Unless you’re in love with Midwestern landscapes, as I am, once you’ve taken the interstate from Kansas City to St. Louis, you never need drive it again. After the first time, the familiar rolling hills and deep river valleys come at predictable points. The little creeks flow under the highway with names that Lewis and Clark gave them: Chouteau, Boeuf, and Davis. The Lamine River Valley winds through the limestone bluffs on its way to the Missouri. Here, Odessa sits on its hill. There, Sweet Springs shows itself in tangles of gas stations and motels. And so on.
The road itself runs through the countryside much like any other of those great feats of engineering winds though any landscape, anywhere. The interstate’s not quite straight but offers the driver little to steer around. It’s as if someone tilted Missouri on its side and emptied a cup of water on O’Fallon and followed the water’s course to Kansas City. The water takes the path of least resistance. It runs in a straightish path from east to west across the state. There’s a fortunate series of curves around St. Louis. By the time you’ve driven that far, 248 miles out of Kansas City, you’re ready for something, anything, to happen.
I never get tired of the Missouri countryside. In spring, the new buds filigree the woods in light greens. The fields turn from winter brown to emerald. In fall, colors burst out of the sunburned grass and woods in orange and red. The winter fields show all the nuances of brown and the trees take on the look of black skeletons waiting in silence for the snow. When I drive through it all, I feel the kind of comfort that comes with familiarity.
I just drove that stretch of interstate for maybe the 60th time. The route from Kansas City to St. Louis makes me feel like a Missourian. I grew up on the state line. My house sat across the street from Kansas. My family looked West. We drove across the plains of Kansas and eastern Colorado to vacation in the Rockies every summer. Camping in Missouri always disappointed us. No stretches of public land allowed us the illusion of freedom. We felt cramped nestled in crowded campgrounds in the Missouri hills.
But I could no more feel a Kansan or Coloradoan than I could feel like an Alaskan. I looked across the street into a different world, one familiar but foreign. Missouri spanned out behind my house like a blanket. It was warm and comfortable. Later, I backpacked the public lands of Missouri. Such places lay far from Kansas City. But the karst Ozark hills, while unfamiliar at first, offered me more of my homeland than any Forest Service campground in the West.
Maybe it was because Kansas City resembled the East more than the West. Out West the trees thin out beyond Lawrence. The farm fields are bigger and stretch to the horizon. Missourians farm just like farmers in Kansas but the fields are smaller, more compact. They wrap around little patches of trees. Woods nestle tiny lots of corn and beans hewn into them. Ponds dot the land like little mirrors reflecting thoughts and memories.
I came all this way to attend a history conference. It’s my last for a while, I think. I went to the opening reception. I knew no one but everyone there seemed to know each other. It was a very cliquey group. I wandered around for five minutes and realized that unless I could come out of my shell, I would just wander around. I had the feeling, as many shy people do, that all eyes were one me. No one, of course, even noticed me but that doesn’t break that feeling of being on the outside.
I know these things are what you make them. But I’m beyond making social connections, though it’s probably good for me. You really have to belong to an institution and know other faculty to make these things really work. An independent scholar who teaches adjunct at a community college just doesn’t have a place.
Instead, I went out front. I looked over a replica of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, which hangs in the atrium of the Missouri History Museum. The plane flies to nowhere right in front of the second story balcony. It struck me that Lindbergh couldn’t see where he was going. The plane has no front window, just a small window on the side where he could look out at the ocean.
I thought about not having a front window and driving across the shortgrass prairies turned to corn fields. What a shame it must have been for Lindbergh not to see the sky ahead, not to know where he was going, to see only the runway and the ocean below through a tiny glass on the side of his plane.
Then, I took a long walk around the museum. The Missouri History Museum is a ponderous edifice in Forest Park. A haze rose over the park. The sun, low to the horizon, gave the park the appearance of having a halo. I thought of Thomas Wolfe and the things he wrote about the park. He couldn’t go home again. I could hardly get started.
I stared at the halo settling in over the park and realized that it wasn’t such a bad thing to come this far and sit alone in a hotel room. I didn’t regret coming to conference I would be on the fringes and outside of. I made the trip to St. Louis again and saw my beloved Missouri.
I never feel the pang of conscience when I spend the money and time to go to St Louis. It reminds me again where I live and the place I came from. I am a Missourian. That is plain to me. The fact of being a Missourian becomes more relevant to me as I grow older. I have traveled this country and Europe. I have spent time in the lower third of Canada. I felt stitched into the fabric of those places, particularly when I lived in Germany in the 1980s. But I have never been a part of them like I am a part of Missouri, and Missouri is a part of me.
Perhaps it is best that I make the trip from Kansas City to St. Louis from time to time, though I don’t need to. The highway doesn’t change, nor the countryside around it. Take away the family farms, which are mostly gone now anyway, and put factory farms on them. Fill them with hog and chicken and turkey factories. Mow the fields down and cut down all the trees. It will all still be Missouri. You can’t kill that.
(This essay was first published on March 12, 2015)