The Mighty Mississippi River is a landmark, a demarcation, a border of sorts in America. Since pioneer days, there has been for millions, a sense of a jumping off from east to west. Things quickly seem more vast. It is a bisect in our imaginations.
I want to experience, after so many years, the great arch of St, Louis. It is the promising “Gateway to the West.” As I spot it on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, it seems as big as I remember it. It still towers as it did when I last drove on the eastern bank in my red VW microbus, as a young man.
After being guided by a GPS on a winding drive through a threatening looking neighborhood of old historical red brick industrial space, we find a parking lot packed with tourist’s vehicles. Slipping on some fast cover garments, just enough to pass as respectable, we tour and try our best to find ways to get all of the huge arch into our camera frames. The perspective feels enormous.
Behind us, a Mississippi paddle boat arrives, spilling out its cargo, which is a mass of tourists, who have taken a cruise on the artifact.
We have a drive to accomplish and it begins in the St. Louis sprawl on yet another large crowded freeway.
These multi lane fields of concrete and asphalt seem as if they may never end. Eventually, we’re past that city and freed in the country on our way to Kansas.
We want to stop at a nude resort and stay put for a couple of days. I make calls along the way for reservations on the smart phone. I check the weather, but find a big black cloud of trouble on the radar. Once again, our plans to stop are interrupted by heavy rains. A pleasant stay in a mom and pop nude resort will turn into sheltering at a Motel 6 along the interstate.
The grand Missouri River brings me back into memories of my childhood. I used to visit relatives here. I spent time in the summers with my doting grandparents in Argentine, Kansas. There were comic books, professional baseball games with the Washington Senators and the Kansas City Athletics. I remember discovering the print of a butterfly’s wing on my hand, the big shaggy white family dog, her name Penny. There were water marks on buildings near the river from the great flood of such and such year, which drowned a relatives clothing store. My grandpa ran the Santa Fe roundhouse, the hub of the railroad. I reflect on the child-like perspectives of my earliest memories, my visions of towering metal Tonka Toys and early plastic model cars, like a convertible pink Cadillac.
We pass on, where we would drop off the beloved maid Maude at her home, careful to have her placed in the proper seat for fear of the violent racial repercussions that happened in those days, before Dr. King and the movements. Driving naked seems a trivial concern in comparison.
As I sit and drive naked, I remember the day grandma decided that I was too old for soaking in her bathtub. My grandpa and I were ordered to head down to the basement where wooden steps met the smell of the concrete floors. There, was a shower amongst the old hand-wring washing machine and laundry lines. I was told to strip and grandpa gave me a lesson demonstrating the art of washing, with hands, standing up, and getting at the bodily crevasses. I was also taught the typical practical Midwestern attitude about the body. It’s not such a big deal. It’s just a body, all of us guys have one. Keep it clean.
The hills gave way to the sense of wide open spaces and a setting sun on the distant horizon.
After canceled reservations and an internet search, we find a failing Motel 6. It is clean. That previously predicted hard rain falls.
Just before 6am, there is a thunder loud gurgle waking us in that early blue light as dusk begins. The floor is flooding, toilet and tub have issues. The newly remodeled carpets are being soaked and my feet splash, as I climb down from my crossing over the two tall beds with their canyon between. It gets mopped by a hapless staff. We receive apologies and get a free stay.
We meet the two guests that are on motorcycles out front. We had met them as we arrived the night before. Father and son in leather are bonding on a summer road trip. This morning, they are about to ride out into a very cold shower. It will be many miles until the sky clears, out further west.
Our Easy Rider trip, naked in a Honda Civic, has its practical value.
Practical nudity is a part of the culture of the plains. Isolation out on the prairie, small homes constructed out of sod, the most likely building material, had molded this during settlement. Except for a few ordinances in a couple of towns, there are no laws against a nude body in conservative Kansas. Not that it is a libertine hotbed, legislation is just not necessary.
A few years ago, I read of a redheaded teenager who decided to see what it was like to take a neighborhood walk barefoot all over. A neighbor complained, calling the police. The youngster was not arrested, there could be no charge. The mother in front of a boxy trailer submitted her alarm on the TV news, “What about the children!”
I’m thinking, “Yeah, what about them? Did their eyes melt?”
The town council took issue, just as surprised as the lad had been that afternoon. One used the issue to demonstrate that she was on top of things, protecting the community, thus pulling political power from the issue. Another went along with her, less vocal. Nothing like this had ever happened, but was it such a scandal and threatening, so as to quickly enact a new ordinance? The surprised young man testified during a news interview that he had no idea that such a walk would upset a couple of neighbors and produce such a big deal. He told the cameraman and newscaster, quite sincerely, that he wouldn’t “do that again.”
The nation was notified, I saw it. Emails were received from all sorts of people across the country. From Tucson, I discussed the situation and the practical consequences with a council member.
The vote was made that more study was required and things would be addressed at a later meeting…when things died down…no new local laws. Practical Kansas common sense still rules.
Around lunch, we pull into Salina to visit the family plot. A relative meets us after lunch. Salina has changed some. He recommends a treat of an Italian restaurant off the old main street. We have a strikingly special epicurean meal, salmon, pesto, cream cheese dollops and capers on the pizza.
When we meet an older man that I haven’t seen since our childhoods out front, we are looking at an art deco theater across the street. There is a poster advertising Willie Nelson coming in the near future. My distant cousin explains that lots of national entertainment is received here as a regional gathering spot. He is proud and pleased to have had a hand in reviving the historic landmark and its success.
After a visit to the graves of people who loved me as a child, he gives me a gift, a hardcover family history book that they have published. It tells of the lives, hard work, entrepreneurial and creative industry of the plains. That evening, I’m excited to read and see the loose ends of my roots come together in a biographical story.
Thick Walls of a Sod HouseThe next day, out where little but what irrigation and well water technology bring, we slip on some clothing and tak …