In light of Earth Day and a general appreciation for trails, Missourians for Responsible Transportation’s Community Engagement Coordinator Jackson Hotaling biked from Columbia, MO to several MRT partner communities from April 17-20, 2021.
Missouri River Valley: Heading West on the Trail
The impetus for a 130-mile bike trip while representing MRT was clear—Katy Trail State Park is a treasure for Missouri, and I could investigate firsthand as a trail user how trails benefit communities. MRT utilizes work travel for on-the-ground engagement with partner communities, though these trips often require a car because of the distance and lack of accessible rural public transportation options. In mid-April, an opportunity came forth to try a different approach for work travel when visiting the MRT partner communities—by bike. With pleasant weather ahead, I set out on a three-night trip along the Katy Trail. I do not consider myself a cyclist—I like to think of myself as someone who uses a bike for transportation. With that said, I am not particularly experienced in long-distance cycling, yet I still find myself enjoying every second of the journey, and I value all of the community connections fostered through a mutual interest to support beautiful rural Missouri.
With full saddle bags, I left my home in Downtown Columbia for the 9-mile MKT spur. This is a former rail-trail that connects the center of Missouri’s fourth-largest and fastest-growing city directly to the 240-mile cross-state Katy Trail. On a stunning Saturday afternoon, the MKT and the Katy were full of life. People of all backgrounds came together to share in the beauty of the day, and were out walking or running, chatting with friends in person or over the phone, reading on a bench, dog walking, and of course there were fellow bikers as well. Some of those bikers were destined for The Station House at Catfish Katy’s. Thanks to their opening for the season on this day, live music beckoned travelers towards their delicious menu, which includes filling meals and local beer from Broadway Brewery and Logboat Brewery. I continued westward along the Missouri River bluffs, and under the I-70 bridge. This bridge has no pedestrian access, though it will be replaced in 2024. Access for those passing along the trail would be a wonderful chance to introduce more people to several conservation areas across the river. Just west in Rocheport, I stopped at the Meriwether Café & Bike Shop. I was happy to chat with the employees including my friend Olive, and they have delicious Fretboard coffee (a Columbia favorite) to help me pick up the pace on my trip.
With a long journey ahead, I rode steadily onwards, passing the starting point for the Santa Fe Trail in New Franklin, and stopping for a snack off the trail at an overlook in Boonville’s Harley Park, near historic indigenous mound structures. History abounds along this portion of the trail, particularly from the Osage Nation, Lewis & Clark’s “Corps of Discovery,” and the Missouri—Kansas—Texas Railroad. One particular story that you might only come across on the trail’s interpretative signage is that of Lard Hill. According to local legend, a Katy Railroad car hit and killed a woman’s pig, and the railroad refused to compensate her. For retribution, she spread lard across the tracks along a nearby hill, for which the trains could not conquer, instead sliding back down the tracks. After this debacle, the railroad compensated her fully.
The Katy leaves the Missouri River Valley and the Boonslick cultural region behind, with the landscape flattening out into the Osage Plains. As it was nearing dark, I searched freecampsites.net to set up a hammock for a night of camping.
Osage Plains: Windsor and Clinton
I awoke from a night of hammock camping, returned to the Katy Trail, and was ready to starting my day with a short hike. No stranger to exploring unfamiliar trails, I parked my bike and walked up a steep path until I reached Clifton City Cliff, a former quarry that transformed into an overlook of the Lamine River for hikers. Beyond the cliff and atop the hill, an ominous abandoned church and crumbling cemetery line the gravel access road, though mooing cows break the tension. I felt a drip as I returned to the Katy, and then another, until a downpour ensued. Fortunately, I was not too far from the Clifton City depot, where I reached to keep dry, There I met a man named Jerry, also from Columbia, who shared the story behind the rubber chicken named Javier that he strapped to his sleek purple bike. While the rain subsided, we ended up talking for nearly two hours under the shelter of the Clifton City Depot. He shared with me about his hope to bikepack across Russia once COVID-19 wanes, and that he appreciates biking to support social causes. The opportunity to meet and exchange in dialogue with a stranger is something I deeply value and missed with COVID-19, and the Katy Trail offers endless opportunities to make new connections.
The rain caused the trail to become slightly soupy, which requires a bit more physical strength, though once I entered Sedalia, I felt spoiled. About one week before my trip, Katy Trail State Park completed improvements to seamlessly pass-through Sedalia’s street network. With improvements to signage and the off-street network, I reached the Sedalia depot and continued a few blocks downtown. Fitter’s 5th Street Pub is one of the few businesses open in Downtown Sedalia on Sundays, so I am particularly grateful to eat a hearty meal to keep me going. I would have definitely visited a coffee shop if one was open on Sundays, however that is not the case. Several other groups of bikepackers greeted me as I returned to the trail, and it was encouraging to see them also heading towards town to support local businesses. From Sedalia, the trail flattens further and reaches its highest point after Green Ridge, at 955 feet. The beauty of the landscape consumed me, and I read interpretive signage where I learned about the devastating loss of habitat of Prairie Chickens for farmland. We have the Missouri Grasslands Coalition to thank for their conservation efforts, which works to conserve remaining prairie habitat. After a second long day, I retired to a night of luxury in Windsor. I stayed at the Broken Spoke, a guesthouse along the trail equipped with comfortable amenities that any long-distance bikepacker can appreciate. The wild onions I picked nearby complemented the meal that I made with massive portobello mushrooms. The evening breeze on the patio allowed me to take a deep breath and to prepare for my community engagement activities the next day.
After checking out of the Broken Spoke, I arrived Monday morning at Windsor City Hall to connect with Treasurer Lisa Russell to discuss one of our active grants, the “MRT Community Advocacy Project.” Along with me, I was joined by Michelle Slater, the Assistant Director for the Kaysinger Basin Regional Planning Commission. Michelle has been a tireless advocate for projects that improve mobility for all Missourians, and she demonstrates an excellent example for how community leaders can work with regional planning commissions to gain access to more resources to build a stronger community. While discussing our project with the City of Windsor, we learned about some of the benefits that the Katy Trail has brought to the community, and about how it has supported many local businesses. We also learned about groups in Windsor that are dedicated to community initiatives, such as Windsor Community Betterment and the Windsor Garden Club. With the prospect of the 144-mile Rock Island Trail Corridor development into a Missouri State Park—which would intersect with the Katy Trail in Windsor—opportunity abounds for the people and places that make Windsor a pleasant place to be.
After a quick lunch at the local Casey’s, I pedaled southwest to my final destination on the Katy Trail: Clinton, MO. The trail ends northeast of Downtown Clinton in a parking lot, across the street from City of Clinton Parks & Rec’s Benson Convention Center. MRT works with Clinton on the MRT Community Advocacy Project, along with two other projects: The Active Living Community of Practice (ALCP) grant, and the Building Communities for Better Health (BCBH) grant. At the Benson Center, Paula Huffman of Clinton Parks & Rec and Clinton Friends of the Parks greeted me. There are several exciting projects happening in Clinton, and I am particularly excited about the Inclusive Playground, which will create a space where “children with physical, social-emotional, sensory, cognitive and communicative disabilities can play along-side able-bodied children.” I hope to return and see more, but at this time I continued to my next destination.
The Ozarks: Lowry City and Osceola
To reach my lodging for the night in Osceola, I left the quietude of the Katy Trail in the dust. Missouri HWY-13, shared with high-speeding cars and trucks offer the only opportunity to reach all points south. The Katy Trail trailhead reaches Clinton city limits, however there is no connectivity to Clinton’s Historic Downtown Square, proclaimed “Missouri’s largest and most charming.” I continued onwards to Osceola. While a smooth ride on pavement, riding along a major US highway is a gamble simply because you never know who is paying attention on the roadway, and who is not. One of the projects Missourians for Responsible Transportation is involved with is advocating for hands-free legislation, because Missouri is one of only two states that allows you to text behind the wheel. Thanks to coordination with partners across the state, the Missouri Hands-Free Coalition is fighting hard to change that. The most dangerous stretches of my bike journey are dangerous because of the design of the roadways—and the attention that drivers need to take in order for us all to use the roads safely—and there is no portion of the journey more dangerous than the bridges over Truman Lake. The shoulders are virtually nonexistent over the open water, so all I can do is pedal as fast as I can and hope the drivers in the right lane, with a speed limit of 60 MPH, are paying attention to the road, rather than their phones. Roadkill and auto fumes add to the unpleasantness of the journey, though I am grateful to Osceola Cheese for providing me with a delicious roadside stop before getting to my night’s lodging.
During my first visit to Osceola, I discovered a charming community that I completely missed in the previous times that I bypassed the town on the highway. I rolled up to the Old Commercial Hotel, where I met Teresa Heckenlively. Teresa and her husband Rob manage the historic hotel, and she also serves at the Economic Developer for St. Clair County, working within the Kaysinger Basin Regional Planning Commission. My Tom Mix-themed room, historic photos of famous former guests like Jesse James, and a binder of reports of paranormal investigations conducted at the hotel reminded me that I was in the right place. Beyond the hotel, the town of Osceola has much more to offer. Teresa and I toured the area, and I had the chance to see the positive outcomes from Osceola’s Livable Streets Plan. Through a Missouri Physical Activity and Nutrition (MPAN) grant, Missourians for Responsible Transportation worked to make more cohesive community connections by offering technical assistance. To cap off the evening, we visited the sunset over the Sac and Osage River confluence. With bluffs and bald eagles cast in the dimming orange, Osceola’s overlook instantly took the title as one of the most stunning outdoor spaces along my bike route.
The final day of my trip was quite a surprise—on a late April Day, snow poured down across town and throughout the state. Luckily, with the brunt of the biking behind me, I had the opportunity to spend more time getting to know the town and area. Teresa and I visited Tina’s Coffee Shop for breakfast, and we ran into Kim, who is beginning a horse therapy program for individuals with special needs. After some ‘work from home’ time, where my home in this context was the polished wooden desk of a parlor of a nineteenth century haunted hotel, Teresa and I traveled to the Landmark Restaurant in Lowry City, where we met Michelle Slater of Kaysinger Basin Regional Planning Commission, as well as a server who is involved with Lowry City Community Betterment. Meandering back, we drove through the H. Roe Bartle Scout Reservation, and the rolling hills and streams of the Ozarks were bursting with the new life promised by Spring. In the afternoon and back in Osceola, Teresa also introduced me to Patty Cantrell, Chief Community Development Officer for New Growth. New Growth overlaps with many of the communities that MRT works with, and we have a shared responsibility to positively impact these communities. Their primary goals are to cultivate community interest and entrepreneurs, connect people to resources and each other, and catalyze innovation and investment. New Growth and its parent organization, the West Central Missouri Community Action Agency, bolster communities throughout rural West Central Missouri. We appreciate the work they do to improve the lives and livelihoods for those within these communities.
Our final stop was to go back to Lowry City, where the community began a weekly Tuesday evening bike ride. The community ride is a “no drop” event, meaning that all abilities can join together, and nobody will be left behind. For the ride, my colleague Ron Bentch, Project Director for Missourians for Responsible Transportation, drove down with his bike to join in on the fun. Unfortunately, due to the snow, this particular Tuesday ride was cancelled. Ron, Teresa, and I made it this far, so we continued along the sleepy roadways, talked about Lowry City, and even went to a location that may benefit the region with future trails. Ron drove us and our bikes back to Columbia, though I found myself gazing towards the Katy Trail as we were driving along. In a few short days, I discovered that a long-distance, safe bike ride can allow me to more-deeply understand rural Missouri history at a manageable pace, to share stories with new people, and to support small businesses. My ride was an intensive learning experience, and because of the flexibility and simplicity of biking on trails, I hope to continue utilizing trails for more adventures in the future.