Bridge & Tunnel Folk
The first day’s route was a perfect sampler of what lay ahead. For the most part the going was non-problematic: basic, simple walking along railroad tracks, Stand By Me-style; but at a few spots the tracks were so buried in overgrowth that the rail bed was fully obscured. At the worst spots, gaining through-passage required full-on hurling oneself into a cluster of bushes, in the hope that the momentum of loaded pack and body would be enough to send one crashing all the way through the brush and issuing out the far side of the overgrowth. Spring-loaded branches were snapped back in faces with the utmost indifference to personal well-being- uncomfortable, yes, but nevertheless as must be expected on a journey such as this one.
After about an hour of walking, we reached the first train tunnel. Only about 75 yards long, this one was not very intimidating. Before passing through it, however, we decided to take our first break. Turning away from the rail bed, we crashed our way down an embankment of dry, brittle grasses and set up shop on a curving sandy beach at a spot where the river took a wide bend. I dropped my pack and plunged headlong into the cool blue-green waters of the Eel River. Yes, cold, indeed; but damn refreshing. Some conveniently placed rocks along the river’s edge allowed for some mild cliff-jumping.
We weren’t sure whether or not we had passed through any poison oak on our bush-whack down the hillside from the tracks; but long, hard-suffered experience has taught me not to roll the dice when it comes to those insidious oils. I break out the Tecnu (poison oak-neutralizer), slather my body with it, and toss the bottle over to Chalk. The bottle comes up short, however, landing in water only a few inches deep, and promptly breaks apart, issuing its contents into the river. All in a moment, our sole preventative defense against poison oak is utterly diluted and washed away down the river.
The first bridge we came to was the one spanning Steelhead Creek, a gurgling tributary flowing in from the right, passing underneath the railway, and there contributing its waters to the greater flow of the Eel. I was pleased to find the bridge to be completely intact, structurally speaking. Coming into this trip, I had been concerned about the possibility that some or all of the bridges might be falling apart and/or in some way hazardous; but so far, this was proving a non-issue. A secure metal grating provided a solid surface to walk on; and the bridge was passed with no hardship whatsoever.
The Alderpoint Shuffle
Rounding a bend in the tracks, we could see on the hill just above the tracks a small collection of dilapidated buildings: houses, slapped together with old boards and screws, barely able to stand on their own, very few boasting walls at 90-degree angles, whether to each other or to the ground. Welcome to the village of Alderpoint– about as close an approximation to deep Appalachian poverty as you’re likely to find anywhere outside of West Virginia. We walked on past, keeping the volume down so as not to attract any undue attention. I’d be damned if anybody was gonna make me crawl around on all fours and squeal like a pig, thank you very much.
Malicious junkyard dogs strained desperately against old rusty chains. A couple of inbred-looking kids on BMX bikes stood watching us from a yard alongside the tracks, like characters from the movie Gummo. The wheel-less chassis of old abandoned cars, grown clear through with 4-foot high grasses, peppered a clearing alongside the rail bed, long forgotten. The buzzing report of dirt-bikes- or was it a lawnmower?, or a chainsaw?- echoed through the derelict yards of this long-obsolete industry town, built more than a hundred years ago to support the construction of the railroad running beneath our feet. A century without commerce. A century of decay. We moved along.
The river bent sharply back on itself where a spit of land jutted out onto a rocky sand bar. The railway cut off the sharp point of land by ducking into another short tunnel and emerging on the other side. Reaching the far side of “town”, we passed under the Alderpoint Road bridge: the last public road that we would pass until the very end of the trip, when we would resurface to quasi-civilization at Dos Rios (one hoped).
The day was getting old; and our muscles were crying with those first-day aches. We decided to seek for camp. Impatient and lacking imagination, we settled lamely on a narrow rocky beach, still within sight of the Alderpoint bridge. The spot was already in shade when we claimed it; and the pickings for firewood were meager at best. Just as well, I thought, seeing as how we were within sight of the bridge. All we needed was a couple of bored ultra-redneck young men pulling up onto the bridge on their quad-runners, spotting our fire, and there and then electing, in a meth-induced stupor of poor judgement and fearless stupidity, to pass their Saturday night harassing the city-slickers camped along the river flat. We made a tiny fire, ate a quicky dinner of mac and cheese, and turned in early. Tomorrow we would leave all semblance of civilization behind for the duration.
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