Route 66: Saint Louis

The Sainte-Chapelle may be my favorite church in the world, and staring at the heavy tulips in Forest Park reminds me of those amazing stained-glass windows back in Paris, brilliant with color and the gold-trimmed spectacle of the 13th century.

And yet Easter Sunday at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis is no less beautiful. The trees are overdressed with pastel blossoms (no wonder dogwood is the Missouri state tree), and stepping inside the century-old church, I am confronted with more gold than King Louis IX could have ever imagined in his lifetime.

The French king is the patron saint of Missouri’s largest city, and when it was founded (exactly 250 years ago this year), this Mississippi River outpost was a French-speaking port.

Sadly, practically nothing French remains in today’s Missouri patois, other than the utter inability to agree on how to say the name. In one day, I hear variations of Saint Lewis, Saint Loss, and San La’wee.

Before 1930, Route 66 passed right through the center of St. Louis and down the flowered promenade of Lindell Boulevard bordering the green haven of Forest Park. I enjoy my Sunday stroll in what has to be one of the pleasantest parks in America, and then watch the passing traffic on the Mother Road, bemused by the Sunday rush. The more we travel, the more important it becomes to stop and smell the roses—and the tulips and daffodils and hydrangeas and dogwood and redbud.

“Go to The Hill for Italian, and check out the Central West End, too. Balaban’s is great—and Blueberry Hill has the very best burgers in town,” my friend Eileen shoots me a list of commands on the phone. Born and raised in St. Louis, she knew what was what, reminiscing about sitting in the free seats at the Opera Theater, the neighborhood swimming pools, and desegregation in 1964.

Yet inevitably, the phone conversation always veers back to food.

“Go to the Soulard Market!” she insists. My Twitter followers have already been sending me a grocery list of things to eat in St. Louis. Strange dishes I had never encountered, like toasted ravioli, scotch cookies, and gooey butter cake (is that a thing? Yes, it is).

“. . . and then Ted Drewes, of course.” Everyone demands I go get frozen custard at Ted Drewes.

“It’s an institution,” sighs Eileen. “Not only is it the very best in the country, but if you want to get an idea of what St. Louis is all about, go down to Ted Drewes on a summer night and you’ll see everybody out there—everybody!”

Though my friend is back on the East Coast, her voice turns nostalgic on the phone. “St. Louis is affordable. And historical—it really was the Gateway to the West—you know, it’s where all the expeditions left from, starting with Lewis and Clark right up to nowadays.” Anybody who wanted to travel west came to the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, right here in St. Louis. Hence the Gateway Arch, officially known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

Completed in 1963, the stainless steel parabola frames the city of St. Louis so perfectly, that throughout the day, I feel pulled back into its presence, closer and closer, until I walk right up to its triangular base and rest my hand on its sleek surface that shines like a suit of armor.

All this time, I imagined the arch was golden or brass-colored, but in real life, it’s as silver as a set of new knives, reflecting the Missouri sunshine so brightly that from a passing car, it might very well appear to be golden.

Designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, the arch is a true masterpiece, and along with prayers to their patron saint, the good citizens of St. Louis should add a prayer of thanks that they got that arch. The United States government spent more money building a memorial to westward expansion than they spent on the buying the entire state of Missouri from the French. Also, both purchases were highly controversial.

After ascending to the top of the arch in a pod that reminded me of an early-1960’s module from the Apollo program, I lean myself up against the slanted window slits and gaze out on St. Louis in its primaveral state. Something about the season and the time of day, but all that lay westward glowed green with promise, while behind me, the Mississippi River looked so muddy and brown and mundane. Simply going to the top of the arch made me want to keep traveling west.

Though the beautiful arch gets all the attention, the underground museum beneath the arch is not to be missed. Among the taxidermied buffalo and grizzly bears unfolds the real story of American expansion. I am especially touched by the display of peace medals going all the way back to George Washington.

Anticipating their encounters with American Indians, Lewis and Clark brought custom-designed medals struck from precious metal that they presented as gifts to the chiefs of native tribes they met along the way. From 1804 to 1806, Lewis and Clark expedition distributed 32 Jefferson peace medals.

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A series of these Jefferson peace medal sits in the dim light beneath a guarded display case. Kneeling down up close, I stare at the coin’s bas-relief design with two hands shaking and the words PEACE and FRIENDSHIP spelled out like some 18th century Hallmark card of wishful thinking.

According to the museum curators, many of the American Indians were unhappy when they discovered that the Jefferson Peace Medals were in fact, hollow—fashioned from two thin sheets of sterling silver pressed together at the edges into an air sandwich. Whether we ever achieved real peace or friendship with our native population is debatable, but in order that these kinds of gifts to have any effect, later expeditions into the West carried new peace medals that were solid and heavier.

Solid and heavy is exactly how I might best describe my cup of frozen custard dessert at Ted Drewes, where, as instructed by my friend Eileen, I turn up on Easter night after a whole day exploring St. Louis. A throng of at least two hundred people hang about the Route 66 hotspot, like smokers behind the high school. Sure enough, I met and chatted with just about every kind of person who lives in this city. Everybody was happy, and everyone was celebrating. Kids were up past their bedtimes and playing in the street, music played from open convertible cars and friends gossiped on the street corner in the dark. Even the police were having a good time, talking to everybody like they were neighbors, even though they had just met.

So this is St. Louis, I thought—the great gateway to the West, named for a Parisian crusader who lived 800 years ago and a city whose peace offering today comes in the form of a waxed cardboard cup filled with a hefty frozen dessert in thirty-odd different flavors. I imagine that as patron saint of the arts, King Louis IX would fully endorse Ted Drewes, for it is truly the Sainte-Chappelle of soft-serve.

Nothing changes. The road through St. Louis still heads west. Travelers stop for refreshment and a laugh before climbing back into their cars to continue onwards, following the sun to the end of its day. And though it is much easier to drive Route 66 than it was for the medieval crusaders to reach the Holy Land, today’s passion for the road is no less fervent than before.

I might even run into some saints along the way.

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