8:00 AM Okawville, IL: rise and shine. I rise to pull back the curtain and stare outside in disbelief. There is no shine. It’s raining. This has never happened. I’ve never woken up ready to ride only to see raindrops pelting the pavement.
The sun, a loyal companion from Day 1, has suddenly abandoned me. How to cope? By eating, of course. I make myself a third complimentary Super 8 waffle and wait until 11:00 AM to pedal off. My Cleverhood cape gives coverage against the elements.
I accept the wetness and ride comfortably. The landscape is unremarkable, so the rain makes the day a little different. It’s hard to believe I’m so close to St. Louis yet there is nothing out here, just farms and fields. Everything is dripping in water.
Crossing from East St. Louis, Illinois into St. Louis, Missouri, I get a first glimpse of the Gateway Arch. The West! I’ve made it, but am underwhelmed. Are cloudy skies to blame for dulling its magnificence? The archway grounds are stripped bare to brown soil from a massive reconstruction project that’s tearing up the waterfront. I see no beauty here. Even the Mississippi River looks muddy and stagnant. I hope downtown will be livelier.
I pause outside Busch Stadium, the red-brick ballpark home to the St. Louis Cardinals. It’s here where it hits me like a home run that I just biked all the way to freaking St. Louis. Most New Yorkers wouldn’t or couldn’t bike to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, yet here I am outside the Cardinals team store. The regular season is almost over and the Cards have no more home games. The area is almost empty.
A chilling welcome
Alejandro catches my attention on his way to work at the Hilton.
“I know these bikes are in New York, but we don’t have them here,” he says in accented English.
I explain the situation.
“Man you rode that all the way here? Woooooowwww. Das crazy, I think you gotta be special to do that.”
Alejandro lived in Bronx, but “some sh!t went wrong in the hood,” and he and his wife relocated to St. Louis. I don’t pry why.
“New York will always be there, so we left it,” he tells me in Spanish. Switching back to English he continues, “In three hours I can be on 125th Street. I have many friends in New York. We always hang out in Union Square. 24 hours man, we’re there.”
He’s got a good point. His reasoning is making more sense as I move across the country: you don’t have to live near NYC to enjoy NYC. A three hour flight, say three times a year, is more appealing than an hour daily city commute.
Alejandro snaps me back to St. Louis reality with chilling advice: “You gotta be careful here. There is some f*cked up racist sh!t in San Luis.”
I’m well aware of the civil unrest that exploded nearby in majority black Ferguson after white police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown, who was black. I also know East St. Louis, although in a different state across the river, is one of the nation’s most dangerous areas. However, I’m not expecting downtown St. Louis to be terrifying. But it is.
Not even the ballpark area is safe on non-game days. Alejandro points around the corner and tells me a guy got shot right there. Was with his girlfriend. She gave the attacker her purse and they tried to run away but got shot in the back.
“I never seen that stuff happen in the Bronx. I mean if you really go looking for it, you can find trouble in New York. But here, it’s right downtown.”
In the other direction from the shooting he points out gang territory. The buildings look normal to me, but he explains dangers unseen. I later learn that just north of the arch is a no-go neighborhood to be avoided at all times.
“I thought you were Italian, but me and you, we’re white… That’s not good around here. Be careful, man. Los morenos are like animals here,” he says of those with dark skin tones.
Shaken at my introduction to St. Louis, I pedal to my destination: a run-down hostel that’s last resort lodging because I cannot connect with any cycling hosts.
I’ve stayed in hostels around the world, but Huckleberry Finn Hostel comes closest to feeling like a homeless shelter turned haunted house. The facility comprises a three adjacent ancient commercial buildings that have housed frugal travelers since 1975.
Author Mark Twain, who worked as a Mississippi riverboat pilot, created the character Huck Finn, the carefree yet vulgar and destitute friend of Tom Sawyer. Maybe I am a more educated and less vulgar version of the vagabond Huck Finn.
The 15-bed dorm has creaking floor boards, which have totally eroded in the shower room. A hole is big enough to swallow my bar of soap. The toilet room comes with a bare bulb and mirror on a string, but no hand soap or lock on the door. A tiny trash can lies buried by the refuse pouring out of it.
But, hey, for $15 a night I’ll bring my own soap and wet wipes. I’ve earned a reduced rate for being a cross-country cyclist and appreciate the discount. The first two nights I have the entire room to myself, which gives me the night sweats because the room door doesn’t lock and the exterior door isn’t a paradigm of security either. I lock Countri Bike to the metal bed frame. The worn spring mattress is surprisingly comfortable and despite my best efforts to keep one eye open, I fall fast asleep.
You might think I’m crazy for staying here, but I overlook all shortcomings because location is king. Huck Finn is in Soulard, St. Louis’ oldest extant neighborhood, full of quaint redbrick homes, coffee shops, dive bars, and better-than-you’ve-had BBQ. Tourist attractions Soulard Market (est. 1779) and the original Anheuser-Busch factory (est. 1852, free tours + beer!) anchor the neighborhood at either end.
Around the corner is Pizzeoli, the city’s best pizza, Neapolitan style and wood fired. The owner travels to Italy to source food magic. That night I strike up friendship with the bartender Kevin, a Minnesota native who lives in Soulard and becomes my local exploring buddy.
Thanks to Kevin and others, the next six days in St. Louis prove to be fantastic and fun and nothing like the off-putting introduction I got outside the stadium. What I did and who I met is coming next.