From Clinton to St. Charles
Last fall, my husband and I had just finished a
leisurely ride around
six-mile bike trail, when I turned to him and said, “You know what, Pete?
I think the two of us should bike across a state before we
This leap – from six miles to a whole state
– came upon me suddenly, probably a result on some endorphin-induced high.
Although both of us try to keep active, walking and biking when we can,
neither of us qualifies as an athlete. We both have some weight to lose,
and, by any conventional definition, we’re no longer really
Knowing me to be a stubborn woman,
however, Pete knew better than to dismiss my idea offhand. He first
suggested that we try Delaware or maybe
Island. When I scoffed at these wimpy choices, he
pointed out the obstacles of a longer ride. How would we carry all our
stuff? What would we do about the inevitable flat tires? (Neither of us
had ever changed one.) And, most crucially, would our sexagenarian bodies
be up to the demands of a long ride?
But the idea had been born. For the next
several months, it hovered in the background, gaining momentum as my
enthusiasm blossomed and Pete’s resistance lessened. In January of this
year, we finally said, “Let’s do it.”
Much of the fun of this kind of trip, of
course, is in the planning. After exploring lots of options, we made the
wise decision to stay right here in
Missouri and tackle the country’s longest
rail-trail, the much-celebrated
Trail that stretches 225 miles across the state
because neither of us is particularly bothered by heat, we decided to go
in July when we’d have less clothing to carry.
Over the next several months, we made
extensive use of the Katy Trail website (bikekatytrail.com),
an excellent resource with suggestions on
everything we’d possibly need to know about planning our trip. (Don’t
forget the baby wipes!) Webmaster Raymond Scott, an avid cyclist and software engineer,
decided to build the site when he “...couldn't find any other websites
with all the nitty-gritty details that cyclists and runners
site’s “Plan a Ride” feature, we soon had reservations at hotels and
B&B’s for the whole week, we had lists of bike repair shops, pay phone
locations, and the best lunch stops, and we knew where to find the
remnants of an old railroad roundtable and the state champion bur oak
We also got lots of help from the nice guys
at the Hub Bicycle Company in Webster. They tuned up our aging hybrid
bikes. They outfitted us with spare tubes, new helmets, and simple packs
to hold our “luggage.” They even taught us how to change a tire. Most
importantly, they gently suggested that we reverse our original plan to
ride from east to west, so that we’d have the prevailing wind at our backs
and the gradual decline in elevation along the river for an easier
Never, in all our dealings with them, did we
detect an ounce of condescension toward these two grey-haired amateurs who
obviously needed help.
before our departure, we had some tense moments. After making careful
lists of what we’d need for our week’s trip, I put everything on the
dining room table and concluded that there was no way it would all fit in
our two small rear-wheel packs. But with lots of pushing and shoving and
some extra bungee cords, we got it all in.
before we left, we both had last-minute misgivings that we suffered
through in silence.
“What if my
arthritic knees don’t hold up?”
the packs make the bikes too heavy?”
we train more? What if we can’t do 45 miles in one day?”
But we were
committed. It was too late to turn back
On a Sunday
in mid-July, friends drove us to the Kirkwood Amtrak station where we
caught the morning train to Sedalia. Amtrak allows only four bikes
per train, so we’d bought our tickets months ago, paying $18 for each of
us (senior rate) and $10 for each of our bikes. On the three-hour ride, we
visited with a group of girl scouts, resplendent in blue and purple
tie-died shirts, who were going to Washington for the day, and with a
group of very happy women from St. Joe who’d spent the weekend in St.
Louis celebrating a 50th birthday. The women offered us beer
from their large, well-stocked cooler. We
in Sedalia, the closest stop to the trail’s
western terminus, just after noon. We’d arranged for a shuttle service
from there to Clinton, a distance of 40 miles, where
we’d start our ride. The hour drive was fascinating, as we learned from
our driver about her improbable transformation from a troubled youth with
a drug-addicted mother to a successful young woman with a good job and a
stable marriage. She credited her foster parents with turning her life
around. Hers was the first of many personal stories we’d hear on our trip,
all of them interesting, many of them
Trail State Park has 25 trailheads spread
along its length. Each is a sturdy wooden shelter, about 10 by 40 feet,
with long shaded benches along each side (big enough for naps, we were to
learn) and lots of interesting information about local history and
ecology. There’s a restroom at each trailhead, too, and water at
up to the Clinton Trailhead about 3 o’clock, unloaded the bikes, strapped
on the packs and filled our water bottles. The day was lovely, bright blue
skies and 82 degrees with little humidity. So far, so good. And then, as
if on cue, a large family group that had been resting in the trailhead’s
shade offered to share their supply of cold watermelon with us. What
better send-off could we have!
planned only a 9-mile ride the first day, since the train is often late
and we didn’t know when we’d get to the trail. Well, that was one reason.
The other, more compelling one, was that Pete wanted to spend the first
night in Cruce’s Cabooses, perhaps the most unique B&B in the state of
years ago, Randy Cruce bought two cabooses, a Burlington Northern and a
Santa Fe, and had them moved to a isolated piece of woods about five miles
outside of Calhoun. When we’d made our reservations, he’d suggested that
we stop at the Bullseye gas station near the trailhead in Calhoun, buy our
dinner there (our choices were fried chicken, fried egg rolls, fried fish,
fried hush puppies – and beer!), and
then call him so he could pick us up in his
like clockwork! By 5 o’clock, we were lounging in a shaded hammock behind
the cabooses, enjoying a beer, and congratulating ourselves on finishing
the first day with no mishaps. We sat outside, eating dinner, talking and
watching the moon come up over the trees until 9:30. Then we went inside
and slept for ten hours!
day, our 28-mile ride from Calhoun to Sedalia was lovely, among the most scenic
of the trip, we both thought later.
Missouri Kansas Texas (Katy) Railroad, established in the late 1800’s,
owned about 40 feet of land on either side of the tracks. When the rail
was abandoned in 1986 and bought by the state a few years later for
conversion to a bike trail, the resulting park encompassed not just the
rail bed itself, but also the border of uncultivated land on both sides of
the original tracks.
from Calhoun to Sedalia goes through wide rolling
expanses of what had been tall grass prairie. Although agriculture – and
fire control – have destroyed most of this original ecosystem, the
Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the Missouri Department of
Conservation and the Missouri Prairie Foundation have joined forces to
restore long stretches of native prairie along this part of the trail.
Much of the day, we were riding through spectacular stands of grey-headed
coneflower, bee balm, milkweed, black-eyed Susan, ashy sunflower,
ironweed, and big bluestem. Butterflies and birds were everywhere,
enjoying this oasis.
pedaled through this quiet countryside, miles from the nearest highway and
with everything I needed in a simple pack on my bike, I said to Pete that
I honestly thought this was the best trip of my life. It was something I’d
repeat several times in the course of the next six
that night in Sedalia at the old Bothwell Hotel, where
Harry Truman had been a guest in 1934 when he got word that Democratic
boss Tom Pendergast wanted him to run for U.S.
None of the
elegantly-attired guests in the lobby batted an eye when we did as we were
told by the desk clerk and took our dust-encrusted bodies – and
bikes – up the elevator to our fifth
floor room. After long showers, we came back down an hour later, much more
presentable in the one set of “street clothes” that each of us wore every
night for dinner for the next six nights.
A word here
about clothes. Serious bikers choose serious outfits. They wear
form-fitting polyester shirts with zippered pockets and impressive logos.
Their lycra bike pants have layers of padding. They use special gloves and
cleated bike shoes. But Pete and I are not serious bikers. Instead of
special bike outfits, we made do with cotton t-shirts and shorts. We had
no gloves. Pete wore an old pair of running shoes, and I did just fine in
my Teva sandals. So if you think you’d have to invest in a new wardrobe to
bike the trail, think again.
day was a 35-mile ride into Boonville. This section of the trail has some
long gradual inclines, but hardly anything that can be called a real
fascinated along this stretch by the railroad history we were learning at
each of the informative trailheads. We marveled at old telegraph poles –
and the one remaining signal – that had
been standing since 1870 when the line was laid
with Mel, a resident of Clifton City and the town’s unofficial greeter,
who offered us water from a dirty plastic bottle, since “the state’s
refused to put a water spigot at the trailhead here – and we keep telling
them how much it’s needed.”
(We politely declined his
A few hours
later, thanks to the aforementioned website, we knew to stop for lunch at
Becky’s Burgers in Pilot Grove. Excellent burgers, even better homemade
butter pecan ice cream, served by a bright, attractive high schooler who
used to play basketball, but quit so she could “concentrate on schoolwork and
getting into a good college.”
Boonville, we had reservations at the Hotel Frederick, a
beautifully-restored hotel on the National Register of Historic Places.
This was our favorite accommodation of the trip, a place we plan to
revisit, either with our bikes or without them. The expansive public areas
are full of history, including photos from the New Deal’s Historic
American Building Survey, which, in central Missouri, was led
by historian Charles van Ravenswaay. Our room was a treat, too, with an
enormous walk-in shower and an adjoining hot tub. What a way to remove
Wednesday, we took it easy, biking only 13 miles into Rocheport. We’d
planned this as a mid-week break, a chance to rest our sore bottoms, do
laundry, and visit with my aunt and uncle who drove from their home in
Columbia to spend the afternoon and evening with us. We stayed at the luxurious
Schoolhouse B&B, where trail riders can store their bikes in a large
locked shed complete with bike tools, pumps and extra rags.
breakfast the next morning, we enjoyed visiting with six other bikers who
were using the B&B as a headquarters to do out-and-back rides on two
successive days. A few days earlier, we’d encountered two men who were
doing the whole trail, with their wives following in a van with the
luggage. Later in the week, we’d meet a father and son with heavy packs
(and big bellies) on an extended two-week trip, as well as a group of six
wonderful young medical students biking from California to Connecticut to raise money for leukemia
research. Besides this handful of bikers, though, we saw almost no one on
the trail until the last day, except a few folks out for short rides near
Rocheport on Thursday morning, we biked three successive days of 35, 45,
and 35 miles, stopping for the nights in Jefferson City, Hermann, and finally Augusta. We had been worried about the
45-mile day. It turned out to feel almost effortless. We had not been
particularly worried about the 35-mile days. They both seemed long and
hard. So much for expectations!
two-thirds of the trail, from Boonville to St. Charles, is never far from the wide muddy Missouri River,
making it a big presence in any Katy Trail experience. There are lots of
well-placed benches for river viewing, and we enjoyed waving to some of
the intrepid kayakers who were participating the third annual Missouri
River 340 Race, an event in which participants must traverse the entire
Missouri River from Kansas City to
Charles, a distance of 340 miles, in no more than
spots, Boonville and Hermann, we rode across the river in a designated
bike lane. Huge trucks sped past us at 65 miles-an-hour, but we felt safe
and privileged in our own little fenced
trailhead north of the river near Jefferson City, where the highway has no
designated lane and the rare biker takes his life in his hands attempting
to cross, we called our B&B host across the river and in five minutes,
he arrived in his pickup to take us across the bridge for the night. He
also got us to a bike shop just before closing so we could get the one
flat tire of the trip repaired. The next morning, he reversed the shuttle.
Total charge for this service, round trip for two riders and two bikes,
with an added stop at the bike shop? Five dollars!
How did the
July weather treat us? The good news is that we had absolutely no rain.
We’d been warned about what happens when the trail’s ground limestone
surface gets wet and is flung up to harden on vulnerable chains and other
moving bike parts. We hosed our bikes down twice, just to get the dust
off, but without any moisture, they suffered no ill effects from the
didn’t treat us humans as kindly. After three days of gorgeous, low 80
degree days at the beginning of our trip, we were greeted by very humid
days in the mid-90’s from midweek on. But with early starts, lots of water
and frequent stops, we did just fine. The nice thing about biking is that
you always have a bit of a breeze with you.
day, a Sunday, was unusual in one important respect. After seeing almost
no bikers on the entire trail up to this point – maybe an average of six
or eight a day – we counted 229 of them in the 29 miles between Augusta and St.
having the earlier trailheads to ourselves, for quiet reading, resting,
and even napping, we now had to share them with big families, groups of
friends and exercise buddies, the old, the young and the in-between. For
the first time, we saw a recumbent bike (not such a good idea on the
Trail, as it puts the
rider is right down there in the midst of all that dust) and a man riding
along with his dog balanced on a platform behind the handlebars. We passed
riders wobbling along at a crawl. We were passed by others going twice as
fast as we. Babies were pushed in strollers, a few hikers braved the
crowd. It was a circus of variation – noisy, happy, crowded – and
ultimately, an excellent transition back into the real world for us.
Charles about noon, an hour ahead of schedule, and
enjoyed a beer at the Trailhead Brewery’s outdoor patio while we waited
for our friends to pick us up. With our dusty bikes nearby, and our
equally-dusty bodies, heads of grey hair, and sweat-drenched shirts, it’s
not surprising that we attracted the attention of a nice young couple also
sitting outside on this 96-degree day. Maybe they were worried that we’d
pass out right in front of them!
were deep in shared conversation about the trail, which they’d biked
sections of over the last several months and hoped to do end-to-end in the
coming year. They worried about carrying everything for a week. We
reassured them it was easy. They worried about finding lodging. We told
them about the great website – and suggested some of our favorite spots.
They worried if their legs could hold up. We laughed. “Are you kidding?”
we asked. “If we can do it, you can do it with your hands tied
behind your backs!”
laughed. We laughed. Our friends showed up to take us back to St. Louis. We
got home, took long showers,
and slept for 12 hours.
morning, over breakfast, I asked Pete what state he wanted to tackle