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Traveling Across Missouri With a Backpack, Camera — and No Car

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Downtown Kansas City. - JAMES POLLARD
  • JAMES POLLARD
  • Downtown Kansas City.

At 9:40 p.m., standing outside Kansas City's grand Union Station, one of the city's many fountains in front of me, I had some bad news. While our hotel, the Baymont by Wyndham, was on the same street as Union Station, it was a 30-minute walk. Unable to find public transport heading in that direction, we made the trek on foot uphill, past the World War I memorial.

The Baymont had once been an apartment building, and a receptionist there echoed several others' suggestion that we should check out the Kansas City Streetcar, a free trolley system that takes people from Union Station to the River Market. She also added that we should check out the 18th and Vine district.

The streetcar was still on my mind the next morning as we made the same walk back, traveling once again with our packs against our backs. We finally reached the trolley and rode over to the River Market.

After arriving, I met Cale Fichter, manager of Kansas City Soda, who chilled my Flathead Lake Huckleberry pop with an electric Black & Decker drill in two minutes. A sea of global produce, from lemons and limes to pinata apples, parted, making way for a decent crowd of all ages, some dressed in business casual, others just casual. Tikka House offered Indian cuisine, Habashi House offered Middle Eastern cuisine, Taste of Brazil, Brazillian, and Corollo's sold Italian Gelato and deli items.

At Tikka House, spices sprinkled the back of my hand as I tried flavors like Kansas City BBQ.

After filling up on dolmas and falafel at Habashi House, a guitar cover of Billy Joel's "You May Be Right" filled the market. Gregg Wright, a Kansas City-based musician, has been playing the blues, rock, reggae and funk for more than 40 years, including three years at the market. He said the people around the market are supportive of his work and everyone is friendly. Contorting his face and body as he picked tune after tune, he didn't have a direct answer when I asked his favorite song to play.

"That's too much, man, there's just too many of them," he said. "It depends how you feel that day. It could be any song, particularly, that day that might brighten your whole day up."

And thanks to Wright, for the rest of that afternoon I had "You May Be Right" stuck in my head. I couldn't tell if that song was brightening my day or not, but meeting Wright certainly had done so — and invigorated my desire to visit the National Jazz Museum in Kansas City's historic 18th and Vine area.

So after taking the trolley down to the Power & Light district, I needed to figure out how to get there. As I considered taking a Byrd scooter, Eric Kwasnjuk rode up on one. A comedian and actor from Philadelphia, he has been driving across the country on his way to Los Angeles. After attending film school three years ago in South Africa, he says he is chasing his dream.

"I want to work on other pilots and try to put out some good content," he said. "Content that deals with stigma and shame, breaking through some things that we need to heal from today — but with humor."

Kwasnjuk soon enlisted me, briefly, as his cameraman for his latest endeavor. After filming a video of him falling off of his scooter, I set off on one myself. I rode it 30 minutes east to the National Jazz Museum, arriving in time to start my tour shortly after 2 p.m. With my train scheduled to depart at 4 p.m., I'd have an hour to spend there. (Otherwise I would have loved to visit the Negro League Hall of Fame next door.)

Legends like Charlie Parker, Count Basie and Big Joe Turner are memorialized in the museum. It was artists like them who perfected Kansas City's jazz identity, a blues-based style, in nightclubs around 18th and Vine, where the museum lies. The museum notes that Parker, a Kansas City, Kansas native, transformed African American blues with his "incredible technique" and "through harmonic and melodic innovations."

"Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom," Parker once said, his words printed on the museum wall. "If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn."

As I left the museum, a voice singing "you better hurry get aboard the train" could be heard from the loudspeakers. And on my way out, the words of Duke Ellington offered a final reminder about jazz's roots. "Jazz is based on the sound of our native heritage," an Ellington quote on the wall read. "It is an American idiom with African roots — a trunk of sound with limbs reaching in every direction."

So I walked more than 30 minutes from the museum to Union Station, listening to a jazz playlist along the way.

Crossing Missouri by rail, foot and scooter during a three-day journey revealed windows into the state’s proud and not-so-proud history. - JAMES POLLARD
  • JAMES POLLARD
  • Crossing Missouri by rail, foot and scooter during a three-day journey revealed windows into the state’s proud and not-so-proud history.

Slumped in my seat on the train, I was not particularly in the mood to talk to anyone on my way home. Looking out the window, the sky was so dark that, if it were not for the steady drum beat of the wheels along the track and the careful dancing of the train car, I would not have known it was moving. It was 9:30 p.m., and because of a one-hour delay, we were about an hour away from St. Louis. All together, the trip back took a little more than six hours.

I wondered about the history of railroads in Missouri. On September 20, 1865, a train carrying George Taylor, president of the Pacific Railroad, and D.R. Garrison, company vice president, left Kansas City at 3 a.m., arriving at St. Louis fourteen hours later.

The rail connection would have been completed in 1864, but Confederate General Sterling Price raided the tracks in October 1864. Having ordered his troops to destroy every bridge west of Jefferson City, miles of track were torn up, many stations burned.

Just about 60 hours prior to these musings, I had been on the train to Jefferson City. One of my editors had called me then, with some advice on how to best document my experiences. "Have a conversational relationship with your environment," he had said. I thought about the many conversations I'd had during the last few days. On that first train to the capital, I had met a woman who said she liked the connection the train allows. She was right — I would have never met people like David Gabriel or Eric Simms if it weren't for the River Runner. I was reminded of a text I had sent to my friends, sitting in front of me at the time, as we rode with that pink-haired cowboy from Sedalia to Kansas City.

"I met him as someone who will be a character in my story," I wrote. "But he's a real person who will live this life way after this train ride."

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