A Prairie Pilgrimage

Across Europe and into Spain, there are dozens of walking paths that weave thousands of miles across the landscape and end in one place: the shrine of St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. More than 100,000 people walk or bike the Camino de Santiago every year for spiritual pilgrimage, enjoyment of the outdoors, or both.

In Kansas, the equivalent of the Way of St. James might be our burgeoning network of rail-trails, which track straight and steady along former rail lines in the northeastern part of the state. If the shrine of St. James is the endpoint of the Camino, perhaps the endpoint of our rail-trails is the pedestrian crossing bridge at the Marais des Cygnes river in downtown Ottawa, at the intersection of the 93-mile-long Flint Hills Nature Trail and the 52-mile-long Prairie Spirit Trail.

I didn’t have a great reason for making the 200-mile round trip to Iola from Topeka last week, other than just “to do it” or to see the PST, but by the time I made it back home, I realized I did.

The plan started like most of the S24O trips we do around here. I wanted to leave out the front door, go for a camping trip, and ride home.

I packed up Clem Smith Jr. with enough food and water for at least 12 hours of travel, and set off. Three blocks from home in Topeka, I hopped on the Shunga Trail, and after a mile on the Shunga, I turned south on the Landon Trail. Anyone can go find a gravel route to get to another town or campsite, but how often — in any city — can you take a route that is primarily inaccessible to drivers? My goal was to spend as much time on trails as possible, and stubbornly, to take the Landon Trail south out of Topeka until I physically couldn’t pass any further.

In short order, I found the impassible point of the Landon Trail. It’s at Shawnee Heights Road, along Camp Creek, near Overbrook. If you need a landmark from the trail, it’s at least a few miles past the last decent bridge that crosses near a micro-marsh, or roughly 89th & Ratner. Don’t go any further than that on the Landon Trail just yet, it’s really not worth it until it gets better developed.

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Great spot for a snack, on 125th St. east of Shawnee Heights Rd.

From there, it was country roads all the way to Ottawa for Day 1. Nevermind that I was heading south into 30-mph wind gusts. I made it to the Franklin County Visitors Center tired, but feeling accomplished.

Day 2 would give me my first glimpse of the Prairie Spirit Trail — and that glimpse would be, for hours, through heavy rain. I struck camp about 15 minutes before the storms hit, and took refuge in a gas station, and then another, and then at the Ottawa fairgrounds. They say there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing, and I was pretty much prepared in my poncho, rain hat, and sandals.

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Rain’s not so bad when you’re prepared.

It was a wild experience riding through the lush green of the PST through rain. It felt like riding through a hidden trail in a national forest in the Pacific Northwest, with rushing creeks, singing birds, and ferns and trees forming a comfy canopy the whole time.

At Princeton, barely six miles from Ottawa, the wind and rain picked up, and after I paid and deposited my trail permit fee (a whopping $3.50 per day), I hunkered down by the lavatories, downwind of the storm, to make coffee on my campstove and have a snack. It was 11:30 before the rain really let up and I could ride unencumbered.

Garnett, about halfway between Ottawa and Iola, is one of the shining stars of the Kansas rail-trail travel scene. It has not one, but two lakes, both right off the trail, and with primitive campsites available. Even better, the trail goes right through the middle of town and abuts the town square, historic county courthouse, and original train depot. It’s a lovely place and the local pride really shows. I had lunch at Prairie Belle, checked out some of the shops on the square, and then carried on toward Welda, where I had planned to meet Randy Rasa, the Kansas Cyclist.

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Those bike racks look familiar.

Another 10 miles down the trail, and there was Randy. I had seen nary a soul on the trail that rainy morning, so it was a refreshing surprise to see another person — a friend, even!

We said hellos and chatted a bit, then hopped on again toward Iola, the southern end of the PST, and Randy’s home.

Iola rolls out the red carpet for trail travelers. At the city limit, the trail turns from crushed gravel to blacktop pavement. After a quick left turn onto the Mo-Pac trail, which cuts east to west, and a right onto sharrowed streets, you’re at the square in Iola. We arrived at 5:45, just in time to visit Velo + before they closed for the night, and right as the weekly farmers’ market was getting started.

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Catedral de St. Velo de Iola

Iola is home to Thrive Allen County, a non-profit that has secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants for active living and health-related projects in and around Iola. Randy is a volunteer on the board and has been involved in a number of Thrive’s recent accomplishments, including their fabulous Lehigh Portland nature trails and mountain biking trails, more than 10 miles through nearly untouched land between a tributary of the scenic Neosho River and the sparkling blue, spring-fed quarry lake south of town. If Iola’s paved piece of the PST is the red carpet, its peaceful but challenging Lehigh Portland trails are the community’s shining emeralds.

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Kansas Cyclists Cycling Kansas at Scenic Sunset

My visit to Iola was entirely too short. Friday morning, after more thunderstorms overnight (and 60mph wind gusts which my tent only barely survived), I popped into the Thrive offices to see Ben and David, had a quick coffee at Around the Corner with Randy, and headed out of town, this time with a more approachable destination of Garnett, just 20 miles north. I had all day to get there, so I took my time on the trail, and had a great lunch in Colony on the way.

This might be strange to most, but I’m an introvert and an only-child, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my birthday than hanging out in nature and quietly visiting a town and a lake where no one knew me! In Garnett, I had a beer in a frosty mug and a slice of warm blueberry pie a la mode at Trade Winds, and then I set up camp early at the north lake. I had picked up a new-to-me novel at The Book Bin, and got to spend hours reading in my tent with the door flaps open, catching the breezes and the light off the lake. With the pleasant turn in the weather, it felt downright luxurious.

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The ring road at Garnett’s North Lake used to be a Grand Prix racetrack.

My original plan was to do 50 miles a day on this fully-loaded, self-supported tour. But after bush-whacking for 10 miles on the first day and pedaling through puddles for at least as far the second day, I was tired. Plus, the campsite in Ottawa (near a highway and a gas station) was not nearly as appealing as the lake in Garnett. It made for a lovely third day, with a short ride and a very touristy visit to Garnett, but I knew that the next day, I’d be staring down more than 75 miles of trails and hills between me and Topeka.

From Garnett, I got a late start. I couldn’t get my stove to work, so I couldn’t make any oatmeal or coffee. And my tent was totally covered in dew and needed to dry out, so I couldn’t just leave. I woke up way too early, but then sat around for a couple hours so the tent could dry out.

The ride to Ottawa, on this, my fourth day of riding, felt tedious. Without any wind, and on the flat of the rail trail, I was pedaling constantly. No coasting meant no breaks for any of my joints or muscles.

I reached Ottawa in good time, by 11 or so, but I was just about shattered. I set up at Mug Shot with a latte and a muffin and pondered my choices. Even the fresh sustenance and caffeine didn’t improve my outlook. I was sleepy and sore, and just couldn’t face another 50 miles of constant pedaling. My wrists hurt, my legs hurt, it was getting sunnier and hotter, and I wanted a nap.

I called my dad to ask for a ride.

No answer.

I left Mug Shot a few minutes before they could kick me out for loitering, and wandered around downtown. Mexican food sounded good. I had lunch.

I parked my bike at the cool, dark movie theater, and wandered in. A movie? Why not. I paid for a ticket & Twizzlers and sat down for a couple hours of Transformers. I left my phone on vibrate in case my dad might call back. After the movie, no missed calls. But at least I had missed the hottest part of the day.

I left the theater, walking into the bright sun of the late afternoon and wishing I had sunglasses. I pushed the bike down Main Street and found a shady spot outside to sit down.

I called my dad again. This time, he answered!

But he was in Wichita.

So it was still just me, 50 miles from home, no ride coming to my rescue. So I took inventory. I had food for at least 24 hours of travel, more than two liters of water, a dry tent and sleeping bag, and a fully charged Bluetooth speaker.

I switched on the speaker and started blasting some blues, and resolved to try for 10 miles of riding. It wasn’t much of a plan, but in the time it would take me, I was sure I’d think of a better plan — either a place to camp, or another person to call for a ride.

A few miles out, the pedaling got a little bit easier. It was late Saturday afternoon and there was hardly any traffic on the country roads. But the thing that made the ultimate difference, and what I hadn’t planned for, was the terrain. After more than 100 miles and nearly 10 hours spent on the calm and beautiful, tree-lined Prairie Spirit Trail, I was dreading getting back out into the open again, with its unrelenting wind, climbs, and traffic. But the hills were a gift! I was enjoying the ride again, knowing that every climb would be rewarded with coasting. I didn’t have to pedal all the time. My joints and muscles weren’t getting tired, because I was getting breaks, and a breeze, every few minutes.

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Coming soon: DOWNHILL!

I stopped every hour or so for a good water break, a snack, and to add sunscreen. And by the time I crossed the Shawnee County line, I had no doubt I’d make it home.

To anyone, 75 miles, fully-loaded, is a long day no matter the terrain, but with enough breaks and enough food (and enough entertainment?), it’s totally possible. My long last day made for a great end to my tour, and it was proof to myself that I could do it. I wanted desperately to give up and get a ride home, but luck made that option just hard enough that I ended up pressing on, and ultimately, it was worth it. That unspoken question in my mind, “Could I do this?,” was answered with a resounding “Yes.”

Any adventure, whether it’s 1000 miles on the Camino de Santiago or even a short day ride with the local bike club, can have its challenges, and can put you in a mental or emotional spot that makes it tough to continue. But as any pilgrim will tell you, if you can make the first step, you might as well be halfway there. You can do it.

As we develop our regional rail-trails and municipal bike networks, we should keep the same attitude as the pilgrims on the trail — that we can do it, but we have to take the first step. Something that all walkers on the Camino know, too, is that thousands and thousands of other people have done this before, and succeeded. We in Shawnee County need look no further than our neighbors in Anderson County or Allen County — or Missouri or even Denmark — to see what great things can be done.

 

Karl Fundenberger