The Road Goes On Forever

How long does it take to drive from here to Kansas City? Depends on how much you want to see.

First Amendment Video doesn't get much local traffic.

"Local people won't come to my store," says owner Gene Ulrich, leaning his arm on a shelf of discounted porn videos. "They don't want to park their cars out front where their wives or preachers can see them. They go on down the road where people don't know them. Most of my business comes from truckers and salespeople. They're up and down the interstate all the time, and since I have the booths, they can just pop in and pop out, if you will."

Ulrich certainly has the booths. His Boonville emporium, one of a string of adult video parlors along Interstate 70 just west of Columbia, is equipped with precisely ten booths lined up against one wall, each sporting a spanking-new 32-inch flat-screen television monitor. Once inside, customers can choose from 60 DVD selections -- amateur, top-of-the-line, gay, straight and everything in between -- and pay as little as $1 for ten minutes, or $8 for an entire video's worth of private amusement. The last three booths are rigged with glass partitions and curtains, allowing consenting patrons to watch one another watch porn. The largest booth, up front, is the only handicapped-accessible porn booth in the state, Ulrich boasts.

Jennifer Silverberg
Gene Ulrich, proprietor of First Amendment Video in Boonville, says the fourteen-inch dildo is one of his, er, biggest sellers
Jennifer Silverberg
Gene Ulrich, proprietor of First Amendment Video in Boonville, says the fourteen-inch dildo is one of his, er, biggest sellers

Ulrich's black cat, Gwen, tags along as he completes his tour of the store. It's stocked with hundreds of VHS tapes -- though Ulrich says he's phasing them out in favor of DVD titles -- plus a wall of sex toys and novelties, from edible underwear and penis-shaped key chains to one of Ulrich's biggest sellers, the fourteen-inch dildo. ("It's more a novelty than anything," he explains.) Ulrich is gay, and photocopied signs posted throughout the store remind customers that he doesn't categorize the goods according to sexual preference.

The small rural communities around these parts have tolerated a mini-boom of adult businesses along the interstate in the past ten years, Ulrich says -- save for a strip club that was closed down a while back for staying open past 1 a.m. "I wasn't the first one out here. I didn't start it," he says. "The guy who started it hired me, then I bought him out, and six months after that Passions opened, and about a year after that my landlord opened up another store. Now there are ten of us between here and Kansas City."

The 59-year-old Ulrich, who lives on the other side of I-70 in the town of Bunceton, says he hasn't had any problems with Boonville officials since buying the store in 1998.

"I run it strictly according to the law," he says. "Of course, I have an advantage over the rest of them, since I'm the mayor of my town, and I serve on the sheriff's board."

On the Road
It has been nearly 40 years since the 250-mile section of Interstate 70 through Missouri was completed. When work on the roadway began in 1956 near Lake St. Louis in St. Charles County, I-70 was at the cutting edge of road design. In fact, it was the nation's first interstate project. The highway now spans 2,175 miles, from Baltimore to Utah, where it ends unceremoniously at the junction with Interstate 15. Running parallel to the old U.S. Highway 40, which used to run all the way through Missouri, I-70 is bigger and faster than the old road, cutting directly across the state rather than meandering through small towns and farmland. The interstate connected the two largest cities in the state, but it ignored or bulldozed much of the local color along the way.

"I think what wasn't anticipated was that the experience you have back and forth on Interstate 70 is a different experience than you would have had driving Route 40 or any other U.S. highways," says Dr. Robert Archibald, president of the Missouri Historical Society. "They weren't four-lanes, for the most part, and they weren't limited-access. They didn't bypass towns; they led through small towns and curious places you have to get off of I-70 to see."

Of course, those curious places still exist. On the typical straight shot between St. Louis and Kansas City on I-70, everything tends to pass in a blur, indistinguishable from the sights along any other rural stretch of interstate. But take the time to stop and look around, and everything changes. Turn the four-hour cross-state commute into a four-day round-trip bender of roadside attractions, and you'll find yourself in a weird wonderland of guns, meat lockers, Elvis, truck stops and emu oil. And more than a few fourteen-inch dildos.

Exit 200, Westbound
Wright City, 50 miles west of St. Louis on I-70, might very well lead the state in roadside-weirdness per capita.

A row of old, dented kiddy rides with names like the Berry-Go-Round and Tubs O' Fun are piled up near the north access road just inside the city limits, under a battered sign for Saturn Amusements. Today, at the outset of this trip to Kansas City and back, the overcast sky combines with the dilapidated rides to give the scene the cast of a run-down fairy tale.

Saturn rents mostly inflatable playground toys -- from Moonwalks to climbing walls to cages filled with plastic balls -- but these old relics remain on the lot. Several of them, though, were damaged in the spring when a drunk driver ran off the road and crashed into them, says Hope Kelly, who runs the office when the owner, Brian Bednarczyk, is off hauling equipment. Bednarczyk started Saturn Amusements fifteen years ago. The business was in his blood; his uncle invented the Moonwalk, back in the 1980s.

Next Page »