Friday, July 6, 2012

Cheapskates' Paradise Junior-Junior

It all started here, when I learned that St Louis topped Kipplinger's list of 10 best cities for cheapskates, and I waxed on about the wonderful St Louis Zoo.  Then there was this, where I revisited the topic to brag on the world-class St Louis Art Museum and decided this topic definitely merited a series.  Today, my friends, we'll be taking a mini-trip outside of the city limits to the St Louis suburbs, where the intersection of highways 44 and 270 afford us a two-for-one bounty of free recreation/edification, less than 20 minutes from the (mid-century lovers' delight) Gateway Arch downtown.  Our first stop, dear friends, lies just north of Highway 44, and just inside the lasso that highway 270 throws around the core of the St Louis area.  Along Watson Rd between said lasso and Lindbergh Blvd, you'll find two things: a large suburban shopping area anchored by a Home Depot, and an office park.  Google doesn't seem to recall, but I remember fondly that this area also once housed, during the days before Netflix and RedBox, a very cheapskate-friendly $1.00 movie theater that showed films that had long since left the regular theaters, but hadn't yet showed up on cable (remember those days?).  It was a very mom-and-pop operation, if I recall.  The lobby was populated by a pair of tie-dye sporting mannequins having a barbecue, and as a kid I saw Drop Dead Fred there twice.  And now you know I'm old, so I might as well tell you that since beginning this reminiscence, I can't stop humming The Kinks' "Come Dancing":

Anyway, after that long "Dollar Show" digression, let me tell you what's behind the shopping center and the office park.  This:


Giant eyeball sculpture
   and this:

The Way.  Significantly giant-er.
   and this:

Big smiley skull in the ground.
All three images above courtesy of 

 The first of our two-for-one cheapskates' havens, the free-to-the-public Laumeier Sculpture Park was once the country home of Henry and Matilda Laumeier, and so boasts a beautiful stone house that serves as office, art gallery and gift shop.  The rest of the over 100 acres of rolling meadows and wooded trails is populated by dozens of modern/contemporary sculptures and what I would call collaborations with either natural features or ruins already on the property.  One such ruin is my favorite spot in the park.  A trail winding through the woods eventually leads to an old abandoned swimming pool, part of the long-gone Orchard Valley estate that neighbored that of the Laumeier family.  Artist Mary Miss, who's known for blending art and landscape design, built decking and trellises around the remains of the 1930s stone and concrete pool, leaving it intact and allowing for a quiet, peaceful place that at the same time teems with nostalgia and the feeling that at any moment the past will join you and you'll hear the splash of water, laughter and the tinkle of glasses.

There are lovely spots to picnic, including in the shadow of The Way, commonly known as the Big Red Thing pictured above, where you can watch or join in with fellow park-goers to play frisbee or fly kites in the presence of amazing works of art.  What more could a thrifty art and/or nature lover want?

Well... if the thrifty nature lover wants more, more can be had just across the highway!  Take Geyer Road just across the I44 overpass to Cragwold, where you'll find another completely free outdoor destination:  Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center, run by the Missouri Department of Conservation.  It, like Laumeier, offers something a little different from your average park.  Another 100+ acres of mostly wooded real estate, ribboned with short, shady trails that are family and even handicapped friendly.  The interpretive center houses a small gift shop, classrooms, and kid-centric exhibits relating to local wildlife and conservation.  The best bit by far to me is ahead and to your left as you walk into the building.  A wall of windows complete with comfy seating overlooks a wildlife feeding area with birdfeeders, salt licks and the like that attracts everything from tiny hummingbirds to big, beautiful deer. 

Birds high up on some of the feeders
 I've spotted fat wild turkeys, hawks stalking chipmunks, and dozens of other furry and feathered critters as well, and microphones are discretely situated among the feeders so that, while you relax after your picnic and trail walking, you can listen to the songbirds.  Lovely!

If you haven't had enough of the great outdoors at this point, you can always follow Cragwold a little further, across highway 270 to yet another nearly 100-acre park, along the Meramec River, but I'll let you discover the more traditional Emmenengger Park on your own.  Just know that all 3 of these wonderful, free outdoor destintions are nestled within about two square miles in St Louis County.  Just imagine all the fun you can have exploring the rest of the area!

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