Cycling the road to freedom

Filed in Gather Travel Essential by on June 11, 2008 0 Comments

Innovative project wins the American Trails National Partnership Award November 17.

Announced last night at the 19th National Trails Symposium in Little Rock, Arkansas, this award recognizes the unique partnership forged between Adventure Cycling Association and the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Minority Health to create a bicycle route memorializing the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses by which freedom seekers attempted to escape slavery before and during the Civil War.

Six adventure cyclists on a 2,028-mile Underground Railroad journey from Mobile, Alabama, to Owen Sound, Ontario, will reach their destination in Canada on Friday, June 13.

The riders, ranging in age from 50 to 65, have come from as far away as Marton, New Zealand; Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Wash.; Oxon Hill, Md; Cleveland, Ohio; and Waterville Valley, N.H. They bike an average of 50 miles a day, 300 miles a week, taking one day off each week to relax and enjoy the sites. When they conclude their trip, they will have been on the road for 48 days.

The Underground Railroad Bicycle Route was named one of the world’s top 10 bicycle routes in National Geographic’s travel guide, Journeys of Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Greatest Trips in 2007.
The route winds through some of America’s most beautiful countryside, through national recreation areas, river valleys rich with wildlife, scenery and historic sites. It crosses into Canada over the Peace Bridge at Niagara Falls.

When this group passed through Erie, Pa., I had the opportunity to join the welcoming party. Underground Railroad character actors from the Harry T. Burleigh Society greeted the cyclists in a small park overlooking Presque Isle Bay, the site of a free black community called New Jerusalem that is known to have harbored freedom seekers on their way to Canada. The two groups shared stories and compared notes about their journeys. The cyclists said they learned some surprising new things about the Underground Railroad, about themselves, along the way.

“I grew up in New Zealand, and never in my whole life did I have a conversation with a black man,” said David Turnbull, 64, of Marton, New Zealand. “That’s okay,” quipped Thomas Black, an African-American from Cleveland, Ohio, “I never had a conversation with a New Zealander before I met you!”

On hand to recognize the cyclists were Lenwood Sloan, director of cultural and heritage tourism for the Pennsylvania Tourism Office in Harrisburg; Terri Blanchette, Director of Community Programs Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh; Gayle Wright, state director of tourism for wester Pennsylvania; Melinda Meyer, education coordinator, and Rose Graham, executive director, of the Erie County Historical Society; Charles Kennedy, director of the Harry T. Burleigh Society; and Emily Beck of VisitERIE. The group introduced Pennsylvania‘s new “Quest for Freedom” Underground Railroad web site and a series of Live and Learn Weekends coming up in Erie and Pittsburgh June 20 and 21.

Created by the Adventure Cycling Association in 2007, the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route honors the legendary flight to freedom many enslaved African-Americans took previous to the Civil War. The Adventure Cycling Association and the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Minority Health worked for three years with historians and other experts to chart the route. A new Pittsburgh-to-Erie spur was launched in April, 2008.

“The route sprang from collaboration with hundreds of committed people and organizations. Many cyclists who have experienced it are transformed for life,” says Ginny Sullivan, Adventure Cycling’s new routes coordinator.

The people who traveled on the Underground Railroad in the years leading up to the Civil War were freedom seekers of the highest order. They overcame incredible obstacles, and risked their lives, to make sure our country lived up to its highest ideals.

After the cyclists settled in for the night at a local campground, my husband and I went home to watch the last round of democratic primary election results. I couldn’t help but think how far we’ve come, though it has certainly taken a long time to get here. For the first time in history, an African-American will be the democratic nominee for president of the United States.

Read more about the Adventure Cycling Association’s Underground Railroad Bicycle Tour at You’ll find downloadable maps, tour itineraries, photos from previous trips, and more.

George Martin, a retiree from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is documenting his trip with a photo journal. Check out George’s blog here. His fellow travellers tell me he’s the best cook of the bunch.

Explore more Underground Railroad destinations in Pennsylvania on the Quest for Freedom web site.

In honor of Juneteenth (June 19th), the oldest known celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, the Pennsylvania Tourism Office and the Pennsylvania Humanities Council are encouraging participation in the Quest for Freedom Live and Learn Weekend, June 20 and 21. A great book to take along for the ride: Eric Foner’s Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. The weekends provide an educational and engaging visitor experience that’s rooted in the Underground Railroad and Civil War communities in the commonwealth. Here’s what’s happening in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Lancaster. In Erie, historian David Dixon will lead a book discussion at the Watson Curtze Mansion, Fri., June 20, 7 p.m.; and “History Never Tasted so Good” will provide a noon lunch followed by “Celebrating the Gift of Life,” St., June 21, at St. James AME Church. Call 814-746-5905 for reservations.

Photos by Rich Gensheimer and by Adventure Cycling Association/Dennis Coello

The Culi
nary Tourist appears twice a month in Gather Essentials: Travel. Go exploring with awar
d-winning documentary producer Lisa Gensheimer as she discovers the fun, food and people she meets along the way. Whether you’re visiting the home of a faraway friend, stopping for directions at a roadside market, or on holiday in an exotic location, richly layered experiences await. Read more about Lisa’s work at Main Street Media or join Lisa’s gather network.

About the Author ()

Lisa Gensheimer is a documentary producer and writer. Her career spans more than 30 years in newspaper and magazine publishing, corporate public relations, community revitalization, heritage tourism, and television. Lisa and her husband, Rich Gensheimer,

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