Thursday, 6 September 2012

Day 8 - Gateway to the West

We woke up this morning to an ominous black cloud. I would like to make it absolutely clear that this was entirely Fi's fault. Yesterday, when my bag was getting heavy and the skies were blue, I commented that I couldn't possibly remove my umbrella because that would cause the weather to change. Fi said that rule only applies in the UK, so into the suitcase the umbrella went. Therefore, anyone in the Midwest who got caught in this morning's torrential downpour, blame Fi.

This morning was the time we'd set aside to do the Gateway Arch in St Louis. It's supposed to be a monument to America's expansion into the west, but apparently the idea that the arch shape also represented a gateway only occurred to the architect after his design was selected. We were also told that the original workforce building the monument was almost entirely white, and this was rectified in one of the first actual enforcements of equal employment law, so it's also become a symbol of the civil rights movement.

The arch is huge and can be seen for miles around, and it looks stunning when the stainless steel catches the light. None of which you can see from our pics, on account of the aforementioned weather.

A landmark almost the same colour as the stormy sky behind it. Google image search for pics of how nice it can look.

The trip to the top is worth doing just to experience the unique transport system. The curved arch means that straightforward lifts wouldn't work, so instead it uses this half-train, half-ferris wheel system. You go up and down in tiny round pods about four feet high - fortunately neither of us suffers from claustrophobia! At the top, there are only small windows to look through, but we got a pretty decent view of St Louis, such as it is.

Ant people, prepare to welcome your new overlords

We needed to hit the road so we only had time for a quick whizz round the museum, but I was pretty impressed by what I saw; in particular, the exhibits didn't seem to gloss over the less pleasant aspects of the westward expansion.

The last item on our to-do list in St Louis was to stop by Ted Drewes just to make sure it hadn't been swept away by the storm, or that the frozen custard hadn't suddenly become poisonous or something. It's a hard job, but we do these things so that those coming behind us can better enjoy their trip; that's just how selfless we are. I'm pleased to report that it was still there and the cookie dough concrete is safe to eat. If you're reading this from the future having found this blog on Google while researching for your own trip, it is your sacred duty to check the nice people at Ted Drewes are still okay, and that the other flavours are safe to eat. Just to be sure.

Our task completed, it was time to hit the road through Missouri. I mentioned back in Illinois that I was very fond of the brown signs; in Missouri we traded these for blue signs.

This is where we played the very British game of Look! Blue Sky! Head thataway!
So far, I have to say Illinois is kicking Missouri's arse on the signage front. Firstly, Missouri's "incident diversion" signs are the same size and colour as the Historic Route 66 ones, which gets confusing. Far worse, though, was the number of junctions we came across where our directions told us to turn but there was no corresponding sign. We tended to go with the directions, and then a hundred metres or so down the road would be one of these blue signs with no arrow, confirming we'd gone the right way. A hundred metres earlier would have been way more help. So there's a handy hint for anyone from the Future: you can probably wing Illinois from the signage, but you need detailed instructions to tackle Missouri (unless you want to cheat and take the Interstate, but where would be the fun in that?).

Driving through the Missouri countryside, we started to feel like it would be a good time for a break, if only we could think of somewhere fun to stop.

There didn't seem to be anything coming up, though.

 Perhaps there's just nothing to see on this stretch of the road.

Or is it that Missouri attractions really like to hide their light under the proverbial bushel?

Either way, it was a long road with no sign of anything coming up.

Mile after mile without any hint of an attraction.

 On the plus side, maybe we'd get to our hotel early tonight?

We were just about to give up on the idea of having anywhere to stop when all of a sudden we happened across some caverns on the Meramec River!

A cabin from the woods nearby that was moved here for reasons that aren't entirely clear

This place looked pretty cool, so we decided to stop. Lucky we came across it - they should really get someone in to sort out some advertising or something so people know they're there.

We initially thought the $20 tour seemed a bit steep, but it turned out to take well over an hour so in retrospect it was quite a bargain. Our tour guide was fantastic: he had a brilliantly deadpan sense of humour that was perfect for what turned out to be one of the tackiest tourist attractions I've ever seen. He started off by telling us that the log cabin in the entrance had nothing whatsoever to do with the caverns, and went on to proudly announce that they had the only Foucault pendulum in the world that doesn't work.

The caverns really have to be seen to be believed. They're huge, and have some of the largest stalactites and stalagmites in the world, as well as incredibly clear water that reflects the cavern roof with crystal clarity. The natural beauty of this place is amazing.

These are some pretty rocks...

However, why would you just show off the wonders of nature when you can improve on them?

...but aren't they improved with the addition of gaudy colours?

When we got to this part of the tour, Meramec Caverns officially displaced the Canadian side of Niagara Falls in my mind as the tackiest over-commercialisation of a natural phenomenon I've ever seen. However, that was before we got to the "theatre."

A nice flat-ish bit of rock underground? LET'S PROJECT STUFF ON IT!

For the finale of the tour, we were seated in front of a bit wall of rock while God Bless America blared on the stereo, accompanied by a light show, which was literally the tour guide flicking switches on and off in time with the music. The "show" finished with the American flag projected on the rock. I just... I have no words.

The whole tour, and especially that show, has to be one of the most surreal things I have ever seen. I arrived expecting a quick scenic break from the road, and left two hours later so befuddled that I found I didn't even care how much I believed their tenuous evidence for the Jesse James connection. As marketing ploys go, though, this one doesn't half work; if these had just been pretty caves I might have spent a paragraph saying that we saw some caverns and they were nice. By making the place utterly weird, they've ensured they occupy the bulk of a blog post, albeit primarily about how ridiculous the place is.

It's unlikely that anything will ever top that stop for weirdness, but we pressed on out west into what was now blazing sunshine, and the lizard got to bask in Cuba, MO.
The other Cuba

Pretty things

Cuba was quite similar to Pontiac back in Illinois, in the sense that the town is filled with murals depicting its past. I especially liked the Amelia Earhart one: her "connection" to Cuba is apparently that she crashed not far away, but everything was fine so she picked herself up and carried on to Los Angeles. Awesome.

Our other notable stop of the day was just a few miles down the road in Fanning, for the world's largest rocking chair. Admittedly, we didn't request paperwork to support this claim, but having seen it I think we can agree that it's a bloody massive chair. Even if it doesn't actually rock.

Frankly, I'd prefer a normal-sized one that actually rocks, but hey ho.

We also stopped in Rolla, where we came across an actual roundabout! Unfortunately there was no one else around, so we didn't get to see how Americans think they work. Our stop here was at the Totem Pole Trading Post, a Route 66 icon. In return for taking pictures, we dutifully spent some money in the gift shop (those two suitcases are going to earn their keep on the way back!) and met the owner, Tim, who was absolutely lovely. We ended up spending a good long while there hearing about the history of the road from someone who's part of it, which was fantastic.

Around 7pm, realising we'd only eaten a couple of slices of toast and some frozen custard all day, we stopped at Sweetwater BBQ for dinner. I don't know why I've never seen this place mentioned on other blogs, because it was great. The staff were lovely, the pork ribs literally fell off the bone and the potato salad was divine. And between two of us, with dinners so large we only ate about half, we spent less than $30.

It was late when we rolled into Springfield, MO to check into the Best Western Rail Haven. The receptionist asked if we were here as part of a Route 66 trip, and when we said yes the lovely Tonya jumped in and went to great lengths to direct us around a road closure coming up on the route. She then went on to talk about the history of the road, about the business owners she knows further west and made a list of recommendations for stops that aren't in our guides. I don't know how long we spent talking to her, but we kept her up a long time. We chose this place because of the reviews of tripadvisor, and suffice it to say there will be another 5* review when I get around to writing it. And I think we paid all of ~£45 for a room with two doubles. Hypothetical Future People: if you're stopping in Springfield MO, stay at the Best Western and say hi to Tonya.

The unexpectedly awesome Best Western Rail Haven Route 66


  1. I had no idea you could go up the arch - that must have been a great experience, especially as they used such a unique transportation system. The museum sounds really interesting too.

    As for the caverns - I imagine with nothing else around, they must get quite a few visitors in the summer, though they do sound awful! I loved your blog writing at this point too - had me smiling!

    I had no idea there was so much to see on the route, so much of it odd, unique and/or tacky! I'm loving reading all this!

  2. I love central Missouri. Springfield is home to Lambert's Cafe, home of "throwed rolls" and awesome food in bulk servings.

    Gotta stop on your next trip there!