day four: Liberty, Saint Joseph, Rolla

09Jun11

Distance traveled: 323 miles (520 kilometers)

Route: Highway 291 from Liberty, to I-29 to St. Joe, via I-435.  St. Joseph to Macon on Highway 36, then south on 63 all the way to Rolla.

I came into Kansas City late at night, impressed by how much the skyline had grown since I last visited the area nineteen years ago.  Twice I crossed the Missouri River, which I couldn’t see but I knew to be swollen with floodwater.  I could almost sense it, churning below.   The first time I ever visited the area was twenty-five years ago, on a family trip across the country.  My father was born in Saint Joseph, Missouri (which everyone refers to “St. Joe”) and we spent several days there, visiting with his sister Margie, his brother Glen, and the many, many cousins who were living in the area at the time.  The Missouri River had flooded then, too, and from the hills of St. Joe we could see the town of Elwood on the other side of the river, covered with water.  I tried not to feel amused as I spotted the rooftop of the Snorkel factory (no relation to underwater breathing apparatuses themselves) poking out above the surface of the water.

The family photo featured above was taken by my cousin Kendra, twenty-five years ago, during a picnic that we had at one of St. Joe’s hilltop parks.  It was also Kendra and her family who were kind enough to put me up for the night this time around in their home in Liberty (just north of Kansas City); especially kind, in fact, since I had once again miscalculated my travel time and ended up landing at about one in the morning, which is pretty late for family time.  In the morning we had pancakes (one of the foods I just can’t get sick of since getting back from Japan), and while we ate I watched a robin, a rabbit, and a cardinal who were all sharing the yard together.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a male cardinal, but the red on them is unreal.  If I were writing a myth about how the cardinal got its color it would involve an ur-cardinal that somehow managed to get itself caught in a vat of Otter Pop red.

Saint Joseph is a beautiful old river town with a gorgeous brick downtown, stately green parks, and an economy that was dealt a serious blow when Interstate 29 was built, bypassing the town.  To add insult to injury, a flyway that was built later to connect 29 with the downtown area and bring some business back ended up, instead, entirely cutting the scenic downtown area off from the scene riverfront area, killing whatever chances St. Joe had of bringing itself up through tourism.  Still, there are a lot of reasons to visit St. Joe:  there’s the gorgeous (if slightly run down) downtown area with its riverfront history; there’s the house that Jesse James died in (with bullet holes in the wall and a dent where his head hit the floor to prove it); there’s the St. Joe town museum which contains not only what used to be the World’s Largest Ball of Twine (in the 1920s, I think), but also some wonderfully unconvincing ‘shrunken heads’ from somewhere in the South Seas; and there’s the monument to the riders of the Pony Express, which originated in St. Joe.
There’s also the Hi Ho, a fantastic local bar right in the downtown area where my cousin Jordan works.  I visited the Hi Ho, which had just celebrated it’s 100-year anniversary, for an afternoon beer and the fantastic Presidente burger (which, if I remember correctly, comes loaded with some kind of Cajun sauce and jalapenos too).   While I was at the Hi Ho I managed to catch just enough of a Discovery Channel show to finally decide that Discovery has turned 100% bread and circuses.  This show managed to knit together Nova Scotia’s famous Money Pit with the Lost Ark of the Covenent (a radioactive radio to God, left by aliens, of course) which, of course!, was brought to Nova Scotia during the 1400s by the Knights Templar.  They had several experts putting all of this together with completely straight faces.  It was as if someone had made the Spinal Tap version of a Discovery Channel show, aired it, and no one realized that it was supposed to be comedy.
The main reason behind my visit to St. Joe this time out was to see my Aunt Margie, who has been in a nursing home for the last few months.  When I started making my plans for a cross-country trip while I was still in Japan, I had hoped to see my Uncle Glen as well, but he passed away before I was able to return to the States.  Of the four siblings in my father’s family, Margie is the only one that’s still alive.  I met Margie’s son Fred and his wife at the nursing home, and we stayed with Margie for about an hour or so, but she slept almost the entire time, waking up just about thirty minutes before I left — just long enough to recognize me and hold my hand for awhile.   Looking at Margie, I was startled to realize how much she’s come to look like my father in her old age, a resemblance that — since they were always so close — I’m sure they would have enjoyed.

Since I had arrived in Kansas City the night before, the weather had slowly taken a turn for the worse.  Leaving St. Joe for Rolla, the sky was grey and, in places, pockmarked with the cotton-textured topography that’s so often referred to as “tornado weather.”  In fact, my very first experience of a tornado warning happened while my family was staying at Margie’s house in St. Joe.  We were all sitting around the living room when a tornado warning for the area was announced on television (I can’t remember if there were warning sirens that were audible in the background, but it’s definitely a better memory if there were, so please add tornado sirens here).  We went out to the concrete garage that served as a storm shelter and turned on the radio to listen for the signal that the warning period had ended.  It was extremely humid, and they sky overhead was dark and bulged in several places.  After about ten minutes my dad looked over at Margie and said, “Marge, do you have any cigarettes.”  “No,” replied Margie, “I left them on the kitchen counter.”  Warning or no warning, I knew right then that one of them was going to head back to the house for those cigarettes.  Which is exactly what happened.  Eventually the warning was lifted, and we all went back inside.

As I made my way toward Rolla across mostly open country, I hoped that I wouldn’t cross paths with any genuine tornado weather (a week later, the city of Joplin would be devastated by tornadoes).  Mostly the weather was just windy and grey.  Eventually I turned south and headed through the state capital of Jefferson City, which has an amazing state house.  At Jefferson, I crossed the Missouri River again, and this time I could see how swollen with rain it actually was, a huge red-brown mass of current, making its way toward St. Louis.  It was dark as I drove through the Ozark hill country, eventually pulling into Rolla where my friend Elbie was waiting for me in front of the Great Wall restaurant.



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