Friday, March 25, 2011

Meet Me In St. Louis

The Gateway Arch is both bigger and smaller than I had thought.

This week being Spring Break, we decided that it would be a good idea to get out of town for a while – to forget about the madness that infests the government here in Wisconsin and just try to relax a bit. Of course given said madness and the upcoming raid it is launching on our household income, we couldn’t get too, too far out of town, nor could we escape for very long. But every little bit helps, and to be honest you don’t need a year at a private island in the tropics to have a good time.

And three cheers for that, I say.

Ever since Christmas 2009, when saw the Gateway Arch in the distance as we drove back from Chattanooga, Lauren has wanted to go to St. Louis. St. Louis, it turns out, is not all that far away from us – certainly doable in a day’s drive with time left over to have some fun once you get out of the car. And there’s more than the Arch, so you can have all sorts of good times there.

Sounded like a winner.

So we packed everybody up into the car and headed south through Illinois toward Missouri.

Illinois is a long state. A very, very long state. Long and flat. Flat and long. It has untamed vistas of flat land, where you can gaze long into the distance at how flat and long it is. It is the Mount Everest of flat. It is the lightning flash of long. But we were well stocked with books, movies, snacks and – as a last resort – conversation, so it went well.

We got to St. Louis well before our hotel check-in time, so we decided to go straight to the Arch.

Fortunately, it’s not hard to find.

You don’t realize until you get right up onto it, but the Arch is phenomenally big – 630 feet tall, according to the many and various pamphlets, signs and rangers all eager to impart this particular bit of information, and with a fairly mighty cross-section at ground level. And so full of Teh Shiny! Its stainless steel coat glistens in the sun and provides all sort of dramatic camera angles for the curious.

We got there in time to buy tickets to go up to the top, but we had a couple of hours to kill before our scheduled tour time. Fortunately they’ve thought of that and had several well-stocked gift shops for us to browse through (both girls bought necklaces with Arch-related pendants) as well as a nifty little museum of western expansion that you could wander around in for free.

Eventually they let us in.

To get to the top of the Arch you have to wait in a series of lines, each one just long enough to make you wonder about the whole idea. And then you watch a short little film about the railroad bridge just to the north of the Arch – why they choose that moment to watch a video about that particular subject is just one of those National Park Service mysteries best left unexplained – and then you get into the elevator/tram thing that takes you up.

Here is a hint: do not go to the Arch if you are claustrophobic.

The tram car that takes you up is a cylinder about four or five feet in diameter and about that deep, with five seats arranged around the edges. If your group is less than five people, they will assign you new friends for the trip in order to fill up the car. You will get to know them fairly well in the five minutes it takes to get all the way up to the top.

You can spend as much time as you want up at the top, but really about twenty minutes is all you need. For one thing, it’s a lot like Niagara Falls in that it truly is spectacular and awe-inspiring, but after a while you realize that nothing changes. You’ve seen it. And for another thing, it’s very small up there. The floor is arched – it follows the exterior contour – and the top is only about eight feet across from window to window, which seems like the world after the tram car, but still.

It also sways noticeably in the wind, of which there was a copious supply that day.

We spent our allotted twenty minutes up there and then trammed our way back down and out, off to the hotel.

The hotel we stayed at was a fine place and one that catered directly to families with children, to the point of providing not only free breakfast but also free dinners with everything a child could want (hot dogs, chicken tenders, nachos, baked potatoes, carrot sticks, and so on) as well as free drinks for mom and dad, which somehow we never got around to trying.

There was also a pool, which for Tabitha and Lauren is just the acme of the travelling experience, and so they spent several hours each night splashing about in the pool along with enough other kids to open a private elementary school. There was fun to be had.

Wednesday we went to the City Museum, and for the record if you have children between the ages of 4 and 12 and you have not been to the St. Louis City Museum then you should drop whatever you are doing immediately and – RIGHT NOW, I said – book travel arrangements to correct this situation.

It’s not really a museum so much as it is an exploration center. Every nook and cranny is filled with tunnels, passageways, and slides. The airspace is glutted with wire mesh tubes – thick wire, almost rebar in some places and actual metal tubes in others – that take you from one room to the next and one floor to another, although if you want to go floor to floor there are slides that will do that faster, some of them three or more floors long.

It is impossible to keep track of people in this place, and after a while you just stop trying.

There is a room set up to look like a skateboard park where the kids can slide around and run along the world’s biggest pencil – maybe thirty feet long, with an actual rubber eraser.

There’s a room full of sponges that you can stack up into towers and encase victims within.

There’s an entire section set up like a carnival storefront, and another corner of the building dedicated to architectural decorations – giant metal, marble or concrete letters, gargoyles and entire facades, plus stained glass windows as well.

There is a human-sized hamster wheel.

There was a darkened maze full of people that we could see through a window but never did figure out how to get into.

There was a magic show. Tabitha got to be an assistant on one of the tricks, which pleased her no end. She took a magic class a couple of summers ago and has since developed a nice little routine of her own, so it was fun for her to be part of a professional show.

And if the inside isn’t enough, there’s always the outside – a tangled web of towers, stairs, passages, wire mesh tunnels and assorted multi-story slides, at the bottom of which is an immense ball pit where the brave and hearty might try their mad dodgeball skillz.

It was while we were outside that Lauren convinced me to go up to the airplanes.

The museum has two light aircraft mounted about fifty feet in the air, and when you see the insides you realize that they are reminiscent of nothing so much as the wreck that features so prominently in Madagascar. They are accessible only through the aforementioned maze of stairs, ladders and wire mesh tubes. Indeed, to get from the one to the other, you have to crawl through one of those tubes – and then to get to the nearest slide back down to earth you have to crawl through another.

It was an experience.

And we didn’t even make it to the rooftop displays, which were closed for the season.

We spent the whole day there, really, and we could have gone back the next – at least Lauren could have. Tabitha is just getting to be on the tall side for some of the exhibits, which she found a bit off-putting, but even so, she’d probably have gone back if we had asked.

But we didn’t ask, because we had only one more day in St. Louis and there were other things to see.

We spent Thursday morning at the Old Courthouse, which is right across the street from the Arch and thus visible from above when you’re up top.

It’s a lovely building, really, with a giant Rotunda full of art and glory. If you stand exactly in the center on the floor the acoustics are such that you can speak to every part of the building without really raising your voice. You can hear the difference just by stepping on the spot and then stepping off of it.

The Old Courthouse is famous in part because the Dred Scott case started there, and the girls got to sit in the actual courtroom.

Most people who take American history classes are familiar with the outcome of the case when it hit the US Supreme Court in 1857 – how Chief Justice Roger Taney’s opinion declared that blacks could never be citizens of the US and how they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect. It’s quite possibly the most appalling decision ever made in an American court, and the main impetus for the Fourteenth Amendment a decade later (you know, the Amendment the Teabaggers are trying to repeal because they find it inconvenient).

Few people remember that when the case was first tried in front of a St. Louis jury, they found for Scott and set him free. Not that it helped him, of course, but it is worth remembering anyway.

On the recommendation of our friend Pat who grew up in St. Louis, we had lunch at a place called Amighetti’s, in the Italian neighborhood known as The Hill (which is, as advertised, on a large hill). It was a capital suggestion – great food at reasonable prices in bulk quantities.

The “gooey butter cakes” we got from Gooey Louie’s afterward are apparently a St. Louis delicacy, and having finally had enough room to eat mine only 24 hours later, I can see why. They are exactly what they sound like, and they are good.

We spent our last afternoon at the St. Louis Science Center, which I am sure is a fine museum but by that point we were all rather tired, and the place was packed. A good time was had nonetheless.

Lauren already wants to know when we’re going back to St. Louis.

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