September 8, 2012

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Below are the diary entries for September 8, 2012, with the newest entries added at the bottom. Also, check out today’s photos.

Nicoline The Gateway Arch, St. Louis
Nicoline (September 8, 2012)

Last modified: September 9, 2012 at 10:08:38

We thought we’d change things up a little and stay at a Baymont Inn instead of a Days Inn, but I’m not sure it’s a step up on the Wyndham ladder, as their paperwork suggests. Their internet is slow as molasses in January. I can just about check facebook and email and then it’s tired and needs a rest. It also won’t let me log into Eric’s laptop, which is a great bore, because I have a picture that tells the history of the Eastern half of the United States in a nutshell.

As I said, we drove out to Kaskaskia from Perryville, MO, this morning. Eric wanted to have the pleasure of driving into St. Louis from the east, which required a drive back into Illinois anyway, so it didn’t make much difference where we’d cross the Mississippi. The land was somewhat flat, but not completely so, until we got to what I suppose you’d call a bayou. It’s basically a part of the river that’s dry land under normal conditions but it floods without any encouragement at all. We couldn’t believe how Dutch it looked, coming up on a low dike and then standing on top looking over flat land as far as the eye can see. Even the wind was Dutch, definitely on the nippy side and I’m sure that had we tried to bike there, we would have had headwind no matter which direction we went.

At any rate, we drove to the town of Kaskaskia, where we saw the bell that Louis XV donated to the citizens in the first half of the 18th century (without pictures I can’t check the dates, dang it!) so they could put it in their church. It now hangs in a little chapel, which was unfortunately closed, but we could look inside it. A little ways down the road is the church of Kaskaskia, very European looking also, with an all-brick steeple, instead of the white wooden New England-looking ones we’re used to here. The place was and is French, down to the fleur de lis on the church steps, and we were not surprised to find that it was a Catholic church. Kaskaskia consists of a grid of nine streets, along most of which we walked because it was such a nice, fresh day and not at all muggy. During our walk we saw exactly one person, who greeted us but made no attempt at conversation, and two dogs. That was it. So we got back in the car and drove out along La Grande Rue in the opposite direction of how we’d driven in.

Pretty soon we ended up at the little dike again. No signs said we couldn’t drive up to the top and over it into a farm road, so that’s what we did for all of about 100 ft. I could feel the car slipping and sliding as I drove at barely a walk, so I told Eric I wasn’t going to go any farther and get hopelessly bogged down in thick mud. I intended to turn, but Eric didn’t think the sides of the road would hold up at all, so in the end I just put the car in reverse and drove out backward. We didn’t get stuck, but it took quite a while for the wheels to shed the mud.

We decided that maybe we’d better return to civilization and paved roads, so we took La Grande Rue back past Kaskaskia and out towards Ste. Geneviève, where there was supposed to be a ferry across the Mississippi. And that’s where Eric took the picture I’m talking about. A sign post bearing a street sign saying “La Grande Rue” intersecting with “N. King’s Highway." If that’s not a perfect metaphor for 18th century American history, I don’t know what is.

Anyway, we drove onto Ste. Geneviève, wondering how the locals pronounced it. Despite 15 years in Maryland and 17 years in the country, when I come across a very French name like that, I pronounce it the way the French would (despite my mistreatment of the the Gallic language, of course). It took me years to remember that Montpellier is pronounced MontPELE-ear, instead of Monpel-YAY. As it turns out, Ste. Geneviève is the oldest permanent European settlement in Missouri, founded ca. 1735, according to Wikipedia, and the natives pronounce it Saint Geneveef. A shame to mistreat a beautiful name like that, but there it is. It’s a charming little town that we spent a little while exploring. I think w sometimes forget, or choose not to remember, that the French are just as much part of our history as the English and Germans. It's great to be able to travel wherever we fancy instead of having to stick to a set schedule. So what if that means we sometimes fall a little behind?

Unfortunately, the ferry was closed due to historically low water levels on the Mississippi. The clerk at the welcome center, who was probably all of 25 years old, said he didn’t remember it ever been as low as it is now. So we ended up driving back into Missouri and up I-55 to loop back to a point where we could pick up I-70 west to St. Louis. I drove, and Eric snapped picture after picture, which you aren’t going to get to see until we get to a place with decent internet, I’m afraid. Or until the morning, when most people are busy eating breakfast or checking out and not hogging bandwith :-)

We quickly found parking near the Arch and walked to the visitor center that’s below ground. Security was pretty tight. The Park Service even made people take off their belts. We bought tickets for the 1.30 showing of a movie about Lewis and Clark, the 2.25 tram ride to the top of the arch and a 4 p.m. showing of a documentary about how the Arch was built. The movie was made by National Geographic and featured absolutely breathtaking nature scenes: rivers, prairies, mountains, glaciers, and oceans. Stunning. It’s worth a visit to the Arch just to see that movie.

President Jefferson, Lewis and Clark may have believed that there was plenty of space for white settlement and that Native Americans and whites could co-exist peacefully, but they were quite wrong. Probably no one set out to start a war, but just consider this: St. Louis had 500 residents in 1803, when Lewis and Clark set out toward the Pacific. By the time of the Mexican War, the town had over 47,000 residents! The whole history of westward expansion is beautifully laid out in the museum of westward expansion. Not as slickly produced, perhaps, as the show at the Lincoln Museum, but more authentic and probably more authoritative. I didn’t read every single panel, but there’s a whole wall devoted to a timeline of westward expansion, plus different tableaux with “moving” and “talking” mannequins and what looked to be real historical artifacts.

The documentary about the building of the Arch is also well-worth seeing, especially if you are an engineer. I just like it for architect Saarinen’s conceptualization and for the drama of making all the pieces fit together exactly so. At 630 ft. the Arch is the highest of all monuments in the country and it’s made out of a specially made steel sections clad in stainless steel from Pittsburgh that were shipped out to St. Louis by train and that were welded together in place. The people who worked on it cannot have suffered from vertigo, since most of them appeared to go about their jobs almost without any safety precautions. No one seemed to use safety harnesses, though they did wear hard hats. Nevertheless, the Arch was completed without the loss of a single life.

We meant to go on to the Old Courthouse, which is part of the Arch National Park, even though it’s two blocks away. But that had already closed. It’s the site of the first two trials in the Dred Scott case, before it came before the Supreme Court. The court itself is in the process of being refurbished on the outside and we decided we didn’t want to stick around St. Louis until tomorrow to wait for the museum to open. After all, the facts of the Dred Scott case are fairly well-known and you can easily find whatever you need to know about it on the internet. So we had a little picnic at the base of the Arch and then got back in the car to drive out west toward southern Missouri. After two hours of driving, we decided to call it a day. The Baymont Inn has a pool and we treated ourselves to some R&R in the pool and the hot tub. That sure felt good!

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Eric Going to St. Louis
Eric (September 8, 2012)

Last modified: September 9, 2012 at 8:56:27

We started out today going back to Illinois today, to its very first capital! The current capital of Illinois, Springfield, is actually the third capital in the state. It was preceded by Vandalia (where we were the day before yesterday) and before that, between 1818 and 1820, the capital was in a town called Kaskaskia, which is where we went today.

Kaskaskia is a very special place: it is located in an enclave west of the Mississippi (normally, the Mississippi is Illinois' western border), a little round area surrounded by Missouri. It has a Missouri ZIP code and a Missouri area code, but otherwise is considered part of Illinois. The whole enclave is surrounded by levees to protect it from flooding by the Mississippi. Apart from the 14 people that live there today (according to the 2010 census) there seem to be a couple of farms in the enclave. Actually, the whole area looks remarkably like a Dutch "polder," even the church has a distinct European look.

From Kaskaskia we went on to Sainte Genevieve, the first continuously settle town in Missouri. This is really a nice little town, looks very cozy! It has a city park (with benches and public restrooms) so small I guess it should be measured in square feet rather than acres... We wanted to take the ferry across the Mississippi from there, but the ferry was out of service because of the extreme low water levels in the Mississippi. We did have an ice cream at Sara's Ice Cream and Antiques, though.

From Ste. Genevieve we went on to St. Louis. I really wanted to enter St. Louis coming on I-70 over the bridge, so we took yet another detour into Illinois (the last one) and back over the bridge into the town. . The rest of the afternoon was spend visiting the Arch: going to the top, of course, but also watching two presentations, one about the Lewis and Clark expedition and one about the construction of the monument.

We had skipped lunch, but had dinner in the shadow of the Arch with things we are carrying with us (we're trying to only go out for lunch or dinner every other day and eat less unhealthy things in-between), then went on with our trip. We headed south-west on I-44, because we plan to visit Mansfield next. We drove down to Rolla where we got a hotel with an indoor pool, in which we did some relaxing before working on our diary entries. Which is why it is really late now...

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