In 2.5 miles of darkness 2015.08.19


Have you ever ridden a bicycle through a totally dark 2.5 mile tunnel? I never had until recently, and it's a story worth sharing.

I'm the editor's brother and I live in Seattle. An enjoyable part of living in this part of Washington is the proximity to mountains. Also, the rails-to-trails movement is strong here and lots of old railroad tracks have been transformed into paths for bicycling and hiking. So it was that I recently had the pleasure of riding my bicycle on the Iron Horse State Park Trail in the Cascade Mountains.

This trail is 110 miles long, and it's part of an even longer trail system that traverses much of the state from east to west. A friend and I rode a 22-mile segment of this former train corridor which is now a gravel path through wilderness. 

We passed beautiful overlooks, saw little waterfalls splashing down rock cliffs, and crossed railroad trestles high over forested ravines. But the part I want to describe is the tunnel. Built between 1912 and 1914 by the Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul-Pacific Railroad, it burrows more than two miles through rock under a mountain pass, connecting the east and west sides of the state. 

On our ride, the tunnel appeared after about 18 miles of very gradual uphill cycling. The entrance was like an open mouth in a mountainside, just big enough to swallow a train. The day was sunny and bright, so the first thing that happened when we entered was losing the ability to see anything. Our eyes weren't accustomed to the blackness, and bike lights didn't help much. 

I rode in near blindness for a few minutes, and even after my vision adjusted it wasn't easy to see bumps and rocks in the path ahead. I did see glimmers from reflectors placed on the sides of the 15-to-20 foot wide tunnel. My headlight showed the barest outlines of wall and floor. 

The next thing we noticed was a 40-degree drop in temperature. It was 90 on the outside, much colder in the nether world. A sweat-soaked cotton shirt was not the ideal apparel for subterranean cool. An extra “treat” came in the form of ice-cold drops of water dripping from the tunnel roof onto my back and head. 

It’s spooky in there. Lights from bikers and walkers were visible far ahead into the mostly straight tunnel. A light in the distance may be literally a mile away, or 50 feet. Hard to tell. As for the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel—at first we couldn't distinguish it from someone’s flashlight. Add to that the echoing of voices, the barely visible walls passing, the occasional ghostly humans appearing in the dark, and you have a good fun-house ride.

After an interminable time, the opening at the far end gradually enlarged and came into focus. We finally spilled out onto the east side of the Cascade mountain range. Unlike the opposite entrance, there was a cold breeze blowing out of the tunnel here and we had to keep riding well beyond the mouth to find warmth. 

This entrance is close to the interstate, and there is an area for car parking nearby with a picnic table. We stopped there to warm up and have a snack. 

A group of 30 people arrived. Lots of kids, but all ages represented. They met for a short meeting, then headed toward the tunnel on foot, flashlights in hand. Since we had reached the halfway point in our ride and would soon be heading back through the tunnel, we knew we’d be sharing underground real estate with these walkers.

A few minutes later a bus parked nearby and a group of about 40 teenage runners filed out of the bus. They gathered together, a coach addressed them, and then they jogged toward the tunnel. We’d have to deal with them in the dark also. Woo hoo! Underground party!

A half hour later we pedaled back into the echoing, dank passage. After a quarter-mile or so, bobbing lights drifted down the corridor in our direction—these were the runners on the return trip. Sometimes we encountered annoying people with no lights at all, coming right at us or walking in our path, but we managed to avoid them.

A mile later we started encountering clumps of people with kids, and they were spread out across the entire width of the tunnel, blocking our way. “Please stay on the right!” I requested. Parents tried to herd the children to one side, but collision-avoidance maneuvers were required. It was nerve-wracking. 

By the time we emerged for the second time from the cold passage, I felt pretty happy to be back in the sun. We stopped briefly and discussed our experience in the underworld. Yes, it was interesting to ride through a cold, wet tunnel on a hot day. Yes, it was a great way to get across a mountain pass. And wouldn't it be stupendously dark in there at night if you turned off all your lights? Darker than dark.

Final assessment—as strange carnival rides go, this was worth doing once. The tunnel of love, it ain’t, however, and we aren't eager to see the inside of a mountain anytime soon.