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Much of the wealth that flowed into Melbourne and made its stately Victorian architecture possible was generated from a gold rush that began in 1851. News spread quickly around the world. Thousands of eager immigrants mounted the gangplanks of ships bound for the promised land. Mt. Alexander Road, a nugget’s throw from here, was the yellow brick road that led to the diggings of Bendigo and Ballarat.

The city emptied. A third of the inhabitants left for the diggings. Prospectors would set out along Elizabeth Street on a seven-day trek, stopping for the night at a swamp forming a chain of ponds, now Queen’s Park in Moonee Ponds. The miners turned it into a tent city, with blazing campfires, horses and bullocks. There the men would swap stories and, with luck, get some sense of what their adventure into Australia might bring them.

The settlement doubled in size in a year. By the time the rush was over, one hundred million British pounds worth of gold had been wrestled from the earth and shipped off to Europe. The fortunes that remained rested in the hands of merchants and businessmen. By 1861, barely twenty-five years after its founding, Melbourne was on its way to becoming a thriving city of 125,000 immigrants.

On Easter Sunday, we set off in search of gold of a different sort– the premier rails-to-trails bike path in Victoria. It is called Murray to the Mountains, a nice bit of alliteration but a bit misleading. The trail actually begins in the town of Wangaratta and ends in the town of Bright, at the base of the region called the Australian alps. The trail is paved, pastoral, and, with one singular exception, fairly flat.

The exception is a short section that mounts from the modest community of Everton to the historic town of Beechworth.

Gold was discovered in Beechworth in February, 1852. By November, it is thought there were 8000 miners camped in the area. Through the use of hydraulic sluicing and other environmentally degrading methods, approximately two billion dollars worth of gold (in current valuation) were extricated from the region during the next fourteen years.

What remains seems like a ghost town. Honey-colored granite buildings haunt the streets and beckon busloads of tourists.  Now, there are far more banks, churches, grand houses, hospitals, and other civic structures than necessary to handle the needs of the  busy little tourist mecca Beechworth has become.

Although the ride from Everton to Beechworth is only fifteen kilometres, it is almost entirely uphill. I could easily imagine the train that had threaded its way up through the wooded hills. What I had to visualize was me and my wife, astride our tandem recumbent bike, doing the same thing. “I think I can, I think I can.” We huffed and we puffed. Slowly moving the wheeled beast up the paved path.

The leaves were turning, the weather was wonderful, crisp and clear. We were alone in the woods, enjoying the muscles of our legs, hearts and lungs. And now, at last, we could see the old Beechworth train station, freshly painted. We would ride into town, stretch out our legs at a cafe, soak up the sun like cats with cappuccinos. Then, when the time was right, we would turn our backs on the past, on the gold and the ghosts, and sail back down to the valley below.

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