The Gateway Arch perfectly frames the Old Courthouse in St. Louis, as seen from a riverboat cruise.
The Gateway Arch perfectly frames the Old Courthouse in St. Louis, as seen from a riverboat cruise.

September 17, 2018

ST. LOUIS

It was our first time traveling not only on a tiny 10-person airplane but also with each other, so anything could happen.

When we headed from Carroll to Fort Dodge at 5 a.m. on a Friday at the beginning of August, we needed a lot of coffee. More than an hour — and 48 ounces of cold-brew coffee — later, we wove our way out of the cornfields and found a tiny airport.

We went through less than a minute of security before we boarded our Air Choice One plane and were on our way to St. Louis.

Air Choice One had provided us with plane tickets to St. Louis after we expressed interest in writing a story to inform people in the Carroll area about the small, inexpensive airline only an hour away.

Air Choice One offers flights on small planes and often seeks to serve smaller communities that might not be able to support large airlines and airports, and since 2014, the airline has flown thousands of travelers from Fort Dodge to various destinations around the U.S. — including St. Louis, Minneapolis and Chicago.

After two turbulence-free hours, we touched down in St. Louis, Missouri, and were ready to explore. The metro dropped us off downtown after a half-hour ride.

Of course Annie’s phone was dead and Rebecca’s was dying, so we stopped at Kaldi’s Coffee in City Garden to ask for directions. The glass-walled building was surrounded by colorful flowers, outdoor sculptures and other art, and the building’s architecture mimicked what could have been a small art museum.

We felt refreshed being back in a larger city.

Our barista told us that when we went to the City Museum, buying kneepads is worth the extra charge (we later found out the hard way he was right). Most importantly, he told us that the hotel we thought was ours wasn’t.

And, he gave us coffee.

Our hotel was just a block down from the Old Courthouse, where part of the Dred Scott trial was held. Dred Scott was a former slave who was born in Virginia and later moved to St. Louis. After living in two free states, he and his wife Harriet Scott returned to St. Louis, still part of slave-owning territory, they fought for their freedom, which led them to two trials in the mid-1800s. They ultimately were unsuccessful.

The courthouse was perfectly framed by the gargantuan Gateway Arch.

It was Annie’s first time in the city, and Rebecca hadn’t spent much time there. After not even an hour in St. Louis, we already knew it would be a good trip.

Our unplanned morning fast had us ready to chow down on some barbecue. Sugarfire Smoke House lived up to its reputation; we ordered brisket, salmon — and, because we couldn’t pick between just two sides, they gave us a deal and let us have fries, coleslaw and potato salad.

Our next stop was the City Museum. Our Lyft driver, Alex, told us about how the museum’s artist built it with a crew of 20 artisans. We asked him about the barista’s recommendation that we buy kneepads— apparently a visit to the City Museum involves a lot of crawling around — and Alex laughed it off. “This isn’t amateur hour,” he said.

The museum had themed floors, dark caves, hidden lagoons, art and sculptures that featured ancient Egyptian culture. One floor had chairs that looked like giant toy spinners. They were irresistible for Rebecca, who sat down on one and, despite some initial wobbling, kicked her feet off the ground and began to spin in circles like a tiny child.

We climbed on dark staircases while listening to a giant organ that looked like Source Maestro Forte from “Beauty and the Beast” that played music from “The Phantom of the Opera.” It was designed to look like a theater organ but was constructed out of several different organs the St. Louis Theatre Organ Society had in storage.

Outside, we attempted to climb through a few obstacles to go down the slides, but we could feel the impatient huffs of the 5-year-old kids behind us as they waited for us to move our much larger bodies out of the way so they could move through the obstacle course at a normal pace.

We then valiantly attempted to crawl through the metal cylindrical courses — structures that looked like a mash-up of designs from both Disney and Tim Burton films — but as the bars pressed painfully into our knees, we knew we should have invested in the kneepads after all and quickly gave up.

So much for “amateur hour.”

That evening, we visited the Broadway Oyster Bar for oysters and live music.

After shrimp, oysters, bread and a few cocktails, we decided we could handle a little more food.

We decided to order a bucket of crayfish — “a poor man’s delicacy,” according to the food news publication “Eater Houston.”

Rebecca had never eaten crayfish, so she figured she would give them a try. Little did we know that the bucket of crayfish was endless.

Plus, they looked like giant bugs and Rebecca wasn’t about that life, so after a reluctant bite or two, she left them to Annie.

After what seemed like years of cracking crayfish shells, being poked and spraying butter everywhere, we were stuffed and ready for bed.

We conked out before midnight, allowing us to head to the Old Courthouse bright and early the next morning. We walked through hallways that told the story of slaves brought to America against their will and what their lives were like after coming here — as well as the lives of their descendants, even today.

One quote really stood out to us. It read: “... [A]n entire group of people was brought to America against their will, their descendants forever condemned to enslavement because of the color of their skin and their ancestry.”

We also saw a sign for a sheriff’s sale — to the highest bidder — of a 25-year-old black woman and her 18-month-old child. Her name was America.

The courthouse museum was a sobering reminder of one of the ugly periods in our country’s history and of how echoes of it still exist today.

We headed next to the Museum at the Gateway Arch, but we bypassed the lines at the museum to instead take a riverboat tour.

We raced down to the docks and jumped on the tour boat with just minutes to spare. We were able to grab seats at the bow of the boat and had perfect seats to see the entire river.

After learning about the history of the Missouri River and the freight that travels along the water, we headed to the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis. We were in awe of the giant, intricately designed cathedral that we were able to visit without traveling across the world to a country like Italy — and we managed to crash the end of the wedding in our quest to see the cathedral’s sites.

Sushi was our next order of business, and all-you-can-eat joint Sushi Ai offered another educational meal for Rebecca, who’d tried sushi rolls but not the real stuff. Annie handled the ordering and Rebecca discovered that, unlike the giant bugs from the night before, she loves sushi.

We wobbled back to the hotel, stuffed full of unagi and yellowtail, to check out the hotel’s rooftop bar, Three Sixty, which gave us an amazing view of the entire city, including the Ballpark Village, Busch Stadium and the Gateway Arch.

After a spending a few hours chatting with four U.S. Army veterans, we decided it was time to check out an authentic St. Louis bar.

We went down to Beale On Broadway where we listened to a live blues and soul singer. By then, we were hungry again and ready for some (more) shrimp.

The next morning, Annie was up and ready to go on a run. Rebecca had planned to join her, but after her feet reminded her that she’d spent a night out in new heels, she decided instead to sit beneath the Gateway Arch and relax.

Annie ran a path by the arch and along the Missouri River and saw the Chain of Rocks Bridge and Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge. Whenever she travels somewhere new, she looks for any chance she can get to go for a run. It gives her a unique way to explore and learn about a new city.

One of our last adventures was a trip to the Budweiser Brewery Experience. That deserves its own story, so keep an eye out for it in the next few weeks.

With just a few hours left in our visit, we headed to The Hill — the Italian-American neighborhood in St. Louis that is littered with various Italian restaurants, pizza parlors and more.

Starving as usual, we stopped in at the first restaurant we saw, Mama’s On The Hill, and grabbed a table.

At the server’s recommendation, Annie ordered a creamy seafood pasta dish with scallops, shrimp — and a small crayfish on top, which prompted bad memories for Rebecca. She stuck with a safer order of penne with spicy marinara, sausage and veggies.

When our food arrived, we instantly stopped talking and focused on enjoying the feast in front of us.

Annie never wanted her bowl of pasta to run out. She was in love.

We were very pleased and satisfied with our last meal in St. Louis.

With just a bit of time left, we headed over to St. Louis’s Central West End neighborhood, a cool spot with restaurants, bars and unique shops. Our mission was to find last-minute souvenirs for our family and friends. Annie, a hot-sauce connoisseur who loves anything spicy, was on a mission to find a good hot sauce to bring back.

Rebecca just wanted coffee.

Inside a holistic Lebanese store, Annie discovered her hot sauce, and a specialty perfume shop offered cool bracelets made from recycled Indian saris. Then it was back on the tiny Air Choice One plane and back to Iowa.

In three days, we packed in lots of sightseeing, food that never failed to disappoint, a few great drinks, plenty of exercise and conversations with interesting people.

We’d recommend a long weekend in St. Louis to anyone — and Air Choice One makes it easy to get there.

We’d also recommend that, whatever else you do, you visit the City Museum.

Just, you know, spring for the kneepads.