There are probably 101 times 10 ways to drive through America’s Midwest. Mention it to anybody who’s crossed the Midwest by car and the response is always the same: it’s the absolutely dead-last worst drive in the entire country … nothing except straight, flat road that goes on forever. Apparently it doesn’t much matter which road you’re on – one’s as brutally dull as the next. Here’s how we did it …
May 8 – I got away from Evergreen late morning – down from the mountains and through Denver to Aurora to pick up Bridget, and we were out of there by noon, waving goodbye to Kacie and Dave. Face forward, I have the notion that if we stay off the interstate, maybe we’ll find the charm along the Midwest’s back roads. We’ll give it a shot, what’s to lose. Just outside of Denver we pick up Route 36 East, which runs parallel to I-70 on its north side.
That little experiment didn’t last long. I don’t know what I might have been expecting in the way of back road charm, but it didn’t make its presence known. After about 20 minutes through nothingness, we figured that if it really was going to be this dreary, we’d be better off on the interstate where at least we could make time. And that is our goal: to count off the miles to western Pennsylvania. We’ve told Dan that we’ll see him on Friday; this is Tuesday … 1,500 miles to go. We can do it; there’s just not a lot of slowing down and stopping to smell the roses, because that just takes up time. There’s not a whole lot of roses to smell, at least today, so it’s all driving … first, get through Colorado, then plow through the state of Kansas. Kansas is a big state – 422 miles across. We call it quits at Mile 360, and that gets us to the state capital, Topeka. Our first day in the Midwest; and yes, the views all day were as dreary as people said, but if eastern Colorado and Kansas are indicative of the vast nothingness that is the Midwest, it’s got nothing on the nothingness of the California desert.
May 9 – St Louis, Missouri, is our goal today. About a 320-mile drive, and if we don’t dawdle, we might get there in time for dinner. Our first hour is taken up getting us the rest of the way through Kansas (the state) and over the border into Missouri, and there’s Kansas City. I’ve got my hangdog on, driving by this city steeped in jazz and blues – Big Joe Turner, Jay McShann, Charlie Parker – and I think of Van’s “The Eternal Kansas City” from A Period of Transition where he pleads Excuse me do you know the way to Kansas City?, Van at his best – a bluesman blowing jazz. That’s not my earworm, though. My favorite Kansas City Van song is not even a Van song; it’s somebody else’s that in concert he will sometimes tag on to the end of “Cleaning Windows” I’m going to Kansas City, baby, sorry I can’t take you. I became intrigued with the song after I heard the (and I kid you not) most extraordinary off-the-charts version of “Cleaning Windows” at a show Van did in Amsterdam on October 26, 2006, where he took the song to Kansas City and then some When you see me coming, raise your window high. I made it my mission from that day forward to find out the name of the song and figure out whose version of it Van had heard, probably way back as a kid, when he’d listen to American blues and jazz music his father brought home from the record store. I thought it would be an easy task tracking down the song – plug it into the search engine and go from there. Trouble was I was focusing on Kansas City songs. Keeping up with my research, one night I was singing a snippet of the song to my older brother over the phone I’m going to Kansas City, baby, sorry I can’t take you and he says to me “I don’t know about Kansas City, but there’s ‘Going to Chicago, sorry I can’t take you.'” Of course, Chicago. Here’s a version of Joe Williams singing it with Count Basie. Van changing the town to Kansas City tips his hat at some of the greats, including Basie, who made his way to KC in the late 1920s. Perhaps that was his intention. But whatever, I’ve got the earworm going and it won’t go away. It won’t, but we do. Van sings Kansas City, but the sign says St. Louis.
And that’s where we’re heading. From Kansas City to St Louis, it’s 248 miles across the state. We cross over the Missouri River about a hundred miles east of Kansas and pull off the exit at the Visitor Center sign in Columbia, about 20 miles up the road. The idea is to load up on St Louis paraphernalia and do a crash course on “Things to Do in St Louis” in advance of our arrival. Inside the visitor’s center, Bill Pauls helps us collect what we need, including a Missouri hotel coupon booklet that we hope will lead to inexpensive lodging for the night. We linger awhile, trading stories from the road, and Pauls’ enthusiasm for all there is to see out there is contagious – wanderlust will do that to you; you want to do it all.
Two hours later we reach the outskirts of St Louis, and I-70 takes us through town and into south St Louis to the Best Western that is keeping us tonight. We’ve got the evening ahead of us to explore. A hankering for some live music takes us to the Soulard neighborhood, south of the downtown area in the long shadow of Busch Stadium. Or it would be long if it were still daylight; instead we are in time for a stylishly late dinner at the Broadway Oyster Bar. The inspiring menu includes a fried alligator entree. I am very unsure I am going to like alligator, but I so much want to give it a try. Cheers to the chef, who was willing to downsize it to a taste-testing appetizer. Two thumbs up for Cajun alligator.
We were just finishing up dinner when the young man who was the evening’s entertainment took to the stage at 9. We hung around for his first set, but his covers of standard rock/pop/folk weren’t what we were looking for. All we had to do was head outside and cross the street to listen in at Beale on Broadway, catching the last of Bob “Bumblebee” Kamoske’s blues set – a tasty treat and no calories.
May 10 – In the morning, through no one’s fault but my own, I start to hear Bob Dylan singing about Missouri in my head, and so it is that as we made our way out of town, I’ve dug out Time Out Of Mind and we have Bob crooning
When I was in Missouri
They would not let me be
I had to leave there in a hurry
I only saw what they let me see
Our circuitous route out of town took us through Soulard again, with its streets filled with mostly red-brick homes topped with French-style mansard roofs …
… by the Anheuser-Busch headquarters …
… and past the city’s 630-foot-tall Gateway Arch, named in honor of St Louis’ place as the gateway to the western expansion of the country in the early 1800s. It was here in 1804 that the two frontiersmen Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set off on their expedition to the Pacific Ocean through the vast western territory recently acquired by President Thomas Jefferson in the Louisiana Purchase.
Two more lines from Dylan’s “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” talk about leaving St Louis
I’m going down the river
Down to New Orleans
The Mississippi River. It’s 677 miles from St Louis to New Orleans and, oh, wouldn’t that be a trip, taking a riverboat all the way down to New Orleans. But not today. No, we’re crossing the river and moving east along our old friend I-70 that takes us through Illinois, Indiana and finally Ohio – Columbus, Ohio – a total of 418 miles on the road today. And we’re still not out of the Midwest. That’s a tomorrow job.
A self-professed live music junkie, Shannon is the author of Astral Weeks Live: A Fan’s Notes, a book about her year on the road attending singer Van Morrison’s epic live performances of his widely acclaimed album Astral Weeks. To find out more about the book or to order a copy signed by the author, click here.