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Walking the Katy Trail across rural Missouri

Missouri may not rank high among the exotic or posh, but for the walker, it is exceptional.

By Phebe Novic

Missouri map

"Are you walking the entire trail?" asked the 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, my husband 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 much from what we are used to in the United States, in that the trails wind their way across the countryside, stopping at small towns and villages along the way.

"For the willing walker the Katy offers a window into the rural heartland of the Midwest. "

This kind of hiking is big into rewards. While enjoying the changing scenery of farmland, forest, and mountain path, at the end of the day when you're tired and hungry, you round the corner and there it is— a cold beer, a hot shower, a hearty meal, and a soft bed.

In the morning you rise to the smell of rich dark coffee and a hot breakfast. Then you're off for another day on the trail, with of course, more rewards awaiting at the end of the day.

Sound good? You may not have experienced anything better.

Last summer, we were given information on the Katy Trail, one of the longest rail trails in America, spanning 225 miles across the state of Missouri. Finally we had found it; a long-distance trail across the rural heartland of America. Of course there wasn't the lure of the vineyards of Alsace, the Black Forest in Germany, or the lakes and dales of England, but in some ways that's what made 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 included mileages and available lodging, we planned our 13-day walk and pre-booked all of our accommodation. We were now ready to walk.

The Katy begins southeast of Kansas City in the small town of Clinton. Known for the largest town square in Missouri, complete with drugstore, soda fountain, and barber shop, Clinton is a great point of embarkation. For several days, in early November, we walked the trail heading northeast through rural farmland before joining the Missouri River and pushing east to St. Charles. Every ten to fifteen miles, we strolled into the center of a small town, often next to the grain elevators.

In most locations, trailheads and rest stops conveniently sit off to the side in the shape of an old depot with signs announcing such places as Clifton City, Mokane, and Huntsdale.

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 which form 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 Missouri into the new territories of the United States 200 years ago.

Occasionally the Katy follows alongside the highway, something as walkers, we do not like. However, we enjoyed the feeling of being "cheered on" as cars, trucks, and motorcycles honked their horns and waved at us. Bikers did not receive this adulation. But then I guess the sight of two middle-aged walkers, complete with hiking boots and backpacks, walking across Missouri, was a bit of an anomaly.

For those who make the entire journey to St. Charles, the old railroad path provides a virtual hiker's highway. The trail is covered with a crushed limestone, giving the feel of a hardened dirt road. Elevation gain is not an issue and we dare anyone to get lost. But 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, are still hard at work on the final leg into St. Charles. I've been to Everest Base Camp in Nepal three times, but on the Katy, I hit the Advil bottle with regularity.

Flatness however, 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 it seems almost every house, large or small, decorates the yard with pumpkins and hay bales to celebrate the autumn season.

It's fried chicken at Raymond's, a local football game in Windsor, a group of hunters (their buddies in Iraq), catfish in Hermann, visiting the local wineries, shopping at the Dollar General. Their roots here may be German, but life is pure American.

As with any long-distance trail, it's the evening rewards that will make or break the experience. Missouri may not rank high among the exotic or posh, but for the walker, it was exceptional. The Bed and Breakfasts were charming and intimate, yet provided us with the one thing that a walker treasures most— space.

Outside of a few hotels and on Saturday nights, we were the only guests at every B & B and in several instances we had an entire house or cottage to ourselves. The elegantly restored Hotel Bothwell in old downtown Sedalia, provided a step back in time. We even stayed at a Best Value Inn in Holts Summit, where the owner picked us up from the trail, took us to our spacious room, gave us breakfast in the morning, then drove us back to the trail. All for $62.

Missouri, like most of the Midwest, has a total lack of 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 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."

A note on the door of a large farmhouse read, "David and Phebe, come on in and make yourselves at home. We'll be back later." Princess the Lab is the official greeter." So we did just that, and sat out on the back porch with Princess and listened to the crickets.

Isabella Bird, who so eloquently wrote of her journeys in the late nineteenth century, loved to travel to know what it was like to live somewhere. Said Daniel Boorstin, "She had an amazing capacity quickly to become a resident." When walking the Katy from town to town, this same ability will come from the encounter off the trail as you step in and out of the lives of those in Steedman, Treloar, and Pilot Grove.

Enjoying local culture, however, is not the only reward for the long-distance walker. According to Natural Health magazine, exercise is the best way 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 people riding their bikes on the Katy, we also know that for many, getting into biking still requires a lot of convincing. But walking is something people already do and most have access to every day. It is 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 Rocky Mountain National Park, 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 pace to around 8-10 miles a day. Throw in a rest day to linger to enjoy the lovely wineries and shops. If you call Gary Creason's Shuttle Service (573) 694-2027, you can make arrangements to be picked up and dropped off where needed and have your luggage transferred to your next night's destination. This way you can just carry your 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 horizon, once you eat because you're truly 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, like Isabella Bird, have 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.

Phebe and her husband David Novic have been the owners of The Warming House, an outdoor store in Estes Park, Colorado, for 21 years. They are in the true sense of the word "walkers."

April 2003

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