Traveling Across Missouri With a Backpack, Camera — and No Car

Sep 11, 2019 at 6:00 am
The Missouri State Fair offers fine fried food dining.
The Missouri State Fair offers fine fried food dining. JAMES POLLARD

Late on a Wednesday night in August, I found myself on foot, standing behind a line of cars in a Taco Bell drive-through, as one does.

The Amtrak River Runner had dropped us off about 9:40 p.m. in Kansas City, the final stop on a three-day, car-free trip across Missouri. Two buddies and I had just marched 1.6 miles to our hotel. We had eaten a late lunch five hours and 88 miles earlier at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia. We were hungry — and looking to further punish our stomachs.

Luckily for us, I had a $15 Taco Bell gift card. Unluckily for us, the inside dining room was closed.

As we stood behind a long line of cars, a van pulled in behind us, window rolled down.

"I don't think you'll be served unless you're in a car," the driver informed us.

She opened her side door and invited us inside. My friends and I glanced at each other.

It was 10:30 p.m., roughly. We'd walked fifteen minutes in the wrong direction before reaching our fast-food destination. We were not about to miss out on our Tex-Mex. This gift card had been burning a hole in my pocket for the past year. And since the stranger's van wasn't my car, I would not be breaking the "car-free" parameters I had created for the trip, right?

We hunched in, moving her baby booster seat, and started chatting. She was a teacher and a graduate student from Springfield, in town for a concert. Unable to find a babysitter, the married mother of two left her husband in charge of the kids for the night and went alone. My friends, two young politicos, engaged her in conversation about the current state of affairs in Missouri. "There's pockets of goodness," she said. "You have to seek them out."

Finally, we reached the window. Having then satisfied our stomach's ill-fated desires, we parted ways. But that phrase, "pockets of goodness," would stay with me.

For three days in the middle of August, I traveled to Jefferson City, the state fair in Sedalia and Kansas City. I didn't have a car — which in the Midwest can be pretty limiting. I couldn't have found every nook in Missouri, but not driving myself opened up some new ones.

I had not sought them out, but I had certainly stumbled upon some interesting pockets. However many were good depends on your definition of "goodness." But slouched on the sidewalk, chomping down on my $5 Chalupa Crave Case under a nearly full moon, I thought about the risky kindness of that stranger, whose name I didn't quite catch. I had found one of those good pockets.

Life in the capitol is a grind for legislative aide Adam Speak, but he thinks the work is important. - JAMES POLLARD
Life in the capitol is a grind for legislative aide Adam Speak, but he thinks the work is important.

In Jefferson City, I saw Huck Finn and Jim stand atop a raft along the Mississippi River. Jesse James robbed a train by gunpoint. Notorious Kansas City political boss T.J. Pendergast, cigar in hand, attended a dinner. And Frankie shot her cheating man, Johnnie.

Naturally, my car-free quest to find Missouri's pockets of goodness had taken me to the state capitol building, its rotunda covered in white and under construction. More specifically, the House Lounge, home to Thomas Hart Benton's mural, A Social History of the State of Missouri. Its expanse takes you from fur trading and trapping to coal mining, cattle farming and steamboats.

But Benton, who had been given complete freedom in interpreting the theme, aroused quite the controversy with his finished product. He included more than just Missouri's myths. When lawmakers had allocated funds for his two-year project, some didn't want an honest social history. They wanted a specific social history. So depictions of a black man's lynching, the persecution of Mormons, Native Americans cheated out of their land and poverty throughout the Great Depression drew the ire of some. It also drew thousands of Missourians to the state capitol. And while statesmen no longer lounge on the room's couches, it has been open to the public ever since the mural's completion in 1937.

Restoration of the 82-year-old mural was completed last December. The capitol building, known for its many murals, successfully conserved this snapshot in time. But with 82 years of new history waiting to be captured, I wonder what we'll be trying to paint over next.

Listening to the echo of my footsteps as I walked through Missouri-mined limestone floors, staring at my feet in search of fossils, glancing at the annual composites on the walls, there was no denying it: This building quite literally contains history. Legislative assistant Adam Speak spoke with us about what it's like working there.

Speak painted a bleak portrait, where legislative assistants' jobs depend on their boss's electoral success every two years to work in a building where some drafting attorneys try to sneak opposing legislative goals into his bills. The 29-year-old fears working in a building where citizens bring concealed firearms and lawmakers have left them in bathroom stalls.

"There's definitely an element of masochism in it," he said. "But it feels like I'm doing all that I can being here."

To relax, he retreats to the Upper Jax Fork River or the Current River when the legislature is out of session. While he says the non-traditional work environment is a major perk, he also quoted state Rep. Tracy McCreery (D-88th District).

"Being on the vanguard of history, even though you just get thrown into a buzzsaw every day — it's still very rewarding," he explained.

Speak would know a thing or two about that buzzsaw. Having interned for Rep. Vicki Englund (D-94th District) until she lost her race, then hired by Rep. Stacey Newman (D-87th District) until her retirement, and now working with her replacement, Rep. Ian Mackey, he has seen a lot.

None of the legislation he's written has become policy. During Speak's five years, Republicans have increased their supermajority in the Missouri House to 116 members from 110. He had his fingerprints on HB1558, passed last year, which made it a felony to threaten the sharing of sexually explicit images taken without consent. But it is his accomplishments outside of the legislative arena that he's most proud of.

Before Eric Greitens was accused of threatening revenge porn, the state legislature was caught up in its own sex scandals. On May 15, 2015, as Speak was finishing up his internship, then-Speaker of the House John Diehl resigned after admitting to exchanging sexual texts with a nineteen-year-old intern. While Speak says there's still a "long, long, long way to go," he says those events made the capitol come to a public reckoning with harassment and assault in the workplace before the #MeToo movement.

"That sort of put a spotlight on power differences within the building," Speak said. "Staff, interns and electeds — and also with gender dynamics in the building as well."

Sexual harassment training was then taken more seriously, though still not good enough, according to Speak. He wrote an angry letter, collecting signatures from around the building. Having studied social work at the University of Missouri-Columbia, he played a minor role in helping revamp the program, working with many other social workers from around the building.

"There's always been some stiff resistance from people who think the changes and accommodations we make for gender equality in the workplace and for the power dynamics in the workplace are unnecessary," he said. "But I think things are at least on the radar in that regard."