While strange weather postponed the monarch migration I carried on, looping through Missouri like a collie rounding up any monarchs I could find to herd them south. This loop through Missouri was part a logistical inevitability and a lucky break for me. Inevitable because I wanted to visit a handful of towns that edged Missouri’s eastern, western and southern borders. A lucky break because Missouri is one of my favorite states and I welcomed the miles. I was happy to meander along the Mighty Missouri as it carried stories of mountains and prairies in its waters. I was thrilled to visit Missouri’s southern corners where the Ozarks formed a tangle of limestone rock, perfect color rivers, and thick, green forests. I was also happy to visit the communities enjoying both and fighting for both.
I crossed into Missouri at Cape Girardeau, on a bridge that spanned the Mississippi River and the Missouri River, two rivers that swallowed each other in St. Louis and now twisted together to the ocean. The bridge was wide, with a generous shoulder, and I stopped at the crest of the bridge to watch the water churn and reflect on that intersection of time and place. Just two years earlier, three friends and I had been specks on the river, cruising under the bridge in weighted down canoes. I missed the river which could hide the scars of roads, dull the traffic, and turn navigation into heading downstream. But I was happy to be on a bike, because it gave me the flexibility to reroute, the freedom to cross watersheds, and the opportunity to cross paths and share my story with more people.
People like Bonnie, Marc, and their son, Jacob. Visiting Cape by canoe my friends and I hadn’t had time to detour to Jacob’s school for presentations, but this 'pass the autonomy and flexibility of biking' bought me time. Time to rest at their house, do a presentation at school, and be entertained by Jacob’s antics. Then, after stalling while the wind wore itself out, I left Cape and headed north.
I hadn’t made it ten miles out of Cape before spotting a field of milkweed and its lookalike, dogbane, under attack. An industrial mower swiped huge swathes of an undeveloped track slowly and deliberately, a slow motion collision course with monarch habitat. I dropped my bike and ran into the field. Frantically I looked for caterpillars, yanking a small milkweed and the monarch caterpillar eating it out of the ground. I didn’t see more, so I went back to my bike, tucked the caterpillar and milkweed into my pannier, and headed down the road searching for the perfect relocation spot.
I don’t know what the caterpillar was thinking as it bobbed in my pannier, but I know what I was thinking. I was thinking about how sad it was to helplessly watch the mower decimate habitat and destroy possibilities. I was also thinking about my new charge, whose tentacles stood like snorkels at the edge of my bag. Heavy on the breaks and with studious eyes I tried to make the ride less terrifying for the refugee, as I evaluated every milkweed I saw. I was picky though, and most were either too close to the road and risked being mowed, or too old and yellow. Finally, six miles later, I found the perfect spot in an island of milkweed clamoring around a utility pole. A resident caterpillar ruled out toxins, so I left my caterpillar transplant on a leaf, wished it luck, and carried on. Most of my monarch sightings run together, but that caterpillar will always stand out. I had messed with nature and made the caterpillar my responsibility. I hope it worked out for him/her, and maybe we will meet again in Mexico.
That caterpillar rescue was followed by a second mission a day later, when I saw the only monarch caterpillar I have ever seen crossing the road. Okay so I’ve seen thousands of tent, woolly, swallowtail, skipper, and unidentifiable (to me) caterpillars, but this was the first monarch I’d seen venturing onto the pavement. It was not a full grown fifth instar, so I assumed it was either looking for a place to molt or looking for more milkweed. I picked it up and together we continued the search. I didn’t see even a sprig of milkweed along the road, so I carried it several miles. Again, the act of interfering with nature gave me a very real sense of responsibility. I was tweaking the system, and causing unknown and unforeseen ripples. Not wanting to hold onto the caterpillar overnight, I found a less than ideal milkweed, tucked the caterpillar in, and completed caterpillar rescue mission two.
During these rescue missions my route was leading me north, which was the opposite direction of where I needed to go. It felt crazy to be going the wrong way, but it would have been equally crazy not to take advantage of the Katy Trail, the longest rails to trail bike path in the country, which sliced the state in half and could carry me towards Kansas City.
I rode the Katy Trail and its spurs some 250 miles. These miles of trail on converted railroad offered merciful grades, shady tree tunnels, and protection from angry winds. I relished the escape from a weather system of especially potent sun and strong winds as I cruised along the crushed limestone dappled by sun, shadows, and a shocking number of basking snakes. The heat seemed to pull every rat snake, rough green snake, garter snake, and a few I couldn’t identify out and onto the trail. In one day I saw nearly 40 snakes. In search mode I could lose track of time biking, searching, photographing, and searching some more.
On the Katy Trail, I also broke my record for most monarchs seen in one day (aside from the monarchs at the colonies in Mexico). One morning on the trail, I noted a monarch flying alongside me for a moment. The monarch matched my cadence. I absolutely love when a monarch and I are in step, traveling towards the same horizon at the same time. The coordination turns us into a team. Like a pack, a herd, a flock, a school, or an army; for a moment our motivations are the same, and the act of moving together somehow lessens the effort. When the monarch ditched me, turning directions with the wind, I stopped to record time and location in my notebook, and then I continued on.
A moment after butterbiking with that butterfly I saw another monarch. At first I assumed it was the same one still paralleling my route, so instead of stopping I watched it flutter just ahead of me. I pretended that it was leading the way and cheering me on, and then I noticed a second and third flash of orange. I realized I wasn’t seeing one monarch, but instead a slowly dispersing batch of monarchs. I kept a consistent speed and watched a fifth, a twentieth, a fiftieth, and a seventieth monarch intersect my path. Sometimes they would swoop in pairs above me, like they were dangling a treat just out of my reach. Other times they would pass perpendicularly to the trail, wasting no time going to whereever the wind seemed to be pushing them. I counted and watched and admired the splendor of being a witness to such an incredible spectacle performing not for me, but for sunny skies and finicky winds.
Beyond snakes and monarchs, the Katy Trail hosted several communities that I was happy to visit, including Jefferson City, Columbia, and Rocheport. Jefferson City was my first stop, where I had made plans to stay with Rick and Connie, whom I’d stayed with while on the river. Rick, a City Council member, was working at a Habitat for Humanity fundraising dinner, so Connie and I joined him. I enjoyed watching the community gather and talk. It’s the randomness of being a stranger at such a community event that thrills me. I love looking around and asking myself “how did I get here?”, and I love even more that the answer is “on a bike, from Mexico.”
To get to and from Jefferson City on the Katy Tail one must cross the Missouri River. I had been looking forward to this crossing, because I had been wanting to pay my respects to Joe, a river angel and friend. When I pulled up to Joe Wilson’s Scenic Point, it looked just as I remembered with the wind shuffling through the flags that stood as reminders to the long journey the water has had. The point sounded just as it had, with the water, train, and the cars on the bridge humming a roar. Everything was seeped in good memories of my friend Joe, but an emptiness loomed. I missed my friend, the cheerleader, the fighter. I missed his passion, his rough edges, his genuine love, and his authenticity. If all of us were committed to one footprint of land like Joe had been, the world would be a better place. To this, I picked up a few pieces of trash and let a few silent tears sink into the sandy shore. That spot will always be his, and the river will always carry his name in its muddy arms. I thanked both the river and Joe for still being there, in their own ways, and I then I carried on.
Upstream, in Columbia, I had a few presentations, but more importantly, I found inspiration in monarch leadership. I stayed at two houses in Columbia. One was with Candy and her family. Their backyard hosted many native plants and I took advantage of a morning off to do some filming, including an egg juggling scene that did NOT rely on a stunt double. The second house, with Nadia and Randy, took native plants and sharing the planet to the next level. As a person that likes boundary pushers, iconoclasts, and nonconformists, I quickly fell in love with Nadia’s garden.
Nadia’s garden was a moat of prairie surrounding her house. Her yard was devoted to natives, and we spent a few hours searching through the plants. On one plant we counted over ten mating pairs of walking sticks. On another plant a monarch caterpillar gorged on milkweed. On another, bees, wasps, and skippers guzzled nectar. I couldn’t stop thinking about how each and every animal I saw existed entirely because Nadia gave them space to live. Those animals owed their lives to her generosity, her commitment to nature, her progressive stewardship, and her bravery for ignoring the pressure to have a green grass lawn. I was truly inspired by my visit to her island of habitat.
What gave me the most hope, while touring Nadia’s gardens, was something I found at the edge of her yard. I noticed it, as we searched for secret lives living in the green armor of nature. It was just a few clumps of common milkweed, standing lost in a sea of her neighbor’s grass. Nadia explained that her neighbor was inspired to mow around the trespassing milkweed, after learning about monarchs and seeing Nadia’s example. What I saw while looking at the milkweed was how ideas spread. If Nadia hadn’t been a leader, pushing boundaries and confronting the green grass epidemic, it seems likely her neighbor wouldn’t have questioned her own habits. It seems likely her neighbor would have no milkweed, and host no monarchs. By being a leader, trailblazer, teacher, cheerleader, advocate, promoter, and guide, Nadia’s passion and her gardens spread. I can see the energy of every monarch steward spreading across the continent, infecting the people in each of our orbits, and this more than anything else gives me hope. Actions are noticed, words are heard, and passion is contagious. My reason to keep biking.
I was also inspired in Columbia by a golf course of all things. Isaac, the manager, met me in the rain to give me a tour of the golf course. Together we perused the greens, which were bordered by prairie and oak woodlands. Isaac explained how he’d removed invasive honey suckle and watched wildflowers return. He pointed out the course’s roughs, now acres of prairie alive with color, and as natives saved him about $300 per acre on maintenance. Most impressive, was that he had school groups come out to learn and be part of the stewardship, and that he took the time to talk to the golfers and help them come around. He is a voice for the monarch and shows us all the potential of towns to be more than JUST for humans. He helps us look at our yards, roadside ditches, school grounds, and even golf courses with monarch eyes. He shows us that humans and wildlife can not only co-exist but that we can help each other.
Back on the Katy Trail, the hardest part of traveling was the lack of camping. The trail was swathed in No Trespassing signs, which I do my best to respect. Since so many cyclists travel the route, I couldn’t rely on the element of surprise and the power of dilution to find hidden spots for guerrilla camping. The last night on the trail I arrived at dark at some public land. I’d hoped to cut off the trail and duck into the public land but just as I was meandering through the dark, a spotlight trailed over my location. I stooped and waited, my eyes adjusting to the darkness. As a general rule, I don’t camp where people are out and about with spotlights.
It is easy, at night, to turn noises into danger, turn a worry into a fear. I’m pretty good at rationalizing these disturbances, but the spotlight squicked me out just enough not to stay put. I assumed the truck with the light was looking for deer, and I didn’t want to get mistaken for one, so I turned on my lights betraying my location, and (with confidence because that is usually all you need) I went back to the road. The truck had by now turned off its spotlight and cruised down the road towards me. It slowed as I passed, window down, and I thought the driver wanted to chat. I didn’t want to, and justified or not, I shone my bright lights into his eyes, stopping his advance and giving me time to pass, get back on the trail, and make some ground. I pedaled illegally, as the trail closed at dark, until I hit another patch of public land, crawled through the brush, set up my tent, and went to bed. I’ve found the best way to be brave is to go to sleep.
In the morning, I woke early, a strategy meant to avoid the heat and being caught camping precariously legally. I was greeted to waking sunflowers, a box turtle, and one of only a handful of sunrises I’ve managed to catch on this trip. Sunrises, are not my thing.
I was grateful for the head start because I had a big last day if I wanted to reach Kansas City, and unknown to me there would be a few hiccups. The first hiccup was a wet trail, which added to the weight of my bike and slowed me down in a sinking sand kind of way. Luckily that lasted for just a few hours. Later, closer to the end of the line, my rear tire exploded. I stopped to find that my tire had been spliced by something and the gash had freed the tube which filled with air until the pressure caused it to pop. I took off the tire and made a boot, basically covering up the hole from the inside so the tube can’t escape and grow with air. This boot held for a bit, but the gash was big. Instead of trying again, I took a lazy but effective approach. I disconnected the brakes, and used a dozen zip ties to pull the gash together, like stitches. The result was a bit of bump in each rotation, but it held until I bought a new tire in Kansas City. I called this Operation Zip Tie, but I was not surprised by the zip tie’s heroic feats. I’ve often described my bike as 30% zip tie, and even given to calling the bike Zip Tie. Lesson: pick up zip ties you find on the side of the road, because they are more helpful than duct tape!
I was met in Kansas City by my parents and the closest to a day off I’d had in months. Between blogs, photos, videos, logistics, and presentations I was beginning to feel a bit burnt out. I tried to use my time wisely, but also tried to find space to breathe and think beyond my trip. In truth I think anticipating a rest day is likely more beneficial to me than actual rest days.
Beyond rest, I presented to a handful of schools, and did some of my best presentations and worst in the same day. The worst was an after school affair, with a wide range of ages not accustomed to sitting still after school. Perhaps someone with more experience, could have found a way to make the presentation work. Perhaps if I’d just had the kids line up to try out my tent outdoors, we would have had better luck. But as it was, the kids, the folks organizing my presentation, and I were all set up to fail. It continues to amaze me how the venue as much as anything else dictates the success of my presentation. If the screen isn’t bright, if the acoustics are poor, if the kids are uncomfortable, then learning is harder. Kids at older schools deal with this daily, and I’ve come to realize that where we learn often translates into what we can learn.
The venue of my public presentation in Kansas City, however, was ideal. Set up by the Big Muddy Speaker Series, I had an auditorium with great sound, great lighting, and an actual camera crew. While one person fitted me with microphones, another powdered my nose. I left like a celebrity and my mom noted that it was the most makeup I have ever worn (think of all the money I have saved!). My presentation in Kansas City was my biggest crowd, never mind many of the faces were my friends, former teachers, neighbors, and family! It was a blast to tell my story and have so much support! It was worth the northern detour across Missouri!
But from Kansas City I was done heading north. I needed to get south fast. Well, as fast as one can go while on a bike and with five scheduled stops in eight days. Those eight days would start with a ride down the border of Kansas and Missouri to Louisburg, KS. There I was treated to some hearty meals and A+ pumpkin pie. The meals were perhaps undeserved because the next day I flopped at a middle school assembly. I had attempted my adult public presentation with subtle hints of my fifth grade version, but the teachers’ reaction told me I’d missed the mark. Each presentation I do is something of a learning process, and I am certainly training as I go. Back on the bike I spent three hours riding and reviewing my performance. The only thing that kept me from calling it a dud was that when I stopped at a gas station to fill up my waters, I was greeted by two kids running at me, waving. They’d seen my presentation and were excited to share what they remembered with me and their parents. That is the best kind of review, and so with that I took the lessons I learned and moved on.
Moved on and moved south. The next day I arrived at Delia’s house, a tucked-away oasis for the cheerful professor and her gang of rehabilitated, teaching animals at the edge of Pittsburg, KS. Then the next day, after ice cream and my presentation, I biked to Joplin, MO. I arrived in the dark at Val and Stan’s house, where I would stay for two full days. With the help of Val, a passionate monarch steward with a backyard to prove it, I got to see the gardens rearing caterpillars all across Joplin, and talk with over 1,000 kids about my trip. I finished the second day with a public presentation and then left Joplin just like I had arrived, in the dark.
In the dark, I pedaled to Neosho, MO. It was a misty night, which brought out the frogs and my amphibian spirit. I could ignore the occasional car, except in the moments where I would watch their wheels careen over a naïve frog. The only conciliation was that I could often jet onto the road, grab the exposed creatures still alive and chuck them off the road between the rhythm of passing cars. This of course slowed my progress, but what else could I do?
Arriving to Neosho late at night, I found the address of a contact who’d given me the okay to camp in their yard. My plan had been to camp on the edge of town somewhere, but the worry that came with telling people this plan led me to accept their combined generosity. I settled into the edge of the gigantic lawn for the short night’s rest I was granted. The next day I was in Neosho long enough for two presentations, a tour of the fish hatchery, a visit to the library, and a generous lunch. I couldn’t have packed more into the day if I’d wanted to, and as quickly as I arrived, I left, pedaling into the evening for my last night in Missouri.
Even as I said goodbye to Missouri, I knew it was temporary. I know I’ll be pulled back by the Ozarks, the Mighty MO, the friends and family that support me, and all those snakes I could have written dozens more paragraphs about! Looking at my route the loop seems a bit silly, but I’m thankful for the miles, and the experience of leading the pack on the leading edge of the southern migration.