The coyote was scurrying along a farm road in the rolling Palouse country of southeastern Washington when Dick Smart, my guide and mentor, spotted him. I might have seen him first, but at the moment of the sighting, I was 60 feet above the road attempting to pedal a Rube Goldberg invention of Smart's—the railcycle—across a trestle that was not equipped with guardrails. I gingerly braked to a stop, just in time to see the coyote disappear, and then, feeling a puff of wind at my back, I lurched forward toward the far side of the trestle. It was my first such crossing—not to mention my first coyote; when I completed it, I felt a certain wobbly pride.
Smart smiled. "Some of my guests aren't ashamed to get off the cycle and walk across," he said as he pedaled his contraption down a less frightening stretch of track.
Smart is a 36-year-old dentist who lives in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. He's also a regional historian, railroad buff and outdoorsman, and what he has done is pretty much reinvent the wheel. The railcycle, which is his name for a bicycle modified for travel on railroad tracks, brings together the best of two worlds. It offers speed to the ardent backpacker and easy access to the wilderness for the avid cyclist—if they can forget their fear of high places and get the hang of riding Smart's machine.
While much of the estimated 350,000 miles of railroad track in the U.S. offers an unobstructed view of the bowels of Manhattan, the old Chicago stockyards and other such urban delights, some lines pass through areas of unusual beauty. Within a 75-mile radius of Smart's home, for example, are the golden prairies of western Washington, the aforementioned Palouse and the silver-rich Bitter-root mountain range, which rests on the border between Idaho and Montana. All are crisscrossed by a network of railroads, much of it seldom or never used these days, laid nearly a century ago by the three companies—the Great Northern, the Northern Pacific and The Milwaukee Road—that once engaged in furious competition for the lucrative route between Chicago and Seattle, and all are accessible, on a moment's notice, to Smart and his unusual cycle.
There are only two Smart railcycles in existence. He drives the five-speed and his guest uses the three-speed. He has just been granted a patent on his brainchild.
Each railcycle began life as a Schwinn Spitfire, a standard heavy-duty bicycle. Extending downward from the front axle is an assembly consisting of two travel wheels and four guide wheels. The travel wheels, cast-molded urethane jobs cannibalized from a skateboard, ride on top of the rail directly in front of the Spitfire's front wheel, and they are flanked by the guides—rubber wheels six inches in diameter—that extend down the sides of the rail five-eighths of an inch. A similar assembly, made up of one travel wheel and two guide wheels, is directly behind the Spitfire's rear wheel. A railcycle rides the left rail. Extending from the rear axle, roughly parallel to the ground, is an outrigger that stretches to the right rail. At the end of the outrigger is a rubber roller that rides on the far or right rail.
A railcycle has other features rarely seen on a bicycle. A compact but extensive tool kit offers instant aid in case of a mishap. There are head-and taillights, powered by a generator that draws its energy from the rear wheel, and a flashlight up front to give added illumination while transiting train tunnels. A safety brake can be used to prevent a stopped railbike from rolling downhill. For long trips, a small piece of nylon webbing stretched between the outrigger and a support strut allows a rider to bring along a loaded frame pack and other camping essentials. These add-ons (not including the frame pack) bring the total weight of a railcycle to 85 pounds, about 40 pounds more than the original Schwinn.
Riding a railcycle is a tricky proposition. A rail can be from two to 3� inches wide, and all that keeps a moving railcycle upright on it are those six guide wheels, whose five-eighths-inch overhang is all the fat joiners that hold the rail together every 20 feet or so will permit. Smart warned me that a railcycle was perhaps 25% more difficult to ride than a street bike, and he wasn't kidding.
My maiden voyage, which took place the day before the Great Trestle Crossing, was a 16-mile jaunt through the Bitterroots. We put on northwest of Saltese, Mont, and continued uphill to Lookout Pass, near the Montana-Idaho border, where we turned around.
Boarding a railcycle is a bit like mounting a horse. A section of rail can tower six inches above the ties, and the ties themselves are six inches high. Thus, where there is little or no ballast in the roadbed, you can find yourself sitting about a foot higher in the air than you would if the bike were on solid ground.