Exploring a New Rail Trail


Less than three months ago, the Rock Island Spur Trail officially opened. Yesterday being the most incredible February weather I can ever recall, my day was devoted to exploring a segment of this Rails-to-Trails initiative that connects the southern most section of the Kansas City area to the Katy Trail.

Still in its infancy, the Rock Island Spur Trail (like the Katy) offers snapshot views of scenes not always obvious or accessible by car. Combined with the Katy, the two trails will eventually nearly double the current mileage to form a 450 mile loop from one side of Missouri to the other. I love to explore and discover new places, especially small towns, “discardia,” and architectural elements. In this respect, the new trail does not disappoint.


On this day I’m riding my 1971 Raleigh International. The 700 x 38 Compass tires provide a comfortable ride on a trail surface of packed gravel and clay. From time to time, the path becomes washboard, and I welcome the wide, supple tires that are not fully inflated.

This also offers me a chance to test out the revised contact points on the International. The bars and stem have been replaced, and only just this morning I’ve pulled the Brooks Cambium C17 from a bike that doesn’t see many miles and installed it onto this bike. I enjoy the feel of the Cambium on my Boulder Brevet, and because I’ve tried to closely mimic the cockpit and contact point dimensions it made sense to me to use the same model saddle also.

Emerging from a bank of trees, the trail crosses a paved road a few miles along the route out of Pleasant Hill, Missouri. There is an unimproved trail head at this location that abuts a property I imagine to be a “personal” salvage yard. In other words, it doesn’t appear to be a commercial operation; a pungent, thick smoky fire was burning – tires perhaps? – and the land was very overgrown and littered with wrecked and inoperable cars and trucks and other “discardia.” Trees had taken root and sprouted from the midst of literally everything. This 60’s era sedan has an orange New York license plate attached to the front.

I find “discardia” interesting. Such things, whether they be architectural, vehicular, or simply everyday detritus, are signs of human touch – of human impact. There’s history to be found in these artifacts of our existence … but it’s fleeting, because they are quickly disintegrating. As they return to their constituent elements, whatever sights they’ve born witness to are also disappearing.

Small towns throughout the Midwest are often an intriguing mishmash of architectural styles, with a few extant examples of Federalist style and Antebellum homes to be found if one searches, along with a smattering of Victorian “Painted Ladies,” Art Nouveau, and – more often than not – cautiously woven together Art Deco elements. Of course, bungalows and later box style structures still are the predominant structures, but they bore me and I choose to ignore them unless there is something unique to pique my curiosity about them.

Locating the trail head in Pleasant Hill, Missouri was challenging. No permanent signs have been installed yet. The online map was only generally helpful and provided little context once I arrived in town. In fact, I wound up misinterpreting the map and driving miles out of town in search of a turn off, only to have to circle back again. Siri couldn’t find any reference to a “Rock Island Spur trailhead” and tried to direct me to another town about a hundred miles away on the Katy.

Once back in town I turned toward the older commercial district, planning to stop at the police station for directions. Instead, I came upon  a group of four young adults on bikes. Figuring them to be likely trail riders, I asked if they knew where the trail head was located. With a shake of his head and a grin, one guy laughingly acknowledged that things weren’t marked very well. He told me to park in the commercial district (no parking at the trail head???) and pedal down the road I was already on another quarter mile.

Easy enough. Following his directions, I noticed a couple of small temporary directional signs – literally 8 x 10 cards with small lettering stapled to wooden stakes – encouraging riders to “go this way.”

Which I did.

And which, ultimately, led me to a farm, down a farm path, and onto the trail proper. Whew!

Fortunately, I filled my water bottle before heading out. At least along the first twenty-five miles there are no towns, no places to refill water – and no restrooms. (Fortunately, there are plenty of trees though.) The trailheads I encountered are also still very primitive. Although there is parking (except at Pleasant Hill), there is little else. This differs from many trail heads along the Katy, and I’m sure this will change as the trail is further developed. And to be fair, such inconveniences didn’t seem to mar the enthusiasm of trail users yesterday – I encountered an abundance of cyclists and hikers. (Horses are also welcome on the trail, but leave your ATVs and dirt bikes at home.)

Perhaps I read the mile markers (and the website, and the GPS) wrong, but I should have encountered a town at one point – in fact, I’d planned to make that my turnaround point. But I arrived at the designated mile marker and found…more trees, and a field. Hmm. I decided to keep going another mile. And another. In fact four more. I crossed a couple of roads but I never found that little town, and the afternoon growing late, and me having yet to make any sketches, I turned back toward Pleasant Hill. Having scoped out a few interesting places on the short journey out, my plan was to stop to make photographs and sketches as I leisurely pedaled back toward the car.

Eventually, the Rock Island Trail will be 272 miles in length, from Lee’s Summit in the west to Labadie on the east side of the state. There are plans to extend the trail from Lee’s Summit further into Kansas City, creating even more urban access points. As of this writing, a nearly fifty mile segment is open from Pleasant Hill and connecting to the Katy Trail at Windsor.


Bike stats

Pi Day

It’s Friday the 13th, I’m sitting in the bar of the Hotel Frederik in Boonville, Missouri enjoying a chocolate ale and a dozen excellent oysters on the half shell and waiting on what is purported to be an excellent burger. Friday the 13th, and Spring Break has begun. Friday the 13th and nothing has gone amiss, no black cats have crossed my path, no spilled salt ruining my day. I’m in Boonville, because on the morrow we’ll be leisurely riding a section of the KATY Trail. And tonight, the burger meets all expectations.

The morrow arrives, with a brisk wind coming off the Missouri River, a bit colder than anticipated but showing promise all the same – at least we hope so! As we walk across the road to the Main Street Diner it is abundantly clear that our shorts and t-shirts are enthusiastic, but ambitiously hopeful. Normally I would have brought leg and arm warmers, but in my enthusiasm to get out the door and on the road such things seem to have been overlooked. (Not to mention an extra tube or patch kit…!)

The hotel is a pleasant place; every visit is a step back in time, a stroll into a different and more  civilized age. We’ve enjoyed the hospitality of this place before and will again. It’s tempting to stay in the comfort and warmth of the lobby, but the morning wains. It’s time to mount up, brave the wind, and cross the river.

We head east, toward Rocheport, a small river town with an excellent restaurant. The KATY Trail, normally a hard packed gravel path, is on this morning a road of quite loose sand. Our tires sink into the ground and it’s a lot like the effort of riding upon the beach. That’s OK though, because our journey is purposely slow, and we take many breaks along the way. This section of the trail runs alongside farmland and passes through a couple of conservation areas. At one stop, I pause to explore the masonry of an unusual grain storage structure.

The weather has been spectacular these past several days. Although the cross winds are fierce, the day continues to warm and we find it difficult to believe we have the trail entirely to ourselves. Crossing over Salt Creek  the winds all but disappear as the fields give way to woods; the bluffs are effective wind breakers.

Looking closely among the dry leaves, fresh green is beginning to show.

Just outside Rocheport, the trail passes through a tunnel. At one time the bluffs that line the former railroad bed were adorned with petroglyphs. Further along, some are still visible but many were destroyed in this location when the tunnel was constructed in the early twentieth century.

Rocheport is a tiny hamlet of century-old homes and a block long business district. Abigail’s is one of the five or six places of business (Aside from numerous bed and breakfast operations), and is a favorite of ours. Frankly, I think we’ve probably dined there every time we’ve visited Rocheport. Always funky, and always esoteric, the food is makes these visits something worth looking forward to. The menu is on a single large chalk board, set upon an easel and brought from table to table. Today, our repast consists of an incredible seafood chowder, roasted vegetables and field greens, and hearty baked bread. It’s “Pi Day,” but as wonderful as it sounds we are too full to enjoy a slice of the berry pie.

I’ve brought my 1971 Raleigh International three-speed conversion today. With wider tires, it’s a good choice for the loose pack on the trail today. Recent precipitation has left the path with many ruts, which we are constantly dodging. After lunch, the sun begins to warm nicely. Turtles by the dozen are visible in every brook. Snakes, too, are enjoying the day and are stretched out across the trail. Owls hoot, bullfrogs sing – their noise is deafening in places, cardinals flit back and forth in front of us, and squirrels run beneath our tires in suicidal frenzy.

What a great Pi Day!