Cycling 2000 Miles of Rail Trails from Katy to Plymouth

These entries were submitted via Email to the Undomesticated Cyclist blog during the Summer of 2021.

A Strange Feeling

I feel caught off guard, but I can’t really say why. It’s like I’ve been bluffing about the idea of riding across the country for so long, and then my bluff got called. It’s a feeling of disequilibrium. I really don’t know what this is going to feel like two weeks in. You know I don’t even have to do this – my life at home is more than comfortable. Why am I here on this plane?

I remember feeling undomesticated like this before. At age 24, I left California and drove East to a new job in Westchester County. Like now, I hadn’t a clue what it would be like, and my entire hone was in my car. It turns out the drive was the best part. Westchester and I never came to any kind of understanding, and six months later, I was a resident of Oregon.

I think this trip will go better, especially since I do return home at the end. The bike riding is not the really big deal about this trip. The big deal is living for a month with only the things I carry in these bags attached to the bike and not submitting to indoor accommodations every night.

Day 1: Kansas City Airport to Pleasant Hill, MO

Sunday, August 8, 2021, 54 miles (87 km) – Total so far: 57 miles (92 km)

You can’t make this stuff up. After a lovely send-off and goodbye kiss at the airport, my flight was delayed. While waiting, I had the good luck to see my bike getting loaded on the plane.

Back at the airport, there is more delay. I have my bike in hand at 1 am, and I drag it off to a corner to start reassembling. By 2 am I’m ready to roll, tires pumped back up, lights blinking. It is 80 degrees outside, and the rain is just arriving. The roads are deserted.

It’s a three-mile ride to the hotel. After two miles, the handling gets really soft, and there is a hissing sound. Then the rain finally arrives in great earnest glops. It is 80 degrees, and there I am, changing a tube in the dark and rain.

I rolled my bike through the lobby at 2:40 am, somewhat soaked. The night manager looks up but doesn’t say anything. So much for an early start tomorrow. But I have my bike, and I’m free to go in the morning.

Day 2: Pleasant Hill to Windsor, MO

Monday August 9, 2021, 52 miles (84 km) – Total so far: 109 miles (175 km)

The Rock Island trailhead was just a couple of miles from the campground. It was a straight run to Windsor through farm country. The track is lined with trees giving some shade as the temperature pushed up to 95 in the afternoon. In the morning, I ran into these guys from Missouri State Parks. Their job was to do a “trail run” with their truck every Monday to clear downed branches and maintain gates. Their work meant the entire trail was in perfect condition.

Windsor is in Amish country. As I lay on my sleeping bag hours after dark, I could still hear the clip-clopping of horse-drawn carts going back and forth along the lane in front of Katy-Rock Junction camping where I stayed. Nice place for an overnight stay.

I felt stronger at the end of the day than I did yesterday. I’m most tired in my arms from supporting my body while riding. The heat just wraps around you. The overnight low was 81.

Day 5: Tebbetts to Marthasville, MO

Thursday, August 12, 2021, 54 miles (87 km) – Total so far: 289 miles (465 km)

Tebbetts is one of many towns on the Katy Trail where there were just a handful of buildings left in the station area, and those were all shut except for the post office, open 2 hours a day. The Turner shelter stands out because of its big sign in front and also because it comes from a big heart, Mrs. Leone Turner, who donated the building for use by youth groups and trail users. The guest log goes back 20 years. I had the whole place to myself. It was a very welcome refuge from the heat. $5 per person per night.

There was a restaurant across the street located in the old bank building.  There seemed to be another riverfront town every 10 miles or so. Each one had an old bank, long gone.

Day 13: Cincinnati to Morrow, OH

Friday, August 20, 2021, 56 miles (90 km) – Total so far: 771 miles (1,241 km)

It was a 15-mile ride from my hosts’ home through suburban towns that gradually transitioned to inner-city neighborhoods. Once across the vast rail yard that bisects the city I jumped on a wide bike lane the led straight downtown.

The Ohio to Erie trail starts at Cincinnati’s beautiful front porch park along the Ohio River. I saw a pair of cyclists just finishing a ride from Cleveland. It was a little tricky at the start to get from the Ohio River trail to the Little Miami trail, but once there, I had left crazy world and will be immersed in fantasy bike trail land for the next 5 days. Like the Katy Trail, the separation from road traffic is almost total. Unlike Katy Trail, the Ohio to Erie is paved, and there are lots of people on it. I passed half a dozen eateries on my way to Morrow. I finished at Morgan’s, a canoe outfitter that offers camping on the banks of the very clean and beautiful Little Miami River.

Day 20: Westfield to North Tonawanda, NY

Friday August 27, 2021, 80 miles (129 km) – Total so far: 1,398 miles (2,250 km)

This was probably the last long, tough day of my trip. It’s warm and humid, and there was a headwind that kept me down in the drops for much of the day. And a lot of miles to cover. I could have broken these two days into three to have less distance to travel, but there isn’t enough attraction here to spend extra time.

There are three routes that trace the lake shore: I-90, US 20, and state route 5. I took the latter because it was the smallest, but by mid-day, it was two lanes in each direction. Fortunately, there was a generous shoulder the whole way so everyone could pass me with lots of space.

The one highlight was the beaches: Evangola State Park after second breakfast and Woodlawn Beach State Park after lunch. The water was perfect and clear, and the warm sand invited indolence.

And then I rode through Buffalo. They are really trying to create bike routes to traverse the city, but there were a bunch of puzzling detours due to construction.

I finished my day at the Royal Motel and Campground, which was full of huge RVs and one tent camper, and me. It wasn’t pleasant or unpleasant and certainly not royal, but at least I had a corner site by myself for sleeping outdoors in the clean air. That lasted until about 12:30 am when the manager sold my site to a second tent camper. They had their car headlights shining on my sleeping spot until they had their tent set up. I left the next morning before my site-mate, or anyone else in the place woke up.

Day 24: DeWitt to Marcy, NY

Tuesday August 31, 2021, 51 miles (82 km) – Total so far: 1,628 miles (2,620 km)

I got a late start. The skin rash seemed better already, but I went out in the morning to get some antihistamines, and I stayed at the EconoLodge until check-out time to give them a chance to start taking effect.

On the trail again, I was thinking about the mosquitoes. The Erie Canal was built in 3 phases. The original 1820 canal was widened around 1850, then in the 1920s it was replaced by the Erie Barge canal, which was much wider and deeper and followed a different path over much of the route. The trail often follows the historic canalway, and this has become bracken water or wetland forest in places.

My thought was that this was good habitat for mosquitoes. Later in the day, the path rejoined the new barge canal, and I was hoping there would be fewer mosquitoes here.

I passed through Rome and visited Fort Stanwix, originally built in 1754 to defend the colony in the French and Indian war. It was rebuilt from archeological findings in 1976. This national monument is really well done.

I landed for the night at the Lock 20 camping area for cyclists and boaters at Marcy. There was no potable water, but a boater had some extra water to share with me. The mosquitoes were bad again, shredding my theory about the big canal being a poor breeding ground. I slept in my tent on the deck of a covered pavilion which seemed to be a little less infested than the open grassy areas.

Last Day: Medway to Plymouth, MA

Monday September 6, 2021, 61 miles (98 km) – Total so far: 1,971 miles (3,172 km)

This was a beautiful day and a worthy bike ride to finish my big outing. Overnight showers gave way to a sunny morning with a few puffy clouds drifting by.

After saying goodbye to family in Medway, I continued my tour of suburban Massachusetts roads, heading southeast.

When I was a kid, we used to have a tattered atlas of local roads floating around in the back seat of both family cars. This wasn’t just for navigating the last mile – the detailed atlas was needed for the whole trip. Roads in Massachusetts don’t go straight, and they often don’t last more than a mile before ending in a confusing Y or T junction or just changing the name without reason. Even-numbered state roads seem to start and end in the middle and can’t be trusted to lead you where you want to go.

Now, of course, you just enter the address in google maps, and it figures out several optimized routes you can choose from. My day consisted of blindly following a sequence of fifty turn directions. Every town has its own Maple, Church, Center, and Main Streets. Every town also has its own Donut Shop, making this a nearly perfect place to ride a bike. The roads led through oak forests dotted with small farms, continuously lined with suburban homes large and small and almost all beautifully maintained, in contrast to the midwest states I rode through three weeks ago.

In the afternoon, the oak forests gave way to cranberry bogs and pine barrens. This is a unique ecosystem in coastal southeast Massachusetts. I rode through Myles Standish State Forest, another of the most beautiful places. Dad says we camped here when I was a kid, but I don’t remember it specifically.

Google maps wasn’t entirely clear on how to get through Myles Standish State Forest and kept wanting me to ride down a scrubby track into the Pitch Pine forest. There were a few extra miles to find a meandering route through the park. Once through, five more miles brought me to Dad’s home and the end of the ride.


Monday, September 13, 2021

Today marks one week since I rolled up to my family’s house in Plymouth. Today is the day I finally dunked my body into the Atlantic at Race Point Beach on Cape Cod. Now I have swum off both coasts in the same summer.

So how was this bike tour? Just like how I couldn’t give a reason why it was appealing for me to do it at the beginning, now I can’t think of a way to sum it up. It was great and bad at times. It was too long and too short. I was ready to finish a week ago. I wish I could ride some more.

Ok, maybe talk about some details. For me, a 50-mile ride is a long ride. I have done a few of these as day trips, usually with my kid, who is a big road cyclist. On this tour, I averaged over 60 miles a day every day for a month. It wasn’t hard because this is all I did from breakfast to dinner and sometimes after, seven days a week. My body felt tired after riding 300 miles in four days, and I felt rested and fresh after riding just 130 miles in the previous three days.

The really big aspect of this tour was not all the miles or the time spent on the bike. It was the near-complete separation from my normal life. I like my normal life, so it’s kind of goofy to separate from it, but it did ease most of the usual responsibilities. These were replaced by more primal things like where am I going to sleep tonight, and what can I find to eat. 6 hours of cycling burns 3000-4000 calories. I ate 4-5 meals a day.

Physically my body did fine. The first week was the hardest, and I felt the most discomfort on day 2 in my arms. My lower back threatened to spasm into pain that week but it fell in line with some gentle stretches and a little cognitive override to hold my pelvis on the correct orientation while pedaling. By week 3, it was no longer any concern at all. One knee thought about aching on the medial side, which seemed normal because I was not doing my usual knee routine at the gym that keeps this pain away. The skin rash that attacked me in Syracuse was easily diagnosed from the symptoms alone after a few days: poison ivy on arms and stomach. It’s a mystery how I was exposed, and I’m assuming it was an airborne source that stuck to my wet shirt and sun sleeves and was held there all day until I washed my clothes. It’s almost completely gone now.

How about the route? The long bike trails were great, even the Erie Canalway with 150 miles of mosquitoes in the middle. I liked all those miles of not having to share a road with cars and trucks.

What was the best state? Massachusetts. Such beautiful scenery and the cars are more savvy on how to be cool while passing a bike. Least favorite state? Southern Illinois. The only reason to be there on a bike is to ride to somewhere better.

Any epiphanies? Sure. I just don’t know what they are. Would I do it again? Not sure about that. The summertime road life was fun for a whole month but it was too long to be away from my wife and the kids.

So that’s it. It was an experience I’ll remember and appreciate, even if I can’t say why.

Cycling 2000 Miles of Rail Trails from Katy to Plymouth was last updated October 17th, 2021 by Mike Bruns