I’m the kind of person who is easily enthralled by the romanticized ideas of adventure. Having always loved fantasy novels and the like, the concept of exploring something completely new and unknown is entrancing. But it’s just fantasy, right? Adventure isn’t something we do here.
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Except for the fact that it is. Or at least it was.
The Gateway Arch was breathtaking, and riding to the top was dizzying, terrifying, and amazing. Yet the journey to the top was not the part of the Arch that stuck with me the most. Below the arch is a little museum known as the Museum of Westward Expansion. Inside here was something that made my mind race with possibilities.
The museum itself isn’t much: Some artifacts of American history, a few metal sculptures, some creepy automatons that blink at you, a relatively fascinating layout. Overall, nothing any museum wouldn’t have.
The whole thing was shaped like a big wheel, and on the back wall was a display that caught my eye. Panels forming gorgeous landscapes of the lost American wilderness, and a large plaque for each equipped with a location, a date, and a diary entry from some familiar names.
It told the tale of the travels of Lewis and Clark. These two men, along with the crew that traveled with them, were adventurers in the truest sense of the word.
Reading their journals as I stared at the breathtaking views they would have experienced, raw and fresh on the horizon, I realized how human and…normal these adventurers were. The plaques showed their journals unedited. Misspellings were constant. Misplaced punctuations, awkward spacing, and random capital letters all appeared.
Just like us, writing our journals as we travel across the country, they were simply struggling to record everything they heard, saw, and experienced, before it slipped away. They would hurriedly scratch down notes on the events of the day, probably caring little for how their handwriting was, or whether they spelled “mountain” correctly or not. Just like in my own journal.
We have traveled the country these past two weeks and seen things most of us have never seen before. But the country was already there. Americans, living lives just as we do, already hustled and bustled about the West. When the Lewis and Clark Expedition entered the great unknown beyond the Mississippi, it was fresh. It was something Americans had never laid eyes on before. They were stepping into a brand new world, where literally anything could lie waiting to be found.
I wrote a bit about adventure before we left, and Amtrekkin certainly was an adventure. But it wasn’t adventure in the way that it was for Lewis and Clark, or for Columbus sailing for the New World, or Marco Polo heading to the far off East. That’s a kind of adventure that, at least for now, is lost, as the world grows smaller and smaller by the day.
I see why St. Louis is important. I see that once upon a time it was a crossroads for the very infrastructure of this country, of trains and steamboats puffing clouds of dirty smog into the sky. I see that it was the last piece of civilization on the edge of thousands of miles of unexplored frontier. I see that it was the launching point for an Expedition too fantastical to seem real.
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