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Katy Trail Ride Report: Let’s Do It!

Let’s Do It!

By Ann Ruger
From Clinton to St. Charles
July 2008
>The Rugers on the Trail
  The Rugers on the Trail

 

Last fall, my husband and I had just finished a leisurely ride around Forest Park ’s 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 die.”

 

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 young.

 

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 Rhode 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 Katy Trail that stretches 225 miles across the state from Clinton to St. Charles . And 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 (www.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 need.”

 

Using the 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 tree.

 

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 ride.

 

Never, in all our dealings with them, did we detect an ounce of condescension toward these two grey-haired amateurs who obviously needed help.

 

Two days 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.

 

The night before we left, we both had last-minute misgivings that we suffered through in silence.

 

“What if my arthritic knees don’t hold up?”

 

“What if the packs make the bikes too heavy?”

 

“Why didn’t 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 now.

 

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 declined.

 

We arrived 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 inspiring.

 

The Katy 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 many.

 

We pulled 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!

 

We’d 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 Missouri.

 

About five 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 puppiesand beer!), and then call him so he could pick us up in his truck.

 

It worked 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!

 

The next day, our 28-mile ride from Calhoun to Sedalia was lovely, among the most scenic of the trip, we both thought later.

 

The 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.

 

The trail 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.

 

As I 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 days.

 

We stayed 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. Senate.

 

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 bikesup 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.

 

Our third 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 hill.

 

We became 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 signalthat had been standing since 1870 when the line was laid

 

We visited 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 offer.)

 

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.”

 

In 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 trail dust!

 

On 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.

 

Over 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 their homes.

 

Leaving 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!

 

The eastern 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 St. Charles, a distance of 340 miles, in no more than 100 hours.

 

At two 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 cocoon.

 

From the 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 constant exposure.

 

The weather 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.

 

Our last 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. Charles!

 

After 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 Katy 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.

 

We arrived in St. 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!

 

Soon we 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!”

 

They 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.

 

The next morning, over breakfast, I asked Pete what state he wanted to tackle next.

 

 

 

Superlatives

 

  • Best lodging – Hotel Frederick in Boonville
  • Most unusual lodging – Cruce’s Cabooses near Calhoun
  • Best breakfast – Murphy’s B&B in Hermann
  • Best lunch – homemade blackberry cobbler on the front porch of Dotty’s in Hartsburg
  • Best dinner – Café Bella in Augusta
  • Most scenic parts of the trail – restored prairie between Calhoun and Sedalia, bluffs near Rocheport, woods in the Weldon Spring Conservation Area
  • Most exciting animal – a bobcat
  • Most exciting plant – state champion bur oak tree near McBaine
  • Best piece of luck – only one flat tire, and a nearby bike shop to change it


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