Day 63: Bluffton, MO to Columbia, MO - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

June 14, 2011

Day 63: Bluffton, MO to Columbia, MO

Lightning flashes and shines bright through the skylights above my head. Thunder explodes nearby and sends out a long, crisp crack that shakes the walls of the shower house very slightly. Rain falls in sheets and pools along the building's edges within minutes. It's Missouri's way of saying good morning. I mutter something offensive, turn over from my left side to my right, smoosh my face against my damp and musty pillow-towel, and go back to sleep.

It still rains slightly when I start riding, but the thick trees that cover the trail catch most of the drops. Those that make it through fall on my yellow jacket, which smells completely awful after sitting damp in my left-front pannier since the last time I used it somewhere back in the middle of Virginia. I swerve around the chunks of rocks that recently fell from the tan-colored bluffs that rise almost straight up off to my right side and follow the curves of the trail. One fresh line of bike tire tread weaves its way along the damp but not muddy surface of the trail—mostly along the left side, but sometimes angling to the right to avoid a tree branch, and occasionally wandering back and forth for no obvious reason.

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I do a lot of singing. I talk to myself constantly. As the trees thin out and the trail leaves the bluffs behind I run out of objects to dodge. My mind wanders and my focus turns dull because I don't have to look out for any traffic. The scenery starts to run together in an endless stream of greens and yellows and blues. Minutes turn into hours with no indication except for a slowly increasing number on the odometer. I spend a lot of energy trying to come up with ways to describe the sameness of it all, but in the end I only make myself bored.

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North Jefferson sits across the Missouri River from Jefferson City, the state's capitol. Because it's so close, I assume that the bigness of Jefferson City will have worn off on the town, at least to the point where it has a few restaurants. I grow hungrier as the morning drags on, but the thought of lunch gives me something to work for and pushes me on. I pass an airport and then ride under a huge highway, ready to round a corner and see a greasy diner or a homestyle cafe, the kind with cooking utensils or wooden panels with cheesy sayings on them nailed to the walls. Instead I find a parking lot and a bathroom. Beyond them sits a warehouse, and further on a golf course. That's it.

"Alright," I think, "Just ride into town a mile or two. They'll have something. The map says so."

A ten-mile round trip later, after crossing a giant bridge and dodging dozens of government workers out for a lunchtime power walk in bright white tennis shoes, all I have to show for my trouble are a couple of honey buns. I eat them while sitting in a wobbly chair in the back corner of a dirty gas station in a bad part of town. Screw you, you stupid map.

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I appreciate the trail more after the detour into a big city, but after three miles the good feelings wear off again. I decide that I'm headed back to roads and highways after I reach Columbia tonight. The trail seems like it could be a fun stretch to ride with someone else, but on my own it isn't working out. I'm in a biking bubble, not meeting new people or seeing interesting things. Words like boring and grinding come to mind when I think about what's laid out in front of me. It's like being at a family get-together where I find myself stuck talking to the uninteresting cousin who watches TV and plays sudoku all day. Because we don't have anything in common we talk about the weather until I can make up an excuse for why I need to be somewhere else, and then I walk away feeling like I've wasted my time. But at least that scenario plays itself out in five or ten minutes. The trail goes on for hours. If the whole country was like this I would have gone insane before leaving Florida.

I become terrified of Kansas.

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Butterflies sit on the trail and then leap to life and fly away in jerky patterns and bump into dragonflies as I ride past. A few cicadas aren't quick enough to get out of the way, flying into my face or chest with a solid thump before buzzing angrily back into the trees. One hitches a ride on my left shoulder for several miles before I spot him out of the corner of my eye, yell something awful about his mother, and flick him off and down to the ground. I sing Arcade Fire and Walkmen songs in my head for hours. Half a dozen bike riders pass in the opposite direction, each one looking a little more frustrated than the one that came before, worn down by the strong wind that pushes them backward.

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A nine-mile spur trail takes me off the Katy and heads toward Columbia. The scenery turns from countryside to woods and streams and rocky bluffs, and I pass at least a hundred bike riders, joggers, and walkers. It's great riding, but I don't really notice because trail fatigue sets in hard.

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The clean and orderly suburbs of Columbia seem novel after spending so much time in rural America. I pass long lines of houses with brick facades and vinyl siding, where every lawn is neatly trimmed and each home has a tiny security system sticker in one of its front windows. The streets run wide and empty and have names like Amazon, Safari, Bamboo, and Crocodile. It's such a dramatic change from the trails and the countryside that it's almost exciting to look at.

I can't believe I just wrote that.

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Warm Showers brings me to the home of Betty and Ed, who are hosting me for the night and storing my bike and gear for the week. They feed me spaghetti and garlic bread, because they know what touring bikers need. We talk a lot about the Katy Trail, which they know inside and out, down to the names of all the towns along the way and the mileage between each of them. They don't strike me as overly serious riders at first, but as the evening goes on I learn about the killer side winds of South Dakota, the bike lanes of Calgary, and how to navigate through the streets of Chicago and Washington D.C. They've ridden the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Natchez Trace, the Lewis & Clark Trail, the Golden Gate Bridge, and even areas around Seattle I've never seen. Every time I mention a place I've traveled by bike it turns out they've been there too, and can also tell me something about riding in at least one of the neighboring states. I appreciate them for their friendliness and hospitality and feel awed by their experience.

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Thunder rumbles, heavy rain rolls through, and a tornado watch stays in effect through the end of the evening. I don't worry about any of it, because I know I won't ride again for a week. Originally I planned to meet Desiree in St. Louis and take a break when I rode through town. Then I turned impatient and started riding ten days earlier, so the new plan became to ride to Eastern Kansas and then backtrack by car. Things changed again back in Kentucky when I learned that business in Seattle would force me to step out of touring mode completely and fly home for a single hour-long meeting that can't be done over the phone. As much as I want to be unhappy about that, I have friends and family and a wonderful girlfriend who are all thrilled that I'm coming home, even if it's only for a very short time.

Once business is taken care of, Desiree and I will fly back to St. Louis as planned and spend four days together as tourists. It's a six-day break in total and I'm ready for it. I've only had consecutive days off once since leaving Key West nine weeks ago. My bike and bags and clothes are a mess. My helmet mirror and parts of my panniers are held together with duct tape. My body is as healthy and strong as it's ever been, but my mind hasn't been as sharp in the last week. It's time for a vacation from my vacation, to recharge and return to the road ready to experience another 3,000 miles of the country I love so much.

Today's ride: 85 miles (137 km)
Total: 3,294 miles (5,301 km)

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