The Arch in St. Louis

by Rita Leydon ©1998
 

Cat and I are on the road again, heading west. The midpoint of our journey is right here. X marks the spot. A thousand miles from start or finish, take your pick.

After we pass Indianapolis, I entertain the thought of stopping to see the arch in St. Louis. Treat myself. When I spot the familiar orange road signs warning of “possible delays due to construction” on the I-270 bypass, the decision is made. “Possible delays”—indeed. I don't feel like crawling across the Mississippi at two miles per hour today. A romp for the rump is much more appealing. The thought of moving my larger leg muscles in pedestrian locomotion makes me positively giddy with anticipation.

Even when you decide on an action, you can’t be sure you'll really do it until the moment when you actually initiate the action. That might sound simplistic, but how many times have I changed my mind—a euphemism for chickening out—at the last second? Saying “another time,” or “I’m late,” or some other invalid reason to not treat myself nicely. I came here before with my boys when they were small. Summertime. Crowded. We did the museum and the souvenir shop, but the wait for the tram to the top was too much. Another time, we told each other. We are now 48, 19 and 21, respectively, and I doubt that we’ll ever again cross the country together in the same car. So I am here alone today.

The Arch is situated on the banks of the broad Mississippi River. That's M I S, S I S, S I P P I. I sing the spelling bee refrain loudly as Cat and I make our way across the Mama of American rivers. Mama doesn’t look like much today. Just a regular old river. Brown and serene. She’s got no particular opinion today. I cruise around looking for parking. I remember that one of the riverboats moored out front is a floating McDonald’s. This is not surprising since the star attraction looks like half of a Golden Arches logo. Maybe McDonald’s feels a kinship between their arches and the other. We go there. I park Cat on the cobblestoned thirty degree embankment and find a phone so I can yell into the wires—“Hi, Chris, I’m standing on a riverboat in the Mississippi, looking up at the St. Louis arch. How about that?” This is only impressive if you live a thousand miles away and don’t get out much. Chris yippies approval into my ear and makes me smile big. He’s a nice man. He’s also my husband. Good bye.

The Arch in St. Louis is a symbolic gateway—the eye of the needle passed through by untold thousands on their way west in search of opportunity and life. The surge onward and upward in search of dreams too far out of reach in the crowded east. Finnish architect Eero Saarinen designed this silently respectful memorial to human hope, ingenuity, and dogged perseverance. A fitting memorial is one that inspires free contemplation, allowing each visitor an understanding based on his or her own experiences. The arch allows that freedom.

Today there are no crowds. No tourists. It’s January. Cold. Blustery. Bitter. The perfect time to come. Hiking along, I can’t help but notice an oversize yellow ruler strung up against a lamp post, looking like a runaway from kindergarten. Its job is to illustrate for me how high the water rose in the flood of 1993. The river gets too big for its britches sometimes.

There is a spartan austerity about the monument and its approach. Three tiers of broad steps to climb. A landing between each to catch your breath if need be—for those who are older or out of shape maybe. I am neither and bound up in one fluid motion. There are no signs and no visible entry. All I see are two broad arch ends impaled into frozen earth. If it were summer there would be people milling and moving, showing the way. It takes me a moment to figure out that each base faces an entry downward into the earth. Beautiful solution. Spare. Simple. Logical. I pause and look up at the great, sweeping form. Silvery skin of polished stainless steel. Big panels attached cleanly to an interior frame. Two lithe limbs reaching assertively towards the heavens, joining nimbly at the apex. That’s where I am going. The apex. Standing below, looking straight up, mouth hanging agape, I momentarily loose my balance. Without normal references to scale and earthly objects, I am disoriented and dizzy. Gathering my wits, I turn and descend the dark entry. My wings are tingling and I'm poised for ascension. A delicious nervousness accompanies me, a comforting shadow reminding me I am not alone. The foyer is grand and obviously designed for large crowds. It may love big crowds, but I hate them, and am glad to be one of maybe a dozen visitors meandering the premises.

“How much to the top?”

“Six bucks.”

I fork over my money and inquire if there is also a film? Yes. That’s another six bucks. Aha. I’ll be content with just a quick ride to the top, thank you. I hate nickel and diming. Should be one price—six bucks should get you the whole show. No one else seems to care, so I keep quiet.

I bounce along as directed until I come to the metal detector station, manned by folks in ill fitting uniforms and totally devoid of any discernible humor. I set the buzzer off. Always do. Body scan required as I strike my martyred-on-the-cross pose, presenting front, then back. The culprits are identified as my big silver bracelets, the brass buttons on my jeans and an ominous buckle on the back of my black leather vest. A dangerous woman, to be sure, but the security guards decide to risk their monument today and let me through.

I’m a rumpled traveler with my hair contained in long braids. One braiding is good for the two thousand miles I have to cover. I hate messing with hair while on the move. A cute, young, black girl with an impressive number of braids sprouting from her head, grabs hold of one of my two, smiles, and declares that I have an “awesome” hairdo. We’re sisters. “You are on number four,” she says.

A contingent of wide eyed Russians babble excitedly ahead of me. They are assigned to five, six and seven. A man pauses behind me, apparently also assigned to number four—this makes me nervous and alert. I have black sister to thank for this match-making. The doors of number four open to reveal a very small container. Think of the inside of a tennis ball. I climb into this negative space with Mr. Stranger. We will share our limited air supply for four minutes. I have an active imagination and I wonder if people have four minute affairs? I know the answer is yes, and look at my stranger with curious amusement. How many male / female combinations have met while stuck together in tight spaces? Made creative use of time, emerging at the top as a couple. I can’t escape this train of thought. He’s an attractive man. My nervousness over what sort of polite conversation to engage in dissipates when I notice the view out the port hole. Look at that! Two noses grease up two port holes. Gliding by and sinking from view are the underpinnings of the monument. Metal plates, big rivets, conduit tubes, structural I-beam members. Grey, all grey. Sort of like the inside of the Statue of Liberty, but not so fluid or complex. No small curves. No fussy details. Beautiful. Ride over.

“It’s been a pleasure,” I declare with a smile. He nods. That’s it. We’ll never ever see each other again in this life.

At the top, small horizontal windows with rounded edges line up in tidy rows on both sides. The windows face basically down, with a generous carpeted ledge for leaning on. I try them all, favoring the river side. I check to see if Cat is still where I left her. She is. This is America, and things like cars do disappear occasionally, especially nice ones like Cat who happens to be a Jaguar. I’ve got a VISA card in my pocket and figure that whatever happens I can deal with it, at least financially.

It doesn’t take long for me to be satiated with my visit to the top. A few quick glances is really all I need. I’m not so intrigued with studying every detail of how the world looks at 630 feet. I’m content with the overall vista. I’m a fast looker, scanning for details that are important to me. This is quite different from my days as Mom, the Tour Guide, pointing hither and yon with enthusiasm. The rest of the time I spend chatting with a Park Ranger on duty. Park Rangers all over America look pretty much the same in their crisp, pressed uniforms and round Yogi Bear hats—safe and friendly.

My tennis ball companions for the descent is a couple. An older, grey haired couple. He sits silently, staring out into the darkness beyond his port hole, looking like he hasn’t had an opinion or thought in a decade. She interrogates me with bold and efficient precision. Where are you from? Are you alone? Been here before? Why are you traveling? A writer? What do you write about?

“Oh, personal essays mostly,” I say. “I might write about going up this monument.” She looks baffled.

“What on earth is there to say about going up a monument. That’s not very interesting.”

“I have imagination,” I explain.

Calculating eyes study me with suspicion. “Oh, here we are. Nice talking with you.”

Yes. She takes her man by the hand and leads him out into the daylight. He doesn’t murmur. An obedient dog on a leash. I make a mental note that I don’t ever want to lead a man around like that. Chance meetings along the road, along respective journeys—one from Pennsylvania to Colorado, another from Wisconsin to Florida. Paths crossed at the Arch in St. Louis. X marks the spot.

 

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