Day 74/ May 11th – St. Louis, MO: Behind the scenes at the museum

“But I would walk five hundred miles, and I would walk five hundred more, just to be the man who walked a thousand miles to fall down at your door.” – The Proclaimers

Shadow of Gateway Arch in St. Louis

The shadow of the Gateway Arch

There are, apparently, three million people in St. Louis, but it’s not clear where they’re all hiding.  We’ve been taking a few days’ break here to celebrate the completion of 1,000 miles of walking (not quite a third of our anticipated total distance), and every time we’ve been out in the city it’s been curiously deserted.  The streets downtown are so empty of cars and people that every day feels like a Saturday, as if just a few committed workaholics were popping into the office to catch up on some paperwork.  St. Louis is very much a small-town big city, with barely ten blocks square of high-rise buildings before the city effectively ends and the massive suburban sprawl to the north and the west begins.  It would be a forgettable place were it not for the Gateway Arch.

It’s an astonishing structure, standing at a slight remove from the city on the banks of the Mississippi, far enough away that it rears up at the end of avenues and peeps out from the side of buildings when you least expect it.  It’s sinuous, elegant and massive – far bigger than we’d imagined, over six hundred feet high and just as wide at its base.  It was built in the 1960s, ostensibly to commemorate the ‘westward expansion of the United States’, but really, you sense, to give St. Louis a distinct modern identity, a sort of monumental version of all of those slightly desperate World’s Largest Balls of Twine that litter the small towns that it spawned to the west.

People at the foot of the Gateway Arch

Especially tiny people were chosen for this photo

We had thought of it, ignorantly, as a solid piece of sculpture, but were delighted to learn that it was possible to ascend to the top, by means of a ‘tram’, a slightly misleading term for a cramped funicular of tiny white spherical pods, each seating five people with knees touching, which clanked and whirred their way up pulleys inside the legs of the arch like a giant version of those clacking-ball executive desk toys that were popular in the Eighties.  I fear I shan’t live to have to use an emergency escape capsule from a stricken interplanetary space-craft, but having taken the tram up and down the Gateway Arch I believe I have a general impression of what the experience would be like.

Along the top was a narrow corridor, its floors gently sloping to a point at the apex of the arch.  We jostled our way through a gaggle of shrieking eight-year-olds and pressed our faces against the tiny Perspex rectangles of window to look down at the brown Mississippi and then west across the city, peering beyond it to the horizon for clues about what might lie in store for us on the next phase of our walk.  It looked dispiritingly flat.  If you looked straight down, you could see the shadow of the Arch cast down onto the gardens below it like a giant sundial, and when the wind gusted you could feel it gently swaying in the wind.  Before long we were seized with a powerful urge to get down.

Sunshine behind the Gateway Arch

1,000 miles down, 2,000 to go

Below the Arch was an underground museum with a cinema showing a film about the Lewis & Clark expedition.  In Britain, these would both have been reliably crappy: a few empty glass cases with apologetic signs reading ‘On Loan’, perhaps a model map that lit up when you pressed a button, and a scratchy BBC drama on permanent loop starring Colin Firth in a bad wig.  But America does these things very, very well.  Here, at some point in the recent past, one man had clearly turned to another man and said, “Here’s several hundred million dollars.  Build me a fucking incredible subterranean museum, invisible from ground level, designed as a series of radiating circles, each representing a decade of the nineteenth century, and incorporating a massive Imax cinema showing a film so well-produced and so beautifully shot that it’ll stun a group of restless grade-school children into awestruck silence.”  So that’s what they did.

Gateway Arch behind Busch Stadium

Busch Stadium, with an oddly familiar monument in the distance

In the evening we walked with a stream of red-shirted fans to watch our second baseball game of the walk, this time a Major League match-up between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Houston Astros at Busch Stadium (funded by and named after the company that makes Budweiser, a popular local brand of mineral water).  There was much about a big live sporting event in America that was familiar – we spent an eye-watering sum on nosebleed seats high above third base, for example, and then almost the same again on a couple of execrable hamburgers – but it was the fans who were truly perplexing.  They arrived late, filing into their seats when the match was already two innings old, and then left in droves throughout the game.  One man sat down next to us in the third inning, ate a large bag of peanuts and then left in the fifth, the pile of shells under his seat the only evidence that he had ever been there.

Fans in the stands at Busch Stadium

American fans: Perhaps not the most loyal or attentive in the world

The stadium staff seemed to realise that they were engaged in a battle with the modern American attention span, and so between innings good-looking girls wearing impossibly short shorts were dispatched into the stands to fire balled-up T-shirts from a slingshot into crowds of wildly leaping fans.  Nonetheless, there was a minor exodus after each inning, and when the Cardinals fell behind in the sixth, it triggered the sort of rush for the exits normally associated with a terrorist attack.  Perhaps a quarter of the fans stayed until the final pitch.  If British football fans had behaved in such a way, they would have been beaten to a pulp by their fellow spectators, and, frankly, quite right too.

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3 Responses to “Day 74/ May 11th – St. Louis, MO: Behind the scenes at the museum”

  1. JANNA Says:

    You want to see real fans – take in a game at Fenway Park!

  2. Arthur Says:

    Many congratulations on hitting 1000 miles…

  3. londonmum Says:

    your type is becoming famous
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100527/ap_on_re_us/us_the_big_walk

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