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st. louis summertime spirit

This summer we decided to forgo major travels and enjoy a series of brief excursions just beyond our usual stomping grounds. Our most recent adventure took us to the gateway city–St. Louis. Now, I didn’t know too much about St. Louis, but in my imagination I kind of likened it to vacationing in Gary, Indiana (but then again I don’t know much about Gary either). I anticipated a hot, uncomfortably urban, polluted experience leaving little to write home about. While it was indeed hot–hovering around 104 degrees two of the three days we were there–the city held some surprises for me that has me humbly reconsidering my preconceived notion of this river-front town.

the gateway arch

The five-hour drive south on I55 from Chicago didn’t offer much adventure. Perhaps there would have been more had we ventured off the interstate, but we were set on getting to St. Louis before too much of the day was behind us. Aidan wanted to spend the afternoon hours in Gateway park, picnicking, writing is his journal, and sketching the Arch. So that’s what we did.

We rolled into town around 5:00 pm or so, checked into the hotel and headed for the park. We had passed through to St. Louis a couple years before around this same time of year, and the weather was no different–stifling hot. At 104 degrees and high humidity, we were all a hot sticky mess. We didn’t let this deter us, though, as we parked and walked through Gateway park looking for a good picnic spot with a view of the Arch. We ate yummy tofu salad sandwiches, cheese and crackers, and fresh fruit. Chris and I lounged and chatted, while Aidan sketched in his notebook. We were hot, but it was fun. Nonetheless, we welcomed the air-conditioned hotel later that night.

the city museum

Our first full day in St. Louis, we awoke rearing to go. Our plan for the day was St. Louis’ City Museum. We had heard of this place from friends who had gone the year before and raved about it. Aidan saw some pictures from their trip and has been pleading with us to go ever since. So of course, we had to get there right away with a moment to waste.

Let me tell you, The City Museum is one crazy place and there is no simple way to describe or explain it. Housed in the 600,000 square-foot former International Shoe Company, it’s a Seussical labyrinthine urban wonderland filling a ten-story warehouse and constructed entirely from reclaimed and repurposed industrial materials from within the St. Louis city limits. The museum is the brainchild of artist Bob Cassilly who describes the place as an “eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel.” The moment we arrived, Aidan disappeared down the rabbit hole, so to speak, climbing through a maze of polished steel coils and rebar, sliding down old roller-top conveyors, walking atop the world’s largest pencil complete with lead and a 200-pound solid rubber eraser, scurrying through the gutted fuselages of two abandoned air craft and a school bus (precariously positioned) on the museum’s rooftop, and riding a ten-story slide through complete darkness from the roof to the bowels of the warehouse. It’s a wild ride; you never knew what to expect around the next corner, and get this: there are no maps. The idea is to explore and find your way–no matter how unusual.

While much of the museum felt like a giant playground, there were other more “museum-like” artifacts there as well. I particularly enjoyed the gallery of salvaged architectural artifacts. The museum also houses the World Aquarium, the “Everyday Circus,” two 3000-pound vault doors built in the mid-19th century, the largest continuous mosaic in the United States, and, of course, the world’s largest pair of underpants. Now I’ve never taken LSD, but I imagine the time I spent in the museum might approximate the experience. While we were thoroughly hot and sweaty by the time were done, the museum certainly did deliver on the fun. Aidan can’t wait to return.

forest park: flora, fauna, history, and science

One thing about St. Louis is that a family can find plenty to do that’s easy on the wallet. If you want to have a nice couple of days but don’t want to spend much (if any) money, head on over to Forest Park. Forest Park is kind of like the Central Park of St. Louis comprising 1,293 acres of the city center. (It’s actually 500 acres larger than New York’s Central Park.) It’s the site of the 1904 World’s Fair (also known as the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition). The park holds many of the City’s cultural attractions including the Zoo, Art Museum, History Museum, Science Center, Muny Opera, and more. All the museums and the zoo have no charge for general admission, which is great, and free parking is usually available, as well. Forest Park also contains the beautiful architectural results of the World’s Fair, such as the Jefferson Memorial, the Word’s Fair Pavilion, and the beautiful gardens and conservatory known as the Forest Park Jewel Box.

Once we discovered Forest Park, it was hard to pull us away–again despite the soaring heat index. We roamed the zoo, seeking AC refuge in the beautiful bird, reptile, and primate houses as needed. We relaxed at the Jewel Box, enjoyed lunch at the historic boat house, time traveled in the Missouri History Museum, and strolled around the serene grounds surrounding the World Fair’s Pavilion, taking in the vistas and the cool spray from the magnificent fountains.

Our last day in St. Louis drew us again to Forest Park where we visited the Science Center–another free museum that certainly rivals Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (a place we’ve visited many times). We spent a significant amount of our museum time exploring the interactive building and architecture exhibit. Truly this is a hands-on museum with fun for everyone. Aidan enjoyed trying his hand at constructing bridges, testing foundation types for earthquake tolerance, and, of course, assembling an array of arches–some ten feel tall–to understand the engineering of their design.

Nowhere in the City did we find the kind of congestion or crowds we’ve become accustomed to in Chicagoland. In fact, the City had a bizarre quietness to it–even downtown at 5pm (a time you never want to be in Chicago’s Loop), there was scarcely a half dozen cars on any given street. We almost always found free parking and never had to wait in line. In the end, I found a new appreciation for the gateway city five hours south of Chicago and just across the river. We were there just three days, but it was packed with much to do and good memories. Aidan is already talking about returning again soon.

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