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Riding the Rails : A Fledgling Sport Offers a New Way to See California's Backcountry

November 30, 1986|TOM DURKIN | Tom Durkin is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Paul Brown glided swiftly over the desert floor, smooth and silent as a mirage. He moved so quickly and quietly, in fact, that he surprised a pack of wild dogs and half-breed coyotes, whose usually keen senses had not alerted them until he was right on top of them. The startled pack yelped and bolted-- leaving behind a skinny, whimpering, 5-week-old female puppy. Brown, familiar with desert ways, knew that the adult dogs would not return. So he scooped up the pup and continued on. By day's end, he would barely have broken a sweat to cover 50 miles and almost a mile in elevation.

Brown would spend his weekend camping in the Southern California badlands east of San Diego, a remote desert landscape first traveled by 18th-Century explorers and later a haven for bandits and smugglers. Then, the weekend over, Brown glided the 50 miles back to his van and the trip home.

Today, the puppy, Bubba, is a frisky 1 1/2-year-old, tan and white like the desert rocks where she was born, with a bushy tail betraying her coyote genes. And like Paul Brown, Bubba is a full-fledged railbiker.

Railbiking is a sport so new that it is almost unknown outside a tiny fraternity of devotees. As the name implies, a railbike is a bicycle that can be ridden on railroad tracks. It was invented to take advantage of the hundreds of miles of old, abandoned tracks that wend through some of the country's most beautiful and remote scenery.

Brown stumbled onto railbiking when he was thumbing through a railroad magazine and came across a sketch of some railbike prototypes being tried by a few experimenters in New Hampshire. Thinking that a railbike would be a better way to get to hiking and camping sites, he sketched his own prototype and sent away for the wheels offered by an Eastern manufacturer. The wheels turned out to be fat polyurethane rollers--like the ones on skateboards but bigger--with flanged edges to keep them on the rails.

Brown fabricated a frame that he bolted over his bike's front wheel, and a tubular outrigger with a wheel at the end that rolls on the other track. The bike's regular rubber tires ride on one rail. The wheels costs about $40 each. The tubing--mostly scrap metal--cost another few bucks. The heart of a railbike can be any old two-wheeler. Gears are optional: A railbike will do 15 to 20 m.p.h. on level track and can even be fitted with a half-horsepower engine (though even the steepest railroad grades can be negotiated with pedal power).

"There's nothing like it," says Brown, 34, a driver for the San Diego library system, "especially at the end of the day, coming west out of the desert, those two rails stretching out there forever like orange ribbons."

On a recent morning, Brown and fellow railbiker Frank Mitchell got up before dawn and drove east 60 miles to an area known as High Point, near the Corrizo Gorge. The railroad tracks at High Point are part of the old San Diego & Arizona Eastern line. From there the rails snake through the desert, swerve next to the Mexican border, then wind into the hills.

Their route this morning would take them up a slight grade through bouldered ground reminiscent more of the Rockies than of the desert. "Desert" in this part of the country is something of a misnomer. Forget sand and sagebrush. The country is covered with vegetation: scrub trees and bushes in hypnotically changing shades of blue and green. Where the desert flattens out, eerie rock formations remain--twisted, wind-blasted shapes that seem to defy gravity. Indians thought the area magical. Farther along, in the Jacumba Mountains, lie old mining and rail camps. That is the badlands country, where fugitives hid from soldiers and posses. Tunnels are here, too, some almost a mile long, as dark as the center of the earth, where a rider loses sense of time and motion, and the little hairs on the neck prickle. Outside the tunnels are wooden trestles, looking as delicate as spider webs, yet strong enough to support locomotives.

A railbiking route is not without its hazards. A small rock on the track can throw rig and rider, and it's happened to Mitchell and Brown, though they've never been hurt or stranded. More common are flat tires. Cactus, for some reason, thrives next to the iron rails, and the spines are wicked. Prudent railbikers carry repair kits.

The sport is so new that bicycle shops don't carry the equipment. The special wheels have to be ordered from New Hampshire. And, as Mitchell and Brown point out, many of the abandoned spurs are on private property, so getting permission from owners is advisable.

Railbikers usually provoke a double take on the part of the occasional hiker they meet, and then a smile. But not always. There was "an old desert hermit we called the Goat Lady," Brown recalls. "When we rode by, we scared her herd of goats. So she took a couple of potshots at us. We got the hell out of there. We set a railbiking speed record that may never be broken."

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