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(May 9-13)



One of the Bike Surgeon's many talents was wheelbuilding, and Rob had decided to stay behind for a few hours in Carbondale for a primer. We didn't hook up that evening in Chester and so I was by myself on the morning of May 9 when I crossed the Mississippi River into Missouri. After a couple of days of solo riding I found Rob again and we continued, still almost due west, across the southern third of the state toward Kansas.

A minor marvel of bicycle touring is the way in which cyclists on the same general route, separated by hours or even days, can find one other. When I rode ahead from Rob out of Carbondale, it was the second time we'd split up -- the first being the day after we'd met, in Kentucky -- and we didn't even bother to plan our rendezvous, because we knew that it would happen eventually. Indeed it's almost effortless: there are only so many places to snack or spend the night, plus people tend simply to notice fully-laden touring cyclists, which are a comparatively rare sight even on the Transamerica Trail. The upshot is that, several times in a day, the trailing cyclist will hear something like, "hey, a rider just like you came through here about 3 hours ago". Rob and I tended to cover about the same daily distance and once we got an idea of each other's tastes in overnight spots, it was easy to reconnect.

Anyhow. Other than one day in the fringes of the Ozark mountains (a bit of work, but only an echo of the Appalachians), the terrain in Missouri was rolling and benign. The route was, like almost all of the Transamerica Trail, over secondary roads through rural and semi-rural territory; we went through only one town larger than a thousand. Our maps warned of congestion toward the middle of the state on roads leading to Branson, but the country music season was evidently not yet underway and traffic wasn't a problem. Rob and I did, however, each encounter an twenty mile stretch of potent and inexplicable driver hostility in and around Farmington in eastern Missouri. It was an unfortunate introduction to the state but, thankfully, quite a contrast to the western part.

Missouri is hard to sum up. It offered more than its share of diversions -- pretty roads, nice campsites, unusual geology -- and friendly folks who fed and sheltered us, but somehow it lacked a theme. There were no revelations, no developments, no mental or physical adjustments to make. I didn't know what the Rockies would be like but they were still 10 days away. Even flat Kansas, with the prospect of thunderstorms and powerful winds, left room for a bit of uncertainty. But while I was in Missouri I knew how far I could get in a day, how much time I could waste, what kinds of places were suitable for spending the night and how to find them. So I just rode, occupied primarily by the white noise that my merciful brain supplies to fill uneventful days in the saddle.

As I said, not much of a theme to Missouri, but lots of cool stuff:

-- Elephant Rocks State Park. It's a sin to waste a tailwind but I cut short my first day in Missouri to be able to take in this park the next morning. Elephant Rocks State Park, site of a gravel quarry that operated around the turn of the century, features low rocky hills capped with granite boulders the size of small houses. Yes, it was probably stupid for me to go clambering over the rocks and hopping 5 foot wide crevasses in shoes with slippery metal cleats right in the middle, but they were the only pair I brought and anyhow I didn't break my neck so lighten up! It was also interesting to see, in stones all around the top of the hill, elegantly carved names of quarry workers from ninety and a hundred years before.
-- Liquor. In Missouri they sell it everywhere! Convenience stores and even gas stations have little vodka and whiskey miniatures, a buck a shot, sitting in huge plastic fishbowls right by the cash register. It seemed like a weird impulse purchase in stores reached primarily by automobile.
-- Alley Spring. I knew I'd find Rob at this National Park Service campsite, and sure enough when I coasted in on the evening of May 10, he was there with his tent already set up. We shared a grassy site ($5 each) near a quick babbling stream and it would have been perfect if the NPS had supplied hot water for the showers and if the temperature hadn't dropped to 33 degrees during the night. It was simply too cold to ride first thing the next morning, so we spent an hour at the site of the former mill town waiting for the sun to come up. A lovely mill and one-room schoolhouse still survive, but the niftiest part was the spring from which Alley Spring took its name -- a substantial river simply invents itself as 84 million gallons of water per day gush up out of the ground. I'd never seen anything like it.
-- Phyllis and Peter Lowe (aka Mrs. and Mr. Dragon Lady). We had heard several times that we should visit Phyllis Lowe -- known as the Dragon Lady for the 6'x6' red plywood dragon that sits in front of her house -- but we were trying to make up time after our slow start out of Alley Spring and didn't figure on stopping as we passed her house that morning. But in the same instant that we spied the dragon we noticed a mannequin, perched on a rusted bicycle on a fence fifteen feet off the ground, waving at us and ringing a bell. A rope and pulley system led back to the porch of the house where a deeply tanned, shirtless man with a 9 inch beard was pulling on a cord with one hand and waving to us with the other. We couldn't resist such a heartfelt invitation and pulled in to meet Peter Lowe, the Dragon Lady's husband. Two huge friendly dogs lumbered up to greet us and before we knew it we were in the living room with Peter and Phyllis, snacking on cookies and lemonade.
The Lowes were charming and engaging; we talked about love, religion, big band era music, England (Peter is originally from East Anglia). They gave us a tour of the grounds, including the swimming hole out back and the tiny '50s vintage trailer near the shed where cyclists can spend the night. After all that we started on our goodbyes -- it was well after noon and we had only covered 20 of the 75 miles we hoped to make that day -- but Phyllis offered us lunch and we were having so much fun that we decided to hang around a bit longer and ride after dinner if we had to. While lunch was in the works, Rob volunteered to mow large parts of their lawn and I helped Phyllis water the garden. We wound up staying until almost 2:30, and indeed didn't make it to Hartville until 8:00. Good thing for daylight savings time and lengthening days!
-- The Gilmores. In the more westerly states on the Transamerica Trail, many of the small towns open up their municipal parks for overnights by cyclists, and in Missouri Rob and I began to avail ourselves of that simple charity. In Ash Grove, however, cyclists don't need to stay in the park; they can look up the Gilmores, who have been feeding and lodging cyclists since the early 1990s, when a group of Adventure Cycling riders were caught out nearby in a nasty thunderstorm. Janey Gilmore and her son Jamie (one of the friendliest and most self-possessed 16 year olds you'll ever meet) let us soak in the bathtub, ran movies on the VCR, cleared floor space in the den for our sleeping bags, and fed us pancakes in the morning. "Just be sure to pull the door all the way shut when you leave", they said. Episodes like that happened again and again on the ride, but I still can't quite believe the generosity of the people we met.



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Page posted October 19, 1997