Days 88-89/ May 25th-26th – Columbia, MO to Boonville, MO: Happy trails

We’re often asked by Americans whether we’re walking across their country on ‘trails’.  This is a more difficult question to answer than it may appear, because we’ve come to realise that there are three distinct meanings of the word in use here.  There are ‘historical trails’, like the Oregon Trail or the California Trail, used by early settlers, which we’re at least notionally following, even though they’ve been superseded by the modern roads and highways that we actually walk on.  There are ‘tourist trails’ like the Lewis & Clark Trail or the Civil War Trail, which are usually a group of related historical sites that one drives between (we expended some effort enquiring after the location of the Lewis & Clark Trail before it dawned on us that it didn’t physically exist).  And, finally, there are ‘actual bloody trails’, like the High Bridge Trail and the Katy Trail – pleasant tracks through the countryside intended for walkers and cyclists.

It’s rare for us to stumble upon this latter type of trail, and rarer still to find one located in a place that doesn’t require a massive and self-defeating detour to reach.  So after a hundred largely joyless miles along the edge of the interstate (see blogs passim), we were thrilled to spend two days hiking along the Katy Trail.  It began life as the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, built in the 1890s and nicknamed the ‘MKT’ or ‘Katy’.  When it ceased operation in the 1980s, a local brokerage tycoon funded its conversion into a state park and ‘rail-trail’ – the longest in America, running for 200 miles almost all the way across Missouri – which now gets several hundred thousand visitors a year.

Katy Trail sign in Boonville, Missouri

Helpful directions on the trail

And it deserved to.  The Katy Trail was wonderful, a pale track of crushed limestone, hemmed in between the Missouri to our left and steep wooded cliffs on our right.  Cardinals darted across the path into the trees in streaks of red, and turkey vultures turned lazy circles high in the sky.  In the creeks that we crossed over, turtles the size of dinner-plates abandoned their logs and dived for the bottom as we approached; once, a large raccoon bounded across the trail thirty yards ahead of us.

Sally walking on the Katy Trail

Beside the cliffs on the Katy Trail

We reached the trail-head through the suburbs of Boone County, where yellow school-buses slid by houses with triple garages and roofs measurable in acres, in developments whose names – Oakcliff, Cherry Hill – recorded without apparent irony the natural features their construction had obliterated.  We joined the trail-head at Huntsdale, stocking up on drinks at the Katfish Katy General Store.  Bruce, the amiable proprietor, a greying, long-haired Haight-Ashbury survivor in a flowery shirt and baggy shorts, enthused about our walk.

“Man, that’s why I took this job,” he said.  “To meet people like you doing really long, amazing trips.”  We were only able to stop for fifteen minutes, and set off down the trail feeling that we’d rather short-changed him.

The Lewis & Clark Expedition – which definitely counts as a really long, amazing trip – passed along precisely this route in early June 1804, and we noted with satisfaction that we had covered the distance from St. Charles roughly twice as fast as they had.  To be fair, we weren’t poling a barge and a boat upstream along the Missouri.  It was an awesome river here, a quarter of a mile wide, and flowing at a brisk jogging pace, as if there were falls just around the corner.  It was hard to imagine making any progress at all against it.  It took the expedition 66 days to travel upriver through modern Missouri, but only 14 days on the return journey downstream.  The local fauna had changed a little over the last 200 years: the expedition diaries record that they found a nest of rattlesnakes along this stretch, and shot three bears (there was no mention of porridge).

We hiked happily along the Katy for two days, hallooing passing cyclists, usually early retirees making languid week-long trips along its full length.  Perhaps the greatest pleasure was being able temporarily to extinguish the tiny pilot-light at the back of our brains that constantly monitors the trajectory of oncoming cars.  That came to an abrupt end when the trail passed under I-70, which ran over the trail and across the Missouri on a heavy metal bridge that emerged dramatically from between the cliffs.  Clouds of swallows swirled under the bridge, launching themselves from tiny mud nests built on its underside.

I-70 bridge over the Missouri at Rocheport

A brief interruption of the outside world over the Katy Trail

In great heat we hiked into Rocheport, a tiny river town of pastel clapboard bungalows, faintly reminiscent of the Dharma Initiative.  It was founded in 1825, on the site of a horse-ferry across the Missouri, and although its peak years as a port had come and gone, it was still a pleasant place, with a fine Victorian Main Street of antique shops and cafés, and a sprinkling of posh B&Bs along Lewis Street and Clark Street.

B&B in Rocheport by the Katy Trail

Our B&B in Rocheport, beside the Katy Trail

At least it had survived, unlike the town of Franklin, a little further down the trail.  It had been a short-lived but immensely important place; in 1821, the year that Mexico won its independence and Missouri became a state, William Becknell set out from Franklin and travelled all the way to modern-day New Mexico, blazing a wagon trail the following year that became the Santa Fe Trail, an important trans-American trade route for the next 50 years.  Kit Carson, later to be the most famous of the mountain-men of the American West, ran away from his job in Franklin as a saddler’s apprentice and set off down the Trail to make his fortune.  The town briefly boomed, but as the frontier moved west, so did the trail-head, and after a series of devastating floods, Franklin was abandoned for higher ground in 1835.  Today not a trace of remained of the starting-point of a 1,200-mile route that had shaped early American history.  Now that was a ‘trail’.

Rail bridge at Boonville, Missouri

Crossing the Missouri at Boonville

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