I cannot stop staring at his white teeth peeking from under his mustache. They call attention every time he slurs “th” words. His tongue pushes against the back of his teeth sliding his dentures around the roof of his mouth. “Thla, thlar, thirty two.” He sucks them back into place. The action is barely noticeable, probably well practiced—he’s rather loquacious. He has impeccable style for a hillbilly. Sporting a wolf shirt and a red Chevrolet ball cap with unruly white hair escaping from the back.
His name is Tunnel Tom—a classic character. From his shack on the side of the Elroy-Sparta rail-to-trail in Wisconsin, he sells water, popsicles, and flashlights to cyclists. He’s like the kid in the neighborhood that sells lemonade. While his stand is made from plywood, not cardboard boxes, it has the same imagination of a young heart wanting to make an honest buck out of sugar and lemons. He waits for customers in a row of wooden chairs, the ones he carpenters and sells during the off season. When cyclists approach, he retracts into his shed behind the pick-up window framed by hand-painted signs.
An economy has built itself around the Elroy-Sparta rail-to-trail and cycle tourism. The first of its kind in the United States, 32 miles of old railway path was repaved in crushed limestone, fitted with public restrooms, and opened to the public. Today, the trail thrives during high season. Private campgrounds and bed & breakfasts run at full capacity. Amish country restaurants sell out of their hickory nut pies. Even the town of Sparta holds claim to being the “Bicycle Capitol of America” while boasting an enormous statue of “Ben Bikin” which happens to be “The World’s Largest Bicycle”. Oh, the mid-west.
Tunnel Tom was one of many banking on cycle tourism in Wisconsin. Thousands of cyclists pass by his stand in need of thirst quenching or a flashlight for the mile-long dark tunnel ahead. The same tunnel that earn Tunnel Tom his nick-name. When we met, somehow conversations trail off into the benefits of peanut butter and how Greg’s wealth came from a Walmart buyout of the farm. I had no idea who Greg was, or maybe I was too distracted by slippery teeth to catch that point in the conversation. In anycase, there is something pleasant about this character. His style, his simplistic means, even the cadence of his voice, he was right were he needed to be helping out travelers. He offers an ice-cream sandwich and a bottle of water in applause for my extended tour. We chat more over used cars in the southwest and then I on my way. Another simple moment in a perfect day.
The Elroy-Sparta rail-to-trail was plush riding from what I was accustomed to. There, wind always pushed against my back and the sun shined a little brighter. Spotted cows grazed on unadulterated green pastures. Barns were painted with a fresh coat of bright red and church steeples raised above the trees on rolling hills, marking another quaint town. Light dispersed through the leaves, illuminating a golden trail in a tunnel of lush foliage. And even against a bright blue sky, clouds billowed as perfect white pillows, spacing themselves politely in equal breath.
“Stupid cute” was the only way I described this little piece of Wisconsin. Frankly, I was in shock. My defenses were accustomed to being high against harsh winds, blazing temperatures, and unforgiving drivers. I was a lost for words when riding was… pleasant. I had forgotten what it was like to take pleasure in the ride when the path is enjoyable. Most of the time, I found appreciation in the worst of circumstances, but on the Elroy-Sparta trail there was no struggle, no suffering, only peace and blue skies. For this, “stupid cute” was the only way a haggard rider could describe a utopia that even Tunnel Tom was perfectly a part of.