Look! A Freeway!

Unreal checks out the Lou from a fast-moving tour bus, learns the essentials of RV'ing and eats waaay too many Chilitos

Sep 8, 2004 at 4:00 am
Unreal is proud that London-based City Sightseeing chose St. Louis as the first U.S. city in which to introduce its double-decker tour buses. But as we cruised down Highway 40 last week, we were surprised to see one of the company's bright-red buses barreling by on the freeway, throwing caution (and hairdos) to the wind.

Pulling our Bentley safely off to the shoulder, we quickly put in a cell-phone call to Erik Light, general manager of the company's St. Louis operations.

Why is a bus full of tourists flying down a decidedly unscenic freeway? we inquired. Is the driver new in town? Did he take a wrong turn?

Not at all, Light replied, explaining that the bus we saw is merely plying City Sightseeing's "Express Route," which whisks the time-conscious tourist to Forest Park and the Anheuser-Busch brewery via the interstate.

"If we went through the city streets, it would add another half-hour or longer to the trip," Light illuminated.

He then proceeded to offer Unreal a complimentary tour. A free ride atop an open-air land yacht, ducking overpasses as the wind tousles our coif? You're on, Erik!

Unfortunately we show up to discover that our dream ride is not to be: The "express" bus is out of commission, so Unreal is relegated to a slow-moving tour of downtown. And although Light says City Sightseeing chose St. Louis because we get as many annual visitors as London (at least that's what Light thought he'd heard, anyway), all those tourists must have had other plans on this day: Unreal is the excursion's sole tourist until a 70-year-old couple from Oklahoma flag down the bus halfway through our 45-minute journey.

Our driver and guide, Charmin ("Like the bathroom tissue!"), does her best to make the most of it, imparting all sorts of interesting St. Louis factoids as we putter past the Old Courthouse, Busch Stadium and Union Station. But even a heavy dose of Charmin can't compete with our urban core's more desolate realities. After informing Unreal and our new Oklahoman buddies that downtown St. Louis boasts "six or seven Starbucks," Charmin directs our attention to St. Louis Centre.

"The mall's a bit desolate right now," she announces. "But it has a Walgreens!"

Coach Class

In parts of the country where summer does not feel like having one's face pressed against the inside of George "The Animal" Steele's sweaty armpit for 90 consecutive days, Labor Day signals the end of summer. In the Greater Pontoon Beach Metropolitan Area (GPBMA), however, the first weekend of September is just the beginning of bearable fun in the sun. So as a service to our readers, Unreal quizzed Lonnie Hall of MBM Thomas Winnebago in south county about issues surrounding GMAC Insurance's recently unveiled "10 Essentials of RV'ing."

Unreal: Do you think recreational-vehicle drivers should be required to undergo safety training, or would you take a more laissez-faire approach?

Lonnie Hall: I see no need to be any more strict with an RV than with an automobile. If a driver has any concerns, we go on a test drive with him.

Driving behind a slow RV on a two-lane highway can be especially grating on the freedom-loving Pontiac Fiero owner. What would you suggest as a remedy, legal or otherwise, to this clash of the automotive titans?

If I, as a longtime RV operator, was faced with a situation such as that, I would pull over safely and allow them to pass.

Are RVs a method of travel superior to, say, airplanes or speedboats?

I personally think they are superior for many reasons, especially for the older people on special diets that may require the refrigerators.

Bank drive-thrus appear uninviting, if not downright impossible to negotiate, for the RV driver. Is this a kind of anti-RV discrimination?

No sir. When an RV owner purchases an RV, he knows he is getting a larger coach.

Chili Cheese, Please

"Throughout history, brave souls have risen against the crippling power of the oppressors and stood up for the betterment of mankind. From the brave Scottish freedom-fighter William Wallace, to the liberty-minded George Washington, to the peaceful dissenter Mahatma Gandhi, history shows that great ideas can create great movements."

So reads the call to arms of the Culinary Crisis Coalition, an Internet-centered effort to save one of America's most threatened resources: the Taco Bell Chili Cheese Burrito.

"It's the simplest, tastiest Taco Bell product available," says Steve Gomez, a computer programmer and brave soul living in Delray Beach, Florida, who last month co-founded the coalition and its Web site, www.ChiliCheese.org.

The object of Gomez's epicurean affection, formerly known as the Chilito, consists of chili and melted Cheddar cheese wrapped in a flour tortilla. The fast-food favorite has been gradually phased out -- to the point where he estimates that it can be found only in about 20 percent of Taco Bells nationwide.

"It's carried on a regional basis," confirms Laurie Schalow, director of Taco Bell public relations, explaining that the Chili Cheese simply hasn't sold all that well. "If there's enough demand in the marketplace, they might offer it, but they want everybody in that market to agree to it. You don't want to have consumers confused with: Why does one store have it and another doesn't?"

But guess what! St. Louis is a Chili Cheese mecca! After locating six area Taco Bells that carry the burrito, Unreal wasn't feeling so well and called off our search on account of heartburn.

Gomez, meanwhile, says ChiliCheese.org has garnered about 5,000 signatures from supporters, along with about $300 -- mostly donated in increments of $1.29, the typical price of a Chili Cheese Burrito. When he hits 100,000 signatures, Gomez vows to pass along the petition to the honchos at Taco Bell.

Schalow doesn't care. "We have about 50 million customers a week at our 7,000 restaurants worldwide," she says wearily. "Unfortunately, sometimes we have to remove some of the lower-selling items to make room for newer items."

Still, Gomez isn't giving up. But he is working on a new cause: persuading McDonald's to make the McRib sandwich, now available only seasonally, a year-round menu item. He's already registered www.McRib.org and has a slogan: "We've been McRobbed!"