I’m in Missouri to speak at a conference. The organizers flew me in a few days early so I could get a look at the place. Nearly all my travels were paid for by the state tourism board.
Here are the things I knew about Missouri before I said yes to this trip: The Missouri Compromise. I didn’t even remember what that was, exactly, something to do with the Civil War. I had to look it up. Missouri would be admitted to the Union as a slave owning state. If you’re saying, “What the hell?” — yeah, me too.
In an effort to get at what Missouri is, I added it as a search term to my Twitter feed. A few days later, the NAACP issued their travel warning about the state, saying it’s not safe for people of color to travel here. This was followed by outrage over a death penalty case in which the accused had been exonerated by DNA tests, but the governor had not commuted the sentence. Then, if you think it’s all red-state badness, nope, a Missouri congresswoman tweeted that she hoped the President would be assassinated. You can have bad behavior on both sides of the aisle in Missouri.
“It’s a confused state,” the docent at Wilson’s Creek told me. Wilson’s Creek was the site of one of the earliest battles of the Civil War. The Union troops were destroyed. losing nearly a quarter of their soldiers, but the Confederacy didn’t do so well either, they lost ten percent of their troops — and if you got out of Wilson’s Creek uninjured, you were lucky indeed.
Wilson’s Creek is a national park now. I drove there from Springfield where I’d spent the previous night. It was hot and windy and the grass was full of the sound of cicadas. A few canons stand at key sites throughout the battlefield. Fall is just arriving and spiders are building webs between the wooden spokes of the giant wheels. I was alone, mostly. The barrel of the cannon would launch an object bigger than my fist. To be hit by a ball of lead that size — certainly you’d wish it had killed you if it hadn’t, the damage to your body is terrifying to consider.
In the alley behind my hotel someone had sprayed “Punch a Nazi” on a loading dock door, white spray paint on black. Some musicians were loading their gear into a club back door and I was sorry I was so tired. But my plane had circled and circled and circled some more on landing, and when we finally got to the gate I was feeling a bit green. I’d left the house at 5:15 that morning and I was worn right through, so I went to bed.
Springfield is one of those places where a person like me drops in, sees all the empty real estate and immediately does imaginary math and real estate development. There’s a four story building with high ceilings, brick arcaded windows, just off the main square — a person could open a waffle bar downstairs, have an art space above, and live on the top two floors like a queen, she could. Of course, she’d have to consider what the rest of her life would look like, if she’d be lonely for the freaks and weirdos she surrounds herself with in Seattle, or if she’d find them in Springfield, too.
I didn’t drive directly to Wilson’s Creek from Springfield; I detoured via winding country roads. At one intersection, I passed a sign that said, “Plan ahead: Heaven requires a reservation and hell is never full.” I have been rolling this around in my head for a good 48 hours now. I don’t like places that are so crowded you can’t get in so it doesn’t make sense.
I made mistake of taking some visiting friends to an empty bar not that long ago. The problem wasn’t that it was empty, it’s why — something about the place was broken, you could only get beer in cans, and they had no soda. Perhaps hell is all canned beer and no fountain drinks? The room was quiet, at least, and we could talk. It was disappointing but not hell by a long shot.
Missouri is a confused state and I am in it.