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  • May 8th, 2013

Becoming Old Rusty


By Joel M. Vance

A dusty gravel road in rural Missouri in the 1940s.  I am 10 years old, learning to ride a red-and-white one-speed bicycle….and not doing well.  The damn thing consistently wants to run into the ditch and throw me, like my uncle’s devious pony which I have not learned to ride either.

A car comes along and I bend over the recumbent bicycle, my knees skinned, road grit embedded in various parts of me, as if examining the Hell Machine for needed maintenance.  I keep my head down so the driver doesn’t see my tears turning the road dust to mud.

No training wheels for me—I’m going to master this alien contraption if it kills me which it threatens to do.  But a couple of hours later I wobble down the road to the farmhouse, upright after a fashion, and begin a nearly seven-decade affair with the bicycle.

Before the summer ended I was transporting the little girl from the next farm over on the support bar, careening through the back pasture where fireflies sparkled in the night and possibilities were endless.

Years later, on an English three speed which I had bought at a yard sale and appropriately named Old Rusty, I sped through another night en route to work.  The streets were deserted in the pre-dawn and the old bicycle with all those gears was a magic machine that effortlessly carried me past silent houses, bumping across the railroad tracks, all too soon at my office.

Then I went to work in a hill town and found that if I wanted to ride to work, five miles away, I needed more than three gears.  Old Rusty went to the shed and continued to live up to its name.  I got a 10-speed Motobecane Grand Record, one of the better road bikes of the 1970s.

My legs became as tempered steel. I rode 100 miles in a charity race, five miles out, five miles back ten times with a penny per mile pledged by my sponsors who had no idea I was trying to break their charity bank.  I led all riders that day and got to eat lunch with city dignitaries who seemed baffled by anyone who would even want to ride 100 miles on a bicycle.

There were hazards in bicycle commuting.  Twice cars unaccountably turned into my path, forcing me to slam on the brakes and hit the road in a reprise of that long ago day on the gravel road.  I invented new and admirable combinations of time-tested curse words.

Another time a woman passenger, holding a baby, spit on me as they passed me.  I still ponder that from time to time, wondering if the kid grew up to be Charles Manson.

Then I drifted away from bicycling, a function of age, I thought—but in retrospect it was more because of laziness.  One day after my bicycles had been stored for years, I looked at the Motobecane and was shocked to find it rusted, a revisitation of Old Rusty.  Shamed into action, I reconditioned the Motobecane and also a newer Trek with 18 speeds.

I grimly launched on Missouri’s Katy Trail, the nation’s longest rails-to-trails project, riding eight miles the first day, 13 the next.  I was back in business on a limited basis. If I still were in the business of riding 100 miles in a day I could do the length of the Katy in two days and a morning.  The Katy ultimately will stretch from the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers near St. Charles in eastern Missouri to Kansas City.

The Katy as a bicycling/hiking trail dates to 1986 when train service stopped between Machens in eastern Missouri to Sedalia in the west.  The National Trails System Act provides that abandoned rail rights-of-way can be set aside in case they’re ever needed again.

A sugar daddy was necessary so the state could buy the railbed and he was Ted Jones, the creator of the nationwide network of Edward D. Jones investment offices founded in St. Louis by his father.  Ted Jones and his wife Pat chipped $2.2 million into the Katy project.  Subsequently Union Pacific donated 33 miles of trail from Sedalia to Clinton and other money helped shape today’s 225 mile total.

Once the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad was a thriving business.  It came to life the same year the Civil War ended, linking border state Missouri with free state Kansas and slave state Texas.  Whatever enmity remained from the war gave way to free commerce among the former enemies.

Perhaps the most bizarre moment in the history of the Katy was when William Crush, the railroad’s general passenger, arranged as a publicity stunt to have two locomotives collide like two mammoth rams butting heads.  There were 40,000 spectators to see the event…and three of them died when the locomotive boilers exploded, scattering shrapnel in all directions.

Today the former railbed of the Katy in Missouri is a state park, heavily used by bicyclists and hikers.  My 100-mile days (and legs) behind me, I choose now  to ride 10 miles or so at a time and as if it were planned, there are small towns just about every 10 miles where a cyclist can stoke up on food and beverages (including at several wineries).

The Trail didn’t come without controversy.  Adjacent landowners claimed they owned the abandoned railbed but they lost that fight.  Some snarled that they would be overrun by hippies smoking dope, scattering trash and killing livestock, probably for Satanic rites.

Today you’d be hard-pressed to find any trash on the trail (NASCAR driver Carl Edwards sponsors a segment of Adopt-a-Trail, a volunteer program to clean up any trash), the cows graze contentedly (and undisturbed) along the Trail, and it’s doubtful anyone smokes dope because it’s too hard on the lungs.

Historically towns along the track were called whistle stops.  Now they are where cyclists can wet their whistles.  Most have facilities, including restaurants and lodging and for a few the Trail has meant rescue from ghost townhood.  On any given Saturday morning in Rocheport, the Trailside Café will be jammed with cars and cyclists coming and going east toward McBaine or west toward Boonville and the streets of the historic little town which once headquartered the Civil War sociopath Bloody Bill Anderson, will swarm with Lycra-clad visitors.

I sometimes ride with other geriatric survivors from my working days.  In warm weather I try to be on the Trail by 8 a.m. when it still is cool.  Much of the Trail borders the Missouri River, often so close that if you veer too close to the edge of the Trail you might take a bath in the Big Muddy.

Much of the Trail huddles under spectacular cliffs, some soaring 400 feet straight up.  Once there was a pair of goats that promenaded on miniscule ledges far above the trail in Cole County, but they vanished—perhaps the victim of someone with a .30-06 and delusions of African safaris

Five miles west from the North Jefferson trailhead is a pair of benches and a picnic table, looking out on the Missouri River.  The benches are in memory of Mel Carnahan, former Missouri Governor who won a race for the United States Senate several weeks after he died in a plane crash.

The picnic bench is in memory of Mark Sullivan a close friend and co-worker who took up bicycling in his retirement and organized an annual ride and picnic on the Trail.  Now the annual picnic is named for him.  I stop at the table and think about the times we hunted ducks and played basketball together.

The last time I saw Mark was on the Katy Trail.

The Missouri River flows along the Trail over half of its length, from Jefferson City to St. Charles.  The moody Muddy sometimes slips its banks and chews chunks of the Trail, but the Department of Natural Resources is quick to repair the damage.  In 1993 and again in 1995 the Missouri swelled from bluff to bluff, closing major highways and cutting the southern half of the state off from the north, save for a couple of high bridges.

Those were supposed to be 500-year floods, but the river that led Lewis and Clark west does what it pleases when it pleases.  In August it can be low flow enough to expose huge sandbars, ideal for a campout.  Cyclists can wave to the river campers.  Barge traffic has nearly ceased on the big river, although taxpayers continue to prop it up as they have for 100 years.  Now most boating on the Missouri is by canoe or motorboat.

One day I rode from McBaine to Rocheport and passed a marker identifying a campsite used by Lewis and Clark near the start of their epic journey to the Pacific Ocean in 1804-5.  Though the river has been shackled and debased by levees, wing dikes and other manmade intrusions, it’s still possible to feel a frisson of history, especially if you’re all alone on the Trail and of a romantic mind.

Having outlived the original Old Rusty and having lived with the second incarnation for 30 years, I’ve concluded that I’ll rust out before my bicycle.




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