In late July, I biked a 20-mile loop of the Elroy-Sparta Touring Trail in Wisconsin with my husband and another couple. Our destination for our first visit was the legendary three-quarter-mile tunnel.
The Elroy-Sparta Trail was the first railroad bed in the nation to be converted from rails to trails. The 34-mile hiking and biking trail passes through small towns, farm valleys and three railroad tunnels on its straight path.
After zigzagging through Sparta, we arrived at the crowded trailhead parking lot in late afternoon. As we biked onto the limestone trail bed, a steady stream of riders passed on the left. Most smiled and greeted us, a clear sign that taking this trail is as much a social ritual as a form of exercise.
We pedaled through an intersection, over a wooden bridge, past a herd of cows in a mud hole before stopping for a swig of water at a bench in deep woods. The scream of a siren startled us as an ambulance zipped by on the adjacent road.
At the sixth mile marker, my knees ached. Maybe that 3 percent uphill grade did make a difference. I drained my water bottle. The crowd diminished to an occasional rider. A cottontail skittered across the wooden bridge ahead.
When we reached a mowed clearing on the right, I was amazed to find a redwood picnic table and an RC pop machine. I dug out two quarters and popped them in.
Refreshed, we rode through a cathedral of leaves to the massive rust-brown doors of the tunnel. The dark stone arch was three times our height. We could see shining flashlights coming at us from the dark hole. It was suddenly alive with dark shapes we hadn't seen on the trail. I dismounted, pulled on my windbreaker, turned on my bike light and soon passed five Lycra-clad bikers holding candles inside the cool, dripping cavern. I touched the pick-marked walls where stone had been scooped out by hand in the 1800s. The rock had been hauled up shafts and out the top, opening a natural spring.
The moisture and mystery of the tunnel revived me and I biked the trail back, energized. A rooster crowed from a farmyard in the distance.
Thinking ahead to cooler days, we agreed the ride would be perfect on a late-fall afternoon.
©Kate Hallett Dayton