A relative asked me recently what the most amazing thing is that I’ve seen so far in St. Louis.

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, MO, seen from below.

The Gateway Arch is not the most original answer, but it’s true.

When Eero Saarinen won the contest to design this monument, to celebrate Thomas Jefferson and U.S. westward expansion, the judges told him that his design was the best, but they also weren’t sure anyone could execute it. Apparently the general expectation was that at least a dozen people would die in the construction. As it happened, no one did.

Photos of the Arch don’t do it justice. When you stand under it, it is both immense and lighter than air. It gleams and defies gravity.

When you go up inside it, you get inside a little tram, along with 7 fellow tourists. The tram looks a bit like a space shuttle. It is cramped and claustrophobic. As you go up, you don’t have a view out to the city, but you have one of the pipes and concrete girders holding up the structure on the inside.

At the top, there are only narrow windows–larger ones would have blown the structure apart. You get a sweeping view of St. Louis, including the brown and fast-rolling Mississippi River. (I’d heard that Mark Twain called the Mississippi “too thick to drink, too thin to plow,” but it turns out he said that about the Missouri River.)

The Arch symbolizes conquest, ingenuity, and domination. The American hunger for more. “Settlers” weren’t willing to settle for anything other than liberty, for lands rolling out in front of them for the taking (regardless of the people who’d been living there for centuries, or millennia, before).

Standing inside the top of the Arch, my body could feel how far off the ground I was. It even seemed that I could feel it shifting under me, though that was an illusion, probably just the vibrations of the other souls riding up and down in the trams.

From the top, I could see Illinois. I could see the courthouse where the Dred Scott case was tried. I could see Busch Stadium.

I could see my new home city, in all of its muddy, gleaming, lively, and conflicted beauty.

Arch photo by Anya Weber.