S

ince I was four or five, I had not stepped foot inside the state I was born. Virtually, I knew nothing of the place my parents met in, fell in love. A lot of my dad’s side of the family lives in Illinois – and if it weren’t for their family reunion, I wouldn’t have seen the arch, the city, or the deserted streets of St. Louis, MO.

I visited the city on a whim. It hadn’t been in any original plans, but having already said goodbye to family and with some extra time on our hands, my sister and I saw no reason to not check out the place we left behind long ago.

The city, itself, doesn’t have the best reputation – especially lately. With the race wars and the tragedy, we felt the need to watch our backs more in St.Louis than any city we’d visited on our one week road trip.

...the next time I saw my parents, I felt more connected to them - a part of their past captured in my recent memory.

At the time of our visit, a lot of the city was tied up in a Cardinals game – the stadium full – and it was the fourth of July, so naturally the streets weren’t busy. Part of me wishes they had been. It would have helped my sister and spot areas we should avoid, but being two of maybe twenty tourists walking downtown that day, we had little to no clue as to which areas we should avoid.

We started with the Gateway Arch. It was the most populated area we visited in the city, and personally, it was my second favorite piece of architecture we saw. The arch, if you don’t know, stands at 630 ft tall. It’s a magnificent structure, and if you visit on a cloudy day, the arch camouflages itself into the gray and white sky. It was like witnessing a steel rainbow, looking up at it on the steps. Due to construction, we couldn’t go inside, but it was just as stunning from the outside.

Beyond the arch and on the water sat a ferry boat my sister and I recognized as the boat my parents were married on. I wish I had gotten a better photograph, because the one I took ended up blurry. However, just seeing the boat meant a lot to me. I love my parents, and at the time of their wedding, I wasn’t a thought yet. It was like I was getting a chance to look back in time, and the next time I saw my parents, I felt more connected to them – a part of their past captured in my recent memory.

A man played music near the dock. It was blues-y tune, something I’ve heard on the streets of New Orleans, but it was also romantic. My sister and I passed by, admiring both the arch and the ferry, before deciding to head into the heart of the city to find the old post office, public library, and other beautifully crafted and french inspired architectural masterpieces.

We grabbed bottles of water from Starbucks and excitedly crossed the road away from the tourist crowd at the arch. We had no idea what to expect. We knew the city had undergone recent strife ( as recent as the front page of the newspaper), and we knew we needed to be careful, but we were jittery. This was a place we could’ve grown up near. This was a city we could’ve called home.

As we ventured further into the city, we noticed the lack of pedestrians. For me, there’s nothing stranger than traveling the streets of a bigger city and not bumping shoulders with at least two individuals. With the exception of a few cars on the street – possibly passerbys on the way to the suburbs or Forest Park – St. Louis was a ghost city. We could faintly hear the intercom of the Cardinals arena, and there were cops creeping down the streets, but otherwise, the city was silent.

Part of the silence, we found, originated from the fact everything was closed due to the fourth. Several of our free, touristy destinations were closed to the public – including the old post office and the library. We were able to get pictures of the outsides, but we couldn’t look inside. The library, which is deeper into the city, was our last straw. We enjoyed viewing the architecture, but we could only keep our paranoia at bay for so long.

This was a city we could’ve called home.

With a car coming to a slow stop where we sat on the steps of the public library, we decided to head back to the car. It’s sad that such a beautiful city can make you feel so unsafe, but we weren’t about to risk our lives or be harassed, especially being two young women.

Though Downtown St. Louis had its perks, it wasn’t a place we ended up feeling comfortable in. This was disheartening for us, since we felt a sentimental connection to the city. However, we still had another stop.

Driving toward Forest Park, we parallel parked near a marvel – Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis. Fortunate for us, this cathedral was the one place on our list with open doors. First, we walked along the street it sat on. Several of the homes were built like miniature castles, and we realized toward the front of the street a majority of them were nunneries.

When we made it to the steps of the cathedral, we were just as mesmerized, if not more, as we had been standing beneath the Gateway Arch. Standing at 226 feet of pure architectural mastery, the cathedral was a piece of Europe sitting on the outskirts of a US city. We snapped several photos of the exterior before venturing within the colossal doors and inside.

First entering, we were welcomed by an older man who provided us with tour pamphlets. Though we had the option of joining the tour, we decided to split up and roam the cathedral. To walk beyond the foyer and into the massive area of pews and hallways caused me to stop. I didn’t take photos for a time or walk any further. Instead, I stared. I took it all in, and as I sat among the pews, I truly felt as if I was in the presence of something greater.

The silence of the building – the delicate brush strokes of the mural ceiling – left all my fear and paranoia of the city behind. I felt, within the hour we strolled around inside, at peace. It was surreal, and I have no clue if it was because I’ve never witnessed something so beautiful and magnificent. All I knew was this was a place I was glad I didn’t skip due to everything else in the city being closed.

When we walked back out the doors and the sunlight hit us, the quiet serenity of the cathedral left us. The real world came back, and my heart yearned to turn around, go back inside, and never leave. Yet, I knew this would be the first of many cathedrals I would visit, and it made me happy to know such beauty still existed in the world and in the US.

At the end of the day, we slept in a hotel in Eureka before leaving the next morning by 10 AM. We were heading away from Missouri and back to Alabama. Our trip was almost over, but I was already planning my next one.

St. Louis was a bag of mixed emotions for me. I was surprised by the beauty, paranoid by the empty streets, sad I was afraid to be a white woman, happy to see where my parents fell in love, and amazed by the magnificence of the cathedral and the arch. It’s a city I plan to return to in the future – not on a holiday or during a Cardinals game – to parallel my experiences. Part of me believes the city would’ve been more enjoyable, that we would’ve stopped at more places, and we been part of a crowd rather than alone. In the end, it was an experience, an adventure, and I was happy to go and to be able to come home and right about it.

This week, I’ll be hoping onto the road again – this time to Virginia, Canada, and the East Coast. St. Louis was the first stop of several of my journey to travel 1 million miles.

Always,Jinapher J. Hoffman

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