Andy Ostmeyer: 'Good Crazy'

·6 min read

Jul. 21—The late civil rights activist John Lewis spoke of "good trouble" — the trouble one gets in fighting for worthwhile causes.

Maybe there's also such a thing as "good crazy."

Good crazy is having a public vision and pursuing it even when others can't or won't get their heads around it.

Good crazy is this: Hey, let's save these mountains, forests and lakes as a "pleasuring ground" for the American people.

It's also this: Hey, let's protect this big hole in the ground from mining and open it to tourism.

And this: Hey, let's keep these abandoned rail lines in the public domain, turning them into multiuse trails.

Maybe good crazy is also this: Connecting Missouri and Kansas to the Great American.

The Great American is one of America's next great trails, a cross-country cycling route from Washington, D.C., to the Pacific Coast, cobbled together along old canals, abandoned rails lines and other connecting trails being built right now. You can find a map online at https://www.railstotrails.org/greatamericanrailtrail/route.

I pleaded in previous columns for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to bring its Great American from Illinois through Missouri and Kansas, and then north through Nebraska. Follow the route of Lewis and Clark, with views of the Missouri River, I argued. I struck out. They chose to cross Iowa instead.

Still, that doesn't mean Missouri and Kansas shouldn't find a way to connect to it, and incorporate that vision into their long-term transportation and economic development priorities. An economic study this spring concluded the Great American will generate $230 million in annual visitor spending for communities connected to it, which means jobs and tax revenue.

Missouri and Kansas are in a great position to tie into it, being close, but also because these two states either have or are building some of the longest trails in the country, of about 700 miles when it is done and connected.

Tying into the Great American will lure riders and their money our way. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson got the vision when he asked for nearly $70 million for the Rock Island trail this past legislative session. That was good crazy. Lawmakers stripped out the funding. What a botch!

I had a recent conversation with Kevin Belanger, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy project manager for the Great American. I wanted an update on what's happening in the Midwest and how to connect to it.

He told me that 2,029 miles of that cross-country route are complete, or about 54%, with another 1,740 miles to go.

The whole thing is still decades in the doing, but already large stretches are ready for riding, the longest being 330 miles between Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh, and once a 10-mile gap is closed, it will continue on for a total of 384 miles into West Virginia.

As for the Midwest, the Great American will continue out of the Chicago area along the Illinois and Michigan Canal and the Hennepin Canal connecting to the Quad Cities. Right now, there is a short gap between those two canals.

"We consider that to be our catalyst project for Illiniois," Belanger told me. In all, 164 of the 195 miles of the Great American are done in Illinois.

In Iowa, about 250 miles are done, with 217 to go. The trail will exit Iowa at Council Bluffs, and enter Nebraska in Omaha. In Nebraska, 307 miles are done, with 270 miles of trail left to build.

An immediate goal is connecting Nebraska's two population centers, Lincoln and Omaha. There's a 10-mile gap currently that Nebraska lawmakers recently authorized $8.3 million to close, Belanger told me. "We consider that to be our catalyst project for Nebraska," he added.

So how can Missouri and Kansas tap into this?

Council Bluffs is also the northern terminus of the Wabash Trace Trail, which heads south for 63 miles, dead ending at the Missouri line.

Now, many Missouri cities have already expressed interest in connecting to the Katy/Rock Island, including St. Joseph, which has previously said one of its major transportation priorities is a multi-use trail connection to the Katy/Rock Island network. Could one possibility be a link from St. Joe to Blanchard, Iowa, the southern terminus of the Wabash Trace?

At one point, a group, Missouri Friends of the Wabash Trace Natural Trail, envisioned the route running to Maryville, Missouri, and even purchased the corridor, but the adjacent landowners sued. Despite the fact that they were not the original owners, heirs or grantees of the land, which was condemned by the railroad as long ago as 1879, the trail group lost in court battles in the early 1990s.

That looks like a collosal blunder now, as communities and landowners have seen the recreation and economic potential of trails, and are clamoring for them. Perhaps there is another way to get to Blanchard.

In Kansas, work is underway to finish Flint Hills Trail State Park (117 miles), with an eastern terminus at Osawatomie, and also to finish the connecting Landon Trail to Topeka (nearly 40 miles) and there has been talk of a route from Baldwin City to Ottawa (14 miles). Osawatomie and/or Baldwin City get it pretty close to metro Kansas City. It easy to see the day when these Kansas and Missouri networks link up in Kansas City, creating that 700 miles of riding and giving Missouri and Kansas bragging rights to a world-class cycling destination in its own right.

How does Kansas connect to the Great American? Perhaps from Topeka to Marysville, Kansas, along the Kansas River and Big Blue/Tuttle Creek. At Marysville, a series of existing trails already run north 80 miles or so to Lincoln and the Great American.

Could another possibility be built along the Missouri River?

There was a time when Americans measured the value of Yellowstone in board-feet of lumber. A national park? Crazy. But good crazy, going on 150 years this year.

There was a time when they looked at a ditch in Arizona and thought it a wasteland, fit only for mining. Another national park? Also good crazy.

And there was a time when some people in the Ozarks looked at our best rivers and could see only more dams and impoundments. National rivers and riverways? There was more good crazy.

Good crazy is watching the Great American get built and not just imagining how but also committing to tying into it.

Or we can sit on the sidelines and watch it go by. Now that's just plain crazy.

Andy Ostmeyer is the editor of The Joplin Globe. His email address is aostmeyer@joplinglobe.com.