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MEMORIES OF ROUTE 66 STILL LIVE IN ST. LOUIS

by Robert Scheer

It happened more than 60 years ago, when Bobby and Cynthia Troup were driving to California. Bobby was a composer and musician, and his wife suggested he write a song about the trip. Before the day was over, "Get your kicks on Route 66" had been born.

I learned that history lesson at Route 66 State Park in Eureka, Missouri, about 30 miles west of St. Louis. Housed in a former depression-era restaurant and roadhouse, the park's Visitor Center includes a museum that's the final resting place for nostalgic mementos of when Route 66 was the Main Street of America.

My St. Louis visit began with a walk across the original Route 66 bridge spanning the Mississippi River. The mile-long bridge opened in 1929 with a 5-cent toll to drive from Illinois to Missouri. Today, the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge is open on weekends from April through November as a hiking and biking trail, decorated with Route 66 motel and gas station signs.

I was very pleasantly surprised by both the variety and quality of the attractions, restaurants and entertainment St. Louis has to offer, and I wish my stay had been longer.

High atop my "want to go back" list is Grant's Farm. Although it flies the Anheuser-Busch flag, you shouldn't confuse Grant's Farm with a theme park. This ancestral home of the Busch family combines the best qualities of a museum, zoo and historic site.

Luckily, I had Bill, an expert guide, to show me highlights of the 281-acre property. We stopped at a two-storey log cabin built by hand in 1855 by Ulysses S. Grant, who became the 18th U.S. President. Authentic Conestoga wagons and Civil War Gatling guns flanked the building, fronted by a fence made with 2,563 barrels from Civil War rifles.

There are more than 1,000 animals on the farm, including a sizeable herd of bison, but I was most impressed by the Ankole and Clydesdales. With horns that would humble a Texas longhorn, Ankole cattle, native to central Africa, are descended from extinct Aurochs. I viewed them from the safety of our truck, but I was able to get closer to the Clydesdales. Grant's Farm is the breeding and training center for the famous Budweiser draft horses. At the stables, I was introduced to Matt, a gentle 13-year-old who regularly gets trucked to Los Angeles to star in TV beer commercials.

Somewhere between the giant tortoises and the bald eagles, I stopped to sample funnel cake. Like a large, tangled donut, it's made by pouring dough through a funnel into a deep fryer before it's topped with icing sugar.

In retrospect, many of my St. Louis memories involve luscious junk food. I devoured toasted ravioli, Gooey Butter Cake and legendary Ted Drewes frozen custard. The pound of chocolate fudge I brought home was my souvenir of Meramec Caverns, the oldest attraction along Route 66.

In 1874, Jesse James and his brother, Frank, robbed a train in Gads Hill, Missouri and were tracked by a posse to Meramec Caverns. After a three-day siege, the posse went in to find the outlaws' abandoned horses and an empty strongbox, but Jesse and Frank had vanished. In 1933, the caverns were opened to the public by Lester Dill, a self-proclaimed "caveologist" and very clever entrepreneur. He enlisted his 11-year old daughter to tie advertising signs on the bumpers of cars parked by cave visitors, thus inventing the bumper sticker.

After marveling at the cave's awe-inspiring onyx stalactite and stalagmite formations, I chatted briefly with Lester Dill's grandson, Les Turilli, the attraction's current president, before lunching on another unforgettable Missouri meal. Portraits on the dining room wall of Jesse James, Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane seemed to approve as I chowed down on deep-fried catfish with hushpuppies.

Practically synonymous with blues music, St. Louis is the birthplace of such luminaries as Scott Joplin, Chuck Berry and Tina Turner. I visited BB's Jazz Blues and Soups, located in a restored 19th century hotel and former brothel. The music was great, but after one beer, the cigarette smoke drove me out for fresh air, and back to my hotel room for one last slice of Gooey Butter Cake.

Sidebar

Accommodations: Drury Plaza Hotel, 4th & Market Streets, is within walking distance of the Gateway Arch Riverfront. www.DruryHotels.com

Dining: Vin de Set in Lafayette Square is a French bistro with an American twist. www.Vindeset.com. Zia's on The Hill (St. Louis' Italian neighbourhood) is renowned for excellent pasta. www.Zias.com.

For More Information:

Old Chain of Rocks Bridge www.trailnet.org

Grant's Farm www.GrantsFarm.com

Meramec Caverns www.AmericasCave.com

BB's Jazz Blues & Soups www.BBsJazzBluesSoups.com

St. Louis Visitor's Bureau www.ExploreStLouis.com

Photos:

1. funnelcake.jpg
A vendor at Grant's Farm serves funnel cake, a cluster of deep-fried, sugared dough.
CREDIT: Robert Scheer

2. jessejames.jpg
Jesse James and his brother used to hide in Meramec Caverns after robbing trains.
CREDIT: Robert Scheer

3. matt.jpg
Matt, a 13-year-old Clydesdale, has starred in numerous Budweiser TV commercials.
CREDIT: Robert Scheer

4. route66.jpg
Old motel and gas station signs decorate the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis, Mo.
CREDIT: Robert Scheer

Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.travelwriterstales.com

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