I dipped my rear tire into the muddy waters of the Missouri River just past the Kansas-Missouri state line. It was early morning on September 30, the first day of the first-ever Journey Across Missouri (JAM), a six-day cycling adventure that would take two dozen of us 325 miles from Kansas City to St. Louis, and I was stoked.
Having baptized my bike’s tire, I stood in a line along the riverbank with my fellow “JAMmers,” smiling for the camera. Then, it was time to start the first pedal strokes of Day 1. We headed east out of Kansas City, past fast food joints, gas stations, and the Truman Presidential Library into rolling hills and farmland.
Our route was marked on the road by spray-painted pink arrows and dots. Trailnet, the St. Louis-based non-profit that created the ride, had not only vetted the course but had also arranged for breakfast and dinner each day, support and gear (SAG) vehicles, and overnight campsites with bathroom facilities and hot showers (plus tents and gear, for an added price). One-, two- and three-day options were available for those who weren’t able to do the entire six-day adventure.
Each rider set his or her own pace for the miles. Mine was slightly faster than the average cyclist on the trip, and though I’d started later, I soon caught up to some others, the early birds of the group. We wound our way along the bucolic Old Trails Scenic Byway toward Higginsville, our first overnight stop.
The day’s ride was filled with mini-adventures. I raced a coal train on the banks of the Missouri. I came upon a JAMmer, helmeted head under the hood of a car, trying to aid a poor guy who seemed to have broken his timing belt. I took a break to climb a long flight of stairs, in bike cleats no less, to the bluff-top at the Lexington County War Memorial. (Worth the view!).
Finally, I arrived for lunch in Lexington, a popular tourist destination that on this day was bedecked in Halloween pageantry with a town-wide lamppost-decorating contest. After posing for selfies with the best of the lampposts — SpongeBob StrawPants and the Lexi-Minion — my attention turned to lunch.
I convinced Chris, who I’d caught under the car hood, to join me for a club sandwich, sweet potato fries, and a Coke at the Spotted Pig Sports Bar. We sat outside and watched as other JAMmers rolled into town, waved hello, and either dispersed to one of the local eateries or continued following those pink dots out of town.
Looks Like Rain
Talk of the imminent storm began that night in Higginsville, as the local Rotary Club served up a delicious meal. JAMmers made plans for their early departures, and the Rotarians offered to serve breakfast the next morning in the assembly hall of the nearby elementary school.
Not wanting to use an alarm and wake up others in nearby tents, I decided to let myself be roused up by the first person to make a move in the pre-dawn. As it turned out, someone else’s cheerful alarm sounded at 5:45 a.m. I groped around for my phone and pulled up the radar. A finger of angry red storms stood like a sentinel due east of our location.
I quickly set about getting my stuff together. I’d laid out my riding clothes and gear the night before, a routine I would follow each day of the journey. No sooner did I emerge from my tent than the rumbling of thunder could be heard in the distance. As I prepared to leave, torrents of rain began to fall.
The heavy drops immediately beat my water-resistant jacket into soggy submission. Despite that, it was an easy route out of town, and I was quickly among endless fields of corn — or what was left of it. The folks in Higginsville had said this was the most fertile land in the world for corn, and the farmers looked to be maximizing it. As I made my slow way through their territory, semis thundered past, loaded down with kernels on their way to a large grain elevator complete with its own train depot.
I was alone for the last 12 miles or so to our designated lunch stop in Arrow Rock. I wasn’t really alone, though, with Trailnet staff, volunteers, and the two guys from Trek (JAM’s bike shop sponsor) passing by periodically to check on my progress. I gave them a thumb’s up each time.
Arrow Rock is a beautiful little tourist town, even nearly deserted on this rainy day. I found six other cyclists at the J. Huston Tavern, their bikes leaning against the ancient fence outside the restaurant like a collection of talisman, indicating the warmth and welcome within. The apple butter, fresh biscuits, and hot tea were savory, but the collection of dry towels the staff had ready was heaven. They even offered to throw wet clothing items in the dryer! (Not sure what I’d wear meanwhile.)
After lunch, 28 incredibly hilly miles took us through Blackwater and past I-70. At one point, no cars or trucks thundered by and the sounds of a million insects in the roadside brush filled the void.
The rain had, thankfully, subsided. As I approached the Boonville highway exit, I spotted Jim, who was riding JAM on a classic fender bike. We chatted and rode the rest of the way into Boonville together, the miles flying by.
Stark Beauty, Scenery
The next morning, I “awoke” to lightening, thunder, and a steady downpour. I’d actually been awake for hours thinking about the day of riding ahead of me.
I compared notes with four other cyclists, and we collectively decided to stop just one mile into our journey at the Boon Ville Diner, a hidden breakfast joint with the thickest pancakes I’ve ever seen. You only need to order one. I watched through the rain-soaked window as nearly every JAMmer rode by, until a different Jim, the self-described caboose of our group, passed. I knew then it was my turn to get wet.
A few miles into the ride, a “road closed ahead” sign blocked the way — likely due to high water. The lack of riders coming back up the road suggested the way was clear, and soon enough I spotted a SAG vehicle enthusiastically waving me on. The swollen streams came right up to the road. As I pedaled along, a giant crawdad taking refuge on the pavement threatened me with his upraised pinchers.
The roads stretching between Boonville and Jefferson City are hellatiously hilly (hillatious?), but my attention was focused on the stark beauty of the landscape unfolding in front of me. I crested a hill near a farm with a sign proudly proclaiming it as “The Rocky Top” and took in the breathtaking view of the river valley below, part of a natural habitat area known as the Big Muddy National Fish & Wildlife Refuge.
The sky never lost the threat of rain. So, to make haste, I snacked on the food in my jersey pockets and rolled past the town of Jamestown (population 386) and the Lucky Dog Pub & Grill, despite the welcoming sounds and smells coming through the open door.
The pink dots led me past another jewel in the cap of Missouri’s conservation efforts, Marion Bottoms. I couldn’t help but smile to myself; we had a nice guy named Marion riding JAM with us.
Despite the beauty around me, I made haste. The pink dots were becoming more difficult to distinguish on the road in the downpour, and I was looking forward to hot chocolate, dry socks, and a warm sleeping bag in Jefferson City.
To Century or Not?
For breakfast, our fearless leader, Steve Schmidt, arranged for the group to eat at a greasy-spoon diner adjacent to the dome of the capitol building. The topic that morning, however, was not this proud and prominent feature of the Missouri landscape but rather: to century or not to century?
It had been a last-minute suggestion by the Trailnet staff. The “regular” route for the day was a 50-miler. I was tired after two days of riding in the rain, and a 100 miles sounded like a slightly unattractive undertaking with the weather forecasting a third day of showers and decreasing temperatures.
I pulled out the map and retooled a route. What resulted was a 75-mile route up into the “high country” above the Missouri River valley on little used “routes” — roads unlikely to have even a center stripe.
Four of us set out together along the new course. At the first snack stop, we turned into the hills. There would be no pink dots or SAG van for our detour. We were cruising into the land of correctional facilities around Fulton. Our group broke apart, and I found myself alongside Steve, who I was thankful to be riding with again that day. Hardly a car passed, and those that did did so noticeably respectfully. We found ourselves in a tiny town ironically named Reform and did a little gravel riding at an RV depot to load up on water.
Back out on the road, we were perplexed to not see the other two riders. (We’d eventually find out they had taken a shortcut back to the 50-mile route, as the rain that was just spitting on us was pouring on them). We pressed on, maybe at an even faster clip. Cow pastures, junkyards, and fall foliage slipped by.
As we approached Big Spring on Rt. K, high water signs appeared at the sodden roadsides, and I worried that we’d find our way impassable. Then a Trailnet van approached from the opposite direction — so much for the no-SAG warning — and Bill gave us a sheepish wave as he passed. Despite flooded fields on both sides of us, the road and the bridge were high, if not dry, and we were able to ride on to Hermann.
Defiance and Daniel Boone
Waking up the next morning in Hermann, the rain seemed to have finished with us, leaving a sunny, chilly morning. Getting up and putting on my cycling clothing was getting to be a bit of a habit. So was a hearty breakfast at a local diner on the way out of town. Accompanied by a growing number of like-minded JAMmers, we stopped scarcely a mile into the ride at Lyndee’s for eggs and pancakes.
The elevation profile for our second-to-last day looked like the smile of a jack-o-lantern — stretches of flat miles interrupted by the occasional series of hills that could register as Hors catégorie on the Tour de France. Bill, Steve, and I formed a pace-line for some of the flattest sections, glorifying in the speed. When we came to the climbs, I’d pull a bit ahead to stop and take pictures.
And then we came to a road called Femme Osage Creek just outside of Defiance, our destination for the day. Words cannot describe how fun and beautiful this road is for cyclists. Just go ride it.
Signs for wineries started to dot the roadsides. I briefly considered stopping for a tasting, but with no lunch and the dehydration brought on by a few hours of riding, I thought it best to press on. Around a corner, a small sign indicated the site of Daniel Boone’s historic home, a must-see. After maneuvering my skinny tires down the long gravel driveway, I encountered another group of JAMmers talking about a bakery and deli that, according to the clerk at the heritage site, was “just around the corner.”
Though I wasn’t ready for wine, I could practically taste a hot scone and coffee.
I waved goodbye to the Daniel Boone Home, and we proceeded along our pink dotted route, expecting at every turn to come across a bakery. But it was the crossroads of “downtown” Defiance that we arrived at first. No worries. I was happy to trade my vision of scone and coffee for a burrito and Coke.
The Home Stretch
On the last day of JAM, the roads leaving Defiance heading to downtown St. Louis were a familiar site to this native. Some of my fellow cyclists chose to ride the Katy Trail portion from Defiance to St. Charles to avoid winery traffic on the roadways, but it was early enough on this beautiful Sunday morning that very few cars passed me along the way.
Once I got onto the greenways in St. Charles and Creve Coeur Park, however, the world was suddenly alive with walkers, runners, cyclists, paddlers, and rollerbladers. During many of my rides the previous week, I’d been alone on the roads, hardly seeing another person for an hour or more at a time. It was quite a contrast to the flux of individuals now all around, enjoying the outdoors.
I’d thought that getting through downtown St. Louis on a bike would be a snap. But, obeying traffic laws the whole way, it was slow going as I stopped at traffic lights, maneuvered around parked cars, and avoided “road furniture” — constructions signs, islands, and potholes. The pink dots of our course merged with the spray-painted lines and dots of races and rides that went before us. They eventually led right down to the river on Laclede’s Landing.
I got off my bike, shouldered it down to the water’s edge, and gently dipped the rubber of my front wheel into the mighty Mississippi River. My cycling Journey Across Missouri was complete.
Now for the after-party.
Author: St. Louis resident Sunny Gilbert is a nationally recognized cyclocross racer and member of Big Shark Racing
Images: Mark Schwigen and Sunny Gilbert