When a veteran railbiker invited me for a ride in southern California last spring, here's what I had to do: Fly to Spokane. Rent a truck. Drive to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Disassemble and box a pedal-powered locomotive. Cart it back to Spokane. Fly to San Diego. Rent a four-wheel-drive. Drive to the Mexican border. Reassemble my rig on a ribbon of rusted rail in the Sonoran Desert. Show the owner of the decommissioned line proof of a $1.5 million group liability insurance policy, lest we derail on a Gold Rush-era trestle and join the twisted freight cars littering the dry creekbed at the bottom of the Carrizo Gorge.
All this was, I was told, pretty much what you had to do if you wanted to railbike, which would explain why virtually nobody in this adrenaline-addicted world has ever seen--much less ridden--one.
But now something incredible has happened. Last weekend, Olympia-based Railbike Tours Inc., the nation's only commercial railbike tour operator, began offering two- to four-hour railbike excursions on the Willamette Shore Trolley Line between Willamette Park and Lake Oswego. Since I'm one of the few (perhaps the only) experienced railbikers in town, I took one of the company's experimental tandem models out for a spin.
On an overcast Monday morning, I met Craig Sheley, Railbike Tours' 26-year-old operations manager, at the Southwest Carolina Street trolley crossing. I took my seat beside him on what looked like a bedframe with bicycle wheels: two recumbents joined side-by-side with sections of Schedule 40 plumbing pipe.
You would think two guys zipping along a railroad track on a bed frame would turn a few heads. You would think. But people just jogged by, absorbed in their music or walking their dogs. The homeless people camped in Powers Marine Park didn't even look up from their newspapers. Landscapers finishing the front lawn of a multimillion-dollar mansion just a few feet from the tracks were likewise oblivious. Then I realized we were invisible because weren't making any noise, other than a few clacks and whirring gears.
Since I was on the outboard bike, Sheley warned me about the "pucker factor" of the first trestle. Before I saw it, I smelled the creosote. Then the forest to my left fell away, revealing a sheer drop to the rocky shore of the Willamette 75 feet below.
"Here's the best part," Sheley said.
We downshifted into Elk Rock Tunnel, banked right, then left. For a quarter mile, we were floating, flying though space in absolute blackness. Senseless, except for the wind on our cheeks.