Discovering St. Louis through instill Adventure

“Welcome to Instill Adventure. I’m Twain, your voice from beyond, and I’ll be guiding you on your audio journey this afternoon.”

We all heard the voice through our headphones at exactly 3:30 p.m. last Friday. It sounded a bit like a muffled Barney. Looking up at the chilly sky, I had considered skipping the event for a brief moment at 2:30 p.m. (and again at 3 p.m., 3:15 p.m. and 3:25 p.m.), but the ephemeral thought of “adventuring” kept me going.

We didn’t feel like adventurers or explorers, however, when we first gathered in the Village House for our communal, self-guided tour of St. Louis that had been prepared by an unknown source.

As we embarked on the Instill Adventure program, we felt like 16 or so strangers, with only the audio tour playing through our iPods in common. I swung my head around, trying to find a friendly face and a topic for small talk (“The weather today, am I right?”). Thankfully, Twain, our mysterious host, came up with a way to alleviate the awkwardness.

“Let’s go ahead and see who’s joining you in this experience today. If everyone would please start scratching their head…why don’t you go ahead and give a high-five to one of your new companions?”

MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” underscored the silliness of the moment, and visions of flashmobs danced through my head. Not that I’d actually participated in a flashmob before, but I had seen videos on YouTube of, for example, pants-less subway riders in New York City. But I quickly realized that Instill Adventure would be different. The program different from those run in New York by Improv Everywhere, a group that creates flashmob styled events throughout the city. In those events, a great amount of planning was put toward giving the “audience” (everyone on the street) a fun experience. However, the participants in Instill Adventure had not met beforehand, had not planned out a dance routine and had not a clue as to what to expect. In essence, the formula was turned on its head. We were the audience and Twain was our “flashmob,” or more conventionally, the performer.

So while Twain asked us to cheer for the Bon Appétit staff and wave at a security guard, he also had us do things for ourselves. We played Follow the Leader down the MetroLink ramp. Twain’s voice wouldn’t tell us who he was for the longest time, but he did begin to reveal his intentions on the ride down to 8th & Pine.

“I’m sure you’re wondering who I am. Well I’m not Barney, and I’m definitely not Big Brother…I want to connect Wash. U. students with the city of St. Louis. Sounds silly? I assure you that I take it very seriously. You know, I don’t believe Wash. U. students live in a bubble…If you need proof, just look at your companions. It’s why we are all here.”

Twain’s speech was filled with polite words and phrases like “Please” and “I assure you.” It was his way of getting into our heads, and when he asked us to think about St. Louis in a different way, we shot each other accepting looks and listened. He hoped that two things would come out of Instill Adventure: that we’d grow a greater appreciation for St. Louis and that we’d continue to explore the city.

I’m a St. Louis-native, and I’ll admit that I nearly scoffed at that last part. What is there to explore downtown? Scenic, empty streets? Spacious, abandoned warehouses? I began to wonder if this would be a waste of time, but I’m happy to report that these smug thoughts are now gone; Twain, as he always has throughout history, opened my eyes to a new side of St. Louis.

He dropped us off at Culinaria, downtown’s only full-service grocery store.

“How important is a grocery store to an urban community?” Twain asked, and I thought, “Invaluable.” Next he took us to the Old Post Office, which I soon learned was modeled after the Louvre. We shuffled into main atrium, which opened up before a raised statue, Daniel Chester French’s “America at War and Peace.” A bald eagle sat between two reclining women—one was holding a sword and the other, an olive branch. The sight was unexpected, but far from unnerving. Instead, it made me wonder what other hidden art gems downtown might hold. Twain must have read my mind, because he soon took us to a park brimming with sculptures, eventually leading us into a giant triangle in the field.

“Soak in your surroundings,” he said. “These walls around you are unofficially known as the ‘Serra Sculpture,’ named after the artist who created it, Richard Serra. The actual name of this sculpture is ‘Twain.’ Welcome. I have been waiting for you.”

So there he was. We’d been listening to the disembodied voice of a statue for an hour, and he was offering us quite a view of downtown St. Louis. The Arch was on one side, the courthouse tucked underneath the curve. It occurred to me that “Twain” only represented St. Louis when people were inside it. It was just slabs of metal without us. It was up to us adventurers to give it significance from the inside.

We gave Twain a round of applause when the MP3 ended, but we weren’t ready to leave. It must have made Twain smile when he saw us linger in the triangle. People struck up conversations about the hieroglyphic-like symbols on the surrounding buildings. Most of us ended up staying behind to explore some more, since there was an art student’s opening somewhere close-by and Culinaria had a wine loft.

To find out more about Instill Adventure, visit instilladventure.com.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.

Subscribe