Prairie Spirit Trail
Sept. 2, 2010
Total mileage: 2,348
The normally unflappable Mr. Spoked disintegrates into a spitting devil only on rare occasions:
a) when a particularly stupid person is speaking on television,
b) the lawn mower won’t start, or
c) he has to change a bike tire.
Last Friday night a blue streak of cursing hung over our house as we switched out road tires for a knobbier variety on both our bikes. We wanted the extra traction for the Prairie Spirit Trail the following day.
Prairie Spirit is a 50-mile long Kansas rails-to-trails route running from Ottawa to Iola on a roughly north/south course. Mr. Spoked is a hard core roadie who despises trails, but agreed to ride the PS to rack up some husband points. I, on the other hand, was actually looking forward to a scenic ride. But first we had to get the darned tires on.
The rubber snapped right into place on Sweetpea’s rims, and (with a little effort) onto one wheel of Mr. Spoked’s back-up ride, an antique Peugeot. But he broke two tire irons trying to leverage the remaining tire. Curses slingshotted around the room along with fragments of plastic. The tire still wasn’t in place the following morning–Saturday–so we decided to stop at a local bike shop on our way out of town. There they pounded the tire into submission and we purchased four of the biggest, baddest tire irons ever. On the hour-long drive to Ottawa we prayed we wouldn’t have to use them.
Earlier in the week we’d studied the website Bike Prairie Spirit, filled with practical information, and it didn’t take us long to figure out where to pick up the trail in Ottawa. We parked in the west lot of the Old Depot Museum and there it was, right across the street. Riding a couple of miles south took us to the first trailhead, where we purchased day permits ($3.50 each), and then continued on our way.
Not being accustomed to trail riding, we rode pretty slowly. Or at least it seemed that way to us roadies. Contributing factors were the cyclocross tires, the crushed limestone trail surface, and a headwind clocking in at 15-20 mph. But we hadn’t expected to break any speed records. The point was to experience the trail and the late summer scenery. Heading out of Ottawa, the trail is edged with woods that occasionally shade its surface–very welcome on a sunny day with temps topping out in the mid-90s. Sometimes the trail was fairly narrow, no more than 8 feet wide. It seemed to be battling nature for supremacy, and occasionally nature was winning. There were Tarzan-like vines hanging overhead in places, and fallen leaves covered much of the shaded surfaces. That only added to its charm, as far as I was concerned. Later in the day we met a park ranger who told us grooming and repair happened during the winter. This year’s spring and early summer had been particularly rainy, so it made sense there would be a lot of brush to cut.
Grade changes were fairly slight but perceptible; perhaps I only noticed the uphills because of the headwind. The bridges were fascinating and fun to ride. The one we stopped at (so I could take a breather in the shade) was built atop the railroad’s old limestone foundation.
Trailheads were located less than every 10 miles, and many of them had restrooms and drinking fountains. There also were some washouts, and a deep central crack that appeared intermittently and without warning, as cracks are wont to do. No accidents, thank goodness, but I did find myself staring at the trail more often than the scenery.
Aside from a few local riders just outside Ottawa, we saw no one except for a group of Boy Scouts on a hike. We reached Garnett in early afternoon and decided to lunch at the Coffee Loft (less than one block from the trail). It was a great place, cool and dark with high ceilings and local art on the walls. As I paid for our meal (good sandwiches, by the way), the lady behind the counter said conversationally, “Lots of riders on the trail today.” She nodded towards a group of five men who clearly had been riding together. Two small groups on a summer Saturday added up to a lot? What a shame. I would have liked to see at least twice as many on such a fine trail.
We’d hoped to cycle all the way to Iola, where we had hotel reservations, but after 25 miles I was tired of the relentless headwind so we turned around and rode back to Ottawa. Besides the Boy Scouts, who were still trudging along, we saw only one other cyclist until the Princeton trailhead. There we met two retired gentlemen who told us they rode the trail nearly every day. One lived in Ottawa, the other in Princeton, and they often cycled together to Garnett for lunch. One of them did a quick inventory of all the businesses in the towns we were riding through, encouraging us to support them because they needed the income. And indeed, most of the towns we passed through were very small. Trail riders definitely could help them survive.
We pulled into Ottawa at 5:00 p.m. (after being on the trail almost non-stop since 10:30 that morning), loaded up the bikes and drove to the Iola Best Western, where the desk clerk told us she sees many cyclists. No wonder, because the trail ends almost at the front door. The trailhead is literally just across the street, which has a well-marked bike and pedestrian crossing. There’s a hotel restaurant and several nearby fast food places. Swimming pool, cable TV, air conditioning, clean and comfortable rooms–what more could a cyclist ask for?
That evening at dinner, Mr. Spoked and I reviewed the day’s ride. He was not taken with the trail and called it “boring and dangerous.” Let me set his remarks into context. Years ago the man took a bad spill on another trail and has hated them ever since. This hatred perhaps makes sense on narrow urban trails where you constantly encounter pedestrians and other cyclists, but I didn’t understand his issues with the Prairie Spirit. He reminded me of the ruts, washouts, and pernicious center crack we’d seen throughout the day. He explained that quiet trails lull riders into a false sense of security (but I loved the fact that we could ride side-by-side and talk). On vehicular roads you’re constantly alert to your surroundings, while on trails you feel safe and your mind goes to its happy place. Then–pow!–your front tire dives into a rut and you’re doing a header over the handlebars. As for the trail being “boring,” well, this is a man who loves the challenge of hills on a road bike. Trails are just not his cup of tea.
It should come as no surprise, then, that on Sunday morning he said “No way” to the suggestion that we take a little trail ride together before checking out. You might think I was lonely on the trail out of Iola–and there were absolutely no cyclists about–but I enjoyed myself quite a lot. I saw rabbits, snakes, and cows. Butterflies were flitting everywhere among the beautiful flowers. Even the purple thistles looked exotic and vivid. A stiff tailwind pushed me quickly to the town of Colony, where I experienced some true Kansas hospitality. As I was straddling my bike at an intersection, wondering where to get some ice water, a pick-up truck driver pulled up and encouraged me to visit the Colony Cafe. Inside, the cafe was bustling with the breakfast crowd but the wait staff quickly helped me and then wouldn’t take my money, even though I tried very hard. Someday, I swear, I’m going back to drop some cash there.
I rode on a few miles beyond Colony before turning back towards Iola, enjoying the solitude and thinking the trail must be wonderful on a crisp fall day when the trees and sumac are changing colors.
Was it boring? Not to me. But you’ll have to judge it for yourself. And you should.