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Rails To Trails Biking

The
iron rails are long gone, but there still is something Twilight
Zone about it.

There I was, pedaling the
mountain bike out of the old railroad tunnel, when I heard the
blow from a train’s horn.

Even though I only spend about
an hour a year on a bicycle seat, I know it is impossible to get
run over by a locomotive that doesn’t have tracks. So the horn
didn’t produce a blood-curdling effect. Just one that was slightly
ironic. And roughly a mile away.

To begin this trek, our group,
an assortment of males from the area ranging from the very young
to middle-aged, met on a Saturday morning at the Cumberland Cycles
bike shop in Somerset.

There were T.J. Kincaid, who
at age 6 was the youngest, brothers Tim and Drew Irvin, ages 13
and 12, insurance agent John Harmon, 49, attorney Bruce Orwin, 42,
and three skilled buds in their late 20s, Chad Bennett, Alex
Godsey, and Mike Murphy, who, as I would find out en route, didn’t
bother breaking a sweat on this kind of outing.

Oh, and Harmon’s two
enthusiastic dogs, Gidget and Triscuit.

We drove a short way and
bypassed the easy-riding 1.5-mile Cathy Crockett Memorial Trail,
the local Kentucky Rails to Trails project that opened last summer
just south of Burnside.

Instead, we had a look at the
Crockett’s yet-to-be-developed six-mile extension, which straddles
Pulaski and McCreary counties.

It doesn’t take long to learn
what yet-to-be-developed means. Unlike the initial Crockett path,
this route is full of r-words. Think rough. Add rocks, ruts, and
roots.

The path goes through the
Daniel Boone National Forest, at a grade that makes such paths
especially attractive to amateurs. Owing to the requirements of
high-tonnage trains, the slopes were slow and gradual. At about
1,000 feet elevation, the foliage is full and green-not counting
the southern beetle-plagued pines-and the sky looks a clean, deep
blue.

But it is the tunnels I came
to see. There are three of them, over 100 years old, and we would
be riding straight through them. One, they say, is over 900 feet
long, as black as Mammoth Cave. (It was. Daylight got us in and
flashlights showed us out.)

Here in the woods, they appear
out of nowhere, jumping out like Mayan temples in the South
American jungle. Suddenly, here was a black opening, framed by a
massive stone portico. Cuts on either side of its arch that read
"No. 7" and "1892."

Our youngest rider, T.J.
Kincaid, asks a question.

"John, what sound do you
make for the choo-choo train?"

John Harmon replied, startling
me.

"Whoo-whoo!"

The sound enters the cool air
of the tunnel and echoes, soon losing itself somewhere along the
tube’s 300 or so feet.

T.J. repeats it so he can hear
his own reverb. We ride in.

Although all three tunnels are
said to be structurally sound, it is obvious a lot of work is
ahead.

It had rained the day before
and, like the other two tunnels, water was standing here and
there, particularly at the entrances. Water, in combination with
the soil-and-cinder subsurface of the rail bed, dares my hiking
boots not to slip, and won the dare. Most of the bricks that line
the upper walls and ceiling are still in place, but we ride and
walk around hundreds more that had fallen. Critters inside? None
other than a few bats John spots.

After the trip-which, by the
way, I came close to tying T.J. for finishing in last place-Bruce
Orwin drove me around to show me the "trailhead," the
beginning of the completed Crockett Trail that we chose not to
take. It looks like the kind of ride I had in mind before I got to
town. Smooth. Level. Wide.

Orwin, who performs legal work
for the Lincoln Trail Heritage Foundation, which oversees this
project, looks it over and pronounces this section as
"boring." But then, Orwin had already described himself
as being interested in more challenging mountain pathways.

As it happens, a second
opinion is approaching from down the way.

A man from Burnside,
66-year-old Bob Shackelford, is walking the trail with his
daughter, with his granddaughter driving alongside in a
battery-operated toy car.

Coming to the end, Shackelford
stops and says hello with a wide grin on his face. Then he
explains his interest in the path. He had heart surgery three
years ago. Now that the Crockett is open, he praises the path as
"great" for supplying him with the exercise he needs.

His breaths are steady but not
labored.

"You don’t have to worry
about dogs or cars or nothing," he says.

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