August 18, 2008
Oregon Trail Diary
Distance: 20 miles
K. has objected to my characterization of her iPod in yesterday's entry, and would like it to be noted that her iPod includes music other than the Top Gun soundtrack and Jets to Brazil. In fairness, that is true; "Jump (for My Love)" by the Pointer Sisters is also on her iPod. The record has now been corrected, and another chapter has been written in the legend of my fairness.
Our inn has a deal with the IHOP down the block whereby guests are supposed to receive a 10% discount on meals. We set out for breakfast, intended to take advantage of that offer, but found the IHOP still and lifeless. According to signs on the door, the IHOP had suffered severe structural damage and was undergoing repairs. There was plywood and orange netting on the right side of the building. Hillcrest Drive, as a whole, seemed to be an idea which had reached its end. On both sides of the street, reaching off into the distance, there were acres of abandoned strip-mall storefronts and big-box retailers, bare of signs and even the most faint identifying features. But there was a bus stop, and people waiting for the bus.
Back at the hotel, the desk clerks were stunned to hear about the structural damage at the IHOP. According to a quick investigation on the web, it has been closed since June, when a vehicle plowed into it. The most recent business to occupy the large retail space behind the IHOP was evidently Montgomery Ward's, which shuttered its last stores in 2001.
Hungry, with the 'Meals' category running dangerously close to 'Meager', we drove to downtown Independence and found the one restaurant open on Sunday, a German restaurant called Rheinland. In lieu of anything else on the menu without meat, I had the soup of the day and a plate of spätzle. K. had an order of Hawaiian Toast, which she enjoyed, but which raised serious questions about how much the Germans really know about Hawaii.
Not much else was open in downtown Independence. There was a business called "Game Cafe" that had a posterboard reproduction of the cover of Batman #429 in one of the windows, which is as intriguing an opening gambit as any business can offer, but it may or may not have been open, and the long, recessed entrance-way had the stink of sullen, prematurely-aged youth; we kept walking. There was a Harry Truman statue and a Harry Truman Visitor Center. I considered checking the gift shop to see if they had any of the hell Harry was so famous for giving, perhaps in convenient bottled form. But our destiny lay on the trail, so we returned to the Volks Wagon.
The National Frontier Trails Museum was the key stop for the day. It is dedicated to the various pioneer trails, with some Lewis and Clark shit thrown in, and a painfully loud recording of a cranky old man reading a cranky Horace Greeley quote (intending to dispel the rumor that he said "Go west, young man" or even thought that going west was a good idea at all). While complimentary of their overall achievements and leadership, the Lewis and Clark display had some harsh comments for the men's policy toward Native Americans. Evidently, they attempted to talk the various tribes into ceasing tribal warfare and abandoning all other activities in favor of fur trapping on behalf of the United States government; evidently, the tribes did not take them very seriously. Further on, there was a half-baked thesis that the craze for beaver pelts led to America's economic supremacy, and there were samples of various fur pelts that you could feel, along with the prices they would fetch on the open market back in the pioneer days. K. has expensive taste: her preference, otter, clocked in at $4/pelt.
The most important part of the National Frontier Trails Museum is the room with the test wagon and the supplies. On the wall is a suggested list of things to bring on the Oregon Trail, derived from letters written by some fellow named Campbell. The shelves in the room are stocked with supplies that are proportionately weighted. There were heavy barrels of bacon, slightly less heavy bags of flour and rice, and relatively light tins of cayenne pepper; that sort of thing. The wagon is plugged into the wall, and an alarm goes off if you overload the wagon, so you have to make careful decisions on what to bring. (There is also supposed to be a warning light if you're getting close, but that was broken.) The implication is that this is supposed to be a challenge; if so, the only conclusion I can draw is that K. and I are fucking awesome at the ancient pioneer arts, because we had that thing filled up with everything we wanted long before the alarm went off. Granted, we were light on bacon, because K. would be the only one eating it; we stocked up on rice and beans, and had a generous supply of cornmeal and biscuits. I persuaded K. to bring only the iron skillet and a single bowl, reasoning that whoever is not eating out of the bowl can just eat directly out of the skillet. She was skeptical of this, but when that earned her an additional sack of coffee in the wagon, her objections evaporated.
Here is a picture of our victorious wagon:
Please feel free to ask detailed questions about the contents of our wagon in the comments section.
The second most important part of the National Frontier Trails Museum was the wall that listed the pros and cons of mules and oxen, and then asked visitors to register their vote for the party of their preference. (These votes are apparently reset weekly.) The voting was running 2-1 for mules when we walked in. K. and I discussed the issue and agreed to vote for oxen. However, due to a bug in the system, each vote for oxen counted as 10, whereas each vote for mules counted only for 1. When we returned to the voting area on our way out of the museum, the counting had been fixed; however, vicious pro-mule ballot stuffers had clearly been at work, as mules now led 133-21. Outrageous!
The third most important part of the National Frontier Trails Museum was the display about ridiculous things people brought with them on the trail, and abandoned along the way. There was a grandfather clock and a six-volume set of commentaries on the laws of England. Most poignantly, there was a rolling pin, and the story of the man who had been forced to abandon it by the other members of his party in an effort to lighten their load. "My mother used it for for making biscuits," he pleaded. "She made awful good biscuits." There was also a rocking chair that had been abandoned, found by another traveler, and carried the rest of the way as a present to his wife; and there was the story of a "handsome, Gothic wooden bookcase" abandoned on the trail, which I mention because there was a less handsome but entirely real bookcase sitting in the left lane of I-435 as we drove back to the inn. These people go too far for historical authenticity.
The critical parts of the day's agenda complete, we had pleasant, informative visits to the Negro League Baseball Museum and American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, and then had dinner at a Chinese restaurant down the block from a blues band with a devoted following among bikers. As we walked back to our car, a homeless young man lurched forward and semi-rapped "Pay me, don't give me no shit," at me, and then thanked us very much for coming. As we were driving through the Financial District downtown, heading toward the highway, another homeless man smiled and shouted "No, you don't. It's your birthday!" at us. I don't know what's going on in Kansas City.
Somehow, a discussion about making a mixtape about songs with cities in the title led to a discussion about making a mixtape about songs with superheroes in them, which led to "In the Garage" by Weezer, which led to a loud, raucous sing-along to old Weezer songs all the way back to our inn. We are pioneer as fuck.