As the Tour Director for the 26-day Cross Country By Bus tour, I have had the opportunity to experience the wonders of our great country along with our Starr guests and my partner, our Starr Driver. At times, it was simply looking out the window of the coach and relishing in the sights of the Grand Teton Mountains in Wyoming, visiting the grandeur of the Hearst Castle in California, or standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon. However, none of these wonders, gave me the immeasurable thrill and anxiety like facing my fear of traveling 630 feet in a tiny tram car inside of a steel leg of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri!
Construction on the Arch began on February 12, 1963 and it was dedicated in 1968 to “The pioneer spirit of the men and women who won the West and those of a latter day to strive on the frontier.” It is the tallest stainless steel monument in the Western Hemisphere and, at 630 feet, is taller than the Seattle Space needle (605′), the Washington Monument (555′), and the Great Pyramid of Giza (455′). Visitors to the Arch can conquer that dizzying height by traveling up one steel leg and down the other in a tiny (5 feet in diameter) tram car or “pod” that is specially designed to rotate 155 degrees as it travels along the curve of the Arch.
So, here I was, the leader of our group, encouraging and coaxing our wonderful passengers to see the 30-mile views across the Mississippi River, the state of Illinois, and the city of St. Louis. Yet, after showing them the History Channel’s video, “St. Louis Arch,” which documents the design and construction of the Arch by Finnish architect, Eero Saarinen, I was no closer to joining my group in their journey up to the observation area at the top, which is just 65 feet long and 7 feet wide at the apex.
My plan was simple – escort the group across the park, distribute the tickets, bid them bon voyage and wait for them in the gift shop, an area located safely on the ground beneath the arch.
My anxiety stayed in check until a National Park Service Ranger told me that one of our passengers couldn’t make the long walk to the Arch and decided to sit on a bench outside. With the help of a guard who brought along a wheelchair, we located the passenger and started to wheel her back to the bus when she announced, “Hey, you are going the wrong way, I want to go up the Arch!” So, off we went to Tram Car #1 where we waited for the door to open. The fiesty passenger stepped in to the empty, egg-shaped, capsule and just as I started to wish her well she said, “Well, aren’t you coming?” Yikes, here I was facing the exact dilemma I was trying to avoid! Sympathy for her riding the 4 minutes to the top by herself took a grip on me and tossed me into the car. The door was shut and off we went swinging in the car with the “click click click” just like a ferris wheel, as described in the movie. The view from inside the car was not a view at all but the inside of the stainless steel leg which we could see from window cutouts in the door, exposing brick and stairs. Our small talk helped speed us to the top where the door automatically opened and we were instructed to walk up a few steps to the observation deck.
Then, there was the view—16 tiny windows worth! – for as far as we could see, just like the movie and brochures explained. I was grateful to not feel the allowance for the 18” sway in case of winds up to 150 mph! What I did feel was the embrace of my capsule seat mate who gave me a hug and thanked me for bringing her back to the Arch and riding to the top with her. I returned the gesture and the gratitude.
On the 3 minute ride down, I couldn’t help but think we were both pioneers— maybe not like the Westward Expansion pioneers, but pioneers just the same who conquered their fears and were rewarded with an experience of a lifetime.
Christine Durling, Starr Tour Director
Main Photo Credit Josh Hallett