Exploring St. Louis

Despite a scary start, St. Louis treats me well. So well that it’s the most fun I have socially on the entire trip. I also fit in plenty of sight-seeing. Supposedly there’s more free world-class attractions here than anywhere in the U.S. except Washington, D.C.

When I tell locals I’m from New York, they say I have to visit Forest Park because it’s larger than Central Park! I hear this from everyone. Sounds like B.S. to me. Isn’t Central Park the be-all and end-all of urban green spaces? Turns out they’re right. Central Park is only 65% the size of Forest Park yet has 1,348% more annoying tourists.

Opened in 1876, Forest Park’s nearly 1,300 acres include attractions like the St. Louis Zoo (free), Art Museum (free), Science Center (free), Missouri History Museum (free) and Muny Opera (1,500 free seats). Bike and running trails are woven throughout.

Forest Park was home to the 1904 World’s Fair. That year St. Louis also hosted the Olympics, the first to be held in the U.S. Because of travel and sponsorship difficulties only 12 countries attended. Team USA won almost 85% of the medals, woo-hoo! (Germany and Cuba placed a distant second and third.) Any runners out there? Read about the most notorious marathon in Olympic history… quite the event.

Bee-lieve it
I learn all this at the History Museum. I bike there from my hosts Dana and Jerry’s place, a major upgrade over the Huck Finn Hostel. Dana and Jerry enjoy cycling and raising honey bees in their backyard. That morning I spread the honey over pancakes Dana made. It’s the most flavorful honey I’ve ever tasted with natural hints of lavender and flowers.

“It gives you an appreciation for our environment and how just a little thing can go wrong and you get nothing, no honey production,” Jerry said. “It’s a humbling thing to watch. The bees just don’t stop.”

I can’t stop scooping more honey on these pancakes. Thank you bees! Before I leave Jerry gifts me my own jar.

Bike/ped people
I’ve timed my visit just right. Dana says St. Louis is hosting a conference of the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals. Sounds exciting, but there’s more! Adventure Cycling’s Director of Travel Initiatives (hi Ginny!) is giving a talk at a local bike shop, which Dana encourages me to attend.

I’ve got no other plans, so up I show. Two dozen bicycle enthusiasts gather that evening. We go around the room introducing ourselves in between bites of toasted ravioli, a St. Louis speciality. Most of them live in the fancy suburbs, but I don’t. The provenance of Countri Bike earns me a free six month Adventure Cycling membership and two new friends, Todd from St. Louis and Dan from New Orleans, both involved in bike/ped improvements in their cities.

We go out for drinks at divey watering holes in Soulard and then for outstanding $2 taco specials at Mission Taco. (These tacos trump the ones I’ve been eating in New Mexico by far.)

The next night I go out to dinner in Lafayette Square with bike/ped professionals from the conference who hear there is some guy in town riding a Citi Bike across the country. St. Louis doesn’t even have bike sharing yet… I’ve imported it from NYC.

I don’t mind retelling my story for each of them as they arrive, and enjoy hearing what they do for Los Angeles, Boston, Minneapolis, Madison. Without these professionals, our streets would not be (re)designed to make mobility easier for pedestrians and cyclists. They are the unsung heroes of urban planning!

Trailnet before the Trail
I’m also invited to a Friday happy hour at Trailnet, St. Louis’ non-profit advocacy group geared towards pedestrian, bicycling and public transit improvements. Through programs, planning and policy initiatives Trailnet aims to improve community quality of life.

Their downtown office takes up most of an entire floor and I’m in awe of how much space they have proportionate to full-time staff. My last office I had to share a stapler with three people who worked back-to-back in what we called “The Grotto,” the most dark and dismal office space in Midtown Manhattan. At Trailnet, not only do they have lots of windows, but also the kitchen has beer taps!

 Grace, Jennifer, Countri Bike, Taylor, Marielle and Cindy of Trailnet

Grace, Jennifer, Countri Bike, Taylor, Marielle and Cindy of Trailnet

I mingle with the staff. This is where I learn about the Katy Trail that will guide me across Missouri. Taylor, Trailnet’s Education Manager and a veteran rider of the trail, helps plan my trip by sketching out the highlights of where to eat and sleep.

World’s craziest museum
Trailnet staffers Jennifer, Marielle and Grace plus Anna—a bike/ped professional visiting from D.C.—and I—a bike commuter professional from NYC—continue on to City Museum, the nation’s most fun and dangerous museum.

This place has nothing to do with the city or history. It’s an eclectic fun house full of multi-floor slides and tight crawl spaces. “We have no maps so you can get lost,” reads a sign posted at admission. There’s plenty of places to bang your head, hurt your back or break a limb. Alcohol is served. A school bus hangs off the roof. A hollowed out aircraft is suspended above the building. You can climb into both, and that’s just for starters.

Our first challenge is the Bird Cage. We climb iron rungs up curved walls into a cage suspended from the ceiling. This sh!t is crazy. Please look at this photo and tell me what you think. Marielle makes it into the cage first, but Jennifer is struggling. She cries out for help.

“It’s 3D problem solving, Jennifer. Be a planner!” Marielle shouts, encouraging and insulting her at the same time.

After surviving the bird cage, we descend via the 10-story slide—while impressive—is definitely not 10 stories and also painful because the slide is not smooth.

We also take a spin on the dizzying human hamster wheel. Footage of Jennifer and Marielle falling apart is below.

The most sore I’ve been since leaving NYC was after this museum. My favorite attraction is the Ferris wheel where I didn’t strain anything. Check out these views!

This Buds for me
After hopping my way across American craft breweries, it is hard to bring myself to drink Budweiser. But a free tour and free beer? Say no more. Sampling from the source seemed only right when staying in the neighborhood where Budweiser began in 1852. The factory is an imposing 140-acre facility known for an historic clock tower. Joining me is Kevin, the bartender at the pizza place around the corner from my hostel.

To survive Prohibition, Budweiser manufactured everything from ice cream and soft drinks to rail cars to baker’s yeast, which was such a big seller that it remained on supermarket shelves until 1991. About 40 Clydesdales stay on-site while 160 more live on a ranch two hours away.

Forget petting pretty horses, the best part of the tour was spotting a dropped beer token, entitling me to an extra freebie at the end. Bottoms up!

Gateway Arch
No visit to STL is complete without ascending the Gateway Arch, which I did almost 60 years to the day it was completed. Its simple shape ensures timeless dignity for a memorial made of 900 tons of stainless steel that rises 630 feet to a narrow observation deck. A video at the base explains construction of this classical arch that symbolizes the gateway to the west and the American Dream. This is an important symbol for me as this ride is my American Dream.

Dakota
Perhaps my favorite encounter in St. Louis is totally random. I’m unlocking my bike on South Grand Boulevard near Tower Grove Park, which is another big green space and home to the Missouri Botanical Garden. Dakota, 19, walks by carrying a longboard and pizza box. He’s in a Jimmy John’s hat, the sandwich chain where he works across the street.

“Hey, is that one of those rental bikes?” he asks.

“Well, sort of,” I say and explain the origins of Countri Bike.

Dakota is digging the story. In fact, he has a similar tale of raising his middle finger to the world and taking off on his own. Last year, fresh out of high school, he quit his job as a bus boy at a sushi restaurant. He absolutely detested it. Maybe even more than I hated my job. So he quits, grabs a backpack and a hammock, and pushes off on his longboard… towards Canada!

The kid sleeps in a hammock and only showers when he meets friends in Chicago. Dakota tells me how it was awkward to push forward on his board while the bulky backpack yanked him in the opposite direction. It required constant agility and strength, and he’s got He-Man-sized calves to prove it.

Dakota got to upper Michigan, climbed a mountain and gazed upon snow-covered Canadian soil. At that point he figured it would be wise to head back south. He found the nearest train station, rode halfway back to St. Louis, and then continued on his board. The trip took him three months.

I’m awestruck. I thought my ride was difficult, but damn, Dakota. He sees it the other way: he can’t believe I’ve made it to St. Louis on a shared bike. Dakota strikes me as more composed and savvy than your average 19-year-old. I think it’s because he made that life-defining trip. He charted his own course, through physical muscle and mental determination, and is confidently stronger because of it.

I never thought I’d have so much in common with a teenager.