Ride Free: Mayor of the B&A trail, Tom Caraker, dies at 84


The Baltimore & Annapolis Trail has lost its mayor.

Thomas H. Caraker III, 84, died on Sunday. Caraker had been fighting pancreatic cancer since February.

Caraker had a few nicknames. He was Crackerbox Tom, Tomboy or Trailblazer Tom to some, but the nickname he lived up to most was “Mayor of the B&A trail.”

In a gathering at the Big Bean coffee shop Monday, friends and family packed the front of the shop known as Caraker’s “home away from home.” A Capital feature on Caraker and signs saying “We Miss You!” hung on the fridge.

“He pushed me to ride,” Roger Johnson, 64, said. After meeting Caraker a year and a half ago, Johnson said he’s ridden more than 8,500 miles on his bike. “God bless him for getting me riding.”

Caraker also inspired Denny Nolte, 76, to buy a bike from the Pedal Pushers bike store, just around the corner from the Big Bean.

“He was always pushing me to ride,” Nolte said, sitting beside Johnson at the shop’s front window, Caraker’s usual spot.

Nolte hadn’t been feeling well enough to get back on his bike in a while but said he’ll be back on the trail in the spring, for his friend.

Caraker credited the trail with saving his life. After suffering from multiple strokes and type II diabetes in 2000, Caraker took his bike out of the shed of his Glen Burnie home and hit the trail. Squeezing the handbrakes brought back tingling, then full feeling in his hands. Through biking, he also lost 30 pounds and was able to control his diabetes without medication.

“I was so slow then, roller bladders passed me by,” he told reporter Wendi Winters for a story in The Capital last year. “It was four years before I felt comfortable riding.”

Caraker picked up speed quickly, averaging 25 to 50 miles a day. In his 80s, he averaged about 100 miles on the trail every three days, about 5,000 miles a year.

If Caraker governed the trail, the Big Bean was his office. Caraker could be seen at the Big Bean almost every day drinking a black half-caf coffee and wearing his neon green riding vest. He’d hold court on the back patio or move to the shop’s front window in bad weather. He’d water the flowers out back and say hello to anyone who passed on the trail.

“He’d say, ‘I might not know their name, but I know them,’ ” Mellisa Stauffer said. Caraker recruited her to join the Trailblazers, a volunteer patrol group of “goodwill ambassadors” of the B&A.

Born in Philadelphia, Caraker served in the Army from 1957 to 1959 before starting a career with grocery chain A&P Tea Co. He worked at A&P for almost four decades before retiring in 1996 to spend time with his wife Nancy. She passed away after a long fight with colon cancer in 2014.

The couple is survived by four children, Thomas Caraker IV, Dee Bawer, Debbie Caraker and Cindy Byrd, as well as six grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

“He had a passion for the trail and what he could do to help other people,” Byrd said. “My dad believed the trail could bring so many people together.”

Pedal Pushers owner Rod Reddish said it feels like he lost a father in Caraker. When Caraker started riding, he made Reddish part of his family.

“He’s been a father figure to me forever. He’d tell people, ‘This is my adopted son.’ ”

Reddish met the mayor of the trail when Caraker came into Pedal Pushers with a dilemma. He’d been chatting with someone at the ranger’s station after a ride, forgot about loading up his bike, got in his car and backed over it.

“His wheels were totally pretzeled. They were like tacos,” Reddish laughed.

After he fixed Caraker’s wheels, Reddish sold him a bike, which he again ran over and bought a replacement from Reddish a few years later.

Reddish pulled a stack of Christmas cards he kept from Caraker over the years out of the back of his shop. In one card he signed off with, “Ride free.” Reddish said you could hear Caraker yell his motto to people on the trail all the time.

One of Caraker’s riding partners, Larry Warner, recalled riding with Caraker through bad weather and bad health.

“We rode every weekend. We’d be out there in the snow and rain. There were probably times we shouldn’t have been,” he laughed. “Even when he was sick, he made it a point to ride.”

Through cancer treatments, Warner said Caraker still got on his bike. On his worst days in the thick of treatment, he could only ride a few miles a day, but he could never give up riding. At the Lifeline 100 ride in Millersville on Oct. 7, Caraker rode 26 miles. His last ride was about three weeks before his death.

“He did a lot for people. He would help them out and fix their bikes. He would sit and explain to people from out of town how to get to this place and that place,” Warner said. “He treated everybody with respect.”


Celebrating Tom Caraker

Family and friends may visit Barranco and Sons, P.A. funeral home at 495 Ritchie Highway in Severna Park on Tuesday from 2-4 p.m.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Pasadena United Methodist Church at 61 Ritchie Highway. Interment will follow at Maryland Veterans Cemetary in Crownsville.


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