St. Louis: Gospel Music, Lavender Tea, and Heartburn.
Traveling shouldn’t make you jaded. Whether it’s Paris, France or Gallop, New Mexico, the wanderer should always be eager for the chance to taste something different. Every new place you go is so heavily coated with context and subjectivity, that it’s nearly impossible to know if you’ll like it or not just by what you’ve seen on television. (Personally, I had never seen St. Louis on the TV. I was going in as blind as a turkey)
“We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us”
Aside from being one of those quotes painfully tattooed on the arm of an eighteen-year-old girl who hasn’t, and never will, read anything by Steinbeck, the words ring true for my situation. I’m testifying; a trip will take you whether you like it or not, and, I say this wholeheartedly, St. Louis took me to a good place.
This is St. Louis’ flag. Kind of ugly, don’t you think?
Speaking of context, I’m playing the role of driver as we pull into Mound City, which is quite frightening when you take into consideration my serious lack of urban driving experience. For the last four years, I either walked or rode my bike wherever I needed to go. Sure, I have strong, admirable legs because of it, but I’m sweating now. My God am I rusty. For some foolish reason I hold onto the mirage of what we’ll call my pride as I refuse to admit I shouldn’t be commandeering this ship. Luckily, Lee’s distracted by the concrete and glass of the large buildings, or he would surely notice the ineptitude sweating from my palms and brow.
If anyone’s ignorant of the danger we’re in, it’s the maps app on my smartphone. She’s spitting off more directions than Ron Howard on the set of some movie I’ll never see. Sit tight, little buddy, we’re in the shit now; it’s rush hour. If this were a National Lampoon film, we’d cut to a long-shot of the Jeep rolling through the middle of the Arch, while tourists frantically jump out of harm’s way. Thankfully, I’m not Chevy Chase, and I find a safe location to make the driver switch with Lee. The man’s got strong intuition for directions.
“Maybe it’s best I drive.” He says.
A Place to Eat
It’s funny the immense sway Yelp has on a road trip. For instance, what’s the first thing you do when you get to an unfamiliar city? Find a place to eat, of course. How do you find the right place to eat? You turn to Yelp. At the moment, us Michigan boys are craving some old fashioned BBQ. Something smoky and succulent; something you’ll need a thousand cheap paper napkins to clean up after. Listen, St. Louis, I’m ready to put Billabong sunglasses on the back of my head and go Guy Fierei on a local grub joint. Thanks to Yelp for yelping us out, we narrow it down to Bogart’s Smokehouse and Pappy’s Smokehouse. You’d think everyone out here was born in a smokehouse.
A side note – We came dangerously close to Diners, Drive-ins, and Diving this whole damn trip. Lee, and a part of myself, hoped to only eat at idiosyncratic restaurants. That meant no fast food, corporate-casual dining, or hot dogs – I threw hot dogs in because I hate hot dogs. At one point, we were only going to grace the tables that once fed Mr. Fieri, but that’s much more difficult than it sounds.
Another side note – I can’t help but notice the age difference between Lee and I. He has an admirable way of seeming content with his years. Undoubtedly young at heart, my Father has defeated cynicism – the byproduct of getting older. Perhaps kindness is the actual antidote to aging. That being said, when I’m a father myself, and age is being discussed with my son, I’ll say, “I’m old enough to be your father” and confuse him.
By chance we end up in Soulard. There’s an extensive farmer’s market occurring. Parents in embarrassing outfits walk in front of their children, all sticky from kettle corn and candy. Cradled in the brick arms of what I presume is the historic district, sits a grand, open hall. Keep in mind we’re still quite hungry. To our dismay, the closest BBQ vendor has an impressive line down the street. We decide to walk around and appreciate the handsome neighborhood.
The buildings are old, European, and inviting. It’s nice seeing Lee so enthralled by the houses and architecture. Many of them have bucolic front yards. I’m tempted to set up shop with a good book, in hopes the owner’s will say, “he seems nice” and bring me an iced glass of peach tea.
Quiet with wisdom and grace, an empty church offers a cool place to take a break from the hot Missouri sun. Finally, we meet a thespian named Clayton, who struggles to give us directions worth following. He redeems himself with his compassionate interest in my journey. For instance, when he discovers I desire to work in film, his face brightens as he shakes my hand. We’re both artists, and we gotta stick together.
The Farmer’s Market – Farmers Only! Just Kidding, Everyone’s Invited
Just outside of the hall, a temporary stage hosts a gospel music group of about five or six gentlemen. As a fan of Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, this is a big deal for me. I’ve never, from what I can remember, experienced live gospel music. While the men in over-sized, black suits sing, a crowd of about thirteen stand and receive the gospel in sublime ecstasy. They’re responding with visceral “Amens” and “woots.” Being the shy man that I am, I reply with only a smile. In all honesty, I’m afraid I’ll give an untimely “Amen.”
“The devil’s gonna come and take us away.”
“Amen! I mean, aw, man, that sucks.”
We wander around the booths of fruits, dairy, meats, and crafts looking for that special something. The crowds are overwhelming, but we manage to end up at a loose tea leaf stand. The vendor is a sweet eyed, African-American woman who has one of the most authentic smiles I’ve ever seen. She points out a small boy being chased by a proud chicken in the alley. We’ll never know the outcome of that episode, but I’m assuming it wasn’t good. Despite the little sprite’s efforts, the chicken was healthy and determined.
After a minor purchase of Lavender tea, to help me sleep, we head back to the car. One final thing catches my interest at the Soulard Farmer’s Market. Just outside of the exit, a makeshift bluegrass band has set up chairs in a half circle. In modest white shirts, black suspenders, and straw boaters, these guys are the real deal. The banjo player lets a curious young lad turn the pegs, tricking him into believing he’s tuning it.
Pappy’s Barbecue – You’ll be so Happy, You’ll Slap Your Pappy
We leave Soulard with happy hearts, heading to the other side of town to give Pappy’s a go. Yet again, the line is down the street, only this time the sweet mesquite smoke draws us in. Like anyone else waiting to eat at a restaurant, we look at the menu and decide what we’re going to get. As the drama unfurls over what Lee’s second side is going to be, we find ourselves inside, nearly at the front of the line.
Luckily, it’s enough time to make a new friend. After trudging his way through the picnic tables full of messy patrons, an earnest, middle-aged man situates himself next to us like an old friend we had been saving a spot for. His name is John and he owns Pappy’s. “That can’t be possible. Pappy owns Pappy’s” is what I considered saying, but kept my mouth shut and let Lee do the talking (it’s what he does best). Despite their conflicting political opinions, both men seem so proud to be part of an establishment that has been operating for such a long time, and still seeing an endless inflow of hungry bellies. John was a good guy. He treats his employs with respect, and, as a result, the food is delicious.
This may come as a surprise, but I wasn’t impressed with the Gateway Arch. It’s oddity and architectural triumph are surely enough to make it a must-see, but it is, after all, an arch. After a little more exploring through the capitol building, Lee and I decide we should be on our way. We are still far away from heaven, and even farther from California.
We stay the night in another Drury Inn – I promise this blog is not sponsored in anyway by Drury Inn. Breakfast: yogurt, Oatmeal, and Green Tea (aren’t I a healthy boy?) As we pull out of the hotel heading towards the highway, we pass a Waffle House. Personally, I’ve never been to a waffle house – I’m a waffle snob – but Lee claims it was once the only place to eat on road trips. I ask why. He responds,
“Back then, no one knew what the hell a good waffle was.”
Next stop, Route 66. I bid you goodnight.
To be Continued.
[ For over 40 years, Drury Inn has been leading the way in superior customer service. as they say, “Drury Inn – If you can find another hotel to stay at, we won’t stop ya.” ]