AXC - The bike

AXC - The bike

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Missouri Loves Company

One week in Missouri, that's what it took to experience the highs and the lows of this trip. Well, not really 'lows' per-say, as my spirits never wavered, but certainly some of the tougher days on the road. 

Things seemed to start very nice, there was an option to take a 'flatcut' along the Mississippi River that was smooth riding. The day was beautiful, the route was scenic, the weather was perfect, and there was practically no traffic. I did about 50 miles that day and barely felt it. It was the flattest day of the tour yet, and it was heaven to just roll along the edge of the river and not have to do any climbing. 

Except, none of that was in Missouri, that was still in IL. 

Then we crossed the bridge into Missouri. The state started off beautiful; it was flat, there was a wonderful blue sky and fields of crops out to the horizon. Also the 'Bike Route 76' signs were back, after being absent in Kentucky and Illinois. These are nice reassuring signposts along the route that are friendly reminders that you're going the right way. Sometimes I zone out and forget to look at my map, so occasionally these signs have saved me from missing a turn.

But, as we got farther away from the Mississippi, the terrain got hillier and hillier. The day also got hotter as the sun rose further in the sky. 

Often, the catch is that when the sun is out and brilliantly lighting up the lush landscape, the day is blazingly hot. So we trade off beautiful views and rich blue sky for blazing heat, and that was the case that day. (I know, you're thinking, 'of course it's warm when the sun is out!' But there have been days where it was just naturally cool, and still beautiful out.)

The first day in Missouri wasn't particularly long, and although the hills were tough they weren't the killers we had in Kentucky, but the heat and humidity take it's tole. And this day in particular we were warned that there was a long (30 mile) stretch with no resources, so I stocked up on extra water and gatorade and plowed through. 
Then, like an oasis in a desert, there was a whiskey brewery about 45 miles into the 60 mile day! Several people from our tour were already there, I pulled in, stepped into the air-conditioning, and was instantly refreshed. There, I had the most delicious home brewed root beer ever, and sat for a spell. 

Then I bought a bottle of wine for a gift, and it fit perfectly in the water bottle holder on my bike. Lets just hope I don't run out of water and have to resort to drastic measures to stay hydrated.  

Back out in the heat, I had 15 miles to Farmington, Mo. and the first night in the state. 

We stayed at a bicycle hostel in a converted old prison. (The hostel part was actually in the deputy's quarters upstairs.) This was by far the nicest cyclist hotel of the trip. 

Also that night, my cousin Stacy and her daughter Allie came all the way down from St. Louis to visit me! I got to introduce them to the tour group, show her the spiffy digs we were staying in, and spend a great evening with the two of them. It was truly wonderful, and so great to see her after several years. And, after seeing the nice bike hostel, she thinks all the places I stay are that cushy! ... if only. 

The second day in Mo was short, and we took our time getting to camp. It was threatening to rain all day, but didn't. It was just endlessly gray. Again, the trade off was that they sky was bleak, but it was cooler and the humidity was down. We stayed at a nice park called 'Johnsons Shut-ins', which was away from all the light of the city, and I could see a million stars in the sky. 

The short day was a bit of a reprieve leading into the next one, which was billed as one of the toughest of the tour, and it did not disappoint. This was a longer day, about 68 miles, hot, and hilly as hell. 

I feel like the cyclist that cried 'wolf', because I keep saying 'this was the hardest day ever!' And although it's tough to really gauge, this one is certainly in the top 3. Just when I think things can't get harder, the dial is turned up to 11.
It sounds silly when boiled down to a few simple words; hot, hilly, long. So I'll expand on those a bit. The temperature was up to almost 90 before 10 am, and by noon it was close to 100. It was full sun, not many clouds in the sky and no breeze. It was nearly 100% humidity. This means that when I sweat, it's actually hotter outside than my body temp, and the sweat doesn't dry off my skin because of the humidity. So the water just pours out of my body and doesn't do me any good. When it's that hot, it's difficult to stay hydrated and keep my electrolytes balanced, and I have to constantly monitor these things and keep them in mind. Then adding to the difficulty were some of the steepest hills I have faced yet. When a hill is too steep, I have to get off my bike and walk/push it up the hill. I walked more that day than all the days combined before this. Sometimes I walked because the hill was just too steep. Other times it was because I was already too tired, and occasionally I realized that I might be able to pedal up the hill but the effort would wipe me out and leave nothing for the next hill. So I walked.

There wasn't much in the way of breakfast at the campsite, so we pushed on to the first town 20 miles down the road to find restaurants. I was nearly last out of camp that morning and by the time I found the group at the first diner, the place was packed and the kitchen was backed up. At the gas station next door I asked a local if there was another restaurant in town, and he directed me "about 4 miles up RT 54, at the top of the hill." Sigh, there's always a hill. Then he says to me "It's incredible what you're doing, but son, I think you're crazy."
That wasn't just in reference to the ride, but also for biking on that particular road. This is another aspect that can greatly affect the ease or difficulty of a day, the quality of the roads. On this day, the roads were narrow and heavily trafficked, in particular by big logging trucks rushing to and fro. When they pass by in my lane, the wake pulls me along a little, and shakes my bike pretty hard. When they zoom by in the opposing lane, 3 seconds later the wind hits me in the chest like a fist. 
I check my mirror constantly for cars, and have to be keenly aware of my position in the road on the tops of hills and around curves. It's very quite in these back country hills and sound carries very well, so I can often hear a vehicle coming long before I can even see them. I listen closely and keep my music turned off.

The day wears on, and although the scenery is still beautiful, it's getting more difficult to appreciate. 

The ride is starting to be measured in 5 mile increments; ride 5, rest and rehydrate, continue on. Then at some point that drops to 3, and then 2 miles. Sometimes I'll stop in the shade just before a big hill to let my heart rate and body temp come down a little before they shoot back up on the hill. At this rate, time expands and every mile feels like a marathon. The water in my bottles is hot from the sun and there's no relief in the shade. As I push up a hill, I can hear my heart throb in my ears as the sweat pours down my face. 

Then, after more time and more exhaustion than I was prepared to expect, I arrive at camp. In this case, the campsite was up another hill, and down a long rocky road that shook my saddlebags loose and jogged my already road-weary backside. 

There was little relief at camp, it was still hot and humid, all I could do was sit in the shade and drink gatorade while the bugs buzzed around my face. 

That night, the heat and humidity broke into huge thunderstorms. Lightning flashing so furiously it looked like a dance club strobe light, while the thunder was the base booming in the distance. Late at night as I lay in bed and see the dazzling flashes light up my tent, the deep boom of thunder rolls along the mountain range, not quite an echo, it sounds like a bowling ball in an oil drum. Later, either the storm subsided, or I just fell asleep due to exhaustion despite the cacophony.

The following day was a much needed rest day at this little camp in the hills of the Ozark mountains. The heavy storms of the night before brought some relief to the heat and humidity.
The campsite offered lazy river tubing tours, and as a group most of us opted to float down a cold river and do little else. This was refreshing, relaxing and fun. It was very different to sit in a tube for 4 hours and just let the current take me where it goes. After pedaling for so many days and weeks, it feels weird and antsy to sit still. And I've never been particularly good at sitting still. 

That night we ordered pizza, relaxed and prepared to get back on the road the next day. 

There are a lot of ups and downs on this trip (literally and figuratively), the day before last was hot and hard, then we have a wonderful rest day and are rejuvenated for the next day's ride! And then... it's a slog again. The day was overcast, but still hot and humid. By mile 5 I was soaked through with sweat. By mile 10 it was raining steadily, and by mile 20 I had been riding in a full downpour for an hour. The rain didn't let up for the rest of the day. The roads were wide enough, but very heavily trafficked. 4 of us rode together for increased visibility and to look out for each other. We kept looking for someplace to duck under and out of the rain, but there was nothing for 40 miles. 
On the upside, it wasn't swelteringly hot. On the downside, rain really stings my face as I bomb down a hill at 35 mph. 

We rolled into Houston, Mo. (in Texas county!) pretty early. This is what happens when it's a shorter distance day, you're motivated to push, and there's nowhere to stop! 
Cold, wet, hungry, and miserable, I sank to my lowest when I ate lunch at Walmart because camp was in a city park and offered no reprieve from the elements. By the time I'd finished lunch, it had stopped raining and the sun was out. Such is life. 

I wasn't in the best mood that evening. The ride wasn't overly difficult, but it was fairly miserable. I felt wet down to my bones. Topping it off, the shower at the campsite was only cold water, so there was no reprieve there. After dinner I was ready to just crawl into my sleeping bag and call it a day. 

But... It's amazing how a single act of kindness can turn your mood around. This day was going to be remembered as 'that crappy day in the rain', until a stranger we met earlier came to camp and delivered a batch of fresh (still warm!) homemade chocolate chip cookies that she baked just for us. The woman wasn't much of a talker, she just dropped off a plastic bag full of cookies, offered a shy smile and went on her way. I didn't even think to ask her name before she left (found out later it's Jen.)
The cookies were warm and delicious and were more than just tasty, they were up-lifting. Instead of the day being 'that day in the rain' it was 'the day that wonderful woman brought warm cookies.' And that's a much better memory. 

There was also a beautiful sunset that night, assisted by the storm clouds lingering in the distance. I could appreciate it a little more with cookies in my belly.

The uplift of that night carried over to the next day, where the steep hills of the Ozarks gave way to beautiful rolling hills. The weather was threatening to rain all day, but held off until literally 5 minutes after we got to camp (and under a pavilion) and then the sky opened up like floodgates! Two hours and several inches of water later the clouds cleared into a beautiful evening. 

The final day and night in Missouri was nice. The day started off with rain, the remnants of the storm from the evening before. But after a short and heavy pour (for which I ducked for cover at yet another walmart), the day cleared up and into one of the most beautiful of the trip. 

However, it was premature to think I was out of the Ozarks just yet, because they came back with a vengeance. But it was a 'shorter' 49 mile day that finished at a nice cyclist hostel in Ash Grove, Mo. The town itself was pretty depressed, and almost every shop on Main Street was boarded up and closed. 

Except for this little Mexican restaurant that welcomed us enthusiastically. The group settled in there and the drinks flowed freely. We had a fine dinner with wonderful hospitality, and the owner/chef made a berry cobbler just for us! 

Much later, we reluctantly left and went to bed. 

Finally, the last day in Missouri saw us off with a smile and a wave; 'Sorry for the hard times, hope you'll remember me fondly!' It was a long 72 mile day, but with tail winds and easy rolling hills it was the easiest 72 miles I've ever done. 

There were some hard times and some good times. The people were fantastic and the ride was beautiful. And really, it's all part of the experience. Missouri, thanks for the memories. 

Climbing a fire look-out tower, that might have
been built out of leftover Erector set parts. 

Just in case you might have been interested.


  1. Good to see you keeping your spirits up, and enjoying all your posts! Go Aaron!

    1. Thanks Cele! Luv ya! You're my biggest fan!

  2. High Aaron

    Have a friend out there on the trail this summer, so I’m also enjoying your perspective on places I haven’t seen in a while.
    Especially re-feeling your “worst day of the ride” moments, but could not be cruel enough to add my usual “so far” to those comments.
    Now I can add that. It gets better after MO. Much better. Might be tuff in KS and eastern CO due to the drought, but I recommend public swimming pools. Every decent size town in KS had one. Great way to spend summer afternoons, off the bike. Made KS days tolerable, and often enjoyable.

    Have fun.
    Larry Osborn
    West to East, 1976.

    1. Thanks Larry! Kansas was certainly difficult, and E. Co was pretty desolate. A few in the group thought one of the really windy days in KS was the worst day every, but 'The Crucible' still holds that distinction for me. I just crossed the Continental Divide and it was easy by comparison to VA and KY. Thanks for reading! - Aaron