New Tracks on Old Trails

I leave camp at 9:30 AM, about 1.5 hours earlier than usual. Why the rush? I’m planning a record 68-mile-day to Tebbetts, MO. My previous high is 55 and this will be pushing the limits of daylight and my body.

On the way I’ll learn a lot about American explorer history. Lewis & Clark’s Corps of Discovery navigated three boats and up to 30 tons of cargo (the equivalent weight of about 10 Chevy Suburbans!) upriver while averaging fewer than 12 miles per day.

C’mon guys, even Countri Bike gets better mileage and I’m also going cross-continent on something monstrously heavy. Then again, I don’t have to navigate sunken logs and mast-piercing sycamore branches, hunt deer for food, negotiate with Indians, or discover 300 new species of plants and animals. Heck, I don’t even make campfires.  

 If they could rough it in the woods 211 years ago, so can I... but not without Trader Joe's snacks.

If they could rough it in the woods 211 years ago, so can I... but not without Trader Joe's snacks.

Lewis & Clark weren’t the only explorers to trample through here. This is Daniel Boone country. Boone, who became a living legend fighting the British and Indians in Kentucky during the Revolutionary War, opened a route over the Appalachian Mountains for Americans to settle Kentucky and turn into modern day bad drivers (or so I’m told).

Boone befriended and beheaded Native Americans. (Actually I don’t know if he beheaded them, but he did fight them, and I’m hypothesizing heads rolled.) He symbolizes American exploration and expansion. He was the patriarch of settlements along the river, but for reasons unrecorded, did not meet the Lewis & Clark expedition.

While Boone is a founding father of Kentucky, he and his clan uprooted in 1799 when the Spanish governor of the Louisiana Territory gave him a land grant in present day Missouri where he lived 21 more years until 85, pretty ripe for those days.

His former gravesite is accessible from the Katy Trail, but requires a little hike that I didn’t have time for. Notice I said former. In 1820 Boone was buried next to his wife who predeceased him. In 1845 things got interesting when along came officials from Kentucky to exhume the bodies for transfer to Frankfort.

Legend has it the locals purposefully pointed out the wrong graves, and two slaves buried at the family monument were instead re-interred in Kentucky's capital. I haven’t confirmed it, but was told forensic tests run in the 1980s showed the skulls being consistent with slaves of the day.

Then and now
Although the Missouri River has taken many twists and turns since the days of Daniel Boone, the landscape looks as it was, minus the abundance of deer and Kickapoo Indian settlements and the addition of a few Clif Bar wrappers.

I bike through shadow towns, my term for places that are silent shadows of their former vibrancy. Some like Nona only have a grain elevator before passing out of the town limits a minute after I entered. Others have a few houses sprinkled along the trail.

A party in Peers
Peers looks like another shadow town anchored by a white general store with a retro-style Pepsi machine. I’m in the zone with the wind at my back. I’m going fast but instinctively squeeze the brakes. Something is out of the ordinary.

 Peers Store in Peers, Missouri

Peers Store in Peers, Missouri

Shiny luxury vehicles are parked all around the store. On the porch a three-piece band jams. I’m touching the brakes and have a decision to make—release and plow ahead, or squeeze a sharp right towards the store. The beauty of biking is that I can take a 30-second detour to satisfy curiosity and be back on my way in no time.

This detour lasts almost an hour, but I time my curiosity just right. An opening event at the store is wrapping up, and these are no ordinary townies. The ladies have nice clothes, nice hair and nice jewelry to match their nice cars. There is a Range Rover! I feel luxurious by proximity.

I stop outside the store waiting for someone to tell me what’s going on here. My dusty, fresh-off-the-trail look is totally out of place and attracts attention. I start chatting with a woman who loves that I’ve come all the way from NY just to attend the opening. We both laugh.

Supporters of the Katy Land Trust. What a good-looking group!

A crowd assembles outside and I’m regaling them with what this bike is and how it got here. The wives are calling to their husbands—Jerry, Bob, Norman—to get out here and take a look at this guy. They like my trail rider gear and I like their trail supporter dress.

I’m even invited to lunch. The “best chef” in St. Louis is hosting a private meal for the group. How fast can I pedal, they ask. Sadly, not fast enough. Ever fit a shared bike into a Range Rover? Can we try, pretty please?

Within a few minutes the auto show parking lot is once again empty grass. The town is back to a shadow. Band members pack up and motor off in a station wagon, waving to me for a last time. Only William and I remain.

William is a photographer and artist who prints his dramatic landscapes on metal, giving the images a gleaming depth. We chat about his method and the history of the store, which is now an art gallery where he’s displaying some of his work.

He gives me background on Peers, which was named for a Katy Railroad official. The river once ran right up to the store’s front porch. In 1914 the Army Corps of Engineers constructed a dam and the river moved two miles away. A front yard full of water turned to dirt. The store lost its function as a port, but was resurrected as a train depot when Katy rolled through. Hiker/biker trail traffic couldn’t sustain it, and in 2012 the store closed and was put up for sale.

The Katy Land Trust purchased the property and turned it into a gallery for local artists who instead of paying commission donate 25% of profits back to the trust, which is charged with preserving the character of the land along the trail into perpetuity. The fancy folks I met are high-level supporters of the Katy Trust.

William lives in Hermann about 25 miles west. I’ve never heard of the place, but with wineries, a brewery, bakery, old saloon and German heritage it sounds far more appealing than Tebbetts’ $5 hostel and lack of food service. In Hermann I can camp in the city park for $10. By now Tebbetts is beyond reasonable riding distance. Hermann sounds more appealing and much closer. I say farewell to William and head to Hermann, which turns out to be one of my favorite small towns in America.