“I was carried
from Ohio in a swarm of bees”
Kentucky welcomed visitors by immediately laying claim to a piece of Abraham Lincoln. The Bluegrass State possesses Honest Abe's birthplace, the signs at its borders will have you know, but even in staying on the Interstate it occurred to me there was no need for such appropriation of history; simply the change in topography made for enough of a selling point after the roteness of the diagonal track we'd just cut across Ohio. The landscape now roiled around us, lush green knobs burbling to the earth's surface whenever the highway couldn’t be bothered to acquiesce to the terrain, exposing limestone innards that had been crushed into their stratified patterns over hundreds of millions of years.
Louisville came and went, the Ohio River feeling as important as ever in its wide, lazy flow, punctuated with barges and the trusses of bridge spans. Southern Indiana invited with stretches of uninterrupted forest, which in turn began to fade into the stereotypical image of the agricultural Midwest. Finally relenting to Lincoln-mania, we hopped off the Interstate in search of Indiana's slice of the Lincoln pie, the farmstead on which he had spent his formative years. In our way was a town called Santa Claus, a name innocently decided upon in the 1850s, only for subsequent generations to predictably pounce on the potential for runaway capitalism.
Today, seemingly every business is adorned with a life-sized statue of jolly old Saint Nick himself, all the more disconsonant with summer in full swing, the faint shrieks of roller coaster riders echoing between the spires of waterslides at a nearby holiday-themed amusement park. Even the fast food sandwich chain was guarded over by Kris Kringle's cherubic, dead-eyed gaze. I couldn't imagine a better encapsulation of the unabashed tackiness of the country that was once saved from irrevocable cannibalism by the man who'd grown up not five miles down the road.
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial was placed in the early 60s under the custodianship of the National Park Service, who, as usual, had done an admirable job of patching together a worthwhile exhibit. A pleasantly manicured courtyard was anchored by a tableau of sculpted wall carvings depicting Lincoln in all of those places that assert ownership over some phase of his life: his birth in Kentucky, adolescence in Indiana, political career in Illinois, and presidency in Washington. Then there was the centerpiece of the display, portraying a haloed Lincoln hovering grandiosely above genuflecting slaves whose manacles have been broken, in a disquietingly Christ-like representation.
A trail led first to the grave of Abe's mom, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, who succumbed to illness two years after the family migrated north of the Ohio, then to what remains of the foundation of the log cabin that was actually inhabited by the Lincolns, and finished at a working replica of an 1820s farm, conducted by park rangers in contemporary garb demonstrating early-19th-century subsistence skills such as tanning and blacksmithing, while a smattering of cows, sheep, and chickens milled about in the background. In this attempt to fashion a window onto life as it would have been at that very spot nearly two hundred years ago, I sensed a certain humility that was conspicuously missing from the Lincoln-as-white-savior engraving at the front of the memorial.
Onwards we glided into Illinois, state number four on this lengthening day (five for me, if I’m allowed to count my point of origin in Pennsylvania), the earth growing ever more fertile, endless fields of corn stalks already appreciably beyond knee-height, still over a week ahead of the Fourth of July. Eventually development returned with a vengeance, the pastoral setting replaced by prairie of the urban variety, an indication of the difficulties that had been facing greater St. Louis for decades. Entire blocks occupied mostly by unruly grass dotted with the occasional sad edifice served as a paradoxical frontispiece to the iconic Gateway Arch, distinct and impressive against the backlight of the late afternoon western sky, its inverted U shape like a magnet, drawing us in.
Downtown St. Louis felt fleshed out and consequential, hearkening back to an era that had spanned over a century, during which it had been one of the ten biggest cities in the nation. Currently it was noticeably lacking the abundant surface parking lots that had so marred the once-dense cores of other metropoles whose primes had also come and gone. The practical drawback to this was the warren of one-way canyons intertwined around a raised freeway (an “urban renewal” trick to which St. Louis had not managed to remain impervious) that stood between us and our hotel, though my melodramatic struggle with an unfamiliar street grid elicited little sympathy from Bea, who adjudged it to be merely worthy of an eye roll.
A major component of the rationalization I’d cycled through in the run-up to our departure was deluding myself into believing that if I could drape a robotically platonic veneer over this journey, it would somehow assuage any and all prior transgressions and keep the nausea of guilt at arm’s length for just long enough to complete my mission. This wildly sophomoric notion was immediately put to the test upon checking in at the hotel, whereupon we were informed that they were sold out of two-bed rooms and could only offer us an accommodation equipped with a single king bed. The bemused clerk must have thought I was some kind of evangelical zealot, such was the inordinate shrillness of my reaction to the prospect of having to share a bed. She pledged to have a folding bunk rolled up to our room by the time we returned from dinner so that my recently puritanical conscience could rest easy.
And so we were off to explore the city for the remainder of the evening. From the inception of his harebrained scheme, St. Louis was a target I’d been particularly intrigued by. Habitually dumped on by the media and other purveyors of conventional wisdom, I had an inkling I might feel some extent of kinship with the Gateway to the West. After all, St. Louis was Rust Belt in spirit, if not in definition; the rate at which it had shed industrial jobs during the second half of the 20th century was comparable to that of Detroit or Cleveland. Furthermore, it was a bona fide river city whose geographic situation meant that it had developed earlier and a little more organically and compactly than virtually every other Midwestern or Great Plains population center.
We took the train - an honest-to-goodness light rail system! - out to a neighborhood that could have been plucked from any erudite locale back in the Northeast, home to a prestigious university and its renowned medical apparatus, at the edge of a great park that owed much of its design and landscape to having hosted the 1904 World’s Fair. The business district was lined with shops and restaurants that were not chains for the most part, though they may have well been for how generic they appeared to be. Sidewalks were crammed with tables and chairs so that the doctors and attorneys and bankers and aspirants to those lucrative professions could gorge themselves al fresco on a warm Friday night. A congenially sterile plaza showed off dancing fountains, synchronized with colorful pulsating light effects. Splendorous mansions, some dating back to the Gilded Age, lurked down semiprivate side streets defended by ornate, vestigial gates. These were all the hallmarks of the milquetoast, affluent urbanity I’d come to know and content in.
Lacking creative inspiration after our first wearying day on the road, we dined at a bland but adequate Irish pub. Absurdly, I felt weird selecting a beer to pair with my dinner, as if such an innocuous act would somehow tip the badly-calibrated moral scales of my quest to maintain a detached, monastic veil into something more pernicious: Young Man and Young Woman Enjoy Food and Libation Together. We hopped the MetroLink back Downtown, where my cot awaited me.
One of a great many weaknesses that has been known to saddle me is a tendency, when left to my own devices, to sleep until an unhealthily tardy hour. On the first morning of any momentous trip, however, I inevitably burst awake, aided only by dopamine, at the crack of dawn. That Saturday in St. Louis, possibly assisted by the flimsiness of my sleeping arrangement, was no exception. My theoretical plan was for us to knock out a couple of quintessential tourist must-sees before hitting the asphalt: ascending to the top of the Gateway Arch before embarking on an old-fashioned riverboat jaunt on the Mighty Mississippi. Now roused, I figured I could wander Downtown on foot to kill time until the Arch’s public operating hours began. Bea, a naturally early riser, stirred into life despite my efforts to keep my puttering about the room at an imperceptible decibel and volunteered to join me on my hike.
Off we traipsed, past the Old Courthouse, the very building where Dred Scott - and by extension, all who looked like him - had been repeatedly dehumanized by the bureaucratic levers of power that were established as key to our self-anointed Model of Just Democracy. Notwithstanding its apparent sluggishness to clamber above the imposing silhouette of the Gateway Arch, it was evident in the rapid fleeing of whatever mercy had been massaged into the air overnight that the sun was soon going to exact its asperity on this part of the world, much as it had been doing for the bulk of June. By the end of the month, all of the territory that we were meant to traverse would be officially labeled “abnormally dry,” if not slapped with a full-on drought.
We followed the Gateway Mall, that rare example of a relatively worthwhile outcome of the willful destruction of urban fabric. Its one-block-wide swath of deliberately composed green space, accentuated frequently by monuments, sculptures, fountains, and handsome civic institutions, felt more an appropriate aesthetic respite from the city center’s bejeweled towers and flow of street-level activity than a jarring intrusion to them, as can wind up the result all too easily with such projects. Here, too, were reminders of the manifold problems continuing to afflict St. Louis as they do so many cities, in the forms of prostrate bodies slumped awkwardly onto benches that were intentionally designed with the goal of making it maximally uncomfortable to do precisely that, begging troubling local questions of inequality and race in those days well before they were thrust into the national spotlight via the flashpoint of Ferguson. Suddenly the mildly sore neck induced by my lumpy trundle wasn’t so bothersome.
Amidst it all, a larger-than-life bronze Pinocchio stood, arms outstretched, head inclined towards the eastern sky, optimistically greeting the rising sun with the requisite naivete of a marionette whose singularly consuming purpose was to become a human being. Even if he were to win whatever cosmic lottery it is that bulwarks a person against the slide into desperation that curling up for the night out in the open on a miserable pew entails, he’d still be liable to fall prey to the rest of life’s hilarious little predicaments. I glanced at Bea, busy inspecting a miniature iron boatman adorning a nearby water feature. You don’t actually want this, kid, was all the wisdom I could muster to impart.
Putting aside momentarily that it’s a de facto celebration of some of the more heinous episodes of American history, it does need to be said that the Gateway Arch is a remarkable piece of structural engineering. This had been fairly lost on me until I found myself standing almost directly underneath its stainless steel swoop, delicate in its simplicity yet robust in the staggering grandiosity of its scale, demonstrated by the comparatively ant-like dots frolicking around one of its hulking legs that were, it turned out, a family of fellow tourists. Conceived by the Finnish-American Eero Saarinen in those heady, imperious years following Allied victory in the Second World War, by the time it was finally constructed in the 1960s it still must have seemed a work of total science fiction.
We descended below the grass lawn to the Arch Visitor Center, administered by the National Park Service, where we purchased tickets to ride what I thought was rather quizzically referred to as a “tram” to the observation deck at the structure’s apex. Our beat-the-rush gambit was nullified somewhat by the incontrovertible facts of a summer weekend, meaning we had to wait about thirty minutes for our designated tram departure. This gave us the chance to quickly browse the Museum of Westward Expansion encompassed by the Visitor Center, which I found engaging and informative on par with the lofty standards the NPS has set for itself, albeit disturbing in its glorification of a mindset that led to the marginalization - if not outright eradication - of entire cultures, among other deeply tragic ramifications.
Though it’s impossible to look past the horrific domino effect set into motion by Manifest Destiny, I couldn’t help but instinctively unearth a hint of romance in any number of the finer-grain, individual stories of pioneers from that era. I flattered myself to imagine the emotional forces that would have been at play for someone to uproot themselves and strike out for an uncertain future in a barely sketched out land were not all that dissimilar to those compelling me to get in a car and drive multiple thousands of miles at the risk of indelibly scarring relationships with people I purported to care about. Of course, I was blessed with a McDonald’s every half-dozen miles or so to suit my soft-bodied modern sensibilities and ensure that I didn’t have to go out and shoot live animals to survive on my trek west.
Our slot to climb to the top of the Arch rolled around and we gathered outside the tram, which was really a series of eight cylindrical, windowless five-seat compartments that more closely resembled a 1950s conception of the industrial tumble dryer of the future than anything intended to convey humans. Upwards we smoothly chugged, a four-minute transit that offered glimpses of the behemoth’s metallic entrails through narrow, vertical plexiglass panes in the capsule’s door. Slowing to a halt, we were deposited in the parabola’s zenith, approximately 620 dizzying feet from the ground below. A carpeted hallway gently sloped to follow the curve of the monument’s design and was lined with squat, recessed horizontal apertures that evoked the gun ports of a wooden schooner and were not nearly at eye height, necessitating one to crook their torso at a 45-degree angle to be able to peer out and take in the views. We duly obliged, first sliding along the western side overlooking Downtown and the sprawl of the city beyond, then circling back to set our gaze east, from whence we’d come. I scanned the Illinois horizon in vain for the protruding shape of Cahokia, the preserved remnants of perhaps the most extraordinary example of an American Indian metropolis. It flourished between the 11th and 14th centuries and at its peak is believed to have been larger in population than contemporaneous London. Alas, its massive mounds were invisible in the fossil fuel-aided haze. White man’s suffocation of all others in pursuit of technological advancement persists unabated a millennium later.
We rappelled down the opposite stanchion and set off for the riverside. As we approached the water’s edge, we could tell something was amiss. For one thing, there was no riverboat dock . . . because it was submerged under a drastically engorged Mississippi. As lethargic and harmless as it had appeared from the safety of the Gateway Arch’s crow’s nest, Old Man River was, in fact, angry and swollen, riding well over its manmade banks. The inundation, spurred by conditions over a thousand miles further west, presented a perplexing contradiction in those desiccated weeks. A hastily erected sign brusquely announced the cancellation of all leisure cruises on the river for the foreseeable future.
The question this posed to us was what to do with the two hours that had been unceremoniously shoved back into our pockets. One option was to get an early start on the day’s tire tread - usually not a wrong choice - but I felt something was gnawingly missing from my experience of St. Louis, something a little more authentic than the tourist traps or the hyper-hygienic environs from the night before. Bea didn’t require much convincing, so we hoofed it south down Broadway, past the ballpark and through a no-man’s land of parking lots and messy concrete highway interchange flyovers. Just when we might have been beginning to wonder what on earth the aim here was, we came upon a long, skinny, low-set, wall-less structure lined with stalls from which vendors were dispensing all manner of fruits, vegetables, meats, and other goods to a sizable throng.
This was the Soulard Market, in operation since 1779 according to a faded sign atop its pitched roof. The exterior porticos led to an H-shaped, renaissance-style brown brick grand hall where we bought chicken and dumplings from an old lady with a toothless grin and reveled in a staple of everyday St. Louis life. A brief foray into the eponymous neighborhood, one of the oldest residential areas in the city, a melting pot for the Europeans of varying backgrounds, French, Spanish, German, who had arrived at this point near the confluences of great rivers, made me even more glad we’d bothered to investigate. As we perused the leafy rows of brick-clad attached houses, no cohesive business district materialized. Rather, it was the corner units that tended to carry the commercial weight, often occupied by some independent entity, frequently a bar or saloon advertising live blues and jazz. I regretted not being able to spend the rest of the weekend hanging out in Soulard, but there were too many miles yet to cover - a quandary that, I’ve since learned, will never cease to be the case.