Route 66 Day Three: Hitting the “Show-Me State”

Wagon Wheel Motel - in Cuba, Missouri

I’m spending the night at the Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba, Missouri – approximately 83 miles west of St. Louis, in what is the start of the Ozarks. While I didn’t cover much distance today, it was a memorable and jam-packed day. And of course, one of the old rules when it comes to traveling is – do your homework, but always be sure to double-check with the locals before you go out and do something. I learned this lesson (again!) last night, when I told the barflies at Tucker’s Place that I wanted to check out Clementine – St. Louis’ oldest gay bar, and just two blocks from where I was staying in the Soulard. They said: “oh no, try Bastille next door.” I went to Bastille, and they had a great drag show … It’s a lesson I learn on every trip, and am sure to experience time and again on this trip.

This morning, my first plan was to visit the Anheuser-Busch Brewery (a few blocks south of where I was staying) – where they give you a free sample of Budweiser at the end. Of course, the first tour wasn’t until 10:00 a.m. – which delayed the start of my day. But once the tour began, I was as happy as Homer Simpson … moseying about the Brewery, thinking “mmmm, Beer.” The tour is free, and the company clearly sees it as free advertising for its product. If anything, the tour is very much propaganda for how wonderful Budweiser is as a beer.

The Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis.

We are first greeted with a glowing biography of founders Eberhard Anheuser and Adolphus Busch that reads like a Horatio Alger novel: “The Anheuser-Busch story is a story that embodies solid values, vision, courage and integrity. It clearly demonstrates that hard work, commitment and a passionate belief in quality can form the foundation of success.” Of course, we also learn that there were about 50 breweries in St. Louis in the 1850’s (from the many German immigrants who came here) – and Anheuser-Busch drove them all out of business so that today there is only one brewery left. Story of success, or the rise of corporate monopolies? I don’t think the tour guides wanted to answer that question.

Once I got my sample of free beer, it was 11:30 – but there was one last thing I had to do before leaving St. Louis. When I was in college, I had a crazy landlord named Charlie Forline – who, while amusing and eccentric, was also ripping us off by renting out an old Victorian from the owner and overcharging his subtenants so that he paid nothing. In 2001, I confronted him about it – and nearly exactly 10 years ago (on April 9, 2001), he committed suicide by jumping in front of a BART train. He was buried in St. Louis (his family was from Franklin County, Missouri), so I had to go to pay my respects.

Charlie's grave, on the Forline family plot in Valhalla Cemetery.

The Cemetery was northwest of the city, so I took the opportunity to drive through more of St. Louis. I looked on the map, and saw that Martin Luther King Drive would take me right there. Every city has a Martin Luther King Drive, and the sad part is that they all go through very poor, very black and very dangerous neighborhoods. St. Louis is no exception, and I was again appalled at what I saw. (The good news, at least, is that St. Louis voters ended up passing Prop E.)

I got to the cemetery, and checked in with the office. Charlie’s family had lived in the area for years, as they had purchased a plot at Valhalla Cemetery way back in 1911 for $250. I found Charlie’s grave, as well as his father (who died six years ago) and his mother (who died just three weeks before Charlie killed himself.) I believe that it was his mother’s death, along with the uproar at what was going on in the House, that ultimately drove Charlie to kill himself. I’m glad I went there today, but I wondered how many people had come to see him. After all, he had no siblings and his parents are now dead.

By now, it’s almost 1:00 p.m. – and I really need to hit the road. While it would be nice to visit the Gateway Arch, it’s not like I didn’t have a chance to view it all over St. Louis. As I hop on the Interstate to re-join Route 66, I drive right by it Downtown. I have photos over on my Facebook page.

As Route 66 heads out of St. Louis, I inevitably have to get back on the Interstate – but only for a short while. I need some music to keep me going in the car, so I randomly pull out the “West Side Story” soundtrack – as the car zooms down I-44. Now I am definitely in Missouri, because the scenery is totally different from Illinois. No more drab, flat countryside – it’s all rolling hills from here to Oklahoma!! Route 66 exits the Interstate after a few miles, and by now I’m hungry. So I stop at what looks like a restaurant, only to find out it’s now a tire shop. “Yeah, they kept the sign for historic purposes,” says the proprietor – but I get him to recommend me a good place for lunch in the area: the Third Rail Bar & Grill in Pacific, MO. I get one of their “Hippie Burgers,” which is actually quite good.

Route 66 in Missouri is not as well marked as in Illinois, so my geeky Google-Maps are more useful here. But you still have signs present – you just have to look more carefully, because they’re not in the distinctive brown shade.

Union, MO - the county seat of Franklin County

As Route 66 winds down along I-44, I come across the city of Union in Franklin County – where Charlie Forline grew up. Two months before he died, Charlie did a trip to his family home in Union – where he saw his mother for the last time, his father was placed in a retirement home, and he took the whole family belongings back to California. It was upon his return that I confronted him on the rent overcharges, and he threatened to kill me with his great-grandfather’s Civil War sword. So I was curious to check out his hometown. The downtown was very cute, and I had a delicious peach cobbler pie for dessert at a nearby bakery. But still, not much to see here … time to head down towards Meramec Caverns.

I had never heard of Meramec Caverns before planning a Route 66 trip, but once you go it is almost impossible not to hear about it. It’s the largest cave open to the public in Missouri, and is famous for being the Hideout for Frank & Jesse James after the Great Train Robbery of 1872. Route 66 now follows the Interstate in a straight southwest direction. But unlike Illinois, which is so flat that you are driving almost as fast as the cars on the Interstate, Route 66 in Missouri is all rolling hills. I have to slow down the car a lot, because the speed limit is a little too fast for my comfort here. As I get closer to Meramec Caverns, the number of billboards advertising it is almost ridiculous.

Entrance of Meramec Caverns, with a tacky log cabin of no historical import whatsoever.

I get to Meramec Caverns in time for a 4:30 tour, and read up some interesting stuff about its role in the Civil War. Missouri was part of the Union, but as a slave state had many loyalists to the Confederacy. During the War, Union troops took over Meramec Caverns to build gun powder – so a group of local Confederates from Franklin County raided the Caverns and got them out. Two young men in that effort were Frank & Jesse James, who ten years later would hide out in the Cavern after the Great Train Robbery. It’s entirely possible that Charlie’s great-grandfather was part of this effort as well, as after all he was a Franklin County resident who fought for the Confederacy (complete with sword!)

The tour of Meramec Caverns was pretty spectacular, and I took a lot of photos – most of whom, sadly, did not turn out very well with flash photography. The knowledgeable guide took us through beautiful rooms of stalagmites and stalagtites – with the tour (in all its tacky Americana) concluding in a room that blasted Kate Smith singing “God Bless America.” Her rendition, as first performed in 1946 at Meramec Caverns, is what made the song famous.

Meramec Caverns, with the Meramec River running through it.

Now it’s almost 6:30 p.m., and I have to get to my hotel reservation in Cuba, MO. Fortunately, that’s only about 30 minutes away – so I get back in the car, and pop in my “Best of R.E.M.” CD that should help me focus on the road. Unlike in Illinois, where every town on Route 66 plays up its kitschy tourist traps to make you stop, I’ve noticed a lot less of that in Missouri so far. One factor may be that it’s a much, much poorer part of the country. The number of trailer homes I saw along the road today (along with Assembly of God churches) was quite noticeable, and frankly depressing.

But as I get to Cuba for the night, check into my hotel and grab dinner in town, I notice that the town is a lot more lively and colorful than other Missouri towns I’ve seen so far. And when I sit at the Frisco Bar & Grill and talk to the locals, a woman asks me: “have you seen the world’s biggest rocking chair yet?” Nope, I haven’t … because it’s further down Route 66, past Cuba as you head southwest. I can’t wait to see it tomorrow!

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4 Responses to “Route 66 Day Three: Hitting the “Show-Me State””

  1. nafiss griffis Says:

    I am glad he killed himself rather than Paul. The visit of the cemetery is a sign of a vivid soul. It connects us to the metaphysical. I see that you start your day very early, I wish I could do that on my travels. The Soulard gay bar is intoxicating, what a great name. I can smell the hop of the brewery in Missouri. Thank you for the treat. Finally the Wagon Wheel and the design of the sign blow a poetic breath in the trip.

  2. Route 66 Day Eleven: The Open Road in Western Arizona « Paul Hogarth’s Personal Blog Says:

    […] out it’s another cave. Now, I’ve just been to the Grand Canyon – and I went to Meramec Caverns back in Missouri. So what does Grand Canyon Caverns have to offer? “It’s the oldest dry […]

  3. Steve F. Says:

    It sounds like you had a good time.Where is chapter two?

  4. boskolives Says:

    Sorry to hear about Charlie Forline, I rented a room from him at 2476 Telegraph (funny how I can remember the address but can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday) that was located over the business he had with a guy named Michael Baish, it was called oddly enough “Forline and Baish and was directly across from The Cafe Med. He was indeed a loon, but an entertaining one, I once helped him melt down some platinum wire screening that he (no questions asked) to be able to sell it to a jewler. Unless he had more than one house he sub-rented out, you probably lived on Dwight Way, right?
    Cheers,
    Jerry

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