A few summers ago, my wife Cindy and I drove up to Lookout Pass on the Montana/Idaho border off I-90. We rented bicycles and then drove over to the Trail of the Hiawathas, a railroad-converted-to-bicycle path. There, we strapped on our helmets and began another memorable white-knuckle ride.
“White knuckle?” Yes, because even though the fifteen-mile route is largely downhill, it begins in a dark tunnel. You begin the ride in Idaho, at the mouth of Taft Tunnel. It's a 1.7 mile ride that eventually exits in Montana. But, your pathetically weak headlight can only illuminate a few feet ahead. It’s a long, dark, journey, punctuated by sounds of water running from the ceiling into the drain troughs on either side. You call out to your eagle-eyed wife up ahead, “slow down,” only to hear her respond, “WHAT?”
Once in the middle of the tunnel, you literally can’t see either end. So, you just keep pumping while yelling, “slow down!” Mercifully, a flash of light eventually appears ahead. You let out a sigh of relief as you re-enter a world of light.
The Route of the Hiawathas is a spectacular one through the Bitterroot Mountains — also known as God’s Country. Despite the beauty, harrowing times are still ahead as you cycle across several trestles, hundreds of feet above ravines.
Every so often there are signs depicting facts about nature, the railroad and the area’s history. You learn that it might be God’s country now, but a century ago this forest resembled Dante’s Inferno. In 1910, the largest forest fire in American history took place here, and heroic stories of rescue abound.
As Cindy and I passed through one of the smaller tunnels, we stopped at a grave by the side of the trail. It was labeled “a Gandy Dancer’s grave.” A gandy was a tool railroad workers used to set track rails. A “gandy dancer” was slang for a railroad builder. Many, if not most, of these gandy dancers were immigrants who spoke little English.
During the height of the fire, a rescue train picked up scores of immigrant rail workers, completely cut off from safety. The surrounding hills were already engulfed in flames and, in this case, a trestle up ahead was on fire. Panicking in the fire's intense heat and fearful that the trestle wouldn’t hold, one of the gandy dancers jumped off the train before anyone could stop him! But the engineer opened up the throttle, everyone laid down on the cars, and the train sped across the trestle to the safety of a tunnel ahead. There, the workers waited out the fire.
After the fire, a sad group of workers went back and found the body of their friend. They buried him beside the track. An unknown gandy dancer’s grave — "Except to God,” I thought.
Jesus told His beloved followers that only those who “endure to the end” would make it home. In other words, stay on the train, even though the heat might get unbearable, and you’re not confident the bridges ahead will hold you.
"When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you” (Isa. 43:2).
Can you feel the heat building in this world? Just don’t jump off the train.