First Amendment Video doesn't get much local traffic.
"Local people won't come to my store," says owner Gene Ulrich, leaning his arm on a shelf of discounted porn videos. "They don't want to park their cars out front where their wives or preachers can see them. They go on down the road where people don't know them. Most of my business comes from truckers and salespeople. They're up and down the interstate all the time, and since I have the booths, they can just pop in and pop out, if you will."
Ulrich certainly has the booths. His Boonville emporium, one of a string of adult video parlors along Interstate 70 just west of Columbia, is equipped with precisely ten booths lined up against one wall, each sporting a spanking-new 32-inch flat-screen television monitor. Once inside, customers can choose from 60 DVD selections -- amateur, top-of-the-line, gay, straight and everything in between -- and pay as little as $1 for ten minutes, or $8 for an entire video's worth of private amusement. The last three booths are rigged with glass partitions and curtains, allowing consenting patrons to watch one another watch porn. The largest booth, up front, is the only handicapped-accessible porn booth in the state, Ulrich boasts.
Ulrich's black cat, Gwen, tags along as he completes his tour of the store. It's stocked with hundreds of VHS tapes -- though Ulrich says he's phasing them out in favor of DVD titles -- plus a wall of sex toys and novelties, from edible underwear and penis-shaped key chains to one of Ulrich's biggest sellers, the fourteen-inch dildo. ("It's more a novelty than anything," he explains.) Ulrich is gay, and photocopied signs posted throughout the store remind customers that he doesn't categorize the goods according to sexual preference.
The small rural communities around these parts have tolerated a mini-boom of adult businesses along the interstate in the past ten years, Ulrich says -- save for a strip club that was closed down a while back for staying open past 1 a.m. "I wasn't the first one out here. I didn't start it," he says. "The guy who started it hired me, then I bought him out, and six months after that Passions opened, and about a year after that my landlord opened up another store. Now there are ten of us between here and Kansas City."
The 59-year-old Ulrich, who lives on the other side of I-70 in the town of Bunceton, says he hasn't had any problems with Boonville officials since buying the store in 1998.
"I run it strictly according to the law," he says. "Of course, I have an advantage over the rest of them, since I'm the mayor of my town, and I serve on the sheriff's board."
On the Road
It has been nearly 40 years since the 250-mile section of Interstate 70 through Missouri was completed. When work on the roadway began in 1956 near Lake St. Louis in St. Charles County, I-70 was at the cutting edge of road design. In fact, it was the nation's first interstate project. The highway now spans 2,175 miles, from Baltimore to Utah, where it ends unceremoniously at the junction with Interstate 15. Running parallel to the old U.S. Highway 40, which used to run all the way through Missouri, I-70 is bigger and faster than the old road, cutting directly across the state rather than meandering through small towns and farmland. The interstate connected the two largest cities in the state, but it ignored or bulldozed much of the local color along the way.
"I think what wasn't anticipated was that the experience you have back and forth on Interstate 70 is a different experience than you would have had driving Route 40 or any other U.S. highways," says Dr. Robert Archibald, president of the Missouri Historical Society. "They weren't four-lanes, for the most part, and they weren't limited-access. They didn't bypass towns; they led through small towns and curious places you have to get off of I-70 to see."
Of course, those curious places still exist. On the typical straight shot between St. Louis and Kansas City on I-70, everything tends to pass in a blur, indistinguishable from the sights along any other rural stretch of interstate. But take the time to stop and look around, and everything changes. Turn the four-hour cross-state commute into a four-day round-trip bender of roadside attractions, and you'll find yourself in a weird wonderland of guns, meat lockers, Elvis, truck stops and emu oil. And more than a few fourteen-inch dildos.
Exit 200, Westbound
Wright City, 50 miles west of St. Louis on I-70, might very well lead the state in roadside-weirdness per capita.
A row of old, dented kiddy rides with names like the Berry-Go-Round and Tubs O' Fun are piled up near the north access road just inside the city limits, under a battered sign for Saturn Amusements. Today, at the outset of this trip to Kansas City and back, the overcast sky combines with the dilapidated rides to give the scene the cast of a run-down fairy tale.
Saturn rents mostly inflatable playground toys -- from Moonwalks to climbing walls to cages filled with plastic balls -- but these old relics remain on the lot. Several of them, though, were damaged in the spring when a drunk driver ran off the road and crashed into them, says Hope Kelly, who runs the office when the owner, Brian Bednarczyk, is off hauling equipment. Bednarczyk started Saturn Amusements fifteen years ago. The business was in his blood; his uncle invented the Moonwalk, back in the 1980s.
Wright City is also home to the Elvis Is Alive Museum, one of the most famous landmarks on I-70. It's not a museum, really; it's more a cheap gift shop and shrine to owner Bill Beeny's conviction that the King faked his death in 1977. The museum sells homemade cassettes ("Examined by a voice expert!!! Proof that Elvis is alive!!!"), Elvis kitsch and a smattering of NASCAR memorabilia. It also houses a shoddy re-creation of Elvis's funeral, with a mannequin in the casket. A sign posted nearby reads, "This doesn't look like Elvis, and neither did the body in Elvis' coffin."
Just down the road, on the shoulder of the highway, is the mother of all plastic crosses, complete with a decorative bumblebee and a rainbow-colored pinwheel that spins in the wake of passing tractor-trailers. A plaque at the base of the cross reads, "Forever in our Hearts/Deanna/ 1973-2002." A few miles beyond the cross, the Wright City Meat Company offers slaughter workshops every week -- beef on Mondays, hogs on Tuesdays. Gary Kreuger, the owner, wipes his hand on his stained apron before proffering it for a shake, his grip still slimy with meat residue. In the front of the store, Wright City's meat sits cut and wrapped, neat and clean, in the freezer counter. But a tour of the shop leads back past a sausage grinder and a huge tub filled with ground raw pork, to the freezer.
"We buy all these from local farmers," Kreuger imparts. "We buy a lot of barbecue pigs from sale farms, but most of them are just from small farmers. All the animals here are from local farmers."
Inside the freezer, cow carcasses, split in two, hang like suits on a rack, their exposed ribs and flayed flesh covered in red streaks. Pools of blood run slowly into a drain in the middle of the gently sloping concrete floor. In an adjacent room of the freezer, slaughtered pigs that have been sliced open down the front hang from hooks in the ceiling. Their glassy eyes stare at the walls; their smooth, frozen hides look like hard rubber. It's a startling vision, sterile and visceral all at once. After 30 years in the business, Kreuger's used to it.
Exit 161, Westbound
Crane's, a renowned general store and hunting-supply shop at a dusty crossroads 40 miles east of Columbia in Williamsburg, closes at 6 p.m. If you get there at 6:10, the doors are already locked and the ratty rocking chairs, out front next to a pair of ancient soda machines, are empty. Were it not for the signs posted beside the door advertising county fairs, church dinners and tools for sale, the store might have been closed for ten years, not ten minutes.
A big silver Dodge Ram parks across the street, and a tall man steps out, dressed in camouflage pants, a camo baseball cap and a sleeveless gray T-shirt. He walks over to the door.
"Are they closed?" he asks. "Ain't that a bear? Well, at least I enjoyed the ride out here."
Exit 89, Westbound
When she's asked about the population of Blackwater, Imogene Mersey's blood rises. "Well, they say 199," she says. "But there are 200, because I moved here. They never did put that on that sign at the city limits, and I resent that."
Most of the Missouri towns along I-70 were established in the late nineteenth century, boomed during the years between the two World Wars and then began a long, dusty fade into near-oblivion. Some of them -- like Blackwater, and Rocheport twenty miles to the east -- have seen significant improvement in the past decade, drawing tourists with their restored downtowns.
Blackwater's Iron Horse Hotel, located in the old train station, has been transformed into a bed-and-breakfast and restaurant. The row of buildings along the town's small main street near the train tracks was empty ten years ago; now the structures are filled with antique stores and cafés. An alley has been turned into an award-winning public garden. The town has won statewide and national recognition for its revitalization.
Mersey moved to Blackwater from Boonville, twenty miles to the east, three years ago, when she was 80. She runs a small shop on the periphery of the town center, selling homemade pies and rustic arts and crafts. Five days a week, she rises at dawn to bake her pies. They're great pies, especially with ice cream and lemonade, but the gossip is what keeps the locals coming to Mersey's store every day.
As Mersey adds a slab of ice cream to a slice of cherry pie, Mary Watson comes in, the bell on the door clanging behind her. She walks behind the counter to get a bottle of root beer from the refrigerator, then rings up two at the register. "I didn't pay yesterday," Watson explains.
"I know it," Mersey replies. "I didn't worry about it."
Exit 49, Westbound
Down past the high school in Higginsville, 45 miles outside Kansas City, a marble lion stands guard over the graves in the Missouri Confederate Veterans Cemetery. Five bones and a lock of hair that once belonged to Captain William Quantrill rest here, 140 years after the guerrilla warfare specialist led a raid on Lawrence, Kansas, that left more than 150 civilians dead.
Two hundred feet away, Anne Larkin and Vincent Sanders are about to get married. The ceremony starts in half an hour on the lawn of the cemetery chapel. The wedding party, including the bride and groom (who apparently don't think much of the superstition that he shouldn't see her before the ceremony), are together for the photo shoot. But Gabriel, the three-year-old ring bearer, doesn't want to stand still. All the aunts and uncles standing in the blazing heat clap when the redheaded tot finally relents and smiles for the camera.
Higginsville is also the site of the new Missouri Veterans Cemetery, on 55 rolling acres adjacent to the Confederate graveyard. The cemetery, opened in 1999, has space for 24,000 graves, only a small percentage of which are occupied now. A few hundred small white stone markers are bunched together on a handful of lots inside the gates, with acre after acre of empty green space surrounding a man-made lake in the center of the cemetery. Most of the men in the occupied graves are veterans of World War II and the Korean War.
The Missouri Department of Transportation spends about $20 million every year to maintain I-70. It's an antiquated road, too narrow for the traffic it carries, with inadequate shoulders and median. Its cracked, lumpy asphalt, despite regular repaving, is perpetually in sorry condition.
MoDOT is in the early stages of planning improvements to I-70, but no timetable has been set yet, mostly owing to a lack of funding. "We did an internal feasibility study in 1998, and it quickly became obvious that this would be a big undertaking and we'd need to look at it in more detail," reports Bob Brendel, MoDOT's outreach coordinator for project development. An environmental study of the roadway is currently in progress, Brendel says, with another study to follow on the local impact of improvements. All the studies should be complete by the end of 2004.
"We'll essentially have to widen and rebuild I-70 from the ground up," Brendel explains. "Basically the problem is that the design line was intended for twenty years, and we're twenty years past that. We've massaged a lot of extra life out of the facility, but if we just continue to resurface the highway, that won't solve the problem."
The planned improvements would widen the interstate to three lanes in each direction, build a 60-foot median and wider shoulders and redesign every single interchange between St. Louis and Kansas City. MoDOT estimates the project would cost $3 billion and, if it were undertaken all at once, take nine or ten years to finish.
"More realistically, it's not going to happen that way," Brendel says. "We'll have to prioritize the greatest needs. It could take many, many years to address the whole 200 miles. Some sections where the traffic is lower, the needs may not be as immediate. The study's looking at the needs of the year 2030."
Exit 38, Eastbound
Standing barefoot in the middle of her kitchen in Odessa on a Sunday morning, clad in a faded blue bathrobe, Mildred Ogle holds up her right hand and rubs her arthritic thumb and forefinger together.
"I grabbed a pot lid the other day with these two fingers," she says. "I put some of that on there and it never blistered. That's what it does."
She's referring to Super Blue Stuff, a salve made from emu oil and aloe vera. Ogle sells the goo, and assorted other emu oil-based lotions and creams, from her home. It's a rudimentary operation: She buys the stuff by the gallon, pours it into plastic bottles, adds labels with her name and address, and markets it to friends and acquaintances. It's expensive -- a twelve-ounce bottle costs $60. But Ogle is a believer. She's got a sign at the turnoff to the country road where she lives, midway between Columbia and Kansas City. "SUPER BLUE STUFF as seen on national TV," it reads. "If you have PAIN you need BLUE STUFF."
"I don't really push anything," Ogle says. "If people don't like it, I don't make them buy it. And I don't push anything if I don't like it myself."
Exit 148, Eastbound
Carlos Silva is headed to Hayes, Kansas, with a load of Bibles and Gospel tracts. It's a long drive from his home in Connecticut -- about 1,800 miles. Short and solidly built, Silva wears his dark hair nearly shaved and seemingly always has a cryptic smile on his lips. He is sitting in the television lounge of the Petro truck stop near Fulton, about a hundred miles west of St. Louis. Fulton's claim to fame: It's home to Westminster College, where Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his famous Iron Curtain speech in 1946. The event is memorialized by a statue of Churchill on the campus. In 1991, a piece of the demolished Berlin Wall was added to the site.
The truck-stop lounge is more a hallway than a lounge, an open area in the back of the gas station on the way to the restrooms, furnished with a few vinyl-covered benches, a pair of television sets mounted to the wall and a row of pay phones.
Silva came to the United States in 1982 when he was 22, attended college for two years and then returned to Brazil. In 1985 he came back; he settled in Connecticut for good in 1990.
He'd started driving trucks in his native Brazil at eighteen. "It was very different than here," he says. "They are only two-lane roads, and on the two major roads across the nation, the speed limit is 45 miles an hour."
In Brazil Silva carried steel. Now he mostly hauls Bibles and Christian literature for a Cincinnati outfit. He drives between 100,000 and 200,000 miles a year, usually in stretches of seven or eight days, sometimes ten. Federal guidelines permit him to drive ten hours a day, rest for eight hours, drive for ten more hours, then sleep for eleven. But he admits he doesn't always get as much rest as he's supposed to. "You can't sleep for eleven hours," Silva says. "For me to sleep eleven hours, I'd have to drink a lot of beer."
Silva offers a tour of his rig, parked out in the lot, beyond the truck-stop chapel -- an old trailer with the wheels removed and a wooden ramp leading up to the door. His purple Kenworth's cab is sparsely decorated but neat. A portable CD player is plugged into the cigarette lighter (he likes classic rock when he's driving, Silva says). In back there's a bed with two thin blankets on top. Silva sits on the bed, wipes the sweat from his forehead with a paper towel and drops the towel in a plastic grocery bag next to the driver's seat. He talks happily about his wife, Sharon, whom he met while working for her father's trucking company. They've been married thirteen years and have a four-year-old daughter, Cassidy. Silva carries a photo of Cassidy in his wallet, and proudly shows it off.
He's equally forthright about the seedier side of life on the road. Truckers who don't want solicitations from hookers, he explains, put a decal on their windshield depicting a lizard behind a red circle with a bar through it. (The creature is a reference to the slang term for truck-stop prostitutes: lot lizards.) The women, he says, won't approach a truck that's armed with the sticker.
Silva's truck has no sticker -- a fact that, when it's mentioned, elicits a laugh.
CB traffic is often clogged with women looking to offer "commercial company," he goes on, or with truckers seeking the same as they approach metropolitan areas. Silva is familiar with the rates. "Twenty dollars for a b.j., that's what they ask," he says.
Exit 155, Eastbound
Thirteen billboards on I-70 advertise the Walnut Bowls Factory Store, 40 miles east of Columbia. The signs give little indication of the physical edifice, just "WALNUT BOWLS" in big black letters on a white background.
But the store is visible from the interstate when you arrive, facing west on a gravel parking lot in dire need of repair. Inside, the shelves are stacked with cheap rustic knickknacks, shot glasses, Native American kitsch and, of course, walnut bowls.
Jake Dyer is on his way from St. Louis to visit his younger brother, who's moving into a new apartment in Columbia before the fall semester begins. Dyer paces around the store, slightly ironic grin on his face as he shops for the perfect housewarming gift. He finally settles on a pair of mounted bull's horns.
After he takes the horns to the cash register, he asks the clerk to wait and walks back to get a second set.
"One of them's for my brother," he explains as the clerk wraps the horns in tissue paper. "The other one's for me."
Exit 193, Eastbound
David Brockfeld runs what he says is the oldest continuously operated family-owned business in Warren County. What is now a combination gun/hobby shop was founded by his grandfather in 1880 in Truesdale as a paint and wallpaper store.
"My dad started the firearms business and I've kept that up ever since," Brockfeld says. "Wallpaper is virtually nonexistent anymore, so I'm mostly out of the wallpaper business."
Brockfeld is 72. He's a Navy veteran, a master gunsmith, a graduate of the University of Missouri and the mayor of Truesdale. He says he's semi-retired, but on summer days he might as well be fully off the clock. Most mornings he spends sitting in front of his store, about five miles south of the interstate, talking about the weather with his friend and neighbor Rueben Smith.
"This is what we do in the summertime," Smith says. "And most of the fall and spring, too. Right now business is dead. It always is in the summertime. People have got too much to do, with vacations and all. And they ain't got much money left."
Smith, who's 74, is long and tall. He sits back in his chair, his arms folded in front of him and his long legs extended out into the sunshine. Brockfeld is smaller, stooped but still fit, with stray tobacco leaves on his lips from his most recent plug.
"We were sitting around a few days ago talking about the old-timers," Smith says. "Then I said, 'Come to think of it, we are the old-timers.' Damn few old-timers older than me are left."
The store is musty inside, but it's quite a sight, what with more than a hundred model airplanes hanging from the ceiling. Brockfeld has designated spots for U.S. military planes, German planes, Japanese planes and British planes, and they're further organized by era. Most of the front of the shop is taken up by models for sale. Ammunition is stacked behind the counter (the gun shop is in the back room). His greatest source of pride is a model he made himself of the USS Missouri, the battleship on which the Japanese surrendered in 1945 to end World War II. Brockfeld built the model by hand, not from a kit, based on the original Navy plans.
Brockfeld also derives considerable pride from his own life story. Asked what kind of impact the interstate's construction had on the town of Truesdale, he quickly veers the conversation around to his favorite subject.
"Outside of moving the business section of downtown Warrenton, it didn't do much," he says. "I have a unique business. I get people who'll drive 150 miles to come here. I'm semi-retired, so I can pick who I'll work for. In 1949 I joined the Navy. They said, 'Join the Navy and see the world,' and by God they were right. I've been in every ocean....."
End of the Road
Business at First Amendment Video has slowed the past couple of years. Gene Ulrich figures his revenue in 2003 will amount to just a little more than half of what it was his first year. He figures the slumping economy means fewer trucks on the road and less money for truckers to spend in his booths. But he doesn't worry about it much. People will always need porn, he guesses: "There are two things that make it during a recession -- alcohol and the adult industry."
He's even bought up the six acres that front the access road in front of his store, to keep out the competition. "Somebody moved another video store next to mine when I was up the road," Ulrich says. "Now there's nothing that will get between me and that exit."
Ulrich does worry, though, about the prospect of an expanded I-70. If the road is widened, as MoDOT plans, the two additional lanes of traffic and the bigger median will push the highway right up to the edge of his property. He stands to make a killing if he sells the land for the right-of-way, but he's afraid that his store, and hundreds of other roadside businesses, will be bulldozed for the construction. What might that mean, he wonders, for the small towns around Boonville?
When I-70 first came through Missouri, everything changed, in ways no one had anticipated. Small towns like Warrenton moved their business districts closer to the interstate, and merchants became dependent more on tourists and truckers than on local populations. Towns too far off the interstate, like Blackwater, dried up. Stores like the Walnut Bowl Factory Store popped up in the middle of nowhere, selling cheap souvenirs and crafts. The dense concentrations of gas stations and greasy-spoon restaurants at interstate exits replaced 100-year-old town centers.
After 40 years, those changes have become ingrained. A whole new culture, tacky and commercial, with its own colorful charm and a hangover of rustic simplicity, has sprung up along I-70. If Ulrich's worst-case scenario comes true, the roadside wonders along the interstate won't last another twenty years.
"I'm hoping by then I'll be retired and somebody else will have to worry about it," the store owner says. "It'll kill everything on 70 that's there now."