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The Bicycle Trails of Greater Saint Louis
by Jack Corbett

 

Nothing dramatizes  the huge cultural difference in values between Asia and Western nations such as the United States quite like the picture above of the Chain of Rocks Bridge and the picture later on of a shoe I took here in Pattaya, Thailand a few days ago.  The Chain of Rocks Bridge is part of a huge network of bicycle trails in the Saint Louis area, representing a world I left four years ago for an almost entirely different world symbolized by the shoe where I've bought a condo and ride a motorbike every day.  The Chain of Rocks Bridge was once part of the famous highway 66 that crossed the United States as one of the greatest highways of its time.  Only two lanes wide, in recent years it became hopelessly obsolete after becoming incapable of handling the huge volume of traffic required and so it was transformed into a sensational crossing point for  bicycle trails on the Illinois side of the Mississippi and another trail that goes all the way to the Gateway Arch on the Missouri side of the river.  Back on the Illinois side of the river there's over 100 miles of bicycle trails where cars, motorcycles, and all other motorized vehicles are strictly forbidden.  The Chain of Rocks Bridge is a mile long, and it's being maintained to serve those in search of solitude and beauty where one is unmolested by such noisy intrusions.   Contrast what the shoe symbolizes here in Thailand to this network of trails  paid for by the U.S. tax payer.  The night before I took the picture of the shoe a man had both shoes knocked off his feet into a pool of his own blood by a drunken motorcycle driver who hit him as he tried to cross the street. 

And just two days before that I came less than a foot away from getting run over by a car in a shopping center underground parking  which really pissed me off because two weeks before that a Thai woman hit me from behind with her motorbike while I was  jogging across a little street no wider than an alley, so I decided enough is enough.  It was time that  I finally completed my Jack Corbett 10th Wonder of St. Louis, its bicycle and jogging trails. Itís those wondrous bicycle trails of both Saint Louis and the Saint Louis Metro East that reminds me what is best about America and what is the worse thing I have to deal with in Asia----that is, if much of the rest of Asia closely resembles Thailand, which I think it does.   I hope what lies behind these two images, the shoe and the Chain of Rocks Bridge  successfully establishes  the core of many of the differences between Asia and the West.

We have to start out somewhere so letís begin close to where I was last living in the U.S. where interstate highway 55 exits highway 157 on its way from St. Louis to Chicago. Close to this point a bicycle trail travels West along Horseshoe Lake Road to Granite City, but it doesnít end there. Only a single trail would seem to if you read from a map after going about four miles past Horseshoe Lake . But once the cyclist gets past Horseshoe Lake he can cross over to another trail that takes him past Pontoon Beach through a flat area of farm land that eventually leads him up into the bluffs to Edwardsville, a college town that hosts the University of Southern Illinois Edwardsville. There the cyclists pedals through the campus and then into the town of Edwardsville itself where he will eventually find himself on a network of trails that will eventually lead him to his starting point. To a large extent the trails are old abandoned railways that have been converted into bicycle trails lined by trees  as they traverse  open prairie. This set of trails continues on to form a circle that runs about thirty-five miles while offering  terrain that is incredibly more varied than one could possibly guess just from traveling throughout the area by car. Usually the cyclist will encounter at least several deer while making this long circle.

The one thing that marred this beautiful ride was once I got to highway 162 the trail ended for about two miles which forced me to pedal across highway 162 and then onto a two lane highway along which I pedaled like mad because of the cars. There werenít many of them. But there were enough of them to make me feel very unsafe. Now (I took the picture to the left before the bridge went in), there is a very narrow bridge crossing highway 162 and on this bridge only bicycles and pedestrians are allowed. The bicycle trail itself has been recently extended so that the cyclist no longer has to use the two lane highway to get from one trail to the next. What is key to this whole thing is that Madison Country used tax dollars to construct a bridge that can be used only by cyclists and pedestrians to make their jaunts both safer and more enjoyable. I will never see this happen in Thailand, at least not where Iím living.

There is another series of trails that is  even more extensive that either crosses or follows the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. Here oneís starting point can be the Chain of Rocks Bridge on either the Illinois or Missouri side of the Mississippi. I used to park my pickup truck in one of the parking areas on either side, pull my bicycle out of its bed, and start my journey in one of two directions. The first is on the Missouri side. The trail skirts the Mississippi all the way to the Saint Louis Arch, and it takes 11 miles to ride it just one way. One sees a number of bridges along the way and finishes along cobblestoned streets while approaching the Arch. I used to just pick my bicycle up and carry it up the steps to the arch where Iíd hit the drinking fountain before riding around in the Gateway Park before heading back to the Chain of Rocks Bridge. The scenery the entire way, but particularly while crossing the Chain of Rocks Bridge is simply magnificent.

Instead of crossing the Chain of Rocks Bridge into Missouri, the cyclist can ride back East to a canal. Thereís a trail that follows this canal all the way to Alton and if one wishes he can continue along the Illinois River to Grafton and then to Pere Marquette.  Once again the scenery is terrific. Thereís just something about a river and here in this area alone thereís two of them the trails follow, the Mississippi and the Illinois, not to mention the canal.

So thereís two basic trail networks one can follow. You can park your car at the Chain of Rocks Bridge on either the Missouri or Illinois side and ride the Missouri trail that leads to the Gateway Arch or ride along the canal and Illinois River all the way to Pere Marquette through Alton and Grafton. You expect the ride along such waterways to be magnificent and it is. But you donít expect nearly as much from the loop I described earlier that starts at Collinsville and leads to the Edwardsville Southern Illinois University campus. Of course oneís starting point can be anywhere along this trail network. Much of this network of trails are old abandoned railways that have been converted to smooth asphalted narrow little roadways. Every so often the bicyclist will encounter a tunnel formed by highways crossing the old railway. Such trails are little worlds unto themselves being sunken little roads lined by trees that one has no idea even exists while traveling nearby in a car along a street or highway. One will often encounter a deer or two while pedaling through these areas.

In my last years living in the U.S. riding these trails gave me my best memories of solitude, quiet times of contemplation, great exercise, and breathtaking scenery. And then I shipped my bicycle to Thailand which brings us to that picture of the shoe which forms for me a single image that represents some very huge differences between the culture here and Western culture such as we find in the U.S. I took the picture of this shoe this morningĖa picture that began last night and resulted into this single image this morning when I went to breakfast at one of my favorite German restaurants in Pattaya. Last night the man wearing this shoe was nearly killed while trying to cross the street in front of the restaurant.

Last night, my most reliable drinking partner who lives two condo units down from me seven months of the year when heís not back in England and I were riding two up on his motor scooter from a large beer bar complex to the ďGirl BarĒ where I had parked my Yamaha motorbike. As usual we were chasing women in this Sodom and Gomorrah where Iím now living full time. Suddenly we saw a man covered with his own blood lying out in the middle of the street where a crowd had gathered. Gus remarked to me, ďHis shoes are no longer on him.Ē Obviously he had been hit while trying to cross the street because there was no wrecked motorbike near him. A few seconds later Gus was parking his motorbike in front of the ďGirl BarĒ.

This morning I drove my motorbike to the German restaurant but before taking a table here, I walked from my parking spot out near the street where I could look towards the large beer bar complex Gus and I had driven out of to the spot where we had seen the injured pedestrian. I was curious about where the man had actually been hit because I felt it was very close to where Iíd soon be eating my breakfast and if it was close enough I could get a few answers about what had happened while eating my meal. Thatís when I saw the shoe. It was right out in front of the restaurant which meant the man had been hit only a few feet from where Iíd soon be eating my bacon and eggs.

When I asked the Thai woman owner of the restaurant if she knew anything about the accident she told me that she had heard nothing about it. Straight off she got on her cell phone and asked a few questions in Thai from whoever was on the other end. When she finished her call, she turned to me and said, ďThe man had to go to the hospital where they found he had a broken leg. He owns a bar not far from here,Ē the woman continued. ďHe was hit by a man driving a motorbike who was drunk and who the police took away in handcuffs.Ē

I found the image of the shoe to be so powerful that after finishing my meal I drove my motorbike back to my condo to get one of my cameras and then I returned back to the scene of the crime in order to get the picture.

ďA crime you might ask! Exactly what kind of crime happened here?Ē

To which I reply, ďIt is a huge crime. It is a crime that is being committed on an enormous scale against all humanity, and it is a crime that illustrates how differently Asian society operates compared to nearly all Western countries. It is because that shoe represents the respect for the individual that Western countries such as the U.S. have and for a man or a womanís right to privacy and their safety. That shoe represents the difference between a certain kind of freedom that does not exist in the West but which is prevalent here in Thailand. So as you try and digest what I have just written Iíll try and explain myself.

The United States is a police state. Thailand is not. What most Americans fail to realize is that such Western countries as the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, the Netherlands, and Norway are much the same as the U.S. That is compared to Thailand they are all police states.

Let me ask you this. If you drink more than two beers and whatís going to happen when you are stopped by the police? Well first off, the chances of being stopped by the police are pretty high because the police seem to be everywhere on our highways and streets making sure you donít drive too fast, blow through a stop sign, drive through a red light. And if they think you have been drinking you will be taking that Breathalyzer test real soon and if youíve had more than a couple of drinks chances are itís going to be DWI City for you, with fines and legal fees of thousands of dollars, class time and additional money spent taking state mandated alcohol and drug counseling and possible jail time along with at least a thirty day suspension of your driving privileges. And thatís just for first offenders.

Drive up to a stop sign or red light and stick your carís front end just one foot over that yellow line and whatís going to happen if a police officer sees you? If you are lucky all your going to get is a warning but you have a better chance of getting a ticket and points taken against your driving privileges. Come anywhere near striking a pedestrian with your car and I donít even want to think about the consequences. Death by hanging if you are lucky but it is more probably that you will be drawn and quartered or slowly decapitated with a pen knife so that everyone will know how bad it is for anyone who comes even close to injuring anyone whoís walking.

Go to a bar in cities such as Saint Louis and Chicago and just try walking out of that bar with your beer or drink in hand to another bar down the street and see what happens if the police are anywhere around. Chances are you will be immediately arrested for debauchery and disturbing the police. Try it here in Pattaya, Thailand and you simply blend in because everyone else is doing it. Even the bar you bring your drink into wonít mind because chances are you will be buying a few here anyway. Here in Thailand itís ďMai Pen RaiĒ which means ďNever mindĒ ďIt doesnít matterĒ or ďLive and let liveĒ. Itís great visiting this place because you can damn well do what you want. And most of the time the police are nowhere to be seen.

Thereís thousands of bars with thousands of women available and all too willing to take care of your every need. And in many of them thereís a lot of nudity. If itís against the law, the police merely look the other way.

But back in the U.S. if you argue loudly with your wife and the neighbors just happen to hear you chances are you will soon be having a visit from the police. Or just try turning your stereo up too loud in your apartment. Chances are your neighbors wonít have the balls to complain to you. They will just slink around and call the police and before you know it the boys in blue will be knocking on your door to have a little chat with you.

You canít do much of anything in the U.S. because the police seem to be everywhere and you simply arenít free to do much of anything and thatís the prime reason so many Americans are so constipated. But if you live here in Thailand and someoneís driven his car close to your condo and decides to have his 1000 megawatt car stereo turned up to the max, thereís nothing you can do about it. Because if you could, you would be taking away the culpritís freedom to do just what he pleases. And if you have bought a condo and someone decides to build a discotheque right next to your building and have its music blaring until 3 a.m. you have no right to complain because if you do you are taking away the owners of the discoís freedom to do what they please.

In the United States it is considered to be a privilege to be able to drive. It is not a right. First off in most states you have to be at least 16 to be able to get a driverís license. And then you have go study the rules of the road and practice your driving skills so that you are able to pass both a practical driving test as well as a written test to get your license. And you do need a license because if you choose to drive without one you are going to be some real serious trouble that often involves doing some jail time. And once you have a license the state is liable to take it away from you if you drive about disobeying its laws. Meanwhile the police are everywhere making sure that you do.

But Thailand is the land of the free. Those are lines from the Star Spangled Banner and ever since it was composed those lines have become kind of a motto for Americans who have become brainwashed into thinking they actually live in the most free country on earth. Believe me, itís all complete bullshit. Never forget that you are living in a police state. And if you donít believe me, just try driving your Harley Davidson a few miles down a sidewalk and see what happens.

But here in Thailand the driver is free to do whatever he wants. They do have driverís licenses here and I just happen to have a Thai driverís license myself. But most Thais living in Pattaya donít bother to get them. In fact thereís a school right up the street from me. Itís against the law to drive a motorcycle without a helmet and every so often one will encounter a roadblock where thereís at least six Thai policemen stopping everyone driving by whoís not wearing a helmet. Anyone who isnít has to pay around $6.00 on the spot. In fact, in just one week period I was stopped by the police twice. I hadnít done anything wrong, having my helmet on as always. My license plate was up to date. They were just flagging everyone down in order to get a little bribe money for little things such as not having a driverís license. Pay the policeman a small amount of money and be on your way. But the schoolónow thatís another thing. You see, schools are where such things are taught as how to respect the laws of the society you live in. But around 3 p.m. this school is letting out and thatís when you will see hordes of children driving out on their motorbikes, oftentimes with as many as four or five of them on a single motorbike and none of these kids are wearing helmets. None of them have licenses either. And oftentimes thereís at lease one police officer within a hundred feet of the school as the kids come out on their motorbikes, driving just as carefree as they please.

I donít even think they even teach bladder control here in the Thai schools. Like I said, itís a free country. So take a four lane street. Itís against the law to drive the wrong way so itís the same here as it is in the U.S. but you are free to do as you please. Itís like England here. You drive on the left whereas in the U.S. one drives in the right lane. So if you are driving in the left lane and heading South you should only have to look out for the car or motorbike ahead of you while making sure you stay in your lane. But itís a free country. So you are constantly encountering motorbike drivers coming straight at you driving against the flow of traffic looking straight ahead through sun glazed eyes, their brains switched off. And if you hit one of these morons, you are the one whoís going to be paying the hospital bills and for a new motorbike for the Thai whoís been driving the wrong way. The reason is here the Westerner is always wrong because chances are he has a lot more money than the Thai whoís been in an accident with him.

Red lights? There arenít too many of them and Iíve never seen anyone pulled over for running one. Here one can try an interesting little experiment. And for those who live here and own motorbikes one performs the experiment many times a week but many have probably never thought about it. Just drive a motorbike up to a red light and watch what happens. Often there will be a group of Thais sitting on their motorbikes waiting for the light to change. But there will always be a few geniuses in such groups who are intelligent enough in their dreams to actually be able to think for themselves on when the proper time arrives for them to drive through the traffic light. Many of the Thais will actually wait until the light changes to green. But the geniuses whose time must be very valuable will look for the right moment to arrive at which time they rev their motors and sprint through the intersection against the red light. Most lights here in Pattaya have numbers appearing on them in countdown mode. If the light is green the light might also show a number, say the number 49 that indicates that the light will turn red in 49 seconds. And if itís red, the same number 49 will show that it will turn green in 49 seconds. Itís pretty sophisticated and definitely better than what we have in the U.S. except there arenít that many lights. The average Westerner is going to wait at the red light for that number 49 to countdown to zero and then heís going to cross the intersection when the light turns green. But many of the Thais around him will drive out against the red light when the number turns to 5 or 3 or whenever the hell they think itís the right time to cross the intersection. But a few of the Thais will actually wait for a few seconds after the number has changed to zero and the light has turned green, and this is because thereís always one of several drivers crossing in front of them who seem to feel the number zero or that their light changing to red actually means they have up to five seconds to blaze out across the intersection.

Then thereís sidewalks or the lack of them. So pedestrians often are forced to walk down the side of the street. And when they actually are fortunate enough to find a sidewalk to walk upon and they encounter a Thai motorcyclist whoís simply too lazy to drive down the street for one reason or the other who do you think has the right away? The motorcyclist of course because his time is so valuable that heís not about to slow down for anybody, and if he happens to hit a pedestrian on a sidewalk heís going to be leaving the scene of the accident in a hurry in a classic hit and run and no bodyís going to give a shit one way or the other.

The way it works is this. If you own a car in Thailand, this means ďyou have big moneyĒ so therefore you are accorded the maximum degree of respect. Never mind that you canít keep up your payments and your car is going to be repossessed tomorrow. Fact is, you have a car now and itís only the here and now that counts. If you are driving a motorcycle. This means you have some money. But if you are walking or running this means you have no money. Now donít get me wrong, thereís a group of Thais out getting their exercise who go to gyms or who jog, the same as we have in the states. But for the most part people here are just as lazy as they are in the U.S. with the average person believing that exercise is only for schmucks. And if you have to travel anything greater than 200 yards why not take the motorbike? Walking is for the destitute and the insane.

So if a Westerner is seen walking down the street he is probably viewed as not being destitute. After all, all Westerners are filthy rich. Therefore he must be insane. Who wants to walk anyway when there are so many taxis around and any self respecting man or woman at least has a motorbike. All of this means is that pedestrians get no respect here whatsoever. In fact, I even think they have a bounty system here for hitting pedestrians with a car or motorcycle. I think it must be the Thai governmentís system to deal with what is perceived as an overpopulation problem.

Let me explain that one. If you go to Vietnam to either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City you will immediately see that there are even more motorbikes than there are here in Thailand or at least the traffic seems to be a great deal worse. Here in Pattaya while crossing the street you at least have the chance to wait until thereís a hole in the traffic. You wait until just the right moment and then you rush out across the street. Oftentimes down the street a fair way off there will be a Thai male who will spot you crossing the street so he will gun his motorbike to try and catch up with you before you have crossed the street just to prove how manly he is and how superior he is to you, who is after all a mere Westerner who is stupid or insane enough to be out walking in the first place. So you have to behave like a rat out scurrying about always on the lookout for your enemies who are out to kill you. But crossing the street in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City is a different matter altogether. You know you really canít cross because there are simply no holes in the traffic you can dart through so you have to resort to just slowly walking out into the intersection. And then itís suddenly like the parting of the Red Sea for Moses. The motorcyclists will all start to drive around you at a constant rate of speed like the slow movement of waves flowing around an obstacle. They really donít want to kill you here. And they donít want to scare you either. In fact, you could probably even put a sign on your chest that reads, ďI am an AmericanĒ, and even though at least some of those motorcyclists know the U.S. killed over one million Vietnamese in the Vietnam War they will probably just continue to flow around you as you cross the street bearing you no malice whatsoever.

But then again, Vietnam is not a free country. Itís Communist for Christís sake. Which means itís even more of a police state than even such countries as the U.S., Germany and Great Britain. Now Thailand is a truly free country. You can disobey any law you want and get away with it.

But Iím a rat living in a free country. The only safe place to walk or do my running is down along the beach. In fact the reason I got hit by a motorbike was because I was not walking along the beach. Hereís how that one happened. My running is not where I want it to be yet due to a number of injuries so I normally walk and run a distance of about 10 kilometers or six miles. The first half is three miles along the beach and when I get to my stopping point I turn around and run up the beach about a mile where I then stop, cross Beach Road, and walk up Soi Six to a major street that I then follow most of the way back to my condo. Now thereís two main reasons I walk rather than run up Soi Six. The first is by this time Iím pretty exhausted. The second is thereís roughly three hundred Thai bar girls sitting outside the bars along Soi Six looking for customers, some of them even rushing out into the street to hopefully latch onto a man walking down the street. Needless to say this particular part of my exercise program is pretty colorful.

Thereís no sidewalks on Soi Six and it is a one way street. Nevertheless one must look at getting down Soi Six on foot as running the gauntlet. If you donít really notice all the girls around you, some of whom are quite pretty, you arenít much of a man so you are going to be distracted. Meanwhile thereís all these cars and motorbikes driving too fast towards you and you have nowhere to walk. To avoid being run over you have to actually jump into the outside part of a bar onto its tiled floor right into the middle of a group of girls who are only too willing to drag you into their bar. And Iím not joking because they will actually drag you into a bar. This time Iíve once again avoided being made into so much mince meat by a car or a motorbike and Iíve avoided being dragged into a bar and actually made it to the main street that will take me another mile towards my condo.

I get about a quarter mile past Soi Six and I start to cross a very small street that has hardly any traffic on it whatsoever. And here thereís actually a sidewalk. I get halfway across this small street when I suddenly feel something bump up against my right arm. At the same time I catch out of the corner of my eye a Thai woman on her motorbike who had come up behind me while making a left turn onto the street I was crossing. She didnít hit me hard. But she did hit me. And the handle bar of her motorbike was more or less tangled up in my right arm. So I disentangled myself with her motorbike still up against me. I was pissed. The woman had made a left turn while not watching where she was going. I gave her a dirty look. After all, not only had she hit me while I was crossing the street. She had not even made any attempt at apologizing. There were two motorbikes right behind her following her as she was making her turn. There was not a single look of surprise or concern in any of their faces. Meaning, that for these three motorbike drivers at least itís okay to hit pedestrians. After all they either have no money and therefore are beneath contempt or they are insane to be walking in the first place when they actually should be out driving a car or a motorbike.

Eventually I made it down the main road where I turned left on a street heading down to the beach. I ran this entire section until I once again had to turn right onto a street where a great amount of building was going on. The first building site is a monstrous hotel they are building that is over twenty stories tall, consists of twin towers and will have something like 1000 rooms. A little further down is the Northpoint Condominium project which has twin towers, of 46 and 54 stories. Thereís a great amount of dust and traffic on this road. Once again there are no sidewalks. Most of this street I run. But thereís lots of traffic, composed of everything from construction trucks and other construction vehicles to cars and motorbikes. But most of the drivers wonít even slow down if they see you running in front of you. Thereís vehicles parked up and down the road which often forces me to run around them which puts me more to the middle of the road. You would think a driver of a car would slow down in order to give me just several seconds to run around the parked cars, but they hardly ever do.

Iím a rat scurrying around with all the rights of a rat and accorded about the same degree of respect. And as for that picture of the shoe. I think that says it all. First off the shoe stands for the pedestrian or someone whoís using his feet to get around. The fact that itís there in the first place signifies that the man crossing the street was struck so hard that he was literally knocked out of his shoes. And whereís the other shoe anyway? Someone probably put it next to him when they took him to the hospital. But no one cared enough to load up the second shoe. Or to even look for it in the first place. Someone must have seen the shoe laying out in the middle of the street and put it on the curb. Both the injured man and the shoe were not worth bothering with.

Which brings us back to all those beautiful bicycle trails. We might be a police state in the U.S. where people arenít free to do whatever they want. But there is a respect for a personís right to privacy, to having peace and quiet. To having serene surroundings. In the police state there are penalties on those who inflict chaos on others. Whereas in a free state such as Thailand one is free to do just about anything and if it endangers other people, if it inflicts noise that rattles the sanity of others, if it offends the olfactory senses such as that bus I had to follow on my motorbike this morning spewing noxious fumes out its tailpipe at me and the ungodly howl of an engine with its muffler gone bad. Or offending my sense of sight such with unsightly litter, so what? Mai Pen Rai. And up to him (or her) who is destroying the peace of mind of his neighbors. Itís a free country after all. Meanwhile back in the U.S. the pedestrian is at least equal to the car owner motorist. Screw with him and its to the torture chambers with you. After all, they build beautiful running and bicycle trails just so that a man or woman can enjoy nature in peaceful, gorgeous surroundings, which in the Saint Louis area continue for well more than a hundred miles. Theyíve set aside at least two bridges that I know of for the private enjoyment of those wanting to be one with their environment where one is unmolested by noise, pollution vomited forth by motorized vehicles, or unsightly garbage dumps. Donít get me wrong, I love it here in Mai Pen Rai Land where just about anything goes, but too often I feel like one of those pop up targets in a shooting gallery.

 

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