A kind snow tunnel – not too long, plenty of light, and just enough shoulder.
There is something about tunnels, sometimes dark and scary, sometimes magical and transformative.
When I was very young, my family drove around in a Volkswagen Beetle. I remember enjoying the magic of the immediate darkness of tunnels. The dark would be simultaneously met with the crackle of static on the radio as we lost reception. Then the heartbeat of yellow lights would blink into the windows from the dim tunnel lighting providing a rhythm to accompany the radio static. With a jolt from this world, the Beetle would be blasted back into the light and back into normal. It was fascinating to my young imagination.
Some welcome! Eighteen meters tall (almost 60 feet), the demon of Noboribetsu would be the perfect host to some of the tunnels we traversed.
Fast forward to our current bike trek in Hokkaido. Our ride has brought a whole new stream of consciousness to the tunnel. In recent years, hadn’t given much thought to these marvels of modern engineering, the exception being the time I drove our pickup while towing our fishing vessel Gillie through the unnervingly narrow tunnel that leads to the town of Whittier, Alaska. Steering wheel gripped tightly in my hands, I could feel the boat trailer sashaying back and forth on the slick railroad tracks that transversed the abyss. But that is another story.
The first “real” tunnel seemed long, but at just over a mile, it turned out to be merely average.
Our introduction to the tunnel by bicycle happened the very first day of our Hokkaido trek. It was a kind introduction as the tunnel was of the type designed to keep the heavy winter snowfalls off the road. Wrapped tight to a mountain pass, the tunnel’s outside wall featured a series of openings where sunlight poured in, giving the space a comfortable, open feeling. Moreover, there was a large enough shoulder to ensure safe passage even for our somewhat Rubinesque, trailer-towing bikes. Though several hundred meters in length, this first light-filled tunnel with its wide sidewalk was a breeze.
Our first “real” tunnel – dank, dark, cold, long and narrow – came later. We hugged the shoulder, our safety lights blinking, pedaling as fast as possible, worried that approaching vehicles wouldn’t see us in time. The amplified roar of oncoming traffic echoed and mixed with the odor of mold, grease, diesel and exhaust fumes and in that dark tube we experienced the paradox of simultaneously feeling that we we traveling very fast while making little progress. Jack found the energy in his legs to pull ahead, even while pulling the trailer. My nerves must have been apparent as a kind driver slowed behind me and escorted me to daylight.
At this point, I can’t believe how many tunnels we’ve gone through. The best tunnels have been the snow tunnels. They rank high because of the natural light and their relative brevity. On rare occasions, we’ve traveled through tunnels with a sidewalk separated by a safety railing. But even these tunnels can’t muffle the brain-rattling sounds of roaring trucks and screaming motorcycles, and there’s always the sense that you’ve got to concentrate on maintaining an unerringly straight course lest you pin yourself to some protrusion jutting out from the soot-stained tunnel wall.
One day, we had a relatively short ride from Yoichi to Otaru along Hokkaido’s southwest coast. The map showed tunnels…lots of tunnels…between the two towns and in fact the ride felt almost like a constant tunnel as even when we weren’t physically inside a tube we were psychologically preparing for one. This day featured our worst tunnel experience.
As usual, we were swallowed into the tunnel in question just as we had been swallowed into the semi-darkness and wet chill of previous tunnels. We rode on a sidewalk, which was just wide enough to handle our bike’s girth with panniers and the trailer. But perhaps a kilometer into the dimness and utterly without warning, the sidewalk shrunk to half its size. The next thing I knew, Jack’s front panniers hit the railings and he screeched to a stop. Escaping with a bloodied knuckle and a mouthful of expletives, we survived the tunnel by crowding into the flanks of our bikes and walking the remainder of the way, our shins absorbing a few pedal bites in the process, the experience bringing fresh gratitude for the light at the end of the tunnel!
After a wonderful two-days in the city of Otaru, we steeled our nerves for the ride up the coast. The ride would be beautiful. But there would be tunnels. Lots and some really long ones. Rattled from the most recent tunnel experience, at the first one we encountered we opted to push our bikes through on the very narrow sidewalk. Just wide enough to accommodate our bikes in this fashion, the sidewalk seemed to have been installed for maintenance workers rather than pedestrians. Our plan was for me to follow Jack closely and shout a warning if the outside trailer wheel got too close to the edge of the walk. Using this strategy was maybe safer, but it seemed like it took forever.
As we traveled up the coast, traffic grew lighter. We couldn’t stomach another long walk through another dark and deafening tunnel and the one we were now facing was truly a beast – two nearly adjoining tunnels spanning almost four miles. It was time to shore up our confidence and place some faith our fellow drivers. We strapped on headlamps and, as I was in the rear position, I added a couple of blinking lights to my rig and off we went.
Translation? Tunnel after tunnel after tunnel after tunnel!”
At some point, I had adopted a strategy of singing in the tunnels in order to drown out the deafening noises and to distract myself from my own nerves. I didn’t just sing. I sang at the top of my lungs. This turned out to work pretty well – once Jack didn’t take my singing noises as anguished cries for help. And so for most of four miles I belted out any song that came to mind.
Time to take in some sunshine, enjoy lunch, and scan for birds.
Once we had finally put the beast behind us, we pulled off the road for a rest and a celebratory lunch. Apparently you can burn some serious calories pedaling like a dervish while simultaneously singing at the top of your lungs!
Tinged with the unknown and eliciting perhaps mixed emotions of safety and danger, tunnels remain fascinating to me. For a little while, they take you out of the world in which you’ve been residing, close in around you, carry you along in a way that demands a kind of trust… and then deliver you to some newly lighted world on the other side.
A happy bear eating salmon at one end and light at the other. A perfect tunnel.