Wednesday, January 14, 2015

One-Way Gateway - From St. Louis International Airport to the Gateway Arch on Foot - Part 2

This is the second in a four-part series; for the first part, click here.

Part 2

I found my mark and hung a left onto Natural Bridge Road, the first road on my directions.

There was the airport, already seemingly so distant.  Lest I forget it was there, the roar of an arriving or departing plane interrupted my thoughts every couple minutes.   

This alley was enticing for a visit, but I decided against it; who knows how long these 14.5 miles could end up taking?

OK, first turn.  I was surprisingly nervous; then again, I was on a time crunch in a city I hadn’t been to in years.  And I’d never been in this part of town.  Due to St. Louis’s close proximity to Louisville, my family had never flown there, even though there was historically a flight from Louisville directly to St. Louis.  For my father, everything was driving distance if we were paying; I mean, we drove all the way to Nova Scotia for heavens’ sake, but that’s a story for another time.  All that was to say that we always came from the east and never bothered to go to the city’s western side.  I’ll be on Woodson Road for a mile or so, so might as well take in the sights.

Based on the state of the sign, it’s hard to tell if this place is still open.  The little portico style is kind of unusual, and the whole property screams of the early 80’s.  That being said, I wouldn’t mind stopping in if they were open.  It is at this moment when I realized that a single Clif Bar was not enough to tide me over.  Only a mile or so underway, my stomach grumbles, dissatisfied with my digested offering.

Off to either side, little neighborhoods sprawls out.  It’s early on a Saturday, so there’s not much going on.  People are enjoying the cool temperatures and staying inside. 

Here’s my stop; into one of those aforementioned neighborhoods.    The roads are quiet enough I can cross even the four-lane road without much trouble, and into the pleasant neighborhood that will bear me to my next big road.

It’s a bit late in the year to hear much in the way of chirping birds that a lovely morning might otherwise elicit, so the streets are uncomfortably still.  The homes in this community are a mixture of new and old ranch homes, most with garages, and all with character.  Each has had work done on it by its owners to make them their own.  This is where real people live, this is where they sleep and eat and where they spend time with their families.

Take a right.  The picture doesn’t do it justice, but you’re actually moving onto a pretty decent incline.  As I march up the hill, two girls play on the porch on my right.  Each regards me with a bit of wonder and a bit of discomfort; in an attempt to defuse both, I smile back.

Here’s a nice house, particularly well-developed and maintained.  The house looked like it belonged in a bolder, more solitary setting out west, but it also had a positive effect on every house around it.  Whoever lives here cares about their home.

Another little rise and I emerge onto the road that will be my home for the next couple hours: St. Charles Rock Road.

This four-lane behemoth appears to be a main artery of St. Louis’s road system, sporting a large number of cars going in both directions.  Left/east I go, with the sun squarely in my face.

Right across the street, an impressive, new-looking high school complex sweeps wide into a field.  Surprisingly, though, there wasn’t much going on.  I’d expect that, on a pretty Saturday morning in the fall, the football team would be out running plays or stretching for a day’s practice. 

Woah, $2.55, huh?  That’s some cheap gasoline!  Long before Louisville dipped below $3.00/gallon, St. Louis was already on the savings train.  Turns out that St. Louis has markedly low fuel prices while its neighbor, Illinois, has cripplingly high prices, especially near Chicago.
I came upon a brand new McDonalds a short ways up the road and, for just a moment, I considered patronizing them; an Egg McMuffin and a nice hash brown might shut my stomach up.  I thought better of it but, while stopping to consider the menu, I saw a lovely church cradled off to one side.

This residential church was called Our Lady of the Presentation and is what I’d assume to be a Catholic congregation.  The building was quite a standout amongst the franchise-laden road I’d just departed. 

Alright, biscuit urge silenced.  Off we go.

I went for a while without seeing a whole lot that stood out to me; I’d chosen St. Charles Rock Road because it was the straightest and safest choice, given its fairly considerably sidewalk and high exposure.  Not to mention, all roads kind of lead there, so I could deviate and find my way back.  Just listen for the cars. 

This old building has been sitting derelict for a minute. Given the overgrowth on the parking lot, I’d say RDA has been MIA since the late 90s.  There wasn’t a “for sale” sign or anything which is fairly unusual.  Maybe they still own it and are just waiting for better times to reopen.

I use our interstates at home every day, so I’m used to seeing out particular numbers framed against that familiar blue background all the time: I-264, I-65, I-71.  Seeing numbers out of the ordinary, thus, is noteworthy.  It feels like a typo.  “No, Mr. Sign, that number’s wrong.”

This was a fun story of “shoot first, ask questions later.”  There was a large building to my left when I took this, but it wasn’t until I was able to examine the picture more closely that it became clear what I was looking at.  This is the Enterprise Rent-A-Car headquarters; I didn’t know they were based in St. Louis, but apparently, there they are!  My family almost exclusively used Hertz when we’d travel, but I used Enterprise in July to rent a car in Oregon and it was a very positive experience.

The businesses started to thin out as I moved into a more residential section of town; the national chains diminished almost entirely; there was a dive bar on one side of the street, and setback houses on the other. 

Have you ever been somewhere that, although you hadn’t been there before, it felt oddly familiar to you?  This very spot felt that way to me.  This particular angle, with transmission towers on one side and a shotgun house on the other, reminded me of a dream I hadn’t thought about since the day I had it.  There wasn’t anything distinct about the dream; I can’t remember what was going on or who was in it, but this scene is quite similar to that from my dream.  In my dream, it was overcast and dusky, though, and it appeared much more ominous than this innocuous scene.

I’m not one of those people who would try to read some cosmic or supernatural meaning into that; it’s only reasonable that places in your dreams are formed out of pieces of separate memories and constructs.  This particular configuration just happened to get eerily close.

This general store was more typical of what you might find in a rural small town, but here’s one right outside a major city.  Also, you’ll see on the left this audacious claim.  “’Home of the ½ Pound Burger?’  Sir or Madam, I believe thou art hyperbolizing.”  Gosh, a juicy, flavorful eight-ounce burger...

I crested the rise and saw on my right and left a pair of cemeteries.

Although seemingly unconnected, both sides were lined with beautifully tended, tranquil cemeteries, each seeming to support a different, well, clientele.  My best guess, at least from the street view, suggested that the one to my left bore interred veterans and military personnel primarily.

The grounds inside were gorgeous, and it appeared they had just been doing work on the landscaping right out front.  I even saw a couple of joggers getting their morning run in; it was about 10:00, so these were a bit of the late-rising sort. 

I’m not sure how I feel about using a cemetery as anything but a place to be respectful of the dead.  In my mind, that land is theirs, but I don’t judge people who go to cemeteries for a quiet, uncrowded jogging path.  For me, when entering a cemetery, regardless of how many people are interred there or how large or small the grounds, I always take off my hat, take out my music, get off the phone, or stop doing anything that might distract me from the place I’m walking.  Every person buried there had someone who loved and cherished them, and their lives were of great worth while they were still here.  Respecting their life and their death is an important part of maintaining that worth.

Now on a different note, I hadn’t walked a block past these two cemeteries before encountering a bit of visual trickery.

What?  I have no interest in eating cats! The nerve of you to –

Oh, my mistake.  Carry on.

It was about this time when I took a pause and considered my position.  I got my Camelbak out and downed a considerable portion of the airport water inside, only now acutely aware of my thirst.  Always drink your water, kids.

When I think of the Midwest, I think of American mass growth.  As the so-called Heart of America, places like Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Texas, Kansas, and even places like Ohio always stand out as places where, after the Great Depression, America swelled.  People were coming home from war, industry was converting back to producing private contracts, homes and families grew, and the process of daily living became more streamlined. 

This little building stood out to me as an example of such streamlined expansion.  This little building, in what my dad calls the “ticky-tacky” style, after the significant portions of prefabbed material and cheap, cookie-cutter appearance, attests to this period of growth.  The sign’s backdrop is made from corrugated sheet metal, the awning supports are simple metal pipe; the brick façade is real, but the chromed metal on the sign and awning are likely not original. 

Does it do the job?  You bet it does.  Is it ugly?  To some, maybe, but I don’t think so.  Rather, I think it says something about a time long ago, when speed and efficiency so supplanted creativity and individuality that it tried to define everybody.  This building could be found anywhere in the country and it wouldn’t look out of place.  Today, pragmatic expansion is never accomplished as blindly and unilaterally as it was then; more people were on the same line of thinking back then, or at the very least, those who had power were often along the same lines.  Americans used to be quite collectivist, if you can believe it.  This building represents the ostensibly conflicting “collectivist-capitalist” mindset that drove America to where it is today.

Hey, look at that!  There’s where I’m headed in the distance!  If I can see it, it can’t be that far away, right?


A quick glance at my pedometer informs me that no, my four miles of completed walking is not sufficient to reach my destination.  A golf course sat back along the north side of the road, nearly abutting the cemetery I’d passed, which meant there wasn’t much to see on the other side nor was there much sidewalk from which to see it.  I crossed here and kept to the south side.

This place appeared to be a developmental center for special needs or learning disabled children.  The title, albeit worded with an antiquated template, is a Bible verse reference.  The verse commonly translates, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.”  I’m not sure what that has to do with a child development center.  It’s not particularly religious, not mentioning anything about God at all.  In fact, I could see this verse out of context being a quote by Thomas More, John Milton, or any other pre-modern English author or philosopher.

It doesn’t appear to be a daycare; otherwise, there’d certainly be someone there, even though it was a Saturday.  It is weird to visit St. Louis on a weekend, especially given the state of some of these buildings.  They could just as soon be closed for the weekend as closed forever. 

Next door, this shop was advertising itself proudly, and unusually, with this bizarre, audio-supported display.  From a small radio in front, I heard a song by The Police followed by a Jimmy Buffett tune.  An outdated mannequin stood sentinel at the sidewalk, dressed in his golfing attire, faded on one side from the sun.  Presumably, if you hired the proprietor to shine your shoes, he’d do it right on the sidewalk for you, allowing you to “relax” to the sound of rushing cars and booming bass.  And Phil Collins, too, if you waited long enough.

I was finding plenty on this side of the street to see.  At first glance, this convenient store doesn’t offer much to anyone not going in.  A bit of close examination yielded a bit of history about the building.  It’s clear that this “DDT” establishment wasn’t the original occupant, regardless of the age of the building.  If you look closely, each letter of their sign is pretty new.  How do I know? 

Each letter is placed over pretty new-looking brick.  The only reason they might need to do this is to run the wiring to the sign for nighttime illumination.  My guess is, when they installed these lights, the old brick underneath was not structurally sound enough to install the wires and support structures through it.  Thus, each letter is now supported by brand new masonry.  It’s not much, but I think it’s kind of neat to see what they did without asking what they did.  The Sherlock Holmes of mundane infrastructure, that’s me.

St. Louis has a modest commuter rail system called MetroLink; as part of my plan to keep on schedule, I’ll be taking the MetroLink back from the Arch to its terminus, the airport.  This stop, Red Rock, was a bit more than halfway back to the airport from downtown.  In reverse, I’d say I’m 40% of the way downtown.  The subway stop was the first I’d seen since I left the airport, and they were surprisingly low-profile.  There weren’t tons of signs pointing to it; you might have missed it altogether if you were driving. 

I walked over the rail bridge that crossed the tracks for the MetroLink, making a mental note of the bridge so I could see what it would look like while I zipped underneath it in a few hours.

Shortly after crossing the bridge, I found something surprising considering my location’s proximity to the city, which by now lay only about eight miles away: empty space.  Like, a lot of it.  To my left, an empty lot that didn’t appear to have been built upon in decades, or perhaps ever, stretched out into the distance.  Though there was a paved road, a quick moment of exploration on my part didn’t prove that it led anywhere.  The house on site had been abandoned for decades.  It reminded me of an urban exploration target I’ve visited in Louisville that was in similar shape.  That particular place, a target of significant amateur exploration and archeological study, had been abandoned no earlier than 1972 based on hard on-site evidence, and given this was in a comparable state and environment, I’d say the mid to late 1970s makes sense.

As I’ve discovered, at least in Louisville, this scene is growing more common in industrialized areas.  Large plots with abandoned homes linger around after the land is purchased by a speculator, waiting for an industrial buyer to snatch it up so they can get a great return.  These kinds of properties can be a gold mine, but for this one, when will they cash in?

It became clearer with every step that I was getting into the more industrial part of the city, or at least of my walk.  This drive beckoned me down it, where a locked gate barred my path.

I’m not sure why, but this drive seemed particularly unsettling; it felt like something I’d seen in a movie about the Holocaust.  Having been to both Dachau in Germany and Auschwitz in Poland, I can tell you that those places chilled you to the bone and touched your soul, and this one had a severely muted effect.  Maybe it was the stone walls or the overhead beams supporting nothing.  I often picture industrial lamps illuminating rows of emaciated prisoners when I picture the Holocaust, and for some reason this gave me the same vibe.  Do you feel that, too?

Time to move on.

Just beyond the imagined death chambers, this series of well-maintained buildings greeted me.  What appeared to be an amphitheater and a preparatory school building, much like you’d find up north, stretched out to my left.  There didn’t appear to be any activity going on.  The grass was clean and mowed, the fence was strong and new, but there was no initial indication what this place was.  Large dormitory-like buildings stood behind the round building in front of me, so I presumed it was a college.  But to see so little activity was weird; maybe it was just a suitcase school.

Nope, never mind.  Fancy high school.  The buildings’ newness and maintenance were in stark contrast to its environment, which needed the urban planning equivalent of a coat of paint.

Peering down the street beside Normandy High School, I saw this billboard; every attorney’s advertising in Louisville is super-serious and somber.  Roderick C. White?  I bet he does got me, though.  I’d hire him.  Maybe he meant it the other way, like, “that other driver, I got him!  I caught him!  Here’s some of your money, and I’ll just hold on to the rest.”  Not to speak ill of attorneys.  Don’t want to be too cliché.

Another train track lay beneath me as I crossed another overpass.  I love that, despite decades and centuries of innovation, we still use an old-school system to move our freight around.  While I’ve never been “that guy who inexplicably is obsessed with trains,” I appreciate all they do for us.  In my mind, actually, the most stereotypically American images feature a railroad’s right of way flanked by wooden telephone poles on one side stretching off into the distance.

Next to the tracks was an unusual looking daycare; out in what appeared to have formerly been a parking lot, dozens of play houses, swings, and toys were strewn out across foam mats.  From where I was standing, though, the foam mats had the same color and texture of asphalt, which would seem to me to be a fairly irresponsible playing surface.  It wasn’t until later confirmation that it became clear that the little tykes would actually be fine if they took a tumble.

A quick jaunt across a sidestreet and this derelict masterpiece jumped out at me: a long abandoned car lot, devoid of any recent business.  The decaying letters, which appeared to read “Sam’s Auto Sales,” have long outlasted Sam’s business, and maybe even Sam himself.  The awning’s fabric has been sheared off or has deteriorated from far too long in the sun and wind.  Every segment of asphalt has given way to weeds and breakage.  With its striking color variation and idealized aesthetic form, it looked like it was straight out of a Fallout game.

This house was currently being demolished when I passed.  The building itself would have done the job for the crew if given just a couple more years, I’m sure.  The internal structure appeared to have been burned out and/or gutted, leaving little structural support.

I’d moved over to the south side of the street by now, continuing my eastward journey without much delay.  As I was crossing the entrance to a car dealership, a new Hummer pulled into the lot in front of me.  I paused while he entered to snap a picture of a building across the street.
The Hummer pulled just past the sidewalk into the lot, and a man emerged and greeted me.  He was a smartly dressed black businessman, perhaps in his late forties.  He smiled at me from behind a pair of heavily tinted sunglasses.

“Hello, young man!”


“Whatcha takin’ pictures of?”

I paused for a moment, wondering if he was just curious or if I was being interrogated.

“Oh, I just like urban decay and taking pictures of old, broken buildings.”  No lie there.

The businessman laughed.  “Well, we got plenty of that ‘round here!”  He gestured down the road, right where I was headed.  I laughed, certain he was right if the last few blocks had been any indication.  We parted ways, my camera in hand, ready to catch the next moment.

Half the buildings I’d passed in the last ten minutes were gutted, burned, condemned, or already a pile of rubble.  It was clear that this part of town had fallen on hard times; perhaps it was that fact that made this mural sadder.  Someone put a lot of time and effort into making this, showcasing the city and its bright future.  Now, a lack of maintenance and care had robbed it of its contrast, and it was only recognizable as intentional after a few moments.

I’d just entered Wellston.


This is part two of a four-part series.  Come back next Wednesday for part three!

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