The Great Rail Trip: Midwest

When I finished my last story and hung up my reporters’ notebooks at The Statesman, my co-workers knew exactly what to get for a retirement gift. No rocking chair or golf cart for Woodward. They bought me an Amtrak gift certificate.

I am a man bewitched by trains. Always have been. The romance began with a model train set at age six or seven and never let up. Some of my all-time favorite Statesman assignments, and cherished life memories, have involved trains.

I’d been retired almost a year before my wife and I got around to buying our 15-day Amtrak passes, but the wait was worth it. In fact, we had enough bizarre experiences and met enough fascinating characters riding the rails that I collected material for several  columns, starting with this one, on the Midwest.

Our plan was to fly from Boise to St. Louis, spend three days there, take the train to Chicago for three nights, hop on the overnight train to Memphis for a couple of days and finish the trip in New Orleans and the Louisiana bayou country. We’d fly home from New Orleans – if we came home at all.

Don’t laugh. I’ve met several adventuresome souls over the years who went to New Orleans on vacation and stayed for good. It has that effect on people.

But I’ve strayed from this week’s subject, the Midwest. Friends Bob and Christy Hagar met us at the St. Louis airport with a boggling list of possibilities for things to do there. St. Louis isn’t a world capital like New York or Washington, D.C. It isn’t one of our larger metropolises, like Los Angeles or Chicago. It’s just a medium-sized Midwest City. And that’s what makes it so surprising. There are so many things to do in St. Louis that you have trouble getting your head around them, and just when you think you have, out comes another list of things to do.

At the top of most St. Louis visitors’ list, of course, is the famous Gateway Arch. It’s a stunning sight, rising some 600 feet above the skyline. Not a place for those of us afflicted with fear of heights. While Christy and my bride rode the train to the top, Bob and I remained sensibly on the ground perusing the Lewis and Clark exhibits. You never can have too much history. And I just knew that if I took the train the power would fail, stranding us for hours, possibly days, at the highest point.

It’s a short walk from the Arch to the St. Louis Cardinals’ new stadium, which is made of red brick and looks a little like an old-fashioned ballpark. Out front are bronze statues of legendary Cardinal players — Stan Musial, Dizzy Dean, Bob Gibson and others. We tried to buy stadium-tour tickets, but the girl at at the ticket window said they were sold out. The hussy was wearing three World Series rings – all from this millennium. While there is no truth to the rumor that I removed my Diehard Cubs Fan Club card from my wallet and stomped on it, I wasn’t far from it.

History is literally underfoot in St. Louis. We were strolling down a sidewalk when I glanced down and saw that I had stepped on a plaque informing whoever was interested that on that very spot Joseph Pulitzer had purchased the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, one of the nation’s storied newspapers.

A few blocks away was the courthouse where the famous Dred Scott had his one and only jury trial. More than half of the slaves who sued for freedom won it, but Scott’s was infamously denied by a Supreme Court more interested in cotton revenues than justice, a ruling that helped ignite the Civil War.

When the Hagars, who are not Catholics, suggested that we go out of our way to see St. Louis’s Cathedral Basilica, we wondered why. A church is a church, right?

The second we stepped inside, we stopped wondering. You could put Boise’s St. John’s Cathedral in a corner and not notice it was there. And it’s not the basilica’s size that impresses. Its cavernous spaces are gilded with the largest collection of mosaics in the world. The work, which took lifetimes, rated a 1999 visit from Pope John Paul II. I’m not an overly religious person, but it was impossible to be surrounded by all those religious icons in that vast, glittering space and not feel reverence. If that was where you went to church, it would be hard to be bad

Our next stops — the Hagars run a taut ship — included the Budweiser Brewery, the confluence of two of the nation’s great rivers, the Mississippi and the Missouri; a fishing interlude on the Mississippi, a monument (in nearby Alton, Ill.) to the late Robert Wadlow, at 8 foot 11 history’s tallest man; and Forest Park, site of the 1904 World’s Fair.

Shakespeare plays are free in Forest Park. If you sit in the back rows, the operas are free there as well. In fact, St. Louis claims to have more free attractions than any other city: its art museum, zoo, history museum, science center and more are all free of charge. Time and again we reached for our wallets to pay admission fees and were told to put our money away.

A day didn’t pass without learning something new about surprising St. Louis. Some of the highlights:

–  Dr. Pepper, 7-Up and iced tea were invented in St. Louis. So were Martinis, Bloody Marys and Planter’s Punch.

– The nation’s first kindergarten was in St. Louis.

– The world’s first skyscraper, Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright Building, was built in St. Louis in 1887.

– The bread slicer was invented in St. Louis. And, my personal favorite, peanut butter.

St. Louis has an actual, functioning Amtrak station, right downtown where it should be. It was there that we thanked the Hagars for their matchless hospitality and boarded the train for the short ride to our next city, Chicago. We were ordering lunch at a deli some friends had recommended there when the man who was building the hot-pastrami sandwiches asked where we were from.

“Boise,” we replied.

“I knew you weren’t from around here,” he said. “You’re too nice.”

The sort of remark you’d expect in a tough town like Chicago. Except that, on this trip at least, Chicago failed to live up to its tough-guy reputation. In three days there, we went just about everywhere that one or the other of us hadn’t been and wanted to go — the Art Institute, Navy Pier, the beach, Miracle Mile, Billy Goat’s Tavern, Lincoln Park, Willis (Sears) Tower, the Chicago River architectural tour and more. And everywhere we went, people couldn’t have been friendlier. This, mind you, is coming from a lifelong resident of Boise, a city known for being friendly.

For $5.75, you can ride trains and buses all over Chicago all day and long into the night. Often we were carrying luggage or shopping bags or both, and people unfailingly helped us get them on and off of trains, up stairways, onto escalators. Even the bus drivers were patient and friendly. Young and old alike, people gave us directions to where we wanted to go, urged us to enjoy their city, engaged us in conversation.

When they learned where we were from, not one of them mentioned potatoes or confused us with Iowa. They knew that Idaho was part of the Northwest (not just up the road from Des Moines) and, in more than one instance, complimented us on “that football team that plays on the blue field.”

Chicago and St. Louis couldn’t have been more interesting or welcoming. We were on a roll. No travel mishaps, no Woodward-esque disasters. And the night train to Memphis — the part of the trip we’d looked forward to most — was hours away.

Next: Memphis, Cajun Country, swamps and alligators.


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