Days 3 and 4 of our trip were spent exploring St. Louis, where my mom grew up and where we lived from just after my first birthday (1986) to the summer I turned 8 and Matt was 1 and a half (1993). This was the first time Mom, Dad or Matt had been back in 20 years. My last visit was in 1997 to see my friend London.
Click the photos to view larger with captions.
Before this trip, like most people, I considered Interstates the most painless route for any long distance. The idea of taking a parallel route at 45 mph or crawling through Main Street stop lights while traffic zipped around on a bypass seemed impossibly inefficient. But here is the secret my family and I discovered over the past two days: While winding through those slow, inefficient routes, the hours flew by without any trace of the boredom or restlessness that sets in on long road trip. Meanwhile, for the few stretches where US 40 combined with I-70, and the last few hours of our first night when we reverted to the Interstate in the interest of making it to our campsite before the check-in deadline, time seemed, paradoxically, to crawl to a stop.
Following the National Road, we passed through dozens of towns, marked not by signs on exits, but by landmarks we recognized out the windows as we read about them in our guidebook. We crossed stone arch bridges, a suspension bridge, a Y-shaped bridge and a covered bridge. We wound along next to the Interstate and crisscrossed back and forth over it, watching the tractor trailers flying past us. We kept our eyes peeled for the scenic byway marker signs that confirmed we were on the path of the historic road, and, often, sent us on abrupt turns onto older sections. We got stuck in a downtown where the National Road was closed for a Heritage Days festival and came up against dead end after dead end trying to weave our way around the closed area.
It was an entirely different style of travel than typical Interstate driving, and not just because there is more to see out the windows. The other distinguishing feature of this trip was that there was no GPS guidance to keep us on the desired route; to stay on the path of the National Road, we had to watch for signs — scenic byway signs in some places, US 40 markers in others, watching for roads named “National Pike,” “Old National Road” and the like for reassurance that we were on track. With a GPS, your brain shuts off and you don’t feel like you are traveling so much as passing time waiting to arrive at your destination. Using signs and landmarks, your mind remains engaged and the journey becomes its own experience.
That’s not to say everything on our trip so far has worked out exactly the way I envisioned it, though much of it has. To pick up where I left off in my last entry, we did succeed in fitting everything into the car, including pillows and camp chairs. Tying the chairs onto a bike rack on the back worked out nicely, and Mom and Dad were only slightly buried in stuff in the back seat. Ironically, neither the bins nor the cooler seem worth all the energy we spent trying to make them all fit–both nights so far Mom and Dad have opted to leave the bins out in the campsite instead of using them to support the head of the mattress because they don’t really need to extra foot or two, and we haven’t been very good about our plan to use groceries instead of eating at restaurants. With the extra weight in the car, gas mileage is not quite what I figured, hovering around 35 MPG our first day and topping out at 43 MPG today.
Camping, by its nature, means expecting inconveniences, and we have encountered several: Our first camp site did not have trees close enough together to hang a hammock (I used my two tarps for a tent and groundcloth while Matt slept in the tent) and also had an unfortunate scarcity of small dead wood to use as kindling, which meant hours spent trying to coax an adequate fire in our efforts to cook the steaks Mom brought for dinner. Meanwhile, operating on four hours of sleep and without the benefit of napping in the car, I crawled under my tarp and fell asleep, choosing rest over dinner, but Mom and Matt persisted, blowing on the fire and rebuilding it for hours until finally getting it going. There were no showers, and the next morning, we set out first thing to visit the Air Force Museum in Dayton. When the security guard checked Mom’s purse, she explained that she was carrying a lot of random stuff because we were camping. “I know,” the guard told her. “I can smell it.”
Tonight, we are camped outside St. Louis at Babler State Park, where we have a much better camp site and I’m typing this reclined comfortably in my hammock. However, our campfire cooking plans were thwarted again tonight, this time by pouring rain that prompted us to drive to a nearby restaurant for Imo’s “St. Louis Style” pizza. After placing our order, I asked the cashier what made it St. Louis style, and he looked surprised. “You all aren’t from here?” he asked. Matt and I were both wearing our St. Louis Cardinals caps, and I realized, oddly, that actually, we ARE from here.
But what imprint does a place leave on you when you live there for seven years before your brain is developed enough to form typical memories? I believe that even if I cannot conjure up an image of many places in the city of my childhood, they are still imprinted on me in a more basic form. The theory was borne out today when we stopped at a Schnucks grocery store — not the same one we shopped at in my childhood, but bearing the resemblance that stores of the same chain always have to each other, and small details — the way the bakery area was separated from the rest of the store, the brick wall inside the entrance, the vibe at the checkout — felt dreamily familiar from my days being pushed through the aisles sitting in a shopping cart.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: Tomorrow, we revisit our old street, the parks where I played, my old elementary school. Planning our day, I read place names from a map that seemed as familiar as a lullaby: Olive Boulevard. Clayton. Kirwood. Creve Coeur. I sometimes wonder if people who still live in the place where they grew up have stronger memories of their childhoods because of access to the visual aids, or if moving away actually helps preserve the memories because they are not overwritten with older experiences in the same settings. Tomorrow, I hope to find out.
To know America, one has to understand how people have built their lives around the road, the access it provides and the activities it stimulates….The best place to search for the archetypal road that will illustrate how life becomes landscape is an old road — not a simple track, abandoned and backwatered, but a road with purpose, a road built in the context of nation building, a road that would become a key part of the national highway network. That road is the National Road.
-Karl Raitz, A Guide to the National Road
This is how the author of my National Road guidebook introduces the allure of traveling the Chesapeake-to-Mississippi route that became US 40, but for me, this route represents a key not only to knowing America, but to knowing myself.
When people ask, “Where are you from?” I often stumble a beat as the possible answers flash through my mind: Denver, Colorado, where I was born? St. Louis, Missouri, where I spent most of my childhood? Ellicott City, Maryland, where I came of age? Hagerstown, Maryland, where I first lived on my own after college? Frederick, Maryland, where I live now? I feel a connection to each one of these places, but there is a thread that runs through all of them: US 40.
Yet despite living within a few miles of US 40 in nearly every place I have ever called home, these individual sections have never felt connected in my mind. Traveling between them today, you hop on the Interstate, a sort of magic portal, and hop off somewhere else, transported. But this is not the only way: If you’re willing to drive a little slower, to mosey through downtowns and stop lights, to wind around twists and turns that were unsuited for the path of a freeway, you can still travel much of the route of the old National Road.
So when my family received an invitation a few months ago to attend my cousin’s wedding in Kansas and we began talking about incorporating the wedding into a road trip that would include returning to St. Louis and Denver as a family for the first time since moving away 20 years ago, I threw out what I knew could be a controversial idea: To take what would already be 50 hours worth of driving and draw it out even longer by following, as closely as we can, the route of US 40 and its predecessors wherever they diverge from I-70.
Whether or not we stick to that resolution, I know the experience of tracing the ribbon of my life back to the place of my birth will be an unforgettable experience, and I invite you to follow along with me here as I blog about our adventures in Prius camping, visiting quirky roadside landmarks, returning with my mother to her childhood home and more.
The journey starts Saturday, June 15.
- Route 40 festival marked with nostalgia (observer-reporter.com)
- 40th National Road Heritage Festival planned this year (andrewjhesner.com)