In her novel “The Bean Trees,” writer Barbara Kingsolver has a character describe St. Louis’ famous Gateway Arch as “that giant McDonald’s thing towering over the city.”
Kingsolver likely was being facetious, even if her character wasn’t. The massive, 630-foot structure, which symbolizes St. Louis’ reputation as being the “Gateway to the West,” does bear a resemblance to those ubiquitous golden arches. But the likeness ends there.
For one thing, the arch is silver. For another, though you can buy a burger in the Arch Café, which sits in the attendant museum, the 63-story-tall structure wouldn’t meet anyone’s expectation of a fast food joint – certainly not those of the thousands of visitors who come from around the world every year just to see it.
My wife and I were recently among their number. Feeling stifled after more than a year of pandemic house duty, we set out – vaccinated and appropriately masked – to see a part of the country that I, at least, hadn’t experienced in close to half a century: the American Midwest.
Having been born and raised in Peoria, Illinois, my wife is a Midwest native. And the chance to re-explore her childhood hometown was a large part of our quest.
We began by flying into St. Louis. Prominent from the window of our hotel room was the arch, which late at night, even bathed in the glow of several spotlights, seemed underwhelming. It was only when I walked underneath it the next day that I realized just how big it truly is.
The highest part of the arch is accessible by riding small, five-seat tram cars so claustrophobic they might give a Hobbit heart palpitations. Yet the trip – 4 minutes up, 3 minutes down – affords you as much time as you want to peer through viewports that look out over St. Louis on one side, the Illinois riverbank and East St. Louis on the other.
Our hotel was situated right next to the Mississippi River, so we booked a riverboat cruise that allowed us to sit deck-side and yet still listen as a tour guide explained how the river had helped forge St. Louis’ history. Then, that evening, we walked to nearby Busch Stadium to watch the St. Louis Cardinals play (the Cards won, to a thunderous fireworks display).
Early the next morning, we departed north. First, we stopped in Hannibal, the small Missouri town where the great writer Samuel Clemens – otherwise known as Mark Twain – grew up. Everything in the river town is Twain-themed, but we toured only the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, our tickets giving us access to a number of sites, including the Becky Thatcher House, that nearly made us feel the urge to whitewash a fence or two.
Proceeding even farther north, we drove through Keokuk, Iowa, another Mississippi River town, where we met up with some of my wife’s cousins – one of whom gave us a tour of the city. Though downtown Keokuk has seen better days, it does have a main attraction: the Keokuk Lock & Dam No. 19, which boasts of being “the largest electricity generating plant in the world.”
From there, we drove east across one of the widest points of the river into Illinois. Just north of Highway 136 sits the town of Nauvoo, a heritage site of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a prominent place in church history. From there, we went to the farm town of Carthage, site of the infamous Carthage Jail where LDS founder Joseph Smith was killed.
Another couple of hours on the road, driving past all those fields of rich farm soil, brought us to Peoria, where my wife lived through the 10th grade. Chief among its attractions is the Peoria Riverfront Museum, which sits on the Illinois River and houses a decent art collection – including works by Picasso, Chagall and Miro. When we were there, the museum’s highlight was a traveling dinosaur exhibit that, shades of “Jurassic Park,” keyed on the Tyrannosaurus family.
We wanted to visit the Caterpillar Visitors Center & Museum, a memorial to the Peoria-based company that manufactures construction equipment (and that employed my wife’s father for more than four decades). Unfortunately, it was closed. Instead, and in addition to visiting my wife’s former home, the schools she attended and enjoying a reunion with some of her former schoolmates, we made sure to experience what is known as the Grand View Drive and Park.
Certainly scenic, the drive provides a glimpse of some impressive mansions and a river view. Still, what locals describe as “the world’s most beautiful drive” would no doubt earn an eye-roll from anyone who’s ever driven, say, Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road.
All too soon, it was time to return to St. Louis. Our trek back included a stop in Springfield, Illinois, the state capital and home to all things Abraham Lincoln. First, we visited the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, a comprehensive review of history revealed in dioramas, interactive displays and movies – all updated with contemporary, inclusive attitudes.
From there, we stopped at the Lincoln Home Visitors Center, near where the former president and his family lived for 17 years. Speaking of houses, as longtime fans of noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright, we opted then to tour one of Wright’s most ambitious creations: the Dana-Thomas House. Designed in 1902, the 12,000-square-foot, 35-room house is one of Wright’s most prestigious works. Even in the land of Lincoln, Wright’s masterpiece stands out.
Our last experience of Springfield, though, definitely was Lincoln-focused: the Lincoln tomb. Beneath the 117-feet-tall obelisk rest the remains not just of Lincoln but those of his wife, Mary Todd, and three of their sons, plus a number of historical artifacts, including plaques bearing excerpts of famous Lincoln speeches, including the Gettysburg Address.
And then it was over. Our road trip through the Midwest done, we returned to St. Louis, bound for our home in the West – exactly where the city’s majestic arch was pointing us.
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