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Katy Trail: Following the path of Lewis and Clark in the Show Me state

Editor’s note: Originally published in the Sun-Times on June 6, 2007.

As I hoisted my bike on the Amtrak train at Chicago’s Union Station, the conductor didn’t have to look at my ticket to know where I was headed.

“You riding the Katy Trail ?” he asked.

Cyclists from around the country head to this lengthy ribbon of crushed limestone that cuts almost clear across Missouri’s ample midriff. The Katy Trail — a former corridor for the MKT or “ Katy “ railway — is now the country’s longest rails-to- trails path. The 225-mile strip follows the Missouri River and the footsteps of Lewis and Clark through some of the best scenery the Show Me state has to show.

Tiny towns with B&Bs and quirky restaurants flank the almost entirely flat trail , making it an ideal destination for a long-distance bike trip. So my husband and I packed our bikes’ saddlebags with Spandex and set out to do the Katy over the long Memorial Day weekend.

Here’s what we did right: We stayed in some great places and rode the entire trail without getting lost, having a flat or wiping out — three hallmarks of a successful bike ride. And we managed to leave the car keys at home. Amtrak makes daily runs between Chicago and several spots along the trail . Passengers can pay a little extra to bring their bikes along for the ride. We shelled out $104 each for our roundtrip.

Here’s what we did wrong: Too much time on the bike and too little time poking around the three dozen-plus towns along the trail .

Our time constraints and Type A personalities conspired to make us log 133 miles the first day. Big mistake. We could’ve cut out almost 80 of those miles by simply heading east from the town of Sedalia, as far west on the trail as Amtrak goes.

But if we wanted bragging rights for doing The Whole Darn Thing, we had to bike almost 40 miles to the trail ‘s western terminus in Clinton. There wasn’t much going on in that 40-mile stretch except strong headwinds and a thunderstorm.

When our fatigued legs barely got us into the quaint town of Rocheport some 133 miles and 11 hours later, darkness was setting in and it looked like our only dining option was going to be frozen pizza.

Wet, pathetic and hungry, we hobbled into Abigail’s restaurant as it was closing. Abigail’s owners — a married couple who compete in Ironman triathlons when they aren’t in the kitchen — took pity on us and whipped up a mountain of spaghetti and salad to go. They had to close the restaurant early because the husband was getting up early the next day to try and ride the entire Katy Trail — in less than 24 hours. Suddenly our 133 miles didn’t seem so impressive.

When another thunderstorm temporarily forced us off the trail the next day, we took shelter in a little dive called Jim’s Bar & Grill in the sleepy town of Tebbetts.

After we finished cursing Mother Nature, Jim came by our table and had us add our signatures to a fat book of Katy Trail riders. Before long, we stopped anxiously looking outside to see if the storm had passed. I indulged in a 50-cent homemade brownie while my husband sang karaoke in his bike shorts.

That’s the kind of Katy Trail experience you miss when you’re too busy watching the mile markers fly by.

NEED HELP?

Gary Creason provides shuttle service and support along the trail for groups up to 10 people. Call Creason’s Katy Trail Shuttle Service at (573) 694-2027.

The Independent Tourist offers self-guided cycling tours on the Katy that include daily luggage transfers, lodging, breakfast, transportation to your starting point and a help number. Call (866) 269-9913.

KATY TRAIL TIPS:

Winds of change: Bike west to east; you’re more likely to have a tailwind and the terrain has a slight decline.

Weather or not: Bug spray and sunscreen are absolute musts.

Closing time: Many restaurants along the trail close early (around 8 p.m.) and a fair share are reservation-only.

Gone bikin’: Lots of businesses are closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Trail rewards: Ask B&Bs and hotels if they offer discounts to Katy Trail riders; many do.

Biker beware: It’s not easy or particularly safe to bike between the St. Charles trailhead and downtown St. Louis, so take a shuttle or taxi.

Prince of guides: The Complete Katy Trail Guidebook by Brett Dufur is full of useful information. Order a copy at pebblepublishing.com.

Train-ing day: A few spots for bikes are available on most Amtrak trains, but you need to reserve them in advance and pay a nominal fee.

Operator? Cell phone reception on the trail is spotty.



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