Traveling unsupported as an ultralight tourist, one counts heavily upon services available along the trail as a means for refreshing and replenishing necessities, not the least of which are things such as nutrition and water, but also include stuff forgotten, lost, and overlooked. I found that there were surprisingly few bicycle services available along the KATY Trail – especially full service bicycle shops – for being celebrated as the longest Rails-to-Trails route in the country. The fact of the matter is that in the vast majority of towns and villages I passed through, there was not so much as an inner tube patch available, let alone a pump or gloves or tubes or tires or rain protection… all of which are pretty important items for long distance touring.
I’d intentionally avoided packing rain protection, reasoning (wrongly, as it turns out) that it was June and there was decreased chance for heavy precipitation. I wanted to keep the gear light and space was a premium even with my dramatically pared back equipment list. By contrast, I’d never intended to leave my frame pump sitting on the back seat of my car parked at the first trail head. I don’t trust CO2 cartridges (rightfully so, as it turned out) but thankfully a good samaritan came along immediately after I flatted a couple hours into the first day’s ride, assisted me with my plight, and stayed with me for part of the 22 miles I rode backward to locate a proper LBS from which to procure a new high pressure frame pump. My CO2 emergency “backups” failed miserably and were just that much more additional weight so perhaps it was serendipitous that I was able to dispose of them so quickly. Naturally, it didn’t seem so much serendipitous as PIA at the time. In any event, I’ll never carry those damn things again: give me a good frame pump: it might not be as fast to inflate, but it’ll get the job done. On the road, if a thing is unreliable it is junk.
Another frequent frustration I encountered was the complete inaccuracy of the trail maps and trail head signage produced by DNR. These resources were simply wrong with regard to camping and availability of water. The Department of Natural Resources provides sufficient water right at the trail head; this is adequately marked on the trail maps and clearly indicated on the signage as one rides into a trail head. There were water fountains and in many places a spigot as well. It might not have been particularly cold, but it was refreshing water. Water was just as clearly indicated on the maps and signage riding towards the east … but I’ll be damned if I ever located any water fountain or spigot after leaving Jefferson City. Instead, I relied on the garden hose of a little old lady and an extremely cold beer offered by a couple of gents along the river.
Many towns and villages had no services at all. This was particularly vexing as I rolled in at the end of the second day, expecting to set up my tent. Camping was clearly indicated by the map and trail head signage, but no one in the village of a few odd dozen souls had any idea where the campsite might actually be! I continued on to the next trail head: same story. After having added 44 miles to my first day of riding to procure a frame pump, I was distraught at having to ride an additional 25 miles to find a place to bed down for the night. In the town of Mokane – which was supposed to have camping – a woman working at the tiny grocery told me to ride along the river another six miles to Portland where her parents owned a river front campground.
With shadows growing long, I rolled into the tiny hamlet of Portland and was greeted by two fellows sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck at the river’s edge. In the bed of the truck was a large metal container filled with ice and cans of PBR. There appeared to be about two dozen empty cans on the ground around them.
“Hey, what took you so long to get here?” one of them yelled. Was he talking to me? I rolled down the bank in his direction. By word of explanation he said they were the guys I’d talked to back in Steedman. Fine, but I hadn’t seen a soul in Steedman. As I got closer, they realized I was a different cyclist than the one they’d spoken with some hours earlier in the day. I couldn’t imagine who they were talking about though, as I had not seen another cyclist since the samaritan twenty-four or more hours earlier.
Didn’t matter though. They offered me a beer (graciously accepted), told me about the town (one ramshackle building – but it was, to their eternal excitement, a bar!), and dialed up the owner of the campground (because T-Mobile – my cell phone provider – is without service coverage for most of the trail.) While we waited for the campground owner to arrive, I got a short history of the town which through their fairly skewed telling was largely centered around the bar. Whether it’s true or not (something I have some doubts about, in fact), I was told that in 1914 a river boat hit a stump not far off shore from Portland. Residents rowed out to the river boat, salvaged two pool tables (with leather side pockets, no less!), and left the paddle boat to sink in the Missouri. Those two pool tables were still to be found in the bar, 50 cents per game, and around which it seemed that most of the village’s residents were assembled that evening. Small kids ran around the bar, folks were grouped around tables visiting and eating dinner, downing cold Budweiser. And they were, in fact, very cold beers. My new friends from the river bank told me the bar made a great fried catfish sandwich. This much was fact: it was the best I’ve ever eaten and larger than any other fish sandwich I’d ever encountered by at least a factor of two.
I was invited to play pool and when I responded that I played very, very badly one of the guys said, “No problem! Let’s play for money!”