Lebanon to St Louis, Missouri - The woman who sat on the toilet too long (and other odd American tales) - CycleBlaze

May 25, 2014

Lebanon to St Louis, Missouri

Street party outside a sports ground in the centre of St Louis
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IT RAINED when I left Jeff's. It began pretty much as I got to the end of his street. "You may get a few drops but it won't be anything serious," he'd predicted, with the air of a wise countryman accustomed to watching the clouds shift and change above his flock.

It rained the rest of the morning. It rained in a determined, uncompromising manner. And it rained enough that I sheltered in a family garage when I needed to turn over the paperwork attached to my bars.

"Raining pretty good, ain't it?" said the short, young and rounded man in a checkered shirt as he came across to see me. "Get you anything you need?"

"You can get me a club so I can beat Jeff Lee round the ears," I said.

The man looked quizzical.

"A friend of mine," I said. "I was setting off this morning and he said I'd get just a few drops."

"Yeah," he said with a shake of his head. "I got friends like that as well. Still, you shelter in there as long as you like. You looked round the corner? Seen the old log cabin?"

I came out and looked round the corner of the garage. But that wasn't what he meant.

"No, inside." He waved his arm to indicate the other half of the double garage, proud to show me but not sure it was worth getting quite so wet. "House is pretty old by US standards, maybe a hunnerd years old. But that cabin? No idea. That's much older."

The notion that anyone would build a double garage around an old log cabin was one I'd never come across before and I couldn't decide if it was a good idea. He'd preserved it but, on the other hand, he couldn't see it. The front wall had gone and the inside served to house all the clutter and wheelbarrows and tools and hoses that folk acquire when they have a garage too many. I'd have taken a picture of it were it not that you'd never have known it was an old cabin unless someone told you.

The rain continued to Maryville, faltered, carried on fitfully and stopped for good shortly after I'd sat with sandwiches on a log left against the concrete support of an overpass. I sat and watched a plane fly over, carrying six teenagers who'd been to the Indy 500 and were going home with six stolen hotel towels, a small bag of soaps and hair conditioner, a Gideon Bible and a red "do not disturb sign" taken off someone else's door.

There are two ways into St Louis and one raises eyebrows when you mention it. Great things have come out of East St Louis, which is on the other side of the river from the main city. Miles Davis was born there, and Joséphine Baker, a star so big in Europe that a hundred years later she is still a legend. But time hasn't been kind and Jeff described it as "like a war zone because of the poverty."

Some, like the French foreign office, advise not riding through it. I don't suppose anything much would happen in daylight and perhaps nothing would happen to a passing cyclist any other time. But since a beautifully smooth bike path runs round it to the north and gets to within a few streets of the McKinley bridge, there seemed no reason to go there. It seemed a shame, if only for Joséphine's sake since I live so close to the château where she raised her Rainbow Tribe. But history has its limits.

I met a lean man with a silver goatee beard where the path ends. He was sitting on a bright red motor-scooter that I'd seen parked a bit back along the path. He asked all the usual questions and expressed astonishment at each answer. I've grown used to "how far" and "how fast" questions but I was thrown when he looked serious and said "Get through quite a bit of beef jerky, I guess, doncha?"

I am European. I don't really know what beef jerky is, although the lower the level of gas station stocks it in amazing quantity.

I just said that, no, I didn't eat beef jerky.

"Waddya eat, then?" he persisted with rattling interest.

"Well..." I faltered. I'd never kept a log of what I ate. "Just, you know, stuff I can heat in a pan." And before he could expand on the subject, I asked for directions to the bridge, since my GPS refused to acknowledge any St Louis other than one in California.

"Well," he said, "I notice a lotta bahcyclists, they go off down to the left there. But that's a bad neighbourhood. You stay ouda there."

And he'd just finished telling me another route when a bare-chested lad in shorts, his back and arms waxed and his legs impressively hairy, came pedalling up on a mountain bike with the arch of his soft shoes on the pedals.

"I know the way to the bridge," he said with the gentleness of a car GPS. "Follow me." And we set off into the bad neighbourhood, where people smiled and wished us a good morning and which appeared every bit a model suburb where the only noticeable point was that everyone was black.

We'd get to a junction and my hairy-legged, smooth-backed guide would bark "Wait! I know this road. This way!"

And after a couple of miles we came back out to where we'd been earlier and we rode the way the man on the scooter had said in the first place. Not that it stopped my new and slightly irritating friend saying "Stop! Go! Turn left here! Do this, do that!"

But we did get to the McKinley bridge and then on to a path through wheezing industrial plants and abandoned buildings with broken windows and a power station so unrelentingly ugly that I took a photo.

I am a power station. Ugly bastard, aren't I?
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I rode down to the arch which is St Louis' main feature, then back again when I realised the road didn't go anywhere. I asked directions for South 12th Street, where a gloriously shabby hostel awaited for those keener on atmosphere than fresh paint, and I rode past a big sports stadium with a street party going on outside and out into a suburban area which, if not depressed, was depressing.

Now, no American will understand my predicament because, to Americans, this is normal. But there will always be two 12th Streets in an American city, just as there will be two 1st Streets. It takes time to catch on to this but there will be a road through the centre of town, sometimes called Main Street but sometimes something unremarkable, and streets running parallel to the north will be numbered 1, 2 and 3 and so will those to the south.

You want to know why they don't just give them each their own number? I have no idea.

Here's some chalk: come and write your name on the road
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Anyway, I crossed 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th and then 14th Street. There was no 13th Street and what should have been 12th was called something else. People insisted it was indeed 12th Street, though, and seeing I was in the low numbers, I set off to find the high ones.

Another feature of American street life is that there's no reason to suppose number 11 is next to number 13, or 102 next to 104. That's the northern European way but it's not how it's done here. Not only can the next building to 102 be 110 but, every time you cross a road, the numbers jump to the next hundred.

Well, that bit I've worked out so I rode out of town looking for the block that would include 1924, I think it was. But the numbers went no higher than 1400. I retreated to a McDonald's, the grubbiest I've been in, and used their wifi. It got me nowhere. A passing police car driver, though, said that yes I was in 12th Street but that I should be right through the downtown area and on out the other side.

On the way, I passed the central police office. I asked the help of the desk clerk, who looked up the hostel on the computer and called the hostel and said with neither a please nor an introduction, "What is your business address there?"

Whoever was on the other end of the line took exception.

"Sir," said the desk clerk, whose badge showed he was a private security man, "this is Officer Williams and I don't want you to take that tone with me."

He passed the phone to me and I introduced myself, said I had a booking and asked for directions.

"Léo," the fraught voice said from somewhere down the street, "are you American?"

I admitted that I wasn't.

"Well, Léo, a word of advice. Never, EVER ask the police for help in America. Never go into a police office. They are the enemy of the people. They have guns, man, and they can kill you."

He went on in the same vein until he realised I was asking for directions and then he told me. I passed the phone back to the desk clerk and apologised for the trouble I'd caused, gleefully throwing in the comment that he was an enemy of the people.

He didn't say anything but his eyes said "Another asshole in life."

"You get a lot of that?"

"Yes, sir."

"Specific to St Louis?"

"No, sir."

A policeman's lot is not a happy one.

The arch on St Louis's riverfront, symbolising the route to the west taken by two explorers called Lewis and Clarke.
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Memorial to a baseball player of the past
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Today's ride: 81 km (50 miles)
Total: 1,897 km (1,178 miles)

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