Thursday, March 1, 2012

Flashback to One of Our Favorite Vacations

Take the scenic route
Katy Trail, August 19-23, 2007.  Five days of biking in the Missouri River valley.  Nothing mattered but drinking enough water, eating when we were hungry, and making it to our next campsite before sundown.  Oh, and reading all of the Lewis and Clark historical markers, of course.

Although spring garden-planning has already begun, I look at the average Last Frost Date for Aurora (May 15) and think, Bleh! So much winter left!  These summer memories are a nice distraction from the damp cold of March.

When I rode the Katy Trail with my parents in the late '90s, we did it in four days, which is doable for the casual bicyclist but very tough without properly training for it.  It was chilly early November, and the first three days' rides were between 50 and 70 miles long.  We only had to carry a couple of changes of clothes, some bike tools (but forgot the spare inner tubes), and food for snacks and lunches, because each night we stayed at bed and breakfasts with mercifully hot showers and soft beds. 

This time, Len and I were camping the whole way—i.e., we were carrying more gear with us, facing variable (or nonexistent) shower facilities, and sleeping on the hard ground.  We went in sweltering late August, over our third wedding anniversary, and stretched the trip over five days, requiring only a few hours of biking each day to allow plenty of daylight left for resting, exploring along the way, and setting up and tearing down camp.

Our travel plan came from the suggested itineraries in the The Complete Katy Trail Guidebook:
Day 1 - Sedalia to New Franklin - 41 miles
Day 2 - New Franklin to Hartsburg - 34.4 miles
Day 3 - Hartsburg to Bluffton - 42.7 miles
Day 4 - Bluffton to Marthasville - 33.2 miles
Day 5 - Marthasville to St.  Charles - 38.2 miles

A very brief history: The Katy Trail is our country's longest rails-to-trails project and is the former route of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT) rail line, which mostly follows the path of the Missouri River, which played a big part in Lewis and Clark's expedition west.  Historical markers along the trail include their journal excerpts.  Those guys used some creative spelling.  And, relics of the MKT—boxcars, roundhouses, old signage—accent the trail and bring to life its history.  Lots of the small towns from the river and rail heydays now bank on trail-related businesses: bicycle shops, biking clubs and events, wineries, breweries, bed and breakfasts.  This part of Missouri is also heavy in German heritage. 

OK, on with our own travelogue.

Day 1
My parents drove us to the Amtrak station in Washington, MO.  From there, we took a morning train to Sedalia.  The Katy Trail really begins in Clinton, but we skipped that first 35-mile segment in the interest of keeping our tidy five-day plan. Anyway, Sedalia was the original western terminus until about 1999, so it's still a good starting point.  Checking the Amtrak website today, I can see prices haven't changed much.  It's still $10 per bike, and a ticket from Washington to Sedalia goes for about $23.

A tree had fallen across the tracks, so our train was delayed by two hours, maybe three.  It was early afternoon when we detrained at the Sedalia depot, and we had maybe four or five hours until sunset.  That's plenty of time to bike 41 miles unencumbered, but Len was pulling our (then brand new) Croozer cargo trailer, and a whole pile of stuff was strapped to the rack over my rear tire.  And, we had wanted to stop along the way for dinner.  And, out of the next five days, today was the only one with a chance of rain.  It was looking mighty cloudy.  Time to push it.

Rail to trail

The first raindrops hit us, oh, within 20 minutes.  Before long, it was coming down in buckets.

We caught up to a man named Charlie, who had started in Alaska in March and was biking across America on a recumbent.  He had stopped to pull a poncho out of his little trailer.  We had not packed our ponchos—why carry the extra weight when only one day had a 30 percent chance of rain?

By the time we reached the next town's trail head, it was almost pointless to stand under the picnic shelter and wait for the storm to pass, but we did.  We chatted with a local who sported an awesomely long beard and an even more awesome deep radio voice.

Signal light and bridge, relics of the MKT rail line; and us, soaked.

The rain stopped shortly, and, soggy and covered in limestone mud, we made it before sunset to the town where we'd planned on having dinner (Boonville, hamburgers). But the Katy Roundhouse campground was still almost four miles farther, so it was dark before we completed the day's journey.  Even though the Croozer had a cover and my bike's load was protected by a folded tarp, all of our stuff was damp if not downright sodden. We set up the tent as quickly as possible, took hot showers (thank goodness for that amenity!) and spent a miserable night of off-and-on rain.

Day 2
The next morning, we spent a few hours trying to dry out our clothes and gear over a campfire.  Our sole neighbor brought over her dog and some chai tea to share.  She also gave us her spare can-opener when we realized we'd forgotten to pack one, so we could enjoy our can of black beans and some fresh green pepper for breakfast.  We also had to patch a leak in one of Len's tires.  (Um, he had run over some thorns because he crashed off the side of trail, because he turned to look backward at me, because I had shrieked, because a buzzing cicada was stuck in my hair.  Whoops.)

We were off to a late start again, and our stuff was still damp.  The day was growing hotter, and the forests surrounding the trail, still soaked from yesterday's rain, made it so humid.

We caught up to Charlie again near Rocheport.  It appeared he'd started much earlier in the morning and was now already calling it day, having some beer out in the yard with some locals.  It seemed they'd been out there a while.  We stopped in Rocheport for a root beer float and to admire the only train tunnel on the trail.  It's pretty neat, finished with limestone brick on one end but natural rock on the other, with the ceiling stained black from train soot.  This tunnel was used in the filming of Stephen King's Sometimes They Come Back.

The famous old train tunnel in Rocheport.

It was dusk when we arrived in Hartsburg, where our campsite was the "city park."  It was like camping in somebody's yard, OK?  The "park" was a gazebo, picnic table, charcoal grill, small playground, and a couple of large trees, set in a small lot between two houses, each set on similar-sized lots.  There was a public restroom for trail riders—just a toilet and sink—and a water spigot.

We hung a few of our things up hopefully to dry out overnight, dined on cans of tuna and slices of cucumber (our last fresh item), washed up at the sink, and went to bed.

Sometime in the night, two dogs came sniffing around and lay down outside our tent.

This one would follow us for ten miles the next day.
Day 3
Len woke up at something like three in the morning, thinking it was closer to dawn, and thought we should get moving in order to have a more leisurely ride than the past two days' rather rushed afternoons.  Perhaps this too-early start is why Day 3 feels the most epic.

As the sky lightened, our impromptu guard dogs became very interested in the boat trailer in the neighbor's yard.  It was obvious why when a cat burst out from hiding there and rocketed up the closest tree.  While the dogs were occupied with the cat—and not focused on playing with us—we packed up and left.  One dog tagged along anyway, no matter how much we ignored him nor how firmly we told him to go home, or "No!" or "Go on, git!"

Swim and slurp.
He was obviously a country dog, accustomed to roaming wherever he pleased, but what if he followed us too far and couldn't make it back home?  The day would be 95 degrees and sunny—what if he died of heat exhaustion tramping along behind us for so long?  We sped ahead, hoping he'd turn back if he couldn't see us anymore.  But, as we later rested in the shade beside the Missouri River (see our blog header photo) and ate peanut butter and raisin sandwiches (an unplanned combo that became my new favorite trail snack), the dog showed up!  He'd been trailing us the whole time.  And he was glad for the rest stop, too.  He walked right into the river and just stood there, chest-deep, drinking the water as it flowed against him.

Hot dog.
The last time we saw the dog was at the North Jefferson trail head (ten miles from Hartsburg!), where we stopped to refill our water jug and water bottles in view of Missouri's capital city.  There was a dog bowl by the water spigot, so we filled it for the dog and left quickly while he was lying down in the shade.  I hope he began his journey back home at that point.

The next ten miles were grueling.  If I remember correctly, there was little shade as we biked past cornfields and soybean fields and small farms.  On such a bright, sunny day, the scenery was glorious, but oh, the heat!  We were exhausted, and parched when we reached Tebbetts, our halfway point.  At Jim's Country Store (now unfortunately closed, but once a quaint cafe and bar in an old bank building), we bought an armload of Gatorades and two of the best ham sandwiches we'd ever eaten.  Jim himself showed us around the place, which included a picture of his karaoke alter-ego, Wong Hung Lo.

Our second-to-last stop for the day was Portland, home of the Riverfront Bar and Grill. I once stopped here with my parents and sister on the first morning of a two-day bike trip (our first overnight adventure on the Katy).  It's really a lunch and dinner place, but they were more or less open in the morning and told us they could make us anything on the grill menu.  So, burgers and Yoo-hoos for breakfast.  Len and I stopped there for dinner.  We also really wanted to buy some milk, but the smallest size in the establishment's convenience-store-type cooler was a half gallon.  We chugged as much of it as we could before heading out to close the remaining five miles to Bluffton.  Neither of us actually got sick, but I can say that filling your belly with milk before vigorous exercise in hot weather may not be the best idea.

Steamboat Junction in Bluffton was the nicest campground of our trip.  It was well-kept, boasted the cleanest, best-smelling port-a-potty I've ever used, and had turned a small prefab unit into a cute little shower house.  We had plenty of daylight left this time, so we set up camp in the dappled shade of some walnut trees and strung up a clothesline to finish drying out our stuff once and for all. Yes, it was still damp from Day 1!

Hung out to dry at Steamboat Junction (shower house in background).

Up a small hill from the campground was a small, very old cemetery and some nice views of the valley. Steamboat Junction staffs a concession stand on weekends, but during the midweek lull (we were the only campers that Tuesday evening), it was self-serve.  We found sandwiches, Gatorades and sodas in the refrigerator and bundles of firewood behind the stand.  Just had to drop some cash in the "honor box"  and simply enjoy a quiet evening.  I think here we felt most relaxed.  Later, after dark, we heard coyotes or wolves howling in the hills.  You just can't get that "middle of the woods" feeling in the suburban forest preserves.

Day 4

I remember fewer details from Day 4 as I do the first three days (and even fewer from Day 5, as you'll read).  Perhaps my body was growing more tired each day and delegating less and less energy to memory, needing it all for just pumping the legs.  But I do remember waking up that morning to quite a ruckus.  Lots of chittering, chewing sounds accompanied by rustling leaves and many small thunks on the ground all around us.  Occasionally there was a larger, heavier thunk. We unzipped the tent and witnessed a virtual factory of squirrels bustling about the walnut trees—and, as a result of their frenzy, a hailstorm of walnuts.  The larger thunks turned out to be the squirrels themselves landing on the ground from a high branch.  Either they were clumsy or they found it more efficient to jump than to climb down.

Before packing up for the day, we biked a short way to a hiking trail and hiked up to a scenic overlook.

Overlooking the Missouri River and its fertile valley.

Now we were biking into more familiar territory.  The trail's eastern segments are close enough to the St. Louis area for day trips.  Again, it was a very hot day, and we stopped to rest and drink almost anytime we found a shady patch of trail.  In between towns, there are farmhouses up on hills overlooking wide fields.  This classic river valley geography means that when you do arrive in a town, it's all farm and field on one side of the trail and then houses and shops packed along the steep incline on the other side.  These towns have a lot to offer the bicycle tourist, but venturing into them means crawling up the streets in your lowest gear or just leaving your bike at the trail head and walking.

Our final destination was Marthasville.  We camped near the picnic pavilion at the community center.  You know, the local ball fields.  There was indeed a coed softball game that night, so we had concession stand food for dinner and live entertainment late into the evening.  We were allowed to shower in the primitive locker rooms there.  Hanging out in the corner of one shower stall was the most gigantic wasp I'd ever seen.  Like, bird-sized.  You know how wasps eat spiders?  Well this kind of wasp is known as a "tarantula hawk."  Get the picture.  One of us kept constant watch on that sucker while the other one showered.

Day 5
This morning's excursion was a little ways off the trail to the Daniel Boone monument.  It was a nice little side trip to see some of the residential area, but the site turned out to be mostly just Boone family gravestones.

For awhile, we enjoyed a really nice wooded length of trail, like biking through a foliage tunnel.  It's gorgeous in the fall, when the leaves change colors and pile up along the edge of the trail.  In the summer, the dense covering of lush green leaves provides a very welcome shelter from the broiling sun.

Limestone and trees.

The woods, the river banks, the limestone bluffs, the rolling hills, the wide open spaces—so much awesome scenery along the trail.  Even the oppressive heat, while a hindrance, could not take away the simultaneous tranquility and invigoration we felt biking through this landscape. 

Except for the brief periods we spent eating inside restaurants (many of which left their doors or windows wide open anyhow), we had been outdoors in the fresh air nonstop for nearly five days.  And, exercising for several hours each day.  (There's nothing like self-propelled transportation.)  Even though I was hot and grimy and physically exhausted, I'd never felt better. 

Also there is a freedom in this kind of vacation that you can't get in everyday life—having no obligations but determining when and what we were going to eat, making sure our water supply would last us to the next spigot and arriving at our next destination.  For those few days, we really did feel the remarkable absence of the everyday weight of jobs, bills, chores, whatever.

Trail and corn.

I'm pretty sure Day 5 is the day we ate our condensed soup right out of the cans.  We'd packed it as an easy, just-add-water meal, but hadn't used it.  Well, we were hungry and we were in the middle of nowhere (except for a farm that was going to open soon with all kinds of diversions—petting zoo, concessions, etc.—but for now only had a broken vending machine, which the guy opened up for us when he noticed us looking awfully thirsty).  So, we popped open the cans of soup and ate them without adding water—like stew.  It was pretty tasty with the flavors concentrated like that, though also pretty salty.  But, when you're working up a constant sweat as we were, salt in your food is not a bad thing.

During the last stretch, we were in more densely populated areas, and we encountered road construction right alongside the trail.  Sun beating down on freshly laid asphalt, bouncing back steaming hot (and kind of smelly) to us.  Those last few miles were not as enjoyable.  Oh well.  Again, we took breaks whenever even a few feet of shade crossed the trail.

In the early afternoon, we arrived in St. Charles, the end of the line.  We bought an expensive fresh-squeezed lemonade from one of the shops on the main street (very pedestrian-friendly, lots of tea rooms and antiques dealers and that sort of thing).  Then it was back to my parents' house (Dad was waiting for us in St. Charles), where the whirlpool tub and Epsom salts looked quite inviting.

Some unexpectedly essential supplies (other than the usual biking/camping necessities) :

  • Tea-bag-style coffee.  Portable, individual servings and way better flavor than instant.
  • Small jar of peanut butter, bag of raisins, loaf of wheat bread.  Easy, tasty, high-energy snack.
  • Pop-top canned goods.  It's just easier!
  • Roll of toilet paper, because you just never know. Also a great fire-starter.


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