For the majority of 2016, I was seeing a guy who lived a thousand miles away in Missouri (still seeing sort of? Love is complicated. Long distance love is even more complicated).
Consequently, I found myself in the state of Missouri five times within eight months; January, February, April, June, and September. Between my June and September visits, I purchased the National Parks Collectors Edition cancellation and stamp book (and the centennial edition small passport version, because I have a problem). Immediately, visiting National Parks voraciously jumped to the top of my priorities list when traveling.
We had been discussing my fifth trip out to the Show Me State during Labor Day weekend, and I mapped out my ambitious plan to drive all over Missouri and get cancellations at all six national parks. He laughed and went along with it. My real goal was to see three. We ended up seeing two. I was okay with it.
Because I kind of have a re: problem in terms of collecting gear, I purchased a zippered portfolio to house my two passport books in, and additional supplies I assumed I would need while pursing my grand adventures. And so on Friday morning, portfolio tucked under one arm, I declared we were going to St. Louis and our tour de National Parks began.
The St. Louis Arch is actually tagged as ‘the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial’ in terms of National Parks classifications. According to the National Parks website, construction for the 630 foot monument began in 1963, was completed in 1965, and was intended to represent the “spirit of the western pioneers” inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s dream of expansion.
I had seen the Arch a few times when flying over St. Louis, but it’s grandeur isn’t truly exemplified until you are standing right beneath it staring straight up. Overlooking the Mississippi River, it beautifully collects flickering reflections from the water, sky, and clouds, creating a mosaic of cool hues. We walked along the pathway that lead up to the Arch’s entrance and up to the information desk to purchase tickets to get inside – my main focus on gaining a new cancellation for my passport books.
“Is the ‘National Parks’ stamp thing inside?”
“Ok two tickets.”
“Entrance, or to go up to the top?”
Go big or go home, I guess.
“Up to the top.”
“Are you claustrophobic?”
“Ok you’re all set.”
The claustrophobic question was a little off-putting, consider I had the capacity to definitely be claustrophobic in the right setting, but I figured it just had to be something regarding the lookout room at the top.
The interior was undergoing some renovations during our trip, so the museum inside was closed to the public. Before we could really look around, we were whisked away to the industrial holding where our tour to the top began, and were shuffled into specific sectors in front of a shaft that resembled an elevator. It reminded me of a theme park ride.
When it was time for the tour to start, the elevator doors opened and the claustrophobia question suddenly made sense. Behind the holdings were the smallest pods intended for human transportation that I had ever seen. It was like a Ferris Wheel ride of suffocation. The pods contained five seats, although picturing more than four lean people trying to cram into the pods was a stretch of the imagination. We had been paired with two medium sized men, and all crawled inside the minuscule tram. I sat closest to the door. At barely 5’4″ standing, I had to still lean forward and crane my head sitting. It was tight.
The elevator doors shut leading me to wonder if my claustrophobia would, in fact, work up. What if it broke down? How long would we be crammed in here with these strangers? How much stretching was it going to take to reduce the unavoidable cramp this awkward curve was going to wrench into my neck?
Luckily the only thing that stopped working seemed to be time, as the ride stretched onward and upward in tandem with the awkward silence between us and our fellow passengers. We tried to bridge a gap and create conversation, but it only resulted in a brief exchange of where we were visiting from and an immediate attempt to avoid any sort of additional eye contact (and risk starting another conversation), which turned out to be difficult in itself as the pod didn’t offer much square footage or scenery to avert the eyes.
We finally reached the top and climbed (sprinted) out onto the staircase that lead to the main atrium at the tip of the structure. It was a lot smaller than I expected, but I honestly don’t quite know what I did expect with the shape and size of the monument. There were no wide windows to peer out of, but rather small rectangular ones spaced out along either side of the walls of the room. To see out of them, you had to lean up a slanted carpet nook to get an appropriate view. The glass was smudged with the snot of a thousand children.
The view itself when pressed up against the glass was incredible. If you focused your eyes correctly the rest of the room sort of disappeared and fed into the illusion that the windows were vast and endless. On one side, you got a great view of downtown St. Louis, and on the other, you got a nice look at the Mississippi River.
We took a few more pictures from the top and looked out a couple other scattered windows, then sort of meandered like we were supposed to be doing something until one of asked if we wanted to head back down.
We shuffled back into the pods from hell. I took the seat further from the entrance, and saw my LDR boy arch his back and neck against the curved wall of the unfit structure. I had narrowly escaped the neck cramp this time. Luckily the ride back down seemed to move faster than the ride up, although we were still exposed to the uncomfortably cramped shared space, and the same exchange of conversation (“Where are you from? Oh, we’re from ___”).
When we were released from our egg-shaped prisons, I was immediately on the prowl for the cancellation station, which I found alongside a wall not too far from the gift shop. As I was stamping fervently in both of my books, an older couple approached the station, clutching two binder sized sheets of paper freckled in similar colored cancellation stamps.
“Did you guys buy the binder passport version?” I asked them, referring to the third option for stamps that I had almost purchased, but was able to refrain myself. It had individual cancellation pages intended for a three ring binder, encased in a weatherproof, zippered portfolio. Damn. Now that I’m thinking about it, it’s pretty cool. Kinda regretting not getting it.
“Yes!” They responded, displaying their pages for me. “We like it better because we can bring a page or two with us at a time instead of the whole book, so it’s easier for transportation.”
I gestured to all of my gear, which included the large passport book inside of its zippered portfolio. “Ah yes… I should have thought of that.”
We spoke for a few more minutes about traveling, National Parks, and the obsessive need to get cancellations.
“We love it,” they told me. “It makes us go to so many places we normally wouldn’t.”
I glanced at my LDR boy, who smiled with a brow raise and slight nod, implying that I had, in fact, dragged him here to get my passport cancellations.
We checked out the gift store for a few minutes, where I almost bought three separate coffee mugs (but again was able to refrain myself), and then exited the monument to make our way home.
“It’s the gateway to the western expansion,” my LDR boy said.
“I did not know that,” I replied. Despite the fact that I did not take American History: Missouri Edition, and was not part of the customary fourth grade field trip to the Arch itself, I still felt like this was something I probably should have been aware of. Especially since I have come to realize in hindsight that this fact is pretty much everywhere.
Before we left, I pulled out my polaroid camera to take a selfie as is tradition at each National Park destination I get to. My Collectors Edition Passport Book has a section beside each cancellation for a “stamp” or sticker that you can pick up at each location. I have opted to instead paste a polaroid exposure in the provided area. I think it’ll be cool 30 years from now or so. I flipped my camera around, nervous about catching the right angle with both the two of us and the arch when my LDR boy pointed at the shutter button and said,
“Oh look, it even has a mirror so you can see what you’re taking a picture of!”
“That’s not for a mirror-” I started, and then realized that despite the fact that it was not technically functionally what the button was for, it did indeed serve that purpose. Inside the small glassy circle, you could see a perfect reflection of us. Damnit. He was knowledge bombing me again.
I identify myself as an explorer of sorts, which is why the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is particularly important to me; it symbolizes the launch of a defining national exploration. Looking through the Arch and into the West signifies an endless amount of discovery in the form of visual nuances that capture the spirit and ignite the soul. Taking part in these individual excavating experiences is significant personally because they allow me to soak in this country and the rich history behind it. The couple at the cancellation stand were right; my purchase of the passport books had given me the exact extra nudge I had needed to pursue just a little more of areas that represented an extra lot. My passport book is the gateway to a personal expansion, and the groundwork for a slew of new experiences.
Although exploring downtown St. Louis would have been additionally exciting (I did want to check out a few breweries…) as soon as we were done at the Arch we hopped back in the car. We had another park to explore.