“Wow, this cheese looks real” and other adventures


St. Louis, MO into Kansas

Miles: yah, I’ll get back to you on that (a bunch?)

At 8:45 I was awoken by a gaggle of gigglers in the next room. I wanted to shoot them. I hadn’t even seen them come in, but I noticed a ton of beer around their area and heard the voices of two girls and a guy (even though alcohol is forbidden from the rooms which are also divided by gender – also, since when was I stickler for the rules? – oh yah when you became really annoying). I hobbled to the kitchen to toast my bagel (despite a lack of butter) and get away from them. Apparently Rory had also been awakened by them too and joined me, eating yet another meal of Ramen. We turned on the 90s boom box and rocked out together, singing terribly to the stylings of John Mayer and Taylor Swift. In between such amazing songs (do you like my sarcasm?) a weather report cackled in the threat of tornados today. The previous night my roommate Shannon had texted me with the same concern, and though I certainly took note, I wasn’t very worried. I packed up my stuff, slipped my key into the magic slit in the door (this is literally what the slit in the door called itself), and headed back to the arch.

This time I was there during normal business hours and I bought a ticket for both the tram (ride to the top of the arch) and a tour of the Mississippi on the Huckleberry Ferry (I literally almost just wrote Buckleberry Ferry – what is wrong with me?).  I rode with two older guys in the star trek/x-men esque bright white, round capsule that propelled us (at the raging speed of 4mph) to the top of the arch. In the capsule we discussed the inevitable topic that comes up when people ask me what my major is: climate change. The guy to the right of me didn’t ‘believe’ in it, and I, thanks to my communicating climate change class, happily skipped over that part and started discussing pollution in general and how it would be nice to fix that – which he agreed with.

I got to the top and the two guys pointed out the baseball stadium (while bragging slightly of course) and other various significant features on the landscape. To look out the tiny windows you kind of need to plant your feet solidly on the ground, and lean into this angled, carpeted window ledge. I layed there for a good twenty minutes, at first just admiring the Mississippi and the skyline both east and west, and then contemplating what would happen if this thing catastrophically fell over onto it’s side. I decided that the window would have the best view of the fall, but the capsules would probably be the safest, I left undecided as to which I would choose, but fairly certain that I would never have to. Out of the capsule, I toured the westward expansion museum. A blonde-haired park ranger woman stood at the entrance, next to a prominently featured Thomas Jefferson statue. I stared at it a moment and decided it looked exactly like the one at William and Mary. I asked her about it, she did a little research, and came back to me later with a flyer detailing the history of the statue. I apologized for making her do work, but she seemed pleased by the research/ having something other to do than patrol small children. Turns out I was right: W&M Jefferson and museum Jefferson have the same bronzer.

The museum was interesting with brightly colored pictures, a huge amount of quotes from Lewis and Clark, and several sketchy, though still strangely human-like animatronics. The fact that I was making this same journey west into terra incognita from the same starting point, that the museum had featured Lewis and Clark’s quotes so prominently, and that in general Thomas Jefferson is pretty baller, persuaded me to buy a copy of the Journals of Lewis and Clark in the gift shop. I stamped both it and my national parks passport with the date and place. I was getting antsy now to leave, but I still had my ferry ride.  I walked out to the docks, concerned by the flood of student groups I never seemed to shake, but soon found that some mechanism on the boat wasn’t functioning and the trip was canceled. Slightly disappointed and slightly excited to return to the road, I got my money back and headed out.

The first hour or so was filled with a few grey clouds, but nothing worrying. I kept the radio on and my eye out, but nothing looked too threatening. Almost suddenly though, I drove into a patch of black clouds and the world seemed to turn gray in the middle of the afternoon. The rain at first wasn’t too bad, but it suddenly started to hail, and nickel-sized bullets began pelting my wind shield. Several tractor-trailers pulled over to the side of the road and so I did as well, though you have to hand it to FedEx as all of them continued trucking on. The radio stations I flitted between were saying nothing so I trusted trucks more than other cars because I knew they had that whole radio communication thing to talk to each other and they had probably driven through things like this before. My mind flashed to both those tornado videos they always show in school and that movie, Twister. With this combined expertise, I located rope and a bungee cord to tie myself to something (though hopefully not in a barn with sharp objects) and admired my selection of ditches on the side of the road. I was prepared, but after just a few minutes, blue sunny skies appeared once again, so the trucks and I pulled out.

I thought I was in the clear, when the radio suddenly turned to a constant broadcast with the local weatherman. They were naming Tornado warnings for all of these counties I had never heard of. I cautiously unfurled my map across the steering wheel and began looking for any names I recognized. When they mentioned Columbia Public Schools were on lock down, and I saw that I was 20 miles outside of it, I decided to find the nearest exit. The golden arches of McDonalds served as my beacon of hope as I knew they had delicious food and reliable wifi. As I sat on a plastic bench, watching the skies “turn blacker than hell” as the lady next to me claimed on the phone with her family, I suddenly reconsidered my choice, pondering the architectural stability of a fast food restaurant.  The McDonalds tv only had two channels, one of which was luckily the weather channel, and two concerned women sat beside me engrossed in the dozens of red squares now popping up on the screen. The woman on the far end was very hard of hearing and kept repeating she was from Oklahoma. The woman next to me had grown up in Joplin, MO – a town that had just made national headlines for being demolished by tornadoes. She was visibly quite concerned. There were maybe twenty or thirty of us total scattered throughout the McDonalds, most people were in groups of two, but there was one large 5-person family. A woman who had previously seemed fairly normal, started shouting about running to the toilet (because it had no windows) in a heavy accent I couldn’t quite place. Everyone kind of stared at her as she wondered why no one was following her crusade, but she did eventually amass a small group of very concerned women who pestered the McDonalds manager for information. The manager’s golden boy did a little bit of crowd control, but his humor did little to wane the fears of the women.

Soon the manager was off the phone with an announcement that two tornadoes had touched down – one about a mile and a half west, the other two miles east. Because the tornado was not within a mile, he could not require anyone to seek safety but he would allow those who wanted to into the back bunker of McDonalds. Everyone gathered around all panicky as we marched behind the counter, past the deep fryers and employees rolling their eyes, and into the refrigerator. We all squeezed in, but I was able to claim a back corner next to the door to the freezer, setting my bookbag on the vanilla soft serve. The five person family stood next to me near the salad dressing, parents hugging their children for mutual warmth. One of the nearby adults joked “hey, this cheese looks real.” After a few moments of silence in the cramped conditions, the golden boy asked if anyone wanted to play a game and I shouted that I have a deck of cards, but our efforts of cheer were only met with silence and grunts. I thought about opening my laptop and playing some dance music to make it a party with the apple dippers, but once again felt the mood was inappropriate. With no one to talk to, I pulled out my Houdini book and began to read a passage on escaping from a locked chamber. As people begin to shiver, the golden boy passes out aprons. When one lady put hers on, she proclaimed this was the only time she would ever wear a McDonalds uniform, which I felt was slightly offensive to the people providing us shelter, but received much more laughter than any previous attempts at jokes. Just as we settled in, the manager came into the refrigerator and said it was safe to come out. We marched out with a few more tasteless jokes about stealing something, though I tried to say thank you to everyone, and emerged into the store, noting the rain had stopped and the sky had turned a normal hue. I waited a few minutes to get my bearings and then headed back onto the highway. The Tornado warnings had all expired in the area and the weather channel had its eyes turned on the next round heading toward St. Louis as I drove the opposite direction, west. On the highway, unless you were looking for evidence, you didn’t really find it. The roads were completely clear of debris and everywhere around looked just as it did after a normal rainstorm. I did run into one accident where it looked like no one was harmed but the car had done a nosedive into a ditch. One the opposite side of the road, a tractor-trailer lay on its side. Several road signs were snapped in half and lay peacefully on the grass.

When the tornadoes had fully subsided, I found that I was in Kansas.

The rest of the drive was remarkably uneventful. I had pondered whether to pay for a hotel room in the aftermath of the storms, but decided I neither wanted to pay for it nor deal with the whole not-being-21 thing. I found Clinton Lakes State Park and paid a total of 11 dollars for camping and parking the night. A few days beforehand the lock to my trunk became finniky (it has been for a while) and will now mostly refuse to unlock. I kind of know how to fix it, but don’t really have the proper tools or motivation to do it, so in the last remaining hour of light I reorganized my car, making everything easy to find and clearing the front seat off. Though a few showers peppered my tent, overall it was one of the most relaxing nights on the road yet.

Springfield, IL to St. Louis, MO


Springfield to St. Louis

Miles: ughhh

I’m an idiot

The next morning I woke up pretty early and headed confidently to my car, ready for a full day of driving and sight-seeing. I pulled out my keys from my bag, walked up to my car, pressed the unlock door button, and almost took my arm off opening the still locked door. I pressed it again. No response. I manually placed the key into the door, unlocked it, and climbed in. The key battery must be dead or something, no big deal. I put the key into the ignition, the alarm didn’t go off (hooray!) but the car didn’t start either. [Insert expletive here.] I had left the lights on. This is the first time I have ever done this with a car, and I had pulled in so early yesterday (the lights were on for the rain) that I hadn’t noticed the lights still on when I walked away from the car. But no worries. I had jumper cables. I pulled them from the abyss that is now my back seat and looked around for a victim I could con into helping me. Jackpot. It was only 9 in the morning but there were at least eight guys standing twenty yards away staring at an empty bicycle rack (I still can’t really figure out why.) I got one of them to come over and after a few minutes of battery charging and awkward conversation, I was back on the road. The unfortunate victim to this minor fiasco, however, was my total trip mileage as it had suddenly turned to zero. I’m sure I can go back and recalculate, but that’s so much more work right now.

Lincoln’s House

From Purdue I headed to Springfield, IL, the capital of the state and site of Lincoln’s house. This past summer I had finally finished the book Team of Rivals (which was excellent by the way), so the opportunity to see the house and law firm in person was kind of exciting. I found the place pretty easily, parked, and got a ticket. A large sea of red-shirted school groups blocked my maneuverability for a while, so I toured the gift shop and got my National Parks passport stamped. A little later, I headed down the main thoroughfare, glancing about for Lincoln’s home. The whole section was like a mini colonial Williamsburg: the street was cobblestone and closed to all cars and the houses that lined the well gardened sidewalks looked like life size doll houses. Except instead of people dressed in colonial attire, the place was flooded with Park Rangers – in an almost 50/50 ratio to the scattering of old tourist couples around. The 12:00 tour waited on a row of five black benches, situated within the one shaded spot on the block, a god-send in this particularly hot weather.

Our park Ranger emerged from the Lincoln home and came up to us. In any other light she would have been very pretty, but the awkward Park Ranger uniform was the opposite of flattering on almost all of the women there. We soon learned that she was a pre-med student here for a summer job (I had to smile at the whole history/science thing). She adeptly led us through the house, pointing out the book shelf Lincoln stood next to when he learned that he was the Republican nominee, the original pieces of furniture in each room, the fashion behind the blinding wall paper, how Lincoln would have sat on the floor much of the time since the chairs didn’t fit his frame, and to make sure to hold onto the banister as it was the same one Lincoln would have touched when he climbed the stairs (creepy awesome feeling commence). When we got to the last room of the house, the kitchen, she made a point to say that this one room was about the size of the log cabin Lincoln was born in. Without any sort of formal education he moved his living circumstances from frontiersman to lawyer to president, from one room to a two story house to the white house. Pretty sweet. I wandered around the town square, admiring the ‘Lincoln Library’ (a fancy name for the public library) and ended up in front of Lincoln’s law office. I followed the tour guide a little and peeked in, but I was about to keel over from boredom (the guy literally spent 20 minutes going over routes in the historic post office that was only open for like 3 years on the floor below before taking us upstairs to the offices – poor students next to me who had to keep going) so I ducked out early, and headed back to the car.

Lost my keys and Route 66…

Usually cities do a good job of telling you where all the major highways are. I may not take the most direct route sometimes but a few circles around town and I’m exactly where I need to be. This was not the case for getting out of Springfield. The signs were sporadic and missing at very important intersections. Originally I was looking for highway 55. But at one point I saw a sign for historic route 66 that way – so I was like well that sounds really cool and went that way for about 10 minutes but never saw another sign justifying my turn. I turned around and headed back. At the junction where I had originally turned, I saw a McDonalds so I went in to get some wifi and figure out just where this route 66 was. Despite some searching, I still couldn’t really figure it out. I marched back to my car, reached for my keys and they weren’t there. Great. I frantically searched all of my bags, ran into the McDonalds and searched around the table and bathroom. Nothing. I asked if anyone had turned any set of keys in. No, they replied, but they would happily take my number and call me if they found them (gee, thanks lady). One guy sort of helped by walking to my car and seeing if he could break in (oh the qualifications for a McDonalds worker…) but instead he just kind of looked in, grumbled, and started smoking, telling me to go back inside and ask for a directory book thing to find a locksmith. I wasn’t sure if I was relieved or still anxious that this guy couldn’t break in. I sat there, phoning local Volkswagen dealerships to see if they could make me a new key while simultaneously calling locksmiths to see if they could break in.  A half hour later, a woman emerged from the bathroom holding my keys. I almost wept with joy at my stupidity and quickly went back on the road. I had meant to only stay an hour in Springfield, but instead I had almost spent five. Turning out of the McDonalds, I saw another route 66 sign this way.  So I turned and followed that for a while. After several blocks and no new signage, I ran into the highway I was originally looking for and just stuck with that. Twenty minutes later on this highway I saw a historic route 66 sign. I feel like they just sprinkle these signs willy nilly about to make tourists feel good about themselves. I rolled my eyes and moved onto St. Louis, MO.

Crossing into the West

In various discussions of the past and with many of my conversations on the road here, I like to claim that I have never been west of the Mississippi. But I am sorry to say that I lied. As an infant I have heard of at least one trip to San Francisco, though I am not really sure of anything beyond that. Perhaps I should amend my statement to I don’t remember ever being west of the Mississippi? But that’s too complicated.  Nevertheless I had claimed that I had never been west so many times, that this really felt like the first time so I pretended it was a really big deal. Just around the concrete bend (like my Pocohontas reference there?) I saw the famous St. Louis Arch and it served as my guide as I tried to find an appropriate exit from the interstate. I ended up getting off on a random one, crossed the most interesting Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge and was there!

The Hostel

I decided to check into my hostel first. Though I had called earlier, they said they didn’t need reservations and the guy on the phone sounded a little more sketchy than the happy-go-lucky Dennis from Detroit. A few wrong turns, reading my scribbled map on the back of a receipt, I pulled into a diagonal parking space directly in front of what looked like a store front, complete with a blue awning that read “Huckleberry Fin Youth Hostel 1902” in bold white letters. I strolled up to the front door, and found that it was locked. I shot a casual sideways glance to the right and faintly painted letters of “registration this way” suddenly caught my attention and I followed the arrows pointing into a sketchy ally way maybe two feet wide, that stretched the length of the building and had swarms of flies buzzing about. Halfway through, I caught a glance from a slightly heavy guy with long matted brown hair and a full beard. He bounded over to me, excited to check me into the hostel, and led me into the main office (if that’s what you can really call it). With money and keys and sheets straightened out, he suddenly looked up at me from across the desk and said, “so what do you want to do here?” I wasn’t really sure. I replied, well what do you suggest? He went off on a long tangent, naming the numerous bars within the few blocks of the area, but I politely interrupted him stating that I was only twenty. He paused for a moment, clearly trying to think of what there was to do. After a few seconds, he said, well uhh, have you seen the arch? I laughed that this was all he could come up with and said I would go see it. Just then a beach blonde, long-haired guy bearing a white t-shirt and really baggy jeans despite the belt sheepishly entered, stating that he had locked the key to his locker in the locker. The manager rolled his eyes, gave him a handful of keys and said see if any of these work. When the dude had left, the manager turned to me keenly and said, “or you could always see what the hot Australian is doing.”

St. Louis Arch

After a mini tour of the place, I claimed my bed, and quickly ducked out to go see this arch. The arch sits right at the water’s edge, in front of a long road that is mostly there to accommodate parking. I parked at one end of this road, and began to walk. I walked past what looked like an old carnival entrance. The banners and signs were still fantastically bright and colorful but everything else like the words and entrance were incredibly faded and abandoned. I snapped pictures as I made the longer than expected hike to the top. The stairs are so large, I felt like I was climbing the Lincoln Memorial, except until you got to the last stair, the lawn was completely hidden from you. I marched to the underground only to find that it had closed several hours ago. It was a beautiful day though so I strolled through the grass and snapped a few more pictures.

That hot Australian dude…

Back at the hostel I decided to relax in the kitchen, eating a few snacks for dinner and reading my book. The kitchen was filled with dilapidated appliances, a wobbly table, a 90s boom box, and two incredibly comfortable couches. The Australian guy (lets call him Rory, though I’m not really sure if I’m making this up or I actually remember his name) soon joins me, making Ramen on the stove. We start discussing everything from food to our summer travels to the new movies coming out. It’s phenomenal what you learn about random strangers. I don’t even remember this dude’s name but I know he’ surviving on ramen three times a day, he doesn’t like easymac (a disgrace, I know), he’s been away from home for a year snowboarding through Canada and taking greyhound across the US until he begins his summer job of camp counselor once again in Chicago, he has thoroughly read Harry Potter and was highly disappointed in the movies, he cried during Toy Story Three (I mean who didn’t), and is headed to Mexico at the end of the summer because he likes the food. Soon though, my laptop battery was dead, it was midnight, and the conversation had died, so I turned into bed.