Getting Kicked by Route 66: Part 11 – Conquering the Gateway Arch Alone

Thursday, May 8, 2008

I’m alone again, as I often end up when I travel – which might bear closer examination. Am I bad at selecting travel partners? Are they wrong to select me? Or is it just that, at one time or another, we must all face the world alone and the road is the likeliest place to discover that? After all, neither of us could have foreseen that my friend Stephanie would get bronchitis.

Now that my ailing partner is gone, I’m determined to conquer the tallest manmade monument in the United States, the Gateway Arch.

Although I feel bad for Steph, who flew home yesterday, my solitude has lent me an unexpected buoyancy. Maybe that’s only because I, too, am packing it in. I’m eager to go home, another unexpected feeling. Instead of finishing Route 66 in Los Angeles, I’m going to take a detour from Saint Louis to Denver, where my husband waits, and make a stop near Kansas City to visit my mother. But first, now that my ailing partner has left, I’m determined to conquer the tallest manmade monument in the United States, the Gateway Arch.

It’s another gray and rainy day. Pervasive clouds lower the sky, mute the Missississippi River, and fade the downtown skyline. The stainless steel Gateway Arch almost blends into the iron sky. Forecasters predict that the rain is settling in for a long stay. But I refuse to give up on the famous, if limited, view of Saint Louis, Missouri, gateway to the old western frontier. So I walk to the Museum of Western Expansion hidden beneath the arch, buy my ticket, and hit the tram.

At 9:40 a.m., I’m the only passenger boarding the North Tram.

“Tram” is really a misnomer. Each leg of the arch has within it a contraption like a section of a Ferris wheel, each with eight small capsules, each capsule holding five tiny seats. At 9:40 a.m., I’m the only passenger boarding the North Tram. I step into my space pod – it feels as if I’m escaping a starship that’s about to self-destruct – and as the doors shut behind me, I’m grateful I’m not claustrophobic. When the tram starts its four-minute crawl up the hollow leg of the arch, at first I see only a vague blackness outside the portal window of my swaying pod. Then, as the arch narrows, I see cramped service stairs climbing up and up and up, until we dock near the top and the doors open.

Slim rectangular windows gave thin horizontal-dash views: toward the Mississippi on one side, and the capitol building and downtown on the other.

I step out and climb the final steps to a short, narrow, carpeted hallway, some 20 feet long, the floor rising to a hump in the middle. On either side, slim rectangular windows gave thin horizontal-dash views: toward the Mississippi and its bridges on one side, and the capitol building and downtown Saint Louis on the other. The gray city rolls in and out of sight behind the low clouds. Aside from a park ranger and two tram operators, I’m the only person up here.

A jack at the top used 450 tons of pressure to stretch the gap between the two legs an extra 4 feet, allowing the top to be wedged into place.

The Gateway Arch is 630-feet tall. Architect Eero Saarinen designed it in 1947, construction began in 1963, and a crane lifted the final connecting bridge into place in 1965. A hydraulic jack at the top used 450 tons of pressure to stretch the gap between the two legs an extra 4 feet, to 8.5 feet apart, allowing the top to be wedged into place. So either this thing could snap like a wishbone at any time, or this sturdy little passageway under pressure isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

I glance at the ranger, who looks trapped in this limited hallway, ambling aimlessly and gazing silently at the grainy view.

“Ever get bored?” I ask.

“Nope,” he says, but offers no explanation.

The mechanical whir of the tram returns.

I lean my forehead against a window, trying to see the arch’s legs falling away to either side of me. Silence fills the small space, until the mechanical whir of the tram returns. Even that sound seems part of the silence, until a tram operator startles me:

“The tram is here, if you’re ready to go,” he calls out.

I jerk my head away from the window, a sleeper woken from a frontier dream.

“You don’t have to,” he assures me. “You can stay if you want.”

But I hear the voices of arriving passengers. It’s been so tranquil perched up here alone. Why spoil it? “Thanks. No. I’m ready.”

Back outside, I take in the arch from multiple angles, until it becomes a dozen graceful structures explaining geometry to the sky

Back outside, I take in the arch from multiple angles, until it becomes a dozen graceful structures explaining geometry to the sky. I run my hand over the graffiti that people have scratched and penciled into the south leg. It reminds me of something a friend told me, about what her young nephew said when he saw the arch for the first time: “I don’t know why they call it stainless steel. It has a lot of stains.”

The Saint Louis Capitol sits perfectly framed within the Gateway Arch.

After a quick stop at the Saint Louis capitol, perfectly framed within the Gateway Arch, I take off for South City. My objective is the last item I’ll check off my Route 66 must-do list: Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. It’s too chilly for frozen-anything to sound tempting, but the Concrete is supposed to be “legen…wait for it…dary!” I ordered a brownie Concrete, which is simply a brownie blended with plain frozen custard. No milk, no liquids, nothing to make it drinkable or dilute its purity of purpose: fulfilling the mindless, animal desire for thick, unmitigated fat and sugar. It’s tasty, if not mind-blowing…like so much of Route 66. I mean, this was never the road of the jet set or the bohemian, who surely would have flown or backpacked elsewhere.

I ordered a brownie Concrete, which is simply a brownie blended with plain frozen custard.

With that, I turn onto I-70, bound for Kansas City. My road trip becomes a blank drive across broad blacktop, through empty prairie, to the quiet ticking of my mother’s farm-less farmhouse. It’s an uneventful visit, but my mother gives me one piece of advice I’ll never forget: “I firmly believe the secret to happiness in life is lower housekeeping standards.”

I suspect her wisdom holds true for road-trip standards, too, especially when traveling with a friend. I’ll let you know how it goes when I apply her principle to the rest of Route 66, someday.

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