I crossed the Mississippi and spent the night in Sikeston, home of famous Lambert’s restaurant, where I was “throwed” a roll for breakfast. Continuing west into the Ozarks, the hills became a sudden green, rolling up from cotton fields and patches of dry corn. Somewhere near the town of Van Buren, I received a Facebook message from Veronica, whom l met at a party in LA nearly 4 years ago. She suggested I visit her family’s farm in nearby Mt. View. I’d learned to follow these sudden leads, so I adjusted my route.
But first I took a detour through the forest to Big Springs where an enormous stream of cool, clear water poured from cavernous rock in stunning opalescence. I sat on the grass inhaling the end of summer, measuring the sun’s golden light as it shimmered across leaves ready to change.
From the back of my van, the Chief, I set up an ad hoc picnic: an apple, some bread, warm yogurt, a V8. The van’s exterior was dirty and needed a bath; I’d left him sitting for a few weeks at my friend’s house in Illinois. The Chief had carried me through 32 States, the odometer passing 000000.0 near the Missouri border. I’d driven over 26,000 miles so far. Somehow, the Chief had carried me around the world and more.
When I got to the farm, Veronica’s Aunt Lewene and Uncle Tom were already waiting for me, accompanied by a trio of friendly dogs, various curious cats, and a crew of furtive kittens. We walked from the house through dusk’s slanting shadows, over fields greened from rains, towards the old homestead where Tom grew up. 30 years of disuse had worn the wood gray, but we crept inside, and Tom gestured to the porch his mother enclosed, creating another room, when his father died. Climbing the narrow creaking stairs revealed the children’s room, the ceiling lined with magazine pages from 1926 for insulation, a rusty typewriter sat on a shelf, its keys seemed exhausted by the stories tapped into it.
Horses outside nuzzled me when I sat on the soft soil, a soil that also filled the pots in the greenhouse where a few stalwart flowers retained their colors. As the sun set Tom pointed out a pair of peacocks roosting high in the trees. Lewene invited me to stay for a farm-fresh dinner. We shared it with their son Dave, a parson pilot who runs a medical clinic, and his wife Tracy. As night enveloped the house, we talked cozily of Lewene’s years as a nurse, of Dave’s recent near-death experience in his plane, of Tom’s family stories growing up on a remote rural farm. The conversation later swirled through my dreams, my body cuddled by the softest mattress of the trip.
Morning revealed a gun-metal sky and the chill message of Fall. I left the McVickers’ amid hugs and wagging tails, made a pit-stop in Mt. View to see Dave’s beautiful clinic, and paused for a mechanic to look at the Chief whose exhaust coughed black smoke; my poor van seemed grumbled whenever I cranked the engine. The mechanic adjusted its throttle. Warmed up, we were soon on the road to visit a picturesque mill perched above another silvery pool at Alley Springs.
I shot up Route 19, the van groaning as we carved through the woods, the hilltops revealing other hills revealing others that would soon be painted with reds and yellows before dropping into a uniform brown some months away. I got my haircut in St. James by Donna, who tipped me about the largest rocking chair in the world and a town full of murals just east in Cuba. I made the loop past them, returning to St. James for free wine-tasting, and tacos.
Jefferson City, or what is locally known as Jeff City, housed a capitol with fabulous murals by Thomas Hart Benton. From there I followed the river to Rhineland and the German town of Hermann, its outdoor beer gardens freshly painted for Octoberfest. The Missouri drew me on to Washington, where I wandered downtown before spending the afternoon reading and exercising in the city park.
My buddy Mick’s parents invited me to stay with them in St. Louis. A city I was curious about, had grown up with, raised on the stories of Lewis and Clark, Jed Smith, Jim Bridger and the fur trade that led up the Missouri into Blackfoot territory; a territory which held the legends of John Fitzpatrick, who escaped the Indians hunting him by hiding in a beaver dam, or of Hugh Glass, attacked by a grizzly and left for dead, crawling several hundred miles through the wilderness to safety at Fort Kiowa. These tales and many more had their origins in St. Louis.
My hosts were Mike and Kay Sullivan, who lived in the idyllic neighborhood of Glendale. Mike had the day off, and led me on a super-tour of town. We rode bikes to Grant’s Farm but it was closed, then cruised around Forest Park where we mounted the Muni Opera stage to a packed audience of none. Mike was a professor who’d grown up in St. Louis. He explained how the park was renovated to its present groomed state, how he and his brothers would swim in the pools during the hot summers, and how people, before air-conditioning, would spend the night on the broad lawns.
Nearby were the city’s vast botanical gardens, which were just as Mike described them, “A gem.” We jumped into a neighbor’s pool back home, the cold water squeezing the breath from my lungs, leaves falling from the trees to drift tentatively on the surface. That evening we were joined by their son Brian, and over cold beers and a warm home-cooked dinner our discussion veered around the world.
The next day was busy, a marathon to see the rest of the city. I stopped by U.S. Grant’s old house, and the farm now run by Anheuser Busch, populated with various animals, wide-eyed kids and a German courtyard perfect for drinking beer. I ascended the gleaming arch for a view of the city, slid down a 7-story slide and crawled through the mouth of a dragon at the City Museum (one of the coolest in the country). I paid homage to the gorgeous St. Louis Basilica, made an unrecommended stop by the Apple Store only to encounter the line for iPhone 5, pirated WiFi from McD’s, then returned to the Sullivan’s for another home-cooked meal. Grandma’s chicken and rice was being served. I was given an erudite peek into the death of Cesar Chavez, and the life of an activist, embodied in Kay’s sister, Virginia.
I don’t drink coffee, but I do drink crushed berries and yogurt. The sun was out, the sky was blue, a perfect Midwestern Autumn day; Fall had finally fallen. I joined Jessica and Andrew, friends I’d met in Colorado, at their favorite coffee place for a smoothie, and afterwards followed Andrew to his studio in an old bakery not far from downtown. An artist, he walked me through images taken from the Rose Parade, and talked about the process he intended for the art he’d create. Seeing his work made me want to get back on canvas again; I thought about the flowers as I drove to Old St. Charles, up river.
Flowers were everywhere in the old part of town, nestled among the many pumpkins and scarecrows decorating quaint storefronts along the street. I got an ice-cream cone, ate it in the sun, then took the fast track north to Hannibal, the home of Mark Twain, Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, Molly Brown, and my host for the next two days, Paul McVicker, another son of Lewene and Tom.
He lived in a gorgeous 19th century mansion, filled with a treasure trove of comics, Hardy Boy’s novels, Tom Swift and Star Trek books, and piles of DVDs that brought back memories. We prowled the town, watch the sun set over the Mississippi, and spent many hours watching movies (Conan, the Saint, Hollywood Knights) and perusing his vast collections. I wandered the sidewalks of Hannibal the next day followed by Huck’s shadow, then took refuge back at the house, before curling up on the big bed upstairs and sinking into a sleep that would lead to morning.
At 6am Paul and I were up, shared a box of Honey-nut Cheerios, shook hands and I was on my way to State 33. Ahead of me was another river to cross, and two State Sign Dances to fulfill; I was characteristically running behind. Thank you Missouri for your kind people, beautiful cities and rivers. Sadly I missed your caves…but I’ll be back.