Walking the Green Path: A Tunnel Along the Path

Elroy Sparta Bike Trail

By Daniel Swenson-Klatt | Updated March 27, 2023

Many years ago, when I was in high school, I got excited about taking long bike rides.  The trail system we know today was pretty non-existent, so much of my travels were on roads.

I would pack lunch into my side carrier basket, take a map, and head out from my northern St. Paul town and aim for Stillwater or White Bear Lake or Afton or even once a 30-mile ride to William O’Brien State Park.  I’d strap my transistor radio to the handlebars and just ride, enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells along the way.

But the trip that carries the most memories for me is one that my church youth group took on an actual bike trail in Wisconsin –the first Rails to Trails Project –from Elroy to Sparta.  Very early one morning, we loaded our church bus with our bikes to take a long drive to the trail and then spent the day riding the 32-mile trail down and back, with a long tired drive home at the end of the day.

The highlight of the trail is its tunnels.  Three tunnels, with the longest being nearly three-quarters of a mile long. Dark, cool, dripping with water, the longest one is so long that once you’re in you can’t see light ahead or behind you.

Elroy Sparta Bike Trail
Bike tunnel along the Elroy Sparta bike trail

You walk your bike through the tunnel, and of course, we chose not to use headlights, although back then there were very few of us who even had lights let alone helmets, for our bikes.

We kept up a low chatter and listened to the sound of our tires on the limestone paving and knew we had veered off a bit when the side of the wet tunnel pressed up against us.

I found myself slowing down and enjoying the quiet of the tunnel until I realized that the group had moved far enough ahead that not only could I not see them, I couldn’t hear them either.

The smells of the railroad, soot and oil, the water and wet stone, became much more heightened.  I tried to pick up my pace but was off the trail and up against the wall. I tried to listen harder, but the dripping was all I could pay attention to. I didn’t want to call out to them – I didn’t want to yell for help.

So I just kept walking, pushing my bike ahead of me, trying to remain hopeful.  That first glimpse of light seemed to be just hopeful imagining until I could say for certain that it was the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.  And then as the light and sights of the summer day returned, the smells and sounds of the tunnel faded away.

Going into the tunnel we knew there was an end, a way out.  We could remain hopeful that if we just stayed on the trail, we would get through. While the darkness was challenging, it seemed to be a natural part of the experience, not something to fear.  And when I entered it on our return trip, it seemed so much shorter and somehow more familiar.

I find that running a restaurant feels much like the experience of entering tunnels like the ones on that railroad trail.  I am continuously faced with new experiences and challenges that present a long tunnel to enter.  Some are short enough that I can see what the other end looks like.  Some are so long that once inside I kind of lose sight of what’s ahead. I try to stick with a friend who can help guide me.  If I remember that the walls are there to guide me, I’ll trust that I am pointed in the right direction and just keep walking forward.

Currently, the tunnel in front of me is labeled fair wages.  At the other end of the tunnel is a city that is more equitable, filled with low-income workers who have the ability to support themselves and their families with dignity.  At the other end of the tunnel is a city that is more sustainable, through efforts to support the businesses that are generating this abundance.

At the other end of this tunnel is a city that has made efforts to create the infrastructure that provides more affordable housing, transit, and health care, and a city that has invested in education and safety so that families feel secure and are ready to participate in this growing local economy.

It’s a long tunnel.  It will be dark in the middle. We will need each other, need our lights, and need the sides of the tunnel to keep us on track.  We will need to remember that we have passed through shorter tunnels and that we can find the light at the end of this tunnel too.

It is a path that I’m walking now and feeling hopeful even in the midst of this dark place.  I am glad you’re beside me, glad you’re ahead of and behind me, and very glad you’re as excited as I am to reach the end of this tunnel.

Walking the Green Path is a series of stories by Daniel Swenson-Klatt, the owner of Butter Bakery Cafe, about what it’s like to run a small business focused on sustainability and building community.

Daniel Swenson-Klatt is a writer, community activist, and owner of Butter Bakery Cafe located in South Minneapolis.

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