By Scott Morris
Jenny worried about dropping me off in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a bicycle for the next six days, but she needed to get on the road to see her other man.
The plan was for me to ride my loaded bike the full length of the Katy Trail, the longest rails-to-trails path in the United States. Meanwhile, Jenny would drive to Iowa to tour the John Wayne Museum and then spend the week with Daughter No. 1 in Des Moines.
A smarter man might have been threatened by the thought of his wife’s attraction to a movie star, even if that movie star is dead. Then again, a smarter man would probably not pedal 277 miles alone across the Midwest in weather that felt more like August in Alabama than May in Missouri.
We kissed goodbye on a Sunday morning in Clinton, Missouri, and went our separate ways — she in the air-conditioned luxury of a Toyota Highlander and me on the narrow saddle of a Trek mountain bike.
Katy was not built for comfort. It began its life in the late 1800s as the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad line, transporting people and goods across the heartland for a hundred years. After the MKT railroad folded in the 1980s, the good people of the Show Me State transformed the rail line into a long and skinny state park. Today, the Katy attracts people from across the nation, and has transformed rural railroad towns into bicycle-centric tourist attractions.
Along the way, I met all types of trail users, from people who paid bike tour companies thousands of dollars to coordinate end-to-end rides to parents pushing baby strollers from their homes near the trail. But mostly, I experienced hours of solitude on a gravel path through farmland, prairie and riverside scenery.
Clinton to Sedalia
If there is cycling in heaven, it will include a 15 mph tailwind like the one that accompanied me on the first day of the Katy Trail.
With my physique, I could very well serve as the main sail on a schooner. I sailed through the flat terrain of western Missouri, taking in the rural scenery.
The crushed limestone path stretched ahead as straight as an arrow piercing the horizon. Trees lined the path, providing an oasis from the growing heat of the Osage Prairie.
“I could ride on like this forever,” I thought as I settled into the cycling zone, that special place where the mind goes blank and the worries of the world fall away with each pedal stroke.
Soon, I was in Windsor, a small water stop where the Rock Island Spur Trail connects the Katy Trail to Kansas City. But my destination was to the northeast in a city called Sedalia. And I arrived sooner than expected, believing prematurely that the next few days were going to be a breeze.
I checked into the historic Hotel Bothwell, where Harry S. Truman learned in 1934 he had been selected to run for the U.S. Senate and actress Bette Davis once dined in the Palm Room.
After taking a shower and putting on the only noncycling clothes that I took on the trip, I walked down the street to Malone’s Irish Pub for a hardy Reuben on dark rye.
A few hours later at the Bothwell, I drifted off to sleep thinking about Jenny’s fondness for an old one-eyed fat man, and wondering what that says about me.
Sedalia to Boonville
Although I was determined to travel as light as possible, I am a Johnny Boy Scout of sorts, prepared for anything. So my bicycle was loaded down with about 30 pounds stuffed into four panniers, or saddlebags.
Some of the extra weight came from four water bottles. Hydration stops on the Katy are sporadic and unreliable. The water pressure was so poor at one stop that I couldn’t refill my bottles. In one remote village, I went to the Mokane Bar and Grill — the only open business in town — and gave the bartender $5 to fill my water bottles.
Eventually, I wheeled into Boonville and checked into the Hotel Frederick, built in 1905. The hotel clerk — a fan of the Missouri Tigers in nearby Columbia — gave me an unwelcome welcome.
“Are you one of those Alabama fans?” he asked.
“Roll Tide!” I said.
The clerk folded his arms and frowned.
“Your rate just doubled,” he announced.
After cleaning up, I barely beat an approaching thunderstorm to the only open downtown restaurant, Maggie’s Bar and Grill. As Maggie and the boys chased their patio umbrellas down the windy street, I ordered a cheeseburger and fries, and watched the lightning show.
Boonville to Jefferson City
I had been looking forward to day three because the trail guide promised I would now begin a slightly downhill trip down the Missouri River, retracing Lewis and Clark’s Journey of Discovery. But a strong headwind and more intense heat sapped whatever advantage the loss in elevation offered.
The landscape was growing even more beautiful as I pedaled on a slim strip of flat land between massive bluffs and the Missouri River. A tunnel through a hill and numerous creek crossings over rusty old railroad trestle bridges complemented the scenery.
As I followed two other bicycle tourists across the highway bridge into Jefferson City, I saw the state Capitol towering over the river. I pedaled up and down a few steep hills to the Capitol Plaza Hotel and found my room.
Later, I walked down to the Grand Café, where I ran into a group of about 10 cyclists whom I had talked with several times earlier on the trail. They had hired one of the touring companies that organize rides on the Katy and shuttle your luggage from stop to stop, feed you lunch on the trail and keep you stocked with cold drinks. On the “cush” scale, I fell somewhere between these pampered riders and the diehards who were sleeping on the hard ground in a tent.
Jefferson City to Hermann
On paper, this was supposed to be a recovery day with only 42 miles on the bike. But I got a little turned around in the hot and hilly capital of Missouri. By the time I did the unthinkable — asked for directions — I was already worn out.
Finally, I crossed back over the river and found the trail again.
Although I had been fortunate to miss the rain so far, I noticed a side effect of riding a gravel trail in dry weather. My bike, gear, clothes and body were covered in gray limestone dust. It was up my nose and in my ears. It coated the spouts to my water bottles and added extra flavor to each swig.
If Jenny’s other beau were man enough to ride a bicycle across Missouri, he might say the dust was true grit. By the time I arrived in Hermann, I was ready to be done for the day, and wash off the grit and grime.
Hermann is the coolest little town on the Katy. It was founded in 1836 by the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia, “whose members were appalled at the loss of native customs and language among their countrymen in America,” writes Brett Dufur in “The Complete Katy Trail Guidebook.” Hermann looks like something straight out of 16th century Europe.
The townspeople have turned the old brick buildings into shops, restaurants, craft brew pubs and B&Bs. I stayed at the Captain Wolht Inn, named for the riverboat captain who once owned the historic residence. After too many slices of pepperoni at 4th Street Pizza, I collapsed in exhaustion back at the inn, knowing the longest leg of the trip awaited me the next morning.
Hermann to St. Charles
With daytime temperatures flirting with the 90s each day, I had to find the right balance of leaving before it got too hot with arriving too early to check into the next hotel. But the longest day of the ride meant I could start early.
So I got on the Katy Trail in time to see plenty of wildlife. By journey’s end I would spot countless fox squirrels, rabbits, turtles, birds of prey and snakes. Well, I actually counted the snakes, four to be exact. None was poisonous, but I still yielded the right of way.
The bluffs grew taller and the Missouri River grew wider as it rushed toward the mighty Mississippi. The strong current made me marvel at the journey of Lewis and Clark. I wondered how they fought the current to travel upstream to the Yellowstone River in a loaded boat. Their challenge made my day’s 66-mile trek look easy.
Strangely, the longest day in the saddle was among the easiest. Maybe my mind and body were beginning to accept this new life of hardship in the heat. The biggest challenge of the day turned out to be finding a way from the trail to my hotel in the more densely populated city of St. Charles.
The next morning, all I had to do was get up at my leisure, ride 14 miles to the end of the Katy Trail at Machens and then pedal back to the hotel in St. Charles.
St. Charles to Machens and back
It should have been the cushion day, the rocking-chair ride, the piece of cake. But the only dessert today would be caked onto my tires, bike and body. It rained all night in St. Charles and turned the trail into mush.
Although I left most of the heavy gear back at the hotel, the bike sank into the muddy trail and made it impossible to maintain speed. Without warning, the bicycle would start sliding out of control as the tires lost traction. I noticed several other riders fighting the same conditions, including a couple from Athens, Georgia, who were riding loaded touring bikes with skinny road tires.
By the time I pulled into the isolated Machens terminus, I was tired and frazzled. My raincoat and waterproof helmet cover were a steamy mess. The round trip of only 28 miles took three hours.
When I pulled back into St. Charles, I was weary, but happy at the accomplishment. Jenny met me at the hotel with plans to spend the night in St. Charles and explore the cobblestone streets, with 75 shops and restaurants. As a lonely old cowboy might say, she was a sight for sore eyes.