A 225 mile biking trail cuts across the state of Missouri, passing through wine country trying to regain its glory and river towns that are moving past the legacy of Busch and Bud.
Do we see more of a place when we pass through it using only our muscles for movement? Do we feel its essence more when we travel slowly, moving at a human pace instead of a petroleum–powered one?
Missouri's Katy Trail seems like it was custom–made to answer these questions. The longest rail–trail conversion in the U.S., it goes on for 225 miles, giving bicycle riders a way to travel through the state at a leisurely pace, separated from cities and automobiles. I've been drawn to the idea of spending days on this path for years. When I find out the first half is lined with wineries and breweries, it is just a matter of getting it on the calendar.
My trip through Missouri wine country starts out with a lot of beer. Before hitting the Katy Trail, I spend a night in St. Charles, Missouri. It's a riverside town where Daniel Boone hung out, the place where Lewis and Clark (and Sacagawea) set out on in 1804 to survey the vast frontier of America. Trailheads Brewery, a short walk from where the expedition set off, kicks my trip off right, with a sample flight of six local brews.
As so often happens when I strike up a conversation at a bar, I meet someone who can solve my most pressing problem: how to get back to my car when I am finished riding. The Amtrak line doesn't hit St. Charles, so I am resigned to an expensive taxi ride from St. Louis at the end. "We're driving to Augusta and back in the morning to pick up a friend," Andy says. "You could drop your car there and ride back with us to here." With an Amtrak stop at Washington a few miles away and Augusta having several wineries and a brewpub to hit at the end, "Done!"
Mile 1 of 105: Setting off from St. Charles
So the next morning I drive a route in 40 minutes that would then take me most of the day to cover on a bicycle. Slow travel indeed. What speeds by us at 60 mph is hardly noticed, but on a bike you take it all in. Passing a pond, a flock of more than 100 ducks takes off at once, rising into the air at the same speed I'm pedaling along the trail. Hawks perch on branches and look down as I pass below. Frogs croak from every patch of water, then fall silent as I draw closer, starting up again after I've moved on down the trail. How many deer would I see from a car window? On the trail I stop counting at 25.
I'm riding in early spring, well before the high season, so occasionally I see another human, but rarely. In this area the Katy Trail follows the Missouri River. Vertical bluffs with trees barely clinging on to the rocks rise up to the sky on my right, while massive farms stretch out along the river on my left. At one point I've got a plowed field on both sides of the trail; 15 minutes later I'm still riding through the same farm, an unobstructed expanse of land that will soon be covered with corn or soybean plants. Seeing such unending tracts of farmland, it's easy to see how the leaps in farming technology have given us more food than we know what to do with, defying the predictions from last century. Vineyards are dotted around the hillsides here and there, but factory farming drives the economy in this breadbasket—or cornbread basket—region.
A flat trail with no hills sounds great until you realize that means you never get to coast. If the day's ride is 35 miles, I'm pedaling for 35 miles, on a trail that's been softened by days of March rain. After a few hours my butt is aching and my thighs are burning, I look like an old man with arthritis when I dismount for a break in Augusta, only to find it's closing day for the brewpub I'd been looking forward to all day. On my second night I make up for it. When I open the door to my room at the Wine Valley Inn in Hermann and see a bottle of wine and a Jacuzzi, I'm ready to thank God, Allah, Shiva, and Buddha at once.
With zero cars and almost no other riders to worry about, I don't have to worry about getting run over. There's plenty of time to think, but maybe too much. So I learn to start out the morning with an hour or so of Pimsleur Spanish lessons through my earbuds, improving my language skills as I pedal through the miles. Then some good morning music until I start feeling a hint of fatigue After that I switch over to the fastest and loudest music on my iPod: Von Bondies, Pearl Jam, White Stripes, the first Arctic Monkeys album—basically anything that would work in a Mountain Dew commercial.
Why am I drawn to this endurance test? Ever since I started traveling, I've been attracted to the slow route from A to B: multi–day treks through mountain ranges, days of clicking off 30–40 miles on a hybrid bike, river rafting and kayaking trips with nights spent camping on a riverbank. Is it the need to feel the ground or water below me as I move, to see the scenery pass by at a less mechanized pace? Or is it the satisfaction of taking a real journey powered by my own muscles? All these factors probably come into play and I feel a decidedly richer level of satisfaction when I'm drinking a glass of wine and eating a big meal at the end of the day. I've worked hard; I deserve it.
The Rebirth of Missouri Wine and Real Beer
The wine I'm drinking is from Missouri, which is an oddity in itself. Go back more than a century and it was a different story. This state vied with California for many decades in wine production, thanks to all the European immigrants that settled here in the 1800s and started growing grapes. Grafted root stocks from Missouri even ended up saving France's wine industry after Phylloxera wiped out many of Europe's grapes in the 1860s.
Then Prohibition came along in 1920 and the zealots went crazy: in some cases uprooting vines and destroying cellars, a blow that the local wine industry still hasn't quite recovered from. The good news for visitors is, the lack of national recognition keeps a lid on prices. There are no "cult wines" from Missouri and no labels that can command a premium, so it's easy to find really stellar bottles of wine for $30 and perfectly good ones for $15 or less, interesting varietals like Chamborcin and Seyval Blanc.
The towns along the river have also gone through their booms and busts. In the 1800s, St. Louis was the fourth–largest city in the country and smaller riverfront cities like Augusta, Washington, and Hermann bustled with factories and riverboat commerce. Then the railroads came and those not on the line got hit hard. Later as the automobile, roads, and trucks took over, the railway towns lost out.
One fortunate side effect, however, is that towns like Hermann never got around to bulldozing old neighborhoods in the name of progress. There was no need for new large–scale construction. The architecture remained intact, with walkable streets, mixed–use buildings, and a sense of place. Coasting into Hermann on a bicycle feels perfectly natural: everything is still on a human scale. In Washington, you can tour a museum that's part of one of the old brick riverfront factories that has been around since the 1800s—Missouri Meerschaum. It's "the world's oldest and largest manufacturer of corn cob smoking pipes."
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