I wanted to go to Hermann, which made absolutely no sense. Although I do not entirely share the aversion bordering on disdain that many travelers have towards “the beaten path”, I do tend to be skeptical of places that everybody wants to visit (Las Vegas and Disneyland come immediately to mind.) Experience has taught me that I don’t usually like what the vast majority of people like, so if everyone and his brother considers a particular place to be “really fun,” I usually decide to save myself the trouble and not go there. (I finally realized after letting myself be dragged to the Belmont Stakes one year that “really fun” usually means your feet will hurt and you will end up unwillingly covered in beer.)
Hermann is, for Missouri, about as “beaten path” as it gets. It’s touristy, it’s crowded, and it would not be unreasonable to assume that a trip to Hermann might include blistered feet and exuberant sloshing of beer. Yet there was something intriguing about the town. It was supposed to bear an uncanny resemblance to a 19th century Rhine village. It is in the heart of Missouri’s Wine Country (and who knew Missouri had a Wine Country?) It was voted “Missouri’s Most Beautiful Town” by Rural Missouri Magazine. I wondered if I could enjoy a place famed for wineries and antique stores and German-ness if I went there and didn’t taste any wine or buy any antiques or do anything Germanic. I wondered if it would be worth going to such a gimmicky place if I simply did what I usually do in new towns: walk around, avoid the crowds, look for something a little different. But one convenient thing about places “on the beaten path” is that it’s very easy to get to them. Someone else has already done the work for you: there are pretty websites with directions and printable maps, and there is usually a nice little highway that goes straight there. All I had to do was get in the car and follow the signs.
From St. Louis I drove west on Route 100. Out of curiosity I turned off in Washington, another 19th Century German town. I passed through nondescript blocks of buildings bearing the usual hanging signs of gun dealers and pawn shops and Bible stores. I was headed in the direction of the river. In the Midwest, if you are ever looking for a river, you can find it where the Tree Streets (Elm, Maple, etc.) give way to the Early President Streets (Adams, Madison, etc.) and intersect with the Descending Numeral Streets. I drove past Walnut, turned onto Jefferson, crossed Third and Second and Main, and then I was nervously breaking down a steep hill that would have deposited me off the end of the boat ramp and straight into the Missouri if I hadn’t made a quick turn just after the railroad tracks. It was early in the morning, and the riverside was quiet. A few people were standing by a little shelter up on the hill, and a few cars were parked in the lot, their drivers sitting inside, staring out across the water, thinking, avoiding the cold morning air.
I drove around the town, up and down quiet streets. Washington was mostly still asleep. People were out, but they were local people, going about their morning business, not ready for tourists yet. Anyway that was what I told myself as an excuse for not getting out of the car. I saw enough of Washington to affirm that the usual small river town adjectives applied. Cute, check. Historic, check. Bland, sweet, yet somehow complex and impenetrable, check, check, check. And back to Route 100, heading west.
On the way to Hermann, I had intended to stop in New Haven, because the town’s website described a one-block Downtown and a Levee Walk “complete with antique lamp posts.” I also wanted to see New Haven because… particularly appropriate for a quick stop on a trip to Beaten Path Land… New Haven was the home of John Colter, path breaker extraordinaire. Colter went west with Lewis and Clark, but on the return trip, as St. Louis and civilization were getting closer by the day, he decided that he hadn’t had quite enough wilderness. He obtained the Captain’s permission to leave the expedition and head back up the Missouri, back into the unknown. He became a trapper and mountain man. He famously outran some Blackfeet Indians who had tried to kill him, stripped him of his clothes, and challenged him to race for his life. He happened upon what is now Yellowstone National Park, and when he told people about the geysers and the steam rising from the ground, they thought he was making it up. (Parts of this country are still like that. You can tell people till you’re blue in the face that there are interesting little towns in the middle of Missouri, but they won’t believe you.) I saw the sign for New Haven, and the water tower off in the distance. The sign had an arrow but I couldn’t tell if it was directing me to turn immediately, or somewhere up ahead. Another road appeared, but it did not seem any more promising than the first one, so I resolved to take the next turn. But there was no next turn. New Haven was behind me; the water tower grew smaller in the rear view mirror.
West of New Haven, Route 100 cuts through farmland, rising and falling, the kind of road that makes you want to lift your hands from the wheel and yell “Wheeeeeeee!” Trees cast crisscrossing shadows on the pavement. The leaves were just transforming themselves into their muted early autumn palette. The view out my window was a blur of pale butter and russet and mauve.
In 1837 George Bayer, acting on behalf of the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia, bought 11,000 acres of hilly country on which to build a town. The town had been carefully planned back in Philadelphia, and its nicely ordered boulevards did not quite comport with the wild terrain on the Missouri that the Germans had bought. But, being German, they did the practical thing. They settled in and built a precariously balanced replica of an Old World town atop their hills. They found an efficient use of their wild land and planted grapes. The Missouri Wine Country was born . The Germans and their wineries flourished until Prohibition (bad for wineries) and World War Two (bad for Germans) almost caused Hermann’s decline.
But Hermann has recovered, as was apparent when I pulled onto the main street. I was suddenly in a traffic jam. People were everywhere. They piled out of cars and tour buses and crossed the street in large groups. It seemed like all of Missouri, and at least half of Arkansas and Tennessee, were cavorting on the rolling hills of the vineyards, every now and then cheering abruptly for reasons I couldn’t discern. One German-themed restaurant, which also had a gift shop, was blasting “Edelweiss” through its open doors. Helicopters took off from a parking lot by the river and cruised low over the town, providing tours of the area’s natural beauty and creating an ominous hum in the sky. A train waited by the station, engine running and lights shining, for tens of minutes. Finally it blew its whistle and began to roll. Everyone turned to watch it go.
I knew that the town had a distinctly German character, but even so I was struck by how cartoonishly German it was. At least I supposed it was; my knowledge of all things German comes from having been in productions of Cabaret and The Sound of Music in high school. And The Sound of Music was set in Austria. Which obviously didn’t bother whoever in that restaurant decided to play “Edelweiss” at full volume. I suspected that Hermann was in fact more German than Germany these days- certainly the whole country can’t be drunkenly cavorting about on hillsides cheering in the middle of the day all the time. I hope. All the names of streets and shops were German, most of the food for sale was German, and almost all of the people looked scrubbed and Aryan. There were the usual matched sets of older couples in sweatshirts, but there were also a surprising number of well-dressed, young people in groups of four or five, girls in chunky sweaters tossing their blond hair, and extremely clean cut guys in trendy leather jackets. It would have seemed sinister if the whole place hadn’t been so happy. The town seemed to have two policemen, who wore heather gray T-Shirts and stood both in one spot, watching the traffic inch along.
I wandered past the Gasconade County Courthouse, a red brick building that would have been impressive even if it had not been constructed atop a bluff, with a defending cannon on the front lawn. I glanced into the shop windows, fighting the voice that told me that I really needed an old milk bottle, or a rusted sign, or some other vestige of someone else’s past that other regions call “junk” and the Midwest kindly terms “antiques.” I looked up at buildings, unchanged since the mid 1800s, flush against the streets in a style my friend and I used to call “Ooh, cake!” because if someone inside was eating some, any passer-by could see, and practically reach in and grab it. Other buildings were half-hidden behind gardens and courtyards. I walked up, and down, and up, and down, the streets, walking that felt more like hiking. (“Climb every mountain…”) I didn’t go to the German School Museum, or to the “Deutschheim” historic site, whatever that was, because it just seemed a little too touristy, and also because it was up what looked like a 70 degree incline.
I don’t know if, hidden somewhere on the outskirts of town, there is an “off the beaten path” aspect to Hermann. But honestly, if I went back, I don’t think I would try to find it. Hermann is not a walking alone kind of place, and it’s not a place where you try to do something different. It’s a place you go with a friend, or a group of friends, and wear your most Aryan-looking sweaters, and shop for useless trinkets and crates of Missouri wine. If I went back I would go to the German School Museum, and walk up that hill and see the Deutschheim. Surprisingly, I think that might be fun, provided one wore comfortable shoes and watched out for swinging beer steins. I knew I didn’t have the true Hermann experience, but I had a good day nonetheless. There’s something to be said for a glimpse into history, and a town like a fairy-tale illustration, and a morning drive through fields and just-changing leaves.
On my way home I saw the New Haven water tower looming and prepared to turn towards it. I missed the first turn. I missed the second turn too. I marveled at my ineptitude and wondered if anyone would believe that I’d missed two turns, twice, into a town so small that its main street was only a block long.. They beat the path here, but they didn’t mark it very well, I thought. Or maybe they did it on purpose, to say: Don’t hesitate. You might miss out. John Colter would like that, I think. At least if I told him the story, he would have to believe me.