Day 61: St. Louis, MO to Augusta, MO - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

June 12, 2011

Day 61: St. Louis, MO to Augusta, MO

Heading west through St. Louis and its suburbs seems about as fun as a swift kick to the gooch, so I choose to do a loop up and around the metro area instead. I ride north along the western shore of the Mississippi on the Riverfront Trail. It runs through a heavily industrial area, past flood walls and railroad cars, junkyards and warehouses, a liquid nitrogen plant, and one piece of decaying machinery after another. Young and old black men fish along the river's edge and tugboats pushing barges loaded tall with coal pass a few hundred feet in front of them. It's overcast, the coolest day in a month. A few dark gray clouds loom in the sky to the west and it looks like it could rain at any moment.

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I pedal across the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge and back into Illinois. A few miles up the road I stop to refuel at a convenience store. Inside I find a few food items and a couple of cases stocked with soda, but mostly the place sits filled with vodka, bourbon, tequila, and a dozen other kinds of booze, in bottles large and small, in all shapes and colors. Old white men stand near the cash register up front and work through stacks of lottery tickets. An old, dirty, run-down motel stands next door. There's a strip club across the street. A Waffle House and a few fast food places do a brisk business on the opposite side of the highway. In the car next to my bike, a 60-something man with glasses and a silver and black beard waits by himself. For 15 minutes he methodically works his way along a huge line of scratch tickets, all connected together. His expression never changes, and I wonder whether that means he isn't winning anything, or that he just isn't winning enough. The scene that plays out in front of me may be the most depressing so far.

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The Confluence Trail starts as packed gravel before turning to smooth pavement. For the most part it runs on the top of a levee on the river's eastern shore, with a noisy highway passing a few hundred feet farther east much of the way. I talk to a couple of riders, but most of the few dozen who pass by on Schwinn, Giant, or low-end Trek bikes probably think I'm homeless. I wave often and get few in return, which makes me feel like a bit of creeper. For the first time in what seems like forever the day stays cool. I don't have to rush. I can ride slow and easy. I can stop whenever I want, without being preoccupied about the rising temperature. It feels amazing.

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My back tire does not. Shortly after passing over another bridge and back into Missouri the rear half of the bike goes soft. I've been nursing the tube inside for a couple of days, but my stubbornness finally gives way to the practical choice. I swap the old for a new, and in the process look over the embarrassing number of small cracks and creases lining the surfaces of the tire's sidewalls. The wear strip runs wide and pink all the way around where the tread used to be. It's shot, but the replacement's hanging around somewhere in Southern Wisconsin. I need another two and a half solid days of riding from this tire. I tell it so.

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The roads run pancake flat, past more corn and more tidy white homes. It feels like the country, but it's offset by the high voltage lines that cut a wide path to the northwest, where smoke billows from a pair of stacks attached to a coal-burning power plant. The tailwind blows hard, so much so that it cancels out the rush of the wind passing around my head. I haul ass and throw a party in my head, where this day of effortless riding is the guest of honor.

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Somehow it gets better. I join up with the Katy Trail, which will take me 250-something miles across most of Missouri. Its surface of crushed, hard-packed limestone runs smooth and flat through fields and past bushy trees that sometimes grow on both sides and drape over top like a canopy. Occasionally the Missouri River shows through the trees off to my left, drifting slowly by in the opposite direction. The trail is exactly as I imagined it, in all its details, even down to the ridiculous amount of mosquitoes.

The Katy squirts me out into the historic downtown section of St. Charles, an attractive place where brick covers the buildings, streets, and sidewalks, and where every cafe, pub, and restaurant seems upscale. From a coffee shop I hear the rumbling of a Harley and look out to see it driven by a tough-looking bastard with a cigarette pinched in the corner of his mouth and his arms dangling down from ape-hanger handlebars mounted at forehead level. I can't figure out what attracts him to St. Charles, but the moment repeats itself with a dozen different riders over the next hour. White people walk slowly past, looking only moderately entertained, as if they expected something a whole lot more interesting from a town designed to be completely inoffensive.

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I trade shops and parking lots and annoyed four-year-olds for dandelion fuzz, corn fields, the smell of camp fires, and an overcast but perfectly warm evening ride through Eastern Missouri. The Katy used to be a railroad line and it slopes so subtly that it's essentially flat, so I fly and watch the miles stack up. The bugs swarm any time I stop, so I keep moving. Rain falls on me for the first time since Pippa Passes, Kentucky, but the sky can only muster five minutes of sprinkles. A fine layer of white dirt covers my legs and every surface of the bike.

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I ride into Klondike Park with daylight fading. My stomach cries out and I want nothing more in the world than to find a vending machine stocked with Snickers and Reese's Pieces and greasy potato chips. I know I won't find one, but I still do a desperate search, which makes me feel like an addict. In the process I come across an enclosed kitchen area attached to the far end of a huge, brand new bathroom and shower complex. With its stainless steel counters and sinks it looks like the kind of kitchen normally attached to a cafeteria in a public high school or a federal penitentiary. But it has lights and power outlets and plenty of room for a tent, so on a cool Sunday evening in an empty campground it becomes my home.

Roughing it.
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Music plays from my laptop. I write, I shave, and I charge up my electronics. I kill mosquitoes with the clap of my hands and wedge paper towels into the crack at the bottom of the door to keep others from sneaking in. I drink water to try and trick my stomach into thinking it isn't hungry. When I finally become tired I spread the tent out on the floor, without the poles, and crawl inside to keep the bugs off my skin. The mesh drapes across my face and I fall asleep right away.

Today's ride: 85 miles (137 km)
Total: 3,144 miles (5,060 km)

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