When Troxler asked me to contribute a story as a guest blogger, I knew I had to write about our miles on Missouri’s Katy Trail. The first time I rode the trail with Trox, he was on his first cross-country tour, and I had driven a rental car up to the town of Clinton to rendezvous with him. One of our cycling friends, Hector, was supposed to ride with me to the trail, but a family emergency got in the way, so he graciously paid for the rental to guarantee that at least one Night Rider would be there to be a part of Troxler’s journey. It was a privilege to be able to say that I was on his coast to coast adventure, if only for a couple of days. I rode with him along the banks of the Missouri River, up into Jefferson City, and on to Hermann, a historical city heavily clad in German culture. For laughs or because Troxler is a generous spirit, he would tell waitresses in the cafes and pubs that I was the world traveler and that he was tagging along for the ride, and I’d laugh and we’d both benefit from the offers of a free lunch or a beer from those who chose to live vicariously through us.
The second time I visited Missouri, I had signed up for a group tour organized by Troxler and our friend, Larry. The two were starting a bicycle touring enterprise through which they could promote cycle touring and encourage the timid to let go and see the world by bicycle. The day I was headed out to our group’s final pre-trip meeting to discuss plans, my wife pulled me aside, and so I sat at our dining room table and looked into her serious face as she told me that our marriage had reached an unfortunate conclusion. I tried to back out of the tour to deal with impending divorce, but Troxler and the other cyclists encouraged me to go anyway, saying that a few days of cycling could be just what the doctor ordered.
I signed my lease on my new bachelor pad on my way to meeting the group for our departure. With our gear loaded, I climbed into the club van, too slow to get the back seat. Troxler and Larry were up front, driver and navigator, so I was left with the uncomfortable task of getting to know a seat mate that I had only seen on group rides. Macy was a decent guy, but my emotions were so raw that I feared any attempt at smalltalk might turn into a cathartic dumping of the sort that would make 8 hours on a bus feel like the 8th circle of Dante’s Inferno.
Our first day of actual cycling on the trail, after sightseeing in Kansas City, was a soggy one at best. Macy decided he’d cycle out from town to the very beginning of the trail, despite the fact that drizzle had begun softening the surface of the packed clay and crushed gravel such that his tires, and ours, became caked with sloppy mud. The weather was supposed to clear up, but it took longer than we had expected, and the slogging we did seemed to harmonize with the mood I had carried with me. If conditions deteriorated more, we’d have to get off the trail to keep from rutting it up, but eventually the sun shone, and we tarried along the flat miles through cornfields and wild bergamot amid Amish farm carts and implements that contributed to the sense that we had gone back in time to an era before smart phones and blogs and GPS.
I volunteered to carry a first aid kit, and I decided that I’d ride drag, sweeping up anyone who had run into trouble between our starting points and our lunch and dinner spots. I’d let the other riders get a head start, and I’d ride slowly, taking deep cleansing breaths, and I’d contemplate my human condition, bathed in the natural cleansing air of summertime in Missouri. The sound of my Schwalbe Land Cruisers, crunching crushed gravel became a meditative music for my mental processes as I considered what life was going to be like as a divorced dad. I tried not to dwell on the sight of my sons’ faces as we let them know our family’s fate, the memory of my youngest, covering his ears and running out of the room as I cruelly forced my wife to be the one to tell them. Now, with the trail before me, and with the random birds flitting to and fro as I pedaled, pensive and numb, I had to find a silver lining to the cloud I was in.
Some say that exercise is the best way to deal with depression. The dopamine and the fresh air, seeing the sun shine on the rest of the world, these work together while the runner or cyclist is allowed to reflect…the physical activity requires little concentration, so our minds are free to explore and consider and plan. At the end of each stretch of the trail, I looked forward to meeting up with the gang. Their cheerfulness lifted me, and the solitude I had been granted along the trail allowed me to work out some of the issues I would be facing so that I could try to be sociable at the dinner table or around the campfire.
Because Troxler and Larry were responsible for the meals and lodging arrangements for the group, I had little opportunity to ride with them. One night, after the meal had been prepared and camp had been set up, Troxler and I took off back down the trail, just to give him some miles in the saddle and to give me a chance to let off steam. We rode beside the Missouri River, its waters swift and wide, and we watched the light of the setting sun turn the landscape golden then purple, and finally, we had to switch on our headlamps and we kept riding, believing that a beer was bound to be available if we just went a little further. Sure enough, through the trees beside the trail, we spotted a neon sign advertising cheap American beer.
As we approached the building which appeared to be a small wooden house with a covered stoop, we heard folks talking. A small group seemed to be relaxing in the warm humid summer air. An older white gentleman with a pony tail and beaded necklace and an army jacket invited us to come in off the trail, and his cohorts smiled warmly. He had been talking with a younger long-haired man who may have been a relative, and the younger man’s girlfriend, whose beautiful smile shone from a face, dark in complexion but bright in spirit and warmth. We walked through the door of the shop and met the proprietor, or his wife, and we studied her array of wares which included arrowheads and animal skins and art depicting Native American folklore and symbols.
Troxler, ever building bridges among strangers, engaged the folks and they offered us beer despite our forgetting to bring money. We pledged to ride back to camp and return with payment, because we knew that they were in business, and it wouldn’t be right for travelers to take advantage of their kindness without compensation. It was a longer ride than we had originally planned, but we rode back to our camp, asking our fellow travelers if anyone had a spare dollar or five, and then we made quick time to surprise the store folk by actually fulfilling our promise to repay them.
Laughter greeted us, and the music of a flute and a skin drum. There may have been smoke of an herbal variety in the air, filtered through the leaves of briars and willows, but as we approached, we were treated like friends, and encouraged to share our stories of traveling and cycling, and they invited us to come back as soon as we could. I don’t remember all the details of that evening, but I remember riding beside Troxler, and feeling that, for the moment, my impending divorce and all the adjustments that waited for me in my new life mattered less than the act of cycling on that gravel trail.
I think that Troxler has learned, through the thousands of miles that he’s cycled, how to let go of things that don’t matter. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but I’m thankful that there are places like the Katy Trail, where we can leave some of the worries of the world behind while we toil across the country, listening to the sounds of cycling, nature, and the stirrings inside our souls that are often drowned out by our noisy lives.
It’s been a few years since that ride, and I have watched my ex wife remarry, and I’ve seen Troxler return and leave on his cycling adventures. Macy, my seatmate on the trip, has become a great friend, and I’ll never forget how much cycling with him and Troxler and the great folks who rode with us on the Katy Trail helped me begin to heal from the heartbreak of separation and divorce.
I’d like to thank my good buddy Bryan for sharing his writing talent with us. Miraculously, I found a couple of photos from the trip in 2012.Check out Musings of a Wannabe Wanderer if you’d like to enjoy more of Bryan’s poetic writing style.