote here), even offers some goosebumps, if you like that kind of thing.
There’s a gravesite (purportedly Robinson’s, although – see above) and just about the spookiest-looking house you’ll find anywhere – Robinson’s dilapidated, moss-covered former abode that he fashioned largely out of recycled materials. Restoration is planned, dependent on donations.
Robinson, known for his extreme frugality, wanted to leave behind a legacy, so while he was making a fortune producing and then marketing the cleaning product “Off” in late-night info-mercials, he was also buying up land. Some he used to develop subdivisions, but he squirreled away other untouched acres.
Robinson’s goal was to donate at death a tract as big as New York City’s Central Park. One of the stories in our newspaper “morgue” says he hit it exactly, 843 acres, but another says he came 25 acres shy. Investigative reporting required.
If you’re a careful Leader reader, you might recognize some of that information from our pages. But you’ve seen even more stories on a related topic.
People get lost in Don Robinson State Park. A lot of them.
The Missouri state park system spent the first five years after Robinson’s passing building trails and parking lots, then opened the park three years ago in January 2017. In the park’s first few weeks, the Cedar Hill Fire Protection District had to rescue three hikers, and earlier this month, a pair of sisters had to be found and helped to exit. In between, there have been scores of others.
“It (getting lost) is pretty common,” said a Cedar Hill firefighter who was on duty Sunday. He said firefighters train at the park, to facilitate rescues of lost or injured hikers. A firehouse is just 1.3 miles away, so rescues happen pretty fast.
In March, the district used part of a $5,000 grant from the Jefferson Foundation to hold a class for about 30 hikers, teaching them how to use technology (cell phones) to keep their bearings in the park, or to assist firefighters in locating them. More classes are planned, Cedar Hill Fire Chief Mick Fischer said.
I had to see the park for myself. But since I can get disastrously lost on a grocery store parking lot, I took my husband along.
The day after Thanksgiving we drove the 41 minutes from our home to Don Robinson, armed with a compass, a whistle and fully charged cell phones. It was us against the park.
I scoffed when I viewed a map of the routes for the Blue (LaBarque Hills Trail, 2.4 miles) and Red (Sandstone Canyon Trail, 4 miles) on a kiosk a stone’s throw from Robinson’s boarded-up house.
“They’re loops,” I told my walking partner. “How are so many people getting lost? Just keep walking and you’ll make it back to the beginning.”
We met a mother from Belleville, Ill., on the parking lot. A newbie to Don Robinson, she was carrying her baby daughter on her back, accompanied by her scampering 5- and 3-year-old sons.
“You’ve got to get them out,” she said, pointing to her kids.
She was heading for the longer trail. If she wasn’t scared…
Two minutes into our trek on Blue, I felt sorry for both Mom and me.
My walking shoes were no match for the wet leaves underfoot. The rugged trail seemed a suggestion rather than a well-worn track. The day was gray and drizzly, but I could sort of see where I was supposed to go. If you added a bit of darkness or a little fog...
“Hello, is this the fire department? Help!”
We didn’t have to call or use our whistle, but we also didn’t do the whole loop. My husband was good for it, but after I slipped in the mud 15 minutes in, I thought it best to head back. Total walking time, a half-hour. The whole trail was expected to take an hour and 40 minutes. My pace would have been closer to three hours.
Mom’s car was still in the lot when we returned. I wished I’d gotten her phone number to check up on her.
I didn’t spy Don. If I had, I would have expressed sincere gratitude. Don Robinson State Park is “wild and wooly” (his own words), and starkly beautiful in early winter. As advertised, there are “sandstone box canyons, shelter caves, cliffs, glades and upland and bottomland forests.”
I want to go back someday soon, armed with the right frame of mind and the right pair of shoes.
Although, first, I need some of his stain remover to clean up my muddy coat.