The light at the end of the tunnel

By Jeff Petersen, The Observer August 02, 2013 11:38 am
The little girls on bicycles behind me were in full voice, chanting over and over again, “I love to sing.”

Their bike lights flickered eerily, like fireflies dancing in the darkness. The words echoed through the 1.7-mile Taft Tunnel burrowing from Idaho to Montana under the Bitterroot Mountains. I was up ahead. My bicycle light in effectively pierced the blackness. I was entranced by the falsetto voices, feeling as if I had been transported into a novel by Stephen King, the suspense writer.

Their parents, I imagined, were trying to help the girls pass the time it takes to navigate this section of the 15-mile, world class, non-motorized Route of the Hiawatha rails to trails.

The parents, I surmised, were trying to trick claustrophobia from relinquishing its grip on the party’s throats. I know it had mine in a tight clench. 

By singing, instead of dreading the total darkness, the girls were turning the darkest night into day. Or at least as close to day as they could come, a half mile inside a mountain, not just in the jaws but down near the uvula.

What came clear to me is, many times in life, we can’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes the tunnel is long and scary. But know it does end. Just keep going. As the saying goes, don’t quit before the miracle.

The miracle was completing the rest of the Route of the Hiawatha. This abandoned rail bed from the Milwaukee Road is part of a route that once connected Illinois to Washington. Our part was a small section in the mountains, mostly in Idaho. Friend Bill and I were riding the route on an overheated July day along with hundreds of our newest, closest most personal friends, not all of whom were singing.

Having completed the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes in the previous days, a 70-plus mile rails-to-trails showcase on former Union Pacific right-of-way from Mullan to Plummer that traverses the Idaho Panhandle, we now rolled downhill on gravel. Once through the Taft Tunnel, we took some of the deepest breaths of our lives. We enjoyed the coolness of the waterfall that gushes from the depths. Then we continued downhill, navigating eight other tunnels, all shorter and less daunting, as well as seven high trestles providing spectacular views of the wilderness and places where moose should have been but weren’t.

The wildlife had enough sense to take a nap. Only humans were out in this brutal heat.

A bus ride back to the top of the hill awaited those who chose such comfort. I chose what I call the Scotch Trail, saving $9, retracing the route uphill, riding against the waterfall of riders coming the other way. The loose gravel proved a challenge. But nothing was more challenging than once more navigating the Taft and its seemingly endless darkness.

Imagine the darkest night ever. Then turn off the stars. Then turn down the temperature 30 degrees and have water drip from the ceiling down your neck. Now add bats. Just kidding. There were no bats. But that defines the ambiance of the tunnel, which seems immeasurably long and never in clear focus. You try to enjoy the process, with the goal never in sight but always in mind.

I have never been so scared in my life. Maybe it was the transition lenses on my glasses that failed to rapidly transition. Maybe it was being in the heart of a mountain and thinking about the possibility of earthquakes and cave-ins. Haunted houses and their blindfolds and “bowls of worms,” diving roller coasters, scurrying spiders — none of these things scared me as much as following the other bikes through the Taft.

Of course, like all projects, there is a beginning and ending point. Some projects, however, are bigger than others. Sometimes you can’t see the ending from the beginning. That’s OK. Nothing great was accomplished with little effort.

The bigger point is, if you find yourself in one of life’s many tunnels, keep pedaling. The light at the end will be worth the effort. 

Contact Jeff Petersen at 541-963-3161 or This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it Follow Jeff on Twitter @lagrandenewsGo.