Cycling in southwest Jefferson County

Gosh, has it already been a month and a half since I last raced? The Centaur Time Trial still seems like it was just… well… about 6 weeks ago. Going into this season I knew I wouldn’t be racing much during June/July – I had decided at the start of this season that I’d put my other passion (beetles) on hold for too long, and this year I was gonna get back to accomplishing something big and important on my June/July weekends – like finding Cicindela cursitans in southeast Missouri – instead of riding my bike around in circles. I have been enjoying these past few weekends of bug collecting (bear with the geek for a moment here), and the break from racing has gotten me back in a good frame of mind for the races I want to do later to finish out the season. But before I could do any of this I needed to help out with my dad, about whom I wrote on Father’s Day. That was just two days after his knee replacement surgery, at which time he was in quite a bit of pain, although he’s doing much better now and getting around okay, too. But for the week after his surgery I decided to take off from work and family and stay with him at his house until he was able to at least hobble around the house on his own. My dad was worried I would be bored – he really didn’t need constant care or supervision, just someone to help him with exercises and a therapy machine a few times each day. I told him not to worry about me, I’d bring my computer, some books, and my bike.

My dad lives in southwest Jefferson County – the closest town (if you can call it that) has the titteringly amusing name of “Grubville.” There is no gas station, no grocery store, in fact no shops at all. There is, however, “Jo Mama’s Hilltop Tavern,” in front of which there always seems to be at least one or two pickup trucks parked. Everytime I drive by Jo Mama’s on my way to my dad’s house, I amuse myself by imagining what the local reaction would be were I kick to open the door some Friday night and declare, “I’m the meanest son-of-a-bitch around here. I’ll kick all your asses!”, and run out! Then I start chuckling uncontrollably, while the lyrics from the getaway scene in Charlies Daniel’s “Uneasy Rider” pop into my head. Gravel flyin’ and rubber squeelin’!

Truth be told, I wanted to go stay with my dad. I was ready for a break from work, and my dad constantly raves about the cycling where he lives. He can’t ride fast because of his bad hip, and the unrelenting hills around where he lives push his average speed down even further, but he loves it. I don’t know which of us was more excited about me finally getting the chance to do some riding down there. We got home from the hospital on Monday afternoon, and I was itching for a ride. The deeper into the county we drove, the more I couldn’t wait to get my bike on those roads. My dad either sensed this, or truly didn’t need me to stay put after we got him settled in, or both, and suggested I go on out for a ride. I got kitted up, and we studied the Hwy Dept map while he gave me the low down on what the good roads were, where there were dogs, which climbs were the killers, etc. I tried to keep all the names straight in my head – Browns Ford, Butcher Branch, Ware Church, Tinhouse, Reynolds Creek – nothing but squiggly lines on the map. I memorized a loop that looked to be ~40 miles or so and took off. It was probably the most invigorating bike ride I’ve had since I came back from France last year. The weather was perfect, and the forecast called for more of the same all week. In those 2+ hours I rediscovered a love for cycling that had gotten somewhat stale lately. I decided to ditch my structured training plan for the week and just have fun.

The terrain around my dad’s house is hilly, but it’s a different kind of hilly than what I’m used to in Wildwood. Wildwood is known for it’s classic climbs – Melrose, Doberman, Bouquet, Six Flags-Allenton – sharp climbs that gain 150-200+ feet in chunks of half a mile or less, followed by long, undulating ridgetop sections or mild valley stretches that allow speed and recovery. It’s pretty fast riding. The Big River is the center of attention near my dad’s house – all roads in this area seem to have the singular purpose of avoiding the river with its few crossings. Here the roads undulate constantly, up and over ridges, down across low water bridges, curling around points and back up over the next ridge. There are a few flat stretches along some of the County Hwys, but 55 mph speed limits and lack of shoulders makes them dicey for all but the most experienced riders – best use them just when necessary for connections to smaller named roads. The climbs aren’t the sharp digs of Wildwood – maximum grades rarely exceed 10-12% – but they stack up one after another. Fifty feet of climbing here, a small descent there, then a 100ft climb with a few steps followed by a series of undulations, and without thinking you’ve really been climbing you see that you’ve gained 300 ft in just 4 miles. It’s constant and takes it toll.

The roads are generally in good shape. They’re not the smooth-as-glass asphalt that I’ve become spoiled by in Wildwood, but nor are they broken, choppy, or gravel strewn. I found I really didn’t need to pay that much attention to avoiding any road hazards, freeing me to enjoy the scenery along the roads. And what spectacular scenery it is – trees and valleys, creeks and glades, wildflowers and lazy cows. It’s a quiet, unhurried landscape that seems much more distant from St. Louis than its actual 30 miles. Houses are widely separated, and though most are modest, they thankfully lack the sterile sameness found in the ex/suburban areas that I am used to. This particular house, solidly built from blocks of cut limestone, overlooked a charming valley along Butcher Branch and will surely stand the test of time for many years to come.

I was a little apprehensive at first about how I might be received in this remote land of pickup trucks – it was not far from here where, once, I saw a truck with a bumper sticker that said – I kid you not – “I am from Missouri, and I will shoot you!” (I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I saw it). Without being too judgmental, let’s just say I was worried about looking out-of-place in an area where xenophobia can be prevalent. I may feel comfortable talking about my white bike and shoes on this site, but I found myself wondering if I might be better off wearing jeans and borrowing my dad’s black beater bike. My concerns were not at all alleviated when I happened by this house on my 2nd day riding the area (don’t even ask me about the machinations I went through to try to “discretely” get this picture, all they while studying the front window for any sign of movement in the shades). In all fairness, however, I had not a single problem the entire week. No buzzings, no horn honks, nothing but friendly waves from lawnmower men, porch ladies, and schoolbus children. In retrospect, I almost feel guilty about my apprehension, considering the much greater frequency with which I am harrassed here in St. Louis County by supposedly well-heeled, upstanding citizens.

I happened upon this old house on Ware Road on my first day of riding in the area – it was almost completely invisible from the road, and I may never have seen it had I not stopped nearby for a drink. I was so captivated by the house and the unknowable story behind it – its history, who had lived there, when was it built, and what was life like in these parts back then – that I made a point of coming back by on every subsequent ride. I wondered how long it had been abandoned, and how much longer it would take before it finally crumbled completely back to the earth. I noted the trees next to it – were they planted? If so, that might be a clue as to its age. The following week I came back down to my dad’s and brought the family with me so we could take him out to dinner and get him out of the house. As we drove towards the restaurant, I told them, “I want to show you this house.” We turned up Ware Road and approached the spot, but I couldn’t find it. Something wasn’t right, then I noticed the scorching on the trees surrounding a hole in the forest. The house was gone, burned to the ground! Whether it was an act of God or of man is, like everything else about the house, unknowable to me. I felt sad, like the house had lost its chance to complete the process of decay unassisted – it had come so far, and it deserved to be allowed to go all the way. I was glad that I had taken a picture of it – as if that had somehow saved its story from complete oblivion.

In five days of riding, I managed to rack up more than 200 miles of some of the most enjoyable riding I have ever done. I had no flat tires, no mechanical issues, great weather, exceptional terrain, and a change of pace that happens far too infrequently for this restless soul. It was a week of solitude, yet I don’t believe sharing it with someone could have made it any more enjoyable than it was. I didn’t watch average speeds, or worry about how fast I climbed, or think about threshold intervals – I just rode. At times quietly, other times I was flying. I stopped to move turtles, or take pictures of flowers, or just admire the sights I was seeing. And always I was thinking, “Yes, this is what it’s all about!”

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About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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