Morning found me ready for some real food. The knowledge that later on today we would be loading our backpacks into Jake’s car, on a paved road, in a community where regular, everyday, accessible folks do their living, infused us with an extra boost of collective vigor, an amplified will to continue on, yet with that normal, everyday tendency toward distraction greatly dimmed. This light (of sorts) at the end of the tunnel (pun not intended, yet consciously not avoided) would draw us along through the remainder of our route almost as if we were but mere passengers on a set course, driven by a force outside of ourselves- kind of like a cartoon character who, suddenly detecting the scent of a freshly-baked apple pie cooling on some little old lady’s windowsill, proceeds to float along through the intervening air toward the source of the seductive aroma, with his feet no longer on the ground and his body led by wispy tendrils of sweet aroma that tow him gently by his nostrils.
Look Out Mama, There’s a White Boat Coming Down The River
A few miles south of camp we saw, for the second and final time on the trip, other people. But rather than trucking on dirt roads alongside the river, these ones were traveling on the river, on a trio of whitewater rafts. All week long I’d been surprised that we hadn’t been seeing rafts on a daily basis, thinking as I had that this canyon was a far more popular rafting destination for this region of the state than it apparently is. And having now walked almost sixty miles of it, I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t.
From my vantage point high up on the Woodman Creek Bridge, I gazed down upon the rafters, feeling remote from them, as if in some place altogether removed from their own. But when the navigator of the foremost boat looked up and waved at me, it brought me back to reality, and the fact that I in fact was sharing this world with other people- not just the two with whom I was traveling, but you know- everyone else. I waved back. After all, I needed the practice. Soon I would be back among the teeming throngs of humanity to whose company I had spent almost 40 years growing accustomed.
Immediately south of the bridge we passed through the tenth tunnel of the journey; and, though the tunnel was not collapsed in on itself, or in any other way technically impassable, it did, on its southern end, issue forth directly onto a nauseatingly steep slope of broken rock scree which reached all the way down to the river, 70 vertical feet below. The swath of crumbling rocks, a good fifteen or twenty feet across, was set at such a steep angle that it was nearly impossible to move laterally across it without sliding downwards toward the river; yet to do so would be to never again be able to regain the rail bed, due to the steep rocky cliffs on both sides of the rock-fall.
Picking my way gingerly across the loose crumbling scree, I was barely able to haul myself and my pack up to the solid ground on its far side; but after several nail-biting minutes, and some of the most adroitly-executed footwork of my backpacking career, I at last heaved myself onto terra firma, beyond the scree slope. There I waited for the others, who followed close behind.
Numbers Add Up To Nothin’
After that it was pretty much smooth sailing for the rest of the way, save for a few gnarly spots of twisted rail and brittle earth; but the challenges posed by these were nowhere near as formidable as much of what we had already come through over the past fifty-whatever miles.
Just south of Deer Lodge, the last derelict railroad depot town we would pass, we stopped for a final lunch and dip at the riverside. Fully aware that our next break would be taken after we’d left the railroad tracks for good, we savored this one, basking in the hot sun for twenty or thirty minutes, and enjoying the river’s cooling powers, before heaving on our packs for the final few miles.
It’s Better To Turn Out, Than It Is To Bust
After the river stop, only one bridge, one washed-out-chasm, and one tunnel remained to us; and none of them was particularly challenging.
Sometime around 1 PM, after passing out of the south end of the twelfth and final tunnel, I rounded a bend and saw a rubble-strewn equipment yard that looked familiar to me, as if I’d seen it before. As it happened, indeed so I had; for on my reconnaissance mission a month earlier, I had gazed down at this spot from the road above, at a spot to which I had driven my car.
At the southern end of the yard, a rocky dirt road led uphill and away from the railroad, which continued on and passed out of sight just after crossing under a road bridge. This was the bridge at Dos Rios– the endpoint of our long adventure. I ascended the sloping dirt path, circumvented a metal gate, and stepped up onto the pavement of Dos Rios Road. I turned left onto the road and walked out onto the bridge.
There’s An Ancient River Wending
Far below I could see the spot where the waters of the Middle Fork Eel mingled apprehensively with those of the much-smaller Main Fork, just before becoming one and passing away under my feet, to run the long, twisting canyon through which we had just made our way on foot, unscathed for the most part. Jake’s poison oak was the most troubling malady our team had to show for an undertaking that could have easily left any or all of us far worse off. All in all a very respectable showing, I thought.
On An Asphalt Highway Bending
Just beyond the bridge, I could see Jake’s car, sitting quietly on the side of the road, calmly waiting for us. Seeing it was some kind of relief. It meant freedom, food, family, and bed; if not exactly immediately, then soon enough for my purposes.
A few minutes later, I saw the forms of Chalk and Jake emerging from the woods up onto the road; and five minutes after that, we were speeding down Highway 162 towards Highway 101, Willits, and the Bay Area.
Shelter Me From The Powder and The Finger
And so passed we, enriched and in good health all, from beyond the beyond back into just the plain old beyond, ending an epic journey through a remote and seldom-seen canyon, along the twisted, rent, and broken ruins of what was once upon a time the most expensive stretch of rail line to be operational and maintained in the United States, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, ancient ghost line of Northern California’s Emerald Triangle.
And the only thing longer than the trip itself was my re-telling of it. Now move on. There’s nothing more that can be said on this topic. Ever. By anybody.
At some point in the mid-afternoon, with just twelve miles remaining in our journey, we came upon an obstacle that once again upped the ante on what we must be willing to do in order to continue on our chosen trajectory.
Before us stood an almost-totally collapsed tunnel, with a 15-foot-deep mound of rubble blocking its entrance. There was just barely enough clearance between the apex of the debris pile and the roof of the tunnel, the supporting cross-beams of which bent under the weight of the mountain above, to allow a person to pass over and through; and that that was even possible assumed that there were no other collapsed sections deeper into the tunnel- something we could not discern from our vantage point, standing on the ground in front of the rock-fall.
For the first time on the trip, I seriously questioned whether or not continued forward progress was advisable, if even possible. But what the hell else were we going to do? It’s not like we were about to retrace our steps over the very same 44 miles through which we had just spent the better part of a week cleaving a path. Plus, we’d known from the start that this had been a possibility; so to panic or despair now would instantly brand us as a couple of feeble, shit-talking clowns who had recklessly bitten off more than they could chew. No- we had to deal with this, whatever that entailed.
It didn’t take much reflection to arrive at the conclusion that the first thing we should do was try to see if perchance we might be able to circumvent the tunnel along the river’s edge. That would be the simplest solution, should it prove viable. We headed out to the wide curving beach to investigate. Between the tunnel and the river there was a run of sheer, steep cliffs. At first glance it appeared that it might be possible to scale the cliffs through to the other side; so I climbed up onto the rock face to test the potential route.
Three minutes later, while clinging precariously to a jagged and precipitous cliff-face fifteen feet above a churning, foaming eddy with partially submerged fins of granite protruding menacingly above the surface of the water, I gained clarity about the reality that there was no way we were going to get through by this route. I remember thinking that, had we been doing this journey in a downstream direction, we’d have been able to simply jump in the river and float around the collapsed tunnel. But that option existed only in an alternate reality, a parallel universe to which I had no ready access. I retreated, nervously and carefully, back down to the sandy beach, where Jake and I decided to lay out in the sun to wait for Chalk, leaning against our packs and napping lightly.
Through The Shaft, Darkly
An hour later, we awoke to find that Chalk had still not arrived. Or had he come along and proceeded through the crumbling tunnel remnants, deducing that we must have passed that way? We shouldered our packs and returned to the broken tunnel entrance. Whether Chalk had come through here or not, this was now our only option on how to possibly get through.
Going over the mountain was an absolute non-option. That way lay prohibitively steep and hostile terrain, lined with rusty barbed-wire fences demarcating the boundaries of private land holdings. We left a note for Chalk, telling him we had gone through the tunnel, for better or worse, and pinned it under a rock in a conspicuous spot, where he couldn’t possibly miss it.
Wouldn’t you know it- getting through the tunnel turned out to be largely non-problematic. After an initially hairy climb over the fallen rock-pile, the passage was pretty clear; and we were through the tunnel in no time.
You Shall Not Pass!!
But there would be no getting through the next one. No amount of ingenuity was going to avail us here. Just south of the long-deserted railroad community of Nashmead, we were stopped in our tracks by a portal in the mountainside, stuffed from track to rafters with rocks and dirt, an entirely collapsed passageway.
You could almost hear the roof of the hungry tunnel, beckoning us forth into its gaping maw, like a seedy stranger sitting in a car outside of an elementary school, enticing small children with a palm full of licorice, and tales of parental accidents. Yeah no fuckin’ way.
As luck would have it we were able, by only the narrowest of margins, to pick our way along the shoreline of the raging river and around the debris-filled tunnel. This required getting our boots wet, however, and making a couple of nimble leaps onto wet slanted rock, where even the slightest errant footfall could have easily meant a broken ankle, a blown out knee, or a full-on digger into the fast-flowing river. And had the water been even just a few inches higher, we would have been foiled, utterly and absolutely.
But, well aware of the stakes, we both brought our A-games to bear on the situation; and soon we had regained the rail-bed, south of the tunnel. A couple of uneventful miles later, we called a halt for the day, throwing our packs down on a most fortuitously-placed sandy beach, at a banked curve in the river. Before we had even gotten our tents out of our packs, we could espy, faintly, a tiny figure in blue making its way south, a mile and a half up the tracks, south of the impassable tunnel.
Twenty minutes later Chalk was sitting there in the sand with us, reflecting on a day spent in mellow contention with decidedly un-mellow obstacles. Good for the soul.
The night was windy and cool. We turned in early. Only eight miles left to go.
In the environs of the central coastal region, the Arroyo Seco Gorge is a cool water enthusiast’s best bet for hot-weather fun. And in the summertime, the place certainly does pile on the degrees. Between June and September, daytime temperatures in the gorge routinely exceed 95 degrees in the sun.
For those desirous of a rollicking beach experience, the locale features a very-easy-access day use area, to which you can drive right up and park, and then reach with a short walk across a sandy beach.
But to those willing, able, and inclined to work a little harder for their thrills (and a slice of river canyon to call their own, more or less), an epic adventurous combination hike/float awaits. The dusty and sweltering Indians Road, a dirt track closed to motorized vehicle traffic since 1994, contours along the mountainside above the gorge, at points offering views several hundreds of feet down into the winding river canyon.
Depending on how long of a canyon slog you desire, you can access the inner gorge via any one of a number of steep trails descending from the road down to the river, some more demanding than others. What awaits down in the gorge are miles of meandering river, deep-green swimming holes, glistening waterfalls, and narrow slot canyons, all run through with water so clean and unmolested as to be transparent to depths of up to 10 feet at points.
And what better to do after a hot day in the cool river than collect your posse, repair to your nearby spacious group campsite, fire up the grills, feast like savages, and then spend the rest of the night screaming at one another across a raging campfire, until all the beer runs out? Nothing. That’s what.
Arroyo Seco. Anyway, what the hell do they know? They’re way down there; and up here, we can clearly see that the river is indeed wet.
At length there at last comes a reprieve from the pitiless and uninspiring plodding which has been our last two hours. On a bench below the tracks we espy a sandy beach- small, but more than adequate for the temporary needs of three heavily-laden fools on the run from civilization.
But how to reach it? We weren’t about to bushwhack through thorns and poison oak to get down to it- least of all Jake, for whom the onset of a nasty bout of poison oak was already well underway in earnest. The loss of that bottle of Tecnu back in the first hour of Day 01 now loomed large (as Murphy’s Law had all along dictated it must eventually).
But wait! What is this I see? From beyond all hope and despair there appears a break in the hostile and pervasive shrubbery; and descending from it down to the aforementioned beach below, a narrow, rocky, uneven track that I can imagine might have once upon a time been up to the task of accommodating a motorized vehicle of some sort. Sweet Jesus, let me lead the way.
The Hungry Horrors
And so it was that this little crew of journeymen, unspeakably weary, stumbling from exhaustion, and on the verge of losing their shit and turning on one another in misdirected frustration, at last cast down their packs on the soft white sand of a compact little beach, calling a halt to an overlong day’s march through hostile terrain.
A bit of sun still illuminated and warmed a short stretch of river immediately adjacent to our chosen patch of land (chosen, albeit, from a list of exactly one options), and would continue to do so for maybe ten more minutes, if our luck held. But it didn’t even need to. We were in the water within seconds, and air-drying on the beach seconds later; and with this the day’s wounds- the mental as well as the physical- were cauterized and stripped of their power, even if only for a time…
We were all on the verge of being too tired to make dinner (or to even lift forks to our mouths, for that matter), and just this side of too tired to even care; but beneath this collective veneer of apathy we were all reluctantly aware that it is precisely at times like these when you most need to get some sustenance into your stomach (my mother called this desperate and self-defeating condition “the hungry horrors”, owing to its principal identifying attribute being a strong aversion, if not an outright opposition, to the very idea of eating, when in fact ravenousness is precisely the core phenomenon at the uttermost root of the condition).
The least hesitant among us to embrace this reality, and its attendant requirement for action, was Chalk, who promptly proceeded to whip up some Mac and Cheese, while Jake and I stumbled around the area in zombie-like partial consciousness, picking up the odd twig here and there, though scarcely even cognizant of to what end.
Wakey Wakey, Legs & Achey
The morning found us all aching from muscle fatigue and general exhaustion to a degree far beyond that which any of us had as yet experienced on this trip. In full loathe of the idea of packing packs and schlepping onward, we stalled and stalled throughout the morning, laying about the beach moaning, creaking, and slipping in and out of consciousness, until we were at last spurred to action by our collective unwillingness to be caught walking as late in the day today as we had been yesterday.
Chalk was the first to take to the railroad tracks, desiring some one-on-zero time walking with just his own thoughts, unmolested by interactive conversation or bound to anybody else’s desired pace. Jake and I followed in his wake, maybe 45 minutes behind.
Not even a mile up the tracks from the grow-house, I heard it. At first my mind couldn’t place the strange, wholly incongruous sound- was it a swarm of bees gathering about my head? A generator powering another grow-house, somewhere out of sight? A low-flying plane looking to make an emergency landing on the surface of the river?
And then, the clarity. Yes, it was most definitely the hum of a truck engine; wheezing, knocking and laboring; and it was definitely getting closer. And the sound was coming from up the hill behind me- the very direction of, come to think of it, that ranch on the hill whose riverside grow-house we had been probing and mildly investigating, albeit inadvertently, some twenty minutes earlier. Hmmm- what if these people are coming to confront us about our trespassing on their property or, even worse, out of concern over what we might have seen there?
Jake and Chalk were sitting on a grassy bench a ways back and out of sight from the road, zoned out and watching the river as it swung into a wide bend near the outlet of Bell Springs Creek. Standing out there in the middle of the tracks, not more than twenty yards from the spot where the ranch road touched down on the railroad flat, joined the tracks, and began to run alongside them for the next half a mile or more, I mentioned, in a tone betraying something closer to curiosity than outright concern, the hum of the approaching motor.
“Get the hell back here!”, insisted Chalk unambiguously, in a sort of whispered yell, accompanied by gesticulations of dire urgency as he leapt to his feet. “Hide!!”
I hesitated for a moment, then acquiesced to this emphatic directive. I supposed we hadn’t ducked and dodged our way through the broken, twisted hinterlands of the Emerald Triangle all week just to, for no good reason, not get out of the way of a potentially unmellow encounter with local growers, especially when doing so seemed entirely achievable at no great personal cost. I hustled back toward my comrades, my heavy backpack flopping ungracefully as I ran the fifty yards. The extra 45 pounds on my back complicated and perverted the fluidity of my movements.
Before I made it back to them, however, the pickup truck appeared on the hill just above, grinding its way down the hill towards the tracks, though its occupants would have to look behind them to see me, or any of us. Nevertheless, resigning myself to the fact that I was not going to make it to a safe hiding place in time, I stopped, so as to not look extra sketchy by being seen blatantly trying to avoid being seen. As the truck touched down onto the rail bed, I could see that there was a man, who looked to be in his 20s, and a dog, sitting in the rear bed.
The dude in the back waved to me without so much as a second thought, clearly taking no issue whatsoever with my presence there. If the driver had noticed me, he gave no indication of this. Utterly unruffled, the guys in the truck motored away down the dirt road paralleling the tracks, receding from us as they approached the bridge over Bell Springs Creek, a few hundred yards ahead of us. They had barely even taken notice of us. WTF?
We would pass this same truck fifteen or twenty minutes later, parked alongside the tracks while its aforementioned (former) occupants, down at the riverside, enjoyed a frolicking reprieve from the swelter, leaping off rocks into the water. The way a couple of normal people might even do. Fuckin’ Monsters.
So it was for this that we’ve been tip-toeing through the mountains for the better part of a week, anti-fantasizing about a modern-day Deliverance-type scenario? Well don’t I feel silly.
This decidely un-cinematic resolution to the week-long mystery of how we might be received by the anti-social rural-meisters of Hidden Humboldt, Forsaken Trinity, and Deep Mendo was most unexpected, and pleasantly reassuring. Nevertheless, I did not interpret it as a sign that we could have been all along just stomping brazenly through the ruins of this abandoned aorta of North Bumfuck, paying no heed to preferred local customs of etiquette. Nor did I feel that we should do so from here on out. Surely there are a lot of people out here who would smile discouragingly, if not with open hostility, at our unbidden foray into the heart of their illicit livelihoods. Best to continue playing it safe with regards to socializing out here. We continued on our way down the tracks.
By some inexplicably odd coincidence, the washouts were growing bigger and more treacherous, the bridges increasingly more decrepit, and the tunnels disturbingly more ruinous as we made our way south towards our journey’s endpoint in Dos Rios, now just twenty miles away.
Soon we were faced with our most formidable obstacle yet. Before us lay a fissure in the earth about 30 feet deep and 40 feet across, where a particularly vigorous seasonal stream had excavated a deep and wide crack, swallowing every last bit of track, tie, and bolt which had spanned it, save for one steel rail which still reached across the abyss, as if desperately trying to maintain the continuity of the railway- a cheerleader of sorts. The V-shaped chasm beneath was altogether impassable by any means other than climbing down its exceedingly steep walls, crossing the bottom of the cut, and hauling body and pack up the opposite wall, no doubt enduring significant toil and peril in the process.
At what I deemed to be the least problematic spot, the chasm wall was too steep to allow for a controlled descent; and on its far side, there was simply no way to negotiate a dignified ascent. The burden of our packs was greatly amplified by the difficulty of the terrain (as well as our extreme fatigue, being that we had already at this point in the day walked eleven miles in 90-degree sun, with virtually no shade). As we clawed our way up the far side of the fissure, the packs seemed to be trying to pull us backwards, peel our bodies away from the wall of the chasm, and cast us back down into the bottom of the rock-strewn abyss.
Eventually, we managed to heave ourselves up and over the lip of the chasm on its far side- filthy, exhausted, and crawling in a manner that might call to mind a lethally parched individual, clad in the tattered remnants of old clothing, dragging his nearly-expired body toward a desert oasis.
Once back on terra firma (relatively speaking), the three of us just lay there in the harsh dry grass for a few minutes, resting our muscles and catching our breath.
After that we were done. Done. Yet, we could not stop. All around us were excessive amounts of poison oak, pervasive thorn bushes, and a ceaseless run of unscalable cliffs. And the hostile, uneven rocky ground on either side of the train tracks was at no point wide enough to accommodate any tents, even were we to throw down our packs in protest, declare a moratorium on further forward progress, and prepare to call pretty much anything a campsite for the night, if it would mean calling a halt to this awful death march.
The rancid cherry on top of this shit sundae was the fact that, lined as it was by thick, tall, overgrown shrubbery, the riverward side of the tracks held almost nothing in the way of views- views which, had they existed, might otherwise have served to chip away infinitesimally at our misery, by providing at least a mild distraction. But no.
The darkness began to threaten, and with no safe port on the horizon.
“I always wanted to ride in a helicopter”, a fool was once heard to mutter, mere hours before indeed finding himself able to once and for all check that one off of his bucket-list.
If you can dream it…you can live it. At least that’s what they say.
On May 28 of this year, visitors to Yosemite National Park were treated to a rare and memorable spectacle when, from out of utter obscurity, an aspiring candidate for this year’s Darwin Awards thrust himself squarely into the very heart of the race, a dark horse emergent, and ascendant. And this man wasn’t merely content to just make a name for himself, no indeed. If you follow the evidence, it quickly becomes plainly obvious that this ambitious and determined fellow must have felt the driving need to firmly establish the viability of his candidacy before he would even consider resting from his toils for so much as a fleeting moment. And a personal drive that strong will always find an outlet- you can take that one to the bank. And so it proved with this dude, who, all in a single moment of Darwinistic brilliance, became easily one of this year’s foremost front-runners for the distinctive title.
Bag it, tag it.
So, exactly what did this guy do, anyway? Why, he put himself in a position where it was more than not at all possible to be swept into the frigid waters of Yosemite Creek, midway through their vertical plunge of nearly a vertical half-mile. Now here’s the thing (and this is the point to remember):you just don’t do that with the waterfalls of this park, particularly the one that is held in reverence and awe as the loftiest waterfall on the continent. But that’s just splitting hairs, really. After all, virtually every waterfall in Yosemite is more than capable of flushing an idiot to a profoundly concussive death- at any time of year, really, but particularly in the spring. And even more particularly, in late May, when the icy glacial melt-water rushing down out of the high-country is usually at its peak flow.
The question is, though- Is this what they mean when they say “Dare to dream”?
Look, there are two types of people in this world: those who live long lives and go on to tell stories to their grand-kiddios, and those who willfully and deliberately insert themselves into the raging torrents of Yosemite’s waterfalls during springtime’s peak flow. Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that this story seems to be about a person who very well might just prove to be of both of these types.
Theoretically, anyway. Conceivably, I’ll grant.
But time will tell. After all, nature has a way of maintaining its own equilibrium.
“Rio Celeste” (“The Sky-Blue River” in Spanish) tumbles down out of the northern flanks of the Tenorio Volcano, in Costa Rica’s Parque Nacional Volcán Tenorio. The color of its water is not due to any kind of trick of the light, nor to any sorcery, pollution, spilled blue-raspberry Slush Puppies, or artificially-added food coloring. Here, calcium carbonate, a chemical compound common to mountains the world over, combines with sulfur released by the volcano to turn the waters of the river an implausible shade of turquoise blue.
Rio Celeste Falls, seen here, can be reached via an easy, three-mile round-trip hike from the park’s Visitors Center.
But of course, first you have to get yourself to Costa Rica.
The sky granted us a late morning of sleep, courtesy of a low-lying cloud bank which, conveniently enough, hovered over the area until we were ready for it to dissipate; and as soon as we were ready for sun: *Poof*!! Clear blue skies.
We broke camp with the urgency of soldiers in the field whose foes have all been vanquished.
Milling about for a couple of hours amidst the backdrop of the beach’s towering behemoth of a black stone boulder, and doing random chores here and there, we seemed to sort of just eventually happen upon, rather than actively seek and work towards, readiness to walk. Then we bid adieu to Big Black Rock Beach, climbed the embankment back up to the railway bed above, turned left, and walked.
Day 04 Highlight Reel
We made good tracks for the first part of the day; and this would prove fortuitous later on, when a miles-long dearth of river access points would keep us plodding along on the tracks for three or four miles beyond the point where we were utterly spent and ready to throw down our packs.
Some highlights of the first half of the day:
We passed the halfway point of the trip, mileage-wise; though time-wise we were much further along than that, due to the fact that we were now moving much faster than we’d been in the first few days of the journey. Two reasons for this: 1) various leg and upper-body muscles which had been aching at the beginning of the trip, having been called upon to perform at a high level after long lying dormant in the stasis of winter, were now hitting their proper stride, and 2) as we ate our way through our food supply, our packs were growing lighter with each passing day.
This Road Is Closed
We encountered a few stretches of track that definitively re-set the bar on just how wildly rundown a railroad can become after maintenance has ceased for a number of years. Hollowed-out washouts, gnarled rails, tracks describing wave-motion of nauseating amplitude, as of earthquakes frozen in time- it was all here. We began to perceive quite clearly that any effort to repair and revive the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, the feasibility of which has been discussed many times but has never led to an actual attempt, would almost certainly in the end prove a cost-prohibitive undertaking.
After two long, hot days spent chipping our way through the remotest corner of Trinity County, we finally crossed over into Mendocino County, a trip milestone.
Nobody Cares When Nobody’s There
Near the remains of the mostly-forgettable railroad depot of Ramsey, we passed a large, surprisingly conspicuous marijuana grow-op, situated just ten or fifteen feet off of the tracks. Encircled by a hilariously-flimsy, three-foot-tall, thin-wired rabbit-proof fence, some fifteen or so super-sized planters (more like miniature Turtle Pools than actual horticultural pots) sat there in the open sun, clearly visible from above. What made this particularly notable was the fact that, over the years, Mendocino County has arguably been ground-zero for the aggressive anti-marijuana flyover missions conducted by the multi-agency government task force known by the recreationally-challenged acronym CAMP; so you might well figure that here, more than almost anywhere else, would be a place where folks would go the extra mile to conceal their gardens.
We passed the point of confluence of the Eel River with its North Fork, which enters in from the east, after flowing down from its source far up in the Six Rivers National Forest. From this point south, the eastern shore of the river would describe the western boundary of the Round Valley Indian Reservation, all the way through to Dos Rios, our exit point. Due to its utter inaccessibility, however, we would not see any evidence whatsoever of the presence of mankind on that far shore. The western shore, however, along which we marched, would continue to boast the occasional derelict railroad town.
Partially Collapsed Tunnel
We encountered our first partially-collapsed tunnel of the trip. Midway through this roughly 75-yard-long bore, a portion of ceiling, weakened by the strain of many years without any maintenance, had quit, given way, collapsed, and dumped a 10-foot-high pile of rubble onto the tracks below. This unruly heap of jagged cement, broken rock, and failed wooden support beams filled the tunnel from wall to wall; and due to the steep and rocky cliff-face separating the tunnel from the river, going around was not an option. Thus we were compelled to climb up and over the pile in order to gain passage to the other side.
I went first, picking my way up what was ultimately nothing more than an excessively-angled scree slope. As I hauled my backpack (which itself was equal to a full third of my bodyweight) up the crumbling debris pile, rocks, dirt, and chunks of cement all tumbled and slid underfoot, severely hindering progress and infusing the endeavor with an added measure of peril. Nobody wanted to spend the next few years decomposing in an old abandoned train tunnel. With effort, however, I crested the heap.
Standing on the Ceiling
Standing atop the mound of debris, I noticed that my head was actually higher than the tunnel ceiling, a phenomenon which was only even possible because that portion of the ceiling that should have been above my head was gone, collapsed. This failed ceiling was indeed what I was standing on topof, a realization that gained considerable acuity when viewed from my current vantage point. I whispered down to the others, encouraging them to expedite their passage over the rubble, but also to do it as silently as possible. There was no telling how structurally intact the rest of the tunnel ceiling was; but it seemed wiser to assume it was ready to go at the slightest provocation than to take for granted its ability to continue supporting indefinitely the mountain which lay atop it. For all we could tell, the slightest misplaced sound-wave, minor concussion, or careless footfall could be the pin-prick that brought the whole damn tunnel down on top of us. We made haste, dexterously yet with care, and soon were past the pile of failed ceiling and exiting the tunnel at its far end, relieved to have survived to possibly perish in a catastrophic tunnel collapse some other day.
If The Greenhouse Is Humming, Don’t Bother Coming
It was a day of oppressive heat, the kind that sears right through your shirt and singes the skin underneath. That is, if you’re even wearing a shirt, which I wasn’t. So, just north of Bell Springs, we tried to get down to the river for a cool-down, following an old dirt road that came down from a private ranch house on the hillside above, crossed the tracks, and headed out onto a flat grassy bench where the river took a wide turn. A short distance down the road, however, we came upon a white greenhouse-looking structure, about the size of a one-car garage.
As we drew closer, we could discern the sound of running water, emanating from within the building, and also the sound of some kind of machinery humming from within. We also spotted several lengths of white piping leading in through the side of the building, coming from the direction of the house above. This was all we needed to see or hear to understand that we should get the fuck out of there at once. It’s one thing to have to defend to the locals your reasons for walking a set of abandoned railroad tracks through the lawless hinterlands that they call home; but it’s quite another to have to explain why you have wandered off of the rail bed and are now probing about the immediate vicinity of their back-country grow-house. We retreated back up to the tracks and continued on our way toward Bell Springs.
Collected and pooled at the tunnel entrance, spanning its full width and stretching off into the darkness beyond, was a large puddle of rank brown water several inches deep, covering the nearer railroad ties. I considered just sucking it up and trying to high-step it through the mucky-muck; but an exploratory probe with my foot quickly revealed that the submerged ties were perilously slick; and there was no way I was about to risk slipping and landing like a beetle on my back in that vile soup of soot, rust, and wood-rot. But this meant that we would have to traverse the puddle on the rails themselves, which is tricky enough without a loaded pack.
Conveniently for us, however, we soon discovered that the floor of the tunnel was slanted slightly upward, albeit to an almost imperceptible degree. Yet it was enough of an angle to keep the puddle confined to the lowest-lying part of the floor, which was of course right at the entrance. After a brief balancing act on the narrow steel rails, using our walking sticks for support, we passed beyond the mucky muck onto dry floor, which was immensely preferable. From there, the tunnel walk was non-problematic.
What could have been, but turned out not to be, an issue, was the unexpectedly chilly temperature inside the tunnel, representing an abrupt drop of nearly 50 degrees from the outside temp, a change that took effect over a span of not more than 25 yards. The heat of the almost 100-degree day had failed to penetrate more than a few yards into the tunnel. But far from being a problem, this to us came as a profound relief, a respite from the oven-like roast going on out there in the direct sun. Donning our trusty headlamps, we marched onward through the cold darkness.
The Tunnel Fire of 1978
Midway through the tunnel, scribbled on the wall in gold spray-paint, were the words: “Dec 10, 1979. First train after fire”, a reference to the catastrophic conflagration that ripped through here late in the summer of 1978, collapsing the roof of the tunnel over much of its length, and necessitating a costly rebuild which, until it was completed fifteen months later, halted all traffic on the route.
After only about a half an hour of walking through the darkness of the tunnel, we reached its southern end. There had been no territorial bears, no rogue ungulates, nor any other animals in there. Nor had there been any collapsed sections, crumbled walls, or other debris of any kind. Just steel rails on wooden ties, extending away into the darkness.
Across The River Eel (Slight Return)
Exiting the tunnel was like walking directly into the fiery breath of a dragon. A two-pronged assault of blinding light, in tandem with a blast of blistering hot air, assailed us as we emerged from the darkened portal. The cicadas greeted our return to the light of day in the only way they knew how: by screeching their familiar, tireless refrain- shrill, agonizing, and insatiable, as always.
Immediately south of the tunnel the railway passed onto a high bridge, and for the second and final time in the journey, crossed over the Eel River itself. With a vertical drop of 140 feet from rail bed to whitecaps, this would be the highest bridge crossing we would encounter on the trip. Beneath the bridge, the river was beginning to descend more steeply into that part of the canyon that curves around Island Mountain in a wide oxbow; and so the water seen through the bridge-grating was accelerating through increasingly turbulent rapids. Large protruding rocks pierced the waterline, ringed with necklaces of frothing whitewater.
Can’t Get Here From There
On the far side of the bridge, with the river once again on our left, we came upon the ruins of the Island Mountain Depot. Once, in its mid-20th century salad days, this was a bustling outpost of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad; but now it is little more than a scattered collection of dilapidated structures and long-abandoned rail cars. A decrepit old station house, walled with peeling and fading white-stained clapboard and a corrugated tin roof, leaned in on itself beside the tracks, weak in the knees from the fatigue and weariness of more than a century spent standing erect.
The tracks here fanned out into four or five parallel sidings: the old switching yard. On these various tracks stood an assortment of rusted boxcars, empty center-beam carriers, and flatcars overgrown with grass and weeds. A tiny little yellow structure, a switchman’s signaling hut, rested in the shadow of a satellite dish mounted atop a 15-foot tall transmission tower.
This was all you’d ever have to know there had once existed a busy little railroad depot here. But now, no road leads to this place; and no train rolls through. There is not now, nor has there ever been, any landing strip to allow access from the air. The only way to get here is to either hoof it, as we have done, or arrive by raft from far upriver. Island Mountain Depot is now obsolete, derelict, and largely forgotten.
Big Black Rock Beach
Just past the ruins of the old depot, we stopped and set up camp for the night on a long, sandy beach, in the shade of a colossal hunk of million-year-old black lignite, the beach’s signature feature. No doubt very few eyes in modern times had beheld these soft sands, or the leaping whitecaps which danced by in the river, on the crests of circling waves.
The shade proved irresistible. We spent a good long while just laying against our packs, doing nothing, profoundly relieved to be out of the sun and done walking for awhile. We’d come eight miles today, more than enough to keep us on pace with the loosely-established time-frame we had set for ourselves at the outset of the journey.
For the rest of the afternoon, we swam in the river, collected loose driftwood for the evening’s fire, and played a cut-throat round of home-run derby, using the giant black boulder as an improvised quasi-Green Monster of sorts. As darkness fell, we made dinner, broke out the bourbon, and dug ourselves some made-to-order custom-seating in the deep sand.
Later that night, laying in my tent with the rain-fly wide open, I tried to imagine how our little campsite might appear, viewed from across the river. I pictured a trio of tents, dwarfed by an immense, towering boulder of sedimentary rock, planted in the soft sand amidst the flickering of a dwindling campfire which, reflecting off of the rock’s base and radiating its light outward, illuminated a small section of the beach with warm orange light. I fell asleep listening to the river, and feeling the force of its momentum and power, conducted through the sand underneath my bedroll.