Last known location: London, England

Route 50: The Gateway to the West

G: After dropping David at the airport Dan and I continued our journey. We made a quick stop at Spearville to check out the impressive wind farm they’d built and then continued to Kinsley, otherwise known as Midway USA. This town lies equidistant from New York and San Francisco: 1,561 miles from either place. This geographical fact is pointed out by a large sign which we duly stopped to snap!

Continuing on through very flat, empty cornfields we detoured off route again, this time headed for Wichita to meet an old friend, Brian. I was rather concerned we wouldn’t make it because there was a large hurricane in the area, and the wind was really strong and blowing the car about – there were a few tornado warnings in force as well but we managed to avoid seeing any. Fairly common at this time of year in this part of the country, which is right in the middle of Tornado Alley, but we made it through safely thanks to Dan’s expert driving!

Brian is doing a far more adventurous trip than us; he’s cycling across America, travelling from Seattle in the north-west to Jacksonville in the south-east. He’s given himself about 2 months to do it in and is now nearing the end of the line. Good job, too, because he’s due in Louisville at the end of July to marry Pam, his lovely American finance. I commented over our yummy sushi dinner that I wouldn’t be too thrilled with Dan if he disappeared in the months before our wedding to take on such a challenge but Pam has been very understanding! They’ll be reunited soon, so happy wedding guys! And let’s hope Al does a good job with his best man speech!

After leaving the restaurant with Brian we noticed a Race Across America van, which caught his attention. Race Across America is an even more extreme trip – cycling across the States in a matter of days, just for the sake of it! We popped back into the restaurant to have a chat with the van’s owners, who were part of the support team for Nicholas Rice-McDonald who is doing the cycling, out on the road for 20+ hours every day – madness! The support job sounds pretty tough, too, they’re all only getting an hour or so of sleep every now and again in a bid to meet all the very strict time checks.

After dropping Bri at his place Dan and I decided to stay in Wichita that evening to save further driving. We found a very cheap and pretty basic motel and managed to watch some trashy American TV (interrupted by storm and tornado warnings) before crashing out. All those days partying with David had taken it out of us!

D: We left Wichita the next morning, and being slightly behind schedule and having taken a bit of a diversion from Route 50, we took the I35 Interstate North East to cover a few quick miles and get back on track. We then left the motorway and passed through the rolling Flint Hills of north-eastern Kansas, lined with neat little farm houses and cattle ranches. The countryside was noticeably greener than the pale prairie of the west, and the wind had died down now that the hurricane had passed through, so driving was much easier than it had been.

We were approaching the edge of Kansas City, a huge sprawl of suburbia which spans the stateline between Kansas and Missouri. It didn’t sound like the most exciting place, so we skirted south of it and continued along the Fifty into ‘The Show-Me State’. The landscape remained much the same all the way to the Missouri state capital, Jefferson City, named after Thomas  Jefferson, the 3rd US president. After checking into yet another Super 8 motel (more heavy negotiating ensured a pretty good deal!) we had a look around the sleepy downtown area, on the banks of the swollen Missouri river. For a state capital there really wasn’t much going on, and after a look around the impressive neoclassical Capitol building (based on it’s equivalent in Washington), we got a quick bite to eat at a sidewalk (that’s right!) restaurant. With not much else to do we headed home for an early night.

The next morning we had just over a hundred miles to cover to reach the city of St Louis, our next stop. We decided to take the scenic route along Highway 100, which follows the Missouri River eastwards. It was quite fun driving, the road winding round the hills and through the woods between the small riverside towns. We made a stop off at the town of Hermann, founded by German immigrants in 1837, who apparently thought the landscape reminded them of the Rhine valley. It was a quaint little town, and whilst we were there I had all my hair cut off again for the bargain price of $10.

We continued on down highway 100 for another hour until we got to outskirts of St Louis.  The city is known as the ‘Gateway to the West’, and was the starting point for many expeditions and most of the gold rush immigrants heading westwards. All this is celebrated in the Museum of Westward Expansion on the riverfront, which is topped by a huge 620ft futuristic steel arch, which you can’t miss as you come into town!

After checking into our slightly run-down but well located hotel, we first checked out the city’s other major landmark. St Louis is the home of Budweiser, and their brewery on the banks of the Mississippi is the largest in the world. There is a very well organised visitor centre and free tours with free beers, so I couldn’t resist! As soon as we arrived the smell of malt was so strong it was like putting your head inside a box of Shreddies (if anyone else eats those) – not surprising given that the plant churns out tens of thousands of pints of beer every day! The tour started with a look at the evidently famous Clydesdale horses, obviously no longer used for beer deliveries but still stabled on site. Next we went through all the different brewing processes, some still housed in beautiful period buildings. We then went to the bottling plant where machines fill more than 30 cans every second. Lastly was the tasting room where we got to sample a few of their more unusual brews.

After a couple of hours we headed back to the Gateway Arch. As futuristic as it looks, it was actually built in the 50’s, and has been a St Louis landmark ever since. Inside the structure is a strange combination of tram and Ferris wheel, which takes you all the way up to the tiny viewing area at the top. The view over the city through the tiny windows was spectacular, dominated by a few skyscrapers and the huge new baseball stadium.

Later that night we went for dinner in the Lacledes Landing area – a few blocks of old dock warehouses now renewed as restaurants, bars and swanky apartments. We sampled one of the local specialities, Toasted Ravioli, which is not toasted at all, but actually breaded and deep fried – very tasty although probably not that healthy! Afterwards we had a couple of drinks at an outside bar as disappointed baseball fans trickled in – the St Louis Cardinals had lost again!

The next morning we had one last stop to make on the way out of town. Route 66, which we drove part of in California, passes through St Louis on its way to Chicago, and an institution from it’s heyday still remains. Ted Drewes serves up Frozen Custard Concrete (a thick custard based dairy treat) in an array of flavours. 11am was a bit early for that kind of thing but it had to be done; Gem opted for the Pistachio, while I had chocolate brownie! We then had back to the river, and across the Mississippi into Illinois, the 8th state of our US road trip.

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