Weathering the Storm: Kindness & Compassion on the Katy Trail
Even on our drive down from Kansas City, our family was caught by 85 mph winds south of Harrisonville, Missouri.
The storm was so strong, in fact, that I had to stop in the middle of the road, throw on the parking brake, and wait what felt like hours while a tornado-like downpour passed directly overhead.
I don’t remember fearing for my life, but I did wonder what kind of damage we’d ultimately sustain—to our possessions and ourselves. In the end, we did the only thing we could: we clenched our sphincters and waited it out.
Thankfully, we made it through unscathed, resumed our drive, and arrived at our hotel in Clinton about an hour later. We eagerly unloaded my bike and bags, dried off, took showers, and snuggled in to watch TV.
Heading Out From Clinton, MO
The next morning, I awoke to more dark skies and rain.
I obsessively checked radar over the next several hours, and it appeared I’d have an extended break in the storms starting around 11 AM. At 10:30, with the skies still iffy, I gathered all of my belongings, put everything into the car, and headed out with the troops.
This would be my second tour along the 225-mile Katy Trail, which begins on the plains outside Clinton, MO, and snakes along much of the Missouri River before ending in the rolling hills of St. Charles, a quaint suburb of St. Louis.
We waited in the parking lot at the trailhead for the optimal moment, while the girls ran in the nearby baseball fields.
When a window finally arrived, I decided it was time to launch, so I took a few pics with Jamie and the girls, said my goodbyes, clipped my shoes into my pedals, and headed east.
And for the first 35 miles, it looked like I timed it exactly right: I might be able to make it to Boonville before my luck ran up and the skies parted.
Of course, loaded down with water, food, and clothes, it would be at least another couple of hours before I arrived. “Still, maybe, just maybe, I can outrun it,” I thought.
But as I rode through the center of Sedalia, the largest town on my route before I reached Jefferson City, a band of ominous clouds quickly built behind and closed in much faster than I could pedal.
My better sense should have acknowledged that I wasn’t going to outrun the storm and that it was better to remain in a populated area, one better equipped to assist if the shit hit the fan.
My ego got the better of me, though, and I pressed on, determined not to let anything get in the way of pedaling the Trail’s entire distance on my own volition. Call for help? Get a ride and wait it out? No way! That would be quitting.
Instead, I tucked into my drops, shifted up a couple of gears, and started pounding the pedals.
The Storm Arrives
The Katy Trail is a decommissioned railroad corridor that ceased operation in 1986. Although it sits on public land, the system cuts through large swaths of private property, whose owners have erected fences that have grown thick over the years with trees and other shrubberies, to keep out all the passing people.
Also, because most of the system sits inside a flood plain, its crushed limestone surface runs several feet higher than the surrounding fields to avoid water penetration.
The point? Although you’re in the middle of nowhere when riding the Katy Trail, it’s not always easy to hop off and move around as you please if an emergency arises.
Huge raindrops, sporadic at first, clinked against my plastic helmet. They played a different instrument altogether when striking against my bike’s aluminum frame, a percussive plop as they reached the top layer of dirt along the trail.
At that point, it was clear I wasn’t going to outrun the storm. The best I could’ve hoped for was to avoid any lightning and keep moving toward Boonville, no matter how slowly.
“Heck,” I encouraged myself, “the storm’s approaching from the west, so it might even give me a tailwind all the way there.”
The flash that followed blinded me, while the clap of thunder that followed milliseconds later rang my ears. I slammed on my brakes, came to a stop, and looked into the field toward my right, where lightning had just struck.
“Damn.” That was way too close for comfort.
Then, more deluge, followed by golf ball-sized hail.
Fearful of acting as a conduit for the next lightning strike, half-panicked, and with no way off the trail, I dropped my bike in the middle, grabbed my panniers, and ran back about 20 yards.
But, what the fuck would I do then?
I didn’t want to crawl into the ditch on each side of the trail and risk getting caught in a flash flood – not without needing to protect myself against an imminent tornado, at least. Also, that’s where all of the trees were, and I didn’t want to make my profile any larger than necessary.
I glanced around in all directions, looking for something. Anything. Then, up at the dark sky, which roiled and bubbled like a giant pot of boiling water. Thin, errant wind currents created squid-like cloud appendages.
Resigned to endure what lay before me, I sat down in the middle of the trail, crossed my legs, and pulled my panniers close to help protect my sides against flying debris. I also kept my helmet on in case the hail got more substantial, or one of the nearby trees lost a limb.
“Here we go! Let’s see out how this goes.”
After everything was said and done, would I have a story to tell my friends and family? Or, would the next traveler along the trail discover my body, my only story told by them and the coroner? It seemed like a coin toss at this point.
Lightning cracked again, this time close enough that I could feel the energy change in the air. Warning sirens started going off, seemingly emanating from all directions.
“Nope, I’m not going out like this.”
Without yet knowing what I was going to do, I stood up and ran back, picked up my bike, reattached my panniers, and started pushing it by the handlebars.
My only thought was to somehow pop through the thick brush around the closest fence, and just not be here. I’d figure out my next move afterward.
Then, I remembered passing a large metal shed a couple of miles back, which was filled with hay and some old tractors. Next to it, a narrow dirt road led from the Katy Trail, up a hill, to a well-kept farmhouse.
I didn’t stop because I also noticed a large dog’s snout peeking out from behind some of the bales. And with some remaining hope that I’d make it at that point, I’d decided I didn’t want to make a bad situation worse.
Now, though, I recognized it was my only option. I hopped on my bike, pedaled back to the building, and decided to take my chances.
Finding a Farmhouse Refuge
Pushing my handlebars, I hugged the outer edge of the road, making sure to keep my bike in front of me, in case the dog—which appeared to be a German Shepherd mix—decided to lunge.
Fortunately, other than briefly perking its ears, licking its nose, and drifting back to sleep, it didn’t even acknowledge my existence as I passed and walked up the road.
As I approached, I got a better look at the red brick, two-story farmhouse, which had white shutters outside each of its four front-facing windows. They were dark. “Probably because their power’s knocked out,” I imagined.
I rolled my bike on their porch, next to a large, high-backed wooden bench that was cracked and creased from spending dozens of seasons exposed to the elements.
I cautiously knocked on the wooden front door with one hand, fingers crossed behind my back on the other.
After just a few seconds, a man answered and cracked open the door several inches. I couldn’t see much in the low light, but his long, gray, mustache-less beard stood out.
I knew Mennonites were common in the area, but I’d never had the opportunity to actually meet someone from the faith. Certainly, never to ask for shelter!
“I’m so sorry to bother you,” I apologized, “but I’m caught out in this weather, and there’s no shelter nearby.” I explained what had transpired over the past 20 minutes.
“Would it be OK if I just stood there on your porch and waited it out?” Toes crossed.
“That’s fine,” he said with a slight nod, looking me up and down. “Are you injured?”
“No, thank you for asking, though. I’ll just be right here,” I said, pointing to an area between my bike and the bench. “I’ll quickly knock on your door before seeing myself out once the weather passes.”
Like I said, I was still hopeful that this day could somehow be salvaged.
The porch wasn’t very wide, but it was two stories tall. So, the river of water falling from the roof had a long way to go before landing a few feet in front of my feet. It would strike with so much force that droplets reached my face.
“At least it’s better than sitting in the middle of the trail,” I thought. “Here, I have at least some kind of shelter and safety.”
I endured this for about 30 minutes, before the homeowner reemerged, peeked his head around the door, and invited me inside.
I stepped into his tiled entryway, an area encompassing about 4 feet by 4 feet, where I saw he’d set up a wooden chair for me, sans cushion, with a bath towel draped over its back. I thanked him again, grateful to sit down for a bit.
Other than the howling wind, debris falling onto the roof, intermittent warning sirens, and occasional small talk between us, the house was silent.
To my left was the family room, which had a two-person couch in its center, framed in front of a red brick fireplace. A couple of other miscellaneous pieces of furniture surrounded them.
No TV. No pictures were hanging on its circa-1950s wood-paneled walls.
But, it was warm and dry. And I appreciated the man’s pleasant straightforwardness.
In the dining room to my right sat a large, oval, chestnut-brown wooden table, taking up most of the floor space. I counted at least eight matching chairs surrounding it—but again, the light was dim. Cumulatively, floor space was at a minimum.
The man’s wife appeared out of nowhere at one point and grabbed something from the table. She didn’t make eye contact, much less introduce herself, and I didn’t meet anyone else until the man’s son arrived, rambling up the driveway in his late-90s Chevy pickup, the blue paint fading into oblivion on its single cab frame.
The son’s two daughters, in their long dresses, their hair pulled back and pinned underneath small caps, spilled out, enthralled to see their grandfather. The dog’s curiosity brought her out of the shed to see who’d arrived. She was a sweetheart—I felt silly for my initial wariness of her.
The girls soon went inside to be with their grandmother (I assumed), while the old man, his son, and I remained outside, standing on grass that was brilliant with late-spring greenness.
We looked up, marveled at the sky, and watched as the clouds roiled, with tornado sirens blasting warnings in all directions, adding to the apocalyptic feel.
No power. No cell service. A brush with mortality. Genuinely kind, compassionate people. It was magical.
Sedalia Or Bust
“I’m headed to Sedalia soon,” the son said, turning my direction. “I’m happy to drop you off, so you’ll be in a better spot.”
“If you can wait there for a couple of hours, I can even take you out to Boonville, so you don’t lose your room at the casino,” he added. It was a half-hour out of his way, but it would save me a good chunk of change, so how could I have refused?
With an end to this day now within sight, I laid my bike and panniers into the back of his truck, hopped in the cab, and we headed down the driveway within a matter of minutes.
After enjoying a pleasant 20-minute conversation along the way, we arrived in Sedalia’s nostalgic, well-preserved downtown. The streets were unsurprisingly empty, considering the weather.
He dropped me off in front of Hotel Bothwell, promising to text me as soon as he got out of his meeting.
To escape the cold, wet weather, I wheeled my gear through the double set of doors and into the area separating the hotel’s entry from the lobby. There, I posted up for the next three hours.
In the pannier with my clothes, I had a couple of cycling-related magazines to read, as well as a book. In the food pannier, I had beef jerky, powdered Gatorade, peanut butter, fruit snacks, and other protein-and-carb bike-touring goodness. I would be perfectly comfortable.
Everyone I met was super pleasant as well. More than one of the hotel’s staff members asked if I had everything I needed, and all the guests smiled while coming or going. A couple were even intrigued by my presence, and I shared the Cliff’s Notes version of the day’s events.
Still, ‘relieved’ didn’t begin to describe my feelings when the son finally texted to let me know his meeting was finished, and that he would be in front of the hotel shortly.
Boonville, at Long Last
Sometime around 9 PM, I once again threw my bike and panniers into the bed of the truck, hopped in the cab, and accelerated with the son toward my third and final destination for the evening.
Along the way, he organically opened up about his family’s Mennonite faith. When he asked about mine, I was honest that I didn’t really jibe with that stuff, and he didn’t inquire further.
We pulled off at my exit, and I asked if he’d please stop at a gas station before dropping me off. I wanted to fill up his trunk’s tank as a small token of my gratitude (I noticed its gauge was low as we drove out).
“I could never really repay you and your family for their hospitality and generosity today,” I explained, “but at least this is something.”
Once his tank was only half-filled, though, he unlatched the handle and placed it back into its cradle. “Any more,” he explained, “would be excessive and unnecessary.”
After driving me a few more blocks, the son and I pulled underneath the bright lights at the casino’s main entrance and got out to say our goodbyes. He helped me get my belongings out of the bed, we shook hands, and parted ways.
I could never thank him enough. Even today, I remain grateful for his Midwest generosity—a display that permanently shifted my perspective and placed my trajectory on a new path.
Sweet Dreams For a Hopeful Tomorrow
After checking in at the casino’s front desk, I rode the elevator up to my room, peeled out of my damp clothes, took a shower, and crawled underneath the covers.
Tomorrow, I had another 50-miler on my agenda, which would take me to Jefferson City. Time to get some well-deserved rest.
“Hopefully, I’ll stay dry,” I thought as I drifted to sleep.