A throwback to a time gone by

Travel: St. Charles, Mo., is quaint, but it's authentic.

"I can spell Missouri!" says one of a gaggle of cheerful children standing on the street corner. "M-I-S-S-O-U-R-I."

Another, slightly older child, replies, "Yeah, but can you spell Mississippi?"

There is a pause.

"M-I-S-S-I-S-IPPI?"

"You said that real fast," says the older child. "I think you left out an S."

If I hadn't been to St. Charles, Mo., before, I might have suspected that they had been placed there by the Convention & Visitor's Bureau. But Main Street in this Missouri River town is always sweet like this, resembling a sugar-coated version of a time gone by.

I liked St. Charles the first time I saw it, after pulling off Interstate 70 on a whim at the sight of a sign with the word "historic" on it.

I didn't know where I was going, but after a few minutes I found myself near where Lewis and Clark launched their keelboat and pirogues up the Missouri River and into the unknown in 1804.

An enormous bronze statue of the two, complete with Newfoundland dog, stands by the water. Lewis, in a plumed chapeau, looks slightly worried. Clark leans forward, alert. They stare not upriver, where they're about to go, nor back at what they are leaving behind, but toward today's shops, as if contemplating an antiquing trip.

I walked along the tracks of the defunct Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, now part of the idyllic Frontier Park.

No trains stop now at the small Victorian-Gothic depot, though if a woman carrying a hatbox and wearing a floor-length gown with leg-of-mutton sleeves were to show up with a ticket to Checotah, Okla., she would not look out of place.

Two old cabooses, one red and one green, sit freshly painted but stranded, with nowhere to go.

St. Charles was the first permanent settlement on the Missouri, founded by French fur traders in 1769. It was called Les Petites Côtes, and, indeed, I had to climb a little hill to reach Main Street.

I wandered past early 19th-century buildings, some made of the ubiquitous Missouri red brick, some coated in various shades of pastel or deep-maroon paint. A few bordered on understated Federal-style grandeur, while others were tiny cottages, almost dollsize.

Some were wedged between their neighbors so tightly that, if they had been people, they would have been unable to breathe.

The buildings were arranged with no attention to height, style, or color, as if placed there by a child playing with blocks.

Having grown up in New England, I was no stranger to charming historic downtowns, but I wanted to call everyone I knew and say, "Guess what? I'm in the cutest place you've ever seen, and it's in Missouri!"

When I drove away that day, I assumed I would never return. After all, how often does one find oneself in Missouri? I also felt that even if I did return, this place would not be the same.

But a year later, quite unexpectedly, I wound up living a half hour away from the seemingly ephemeral St. Charles.

I go back now and then. I park by the river, look at the statues of Lewis and Clark, and cross the tracks.

I walk along the red-brick street and ignore the fact that this is a fully functioning modern town, with office buildings and paved roads.

I pretend that this place is only Main Street, which – always a surprise to me – still exists each time I turn off the highway.

Since then I have found other "perfect" Midwestern river towns. I have stumbled across places in Ohio and Indiana where I imagined secret worlds had materialized out of the past, like Brigadoon, just for me.

What distinguishes St. Charles is that it also feels new. It is still very much a frontier place; its old-world European touches are rough around the edges, hastily thrown together with the new American energy of people who half wanted to settle and half wanted to move on.

I normally dislike places you're supposed to like: places that are quaint, preserved, and conducive to tourists in matching T-shirts ambling along eating ice cream.

I usually scoff when the directions to an "authentic" historic town include "pass the casino" and "turn right at the McDonald's."

But I cannot be cynical about St. Charles, maybe because of the way I first found it, unexpectedly, on my first trip to the West.

No matter how many times I cross the Mississippi, no matter how many times I see the Missouri calmly beginning its journey north, I feel what I felt that first time I came upon the city: a freedom and a slight weightlessness, as if someone had cut the tether tying me to the East Coast and set me free.

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