A few years back, I spent a weekend with a group biking the Katy Trail in Missouri. The trail is widely known among biking enthusiasts across the country – it’s the longest (and narrowest) state park in the United States. A former rail bed, the trail stretches from Clinton in western Missouri almost to the Mississippi River in St. Charles County, just to the north of St. Louis. And there are now plans to extend the trail from Sedalia to Kansas City.
The trail is almost completely flat. It generally follows the path of the Missouri River, and in fact the river is often just to the right of the trail. It passes through forested areas and farmland, a tunnel or two, along the bottom of towering bluffs, and alongside open road. Even on weekends, it’s rarely crowded, and then only near popular tourist spots like Augusta (and its wineries) and St. Charles. And what you find yourself doing while biking the Katy is thinking, reflecting, and meditating.
That’s exactly what Neil Hanson did when he biked the Katy as part of a longer journey, described in Pilgrim Spokes: Cycling East Across America. After completing the first half of his ride, recounted in Pilgrim Wheels: Reflections of a Cyclist Crossing America, he continued east to Annapolis, Maryland. (I should point out that he was 60 when he finished, and consider what good shape he was in to bike 100 miles or more a day.)
Hanson finds the people of the American heartland, but he provides an unromanticized picture of them. It’s generally a positive picture – generous people, people interested in what he’s doing, people who tell him stories of their lives and towns. But it’s also the occasional rude and mean people – like the pickup truck driver who threw a bottle and hit him while he was riding in western Pennsylvania.
Hanson reflects on his own life, but also on the areas and regions his traveling through – the old National Road, how U.S. 40 has dramatically changed over the decades, the beauty and history of covered bridges in Indiana, the (varying) quality of food available in small towns and small cities (he’s biking, so he can eat a lot of chicken fried steak), and more. In between the wo books, his marriage of 30 years had dissolved – dissolved is the right word – and he reflects on that as well.
Pilgrim Spokes is a wonderful biking story, but it’s far more than a trail and travel guide. It does two things simultaneously, telling the story of a journey across the country, and telling the story of one man reflecting on his life, its high points and its imperfections. And his view of his own life is just as unromanticized as his account of the people he meets.
It’s the kind of book that stays with you, because it’s the kind of book that tells what happens when you balance yourself on the two-wheeled frame and take off, the air moving around you, your legs pumping the pedals, the trees seemingly flying past like smudged paintings.
Top photograph: cycling the Katy Trail, via Neil Hanson web site.