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ADVENTURE CYCLING ASSOCIATION, in partnership with the Center for Minority Health, developed the 2,008-mile Underground Railroad Bicycle Route to encourage people from all backgrounds to explore the landscapes and history of America by bicycle while combating our health crisis.
Riders from the Bronx Lab School at a trailhead in Ohio
My fellow trip leaders and I looked at each other with wide eyes. The unspoken question hung in the air among us, “How did we not know that Edrina can’t ride a bike?” And yet, there she stood before us, as six other gleeful students circled the parking lot on their newly donated bicycles, unable to mount hers. We had undertaken a meticulous interview and application process to select the seven students who would embark on this “journey into health and history,” a two-hundred-plus mile bike ride along a section of the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route in Ohio. Applicants had written passionate statements of interest, gathered recommendations from teachers, engaged in individual interviews, signed contracts vowing to maintain good grades and behavior, and committed to healthy eating and living. They had also promised to meet before school and on Saturdays to study the history and geography of our route, to fundraise, and train. Most significantly, all students selected for the journey had answered, “yes,” to the question, “Have you ridden a bicycle?”
As trip leaders, Joaquin, Michele and I understood the importance of this question: with all of the work necessary for this journey to happen, one job we could not undertake was that of teaching students to ride a bike -- from scratch. What we neglected to consider was the specific wording of that sentence. Edrina Asante, a junior at Bronx Lab, had not misled us; she had in fact ridden a bike. When she was 4 years old. In Nigeria. That was her last time on a bicycle. It was early April and we were three months into the preparations for our upcoming adventure. In just four more months, seven students and three adults from the Bronx Lab School, a public high school in New York City, would travel to Ohio to set off on an eleven-day bicycle ride. We added another item to the ever-expanding to-do list: teach Edrina how to ride.
along the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route
Adventure Cycling Association, in partnership with the Center for Minority Health, developed the 2,008-mile Underground Railroad route which Adventure Cycling describes as, “one of the most fabled paths to freedom in the world.” The dual goals—encouraging people from all backgrounds to explore the landscapes and history of America by bicycle and combating the current health crisis in America—could not have been more perfectly matched with the goals of the Bronx Lab experience. Joaquin David, trip co-leader and web-designer described the journey as an “extraordinary opportunity for the ‘Bronx Lab Underground Railroad Riders’ to discover a significant period of our nation’s history while experiencing the joy and beauty of the physical activity of bicycling.”
The cycling trail winds through some of the most significant landscape in our nation’s history, and the Ohio section is particularly rich in this respect. Chuck Harmon, Adventure Cycling tour leader, bike enthusiast, and Ohio resident, worked tirelessly in the months leading up to our arrival to ensure that our journey through the towns and rural areas was scenic, historically rich, and safe. He met with overnight host communities to establish our nightly camping stops, and contacted museums, historical societies, cultural centers and Underground Railroad sites along the way to schedule daily programming. While the physical aspect of our journey was life changing, thanks to Chuck’s logistical work, the knowledge that we gained about the deep history of our country was priceless.
Studying the route
All of the historical study in the world, however, does not teach a person how to ride a bike. And so, while Chuck was busy in Ohio, we were stepping up our preparations in the Bronx. Saturday rides were getting longer and more technical and students were learning the specifics of cycling, from proper shifting to how to change a tire. And Edrina was riding her bike. Slowly. Michele Wong, trip co-leader and Bronx Lab School math teacher, spent hours patiently working with Edrina, who tenaciously conquered one fear after another. She overcame the wobbly jitters that come with trying to balance on two wheels. She learned to break smoothly, no longer dragging her feet to stop. She began to feel comfortable taking one hand off the handlebars to signal. And she was able to stand on her pedals, vastly improving her ability to tackle hills. Occasionally, she would return after a ride, a knee bruised or an elbow scratched. And yet she remained ever ebullient, excited for the adventure ahead and appreciative of the support around her.
At last, by August 1, when we boarded the Amtrak train that would speed us to our Cincinnati start, each of us was mentally and physically ready to take on the challenge of an extended cycling trip. The actual physical ride was better than any of us could have imagined. Days remained sunny and warm, but not too hot. Evenings were balmy, perfect for cooking dinners over the camp stove, discussing the day’s adventures, and playing games together. Bike paths were well paved and clearly marked and drivers proved to be friendly when we needed to ride on roads. As we hit inevitable hills, students did the hard work of peddling themselves to the top while simultaneously encouraging others toward success. Kevin Sacaza, Bronx Lab student and tireless optimist, summed up the rigors of the ride: “[t]he hills are like life…we will always find obstacles in our way that we have to climb. If we give up before we get to the end, we’ll never get past them.” Edrina, for her part, was often ‘leader of the day,’ taking on the role of ensuring group success. How far, literally, we had come!
The Rankin House in Ripley, Ohio
The Historical Study
Yet the most powerful outcomes of this journey were not the muscles in our legs. Our physical exertion was but a minute fraction of that which those escaping slavery had endured. The most powerful thing we gained was the knowledge of those who had gone before us, those who had risked everything to seek freedom. We visited many historical sites along the way, but one in particular stood out for Edrina. She remarked in her journal that night:
“[t]he Rankin House was in Ripley, Ohio, our first stop of the day. The house was located at the top of a huge hill. During the time that people were escaping slavery, it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. To get to the house, we walked through the woods, up the steep, steep hill, just as freedom seekers had done over a hundred years ago. As we walked, I thought of how people saw his house as a beacon of hope, like a star, something that inspired them to actually take the step to escape slavery.”
We realized, early on, that this was not simply a bicycle trip; this was a journey into ourselves, and our nation’s past. The journey does so much more than benefit a handful of students and adults from the Bronx and its continued success ensures that these positive ripple effects will continue. As we traveled through Ohio last summer, we frequently encountered people who were inspired by our trip. Bike enthusiasts met us outside of their town to proudly escort us to their homes. Cycle shops offered mechanical support and discounted supplies. Families came together to provide us with home cooked meals. And, perhaps most hopeful, a group of high school students met with us to learn how they could develop a similar trip for their school.
Edrina, who began our months-long adventure on the most tentative of ground, provided a final measure of the depth to which this journey affected us, and others. In her journal, she responded to a tour conducted by Carl Westmoreland of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center: “Mr. Westmoreland gave me hope, though, because he explained that even though we are a small group, we can still make a lot of change. We can inspire people.”
On the trail in Ohio
Due to the success of our trip, a new team of Bronx Lab Underground Railroad Riders will undertake the journey through Ohio this summer. The trip is part of the school's real-world-as-classroom initiative, "Health and History: Biking the Underground Railroad," aimed at marrying healthy living habits with learning history. The group's route and itinerary were developed with the Adventure Cycling Association.
The eight students competed for their tour spots by participating in a rigorous application process within Bronx Lab and all of them have had to maintain outstanding behavior and academic performance during their preparation for the trip. Students have prepared by fund raising, attending classes on the history of the Underground Railroad, biking, and bicycle maintenance, as well as participating in physical training, including long, weekend rides.
Read the Bronx Lab blog from their Health and History adventure: http://web.mac.com/bronxlab/BLS-URR/Welcome.html
Learn more about the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route at www.adventurecycling.org/ugrr.
Read more about long-distance rides and trails at www.AmericanTrails.org/resources/long
For more information about the Bronx Lab Underground Railroad Riders, visit: http://www.blurr.us.
Visit Bronx Lab School: http://www.edline.net/pages/Bronx_Lab_School.