My training plan to prepare for the Outdoor Afro 2017 leader Blackpacking trip did not even kind of end up happening the way I thought it would. In my first plan, I was going to ride 3 days a week, back to back days, and do yoga the rest of the week. In my training plan’s second iteration, I was going to do a progressively longer ride each week, do a sprint workout during the week, weight lift, and do yoga. At some point in that process, I was going to introduce the panniers to train with weight.
What actually happened is I went on a progressively longer ride almost every week. And the first time I rode with the panniers was when I sat on my bike Day 1 of my ride. So to say I was nervous is an understatement, though excitement was a much stronger emotion. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ quote from We Were Eight Years in Power best describes how I felt throughout the entirety of the adventure: “I did not love it, but I loved it. The fear I felt then was not just the anguish in my gut but the price of seeing the world anew.”
The night before:
This trip involved three other leaders from Outdoor Afro, two of whom were also traveling to St. Louis. I flew; Ray took a train, and Val drove. We all made our way to Duane’s apartment and got to work. The men put my bike back together, and we all readjusted our packs and tried to minimize even further. After some tasty grub at Mission Tacos, I was in bed around midnight.
We were out of the house by 6a and took a cycling shuttle to the start of the ride. We met the driver at the Lewis and Clark Boat House in St Charles, and he loaded our bikes into his van and drove us two hours away. The start of our ride on the Katy Trail was in Jefferson City. We thought we would have access to some breakfast, but that was a giant no.
About 12 miles in, we stopped at the Tebbets rest stop and stretched and used the latrine. Before we rode on, we met some cyclists who warned us about a divet in the road just past a Dollar General truck bed. Thank goodness for that because we definitely could’ve flipped over the handlebars there.
As we continued to ride, we came upon a very long procession of mostly children singing holy music. At the front of the group, children were carrying what looked like a Virgin Mary statue. Another 6 miles down the trail in Mokane, we stopped at a convenience store with a lunch counter and ate, stretched, and charged our phones. While there, some of the kids from the procession came in and explained that they are traditional Catholics who do this 40 mile pilgrimage every year.
After another 10 miles on the trail, we stopped at a bar in Portland and stretched and each had a Fat Tire. The beer name seemed appropriate considering what we were doing. I ordered a burger for dinner and chugged some water while I waited. The locals there were nice, though one of the men asked if we had any “milkies” with us. Considering his wife slapped his arm, I am guessing he was asking if we had any white people with us.
After 32+ miles, we finally made it to our destination: Bluffton Barn. For $7 a person, we could set up our tents anywhere on his property. We stayed fairly close to the barn where there was quick access to the bathroom. The owner, Doug, was quite the character and a talker, but he gave us craft beers, so his stories didn’t seem all that bad.
Around 7, the men went for a walk by the river, and Val and I got into the tent. I thought about just stretching or napping, but quickly realized I was out for the night.
-I need to camp more.
-I need some of the fancy gear my fellow thru-riders own.
We left Bluffton Barn at 8a and rode about 7 miles up the trail to breakfast in Rhineland. After stuffing our faces and trying some phenomenal pancakes, we got back to it.
For pretty much the next 20 miles, we dealt with wind that was pushing against us and across us. At some point before that 20 miles, the rain started, and it was cold and constant. I was an asshat with no rain gear, so everything I had on was still wet the next day.
We took quick breaks at the rest stop in McCitrick where remnants of the old train station still stand and Teloar where we took refuge from the rain for a bit. We had lunch in Marthasville which was really an escape from the rain. The restaurant was called Philly’s and was blowing air that felt like the wind indoors, but at least it wasn’t raining. The walls were littered with messages from other thru-bikers and hikers, so we added our names to the tattooed walls.
Some time before that, we met a couple who was also thru-riding. Duane, our trip leader asked them who convinced whom to come on the trip. The girl said, “Well, he proposed to me last night, so I am not complaining.” We ooohed and ahhed over their story and her beautiful ring.
When we finally got to the campground, we were met by a ridiculous incline and had to walk our bikes. My legs were jello after that hike up, and I struggled to ride the short distance left to the campground. We set up camp, unloaded packs, and rode 2.5 miles back the same way down the trail so we could go to the Augusta Brew Haus. After dinner, we headed back on the trail in the darkness.
This trip was honoring the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corp, Buffalo Soldiers, who rode from Montana to Missouri in the late 1800s. They biked over 1,000 miles with much heavier bikes and less impressive camping technology. Between the wind, rain, muddy gravel, and the steep incline to camp, and our jaunt at a night ride, this day felt truly commemorative of the buffalo soldiers’ trek.
-Crushed gravel kind of sucks to ride on, but when it’s wet, it’s the stuff of nightmares.
-I need a man who proposes to me in a tent on a cold, rainy night after a grueling ass day of adventure.
We got kind of a late start, and breakfast was whatever food we had with us. This part of the trail was considerably more populated, so we were met with a lot more questions about our trip.
After about 20 miles, we left the Katy Trail at the Paige Extension and after a switchback incline to a bridge which we crossed, we entered Crove Coeur Park where we took an extended rest. It was such a bright, beautiful day compared to Day 2.
I was ecstatic to finally leave that goshforsaken gravel of the Katy Trail, but little did I know, we were trading gravel for hills on hills on hills. I remember these country roads from my days riding Indiana hills on my mountain bike, but they don’t even compare. In my training, I rode the Pinellas Trail whose “hills” are overpasses that are no match for St. Louis County. All said and done, I walked up 3 of the bajillion uphill road battles from hell. Added to this is the fact that we were mostly on occupied roadways with cars driving 40 mph or higher. While the roadsigns were proclaiming “Share the Road,” it still freaked me out.
After about 25 miles, we were in Forest Park which is bigger than Central Park and was designed by the same person. This park was serene and picturesque, but hanger hit me like a fully grown wildebeest. After a photo op where I threw a small fit because my kickstand failed me, we found a bathroom in the Visitor Center where there was also a café. Here, I had a banana and a turkey sandwich. The banana was really all I needed to become a human again.
Six-ish miles later, we made it to our final destination, the Gateway Arch. I wanted to cry, but decided against it. I’m writing this, and it’s reading like a summary of events instead of reflection. But to me, the events are the reflection. Why is that?
Because I did that. 146 miles. Backpacking. ME.
AND it didn’t end at the Arch; we had another 7 miles back to Duane’s!
-When I’m in my 50s, I aspire to be even half as fit and active and adventurous as Valerie.
-I think I’m kind of secretly a badass.
The morning after:
When I flew to St Louis, I had two carryons and two checked items. My carryons were the basket from my bike with my sleeping bad stuffed in it. Also, my Osprey pack contained my foam roller and Outdoor Afro sweatshirt from Keen and other items. My checked baggage included the bike box and a massive suitcase that had my clothes, toiletries, panniers, helmet, water bottle, tennis shoes, purse, my ride foods, etc. So Thursday at the airport, I was managing an awkwardly filled backpack and a basket with a sleeping bag in it.
Monday morning when I packed, I fit everything into the suitcase (well, except for the bike), so at the airport, I only had my purse to manage.
Perhaps this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but when I was packing it all into the suitcase the morning after the ride, I couldn’t comprehend how Hillary-who-packed-last-Tuesday didn’t see how all of it fit in and how everything had a place the way Hillary-from-after-blackpacking did.
While this post is long and rambling, this video footage may help you in understanding how beautiful it all was.