It would take a mental patient to characterize walking 20 miles a day with a 50-pound backpack as fun, but the walk across Missouri was as close to fun as I have experienced on this trip across the U.S.
The trail across the eastern half of Missouri follows the abandoned roadbed of the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, or the MKT. Natives nicknamed the railroad the “Katy,” and the trail is now the Katy Trail. It snakes west from St. Charles along the Missouri River, framed by high limestone bluffs on the north and the river or its lush bottomland to the south. The trail is paved with crushed stone, and, thanks to railroads’ aversion to hills, is absolutely flat. A more inviting walking surface one could not imagine.
The railroad spawned the development of many communities along its route, so I walked through dozens of little towns along the way — towns with places to eat and sleep, unlike much of my journey. Missouri was settled by beer-loving Germans, so most of the eating places along the trail were small-town taverns. I visited a score of them during my two weeks in Missouri and found them to be friendly clubhouses where everybody in town congregated to gossip, eat, listen to bad music and drink beer. Grandmothers, babies, grizzled farmers, bicyclists and hikers all gathered at day’s end in the friendly, lively taverns along the trail. Most nights found me eating a cheeseburger at a bar, rehydrating with cold Budweiser and listening to local history from garrulous, friendly natives.
My wife has tried for years, with little success, to persuade me to stay in bed-and-breakfast inns. I never wanted to share a bathroom down the hall, and I recoiled at the prospect of sitting at the breakfast table with strangers, but on this walk across Missouri, B&Bs were often my only choice of accommodations. And miraculously, I enjoyed every one of them! Maybe I appreciated the company after walking for hours without talking to another person. Maybe this trip has distilled a lifetime of elitist ignorance out of me. I just know that the proprietors of B&Bs in Augusta, Rhineland and Rocheport charmed me, fed me great breakfasts and sent me back on the trail happy and eager to visit again.
The strangest place I stayed was a barracks next to the trail in Tebbetts. A benefactor has outfitted a big building with two dozen bunk beds and a shower to shelter Katy Trail bikers and hikers. I arrived ready to crash after a 27-mile day. The shelter was locked, so I wandered over to Jim’s Bar & Grill across the street and learned that the keys to the shelter were hanging on a nail in a telephone pole nearby. I unlocked the door, dumped my gear, ate a pizza at Jim’s and returned to the shelter. But sleeping was far more difficult than I had hoped because a biker and a couple of bowhunters had showed up. They kept me awake long into the night with a stentorian symphony of snoring and farting.
One surprising aspect of the walk across Missouri was the virtual absence of animal life. In every other state, I saw deer, skunks, turtles, lots of birds. Along the Katy Trail I saw only a few snakes — skinny green snakes, big blacksnakes and one tiny (6 inches), but still-scary rattlesnake. Maybe the towns and bottomland farms along the trail chased the critters to wilder terrain.
Halfway across the state I detoured to Columbia and met with people from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, from which I graduated back when God was a copyboy. I was worried that the Mizzou faculty is preparing journalists for the world as it used to be, not the world in which newspapers, magazines and TV networks are losing market dominance to newer, faster media. I worried for nothing. It looks like the kids now coming out of Missouri’s J-School will flourish in today’s dynamic media environment.
I also talked to a couple of publishers along the way. Scott Jackson is publisher of the 2,600-circulation Boonville Daily News. He’s a local boy, and he’s been publisher since 1988. His circulation has remained steady and his ad revenue from local stores is growing despite the explosion of new retailers in nearby Columbia. He’s successfully using lavish coverage of local sports to attract the readership of young families.
I was attracted to a copy of the Montgomery Standard that I saw atop a bar in Rhineland because it must be the widest newspaper published in the U.S. I just read where Gannett is planning to shrink its web width again, to 44 inches. By contrast, the Montgomery Standard prints on a 62-inch web! My arms were just barely long enough to hold the paper fully open.
Owner and publisher John Fisher told me that his circulation, now about 3,500, has declined only 100 copies in the last 10 years. He said disciplined focus on local news, issues and people has sustained the steady readership and prosperity of the Standard and its companion weekly, the Wellsville Optic-News. Although his advertising mix has changed over the years as Wal-Mart and shopping malls have gobbled up retail dollars, ad revenues continue to grow.
Fisher grew up in the newspaper business, but none of his children is interested in carrying on. He is concerned about the continuity of ownership when he finally decides to hang up his pica pole. But in the meantime, the ferociously independent Fisher and his newspapers continue to thrive and prosper.
West of Boonville the trail shifted to roads, over the course of the old Santa Fe Trail to Lexington. There an old fraternity brother picked me up and took me to his home to Kansas City, and the end of the journey for this season.
I’m making preparations to head to my place in Florida for the winter, where I can fatten up and plan for next summer’s assault on the western half of the U.S. Read more