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Move Over, Montmartre: Missouri Ozarks For An Autumn En Plein Air

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One October, I tucked a leaf from a scarlet oak into an envelope and sent it to a friend in Florida. I was hoping it might silence his insistent, "Why do you live in the Midwest?"

He wrote back: "Enough said."

It's that time of year when Mother Nature puts on the dog. And there's nowhere better to "ooh" and "aah" the spectacle than in the Missouri Ozarks. The scarlet oak that finally silenced my friend is one of 42 oak species that delight us Midwesterners, along with maples, hickory, beech, ash, hackberry, gum and flowering dogwood.

Starting this week, Big Cedar Lodge, a luxury resort in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks, is hosting an En Plein Air Paint Out for those who not only want to see Mother Nature's fiery display, but want to capture it on canvas.

Plein Air, of course, is a fancy French word for painting outside. And what better place to paint outside than at an upscale wilderness lodge owned by Bass Pro Shops. More than 100 artists will set up easels on Big Cedar's 800 lushly forested acres, painting the fall color as it creeps up the hillside from Table Rock Lake.

Not that painters are restricted to fall foliage: During the three-day Paint Out, participants who fly into Springfield, MIssouri from around the country can paint anything, as long as it's outside. They'll vie for thousands of dollars of prizes (one painting will grace a wine bottle for a year), participate in a one-hour Quick Draw and a Night Paint Out -- and have their work displayed in Big Cedar's registration building before and during the big closing exhibition.

In 1987, Johnny Morris, owner of Bass Pro, bought the property that has become Big Cedar Lodge so that customers of his flagship Springfield store could test boats. But he became so intrigued with the two long-abandoned country resorts, built in the 1920's by Jude Simmons and Frisco Railroad executive Harry Worman, that he decided to restore them. Today, those old mansions serve as restaurants on the property that Morris went on to turn into one of the country's most upscale mountain resorts.

The Adirondack-style cabins, named for some of the celebrities that have stayed there, overlook Table Rock Lake and have big wood-burning fireplaces, hand-crafted furniture, stained glass, exposed beams and big decks. I stayed in Tony Orlando -- not surprisingly, it's called the Yellow Ribbon cabin -- but there are also cabins named for Kevin Costner (he's a personal friend of Johnny Morris), Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ernest Hemingway, Waylon Jennings (he and his wife renewed their vows at Big Cedar) and some of the conservation partners that Morris has worked with in the 40 years since he started Bass Pro in the back of his father's Brown Derby liquor store.

Today, Bass Pro has 57 stores throughout the United States and Canada and, with turnstiles clicking as they flood in, racks up more than 110 million visitors a year, more than Disneyworld, the NFL and NCAA basketball. With live aquariums, waterfalls, fishing and hunting demonstrations and an elaborate Santa's World that offers kids a free 5-by-7 photos with the Jolly One, Bass Pro's intricately-decorated Outdoor Worlds are almost as much of a destination as Big Cedar.

Bet Monet, Pissarro and Renoir didn't get that with their Plein Air.