St Louis, Missouri (Gateway to the West)

It was a shame to leave my newfound friends in Denver but after lots of hugs I made my way to the Greyhound Terminal to await the bus for my eighteen hour trip to St Louis. I sat amongst the usual collection of misfits and listened to a thin young man with scabby track marks down his arms explaining to his neighbour how he caught the freight trains when they slowed down at intersections. He had travelled to California that way several times and the Transport Police had always been kind to him (?) but his best friend had died falling under a train when he was high. The girl sitting next to him stood up to leave and said “I wish you safe travels because Jesus loves you”.  I certainly hope that someone does.

The journey wasn’t too bad, I had a double seat to myself and I slept intermittently all across the states of Kansas and Missouri but by the time I arrived in St Louis it was a furnace. Also someone had moved the bus garage. No, I mean it. There were diversions and temporary barriers and missing signage plus an incomprehensible schematic map next to the unstaffed information booth. Somehow I dragged my suitcase across the spaghetti junction type intersections and South down the Historic Route 66 towards my hostel. I must admit to wondering somewhat sarcastically whether I would end up in Oklahoma before I found my destination.

When I finally got there, the Huckleberry Finn Hostel was deserted. A rickety screen door with a backwards turning handle led into an antiquated kitchen whose cupboard doors all hung at different angles and whose sink was filled with an alarming selection of dishes and utensils. However, the waste bin was clean and someone had recently replenished the cat bowl. The adjoining sitting room was furnished (if one can use such a word for such an assemblage) with bursting armchairs, and threadbare rugs but the maps on the wall and the aforementioned feline gave it a distinctly welcoming feel. A sign above the door said “Be nice” so what else could I do but settle in?

After eventually locating the proprietor I was able to have a refreshing shower and set off back into town for my secret assignation with Captain Kirk & the rest of the crew (the new movie “Star Trek Beyond” had opened the day before). I had to find my way back through the nightlife of downtown Washington Street after the performance and I was surprised to see two “working girls” wearing sullen expressions and micro-shorts while they tottered along on six inch heels. A few steps behind them came their minder, as stereotypically lean and mean as if he had just walked out of Central Casting. Perhaps it was a little late for me to be out alone but no-one bothered me and I got back to the hostel safely.

Another sweltering day and it was time to visit the Jefferson Expansion Memorial (aka The Arch). During the wait for my assigned slot I took a trip on the Mississippi paddle boat, the Tom Sawyer, and listened to a commentary describing the somewhat uninspiring waterfront. Apparently the Budweiser factory is the largest brewery in the America, or was it the world? I was rather distracted by the family beside me; very nearly spherical, they consumed popcorn and nachos with a continuous, almost mechanical hand to mouth motion and conversed on no other subject but where they would be going for their next meal.

Back in the long snaking series of queues for the arch I was fascinated to observe a group of Amish people at close hand. (It was later explained to me that they were probably not Amish but actually Mennonite from nearby Indiana). Their healthy good looks and immaculate “Pilgrim Fathers” workwear made them look as if they had stepped straight off of a film set. Under their starched white caps and aprons these beautiful young women sported corn-blond pigtails and tiny waists while the boys exhibited either the pimple-free chins of an unmarried youth or the classic collar beard of the young husband. And at six and a half feet tall with their “coat hanger” shoulders fitted out with suspenders (aka braces) worn over loose, handmade cotton shirts you really could imagine them throwing up a new barn in an afternoon. I would have loved to have been able to engage some of them in conversation but maybe one day the opportunity will present.

Well, I eventually got to the top of the queue and it was my turn to be propelled into the horrific little five-person, washing machine like capsule that would take us to the top. I’m sorry to say that I very nearly lost it at that stage. Perhaps the images of the escape pods from last night’s Science Fiction film were too fresh in my memory but I remember telling myself, “look, you have stooped into the narrow passages under the pyramid of Khafre at Giza, you can do this”. The family that shared my capsule were sympathetic when I bumped my head and suggested that I stopped looking down through the narrow glass door as we made the slow, jerky ascent to the viewing gallery at the top.

I suppose that if you think about it, a mode of transport that has to traverse a steep arch can be neither a train nor a lift but no one had warned me just how scary the experience would be so I had to re-assure myself all the way up, “you never have to do this again, as long as you live”. And the platform at the top actually wobbles. Given that the St Louis skyline isn’t really that much to write home about I was on the next car down and making my way through the a scarlet throng of celebrating Cardinals (it’s a Missouri thing) and back to base as soon as possible. Here a retired-businessman-turned-biker-dude insisted on cooking me a decent meal before a huge, elderly collie dog lay down on my luggage in an apparent attempt to prevent me from leaving for the bus terminal.

Carl, a kindly local bus driver, made an unscheduled detour to take me right to up to the Greyhound stop so that I wouldn’t get lost again.

Categories: North America

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