It's been almost 10 years since the last freight car trundled along the rails between Bay City and Tillamook. After a decade, tufts of grass have started to reclaim the land between the ties, the twin ribbons have started to rust and locals have forgotten what it's like to wait in their cars for a train to pass in that area.
So when the crossing arms started coming down on a defunct section of the Port of Tillamook Bay Railroad, it caught more than a few people off guard. They do a double take when they realize the flashing red lights and alarm bells are announcing the arrival of a people-powered cycle tour.
Last May, Oregon Coast Railriders revived this stretch of track, on a skinny strip of land where the tracks run parallel to U.S. Highway 101, offering a two-hour, 14-mile out-and-back trip between Bay City and Tillamook's Goodspeed Park.
Railriders hasn't done much in the way of advertising its existence—when it first opened, there was only a handwritten banner strung to a fence marking the business's home base. Turns out, no promotion was needed. Word quickly spread that the public could ride a cycle contraption along the old railroad, and the sessions started selling out.
Three years ago, Kim and Anita Metlin started a similar excursion through the Wallowa Mountains in Eastern Oregon. Kim makes the recumbent buggies by hand. They're sturdy and can seat up to four people, but the aluminum frame and polyurethane wheels make the whole apparatus very light—each car weighs in at just 100 pounds.
The excursion is guided, with the cars rolling in a caravan. The front buggy sets the pace, the guide in the first car ensuring they never get too far ahead of everyone else, while a second assistant in the back keeps any stragglers on track.
Riders wear neon safety vests and seat belts. When they stop, they signal with a raised fist. There was plenty of that on the first leg of the journey, and from the caboose we had to pull the hand brake every time someone with slippery fingers ahead of us dropped a cell phone or selfie stick.
Part of the allure of traveling by rail is getting a rare glimpse at an area's underbelly. Along the Port of Tillamook Railroad, that scene can look like overgrown yards strewn with rusting tools, car parts and forgotten children's toys. At one point, a nursing pit bull and her pups wander from their property toward the rails and watch us glide by. You'll even pass the back of the Tillamook Cheese Factory. It's all concrete and metal tanks—a drab gray building surrounded by barbed wire, in stark contrast to the side set up to welcome tourists.
The Port of Tillamook Bay Railroad was built to haul logs between Portland and the coast. In 2007, a powerful storm unleashed mudslides that tore out a section of track in the middle section. Fixing it wasn't economically feasible, especially given that the industry is in decline, so logging companies started using trucks to haul their logs.
Railriders arrives as Tillamook County looks to expand its economic base beyond timber, fishing and farming. To attract visitors, the area was rebranded as the "Tillamook Coast" after a lodging tax was passed in 2013. There's no better symbol of this evolution than Railriders—tourists are very literally using the rotting bones of a struggling extraction industry to get good selfies.
Along the route, you cross several impressive bridges, including an iron truss stamped with the year 1901. You float across all sorts of water, from small streams to algae-filled sloughs to the wide, tree-lined Wilson River.
Since the line is technically still "in service," one of the guides gets out at every street crossing to display a stop sign to any traffic. At one road, the red-and-white gates fall, the ding-ding-ding setting the rhythm of your princess wave to the waiting drivers.