Culture Travel

Ozarks: A lake divided

World class fishing. Jet skis, motor boats, and all manner of endless summer fun. Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks offers a panoply of water sports and relaxing lake life to tourists responsible for bringing more than $224 million dollars to the region in 2017. Winding through the Ozark mountains for over 92 miles from the Bagnell Dam in the east to Truman Reservoir in the west, it is only natural that the lake would have hot spots and more laid back areas. A closer look, however, shows that the line between boom and bust areas acts as a microcosm of similar divides across America today — and is manifested in the lake itself.

About a quarter of the way down the lake, around the 20 mile marker, Osage Beach dominates the junction between the main channel and Glaize Arm, which leads into Lake of the Ozarks State Park. Aided by this prime location, Osage Beach is a sprawling area of activity, home to both the grand estates of the super-rich and towering condominiums alike. The local economy is heavily reliant on tourism, with a feel much like that of a Florida beach town — dominated by bars, restaurants, shops, and watercraft rentals. Most of Osage Beach is located in Camden County, which was responsible for more than 75% of the tourism revenue reported in 2017 across the entire lake area.

Traveling west down the lake, the scenery changes to miles and miles of lake homes and cabins (Lake of the Ozarks has more shoreline than the state of California). These homes and retreats, however grand or modest, represent not tourism or luxury, but instead the fading image of the classic American Dream — a small part of the land to call one’s own, something of value to strive for and once grasped, to be tended with pride and care. Daily life in this world adds a routine of laborious maintenance and improvement to the life of relaxation and fun offered by the lake. Neighbors know each other, and the smoke-filled rooms of the sparsely sprinkled bars are home not to tourists, but regulars. For the people who call this area home, the lake is less vacation, and more the fulfillment of a promise given in exchange for a life of sweat and taxes.

Lake of the Ozarks represents two worlds that, like their counterparts across the nation, exist side by side but do not mix. The lake itself rises up to divide the classes, acting as a stark divider, a barrier as imposing as a wall. Churned by the great in-board motors of 30-foot power boats, the east end of the lake sports 6-foot waves, not manageable by pontoons or more affordable motor boats popular down-lake. The wealth and luxury enjoyed by some excludes those unable to risk capsize and drowning. The result is a lake broken physically, economically, and politically in two, exacerbated by symptomatic immobility.


Featured image: Bagnell Dam on Lake of the Ozarks.
Courtesy of Adobe Stock.

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Luke Ryan
2 years ago

Legit. I noticed that stark line when I lived in Thailand, dividing the bustling tourism scene (not bad, as it was fundamental for the local economy) from the regular, chill locals. You usually think of places as one or the other, but behind every tourist destination is a whole group of people who have their own daily grind just like everyone else. Your piece here takes that further, and I like how you noticed that the local area there hearkens back to the old-school American dream. I think the American Dream has changed over time, not in principle, but what… Read more »

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