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August 14, 2011

“Man … St. Louis … wow! It’s just the best.”

Thus spake Samster the Hamster on the way back to our hotel late Friday afternoon. I think it’s safe to say he enjoyed our time in St. Louis. I don’t blame him. As great as Thursday was, Friday was even better.

We started the day with a bit of early-morning grocery shopping followed by our second oil change of the trip. With that out of the way it was all fun for the rest of the day.

It’s hard to know where to begin to describe City Museum. For one thing, calling it a museum is pretty inaccurate. It’s more like the most creative, enormous, distubring, fun playground I’ve ever seen. Sam called it “an art adventure park,” which is a remarkably good description. Even paying for admission became an unexpectedly amusing experience when the tatooed, everywhere-pierced, vaguely Christina Aguilera-looking clerk told Sam that his terrycloth yarmulke was a “great yarmulke for summer” and then mimed using it to mop sweat.

She suggested we start our visit on the roof, and I wasn’t surprised that she was right. Sam headed straight into the driver’s seat of the school bus that’s attached to the roof so that the front half of it is actually sticking out past the edge and hovering precariously 10 stories over the sidewalk.

We climbed up, down, over and all sorts of imaginitive structures (almost everything is big enough for adults to do, too) and swung on a big rope hanging from the ceiling in the middle of a huge empty room before heading for the most popular part of the whole building: the 10-story slide.  It’s exactly what it sounds like: a spiral slide that basically goes from the roof all the way down.

At the bottom the slide dumps you into a hunormous, two-story-high room called the Enchanted Caves: a series of caves and tunnels so elaborate there was no way to adequately photograph or even describe it. The room was very dimly lit, the tunnels were even darker, and there were dozens and dozens of them intertwining and leading to more tunnels and new areas and eventually somehow back into the center of the room,which was full of stalactites and stalagmites and carved with various large creatures  including fish, panthers, and an enormous dragon with glowing eyes.

Whenever I’m watching a movie or TV show and there’s a scene that shows the bad guy’s elaborate evil lair–like with crazy moving sidewalks and trap doors and retina scanners and alligator pits and stuff–I can’t help but imagine the conversations the bad guy had with his contractor when the place was being built. “And in this hallway I want poison-tipped darts to be able to shoot out of the wall. From both sides. Does that sound doable?” As I followed Sam through the labyrinth I was thinking mostly about how I’d be able to squeeze through the next opening but also about what kind of crazy, creative, psychotic, fun person designed the place and how he/she convinced someone to build it.

After getting momentarily stuck a few times too many I elected to stay in the middle of the room while The Hamster explored further. He would disappear into one cave or another, then reappear from a completely different area a minute or two later or call to me from some ledge above my head. Sometimes he would stop by to tell me breathlessly about something he found, like a turtle pond or a lighted blue geyser or a tunnel lined with hundreds of gloves so that it grabs you as you crawl through. This process continued for about a half hour, and then Sam didn’t come back. For a long time. Maybe 15 minutes. Maybe 20. I don’t really know, I didn’t look at my watch, but it seemed like much too long. I started to worry. I called for him–not that he could hear me with all the noise and echoes from other kids and parents. I began crawling through random tunnels thinking he might be stuck somewhere. Eventually I found an exit, and there he was, sitting with a museum employee. Turns out he had gone through so many tunnels that he ended up in a completely different part of the museum without even realizing it, and then when eventually found his way back to the cave complex they wouldn’t let him in because children have to be accompanied by adults. When I found him he had been sitting there for only a couple of minutes and instead of being concerned he was excited to show me the fun places he had found.

Sam’s not the kind of kid who effuses about his experiences while they’re happening. He tends to focus on absorbing everything he’s experiencing and saves his gushing about it until later. This time, though, he was so amazed by everything that he couldn’t hold it in.

“Dad, this is so fun!”

“Dad, this is awesome!”

“Let’s go over there, I see someone flying!”

“Dad, we can go on top of us! C’mon!

“This is so cool!”

“I have no idea where I am, and that is a good sign!”

We climbed through a giant plaster whale, watched turtles sitting on a floating rock, swung from fake tree branches, ducked inside a model train set, marveled at a 100-foot pencil made of real wood and lead and topped with a real giant eraser …

In the car on the way from the museum to Forest Park he suggested that we move to St. Louis.

“Dad, we need to move to St. Louis. It’s a great town. It’s got the Arch, the Cardinals, kosher restaurants, City Museum (the best museum on Earth) …”

Forest Park, by the way, is like the Central Park of St. Louis. I don’t simply mean it’s a big park in the middle of the city; it’s enormous, with multiple sections, a world-class art museum, a zoo, a pond, and some leftover from the 1904 World’s Fair. More impressive than all of this was that, very much unlike Central Park, Forest Park has lots of free curbside parking all along its internal streets. Maybe we should move here.

Once inside the park we headed for the Boathouse, which is both a waterfront restaurant and an actual boathouse that rents kayaks and paddle boats for use on the pond. We hopped into a paddle boat and spent the net 45 minutes or so meandering, enjoying the peaceful view, watching some ducks, rescuing a discarded traffic cone from under the water (Sam’s idea and Sam’s execution), and noticing that it was getting pretty hot and humid out. Back on land we cooled off a bit by dipping our feet into a beautiful nearby fountain.

Next up was the St. Louis Zoo. I’ve generally been steering Sam away from zoos and aquariums throughout this trip because we can go to those anytime when we’re in New York so I’d much rather do things we can’t do at home. But for St. Louis I was a little tired of planning itineraries so I gave Sam several choices that I’d culled from the various recommendation of friends and let him pick what we would do. He decided it would be City Museum, paddle boats, the zoo, and then maybe back to the Arch if there was time. I didn’t mind that he picked the zoo because I know how much he loves animals, the St. Louis Zoo is considered one of the best in the country, it would give us a chance to do some walking, and (best of all) it’s free.

The zoo was great–for a little while. As we reparked and went inside I noticed that, after being sunny all day, the sky had suddenly gotten extremely cloudy. We saw some cool animals in the zoo but after 20 minutes we heard thunder. Not a clap of thunder but a long, low rumble–the kind that makes you wonder if it’s thunder or a whole convoy of 18-wheelers driving by. A few minutes later we felt a drop, which turned into a drizzle, which grew into a steady downpour that lasted for a couple of hours. Incredibly, it was the first bad weather we’d had on the enitre trip.

When I was planning this trip I knew full well that three-quarters of our activities were outdoors and one of my big worries has been that the weather would mess things up for us. Baseball games, hot air balloon rides, national park visits–so much depended on good weather, and we got that good weather everywhere we went. We’ve had a few sunshowers here and there but they never lasted more than a few minutes and they always came while we were in the car (with the roof on). I’ve been in awe of our luck with the weather but afraid to say anything for fear that doing so would bring rain.

The funny thing is that we didn’t really mind the rain. At least, not enough to deter us. The more it rained the more people left the zoo, which just made it easier for us to go where we wanted and see what we wanted to see. We got soaked but we were too busy seeing cool animals to care very much. We definitely abbreviated our trip but still managed to see all the animals Sam really wanted to see. Without a doubt my favorite moment came courtesy of the orangutans, which happen to be Sam’s favorite animal at the moment. When we got to them we saw two of them covering themselves with burlap sacks and scurrying to get out of the rain. They settled down up against the glass right in front of where we were standing, one cuddling and grooming the other.

This was my favorite momet not just because I knew how much Sam was loving it but because of what came next. The other people there were speculating that the cuddling orangutan was the husband and the one being cuddled was the wife. As we were walking away a few minutes later Sam, a bit annoyed, said, “Why does everybody think it’s a husband and wife? Maybe it’s a dad and son.”

I didn’t know it until the moment he said those words, but that comment was exactly what I was looking for when I decided to take him on an all-summer, cross-country road trip. Yes, I was looking for adventure and I was looking for new experiences and I was looking for an excuse to finish my ballpark quest and I was looking for a way to see Mount Rushmore and the world’s biggest ball of twine, but mostly I was looking to have an experience with my son that was so intense and so positive and so memorable and so … moving … that when he sees one ape taking loving care of another he thinks of us.

When we left the zoo I checked my watch and decided we had just enough time for one more treat before heading back to our refreshingly nice room at Springhill Suites for showers and dinner and sleep. (I say refreshingly nice not because I was expecting any less but because we’s been staying in such dives all week long.) So I took Sam to Ted Drewes, the roadside shop famous for making frozen custard a St. Louis delicacy. To the uninitiated, it’s very similar to ice cream but slightly denser and with the slightest hint of a tang to it. Sam was apprehensive because he dislikes custard, but he was willing to give it a try. We loved it so much that after we each finished our own we got another one to share, which prompted Sam to remark in disbelief, “You’re letting me do a lot of things on this trip that you would never let me do at home.”

I could say the same to him.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Michaelle Gorman permalink
    August 14, 2011 9:05 am

    I think this post was my favorite one so far!


  1. King Shighway | The Hamster and the Highway

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