Early November. I had climbed Missouri's highest point - Taum Sauk Mountain - and now was hurrying south and west toward the highest point in Arkansas.

Back country. The Ozarks. Winding roads and narrow bridges. Limestone cliffs. Dark, slow-moving streams in narrow valleys. In southern Missouri the roads - and life in general - are geared at about 35 mph.After Taum Sauk, you take Missouri 72 west from Glover. Then it's south on Missouri 21 to Ellington. Then you head southwest on Missouri 106 to Ellington. Then you head southwest on Missouri 106 over Current Creek to the not-very-eminent town of Eminence. Then it's Winona and Birch Tree and Missouri 99 to Thomasville. Then west on U.S. 160.

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12 miles

The highway sign startled me - and brought the words of a wonderful old bluegrass song flooding into my mind.

And here I was on the West Plains Road! I wondered if there really was a "Joe Wiggins." Or a "Bessie Mae Hootenpile." The very existence of the West Plains Road seemed to lend plausibility to names that might otherwise have seemed implausible.

If there could be a West Plains Road, perhaps there also could be - or could have been - a Cousin Belle Simmons living along here somewhere - perhaps in view of this very spot on the West Plains Road. And maybe the sheriff really was - or had been - Clark Pryor.

But the "biggest Whatever"? Not likely. . . .

Wonderful music. Driving guitars and clattering banjos and mandolin riffs you flat would not believe. A wonderfully high tenor and an astonishingly low bass. Exquisite harmonies. Outstanding harmonies. Inspired progressions.

But 40-foot-tall "Whatevers?" With purple patches? Maybe the songwriter had spent too much time sipping from a Mason jar full of Ozark white lightening. . . .

Missouri Highway 17 entered from the north.

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5 miles

Old Man Hunzle. If he was 104 20 years ago when I first heard the Dillards singing about "The Biggest Whatever," the old timer must be long since dead and pushing up daisies. Wonder if the old man had any sons. . . .

Audie Chapman. Sounds like an authentic Missourian, all right. Do you suppose there really was an Audie Chapman?

Entering

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Population 7741

It was time to fill the gas tank in my rental car. I pulled into Pop's Gas Station. "Pop" came out to help.

"Say, do you have a phone book for this county?" I asked.

"In on the counter by the phone," said Pop. "Who you lookin' for?"

"Oh . . . just some folks who might have lived around here several years back," I said. I was afraid Pop might laugh if I mentioned names like Hootenpile and Hunzle. . . .

The phone book for Howell County is not very thick. Besides West Plains, it includes all the folks in White Church and Moody and South Fork and Mountain View. My finger ran down the lines of names.

"Wallace, Welton, Wieler, Williams." But not Joe Wiggins.

"Holcomb, Holton, Hoopes, Hopkins." But no Bessie Mae Hootenpile.

"Silas, Silcox, Silvas, Simes, Simpson." No cousin Belle Simmons.

"Prentiss, Price, Prosser, Prouett, Prytes. No Sheriff Clark Pryor.

Nor was there anyone named Hunzle. Nor Chapman.

By now Pop had filled the tank and checked the oil. As he made change for my $20 bill, he asked, "Did you find the folks you were looking for?"

"No," I replied. "I guess they must have lived somewhere else. But thanks anyway. I appreciate your kindness."

I got in the car and headed southwest toward Caulfield and Tecumseh and Howards Ridge.

Leaving

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Drive carefully

Rational people don't believe in "Big Foot." Sensible people don't believe in the "Yeti." There's no such thing as an "Abominable Snowman" or a "Sasquatch," right? I had known all along that there was no such thing as an Ozark "Whatever."

But I was disappointed to think that the Dillards might have just made up those wonderful names. I had really hoped that there might be a living, breathing, jam-making Bessie Mae Hootenpile and a nosy, gossiping Cousin Belle Simmons and a wiry, weather-beaten, law-enforcing Sheriff Clark Pryor. I had hoped that there was - or had been - a grizzled, cantankerous Old Man Hunzle and an Audie Chapman, driving a battered old Dodge pickup.

Perhaps it is enough that the Dillards play the guitar and the banjo and the mandolin to exquisite perfection. Perhaps it is enough that one of the Dillards is a tenor so high, while his brother is a bass so low.

Perhaps it is enough that Bessie Mae Hootenpile is alive and well and still waiting - in my mind - for Joe Wiggins to return her jam jar.

*Terry J. Moyer is a Salt Lake free-lance writer.