(other installments of this series here)
When I set out to take this trip, I knew I would be updating my blog as we went. I didn’t expect to update it every day — but, as I should have known, our adventures have given me plenty to write about. Although we had no direct book-related events on Thursday, the day was packed with activity.
We left the Sheraton in Kansas City just before 9:00 AM. The radio was tuned to the news as we weaved east; the former FBI Director was testifying in Washington, D.C. and both of us were interested to hear how it would go. It didn’t stop us from exploring as we came across things that piqued our interest, and it was interesting to pop in-and-out of Capitol Hill questioning as we traveled.
Independence, Missouri was our first stop. It felt appropriate, as the town was jumping-off point for many westward pioneers back in the covered wagon days, including the Donner Party. I was eager to see the old town square where so many families gathered before heading out to tame the wild west, but before we got to downtown, something else caught my eye: a giant gleaming tower! Independence Temple is a large Mormon church punctuated by a 300 ft stainless steel spire; it was built in the early 90s and attracts tens of thousands of visitors a year. It definitely stands out among the town’s architecture.
When I stepped foot into the town square, my smile was wide. The knowledge I’d gained from recently reading Michael’s new book was mixed with my childhood experiences playing ‘The Oregon Trail’ on the computer. Independence is known as the ‘Queen City of the Trails’ as it was the starting point for the California, Oregon, and Santa Fe Trails. The town is also the home of the 33rd President, Harry Truman. There are ample historic markers scattered around the courthouse dedicated to all of these things. It was cool to see names carved in granite that I now recognized, thanks to my recent foray into 1840s history. At one point while we were walking around, a horse and wagon went by on the street; the driver waved and we waved back.
Before heading out, we drove over to the National Frontier Trails Museum. Though we didn’t have time to go through the exhibits, Michael chat with one of the staff for a few minutes; he had done some research at their archives for The Best Land Under Heaven. I wandered through the gift shop, feeling a bit less amused by the Donner Party/cannibalism humor products that were scattered about now that I knew the rest of the story. I did buy a little California Trails pin to mark the occasion, though. Afterwards, we walked through an area across the street that had been so burdened with departing wagon trains that the landscape bore a permanent dent.
Eastward Ho! The radio continued to broadcast questioning from the nation’s capital and we listened, adding our own commentary from time to time. After about an hour, we diverted from I-70 to take a county road south. Our lane turned to gravel and we were surrounded by Queen Anne’s lace and tiger lilies. We stopped at Shackleford Crossing, the site of an old truss bridge. Though the maker’s plates were long gone, I guessed it had been built in the early 1900s. A mark on the eastern side of the bridge indicated a terrible flood in ’86 had gone over the deck. Michael identified a few shell casings we found and I snapped away with my camera.
After a little more back-road meandering, we arrived in Columbia. Michael went to university at Mizzou and as soon as we entered city limits, he began to recall those early days with great clarity. Samantha would have laughed, because a few of those memories started with something like, “This has all changed; this used to be empty.” She gives me a hard time for my “This used to be a field!” explanations from the Tulsa area. We headed to downtown Columbia & ate lunch at Booches, a bar & billiard hall that also happens to serve the best burgers in the area. They’ve been around for over 100 years! “This place hasn’t changed at all,” Michael said with great satisfaction.
Once we found our hotel and checked in, we got back in the car. I followed Michael’s directions and drove around the college campus while he told stories from earlier days. He told me how he met his wife, Suzanne, and pointed out the classroom where they first laid eyes on one another. These conversations continued into Heidelberg’s, a nearby tavern, another place that was bursting with memory for the Sheriff of Radiator Springs.
Eventually, our wandering path took us back outside of town, where we came across an old concrete bridge that appealed to me. I hopped out and noticed a granite marker in the grass, dedicated to some long-ago tavern. I also found a golf ball, sitting nonchalantly on the side of the bridge; it was then I noticed a small course on the other side of the creek. Michael surveyed the landscape and grinned; “How about we come back out here around midnight?” he asked. “We’ll bring seven or eight alligators with us and deposit them in the water hazards. We’ll come back in the morning and watch as they come charging out of the water to sink their teeth into the golfers and their yellow pants.”
We ended our day with a quiet dinner at Jimmy’s Family Steak House, a restaurant I’d stumbled across my last time in Columbia. Our conversation continued, steeped in memory, until we ambled back to our hotel to prepare for another day of travel.