It’s the cliché metaphor of the last century: The light at the end of the tunnel.
Maybe the guy who hammered and dynamited the railway path through the mountain knew just what it meant.
We think we know, after burying ourselves in whatever misery or work that elicits the oft-used metaphor.
But this isn’t about that.
This is about what happens when you become the metaphor, when you ride the Trail of the Hiawatha.
We started in Montana, on bicycles, aiming to follow the path of the old Milwaukee Railroad, which, at one time crossed the Bitterroot Mountains between Idaho and Montana. Today, it’s a scenic, tourist-populated recreational path.
The trail initiated us with a 1.66 mile train tunnel chiseled into the rock of a mountain on the Montana-Idaho border.
The Taft Tunnel swallowed me without apology, stripping me of whatever metaphor I thought I knew about tunnels and darkness and light.
The two children in our group delighted in yelling, “Echo.” It bounced back at us in a distant refrain.
Halfway through, we crossed the state line.
My tiny headlight gave me maybe four feet of visibility, which, when pedaling a bike, did not seem as though it was enough to prevent collisions. I could not see my hands, or my feet, or the ground beneath my wheels.
So I followed the reflectors of the bike in front of me, my fingers beginning to numb due to the cold.
In total darkness, the body loses lines, finds some other matter of being.
The blackness poked at my balance: Riding a straight line suddenly became a challenge, and “steady” became a concentrated effort.
It rained inside the mountain. Water dripped from the above, and I became aware of the fact that it was not a ceiling above me but the porous innards of the earth. Sometimes it rushed, as though we were nearing a waterfall, or a washout.
The body became velvet, became some kind of fluid I am not familiar with. I began to wonder if it was trying to recall a forgotten primal synapse.
And thus I moved forward. Steady. Liquid.
When the light grew wider, when it expanded into a landscape, my chest released.
A sky unleashed.
I ate my sandwich in front of the waterfall, and we waited for Peter, who’d gotten a late start behind us.
When he emerged, he blinked. “Talk about coming out of the womb,” he said.
His light had faded, and he had pedaled alone, towards the pebble of daylight.
We rode 13 more miles downhill, through eight more tunnels—shorter ones this time—and over seven trestle bridges. We gapped a time zone.
The girls dropped small stones from the 220-ft height of a trestle, watching them kerplunk on the trees below.
There were scenic vistas accompanied by writerly conversations: books, politics.
The conversations ceased each time we rode blindly into a tunnel, and they resumed upon exit.
When we reached the end of trail, part of our party signed up to take the shuttle back; the rest of us turned our wheels and climbed the 15 miles back to our cars.
To revisit the darkness we learned only moments earlier.
We had become accustomed to transitioning in and out of light, to the sensation of losing sight.
Sometimes, if the tunnel was short, I did not even turn my light on. I began crave the action of pupils dilating, the slow ensuing contraction.
And then we re-entered the tunnel with the curve in it.
My light, it became apparent, was dying. I could only see a faint patch of gravel two feet in front of my wheel. I came to a stop, unable to tell if I was about to hit a wall.
I let Mark take the lead.
We moved on.
And finally, we stopped in front of the Taft Tunnel. Just shy of 30 miles at this point, we were hungry, tired, and our ride home was on the other side of the mountain: 1.66 miles of excavated earth away.
Mark, Peter and I turned on our lights and entered together.
My battery went dead a few hundred feet in.
Mark switched his relatively weak light to the strobe function.
Peter held a borrowed yellow-beamed headlamp in one hand.
I followed their blinking silhouettes, the ground in front of me so black it no longer existed.
Mark’s erratic shadow rode slightly in front of him on the rock walls.
The mountain rained on us.
Because of a bend at the end of the tunnel, there was no light to guide us, to assure us we were nearing the end.
Instead, it was blind faith (and perhaps a sliver of doubt that the rangers had locked the gate at the exit).
Somehow, it did not feel as though we were returning, only that we were moving forward.
This is what it’s like to step out of the metaphor and into the tunnel, to travel through a mountain, to emerge on the other side, where we were spit out into an empty parking lot.
We sat on rocks, tore at the last pieces of a loaf of French bread.
It began to rain, then hail as we drove away.
And my bones sank into the seat of the car in that knowing satisfaction of a good outing, wondering how many metaphors one can bank in a lifetime of bike rides.