St Louis and the Gateway Arch

St Louis Gateway Arc

My dad rode his bicycle across the United States before it was cool, back in 1977. Fresh out of college, he packed up his stuff into 2 pannier bags and headed East from Eugene, Oregon without any plans. In our own way, Jeremiah and I are following in similar footsteps as my dad – no set plans, just figuring it out as we go. When I texted my dad last week to let him know we were headed to St Louis, Missouri, his reaction was, “Go to the Arch, even if you’re claustrophobic.” He had visited 40-some years ago, and was insistent that it was an experience worth having.

I responded that I’m not claustrophobic, and without researching what he meant by that, Jeremiah booked 2 tickets to the Gateway Arch tram for the day after the 4th of July. Let me clarify- Jeremiah researched the tram. I did not.

The tram in the Arch

When we were in line to get on the tram, the tour guide, Jaquila, asked us if we minded being split up to 2 different tram cars.

“I have 2 single passes,” she said. “How do you feel about being apart for 4 minutes?”

“Good, ” I said, without pausing. “That’s totally fine.”

“I like that. Strong relationship,” she responded, and Jeremiah and I laughed.

She led us to the front of the line (others in front of us were not okay with being apart), and Jeremiah turned to me.

“You were so quick to answer that,” he said, “ No hesitation at all.” I can be decisive when really put up to it. I think Jeremiah was hoping I’d be so decisive when he asks what I want for dinner. No such luck.

Concrete Pods

When we got to the tram entrances, I understood what my dad meant when he said, “Even if you’re claustrophobic.” The entrance to each pod was about 4 feet tall, and the interior was a curved concrete structure, with five seats (the originals from 55 years ago!) facing each other. I ducked in, and was face-to-face with 4 strangers, our knees touching. “Welcome to our group!” One of the women said.

The tram pod door

If you’ve ever been on a wooden train ride, imagine those rickety sounds. Now, imagine that you’re in a concrete pod, with a window about 2 times the size of an airplane window, looking out into a stairwell. And, finally, imagine going up and over as you traverse 630 feet up. While I am not claustrophobic, I was sensing the absolute smallness of the tram, particularly when one of the women, a few years younger than me, began fidgeting and said, “I really wish they didn’t have a window. It’s making it worse.”

I disagreed, and watched intently as the stairwells turned into a spiral stairway. Four minutes later, we were shoving our bodies out of the tram into a jammed stairwell.

Looking out on St Louis

I pushed up the stairs to arrive at the top of the arch, which was also jammed with people. I’m getting used to this tourist thing though, and I’ve learned that patiently waiting my turn doesn’t work. So, I squished my body between two people, and shoved my face toward one of the tiny windows. It was right about then that I began panicking. Since Jeremiah and I had taken different pods, theoretically he would have been 4 or 8 people behind me, but the space was large and stuffed, and there was no gray-shirted Jeremiah in sight. In a plot twist, Jeremiah was not wearing an outrageously colored shirt, and 87% of all people there were wearing gray t-shirts.

Lucky for me, I was able to lie down and chill out while I waited for him to find me. Well, partially lie down. The windows of the archway are small in height, but about 3 feet in width. To make these relatively easy to look out of, there is a padded surface to lean on to, about 2 feet long. (Imagine a long slightly angled counter.) Leaning on it and resting on the surface is encouraged, so that your face can be near the window. For short people like me, there’s a metal curb-like stair to stand on.

Within a couple minutes, Jeremiah had found me, and we leaned across the platform, looking out across the city of St Louis after staring out at the full, brown river below.

“Nobody would let us out,” he said when he found me, referring to the stairwell.

For twenty or thirty minutes, we stared out over St Louis – looking over the churches and historical buildings.

“Oh, look,” he said, “A corndog vendor.”  (I really love corndogs.)

The ride down we were able to hang out in the same concrete room, watching the stairwells as we sped down, gravity helping it – the way down being 3 minutes.

An architectural feat of 630 feet

The arch itself is magnificent. The steel is thick enough that when we smacked it with our hands, there was no reverberation. It feels like an architectural feat. While some buildings are beautiful, there are others that are difficult to comprehend how on earth it was created. Like Stonehenge, if I hadn’t learned about how the Arch was created, I’d have been baffled. (Still baffled by Stonehenge.) As it was, the two sides of the Gateway Arch were built separately but simultaneously, supported by a brace between the two sides, only being removed when the keystone was put into place. In 1964, the whole arch cost 13 million to build, with the tram being another 3 million. (To put it in perspective, that’s about 135 million dollars today.)

A charming city

St Louis itself was charming, dripping with history and filled with intricate architecture. The churches reminded me of European cathedrals which looked so different from the huge white churches we’ve seen all across the US.

While it might be a charming city, it’s also a bit downtrodden. Abandoned buildings stood directly beside rehabilitated buildings. For every great restaurant we ate at, there was a broken down structure. Don’t get me wrong; abandoned buildings are my jam. I love them and am fascinated by them. There are stories in every abandoned place, told or untold.  

The land that time forgot: St Louis

Facades were covered with beautiful urban art, and when I came across a mural that said, The Land that Time Forgot, I wasn’t sure if the artist had intended what I assumed – that in many ways, St Louis is the land that is forgotten. In the 1950’s, St Louis had a population of approximately 800-thousand people. Today? It’s closer to 350k. While a lot of people may have just moved to the suburbs, it’s rare for a city to drop so dramatically in population. Crime rates are high: some of the highest in the nation. But it is a beautiful city, and was absolutely worth visiting.

Goodbye for now, Missouri

We’re continuing our trek across the US as we head north into Illinois, towards Chicago. We’ve got a few more things than what I can fit in a bike pack, but we’re adventure seekers all the same.

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