Coming of Age on the Katy Trail
A Family Tradition Leads to a Nine-Day Adventure
By Emily McIntyre
Meet the Bellamy family: Bruce, a family doctor; Laura, a teacher and home manager; and their five home-schooled sons, ranging in age from 6 to 20. Over the years, Bruce and Laura have thought a lot about how best to guide their sons' progress toward adulthood in a culture where getting a driver's license and reaching the legal drinking age often seems the culmination of most young boys' ambitions.
For centuries and in nearly every society, the process of maturing from boy to man has been marked by milestones. In the Jewish tradition, reaching adulthood is acknowledged by the bar mitzvah. In some Native American cultures, it is recognized by a vision quest. Yet in much of Western culture today, the rite of passage from child to adult has been neglected or trivialized.
Bucking that trend, Bruce and Laura Bellamy offer their sons advice and learning experience as they mature. Each boy's 13th birthday is an occasion for the fulfillment of a challenge. Riding the Katy Trail would certainly qualify: The park is the longest (and one of the most celebrated) rail-trails in the country, stretching nearly the width of Missouri from Clinton to Machens, a distance of some 238 miles. When Seth rode the trail, it ended at St. Charles and totaled 225 miles.
Once a large portion of the MKT (Missouri-Kansas-Texas) railroad, which was used for the last time in 1986, the Katy Trail opened as a biking, hiking, horseback riding and running trail in 1996. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world have taken to the trail to enjoy the beauty of rural and small-town Missouri. The crushed-stone rail-trail, which follows the route of Lewis and Clark's voyage up the Missouri River for more than half its distance, is well maintained and relatively flat. Food and lodging are available at many points along the trail, making the corridor ideal for the Bellamys' long-distance excursion.
The Big Ride
"Living in Clinton, at the head of the Katy Trail, our family has often enjoyed brief rides on the trail," says Bruce Bellamy. "Seth approached me with his idea for his adventure, saying, 'I've always wanted to ride the Katy Trail, Dad.' At first glance it appeared doable; it's only 225 miles from Clinton to St. Charles. But I found out this was not his plan. 'That's only halfway, Dad,' he said."
Along with his father and older brother, Seth trained for six months before embarking on the big adventure. Beginning with short rides, they increased their distances until they were cycling 40 to 50 miles twice a week on the stretch of trail between Clinton and Sedalia. Using a Katy Trail guidebook and Web research, they planned their route, choosing to stay at different locations out and back. "We opted not to camp," Bruce adds, "as a concession to me being over 40 and the boys smelling really bad."
Seth and Luke covered 450 miles with their dad during their
nine-day, out-and-back adventure on the Katy Trail.
The epic ride began the first week of August 2009 and lasted nine days. "We tried to keep our mileage between 60 and 70 miles a day," says Bruce. "We even took a couple of connecting trails. This might not seem like much to hardcore cyclists, but for us it was just fine. Not to mention, you get a little 'saddle sore' after a couple days."
No two days on the Katy Trail were the same. The Bellamys glided through the countryside and past Missouri towns, passing other trail riders along the way.
When the three reached their destination at the end of each day, they found dinner and settled in for the evening. Bruce offered prepared lessons to Seth on the subject of being an adult, speaking about different aspects of maturity and strong character, such as leadership, honor and wisdom. "The whole purpose of the trip is to say, "You're a man—even if you're not very good at it yet," Bruce explains. Though his sons tend to receive his teaching in silence, he has seen over time that they do internalize and later refer to his words.
Highlights and Challenges
An unanticipated highlight of the venture was the food. It was outstanding. Bruce recounts, "I can't remember a meal I didn't enjoy on this trip. If 'hunger is the best seasoning,' we were definitely in store for great food." Their favorite watering hole was the Rendleman Home Bed & Breakfast at mile marker 111 in Bluffton, where they stayed the night. They had dinner as well as breakfast there, prepared by host and cook extraordinaire Douglas Rendleman. In addition to filling their stomachs with great food, "Mr. Rendleman filled our heads with stories of great bike-riding adventures," Bruce says. "One night in that house made me want to ride every day of the year."
Seth recounts other joys of the ride. "I really liked the countryside—I like nature quite a bit," he says. "We saw the largest oak in Missouri—a bur oak called The Big Tree—not far off the trail in McBaine, at mile marker 170. There was one spot with an overabundance of rabbits. We saw birds, a turtle and a red fox." Once when he stopped suddenly to look at a turtle, he caused his dad and brother to collide behind him. Bruce jokes that he'll give Seth an "I brake for turtles" bumper sticker for his car when he turns 16.
Another of Seth's favorite points on the ride was the Weldon Spring toxic waste cleanup site, which he describes as "a manmade mountain with an angled sidewalk." It's accessible by Hamburg Trail, intersecting the Katy near mile marker 56.
Bruce nominates the ride into St. Charles as their best day on the trail. That stretch of the pathway is particularly beautiful, he says. "We felt like mountain climbers ascending the summit."
Seth tells of the demanding riding near Booneville, where the trail runs beneath high bluffs overlooking the Missouri River. The trail had been flooded by the river that summer and washed away here, leaving only an uneven pathway six inches wide for bike tires. (Due to flooding, trail repairs are ongoing along the Katy Trail; view a status report before your visit.)
All three Bellamys laugh when they recall the day they reached Tebbetts. Cold and drizzle had turned the trail the consistency of peanut butter. "Riding through the mud left a stripe down our backs," says Seth. "We came to a biker's shelter with rows of bunks. The food bar was closed. We used our backpacks for pillows and slept in the leaning building."
A friendly biker had left a single dehydrated meal with a note inviting consumption; the Bellamys split the tortilla chips three ways and lay down on the plastic mattresses. By five in the morning they gave up trying to sleep and hit the trail again—only to ride 18 long miles before finding food. Seth was weaving on the trail when they finally reached a roadside restaurant, where they ordered a combination of breakfast and lunch and stayed for three hours recovering.
The daily challenges and joys of the road made for a grand adventure. "The ride was spectacular—great time with the boys, nice people to meet along the way and very good sleep from long days on the bike," says Bruce. "One thing I learned, to my surprise, is that when you are cycling on the Katy Trail, all the motorcyclists on the highway give you a wave. It's like you are suddenly a part of the two-wheeled brotherhood."
Near Mile Marker 170, the Bellamys reach the largest oak
tree in Missouri.
Bruce sees the ride as a character-building experience for Seth in three ways: training with a specific purpose in mind; never quitting; and experiencing physical pain, fatigue and risk in a constructive fashion. "I told the boys before and after the ride, 'If you can do this, you can do anything. If you quit this, you will be tempted to quit everything.'"
Seth agrees. "The ride taught me that physical challenges like hunger won't kill me," he says, "and learning not to quit helps me in facing different kinds of challenges, like math."
Bruce is certain he'll return to the Katy. "I would do it again tomorrow and, with this many sons, I most likely will get the chance." Seth says he misses the fun and the physical exertion of the ride, and he will definitely be back on the trail.
For Seth Bellamy, riding the Katy Trail was an unforgettable part of growing to manhood. However, it sounds like Nathanael, next in line for the "hard thing," has different plans. He wants to hike Missouri's Mark Twain National Forest.