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

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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."

La Colmena sells Mexican candy and ice cream across from the Sedalia train station. - JAMES POLLARD
La Colmena sells Mexican candy and ice cream across from the Sedalia train station.

After a stroll through the Governor's Garden, we arrived at the white stone basement that is Jefferson City's Amtrak station about a half hour before our train was scheduled to leave. As we rounded the corner, we were greeted by a gaggle of bags and their owners, sprawled about the benches. A Union Pacific freight train, unbeknownst to me, had taken our River Runner's place on the westbound tracks, owned by the Union Pacific Railroad.

So when 11:36 a.m. rolled around, a volunteer running the station informed us the ETA was now 11:47 a.m. At noon, I got a text: "Est arrival in JEF now 0:21 p.m."

But when the clock struck 12:21 p.m., rather than boarding a passenger train, I was talking to Eric Sims, who was standing outside, staring in the distance as if he could will the freight train to move by concentrating. A 1986 Mizzou graduate, he had just dropped off his daughter for her senior year at his alma mater. She, of course, kept the car they had driven. He laughed, explaining that she'd bought him these train tickets home to Bolingbrook, Illinois, a southwest Chicago suburb. He couldn't board the eastbound train to St. Louis, his connection, until the Union Pacific freight train got going.

"It's gon' be a while," the volunteer told us.

The yellow freight cars sat on the tracks, perhaps glued there by the summer heat, their black wheels like flies stuck in a vat of honey. I had been looking forward to our next stop at the state fair, passing on lunch to save room for its assortment of fried goods and hoping to try some Rocky Mountain Oysters.

"Is there hope?" one woman asked.

"There's always hope," an unknown voice responded.

Eventually, after several more new estimated arrival times, the Union Pacific's caboose passed. I was buying the cheapest bag of Sun Chips ever (59 cents) and getting to know the other volunteer behind the counter, who runs the place with her husband.

"I've always liked trains," she said. "And it was something we could do together."

I didn't even know the train had arrived until I heard a whistle around 1:20 p.m. By 1:45 p.m., more than two hours after our original departure time, I was aboard.

In coach, there are two cushioned seats on each side of the aisle. It is not the most comfortable place to spend several hours, but they do recline slightly. And not too many people were riding Amtrak in the middle of a week late in the summer, so my friends laid across both seats to sleep.

An hour later, I was standing in the Sedalia Amtrak station, more than three miles away from the state fair. Having already lost two hours from the delay, walking seemed out of the question. I broke down and dialed the advertised number for "transportation services." Voicemail. My friends were slouched across the wooden row of chairs and seemed even more weary of this car-free social experiment. One of them found a taxi service, called one and we waited. Luckily, we had enough cash to pay for the cab. Once again, traveling without a car was proving difficult, and the reality was that — unlike a lot of people — we were fortunate enough to be able to opt out simply by making a phone call.

After a brief wait, a cab pulled up and we got in. With a Christian rocker singing "Hallelujah" from the speakers, the $10 taxi took us to the state fair.

Jim Dyke takes a vacation from his day job every year to paint caricatures at the Missouri State Fair, where his running commentary is as entertaining as his artwork. - JAMES POLLARD
Jim Dyke takes a vacation from his day job every year to paint caricatures at the Missouri State Fair, where his running commentary is as entertaining as his artwork.

Fairgoers strolled under rainbow umbrellas at the gates and into a field of tents. All sorts of smells met my nose. All sorts of tastes touched my tongue. And all sorts of people passed me by. As I would soon discover, the late-arriving train was a blessing in disguise: I would not have known what to do with six hours at the state fair.

As I navigated that field of tents, Jim Dyke and his caricature booth caught my eye. He has been accenting people's features for 26 years at the fair, taking a vacation from his job as the editorial cartoonist for the Jefferson City News Tribune. During those years, the self-taught caricature artist has had countless people sit for a portrait, including Sheryl Crow and maybe Dolly Parton.

"I'm almost 100 percent it was her," he said. "But I wasn't supposed to know it. But I think I did."

His sign says that if you're really ugly, he'll draw you for free. The owner of an African grey parrot named Lindbergh, he certainly has a way with words, describing the Missouri State Capitol Building, currently under construction, as the one "with the giant condom on it."

During the next four hours, a fried Snickers bar made its way into my mouth. I paid $8 for a freshly squeezed strawberry lemonade that consisted of freshly squeezed lemons pumped with red juice. I paid $9 for a monstrous skewer of chicken.

I entered the pigsty and promptly left the pigsty. After hiking through an orange and yellow forest of tractors, I attended a bluegrass concert. I watched the bizarrely quirky due Allez Oups, composed of "Rob from Chinatown" and "the mistress of gravity," Ms. Jane from Ukraine, balance plates and walk across wine bottles.

As I left the state fair, I passed back by Dyke's caricature tent. Remembering I still had one more question for him, I walked over.

"Would I have to pay for my caricature, or would it be free?"

"You're too good lookin'," he told me.

Whether he meant it, or knew that compliments are good for business, I can't say.

After a detour through a large sales tent, under which I had my left shoe cleaned and my odds of reaching eternal life called into question, we called the taxi. While choruses of hallelujahs played on our way there, what sounded like a personal rap mixtape recorded in a mid-Missouri basement played on our way back.

The taxi dropped us off right outside the train station, across the street from a small store. When we first arrived hours earlier, the store, brightly painted yellow with a blow-up Dora in the window, caught my eye. We still had some time to kill before the next train, so I crossed the street to check out La Colmena. Linda Leon sat behind the counter, a picture of her late mother on the wall. It had always been her mother's dream to own a store with candy and party supplies. So on April 1, 2017, her father and siblings opened the shop, with most of its candy imported from Tijuana, Mexico.

Leon's parents are from Mexico. She was born in Washington, Missouri, and has lived in Sedalia for most of her life. And while business started slow, with little advertising outside of Facebook and word of mouth, she says it's picking up.

"It's a nice, quiet place to live," she said. "For it being mainly Mexican candy, and, obviously, Mexican ice cream, we have a lot of different backgrounds, ethnic groups that come in."

David Gabriel, 19, sets off on a westward odyssey. - JAMES POLLARD
David Gabriel, 19, sets off on a westward odyssey.

As I left Sedalia, I met a pink-haired cowboy. I leaned up against the wooden fence facing the tracks, awaiting the evening train for Kansas City. My shirt stuck to my back, a backpack filled with my clothes and camera hanging from my shoulders most of the day. David Gabriel, nineteen, approached me at the Amtrak station, a backpack sitting firm against his back, a military bag bearing his name by a bench.

He'd just been dropped off by a pickup truck and introduced himself. He had a slight Louisiana drawl, and he quickly began explaining his situation to me. I introduced myself as a reporter and explained I was traveling across the state without a car to write about what I found. He agreed to an interview and soon began telling stories, only to be interrupted by a whistle as we readied to get the train. Once aboard, he sat in the row across from me, explaining that he, too, is a writer, though he has his book written in his head. With a tattoo on his forearm of two nails forming the shape of a cross, surrounded by a crown of thorns, he later added that he is a certified preacher, though he admitted he doesn't always act like it.

He told me he was an orphan and lived homeless with his siblings as a child. Members of his family had been serving in the military since the Revolutionary War, save for his father, he said.

"My father wasn't that good," Gabriel said. "I saw how my grandfather lived his life, and I decided I wanted better than what he did, so I figured the military was best."

Those plans ended when he was discharged from Fort Leonard Wood for disabilities he didn't know he had. During his several months in basic training around St. Robert, he met a girl and says he fell in love. He had spent the past few weeks with her and her family at the Lake of the Ozarks. His girlfriend had dyed his hair pink after he failed to make some long jump.

"Don't make a bet you can't win," he said.

That relationship fell apart when her ex-boyfriend showed up and he and the rival got into a tussle. Now Gabriel, who said he has been ranching since he was six years old, was headed west to work on ranches in Colorado and Utah, before reaching his final destination of Oregon.

He said his mother calls it soul searching, and he thinks everyone should make a trip like his. For Gabriel, life is all about memories. His favorite? The day he was adopted.

"How will you ever know where you belong if you haven't been to all the places you could belong?" he said, describing his trip west.

The teen, who once had a baby alligator named Elvis, said he doesn't fear death. "Trample the weak and hurdle the dead," they'd taught him at basic training, which he claimed was mentally challenging more than anything else.

While his nearly nine-month-long westward journey across the country was just beginning, I was entering the final 24 hours of mine. After a few less-than-respectful remarks about women and a brief lesson on chewing tobacco, we'd reached Kansas City.

"The best piece of thing I can give," said Gabriel, "is just don't ever let anybody tell you who you can and cannot be."

Downtown Kansas City. - JAMES POLLARD
Downtown Kansas City.

At 9:40 p.m., standing outside Kansas City's grand Union Station, one of the city's many fountains in front of me, I had some bad news. While our hotel, the Baymont by Wyndham, was on the same street as Union Station, it was a 30-minute walk. Unable to find public transport heading in that direction, we made the trek on foot uphill, past the World War I memorial.

The Baymont had once been an apartment building, and a receptionist there echoed several others' suggestion that we should check out the Kansas City Streetcar, a free trolley system that takes people from Union Station to the River Market. She also added that we should check out the 18th and Vine district.

The streetcar was still on my mind the next morning as we made the same walk back, traveling once again with our packs against our backs. We finally reached the trolley and rode over to the River Market.

After arriving, I met Cale Fichter, manager of Kansas City Soda, who chilled my Flathead Lake Huckleberry pop with an electric Black & Decker drill in two minutes. A sea of global produce, from lemons and limes to pinata apples, parted, making way for a decent crowd of all ages, some dressed in business casual, others just casual. Tikka House offered Indian cuisine, Habashi House offered Middle Eastern cuisine, Taste of Brazil, Brazillian, and Corollo's sold Italian Gelato and deli items.

At Tikka House, spices sprinkled the back of my hand as I tried flavors like Kansas City BBQ.

After filling up on dolmas and falafel at Habashi House, a guitar cover of Billy Joel's "You May Be Right" filled the market. Gregg Wright, a Kansas City-based musician, has been playing the blues, rock, reggae and funk for more than 40 years, including three years at the market. He said the people around the market are supportive of his work and everyone is friendly. Contorting his face and body as he picked tune after tune, he didn't have a direct answer when I asked his favorite song to play.

"That's too much, man, there's just too many of them," he said. "It depends how you feel that day. It could be any song, particularly, that day that might brighten your whole day up."

And thanks to Wright, for the rest of that afternoon I had "You May Be Right" stuck in my head. I couldn't tell if that song was brightening my day or not, but meeting Wright certainly had done so — and invigorated my desire to visit the National Jazz Museum in Kansas City's historic 18th and Vine area.

So after taking the trolley down to the Power & Light district, I needed to figure out how to get there. As I considered taking a Byrd scooter, Eric Kwasnjuk rode up on one. A comedian and actor from Philadelphia, he has been driving across the country on his way to Los Angeles. After attending film school three years ago in South Africa, he says he is chasing his dream.

"I want to work on other pilots and try to put out some good content," he said. "Content that deals with stigma and shame, breaking through some things that we need to heal from today — but with humor."

Kwasnjuk soon enlisted me, briefly, as his cameraman for his latest endeavor. After filming a video of him falling off of his scooter, I set off on one myself. I rode it 30 minutes east to the National Jazz Museum, arriving in time to start my tour shortly after 2 p.m. With my train scheduled to depart at 4 p.m., I'd have an hour to spend there. (Otherwise I would have loved to visit the Negro League Hall of Fame next door.)

Legends like Charlie Parker, Count Basie and Big Joe Turner are memorialized in the museum. It was artists like them who perfected Kansas City's jazz identity, a blues-based style, in nightclubs around 18th and Vine, where the museum lies. The museum notes that Parker, a Kansas City, Kansas native, transformed African American blues with his "incredible technique" and "through harmonic and melodic innovations."

"Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom," Parker once said, his words printed on the museum wall. "If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn."

As I left the museum, a voice singing "you better hurry get aboard the train" could be heard from the loudspeakers. And on my way out, the words of Duke Ellington offered a final reminder about jazz's roots. "Jazz is based on the sound of our native heritage," an Ellington quote on the wall read. "It is an American idiom with African roots — a trunk of sound with limbs reaching in every direction."

So I walked more than 30 minutes from the museum to Union Station, listening to a jazz playlist along the way.

Crossing Missouri by rail, foot and scooter during a three-day journey revealed windows into the state’s proud and not-so-proud history. - JAMES POLLARD
Crossing Missouri by rail, foot and scooter during a three-day journey revealed windows into the state’s proud and not-so-proud history.

Slumped in my seat on the train, I was not particularly in the mood to talk to anyone on my way home. Looking out the window, the sky was so dark that, if it were not for the steady drum beat of the wheels along the track and the careful dancing of the train car, I would not have known it was moving. It was 9:30 p.m., and because of a one-hour delay, we were about an hour away from St. Louis. All together, the trip back took a little more than six hours.

I wondered about the history of railroads in Missouri. On September 20, 1865, a train carrying George Taylor, president of the Pacific Railroad, and D.R. Garrison, company vice president, left Kansas City at 3 a.m., arriving at St. Louis fourteen hours later.

The rail connection would have been completed in 1864, but Confederate General Sterling Price raided the tracks in October 1864. Having ordered his troops to destroy every bridge west of Jefferson City, miles of track were torn up, many stations burned.

Just about 60 hours prior to these musings, I had been on the train to Jefferson City. One of my editors had called me then, with some advice on how to best document my experiences. "Have a conversational relationship with your environment," he had said. I thought about the many conversations I'd had during the last few days. On that first train to the capital, I had met a woman who said she liked the connection the train allows. She was right — I would have never met people like David Gabriel or Eric Simms if it weren't for the River Runner. I was reminded of a text I had sent to my friends, sitting in front of me at the time, as we rode with that pink-haired cowboy from Sedalia to Kansas City.

"I met him as someone who will be a character in my story," I wrote. "But he's a real person who will live this life way after this train ride."

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