We leaned our bikes against the guardrail of the old trestle bridge and set ourselves upon the task of changing yet another flat tire.
Neither my riding partner nor I felt threatened as the sky behind us turned an ominous shade of blue. We had fifteen miles to ride and three hours to do it. We've got this.
Had I not been preoccupied with helping my friend troubleshoot the cause of his perpetual flatting, I may have thought to take a picture of the eerie pall descending over the Missouri River. But by the time you reach the third day of a three-day trip, pulling out the phone to snap a picture is more of a chore than a priority. A review of my photo stream reveals a distinct enthusiasm gap that is directly proportional to distance pedaled...
We had been playing cat and mouse with both the river and the weather as we traversed the Katy Trail 163 miles from Sedalia to Washington Missouri over the Memorial Day weekend.
The Katy Trail is one of the longest rail trails in the country, measuring 251 miles from its start 75 miles southeast of Kansas City to its current terminus 25 miles northwest of St. Louis. The trail parallels the Missouri River for all but 75 miles of its run. A rider not only rolls through the tiny towns that sprouted up along the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad (the MKT or "Katy"), but also follows in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark's legendary expedition. One can't help but feel a strong connection to the past while rolling through this historic corridor.
The Katy also offers some of the most diverse scenery of any rail trail in the Midwest. Our route from Sedalia took us through open prairies, atop tree-lined ridges, and along stone outcroppings. We rode in the shadows of towering bluffs and astride the curving riverbank. The trail bisected wetlands and fertile farm fields. As we pedaled along peacefully, shaded from the direct sunlight and in awe of the scenic views, it was easy not to notice anything coming up behind us.
We were committed to riding the Katy over Memorial Day weekend. We had prepared for this trip for more than two months. We certainly weren't going to let the Weather Channel's 40% likely prediction of scattered thunderstorms alter our plans.
It's not that rail trail excursions like this are all that hard to put together. As long as the information we found on the official Katy Trail website was fairly accurate, we could set reasonable daily mileage goals that led us comfortably to our overnight accommodations. By utilizing the Weather Channel iPhone app, we could review an hour-by-hour prediction for the segment we planned to cover a full twenty four hours in advance. With all day to cover less than 60 miles, we could alter our start time or schedule layovers along the way.
What could possibly go wrong?
We chose to start our tour at the trailhead in Sedalia, a town served by Amtrak. It would take three, 54-mile days to reach Washington - another town on Amtrak's Missouri River Runner line. I would catch a 5pm train back to Sedalia on Monday and Joel, my riding partner, would continue riding to St. Charles over the next two days. We would reconnect and drive back to Chicago together.
Joel suggested that we set up camp Friday night at the same spot we would ride to on Saturday. We could drive in, pitch our tents, sleep, secure our gear inside our tents, and drive an hour west to the start of the ride on Saturday morning. This was a no-brainer. Our first day's ride would be 30 pounds lighter by leaving the gear behind.
Friday night was cold, dipping down to the mid-50s, but the 40% chance of rain never materialized. Just as we had finished zipping up the tents and climbed into the van Saturday morning, the sky broke loose and dumped an inch of rain on the area. Skies remained clear 60 miles west at our starting point. We rode the entire day without a single raindrop.
Saturday night brought a light rain around 4:30 am (Sunday). Awakened by the rain, I checked the Weather Channel app and found that the rain would blow over in another half hour. Sure enough, it did.
Sunday was hot. Very hot (87 degrees). It was also very humid.
Riding in the shade, you don't really notice the toll the heat is taking on your body until you remove your sunglasses and they look like the rim of a margarita glass. By the time I reached my fourth hour in the saddle, my desire to drink water and swallow electrolyte caplets was waning. To complicate matters, there were no services for nearly 28 miles between our lunch stop in Hartsburg (10.5 miles west of North Jefferson City trailhead) and Mokane (9 miles west of Portland, our overnight destination). While Joel was content to consume sugar-laden electrolyte drinks he found in vending machines and convenience stores, I made do with water and caplets, refueling with Trader Joe's trail mix and fruit bars.
I was ready to collapse by the time we reached the tiny town of Portland. Had I not known to look for the Riverfront Bar and Grill, I never would have noticed the small blue shed that served as the restroom, shower, and makeshift office of the River's Edge RV Park and Campground (two separate businesses).
After locating the campground's proprietor at her home a block away, we were reminded that the bar - the only eating establishment in town - would be closing soon. We ordered cheeseburgers and fries with only minutes to spare before the owner closed the kitchen.
Another pair of weary cyclists - a father and son from St. Louis - arrived at the bar at 7:02 and had to plead with the owner to throw some burgers on the grill. Considering we four cyclists made up 80% of the bar's clientele that evening, you would think that the owner's decision would be a no-brainer, but much debate ensued before our new friends were served. Another pair of cyclists we met the following morning were not as lucky. They arrived in time for a dinner of Clif Bars...
Despite yet another 40% chance of rain, we managed to sleep until 2:15am until a major storm kicked up. We could hear the wind howling through the river valley and the rustling of the leaves on the hundreds of trees that surrounded us. Checking my handy iPhone app once again, the radar showed that the storm would be moving to the northeast by 3am and the heavy rain would subside. Almost on cue, the night returned to calm at 3.
Awakening well before 7am, I was hopeful that we could break camp by 8:30 and ride the 46 remaining miles into Washington well before my train's departure at 5pm. I imagined a more leisurely pace, a hearty breakfast at a town 10 miles up the trail, and enough time leftover to hoist a couple of beers at the bar across from the train station.
After installing the 2nd tube in Joel's front tire and inflating it to a full 80psi with a floor pump we borrowed from our fellow campers, we felt comfortable with a 9:30am start. A check of the Weather Channel app revealed a - surprise - 40% chance of scattered thunderstorms descending upon Washington around 2pm. Doing the math, we had 4.5 hours to ride 46 miles - a very leisurely pace of 10mph and well below our average of 12.
Precisely one mile east of our heavily wooded campsite, we encountered a tree that had fallen over the trail during the night. There was no way around it, so we were forced to climb through it.
Slightly overheated and even hungrier from our lumberjack experience, we rode with redoubled determination toward the next town on the trail. Our decision to skip the much-anticipated hearty breakfast and settle for a more substantial lunch was made for us when we found the entire town of Rhineland closed for Memorial Day...
Joel's tire was slowly losing air and we had to stop every 5 miles or so to top it off with his hand pump. It appeared that the valve stem was the root of the problem and it was only being exacerbated by inflating it with the mini-pump. At 15 miles in, we decided to make the 4-mile detour to Hermann and visit the local bike shop for a professional repair. To Joel's dismay, the shop carried the same brand of tube as the two he had experienced problems with...
We were very pleased that the proprietor of Ride, Rest, and Go Bicycle Shop was open on the holiday and very thorough in checking Joel's tire before installing a new tube. We met a couple of fellow bike tourists experiencing a pedal problem and we compared notes about our respective rides. They were contemplating using the bike shop's shuttle back to Augusta - 8 miles farther east than our destination - in the event of rain. With a clear sky behind us and only 30 miles left to ride, we didn't give this option a second thought...
The ride from Hermann to our destination of Dutzow (the closest trail town to Washington) couldn't have been more scenic. Riding on a narrow ribbon between the bluff and the river bank, I couldn't help thinking about Lewis and Clark and how their expedition team had to hack a trail through this very rugged terrain. Despite a slight uphill grade, I felt energized as I watched the mile marker posts tick away every 6 minutes or so. I would have no problem whatsoever completing the ride to Washington and making my train.
Two and a half miles outside of the rest area at Treloar, I caught up with Joel walking his bike. His tire had gone flat and he was cursing the name of the tube company pretty regularly. On that bridge, with the sky darkening behind us, we discovered that his wheel's rim strip had slipped out of place and punctured a tiny hole in the tube...
It was now 2pm. Fifteen and a half miles lay in front of us. We could almost walk the bikes into Washington and still make my train. As we pedaled closer to the rest stop in Treloar, a tornado siren could be heard off in the distance. I checked the Weather Channel app at the rest stop. A severe thunderstorm warning was in effect until 2:45pm. After some debate, we decided to wait 15 minutes or so to see what might transpire.
Just before 2:45, the skies let loose. Thunder boomed. Lightning crackled. The rain drove sideways, forcing us to pull our bikes up onto the benches under the covered information sign. A fellow rider who just rolled in minutes before the deluge, took shelter in the cinder block restroom. A man in an old minivan pulled into the parking lot, waiting inside his car for the rain to subside.
The trail was completely washed out. The storm passed, but the rain continued to fall. We would have to reroute onto a busy two-lane road and ride the final 13 miles in the rain under less than optimal visibility. We decided to call the proprietor of the bike shop in Hermann to see if he could shuttle us on to the train station. I walked into the quiet of the restroom and dialed his number. The phone rang, but the call went to voicemail...
As I stood there, pondering our next move - searching listings for taxis, asking our fellow stranded cyclist if he had any friends with a pickup truck, risking the rainy road ride - the man from the bike shop walked into the restroom! He had just finished shuttling the couple we met at his shop back to Augusta. He pulled into the rest stop because he could no longer see to drive in the pouring rain.
We gladly paid him $25 to drive us to Washington.
We still had time to hoist a cold one before my train departed.
Images of our Katy Trail trip appear on Easy As Riding A Bike's Facebook page. More anecdotes and advice about riding along the Mighty Missouri will follow.
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Keep riding and be safe!