April 2, 2017
Today is an anniversary: two months since leaving home, and now just about two-thirds of the way into the trip. I’ve had countless experiences that never would have happened if I hadn’t left my comfort zone and set out on the road, of course as well as the geography and climate changes. For example, it’s difficult to think of a Canadian who could stay at home from February to April and never see snow, or experience frost only once (a thin coating on car windshields in Oklahoma), or ride a bicycle in absolutely summer-like weather of 93 degrees in the Rio Grande Valley and 86 degrees (again in Oklahoma) on the official first day of spring.
A less pleasant weather anniversary is that today is currently the 10th consecutive day without the sun, unless you want to count three brief appearances that were measured only in seconds and brought people to the windows in wonder. I’m now into the region where I have some experience with the weather (16 years in Des Moines, Iowa), and I have to say the only time I recall such a cloudy period was 13 long days in December rather than March and April. The forecasters still don’t know how to get it right; they seem to have compromised by including a near-perpetual chance of rain at from 40 to 70 percent. At that they are correct; most days it rains for a while, seldom hard, and then the sullen, gray clouds prevail. A significant chance of rain remains in the forecast for each of the next four days. The wind continues from inauspicious directions, a point I keep harping on because it’s such a reliable predictor of less than pleasant weather, and because I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced this condition for such a long duration.
I’m asked much more often now if perhaps I chose too early a starting date or have ridden too fast into more northerly realms. And my answer remains the same: no, I don’t think so. The signs that mean the most to me continue. Here in St. Joseph, Missouri, where I sit typing this as a light rain keeps the pavement wet, they are waiting to give the spring grass its first mowing, the trees are slowly filling out with small soft green leaves, and the supermarkets, home improvement centers and discount stores are placing their garden merchandise outside. Furthermore, the redbuds, ever-present for me since Houston, remain in bloom.
The past two days I have been in the valley of the Missouri River, longest in the United States, and with a significant history of its exploration and development. Atchison, Kansas, and St. Joseph, Missouri, have their differences (St. Joe, as it is known here, is the larger and more prominent of the two), but they are both very much river towns. The stream itself, largely tamed by dams and water projects much farther upstream, seems a little anticlimactic today. A navigable channel is maintained, but the amount of barge traffic is so small as to rate a remark from residents on the rare occasions when it actually appears. Far more common is the volume of railroad traffic along both sides of its wide (as much as 15 miles) valley that remains the most visible sign of the river’s former grandeur and importance. Almost all of the trains are “unit trains,” carrying a single commodity, typically Midwest grain bound for export from Gulf ports or processing along the way, Wyoming coal for some of the remaining coal-fired power plants, or North Dakota crude oil on its way to refineries.
The river towns are working towns with blue-collar jobs in transportation, grain processing (I’ve smelled breakfast cereal, animal feeds, alcohol from fermentation, meat packing) and other agricultural-based industries. But the cities also have numerous signs of great wealth, mostly from the late 19th century “gilded age,” the last time the disparity in income (there was no regular income tax in the U.S. until 1913) rivaled that of today. Those who founded the industries that still form the base of the local economies prospered greatly, and to some extent competed with each other, especially by building grand and opulent homes in the style of the day. Today this is a source of pride to those who have maintained and restored them, and who now seek to leverage them as a source of tourism.
Atchison, Kansas, has done a reasonably good job of capitalizing on this. I had been contacted by the local Visitors’ Bureau, who arranged an informal afternoon meet and greet at their Visitors’ Center, housed in the historic old Santa Fe Freight Depot (the original terminus of the former Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway), with very much of a working railroad feel; a total of eight sets of tracks cross the street outside, and the crossing gates are frequently down. “History and mystery” Atchison’s promotional material boasts, and they try to capitalize on the notion that a number of the old buildings are haunted (several national TV programs and channels have visited in recent years). So far as I can tell, I am completely immune to the paranormal, so I don’t feel qualified to comment on that.
As for the history, even the town’s most notable resident, who was born and spent a good portion of her childhood years in Atchison, is the subject of mystery. Aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, seeking to become the first woman to fly around the world, disappeared with her plane and navigator over a very remote portion of the Pacific Ocean in 1937 at the age of 39. The event captured the country at the time, and numerous theories, both plausible and preposterous, have been advanced to explain the disappearance. Her grandparents’ home in Atchison, perched on the bluffs above the Missouri River, in which she was born and to which she returned frequently as a girlhood visitor, is a museum to her memory. It is worth a visit. She was a true celebrity of her era, and there are many photographs, articles and letters that attest to her status.
I continued on to St. Joseph, Missouri, a new state for this journey, via the Amelia Earhart Memorial Bridge, a modern tied-arch bridge built in 2011-2012 that replaced a much older steel truss bridge that opened in 1938 and was functionally obsolete from the planning stage. I drove across the old bridge on a couple of occasions when I lived in the region, and I would agree with Google Maps’ assessment that it was not accessible by bicycle (extremely narrow lanes, no shoulder and considerable truck traffic). However, no one has updated the mapping software to reflect the presence of the new structure, so I had to spoof the app into believing that I was driving a car. The 29-mile trip was almost entirely in the river valley, but it was impeded by a pesky headwind and temperatures that began at 40 degrees and struggled all day with the lack of sun to reach a high of 50.
Once in St. Joseph, I recalled the geography of many river towns: the old downtown remains nestled next to the river, while growth has spread to the bluffs above it. As is often the case in these situations, my motel was high above and more than five miles out, across from a shopping mall and next to the major interstate highway (I-29). At least I won’t have to climb many of the bluffs again tomorrow, as most of my route remains in the valley.
For my exploration of the city today, dodging raindrops but enjoying temperatures that reached almost to 60 degrees, I decoupled the trailer and removed most of the bags, the equivalent of “going commando” and being much less concerned about hills. I rode downtown to see the Pony Express National Museum, very much a part of St. Joseph’s history.
During the 19th century waves of Western exploration, St. Joseph was a “jumping off” point, a leaving of the more settled East and Midwest and a place to “light out for the Territory,” the closing words of Mark Twain’s famous literary protagonist Huckleberry Finn. Probably no single institution better illuminates that notion of the American spirit than the Pony Express. Ironically, it also shares some of the other emblems of the country: it was financially a failure, bankrupting its founders, brief in its tenure, operating for a period of only 19 months in 1860 and 1861, and technologically obsolete, shutting down within weeks of the opening of the transcontinental telegraph. Nonetheless it captured the attention of both an emerging nation and one now struggling to find its sense of purpose, and it personified the can-do, damn the consequences attitude that once indeed made America great.
The endeavor, both amazingly expansive and tenuous at the same time, was to link the country by mail during a period when the half-million Americans living west of the Rocky Mountains felt isolated and cut off from their fellow citizens by nearly two thousand miles of little-inhabited wilderness. A series of relay stations was constructed and staffed over a 1996-mile route from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. Young, wiry and fit riders rode fast horses, often at a full gallop, each carrying a mochila, or satchel, with 20 lbs. of mail, changing mounts at each relay station and covering a total of about 100 miles before passing on the mail to another rider and resting before returning in the opposite direction. The goal, actually realized in reasonable weather, was to make the journey from Missouri to California in 10 days at a time when the swiftest existing method (fast clipper ships and a land relay across the Isthmus of Panama) took about six weeks to deliver a letter coast to coast.
Of course the entire process was reduced to less than 10 minutes via the first transcontinental telegraph, and the country’s resources and attention were diverted by the Civil War. But the memories of the derring-do of the Pony Express remain part of the American experience. As might be expected of something so brief and ephemeral, rather little remains in terms of actual Pony Express artifacts. The museum is as much or more about documenting the country’s westward expansion than in preserving the relatively tiny amount of primary Pony Express material that still exists. But in terms of general education they do a good job. There are replicas of wagons such as were used by the pioneers, and tools used to build and maintain the rather insubstantial Pony Express infrastructure. The exhibits are displayed in a way that integrates them into the context of a mid-19th century Missouri River town that continues to celebrate that history and spirit almost 160 years later.
And to put a personal touch on my own latter-day American journey, today’s shout-out goes to a patron at the restaurant where I consumed a substantial breakfast in Atchison, Kansas. He was asking about my trip when the server brought my check to the table. Before I could lay a hand on it, he snatched it out from under me and proclaimed, “This is on me!” I asked who I could thank for the generosity, and he answered simply, “You can call me ‘Fletch.’”
The former Santa Fe Freight Depot in Atchison, Kansas, that now serves as the city’s Visitor Center and Museum:
An old steam switching engine awaits restoration at the Atchison Rail Museum:
Additional rolling stock from the old railroad days (not so old that I have forgotten the cabooses):
The home of Amelia Earhart’s grandparents and her birthplace, now a museum in Atchison:
The shortest U.S. state in terms of time (a little more than three days) I will be in on my journey, for a total of 93 miles:
The Pony Express National Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri:
Depicting the first Pony Express rider to transport the mail westward in 1860: