“Are you walking the entire trail?” asked a gentleman on a bike. After saying yes, he looked at us with a sigh of appreciation. “Well bless your hearts.”
After the summer backpacking and hiking season is over, David and I normally venture afar to the footpaths of Europe and Britain. Here we enjoy something different- hiking on a long-distance trail which does not require backpacking equipment. This experience differs from what we are used to in the US. Trails wind their way across the land, stopping at small towns and villages, sometimes even a larger city, where a cold beer, a hot shower, a hearty meal and a soft bed await. In the morning you rise to the smell of dark coffee and a hot breakfast. Then you’re off for another day on the trail.
Sound good? You may not have experienced anything better.
There are a few true inn-to-inn style footpaths in the US. A couple of these are “rails to trails” like the KATY Trail, spanning 225 miles across the state of Missouri. This railroad bed trail caters more to bikers than hikers and doesn’t possess the lure of the vineyards of Alsace, the Black Forest of Germany or the lakes and dales of England. But in some ways that’s what makes it appealing. I mean, who was the last person who told you they were spending their vacation walking across Missouri?
With Brett Dufur’s, The Complete Katy Trail Guidebook, which includes mileages and available lodging, the trail is easy to plan and book. There is also a helpful on-line resource at www.bikekatytrail.com
The KATY begins southeast of Kansas City in the small town of Clinton. Known for possessing the largest town square in Missouri, complete with drugstore, soda fountain and barber shop, Clinton is a great point of embarkation. For several days the trail heads northeast through rural farmland before joining the Missouri River and pushing east to St. Charles. Every 10 to 15 miles the railroad trail makes its way into the center of a small town, often next to the grain elevators. Trailheads and rest stops conveniently sit off to the side in the shape of old depots with signs announcing Clifton City, Mokane and Huntsdales. The KATY Railroad may now be a trail, but pull into town and you’ll say to yourself, “Did I hear the whistle blow?”
From Booneville east, bluffs rise next to the trail forming a bank between the rolling countryside and the rich bottomland that runs next to the river. Here in the quiet and solitude you can imagine Lewis and Clark and the Corp of Discovery as they made their way up the river into the new territories of the United States 200 years ago.
Occasionally the KATY follows the highway, something as walkers, we do not like. However, Missouri is a friendly place. Cars, trucks and motorcycles wave and honk their horns to cheer the walker on. Bikers do not receive this adulation.
For those who make the entire journey to St. Charles, the old railroad path provides a virtual hiker highway. The trail is covered with crushed limestone. It feels like a hard dirt road. Elevation gain is not an issue and we dare anyone to get lost. Yet, what makes it easy is also what makes it hard as the flat unrelenting surface takes its toil on the joints. The muscles required to begin in Clinton are still hard at work on the final leg into St. Charles. Be sure to pack the Advil.
Flatness is where the complaints end. For the willing walker the KATY offers a window into the rural heartland of the Midwest. White houses line Main Street. American flags hang from the porch and signs reading “PRAY FOR OUR TROOPS” are set next to the sidewalk. Children ride their bikes in the streets and during the fall, it seems as if every house decorates the yard with pumpkins and hay bales to celebrate the season. It’s fried chicken at Raymond’s, a local football game in Windsor, catfish in Hermann, local wineries and shopping at the Dollar General. The roots may be German, but life here is pure American.
As with any long-distance trail, it’s the evening rewards that give the trail a face. Missouri may not rank high among the exotic or posh, but for the walker, it is exceptional in its sense of place. Accommodations are diverse. There are old Victorian Houses in the west. The elegantly restored Hotel Bothwell in old downtown Sedalia provides a step back in time. Quaint B&Bs are available in the wine country, even a Value Inn in Holts Summit.
Like most of the midwest, Missouri lacks pretense. It is what it is. Stop at Loretta’s Place in Marthasville and five dollars will buy you a full buffet with an attitude. I was told that a woman recently stopped there for breakfast and ordered eggs over-easy. When they came she said, “This isn’t what I ordered.” Loretta looked down and replied, “Just eat em’, you’ll like em’.”
Seeing Missouri is not the only reward for the long-distance hiker. According to Natural Health Magazine, exercise is the best to lose weight and more importantly to keep it off and stay healthy. Indeed, one of the best ways for the average person to exercise is to walk. Although we were excited to see many bikers on the KATY, we also know that for many, getting into biking still requires a lot of convincing. Walking, however, is something people already do. It’s easy to start, easy to maintain and the heights you want to take it are unlimited whether it’s walking around the block, hiking in the Rocky Mountains or walking across Missouri.
If you’re new to long-distance hiking and want to try the KATY, I suggest you choose a few sections here and there and keep your mileage from 6-10 miles per day. Throw in a rest day to linger and enjoy the lovely wineries and shops. If Gary Creason’s Shuttle Service is still available, (573) 694-2027, you can make arrangements to be picked up and dropped off where needed and have your luggage transferred. This way you can just carry a daypack.
However, let me offer a word of warning. Once you’ve experienced this kind of travel, once you walk into a small town, a red sun setting in the west with the barn and silo silhouetted against the darkening sky, once you eat because you’re hungry and sleep because you’re tired, every trail or dirt road that disappears around the bend will beckon.
Over the past years I’ve enjoyed the footpaths of foreign lands as I’ve sought to experience life in a different place. But to walk across my own country, the encounter being American to American, I’ve stored a great appreciation for the color and contrast that makes this country rich and distinct. I’ve experienced Missouri. And through the pores of my skin and especially the soles of my feet, I can truly attest. There’s no place like home.
HOW IT STACKS UP
A “rails to trails” footpath will never rank high in the hiking catagory. Yet, it still has what is needed: a path, ample lodging and a good sense of place. We did the hike in late October when we didn’t want to go far from home. We drove to St. Louis and stayed with a friend. We returned to St. Louis from St. Charles via Amtrak- a fun experience in itself.