“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.