Cyclo Tourist on the KATY

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!”

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5 thoughts on “Cyclo Tourist on the KATY

  1. I haven’t heard such remarks about the KT Trail before, but I am glad I heard’em from you. I have ridden the KT before, but not as a cyclo tourist. If I decide to tour the KT, I will be extra cautious.

    Happy Trails!

    Peace 🙂

    • Please don’t take my commentary as a negative critique of the KATY Trail; rather it should be seen as a dialogue on personal awareness. I thoroughly enjoyed the tour, but I think sometimes the “hype” around the trail is about how easy it is to ride. While this is generally true – especially if one is only going to ride from one trailhead to the next as most people will be doing – it would be a mistake to let that presumption get in the way of a fun tour across the state because one was less prepared for the trail than on any other tour. I like to travel light: backpacker tent, no sleeping bag, very minimal tools and gear, etc. The KATY Trail bisects some very rural portions of Missouri, some with few services. The route is generally flat but is covered with chat – inclement weather tends to loosen the gravel and drop trees and limbs across the trail. It’s a beautiful tour, but follow the Boy Scout motto and “be prepared” to fix a broken part, to improvise on something you simply had not planned to improvise upon, and to grab food and – especially! – water whenever you can most easily do so.

  2. The Velo Hobo says:

    It’s similar on the Blue Ridge Parkway, services are few. I think that’s the appeal for me…self reliance and improvising on the fly. I once fixed a blown-out sidewall with duct tape and a piece of cardboard so we could limp into the next town. It sucked at the time, but now it just the memory more interesting.

    Jack

    • That’s the appeal for me as well. I think many cyclists probably watched MacGyver with equal parts envy and a “well heck, I could’ve done that” kind of attitude. I always thought the stories of fixing a tire with a dollar bill were apocryphal – until I had to do so myself this summer. (As a matter of fact, it happened to be a twenty dollar bill – I had nothing smaller at the time. More importantly, it’s not a tale: it actually does work.) While day tripping in Scotland this summer I rode a rented bike. It was ill suited for my needs, poorly fitting, and frankly a complete piece of – uh – crap. I was constantly afraid it would break. But I wore a backpack with water and food, strapped and taped other things to the frame (as well as onto my arms at times!) and made it work. Not perfectly, but there lies part of the charm, as I think you infer. I like your statement, “self reliance and improvising on the fly.” I won’t take off from my front door without a patch kit and a pump, and even if you like to keep it light – as I do – one has to be prepared for both self reliance and improvisation when cyclo-touring. That way, the stories – which really are the best part! – have a happy ending.

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