Goin’ in THE Missoula Tunnel

By BRIAN MARSH

Missoula is a weird and wonderful, special and soulful place.

heck, the word ‘soul’ is right at the heart of its name.

and its unique ‘soul’ is manifest in many surprising and singular ways.

i’ve written before about the ONE escalator in town.

well, there is another common structure of which there is only one to be found in the entire, blessed ‘Zoo.

a TUNNEL.

The Orange Street bridge tunnel.

it’s on Orange Street. and technically, it’s a bridge that goes over the street. but because the bridge contains both train tracks and North First Street, it makes for a much wider overpass than a typical bridge.

hence, the underpass is literally a small tunnel.

the first time my son, Ian, rode through the tunnel, we were being driven into town by new friends on our first visit to Missoula. and as we exited the 90 and turned right onto Orange, our friend, Mike, saw that Ian’s excitement was mounting as we approached the tunnel. so when we entered it, Mike started honking the horn repeatedly, like the Griz has just won the ‘Brawl of the Wild‘. and Ian went nuts, bouncing up and down, giving his typical ‘cheer’ (clenched fists and a big smile), and giggling up a storm.

Pass the Wensleydale, Grommit!

as is usual for Ian, a transitory experience became a transcendent moment.

and now, EVERY single time we drive through the tunnel, the expectation is that whoever is driving will, in Ian’s words, ‘HONK, HONK-HONK!’ their way through, with bounces, smiles, cheers and giggles along the way.

not exactly the same kind of experience i had when traveling through another well-known tunnel in the area.

the Hiawatha Trail is a spectacularly scenic former railroad route that has been transformed into one of the most unique and amazing bike trails in the country. Roughly 15 miles in length, it traverses through 8 tunnels and over 7 high trestles, winding its way over the Montana-Idaho border about 4,000 feet up in the majestic Bitterroot Mountains. the setting is breathtaking, and the experience of riding it is exhilarating.

Riding the Route of the Hiawatha bike trail in Idaho.

the first tunnel on the Trail, however, takes your breath away in a wholly other way.

One of the tunnels on the Route of the Hiawatha bike trail.

at first glance, it looks like the opening to a typical tunnel. but when you look to the side of the entrance, you see a sign with information that is daunting to say the least.

One of the tunnels on the Route of the Hiawatha bike trail.

©2012, Jerome A. Pollos,CDAPress.com

yes, you read that right. 8.771 feet. roughly 1.66 miles.

and about 1.5 of those miles are traveled in COMPLETE DARKNESS.

as in not being able to see your own hand in front of your face. or your own nose ON your own face.

obviously, some kind of bike and helmet lighting is required to traverse such a terrifying tunnel.

the first time i ventured into this astonishing abyss, i was with my younger son, Trevor, and a pack of Cub Scouts and their parents. T and i were not high-level cycling enthusiasts with high-tech equipment. we borrowed a couple of small but potent lights to attach to our helmets, and duct-taped high-candle-power flashlights to our handlebars. we figured that should give us enough light to find our way forward through the bewildering blackness.

one-tenth of a mile in, we realized how wrong we could be.

our lights only helped us to more clearly see the pitch darkness that surrounded us. they were as useless to us as a screen door on a submarine. or voice lessons for Bob Dylan. or common sense and decency in a political campaign.

our eyes kept trying to adjust, but it’s impossible to do so when your view basically looks like this:

The view from inside one of the tunnels on the Route of the Hiawatha bike trail.

with our fears and pulses rising, and our eyes basically out of commission, we started calling out for direction.

then clarity.

then ‘mommy!’

(the dads started this, not the kids.)

our panicked voices bouncing off the invisible walls in a growing cacophony of chaos. minutes felt like millennia.

until…a tiny little pinprick of something resembling light appeared in what we imagined was the distance.

The view from inside one of the tunnels on the Route of the Hiawatha bike trail.

as it came closer, a voice accompanied it.

another rider, heading in the opposite direction.

a small, but very significant sign of hope.

and then a light around us started to emerge. other riders came alongside us, total strangers who instantly became fellow sojourners, talking to us and helping us to move further along the pathway, deeper into the darkness.

the darkness that, thanks to them, wasn’t quite so dark now.

and then a slightly brighter light came into view. and as we pedaled on, we began to identify its shape.

the literal (and proverbial) LIGHT at the end of the tunnel.

and our energy exploded out into our limbs and lungs as we wound our wheels to lightning speed and hooted and hollered and whooped it up like good ol’ Hiawatha, rumbling through the tunnel out into the dazzling daylight.

 

The view from inside one of the tunnels on the Route of the Hiawatha bike trail.

©2012, Jerome A. Pollos,CDAPress.com

we jumped off our bikes and flung our arms around each other in ecstatic embraces, slapping high fives of triumph and breathing huge sighs of relief.

and then, we looked back at the terrifying tunnel through which we had traveled, and in which we had, in some small but significant way, been transformed.

not by diverting from the darkness, but by diving into it.

not by allowing anxiety to render us as helpless, but by accepting adversity to re-create us as hopeful.

not by resigning ourselves to immobilization and isolation, but by aligning ourselves in imagination and integration, and finding illumination and inspiration along the way.

it’s called the ‘St. Paul Tunnel’, which is fitting given the ‘great awakening’ that occurred within it (at least for me).

i guess you never truly know what you might discover (or what might discover you) in a long, dark tunnel.

(Lil’ T-Bone looking back on the ‘tunnel of transformation’)

Emerging from the tunnel.

the ONE tunnel in Missoula is not forebodingly fearful.

it has compellingly beautiful artwork on the outside of each entrance.

it is about 1.55 miles shorter than the ‘St. Paul’.

not exactly significant enough to have an ‘epiphany’ or ‘awakening’ within.

and yet, each time i rumble through it, whether by myself or in a crowded vehicle, i hear the echo of voices calling out in the dark silence to the great Silence, blending with giggles of grace and glory, reverberating with each other and creating a new ‘music’ to dance to in the dark, a new ‘rhythm’ to move us towards the Light.

and i’m reminded, especially in those times when a minute feels like a millennium, that the only way to discover and delight in the Light at the end of the tunnel is to go THROUGH the darkness within the tunnel.

Ian has a certain way with expressive language. maybe it’s because he didn’t start talking until he was about 8 1/2 years old. but when he is talking about something that is especially meaningful or enjoyable to him, he will elongate certain parts of certain words, almost in a sing-song kind of way, like he is squeezing every bit of joy and meaning out of each syllable.

when we are approaching anything resembling a tunnel, on Orange Street or the Hiawatha Trail, on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco or the Holland Tunnel in New York, Ian will always prepare himself for the experience by announcing, ‘We’re GOIIIIINNNNNN IIIIIINNNNNN the TUNNEL!’

and when he does that, i say it along with him.

and i squeeze every last ounce of joy and meaning out of each syllable, like living words from sacred texts.

and i savour those magical minutes, hoping they’ll last for millennia.

the transitory experiences that are transcendent and transformational moments.

A panoramic look at the Orange Street Bridge Tunnel in Missoula.

Our local ‘tunnel of transformation’

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To see more of Brian’s writing, check out the Brian Marsh main page here at Make it Missoula. And for even more, check out his personal blog, Apocalypso Now.

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i’m a wanderer and a wonderer. a pastor who isn’t sure he’d attend church if he wasn’t pastoring one (and currently, i’m not), living with my unique and special family (my wife, Kirsten, and sons, Ian and Trevor) in a unique and beautiful place (Missoula, Montana). restless and lazy, usually amazed, always in process, i’m continually surprised and usually delighted at discovering the extraordinary in the ordinary, the ‘sacred’ in the ‘secular’, the shafts of light that sneak into the shrouds of darkness. i drum decently, surf poorly, love multicultural food, music, and community, and living in the‘Zoo.