Across the wide Missouri! I’m immersed enough in folklore and American history to grasp the significance of the phrase in the annals of western expansion, part jumping-off point, part immutable threshold, a liquid boundary separating the staid past from the propitious future, roll on, roll on, hail Columbia. Departing Leavenworth on its magnificent double-span bridge—itself the color of an autumn sky—brings to mind riverboats and paddle-wheels and a nation at its crossroads. Once when flying to Pennsylvania I looked down upon the broad Mississippi and felt its presence even at 30,000 feet. It truly is America’s river, writhing through our collective DNA, guardian to our most sacred myths and literature. Though the Missouri plays second fiddle, the fact that it originates in the West, flows through the Heartland and empties in the South, bridging the entirety of the nation, gives it a more western aesthetic. In that respect, the river and I share kinship.
Crossing the Missouri has another connotation, that of traversing borders. Something about leaving my home state appeals to me though I can’t say why. It might have something to do with being raised smack-dab in the middle of New Mexico, which meant a fairly extensive journey to get to other states. Ditto for living in Denver. Now we’re just a short haul from Nebraska, Missouri and Iowa, so that within 30 minutes of leaving home I can crow with absolute delight, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”
But on Highway 36 there was no sky-painted bridge to sail across, no graceful arches leading the eye. Rather, and to my dismay, a squat steel platform discharging us into St. Joseph and a bewildering maze of highways, speeders and impatient truckers. Lori had suggested sightseeing in town but neither of us were prepared for the sudden acceleration, rude and baffling after the somnolent backroads of northeast Kansas. White-knuckled and tense, I asked which sites she wanted to see and which exit would be best. “I don’t know,” she said. “I never had time to look.”
The major distinguishing characteristic separating the sexes can be summarized in how men prepare and execute and women expect sudden revelations. Maybe it’s because men tend to be pessimists (“realists,” my father would say) and women remain eternal optimists. With vague recollections of the Pony Express Museum and some fancy cathedral being downtown, I whizzed off the first exit with that designation and found myself heading north along the river. Before us unfolded a panoply of massive limestone structures, architecture from another era built on a grand scale the likes of which we will never see again.
“It’s beautiful,” Lori said. Indeed it was but possibly more so for the passenger. The driver was engaged in other matters, mostly keeping us alive and charting a course based on wishful dreams. Helpful signs directing us to historical sites loomed ahead so we followed them into a warren of ill-marked one-way streets rising and falling precipitously with the contours of the loess hills. Angling toward the spires of the cathedral with cars hard on our heels like a pack of wolves, I managed to spot an empty parking lot and whip in. The relief was staggering. I know it was my imagination but it seemed that the cars snarled as they sprinted past, furious at our escape.
Next to us the twin spires of the former Church of the Immaculate Conception rose to the heavens. I’d read somewhere that it’s one of the most photographed buildings in town, but if so I couldn’t see how. Even with a superwide it was impossible to frame that magnificent structure without getting tangled with power lines and lens distortion, and after trying a few angles I grew bored and walked across the street to a shuttered derelict with November-hued vines clinging to the brickwork. Two quick close-up shots and I was done with St. Joseph.
Cities are no doubt a necessary evil on the road but whenever possible I try to avoid them. Years ago I when drove to Texas to bury my grandparents I charted a route straight south, 1,700 miles roundtrip of backroads and small towns and, once past the Texas border, a frightening number of Baptist churches. I religiously kept off interstates and made a complete bypass of Oklahoma City, preferring the open country to the crazed speedways, and in so doing arrived much later but also more mentally balanced, refreshed, in fact, from experiencing some of the loveliest country on earth. That stretch of road north of Possum Kingdom State Park in Texas is as lovely as it gets, which is why we travel, I guess.
The sad reality of the open road is that the nearer to cities one gets the more expensive the houses are. Only when paint on the wayside homes began showing signs of peeling and the barns sagged from extreme old age did I begin to relax. For a while the land unfolded into plowed fields and I drove in a state of suspended animation, and then we turned south and skirted an interstate and the fields gave way to rolling hills and sheltering woods. Several times when we looped above the highway we saw a stream of vehicles clotting the lanes while ours was an empty two-lane bereft of traffic. Not much later we turned off onto an even narrower road and entered the state park. The road was strewn with fallen leaves and the afternoon sun slanted through the naked boughs like spectral fire, and every twilit fold had a tiny rill or creek reflecting the light. If there are gods they exist in shadows and moving waters.