Day 75/ May 12th – St. Louis, MO to St. Charles, MO: A river runs through it

“The Missouri is, perhaps, different in appearance and character from all other rivers in the world; there is a terror in its manner which is sensibly felt…” – George Catlin, Letters and Notes on the…North American Indians, 1857

Sally on Veterans Memorial Bridge over the Missouri

Sally crossing the Missouri (not in photo: ten thousand cars)

Two days’ walking, two of the world’s great rivers crossed.  Today it was the turn of the Missouri, which joins the Mississippi just above St. Louis after a meandering, two-thousand-mile journey from Montana.  We walked over it on Veterans Memorial Bridge, alongside the five lanes of screaming traffic that it carries in each direction.  Although we’ve become pretty sanguine about walking next to busy roads, this would have been a suicidal endeavour were it not for the walled-off cycle path that some thoughtful bridge designer had added alongside it.  We had followed the cycle path for four miles through wetlands noisy with burping frogs and with bright red cardinals darting into the rushes.  This being America, we had it more or less to ourselves; the only other people on it were a few lean, serious, unsmiling men doing laps on racing bikes, and certainly no one was eccentric enough to be using it to cycle from A to B.

Geese crossing road

We weren't quite the only people on the cycle path

We spent most of the day walking out of St. Louis, setting off early in the morning between the high-rises downtown, and suffering the smirks of commuters striding past us on their way from the metro to their offices.  If there were just two or three of them who intuited the nature of our adventure, and whose souls were thus fired with such an unquenchable wanderlust that they spent a really bitter day trapped behind their desks, then it won’t have been an entirely wasted morning.

Standard artificial limbs sign in St. Louis

No bold fashion statements for the amputees of St. Louis

The neighbourhoods got progressively seedier as we left the city, the pavements deteriorating from wide, flat strips of cement to narrow trickles of bumpy asphalt.  Large posters on the side of a stretch of derelict warehouses proclaimed their imminent conversion into luxury apartments, but the deadline announced for this questionable investment had long since passed and the posters themselves were badly faded.  A small group of homeless men were queueing outside a church that doubled as a free walk-in clinic.  The most thriving businesses were cheque-cashing offices, and at a junction, a messily hand-written sign tied to a traffic light read ‘I’ll Buy Your House Today, Cash’ and offered a telephone number.  It didn’t seem like a terribly enticing offer.  In the middle of it all was the crenellated High Gothic splendour of Union Station, offering a reminder of the railroad wealth that had been concentrated in St. Louis more than a century ago.

Malcolm X mural in St. Louis

Sounds absolutely exhausting

We crossed over two interstates (I-170 and I-270, for you road wonks) and passed innumerable strip malls, wondering aloud how many tax preparation companies, takeaway pizza restaurants and nail spas one city could possibly need.  By now we were coming out of St. Louis and into Missouri proper.  Sally and I pooled our knowledge of the state and found it to be pitifully slender: we had no clear image of it in the way we do of, say, California, or Texas.

Missouri is regarded in America as something of a buffer state; St. Louis is sometimes described as the ‘westernmost eastern city’ and Kansas City, the next major stop on our route, as the ‘easternmost western city’ in the United States, though this doesn’t shed much light on what lies between them (primarily, farms).  It has a better claim than most states to be the ‘heart of America’; for the last thirty years, the mean population centre of the country (a thorny demographic concept explained here) has been in Missouri.  It was the only slave state in the North, and was bitterly divided during the Civil War, with Union forces gradually driving out the Confederate soldiers, many of whom were forced into outlawry to survive (including a certain Jesse James, who we’ll meet again later on).  Even today, Missouri is regarded as a political barometer, and has voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election bar two since 1904.

It’s defined physically by its two great rivers: the Mississippi, which forms its eastern border, and the Missouri itself, which flows across the middle of the state and divides it into two more or less equal halves.  The river, and thus the state, was named after a somewhat shadowy tribe called the ‘Ouemessourita’, which rather aptly means ‘those with dugout canoes’.  Mercifully, thanks to the cycle path, we had no need of them ourselves to get across the Missouri today.  It was magnificent – half a mile wide, dark brown and furiously eddying, as if being heated from beneath.  It was easy to see why Missouri’s founding fathers had decided to name the entire state after it.  We’ll be roughly following its course all the way into Nebraska, and crossing it a few more times yet, though, we hope, never again along such a busy road as this.

Sally walking under bridge

Sally strikes out into Missouri

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