The 5500 (Part 2)

St. Louis, MO.
August 20. Day 9.
Driven: 313.5 miles (3210.9)

I had promised a year ago that I’d be back for the Jordan statue. Being in a real city again, I had to fight through traffic for 15 miles, but the hour’s drive was worth it. As the plaque puts it, he’s “the best that ever was. The best there ever will be.”

It took a while to find the I-55 onramp, but I was soon out of Chicago and into Springfield, Illinois – home of the excellent Lincoln Presidential Museum. There was even a couple of interactive shows (think Honey, I Shrunk the Audience or Terminator 2: 3D… sort of).

From there, it was a short trip up to the somber Lincoln tomb. That’s gotta be one of the downsides of fame and importance, right? Thousands of visitors disturbing your eternal resting place.

And then a short trip back down to the best-looking Capitol building I would see on the trip. As I found out a few days (and hundreds of miles) later, I had preceded the Obama-Biden madness by a mere three days.

By that evening, I was walking the streets of St. Louis. Idiotic as it was, I couldn’t help but think of the fact that the city had the highest crime rate in the country. It wasn’t the scariest thing downtown, however.

That honor belonged to the Arch. The tiny egg-like elevators, the prison-like windows, the little walkway… As some guy blurted out at the top, “How is this thing even standing?”

And finally, a short walk over to the stadium. Half the crowd was scared away, if not by the rains, then by the $6 Busch charged for sno-cones. They realize it’s just frozen ice, right? The Cards won, wrapping up my fourth game in four cities in four days with a fourth victory for the home team.

St. Charles, MO
August 21. Day 10.
Driven: 64.1 miles (3275)

It was the lightest driving day on the trip. I was pretty worn out, and was happy to lie back and relax… quite literally, at least at the City Museum. While the rain made the outdoor attractions off-limits, there was still tons of stuff to climb and explore, and slide around in. Fun times.

Then, at the opposite end of the age spectrum, I boarded a riverboat casino (albeit docked on the west bank of the Mississippi). That’s some trippy stuff – although, as with Indian casinos, I would suggest a more thematic experience. Think Maverick.

I crossed back over the Mississippi to check out a Lewis & Clark historic site in Illinois. It was yet another well-crafted museum, with camp and keel boat replicas. Following last year’s stop at the mouth of the Columbia, I felt a sense of symmetry here at essentially the expedition’s departure point.

And then it was time to leave the river for good. The Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis served not only as an impressive landmark, but as a shelter from the now-pouring rain. I passed on the museum within its walls, however… the advertised presence of a giant quilt didn’t quite sell me.

By the time I arrived at the Art Museum, it was already closed for the evening. But Forest Park is quite beautiful, and frankly, enormous. I figured I could find something else on the grounds to keep myself busy with, and soon followed the signs to the zoo.

And it was simply amazing. I knew it was going to be good when I turned the corner and saw a giant black bear close-up. I had enjoyed the Wild Animal Park in San Diego just weeks ago, but there’s no comparison. The zoo had everything you could want, was organized impeccably, and somehow was free.

I was genuinely excited running around the entirety of the zoo, and took a ridiculous amount of pictures until closing time. But as the clock struck 7 pm, as I put Forest Park – and St. Louis – in the rearview mirror, I couldn’t help but notice: for the first time since I began the trip, I was heading West.

Independence, MO
August 22. Day 11.
Driven: 245.8 miles (3520.8)

As I drove by time and again the water towers that marked the boundaries of small towns, I felt as though I was truly witnessing the heartland of America. St. Charles, Missouri, would boast the cheapest gas prices I saw on the trip. $3.36 a gallon! Where was I, early 2008?

The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library was home to a 45-minute documentary about the guy’s life. I opted instead for a 15-minute version (the cliff notes, I suppose), and walked the exhibits. Seeing the famous newspaper gave me nerd thrills.

An eternal flame accompanied the grave of the President and the missus. I still remember two letters on display at the library – the first was from a Holocaust survivor. She included her lone pre-war possession (a tiny replica piano), while describing her ordeal and her unwavering belief that the Americans would come to save them. She wanted to thank Truman, to give him her piano, her hope.

The second was from a father who sent in his son’s posthumous purple heart, and very concisely, told the President to go to hell. He expressed his wish that the President’s daughter could be where his son was, so that Truman could feel his pain. It was heavy – apologies for the seriousness.

In contrast, the National Frontier Trails Museum was surprisingly upbeat: apparently, most people survived the arduous journey West. I knew Oregon Trail was bullshit! Dysentery – I bet that’s not even real!

Two museums in Independence, then two in one Kansas City complex. The Negro Baseball League Museum was super cool (except for the part where they don’t allow photography), while the live club attached to the Jazz Museum won me over. I don’t want to say I stood out, but one friendly guy asked me what country I was visiting from. “Uh, this one.”

And finally, more baseball. I knew the home team winning streak was in danger here, and the Royals proved my fears well-founded. There wasn’t a lack of effort or excitement, though – they lost on a play at the plate in the bottom of the 9th. Ah well. At least there were Friday night fireworks.

Colby, KS
August 23. Day 12.
Driven: 386.5 miles (3907.3)

More museum fever in Kansas City: the National World War One Museum, with tanks and cannons, interactive war room tables, and trench warfare exhibits. The only thing I couldn’t figure out were these audio booths they had. I entered, sat, and waited like a moron as nothing started up.

A display of some of the patriotic music from the period. I shudder to think about the inclusion of that Toby Keith song about shoving your boot up a person’s ass in a future Iraq War memorial. Fans United Together in Kindness (See the Dixie Chick documentary for full details).

The memorial bridge in the museum was a sobering reminder of the costs of war, with each flower representing a thousand dead soldiers.

Soon thereafter, I headed into the heart of downtown Kansas City, and walked around the Saturday city market (as jets from the nearby air show roared overhead). I bought four bananas for $.50, then had an Indian beef roll, a hot polish sausage, kettle corn, and fresh lemonade. What a country!

From there, it was west to Topeka, and the Brown versus Board National Historic Site. I saw more abortion billboards (Kansas, meet South Dakota), an apparent illegal immigrant bust on the road (where was I – California?), then had to pay $2 to take the Kansas Turnpike (bastards!).

Sadly, the Capitol building was under repair, creating a scene out of Mars Attacks or Deep Impact or something. Even more disappointing, it was late when I drove through Abilene, Kansas… I hadn’t realized that’s where the Eisenhower Presidential Library was. Maybe next trip.

As I reached the boundaries of Kansas, state signs penetrated my thoughts. Why weren’t they more visible, or creative? Why weren’t motorists given notice, or places to park for a photo op? I wouldn’t hit Colorado until the next day, yet couldn’t help but think of the natural fit. “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Draw it up.

Denver, CO
August 24. Day 13.
Driven: 237.9 miles (4145.2)

It was during my research process that I realized I would arrive in Denver just moments before the storm. I was in Sunday; the Democrats Monday through Thursday. The police presence was unlike anything I had ever seen. Then again, I didn’t exactly tour LA during the riots.

Lots of stuff was going on at the fifth – and final – State Capitol I visited. Most notably, a Green Party protest or demonstration or march or something. I considered joining in for the hell of it, but that probably wouldn’t have been appreciated. Hippie freaks.

I’m not kidding about the police presence, though. Tons of cops just everywhere. Helicopters and bikes and horses and cruisers with six or seven guys riding on the doors. It was like walking around The Siege, only friendly and without the panic.

And then onto Coors Field. I must have been exhausted by this point, because I napped for about a third of the day game. I distinctly remember waking up and thinking, “Hey, what happened to the score?”

Interestingly enough, I had watched Cueto start for the Reds in Wrigley as well. There’s some quality baseball out there, but it wasn’t in Denver on this day. The Reds would commit five errors, then lose on a walkoff in the 12th by some guy named Quantanilla. Exciting stuff, but I was a bit tired of watching teams I didn’t care about at this point. I’d imagine you feel the same way about Part 13 of my vacation.

And then off to Invesco Field – how does John Elway not have a statue yet? – for The American Presidential Experience traveling exhibit. It was kind of a disappointment, mostly because the exhibits were all of stuff I had seen previously (including some on this very trip!).

“Get off my plane!” The museum was also rife with interactive photo opportunities, with a replica Oval Office desk to sit at, a replica Presidential Podium, and so forth. Kind of neat. I hate posing and awkwardly standing for pictures, though – thus, my conspicuous absence.

Moab, UT
August 25. Day 14.
Driven: 406.4 miles (4551.6)

I awoke the next morning and headed over to the beautiful Denver Botanic Gardens. Cacti is the plural, right? But what exactly constitutes a single cactus or plural cacti? And why is it called the Botanic Gardens instead of the Botanical Gardens?

They were actually setting up a wedding reception in a secluded part of the park (appropriately, the Romantic Gardens). It’s a great spot… if you can deal with the millions of flies and bees and ants and stuff. A couple of zappers ought to do the trick.

More than meets the eye – two flowers in one! Anyway, since I have nothing more to say about plants, I had a dream a couple of days ago where I realized it was a dream and tried to wake up by pinching myself – only it didn’t work. It’s like, what the hell, subconscious?

A terrible traffic jam thanks to construction in the alpines (gas: $4.27!) delayed my departure from the Rockies. Utah actually had a fancy “Welcome to…” sign, which was a pleasant surprise in the middle of nowhere. On the flip side, tons of “no services” exits were to follow – not particularly reassuring.

At Crescent Junction, Utah (home to… an abandoned gas station), I left the I-70 for good for the first time in five days. The spectacular Arches National Park loomed southbound. It was like stepping into a road runner cartoon. Neep neep!

“What’s up, doc?” The bunny sighting almost made me feel like I was back in Irvine again, only not miserable. I’m kidding, but ivory tower responsibilities were creeping back into my thoughts.

The balanced rock at Arches. The evening was filled with scary lightning and thunder, and a downpour soon followed. Remembering that horrific drive in Wyoming just 10 days ago, I called it an early night.

Kingman, AZ
August 26. Day 15.
Driven: 582.2 miles (5133.8)

With Five Corners a Simpsons invention, I had been pretty excited about stepping in Four Corners, and four states at once. It was sort of a letdown though, with a tacky swapmeet encircling the plaque, and tons – I mean tons – of obnoxious senior citizens posing for pictures.

There were a few times on this trip where I considered backtracking substantially for photography, with no instance as prominent as the road through Monument Valley. Ultimately, keeping that quasi-OCD in control, I settled for another perspective.

Besides, I was about to drive through the damn thing anyway. Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park featured a self-guided tour on a 17-mile dirt road. It was bumpy as hell: I kept giggling like I was insane as I bounced up and down. They should have bumpy roller coasters.

And tribe members obliged by posing for tourists. They charged $2 to sit on the horse, but this close to the cliff? Yeah, I’ll pass. You’ll never get me on one of those horseback tours of the Grand Canyon, either. They might as well call them “suicide walks.”

These little Navajo jewelry booths were everywhere. At every stopping point on the tour, within the park, and every other mile throughout the entire reservation. Can we get these people a casino, please? I have to admit, though – I was tempted by the bow and arrow.

The dirt road took its toll. I’ve always thought it’d be a solid prank to report a fake hit-and-run with a specific license plate – of say, some jackass driver on the road. Uh, please don’t do this (I’m sure it’d be illegal anyway).

A full day of driving remained. As I exited the I-40 in Kingman that evening, I was suddenly very aware that I had been there before (from the Cannonball Run), even gotten gas at the exact same Chevron. It’s hard to express, after 15 days on the road, how incredibly surreal that was.

Irvine, CA
August 27. Day 16.
Driven: 406.4 miles (5540.2)

The final day of the trip featured a “Choose Your Own Adventure” branch (I used to love those books, but eventually lost my patience with them and basically started reading backwards). It was either Lake Havasu or the Hoover Dam. Even though I’d never been to the former, I decided on returning to the Dam for the first time since I was a kid.

“Turn around! Richard, do you want to get shot?” I opted for the ‘deluxe’ Dam tour, which took you a little further down into some of the tunnels and passageways. And yes, unfortunately, the guides do make cheesy “dam” jokes. What is this, Beavis and Butthead Do America?

The quote of the day, however, had to be when some middle-aged lady looked over the dam, and uttered simply, “Holy shit.”

Then, after blowing by Vegas again, it was time for the home stretch. I had started in California, gone to Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Illinois again, Kansas, Colorado, Utah / Colorado again, New Mexico, four states at once, Arizona / Utah / Arizona again, Nevada again, and finally, returned to California. 16 days, 15 states, 5 state capitals.

After a pit stop at my mom’s in Los Angeles, it was the last activity of the trip, and my seventh baseball game in seven different cities in the last 11 days. For the first time though, my Angels apparel didn’t make me look like a weirdo in the wrong city. If I could hug Angel Stadium, I would have.

Even the monkey – biding his time in my car for two weeks – made it. Naturally, as I sat in my disgusting clothes, desperate for a shower and a good night’s sleep, the Angels and Athletics duked it out for three and a half hours. I might as well have watched Titanic. A’s 6, Angels 5.

Finally, the journey came to an end at 11:12 pm, 16 days after it started, home in Irvine, California. Everything went smoothly – it was simply a fantastic trip and an awesome time.

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