No matter how many times you may drive up and down a highway you never fully appreciate how long and steep some of those hills are until you have ridden a bicycle up and down them. This became a matter of fact to all four of us within an hour of entering US-50.
US-50 is a 4 lane divided highway with a wide gravel shoulder. It runs through Sedalia, where the Sate Fair is held each year and goes through Jefferson City which is home to the State Capital. It also runs next to Whiteman Air Force Base, one of the most important but less known bases in the country.
Whiteman is currently home to the stealth bombers. They leave from Whiteman and travel halfway around the world, refueling in flight, dropping their payload and then flying back to Whiteman. It is a long mission that these planes run but they are kept safe in the heart of the country. Before the stealth bombers were housed here, Whiteman served as one of the most important bases in the cold war. Whiteman made the whole of western Missouri, including Kansas City a prime target during the Cold War. As you go from Kansas City to Whiteman on US-50 you can see the silos that hold nuclear missiles and standard missiles. When you ride a bike down US-50 you get a feel for how many silos there are protecting Whiteman and western Missouri. Trust me, there are lots of them.
The morning we left was a nice cool morning that would turn into a hot humid afternoon that would slow our pace down somewhat. Scott kept racing out in front of us while Ronnie, Larry and myself kept a more moderate pace and Mr. Shepard brought up the rear as though he was sight seeing and had all day. One of Mr. Shepard's rules was that we were not to crest any hills that would put us out of his sight, so Ronnie, Larry and myself would catch up to a waiting Scott at the top of a hill and wait for Mr. Shepard. It seemed like this was the case for every hill we came across.
While we waited we would sit on the grass and talk and look around at the scenery. It was on this trip when I realized how beautiful Missouri really is. Rolling hills, green with more trees then you could imagine. The fields of the farms plowed and planted in nice neat rows that looked exactly like something you might see in a Benton painting. During these two days I never tired of looking at the landscape of my home.
Around noon we cam upon a little sign indicating a town on the side of the road. The sign just had one word. It said "Pittsville" and that was it. No population numbers or anything. There weren't any houses or indication of life anywhere near the sign. There was a sign of death however. Right behind the sign up a little hill was an old cemetery that held bodies for close to a hundred years if not more. Scott was quick to point out that if this WAS Pittsville then it was aptly named. We settled down to eat lunch among the headstones of the little cemetery. We decided that we would stop here the next day for a short visit to our newly met dead friends for lunch again.
Not a lot exciting happened for the rest of that day. The cars pulled over a lane to gives us plenty of room and we kept pumping away on the bikes looking at Missouri in a way none of us had seen it before and stopping at the top of each hill to wait for Mr. Shepard.. .We continued to ride as the sun slowly started to drop behind our backs and the heat started to cool off a bit. It had become a relaxing ride at much more of a relaxing pace.
As the sun was setting and dusk was approaching we came to the gate of the State Park outside of Whiteman. The first day was over and all of us felt pretty good for spending over eight hours riding a bike. We set up camp and had some dinner. There was the urge to sit around a campfire and talk into the night but one by one, each of us slowly crawled off to the tent and passed out. This must be how a baby feels after a family reunion when every one is taking turns holding it all day long or the way a pup feels after a long walk on a trail. Every muscle in your body just relaxes to a point where there is no strength to have any tension in your body and you sleep deeply and soundly until Mr. Shepard wakes you up at six the next morning.
The first movement of the next day is shocking. You butt hurts like crazy. Your legs do not want to stand and your knees do not want to bend. Your shoulders ache as you try to stretch all of the soreness out. We sat and ate a light breakfast in pain wondering how we were ever going to make it back to Kansas City. Mr. Shepard said the only way we are going to get back to Kansas City was to get on those bikes and start pedaling, and so we did.
After an hour or so your muscles do loosen up a bit and you start to feel more comfortable. Well, all except for your butt. That pain would stay with us the entire trip back and there wasn't anything that could be done about it.
We were on the westbound side of the highway now and the scenery was still the same but different in a way. Scott began not to get as far ahead of us on the hills as he had the day before and more and more we found ourselves not waiting hardly at all for Mr. Shepard to catch up to us on a hill.
We stopped and had lunch at a small mom and pop diner which was air conditioned and had soft booths to sit in and rest our backsides. None of us wanted to leave that little oasis but Mr. Shepard was determined that we get back on the road. We didn't want to be coming in after dark.
We stopped across from Pittsville on the way back and had a snack, toasting our dead friends across the highway before heading on. We kept a steady pace and pretty soon all of us were pretty much riding at the same pace along with Mr. Shepard. I won't say we were too tired to ride fast like the day before but there comes a time when you do feel tired and realize that it isn't worth the race just to stop at the top of a hill every quarter of a mile.
Pretty soon we started to see landmarks indicating that we were getting closer to home. We were coming across shopping centers and diners that all of us had visited every once in a while. The urge was to pick up the pace as more and more landmarks came into view. The sun was falling and was directly in our eyes and it became tough to see through squinting eyes as we headed that little last part westward.
Finally we came to the exit that took us off of US-50 and we began to ride on roads that we had ridden on all our lives. Even Mr. Shepard picked up the pace a bit when we finally got off the highway and began those last few miles to the church. As we made the turn onto Bristol Terrace where the church was we coasted on in. We weren't expecting anyone to be there but there they were. All of our parents were standing just as we had left them. We got unwanted hugs and a pretty good welcome home. Mr. Shepard led us in a prayer of thanksgiving for keeping us safe through the two day trek. Our parents then went to talk to Mr. Shepard to find out how bad we were on the trip and how many rules we had broken. I think they were expecting a report of frustration from Mr. Shepard but he gave us a glowing report. Our parents would just have to accept the fact that we had done a good job, had stayed safe, and had an enjoyable ride through the hills of Missouri past all the missile silos.
There would be time to shock them, that was for sure. Save up the story of eating in a cemetery for later, maybe on meatloaf night. There was plenty of time to describe in detail the road killed skunks and possums, turtles and frogs that we had come across consistently.
Those stories would wait and be used at more useful situations. The next Sunday we would be presented before the church, each of us give a little talk about the ride and present the church with the money we had earned. No need to worry about that right now. We had a whole week before we would have to face that spectacle.
There was only one thing that was important right now. Ride that bike one more mile, park it and take a shower before climbing into the old familiar bed that had cradled me so many nights, months and years before.
I was home.