Believed to be the first of its kind in this country, the Elroy-Sparta State Trail is a nearly 33-mile stretch of converted railway across a portion of western Wisconsin. Constructed atop the abandoned Chicago and Northwest Railway railroad bed, the crushed limestone path today creates a smooth roadway for bicyclists and hikers alike.
For the more adventurous cyclist, this rails-to-trails segment in Badger country can be linked to a bike route spanning the entire state.
It was during a four-day stretch of summer in the early 70’s that my father, uncle, brother, good friend, and I, took up the challenge. Together we boarded an Amtrak train out of Chicago, with bicycles and a handful of clothes in tow, bound for the city of La Crosse, Wisconsin.
On day one, and about sixty miles into our trek, we encountered the diversion of Elroy-Sparta. Primarily pavement pedal-pushers, we adjusted quickly to the variant terrain of the old-railway-bed-turned-bike-path.
In short order, we came upon a most unprecedented obstacle. Looming ahead and carved high overhead and into solid bedrock, was the entrance to, what we would soon discover, the first of three imposing and massive tunnels. As it turns out, the first two were approximately one-quarter-mile in length, but the third spanned three times that distance.
Needless to say, the monumental obstruction brought our journey to an immediate halt. Collectively, we dismounted and reassessed how to navigate this new “rite of passage.” Seemingly straight as an arrow and only marginally narrow, we peered into the vastness barely noticing what looked like a tiny speck of light that seemed no larger than the head of a pin.
With some measure of fear and trepidation, after some consultation, the five of us took our initial steps into this cavernously dark realm. It was late afternoon, as I recall, yet the intensity of the darkness became readily apparent as we were literally unable to see our hands in front of our faces, let alone each other.
This perilous hike demanded, however, a united front as we proceeded forward in some measure of synchronicity. Ominously, as we walked, we heard but couldn’t see the steady drips of water seeping through the carved walls that stood tall on either side.
We made casual, yet calculated, conversation. Our steps were measured. These served to aid us in keeping physical distance and helped avoid any regrettable “crash-while-walking-a-bike.”
Though faint and far away, our eyes were trained upon the minuscule light ahead. Intent upon positioning ourselves somewhere in the “middle of the road” and on course, we plodded along, hoping the speck would become the size of a golf ball, then maybe a volleyball and finally large enough to walk through safe and sound.
Similar in some ways but still unique, each tunnel provided specific challenges. The lengthy final tunnel seemed to almost go on forever. Step-by-step, a qualified confidence and hope seemed to surface within each of us.
Having almost grown accustomed to the surrounding darkness, we nevertheless longed for evidence of increased light to expand on our horizon.
A measure of light at the end of the tunnel, whatever the size, has the often unheralded capacity to act as our consoling guide, to inspire boundless perseverance, and ultimately give us a genuine and realized hope.
In time, for the five of us, we were “back in the saddle” and “on the road again.” The combined experiences of tunnels, darkness, and most importantly, light, were firmly etched in our memory. They were our cross country trek’s most defining moments.
Overshadowed by a pandemic these past fifteen months, some of the darkness has been so thick we can be almost “cut with a knife.” Our tunnel was hardly ready-made. Rather, we often burrowed our way through vast unknowns. The course was anything but straight and the peril cast a wide and devastating berth with too many lives lost and journeys derailed.
Wanting even a glimpse of light to give hope, we strained forward individually and collectively, engrossed in conversation, and sometimes heated debate, and trying our best to safely keep our distance. Without a doubt we “ran into one another” on countless occasions. Sometimes accidentally, and at others, what appeared intentionally.
Having nearly emerged from this oppressive and pervasive darkness, unified by a singular, if somewhat illusive light, we hope for our paths to burn brighter day-by-day as we venture back on the road.
This diverting pandemic tunnel we’ve traversed has created memories, shaped and molded, and, with some inevitable end, will place us on our way together again.
My favorite street sign in life and while biking, pre- and post-pandemic, is simply this: “Share the Road!” There is finally a light at the end of the tunnel, my friends!
By Ken Pollitz
Ken Pollitz moved to Ottawa in 1991 as mission-developer/pastor of New Creation Lutheran Church. His biweekly column provides insights and viewpoints from Putnam County. Contact him at email@example.com