Days 94-95/ May 31st-June 1st – Higginsville, MO to Independence, MO: Storm chasers

KCTV5, the home of Storm Track 5; always first with storm news.  Six am this Memorial Day, it’s 70 degrees in the Kansas City metro area; highs today in the low 90s.  A good day to remember.”

But not a good day for walking twenty miles, at least not in any comfort.  After enduring long, miserable, rain-soaked stretches across eastern Missouri, we’ve found ourselves during the last few days wishing for cooling showers, or at least the odd raincloud to block out the sun.

America, we’re learning, is every bit as weather-obsessed as Britain – perhaps more so, in fact, as befits a country where the weather can, and does, kill people on a regular basis.  As the Midwest thunderstorm and tornado season gets into full swing, local news programmes have become little more than extended weather reports.  Even during other programmes, the TV periodically emits piercing beeps to draw the viewer’s attention to local flood and hail warnings that scroll ominously across the bottom of the screen.  The local news teams, desperate for a break from reporting traffic accidents, speculate morbidly on the possible havoc that burgeoning storms might wreak (“I think two-inch hail is a real possibility, Bill.  And that means property damage.”).  They struggle to conceal a faintly sexual yearning for footage of families weeping outside ruined trailers.

Sally resting in Bates City, Missouri

Enjoying the shade in Bates City

We set out before dawn alongside an eerily silent I-70, empty of cars for minutes at a time.  There was an exit for the small town of Napoleon, just upriver on the Missouri from the (pleasingly, slightly larger) town of Wellington.  Just outside Bates City, we rested under the awning of a diner, closed for Memorial Day, next to two huge fireworks emporia: Fireworks World and the unfortunately named Pyro City.  Here we met Patti, a large woman in a large 4×4, who pulled over to speak to us.

“My husband said he saw you on the road this morning.  Can I give you a ride anywhere?”  We explained our walk, and how rides were against the rules, and she drove away with a cheery wave.

A few miles further down the road, Patti pulled up alongside us again, having evidently made a special journey back to see us.

“I talked to my husband.  Would you like to stay with us tonight?”  This was a kind offer, but they lived twenty miles in the wrong direction, and the heat made it essential for us to set off before six to arrive at our destination in any comfort, so we declined as politely as we could.

“Oh!” she said. “In that case, you gotta take this!”  And she thrust through the gap in the driver’s side window a literal fistful of dollars, a sweaty bouquet of crumpled tens and twenties.  Patti was a woman evidently unused to having her offers refused, and it was a full five minutes before she reluctantly gave up and drew her fist back into the air-conditioned interior.

“Well,” she said, a trifle despondently.  “Good luck with the rest of your walk.”

Fireworks store in Bates City, Missouri

Don't purchase fireworks in America without the endorsement of a blue inflatable gorilla

There are more than a hundred Oak Groves in America, and we would be hard pressed to pick out in a line-up the one we slept at that night.  At five-thirty the next morning I walked over to buy drinks at the nearby Wal-Mart, a strip-lit aircraft hangar filled with burly men, halfway inside the freezer cabinets they were replenishing, and exhausted cashiers, huddled together to gossip, who scattered to their tills as I approached to pay.  Almost all Wal-Marts are open twenty-four hours a day, for no better reason, it often seems, than to torment their employees.

Around lunchtime, after ten miles of open fields, we came to a small grid of bungalows, surrounding a single traffic light hung from a cable draped over the road junction.  This, it transpired, was the start of Kansas City, and of many further miles of suburbs and sub-divisions.  While we were resting on the edge of a shady lawn in Indian Hills – or possibly Deer Run, or Elk Bluffs – we noticed a small patch of earth beside us bulging and crumbling, before a tiny mole popped its head out, apparently enticed by the aroma of our Vitamin Water and chocolate muffins.

Most of the local travel guides that we’ve read include some variation of the sentence ‘Kansas City does not quickly reveal its subtle charms to the casual visitor’.  We’ve been on the road long enough to recognise a polite circumlocution when we read one, and so decided to veer north at the town of Independence, before we reach the city proper, and so cut the corner of our walk a little.

Motel in Independence, Missouri at night

Day 95 means Night 95 in cheap motels

Independence was still close enough to Kansas City that both the Chiefs football stadium and the Royals baseball stadium were here, perched together in a vast car park beside I-70 like two visiting spacecraft.  We went to watch a Royals game, in the faded but charming Kauffman Stadium, where a series of ingenious artificial waterfalls above the outfield wall wafted cool breezes across the field to the crowds in the stands.  Once again, they seemed barely to follow the game, coming fully alive only for a thirty-second race on the JumboTron between three animated hot dogs, smeared respectively with ketchup, mustard and relish, rising as one with a throaty roar to acclaim relish as the winner.  We seemed more pleased than most that the Royals won, 6-3, thereby breaking our apparent jinx on home teams.

Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, Missouri

Another sell-out game for the Chiefs

Just after we got back to our motel, the heavens opened, and a furious thunderstorm began that raged all night.  We fell asleep secure in the knowledge that the Storm Team at KCTV5 would be very happy men.

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