My wife and I trekked out to Wright City this weekend for a surprise anniversary party for one of her uncles. It was in a park in Wright City. Wright City is a small town roughly an hour west of St. Louis on I-70. It’s most famous for Big Boy’s, a roadside hole-in-the-wall restaurant that predated the national chain by a couple of decades, and for the defunct Elvis Is Alive Museum, an old laundromat that a Baptist preacher converted into a tribute to the other Elvis (Presley, not Costello), where he spun theories about what Elvis did after faking his death.
I’ve driven through Wright City more times than I can count, since it’s along I-70 in between St. Louis and Kansas City, but up until this weekend, I’ve never stopped there, even for gas.
More on all that in a minute.
My wife’s uncle Larry is one of those guys you always learn something from when you talk to him, even if it’s only for a couple of minutes. It’s also a side of the family we don’t see as often, and they’re all good people, so I was eager to go. We gave ourselves an hour and a half, grabbed the invitation, intending to plug the address into the GPS, and… No address. Just Diekroeger Park, Wright City. OK. So we searched the GPS’ internal list of attractions, but found nothing. So we ran inside and did a Google search to get an address, then tried to plug that into the GPS. No match, though there was a match in Wentzville. That’s the town a few miles east of Wright City, and across the county line. That couldn’t be right. So I did another search and found a different address on Veterans Memorial Parkway. I printed directions just to be safe, which was good, because the GPS had never heard of that address either.
So we drove off with the printed directions as our guide. We exited at Exit 199 like the directions said, turned left where it said to turn left, then right where it said to turn right, drove two miles like it said, and ended up in the middle of nowhere. Then I saw a sign that said, “City Limit, Warrenton.” Too far. So we turned around and decided to try the other side of the interstate, since that side of town looked more densely populated. So we did that, and ended up on the other side of the middle of nowhere, still with no Diekroeger Park in sight.
“Let’s turn around,” my wife suggested. “Is that a road?”
It looked more like a gravel parking lot, but it was a lot closer than driving to Warrenton again. I turned the Honda Civic into the lot, turned wide to make a nice u-turn, and….
“Don’t drive through there, you’ll get stuck!”
I’ve driven on gravel before, and that just looked like gravel to me. Then it started feeling like driving on ice. The wheels spun, my turning got really mushy, and then the car just wouldn’t move any more.
“You’re right,” I admitted. I put the car in reverse, moved a little, then went back into drive, and got stuck again. Not wanting to get out in whatever we were stuck in and push, I turned the wheel a little differently, put the pedal almost to the metal, and managed to get the car moving, though not really in the direction I wanted. Still, it was better than being stuck.
“You didn’t know you were going muddin’ tonight, did you?” my wife teased as she watched me struggle with the mushy steering wheel.
Somehow I wrangled the car to a dry patch of gravel going in the direction of the road, ending one subadventure. I’m no good at muddin’. Or maybe it’s the Civic that’s lousy at muddin’. Or maybe both of us. Whatever. I turned around and drove back into Wright City. We must have been halfway through town when I finally stopped hearing the pings of stray gravel flinging off my tires and into my wheel wells. We found the elementary school, the high school, and lots of other things I don’t remember, but no parks. But Wright City isn’t all that big. Drive around enough and you’re bound to run into whatever you’re looking for, right? Eventually we crossed I-70 again and found… a park! But nobody was there. Still, I drove up to investigate. Nope, that was Ruge Park, the other park in town.
We did see several very nice Victorian houses, and the downtown looked straight out of a movie, but we couldn’t find the park. The roads in this older part of town were pretty maze-like, and most of the side streets didn’t go through. So we started driving towards I-70, ready to give up. Then, just as we reached I-70, something interrupted me from turning onto the ramp.
“There’s Veterans Memorial Parkway!” my wife said excitedly.
So I spun the car around again and drove. We didn’t see any street numbers, but we were on the east edge of town heading west, so the odds were in favor of us finding it. And it wasn’t long before we found what looked like an old train station, with a caboose behind it and tennis courts next to it. The tennis courts and the presence of cars we recognized told us what we needed to know: We’d found our place.
I parked, and looked. I could see I-70, and across the highway, I could see the former Elvis is Alive Museum, which has been a food pantry since the museum closed in 2007.
“If I’d known it was on the same service road as the original Big Boy’s, and across the interstate from the old Elvis is Alive Museum, I would have found this easily,” I said.
We arrived late, but so did the guests of honor, so that was OK. The surprise ended up not being much of a surprise either, but that was OK too. Everyone enjoyed one another’s company for a couple of hours. And it turned out we weren’t the only ones who had trouble finding it, though, as far as I know, we were the only ones who ended up going mudding–er, muddin’–in a Honda Civic.