Thursday, September 04, 2008

Cape Girardeau Drive

I've driven to Cape Girardeau dozens of times in my life. My parents used to pack my brothers and me into our 1972 Chevrolet Kingswood station wagon for the 385 mile journey across Missouri on I-70 and I-55.

The drive time varied from seven and half hours to five and a half depending on if and when we stopped the car. The original route included a passage from St. Louis to Cape on U.S. highway 61, that's right Dylan fans. Before I-55 opened in the early 70s, we traversed Missouri on a single lane job that hit lots of little towns like Festus, Ste. Genevieve and Fruitland. We took a shortcut down route W and approached Cape from the Northwest. I got excited when familiar landmarks appeared like the house on route W with the mailbox that resembled a moving truck. A roadhouse tavern sported a beer sign that said either Falstaff or Stag beer complete with a smiling crewcut blue-collar man in the photo who reminded me of my Dad's friend Coach Uhls. Those were the old days of Pevely Dairy billboards and "Are we there yet?" That section rated a two-hour drive at the minimum and sometimes longer when we ended up behind a big truck or a slow moving vehicle, in other words, every time.

The St. Louis to Cape Girardeau section of I-55 opened in the early 70s and cut drive time by 45 minutes on average. This was undone when the 55 mph speed limit was introduced during the energy crisis. Our trip time averaged about 7.5 hours.

My parents drove at night one time. We put the seat down in back and tossed in a foam pad. I tried to sleep but it was too exciting. Another time my Mom packed a cooler full of ice and sodas and we stopped three or four times between Kansas City and Columbia to use the bathroom. They gave up and we stayed overnight in Columbia where we paid the Holiday Inn people for a private room to pee in for the rest of the night.

We liked to stop in Columbia anyway. We lived there during the late 1960s (on West Blvd. South of Broadway). We used to eat at Howard Johnson's or the Post House. I watched for the little mall with the JC Pennys and the Flaming Pit restaurant where my mom got her hair done in the old days.

Mom touted Gasper's at Kingdom City. The parking lot was packed with 18 wheelers. "It must be good if the truckers like it," she said. We ate there once and it was okay. We stopped at other places along the way like The Red Lion in Warrenton or the Big Boy restaurant near Wright City.

My Dad discovered the 61/40 shortcut at Wentzville (home of Chuck Berry) south to I-270 about that time and we saved 30 minutes by skipping the run into downtown St. Louis. I liked seeing the arch but it took longer. I'm not sure if we ever needed to take that route, but that's the way we went. The 61/40 shortcut intersected I-270 north of Manchester and the big bird on the pole at the West County Shopping Center. I badgered my Dad into stopping at a gas station there. I called summer camp girls on the pay phone who lived in Kirkwood and Des Peres. He didn't like to stop and I understand now that I'm a Dad and the principal driver, plus my wife would not appreciate extra calls to summer camp girls. Some still live there.

The approach to Cape on Kingshighway took us past the memorial park where my Dad's folks are buried. There's an ancient KGMO radio tower near the side of the road. This stretch of the business loop was and still is dotted with commercial development - motels and burger joints ruled. We turned left on Broadway (by the Burger King), past the old McDonald's with the retro arches, left at Capaha Park and right on Pemiscot street (finally). Dad sang "Over the River and Through the Woods to Grandmother's House We Go" despite numerous protests.

Granny moved to an apartment on Bellevue in 1980. My grandfather Bader died that same year of cancer and I turned 16 the following Spring. I was old enough to stay home by myself. My family trips to Cape Girardeau ended. I wouldn't return until after college in 1989.

I took the family down this past weekend for Grandma's 95th birthday. This was their fourth trip. The kids don't realize how easy they have it in the van with the hand-held video games and the portable DVD player. They still ask "Are we there yet," sometimes before we hit Odessa. We stopped in Columbia at a burger joint with a habitrail.

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