It’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon when I leave my central Missouri farm, pulling onto the blacktop in a cloudless September day. Around 150 miles separate me from Kauffman Stadium, depending on the route I take. I could drop south to pick up I-70, but hours of billboards, semis, and aggressive drivers doesn’t appeal to me. Cliché says the journey is more important than the destination, but in this case it’s the destination that makes the journey possible. Attending a Royals game, for me, is always about more than the three hours at the ballpark. I’ll spend more time travelling than watching the game, so it’s important to enjoy the entire experience, rooting myself in one small part of the vast landscape encompassing Royals territory.
I approach the Missouri River at Glasgow, driving through the rolling hills of rich glacial soil. North of here, later in the fall, we sometimes drive down into the river bottoms and collect pecan drops from roadside groves. Now, the nuts are still on the trees, but I do wave at some kids fishing a small pond. They don’t see me, engrossed in their lines. It’s good to see kids outdoors.
I often pause in Glasgow to stretch my legs at the town’s river overlook, a peninsula of concrete reaching high out over the water from the bluffside town. If I’m lucky, a Kansas City Southern freight will rumble over the historic steel bridge, but today the rail line is as quiet as the town, basking in the lazy afternoon. The river swirls by quietly below, swollen a bit from recent rains. Almost three inches a few days ago are one factor making this day off possible for me.
I’m now on the Steve McQueen Memorial Highway, heading for his childhood home of Slater. I don’t drive much like McQueen, but often stop here for gas. The rail yard on the edge of town is packed with empty grain hoppers, staged for the oncoming harvest rush, but all is still quiet with the crops not quite ready. The woman at the register sees my Royals hat and shirt and asks if I’m heading to the game. Her husband and friends are going tomorrow. I left Missouri’s sports no-man’s-land when I crossed the river; I’m now solidly in Kansas City’s sphere of influence.
From here, the landscape slowly flattens out, subtle waves of ripening corn and soy to the horizon. The yellowing crops are brilliant in the crisp afternoon sun, set off by wandering lines of creekside trees. There’s a horse & rider trotting comfortably along one field edge. I take some gravel road shortcuts I know, to keep heading due west, and almost miss one important turn. The landmark I rely on, an old one-story farmhouse, is hidden behind tall corn on three sides. I’ve never driven to a Royals game this late in the season before. The country DJ on KXKX is talking Royals, wishing all of us heading to the game safe travels and a good time.
I’m heading for another favorite stop on this route; Grand Pass Conservation Area is one of many wildlife refuges along the River, and a great change of pace from the road. Migrating birds of all kinds pass through here in spring and fall, offering an ever-changing snapshot of the central place Missouri holds in the grand avian travels of the continent. What’s a few hours to Kansas City when some of these birds cycle between Alaska and South America? In May of this year, also on the way to a Royals game, we recorded 57 species here in two hours. Now, on an early September afternoon, the marshes, fields, and forests are quiet and nearly empty. It’s a bit early for waterfowl, and most warblers and smaller migrants are napping at this time of day. They have a point. I drive deep into the refuge loop and stop the truck to listen; other than some Goldfinches massacring sunflower heads just as they do at home, the scene is dominated by the rhythmic grind of cicadas and little else. A Pileated Woodpecker and a Northern Flicker make brief appearances. It only takes half an hour to drift quietly around the refuge, enjoying the silent solitude as a counterpoint of the packed-crowd madness to come.
I pass through Malta Bend, following the Union Pacific rail line where, last year, we met and chased one of UP’s heritage steam locomotives on a rare visit to Missouri. With a cloud of other railfans, we watched this piece of living history bellow across the landscape, racing ahead to known vantage points for the thrill of time travel thundering by, following along on annoyingly square roads as #844 cut effortlessly cross-country. We kept up as far east as Lupus before the race was finally lost in one final whistle blast echoing across the river bluffs. The tracks are silent today, but the memory endures.
Orchards whip past, the peaches done, the apples ripening. I pass Lexington, another common stop where we stretch our legs walking the Civil War battlefield on which Sterling Price’s Confederate forces besieged a Union garrison in a blufftop fortification. Here, Missourians behind
hay hemp bales traded bullets with Missourians behind earthworks, slowly narrowing the killing field by rolling their bales forward until the defenders surrendered. Walking the grounds, I can lose myself in history, and in gratefulness we’ve been able to leave such hatred and violence mostly behind. A red-tailed hawk reminds me that not all species are so lucky.
By Buckner, the landscape is changing, showing the first signs of a big city’s influence in the increasing development, the subtle changes in roads and houses and land use that mark the edge of commuting range. I start to lose touch with the landscape; this is probably a more comfortable setting for most people but it feels alien to me. If you use the right back roads, the KC skyline is visible from a few faraway ridges, but I'm running out of time; I leave my beloved side roads behind, get on 291 and drop down to I-70 for the final stretch. There’s less here for me, I might as well get it over with fast.
At the stadium, I’m an air bubble in a whirlpool. The crowds surge around me, aware but not interacting. I lounge quietly by the fountains, enjoying the comfortable sound of running water and admiring the largest collection of people I’ve been close among in something like 10 years. It’s neat to see the K filling in, collecting people from all walks of life, even oddballs like me, for a common purpose that’s both harmless and inspiring. It’s one thing I like about sports, the way they take our tribal instincts and channel them into something mostly benign, if not outright positive. I don’t have to know these people to share something with them even if our routes here today were vastly different.
Driving home under a partial moon, listening to the postgame show before it fades into the night, I’m as glad as I always am that I made this trip. The game didn’t turn out right, but it’s only 1/3 of the journey, and without it I wouldn’t have experienced the rest.
I turn onto my gravel drive well after bedtime with exactly 300.0 miles on the odometer. Tomorrow I’ll happily wake up in my own isolated little valley, focusing from dawn to dark on the intricacies of my own existence. I won’t feel the need to be surrounded by tens of thousands of people for quite some time. But for this one day, the Royals gave me an opportunity to take part in something broader, and it was worth it.