Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
On the Trail
I left Kansas City before Matt or Kim were awake. It was a weekday, so getting outta town before rush hour sounded like a good idea. Stopped to see a sculpture garden on the way. I could've sworn I saw The Thinker in an art museum at Stanford University. Is there more than one copy?
Followed some trails part of the way outta town, then had to get on roads and zig-zag endlessly. Unfortunately, there wasn't a direct bike-friendly route in the direction I wanted to go. I'd been told that the Rock Island Trail began in Lee's Summit, but it doesn't. There's plans to extend it that far, but it's still another 10 km or so before you're on the trail.
Less than 2 km from the trail, I was on a short bridge. There was a shoulder, but like many bridges, it was full of debris, almost to the point of unrideable. There was a lot of traffic, so I stayed over there anyway.
POW!! Clankclankclankclank sssssss.....
That's not good.
If you've ever wondered why some idiot is riding a bike in a lane of traffic when there's a "perfectly good" shoulder or bike lane right there, this is why. Other reasons include wire beading from tires, broken glass, potholes, cracks, manholes, sharply sloped pavement, sewer drains, and parked cars.
If you happen to know someone who works in street maintenance, please tell them all pavement is equally important to maintain and keep clear of debris.
First flat of the tour, something no pucture-resistant tire could've stopped. Less than 10 minutes before getting on the trail. Almost made it. Would've all but guaranteed no flats before St. Louis, since I'd barely see a road before then, and surfaces that aren't shared with big loud metal scary things are generally a lot cleaner.
It was past noon when I finally got on the trail, once a railroad, now converted to a hiking/biking trail that nearly traverses the state of Missouri. I'd figured it would take 1-2 hours, but it had taken more than five. Riding in cities slows you down a lot, especially when there's not a direct route for bikes.
Once on the trail...wow. Like heaven. Half the roads I've ridden on, including basically all with chip seal, are in worse condition than the Katy Trail. Hard-packed, smooth, not too gravely. No cracks. No debris. Lots of shade. And quiet.
Progress was somewhat slow, since you never move as fast on gravel as you do on pavement, but when you're enjoying the ride so much, who cares? Met a few people along the way, including a guy who was walking coast-to-coast. At this point, he'd made it over a third of the way. Assuming he finishes before cold weather starts in the Sierras, he'll make it. He told me there was good camping in the Green Ridge City Park. Looked like an appropriate distance for the day. It was settled.
Switched from the Rock Island Trail onto the official Katy Trail in Windsor and continued east. If anything, the surface improved. You could do the entire Katy Trail on a road bike if you knew what you were doing! It wouldn't be the best choice, but you could do it. Something like Valeria was perfect.
Windsor is where the Katy Trail and Rock Island Trail meet. I'd skipped the first 50-or-so km of the Katy Trail, which starts farther south, because I wanted to visit Manhattan, Lawrence, and Kansas City. So I initially jumped on the Rock Island Trail, which gets much closer to KC. Eventually, there are plans to extend the Rock Island Trail all the way into Kansas City, and almost all the way to St. Louis, so you could ride from one city to the next, entirely across the state, or do a loop using both trails. The previous Missouri governor was a big supporter of this idea, but the current one is not. He oughta visit all the small towns along the way, who are overwhelmingly in support of it.
Made it to Green Ridge about 7:00, which had a nice city park for a town with a population in the dozens. No bathrooms, but there was water, electric outlets, a sizeable pavilion, and a lot of thick green grass. And a gas station across the street.
Not much traffic in this small town, but all of it had an unnecessarily loud engine. Nearly every vehicle was a motorcycle, an oversized pickup truck, or at one point, a guy who rode his lawnmower to the gas station to fill it up. Invariably, everyone revs their engines as they start it, as they stop, and as they pass through the main strip in town, next to which I was camping.
Since it's a small enough town, everyone who lives there must be able to hear each and every time this happens. It might even be a form of communication, since they probably recognize each others' engines. Something like this:
Vrooooom, vroom vroooomm!! means "Hey Ted, wanna go ride around on our motorcycles? As you can tell, +I've already got mine going!"
Vroom-vroooom, vroooooooom!!! means "Nah, I gotta take this lumber over to Jim's place in my truck. See, I'm letting him know that I'm on my way over."
Luckily, the traffic quit around 10:00 PM and good sleep was had. Quick breakfast and back on the trail.
One of the weirder things about riding on a trail like this is nothing changes. Since it's a former railroad bed, there are literally no hills. Shoulders don't come and go. Traffic doesn't ebb and flow. Even the wind is a non-factor because you're surrounded by trees. Same goes for heat, for the most part. At the end of a day, you're tired not because it was challenging, but because you only did one type of riding all day. You don't stand on the pedals during an uphill, nor do you ever coast.
I had to split off the Katy Trail onto another trail that took you into Columbia, mostly because I wanted to see the Missouri University campus. Surprisingly enough, there's a nine-mile trail, equally as good as the Katy Trail, for the sole purpose of doing so, and it drops you off in the middle of town, right next to campus. Unsurprisingly, a ton of people were using it. Walkers, joggers, bikers. It's almost like if a city builds trails and bike paths, people use them. Weird!
Before going to the MU campus, I stopped off at my hosts' house, only 1.5 km from campus, and dropped off most of my stuff. It'd be easier to pedal Valeria around a campus that way. Did a short loop around the campus, and of those I've seen so far, I like MU's campus the best.
Shortly after I got back to my hosts' house, they were leaving for an evening class, so I had the place to myself for a few hours. Used that time to shower, do laundry, and peruse a book of theirs, Epic Bike Rides of the World. Great, now I wanna go to Africa, and I need a new bike for that...
Tim and Renee had left a cooler full of beer and hot dogs out in their backyard, next to a fire pit, where they'd also left newspaper, kindling, firewood, and a lighter. I'm so pathetic I ran out of newspaper before I could get a fire going, so I gave up and started microwaving the hot dogs. Eventually Renee and Tim made it home, Renee found some newspaper, and had a roaring fire going within five minutes, on her first try.
Tim is a professor at MU, which has resulted in the two of them moving from Madison, WI to Davis, CA to Columbia, MO. They seemed to like Madison the most, but then, both of them are from the upper midwest. Renee is a mechanical engineer who's lucky enough to work from home most of the time. I've wondered why more employers don't do that. The employees are usually happier, and the company doesn't have the overhead cost of the office building. And it could possibly be the solution to the economic blight found in small towns across the country. What if you could live in Dighton, KS and work for Apple or Goldman Sachs? Instead of dragging our country back to a time when small towns were doing better, has anyone made it a priority to bring our modern 21st century economy to the small towns?
Renee and Tim wake up early, and by that, I mean earlier than I do, to go for a group ride every morning. Thursday was gravel day, on trails similar to the one I'd taken into town. Evidently there are a lot of those around Columbia, and both Renee and Tim have rockin' cyclocross bikes specifically because of that. Valeria is also a good choice for that kind of riding, so I was invited. Why not?
It was raining.
Their group ride started at 5:30 AM, and when it's cloudy, that means it was still dark. So there we were, riding through the woods on a muddy trail, getting soaked, with our headlights providing about 50 m of visibility. Tim was the faster rider and got ahead; Renee stuck with me. Most likely, she could've easily left me in the dust, but hung back so she could lead me on their route. We eventually met up with a friend of theirs, and he and Tim went on a mountain bike path with lots of dirt, rocks, and roots. I passed. Valeria can handle these well-groomed trails masterfully, but probably not what was being described, especially not in the rain.
I split off from the group to head back to the Katy Trail, on roads this time (now the most direct route), but not before stopping in at a full-sized grocery store. Wasn't sure how much I'd see that from now on. It was still raining. I got a $1 pack of cookies and ate them all. It was still raining. I didn't feel any better. I headed out again. It was still raining.
While on the trails earlier in the day, Valeria's tires were spraying muck everywhere, getting herself and everything else coated in grime. Including the brakes. The front one in particular had something stuck in it, which made an obnoxious sound anytime the wheel was moving. I tried to get it out, but couldn't somehow. Tried my best to ignore it, telling myself that it would fall out on its own. But it didn't. I told myself it would fall out on its own once it stops raining and things dry out and the water isn't making whatever it is stick to wherever it is. It was still raining.
It finally stopped raining just as I reached the Katy Trail again, about 10:00 AM. Considering how early the day's ride had started, that was a good long while. The trail was still wet, of course, but slowly improved. It stayed cloudy and cool. This just might turn out to be a nice afternoon.
I wound up taking a detour to Jefferson City just to see the capitol. Fourth state capitol in six states. I'd rank them California-Missouri-Kansas-Nevada, though all of them were worth seeing. I've seen a couple that are a glorified office building.
About 2:00 PM, I looked to my right. Dark clouds. I looked behind me. Dark clouds. Ahead and to my left, it looked better. I looked up. Looked like the clouds were coming from behind me and from the left. If I kept moving forward, I'd probably get whatever was currently on my left. Right?
No such luck. Thunderstorm. There was a road paralleling the Katy Trail, so rather than ride through slop for the second time today, I jumped on the road and kept pedaling. The towns were small and far apart, so there was nothing else to do. A powerful headwind picked up, which wouldn't have been a problem if not for the rain; with drier trails, I'd be sheltered from the wind by the trees. So it's either ride in the mud or ride in the headwind. Either way, you're getting soaked. I stuck with the headwind.
This time, the rain only lasted about an hour, and when it was over, so was most of the wind. Shortly thereafter, I switched back onto the trail, which was still wet, but like last time, slowly improved.
Just before reaching my destination, I saw a guy in an orange shirt standing in the road. He waved me over and said something about biking across the country, then added "I'm sorry, my English is not so good." He had an unmistakeable French accent. So we used that instead.
It turned out he was the support guy for someone doing a coast-to-coast ride, Patrick, also French, who showed up not five minutes later. He covers about 250 km/day, or almost exactly twice what I do. True, he's not carrying gear, and it looks like he has food and lodging taken care of for him. But doing that doesn't make it twice as difficult. What he's doing is truly impressive.
From there, all I had to do was cross a bridge to reach Herman, whose setting on a hill overlooking a river gave it a distinctly European look. Another town nearby was called Rhineland, and it's not hard to see why. This area was settled in large part by French and Germans, both of which brought their wine-growing tradition with them. As a result, this area has some of the oldest vineyards in the country, and a few Missourians would go on to establish the wine industry in Napa Valley.
Once again, I had great hosts, Lee and Kylee, along with their three kids. One about to start high school, one about to start middle school, and one about to start elementary school. All of them are home-schooled. On top of that, Lee is a website developer, Kylee runs treehouse bed-and-breakfasts, and I can't remember the other two gigs they have going. And they host people all the time. Busy folks!
Another cyclist was also staying, Andy, from South Korea. He was kinda-sorta doing Route 66, but was making some changes as he went. He was riding a mountain bike and had a lot of gear.
After a hot shower, hot dinner, and hot breakfast, I was ready to take on the last day on the Katy Trail! Before leaving, I checked the forecast. Thunderstorms. Of course.
After 24 sunny days in a row, as soon as I crossed the centerpoint of the country in central Kansas, it's been 5-of-8 days of rain. Welcome to the east! Originally, the plan was to pick up in St. Louis in another summer and finish the coast-to-coast ride, but based on this "It gets rainier as you go east" experience, along with my "It rains all the #%@! time" on the Appalachian Trail, I'm not sure if I want to set foot in an eastern state ever again.
Has anyone wondered if that's why people from the northeast have a reputation for being rude? It's not so much that they're rude, they're only in a bad mood. And since it's cold, wet, and miserable all the time, they're permanently in a bad mood. And without a stretch of good weather that lasts a week or more, they have no frame of reference to compare it to. Sure, they may have gone somewhere nice on vacation, and perhaps the good weather put them in a good mood for the first time in their life. But it would be an easy mistake to associate the good mood with being on vacation rather than the sunshine. So yeah, maybe I get it now. And I feel sorry for them. It's not their fault.
It wasn't raining when I started, but half an hour later, it started sprinkling. I looked around. Clouds everywhere, but none of them dark. Later, it stopped sprinkling. Then started again. Then stopped again. The clouds looked even lighter. Huh. Weird.
All day, it looked like it might rain a little bit, but the worst that ever happened was a light rain at best, and never for long. Throughout the day, the clouds kept getting lighter, until you could see blue in the cracks between them, until eventually, the blue parts were bigger than the grey parts. By the time I made it to St. Louis in mid-afternoon, it was a sunny day.
At only about 9:00 AM, I saw what I thought were two cyclists up ahead. One of them began moving funny. It almost looked like they fell over, then continued rolling on the ground, while the other one didn't flinch. It was too far away to tell. As I got closer, it became more obvious that the vertical one was in fact a guy on a bike, and he'd continued riding. But what was that behind him? It was still on the ground. Maybe his dog?
When I got close to him, I could see he had panniers, obviously on a multi-day ride like me. Day riders usually don't stop, but multi-day riders almost always stop and chat for a second. Sort of a comaraderie, I guess. I came almost to a complete stop, waved, and called "Good morning!"
"Hey." He gave a half-nod, didn't slow down, and kept going.
Huh. Well, he acknowledged me. And maybe he's not used to seeing bike tourists stop and say hi.
At about the same time, I could tell that it was in fact another cyclist behind him. Bike down, sitting next to it, holding a water bottle. Most likely his girlfriend or wife. For the sake of simplicity, I'm guessing girlfriend from here on out.
I hit the brakes and unclipped as I approached. Bikes down usually aren't a good sign. Maybe she had a flat, they didn't have the necessary supplies, and he was going to ride ahead to a bike shop? If that's the case, I could save them a lot of trouble. "Everything cool?"
"Yeah, fine." she replied flatly.
"Alright, I just saw the bike down, and I was thinking-"
She cut me off sharply, increasing to an intense scream as she went, "I'm just out of fucks to give! GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME!! GO!!!"
I clipped back in and chirped, "You got it!" as I pedaled away, deliberately without hurrying. I bet she has lots of friends.
They were packed for a light multi-day ride, most likely with no camping, but based on their location and direction on the trail, this couldn't be more than day two. And based on the time in the morning and the spacing of the towns, they couldn't have been riding for more than an hour this morning. It hadn't been raining for the past hour, and the temperature was perfect. If you can't tell, I'm calling her a wimp.
Most likely scenario:
After the girlfriend got to pick the last five weekend getaways in a row, the boyfriend got to pick this time. He suggested the Katy Trail. She didn't want to do it and was about to overrule him for the sixth straight time until she got talked into it mostly for the wineries and bed-and-breakfasts. Somehow she thought it was going to be a five-star vacation, just like the ones her boyfriend normally buys for her, with a tiny amount of biking involved. After day two of not being in a spa or massage parlor with a glass of wine in hand, she lost it.
They might not be a couple for much longer. And that's probably for the best.
By contrast, I met two groups of older ladies on the trail, one outside of Columbia and the other between Herman and St. Louis. They were nothing but cheer, and each of them included at least one person from Texas. One group from San Antonio, the other from Abilene. At twice, or perhaps even three times the screamer's age, they were kicking her butt, smiling the whole time.
At about 2:00 PM, I reached the edge of the St. Louis area and left the Katy Trail, sad to do so. Rain aside, it's some of the most pleasant riding you can possibly do and some of the most fun I've ever had on a bike. Shade! Quiet! Good surface! No hills! No wind! Cool people! It's everything you could possibly want in a bike tour.
Now on roads, I noticed they were particularly wet, and the sun was just now fully coming out. It must have rained hard here, and not long ago. I missed it!
Four hours later, I reached the Gateway Arch. Riding through cities takes forever, even though this time around, there was a straight shot to where I was trying to go. Along the way, I rode through two large city parks and two small universities, neither of which I'd heard of before stumbling upon them.
Forest Park in particular was pretty, almost as good as Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, but not quite. Overall though, St. Louis is a beautiful town, and you can tell it has a lot of personality. The kind of place I could live if I wasn't such a wimp in the cold.
Surrounding the Arch, there was a ton of construction, and I wasn't sure if I'd be able to ride through it or not. Another guy on a bike could tell I was struggling to figure out how to get around, so he showed me a path that led around the construction and to the Arch. The base of it is still mostly fenced off, but there was still a small part where I could ride through. Through the Gateway, out of the west! Half the country behind me!
He was also nice enough to take a picture. Turned out he's also a high school teacher and wanted to pick my brain a little bit about doing this kind of thing in the summer.
As I left, I rode with another local for a while, who led us on a more bike-friendly route back towards my host. Yes, another one. Hosts nine of the past ten days. It's been said many times, but...I love you, WarmShowers.
Stephanie works in community building and owns a house not far from downtown St. Louis, next to the third city park I'd ride through that day. She and some friends had once ridden from St. Louis to Chicago with almost no planning, essentially no appropriate gear, and a roughly equal level of training. She was riding a Schwinn Cruiser. And somehow, they made it in four days. A few years later, they would ride from St. Louis to New Orleans, perhaps a little better planned this time. But most interestingly, she told her parents about neither trip, and they wound up finding out years later.
Stephanie whipped up some rice, noodles, veggies, and spicy chickpeas. Definitely some good stuff that you don't normally get on the road. We ate on her back porch and wound up staying out there talking until after dark, at which time I turned in on a big comfy couch.
At one point, Stephanie asked me what had been my favorite part of this tour. I had to think for a second. Favorite single day would be Bryce Canyon, but my favorite section would have to be the Katy Trail. From the beginning, this tour was organized around doing the Katy Trail, even before I got the idea to make it a halfway coast-to-coast. And it exceeded expectation. I might have to come back someday.
from Western States