Sunday, May 6, 2012

My St. Louis post dispatch

May 4-5, St. Louis, Missouri

The trip from Newton, Illinois to St. Louis is about two and a half hours almost straight west. We left in a morning thunderstorm that passed quickly making the drive a bit better than expected. This was our first time following the lead of another motorhome but we had reviewed with Mike, the driver, the route he planned to take in case we somehow lost him (although it seems kind of hard to lose a 40" motorhome).  Everything went smoothly on the drive until we reached the Martin Luther King Bridge which stretches nearly a mile between St. Louis and East St. Louis across the Mississippi River. Neither Vic nor I am fond of traveling across bridges in the motorhome, but this one looked pretty non-threatening (as in the lanes were fairly wide and the span fairly flat), so no big deal except traffic was backed up for at least a mile.  The threat this bridge congestion posed related to our decision not to stop at the last rest area coupled with Vic's over-consumption of iced tea.  We paused in the traffic and Vic calmly said, "Can you take over?" I have not really driven the coach yet, other than in parking lots, and I have been intending to do so, but these were not the circumstances I had envisioned for my first experience behind the wheel.  However, the look of desperation on his face won the day, and I slid in behind the wheel while he went to the bathroom. I only had to inch along with the brake and stay in my lane for the first few minutes then traffic broke free a bit and I had to give it gas to move along. Vic made a quick comeback and my first time at the helm ended just as I was thinking I could drive the whole distance of the bridge in rush hour traffic. The silver lining of this little scenario is that I am now eager to take the next step and do a "rest area to rest area" stint which the Kansas to South Dakota stretch should provide.

Our main focus in visiting St. Louis was to see the Gateway Arch and for the four of us to take a VIP tour of the Anheuser-Busch Brewery courtesy of my step-son Todd. (Thanks, Todd!) The tour was to begin at 1:45 and we pulled in to our campground at 12:50. We chose to stay at the St. Louis RV Park, basically a city parking lot with full hook-ups, because of its close proximity to these tourist attractions and its reasonable rate of $33. (The park was quite noisy with sirens blaring and car stereos booming all through the night and the neighborhood is rather sketchy but it still served our purpose well.) We managed to set-up and eat lunch before taking a ten-minute drive to the brewery.
The first thing that struck us was the massive size of the place and its imposing nineteenth century German brick architecture. The brewery, a national landmark that is spread out over at least four city blocks, is open to the public for free tours that include beer tastings for those over 21. Our Brewmaster Tour would include two tastings--one of eighteen-hour-old Budweiser tapped right from the finishing tank and another from a wide selection of Budweiser family bottles in the hospitality room.

Hop chandeliers purchased at the 1904 World Fair
Donning caps, safety glasses, and headphones, our group of ten walked from one brick building to another as our tour guide, David, provided a wealth of historical background and technical information on the various steps of the brewing and bottling process. Three things stood out in this tour: the staggering volume of beer that is produced here on a daily basis, the notable absence of workers in most of the plants due to high tech automation, and the surprisingly elaborate decor that adorns the interior of the buildings. I also liked seeing the Clydesdale stable, but was a little disappointed how few are housed there (they have a large stable outside the city called Grant's Farm that is open to the public) and the fact that the Dalmatians happened to be elsewhere. At the end of the two and a half hour tour, we gathered together in the comfy VIP lounge, drank our final selection of beer served with pretzels, and left with an honorary Brewmaster Certificate, our own beer glass, Anheuser-Busch caps, a newfound appreciation for the historical significance of this national landmark, and respect for the engineering feat it requires to produce a consistent product of this volume.

Hop pellets used for consistency

 After the tour, we relaxed before going out to dinner to the Broadway Oyster Bar, a local cajun-creole dive bar that had terrific reviews on Yelp. Having changed our itinerary from traveling the southern route via New Orleans, I thought it would be fun to try something different in St. Louis.  On the bar's website one review described the place as a "unique welcomed retreat for weary travelers. . .  with live music nightly, the cozy restaurant and the open air patio are reminiscent of life in the "Big Easy. . . where the Cajun cuisine (i.e. crawfish, jambalaya, gumbo, oyster po' boys) is 'surprisingly good' and the 'd├ęcor is so bad that it's great.' It's a 'great local dive' that 'never changes - thank goodness."  The outdoor area was packed when we arrived and there was a one-man band singing and playing guitar.  Our only option if we wanted to sit outdoors was a table right in front of the stage which didn't seem to bad as the music wasn't too loud.  After sitting down here, I realized we should have waited for a different table as the loudness wasn't the issue--this barefoot guitar player sang a rather eclectic collection of familiar songs but tried to put his own twists on them making them all sound bizarre.  The service was pretty good--gotta love the t-shirts--and the food was reasonable and tasty but not great. After the barefoot musician finished his last song, two other musicians came in to set up and we found ourselves fascinated by the complexities of their task.  After an hour or set-up, a third musician showed up and one of the others took off in a car to retrieve something he forgot. The word on the street was they were a bluegrass trio with a good following, but we left before they even began their first set never to discover what we were missing.
The Broadway Oyster Bar patio

On the way to Broadway Street, we discovered a cordoned off area of Washington Avenue with a Cinco de Mayo party, so we thought we should check it out.  Most of the fiesta was confined to one large tent where a Latino band was playing, margaritas were flowing, and a good variety of Mexican street food was offered.  Just as we arrived, however, the band played their final song and things quieted down from there, so we enjoyed people watching and the opportunity to check out other venues along the avenue. 

Saturday--the forecast was for a high of 91 degrees (and fairly high humidity)--not what these Northwesterners are accustomed to, but Mike and BJ seemed unfazed by this record heat. I requested that we start the day my favorite way--with a trip to the local farmer's market, and what a market it is. Located in the Soulard District, St. Louis' oldest community, the market has over eighty vendors selling everything from live chickens, old-time herbal remedies, artisan cheeses, and a wide variety of meats, fruits, and vegetables. Operating since 1938, it is billed as the oldest market west of the Mississippi. As a farmer's market groupie, I was fascinated with the difference in atmosphere from a Northwest market: the vendors here were hawking their wares with catchy phrases as customers passed their booths, there were food stands offering Irish Coffees and Bloody Marys to complement the shopping experience, many of the clientele were dressed to the nines, and the goods offered were not necessarily local products. We managed to find enough goodies to fill our shopping bag. Vic's favorite: homemade pierogies and kielbasa. 

Not something you see in Oregon markets

We made a quick stop back at the motorhome to unload our treasures, take the dogs out for a short walk, and plan our afternoon at the Arch. I had no idea how much there was to see beyond the Arch itself.  The Arch and the Historic Old Courthouse (where the Dred Scott case decision began in 1846) comprise what is called the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, part of the National Park System.  Below the Arch is visitor center that includes two theaters, the Museum of Westward Expansion, and entrance to the tram which takes you to the top of the 630' Arch. (Just for the record, none of us was too eager to go up.)  The Arch itself, symbolic of the Gateway to the West, commemorates the mass migration and settlement of the American West during the 1800s.  The Museum traces the Lewis and Clark trail and the settlement of the Louisiana Purchase through lifelike dioramas and animated displays.  One of the theaters shows a thirty-minute film on the making of the Arch which we watched. What an incredible architectural feat! 

From the Arch, it is only a short walk to Laclede's Landing, St. Louis 'riverfront district, a cobblestone street filled with an eclectic mix of shops and cafes. Since Saturday was both Cinco de Mayo and Kentucky Derby day, we were anxious to celebrate one or the other. We passed by a sandwich board sign at Joey B's on the Landing advertising $2 margaritas and saw no advertisements for mint juleps, so margaritas it was.  By the time we returned to the "campground," a little exhausted from the heat of the day, we still had the Derby to watch on TV. I happened to have fresh mint from Mike and BJ's garden, so we had a ceremonial mint julep while we watched Mike's horse, "I'll Have Another," win the race with 15:1 odds. Amazingly, we still found enough energy to take about a ten-minute drive to what is called The Hill, an Italian neighborhood known for its restaurants, bakeries, specialty groceries, narrow brick row houses, and fire hydrants painted red, white, and green--colors of the Italian flag. We took a lovely walk exploring the old neighborhood, stopped for a piccolo gelato, and declared our two-day adventure in St. Louis complete. With the amazing Supermoon lighting up the evening sky, I couldn't help but think of a phrase from this city's most famous song lyrics: "don't tell me the lights are shining anyplace but there."

P.S. We did not dance the Hoochie-Koochie.

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