Total miles: 2,229
Total feet climbed: 55,000
Days on road: 42
By Scott Morris
Preview: May 12, 2019
Today, I set off on a journey from Mobile, Alabama, to Ontario, Canada, with nothing but a bicycle loaded with camping gear and a compulsion that is difficult to explain.
“Compulsion” is Jenny’s word, and a concept she fully understands. Sometimes, a voice inside compels us to do what makes no sense to ourselves, much less to others. That, after all, is why Jenny and I got married.
As a young man, I dreamt of hiking the Appalachian Trail, imagining the satisfaction of finishing it from beginning to end. But I chose a more conventional path, and found smaller outdoor adventures as time allowed.
Still, the unexplained desire to finish an epic trek remains in my heart. And now I’m free to test the compulsion.
The plan is to ride the Underground Railroad, a 2,007-mile route that Adventure Cycling Association created out of county roads and lightly traveled state highways. The route commemorates the legendary Underground Railroad, a network of people and safe houses, which slaves used to escape from the Deep South to freedom in Canada.
I hope to write about the places and people along the Underground Railroad, and to contemplate what it means to live a life of integrity in a country with a complicated past.
The first leg of this physical and spiritual journey will take me about 500 miles from Mobile Bay to Burnsville, Mississippi, where — hopefully — a family member will pick me up and drive me home for a few days of rest and reunion. The time back home will give me a chance to consider whether my legs and the desire to ride to the finish are strong enough to keep me pedaling northward.
If I succeed, I will end up on the banks of Canada’s Owen Sound by early summer. I’m not sure how I will get back to Alabama. A compulsion to get off the bicycle and go home will probably do the trick.
For daily updates of the adventure, check the Riding the South blog at scottandjennymorris.com.
Day 1: May 13, 2019
The first day on the ride to Canada started with a fierce lightning show and ended at Hubbard Landing, a fish camp in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.
From my rented room in the historic district of Mobile on Sunday, I waited out the storm and got a late start. Then I suffered through the steamy heat for 51 miles.
The official beginning of the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route is a plaque marking the site where slaves were sold and, nearby, the Africatown Graveyard, where the unwilling passengers of the last slaveship — Clotilda — to land in America are buried. Across Mobile Bay, I stopped by Blakeley State Park, where the last Civil War battle was fought — after the war had already ended in Virginia.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that these events occurred in Alabama. We’re usually the last holdouts.
As for the ride, it was tough with lots of heat, hills and traffic. But I’m already meeting friendly people at almost every stop who want to know where the heck I’m going.
I’m writing these words on my phone while sitting on a concrete block next to my tent, which I pitched beneath the Spanish moss. The bullfrogs and hoot owls are providing the background music, and I’m guessing the murky river next to me is full of alligators.
Next, it’s northward to Monroeville to visit the Nettles’ brothers, two old friends from college. Hopefully, I can make time to look around their hometown at some of the “Kill a Mockingbird” sites. Harper Lee would not approve.
Day 2: May 14, 2019
Rocky Hill Baptist Church dispenses living water through a gray garden hose.
I made this discovery on the second day of my Underground Railroad bicycle ride after drinking the four bottles I carry on my bike.. The next store was 15 miles away, it was hot and hilly and dehydration was taking its toll. I was ready to quit this crazy adventure.
But then I spotted the rural church and noticed the beautiful roses. There had to be water, so I stopped and found the garden hose. I let the hot water run out until it turned cool. I was born again.
Don’t let anyone tell you that South Alabama is flat. It’s a rollercoaster as the numerous streams cut their way through the terrain to the nation’s second largest delta. It’s also beautiful. The route took me by Fort Mims, site of an 1813 massacre during the Creek Indian War. A few miles later, I passed a sign directing travelers to the burial place of Creek Chief William Weatherford — known as Red Eagle.
The highlight of the 56-mile ride waited at the end of the day, a reunion with two old college buddies, Farrah Nettles and Reid Nettles. The Nettles brothers and I hadn't seen each other in forty years, and yet it felt like we could go out and pull another one of our many college pranks. Instead they took me on a twilight tour of Harper Lee sites. Both men knew Lee, along with her quirks.
On Tuesday, it’s more hills and close quarters with logging trucks as I head to Grove Hill, Jackson and a campground at Coffeeville.
Day 3: May 15, 2019
The plan was to pedal more than 2,000 miles to Ontario, Canada, but as it turns out I will be walking some of those miles.
Normally it would embarrass me to get off a bicycle and walk up a hill, but almost 80 extra pounds for a beefy touring bike, gear, food and water are providing a humbling experience. Months of training on flat roads with a lightweight carbon-fiber bicycle did not prepare me for almost 6,000 feet of climbing over the last two days.
So I ended Tuesday’s ride after 51 miles and checked into a cheap hotel in Jackson, Alabama, rather than riding 63 miles to a campground. My legs were done.
The first half of the last day’s ride were also psychologically challenging. The pulp mill in Monroe County requires 500 to 800 logging and chip trucks a day, and I think every one of them passed me on U.S. 84. With only a foot-wide usable road shoulder for bicycles, the trucks swooshed by just inches away. Each truck provided a sudden turbo boost of wind. At least the last of the day was on scenic rural roads with little traffic.
Bicycle touring experts say 40-something miles a day is a prudent plan to provide time to enjoy the experience and see the sites. Now I understand why. And Jenny reminded me that I don’t have a deadline.
So, I plan to sleep in Wednesday, dream about flat roads and ride only 25 miles to the next campground.
The ox is slow, but the earth is patient.
Day 4: May 16, 2019
I texted Jenny after a Baptist preacher handed me $10 outside a gas station in Grove Hill, Alabama.
“Please tell me that isn’t true,” she texted back.
“No lie. The Rev. Darrell Buttz.”
“Did you take it?”
“Then she relayed Daughter No. 2's reaction: "she's impressed that it’s only Day 4 and people already think you’re homeless.”
Many people attach a higher purpose to cross-country journeys, so I have to give this monetary contribution further thought. Maybe I’ll attach a sign to the bike: “Please help me bring world peace. Only $10.”
If you’re paying attention to the details of this bike ride to Canada, you may wonder why I pedaled 16 miles from Grove Hill to Jackson on one day and then 16 miles back to Grove Hill the next.
I had planned to camp Wednesday night at Coffeeville, but the Tombigbee River flooded the campground. That left me nowhere to sleep or find water for 78 miles. I had to develop a detour off the official Underground Railroad route.
So, I rode back to Grove Hill and took U.S. 43 to the Something Smells Funky Motel in Thomasville, a short 30-mile trip that allowed me to recover physically. I visited two all-you-can eat buffets within walking distance of the motel to aid in the recovery.
So far, Sunday night is the only time I have been able to camp, and it was a disaster. Who knew that people in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta celebrate Mother’s Day by getting drunk and riding around on golf carts until 2 in the morning blasting Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at top volume?
About the time the Mother’s Day fun wound down, a thunderstorm struck and rain runoff leached into my tent. The next day, I unpacked the tent and other gear in a hotel room and draped it over the furniture to dry.
Next up is another short ride to a campground outside Linden, Alabama, where I will rejoin the official route and do my part to bring world peace.
Day 5: May 17, 2019
If I were a cartoon superhero, I would be Highlighter Man.
My superpower would be high visibility.
When it comes to being seen on the bicycle, I have never been shy about wearing all the gaudy neon yellow clothing possible and attaching various flashing lights to my ride.
Visibility was not as critical on Thursday’s leg of the ride to Canada as I completed my detour off the official route using a road less traveled. It was much more relaxing after dodging hundreds of log trucks for days.
Pine trees drive the economy here. I have lost count of the Pine Havens, Pine Views, Pine Bluffs, Pine Crests and Pine Hills. But the scenery is starting to include flatter, open pastureland as I approach the Tombigbee River. I will follow the river all the way to U.S. 72 in northeast Mississippi.
With water stops so sporadic, I have learned to haul as much liquid as possible, and to refill at every opportunity. A merciful woman pulled up to me between Thomasville and Linden and handed me a cold BodyArmor Blackout Berry SuperDrink through her car window.
“It’s what we drink at work,” she shouted before adding, “here comes a truck, I better go.”
Thanks, kind SuperDrink Woman. Highlighter Man needed that.
As the hills get lower and less challenging, the heat is quickly taking its place as my evil nemesis.
I had planned to take up camping again when I arrived in Linden, but then I spotted the Most Exotic Marigold Third World Motel next to a coin-operated laundry. I succumbed to the no-star temptation.
The TV doesn’t work, the light is shot in the bathroom (probably a blessing) and the shower is somehow leaking under the wall and soaking the carpet in the bedroom. It’s absolutely the dirtiest place I’ve ever seen. But the worst motel in the world is better than a tent when it’s 88 degrees outside and the campground has no showers.
I have ridden 227 miles since Sunday, according to the Garmin Gods of Exercise Statistics. That’s averaging more than 45 miles a day, less than I had planned, but hey, I’m an old man.
I will be two days behind schedule because of the detour caused by flooding and the prudent decision to break up an upcoming 79-mile section into two days.
So next up is about 37 miles from Linden to another fine motel in Livingston, Alabama.
Day 6: May 18, 2019
I can’t tell you how many closed country stores I have passed along the rural roads of south Alabama.
Regretting the demise of the old country store is more than nostalgia when the sun beats down on a bicycle rider in need of cool respite. Dollar General has replaced some locations, but there are still plenty of vacancies.
On yesterday’s ride, I pulled up to country-store heaven somewhere between Linden and Livingston, Alabama. Jefferson Country Store looks like a cross between a Mississippi juke joint, a restaurant, a convenience store and a hang-out. Loitering is encouraged.
Country music played on the speakers as a diverse clientele entered and exited to the smells of souse, hoop cheese and barbecue. An eclectic array of memorabilia hung from the ceiling.
Tony Luker, chief cook and bottle washer, said the third-generation store has been in business since 1957. It is an official stop on the Adventure Cycling Association map, and Luker allows bicycle tourists to camp behind the store.
He took my photo for the store’s Facebook page and had me sign his poster of Greg Lemond, former Tour de France champion. I guess that makes me a professional now.
I checked into another sketchy hotel after a short 37 miles. Next up is a 58-mile run to Aliceville, Alabama, which includes a 25-mile stretch with no water stops, not even a Dollar General.
Day 7: May 19, 2019
During a goodnight phone call this week, Jenny asked what I think about when I spend hours, day after day, on the bike.
“I’m a man,” I said. “I don’t think about anything.”
We laughed because we know it’s true. Jenny’s more complex female brain is usually juggling about five thoughts at once. One thought at a time is all I can handle, and sometimes that’s too much.
Jenny said she read that men have a great capacity for thinking about nothing --or maybe she learned it through observation over the last 14 years. That’s especially true when we get into the exercise zone.
I pedaled 4 and 1/2 hours yesterday from Livingston to Aliceville, and I thought mostly about how beautiful Alabama is once you get out on the county roads. Most of the ride passed through sprawling cattle ranches, hay fields ripe for the cutting, wetlands and catfish ponds.
In times past I have thought about work or personal problems while riding, and once I mentally wrote an entire chapter of my on-again, off-again great Southern novel. But mostly, not much is going on above the neck while the legs are pedaling.
Next up, I’ll be thinking about how to dodge thunderstorms as I ride to Columbus, Mississippi, and beyond. If I can stay on schedule, I should be home soon, and facing the decision whether to continue.
Day 8: May 20, 2019
I crossed into Mississippi yesterday and left the Alabama leg of this trip behind on a day that included a friendly tailwind and cooler temperatures.
My previous bicycle tours have taken me through a series of connecting tourist towns with nice amenities. Other than the tree-laden historic district of Mobile, the southernmost section of the Underground Railroad route traverses a series of poor black-belt country where a bike tourist is a novelty.
It’s easy to become intimate with the geography when I'm pedaling up hills or coasting through a sea of pine trees. As I passed through the swamps of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and the Tombigbee River basin, I tried to imagine what it was like for slaves to use this landscape in their escape to freedom in the North and Ontario.
I thought about the post-Civil War oppression that the South practiced well into the 20th century, and how those in power made it so difficult for an entire race to survive.
And I thought about that day when I was 21 and working in a warehouse in Mobile. Two young black men came into the warehouse and turned in job applications. After the applicants left, the warehouse manager wadded up their applications and tossed them in the garbage can, adding a racial slur. Memories of the incident, and my silence in reaction to it, have stayed with me almost four decades.
One of the reasons I chose this route was to give more thought to why I am who I am. I was raised by a culture with a persistent identity crisis. How can I leave any unconscious, yet lingering, vestiges of that upbringing behind? How can I become more comfortable with people who don’t look and sound like me? I’m finding the answer is simple, regardless of politics or race or whatever. Just sit down and talk to each other.
When it looked like thunderstorms were imminent Sunday, I decided when the rain came I would take refuge in one of the many rural churches that dot the South. I was almost hoping for a storm and the opportunity to worship with my black belt brothers and sisters in Christ.
But the storms went south of me, so I kept riding toward whatever it is I am riding toward. Oh well, Jenny will be proud. I’m thinking about something after all.
I camped last night near the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and built a mesmerizing campfire. Next up, is 53 miles to a campground near Amory, Mississippi.
Day 9: May 21, 2019
The road to Canada may be paved with good intentions, but it is not always paved with pavement.
This I learned yesterday somewhere between Aberdeen and Amory, Mississippi. The map said to turn left on Old State Highway 25. The road sign said I had arrived at Old State Highway 25. And Old State Highway 25 must really be old because it’s gravel.
Controlling a bicycle with loaded panniers and street tires over a couple miles of loose gravel was another fine challenge on the Underground Railroad. I survived the poor road conditions without a crash and was happy to be reunited with rough asphalt.
Mississippi is throwing every kind of road surface known to humankind at me, sometimes a patchwork of all varieties within a single mile.
Car drivers (Jeep drivers excluded) benefit from cushy suspension that absorbs many road imperfections. But bicyclists feel every bump, every crack and every rough spot in every muscle of our bodies.
So I went to bed sore from bouncing over the assortment of tar and gravel, loose gravel, patched potholes and cracked pavement.
It was a 52-mile day, and because of the heat, I stayed in another cheap motel rather than camping. I know. I’m a wimp.
If all goes as planned, I have two more days on the road before a break at home, and decision time. Next up is about 46 miles to a private campground near the Natchez Trace Parkway, west of Belmont, Mississippi. Let’s hope it’s a smooth ride.
Day 10: May 22, 2019
Adventure Cycling Association recommends a rest day at least every 10 days on a long tour.
I found the recommendation solid yesterday as I struggled up steep hills in the Mississippi heat.
Then an unexpected challenge awaited at the end of the 45-mile ride.
No one was at the office of the private waterfront campground. Exhausted and dehydrated, I kept ringing the bell for service outside the locked office. There were no obvious campsites, just a collection of RVs that looked like permanent fixtures.
Finally I found a phone number for the campground and called.
“We don’t allow overnight camping anymore,” the man said.
“Well, you will tonight,” I told him with a laugh. "I can’t go on.”
The man was understanding, and told me just to pitch a tent wherever I liked. He said the bathrooms and showers were open.
It took me several hours to cool off and rehydrate. I’m afraid the heat is going to be the biggest obstacle to continuing this adventure.
But that’s a decision for another day. Next up are 45 more hilly miles, part of them on familiar territory on the Natchez Trace Parkway. Hopefully Daughter No. 1 will be waiting in Burnsville with the AC on high.
Day 11: May 23, 2019
As I write this final entry from the comfort of the leather recliner in our air-conditioned house, I can’t remember why I left this spot to ride a bicycle 499 miles across two Southern states.
But that’s not to say I won’t do it again.
I had planned to ride to Burnsville, Mississippi, yesterday but cut it about 20 miles short after learning a family member had been hospitalized. So Daughter No. 1 picked me up in downtown Tishomingo where she found me sitting on the sidewalk eating a pint-size carton of ice cream.
I can’t tell you how exhausted I am and how happy I am to be home. But I do wish I had ridden just one more mile to make it an even 500.
The Underground Railroad Route so far has been much tougher than I imagined because of the heat, hills and hell-bound logging trucks. A man in Tishomingo asked me if dogs had given me any problems. I told him I was too tired to notice. If they want me, they can have me.
If I follow the Adventure Cycling Association maps for the second part of the trip, I will cross the more challenging terrain of Tennessee and Kentucky at a time when the weather is heading well into the 90s. That’s a daunting thought, and it will remain in the back of my mind for a few days as I recuperate and consider whether this is what I want to do with the next several weeks of my life.
If I can survive all the way to Owensboro, Kentucky, the roads become flatter and the route includes several truck-free bicycle trails. Hopefully, the climate is cooler, too.
Thanks for reading the past 12 days and thanks for the encouragement to keep going.
But I have to tell you, the recliner is looking pretty good. And for that matter, so is Jenny.
Preview: June 5, 2019
After struggling last month through the southernmost leg of the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route, I was ready to abandon the ride to Canada.
But two weeks of rest in the cool air conditioning at home have erased almost all memory of the infernal heat and hills, and left me with the grand illusion that I can keep going. As extra incentive, several friends who are smart enough not to pedal 2,000 miles across the country have encouraged me to keep going. I’m sure they mean well.
I waited until June 5 to resume the ride because June 4 is our wedding anniversary, which I am happy to report that I remembered in advance.
So, with Jenny’s blessing, Daughter No. 1 dropped me off today in Tishomingo, Mississippi, where I set off northward with the goal of making it 48 miles to near Pickwick Dam in Tennessee. My strategy for the next several days will be survival over the steep terrain. I will try to travel as far as possible in the early mornings before it gets too hot, but the probability of thunderstorms and heavy rain all week may present a different weather challenge.
My second set of maps from Adventure Cycling Association takes me to Owensboro, Kentucky, where I plan to take a couple days rest. To get there, I will follow the Tennessee River through Shiloh National Military Park and Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, and then head eastward along the Ohio River.
Before I left home — in between working on my Jenny-do list — I pared down the weight of the gear stuffed into my panniers, or saddlebags. For example, I left the rain fly behind, which surely means torrential rain in the near future. I’m taking little food in hopes of scavenging each day from convenience stores. I will study each day’s route for watering holes, and try not to haul too much or too little fluids. I’m also finding the more I ride, the less there is of me to haul around.
Day 12, June 6, 2019
People keep asking why I have a grizzly bear attached to the front of my bicycle.
That’s my totem.
It’s a tradition among touring cyclists to pimp their rides with a meaningful symbol. Often, it’s something found on the side of the road like a possum skull, a turtle shell or a stray car part.
Jenny preempted any road kill accessories when she found the plastic grizzly in a store and bought it for my touring bike. The grandkids call me Papa Bear, so every time I look down and see the bear, I think about Elayna and Stratton. And that makes me happy.
Papa Bear had a great start to Part 2 of the ride to Canada. After a two-week layover, I felt fresh for the 47-mile stretch from Tishomingo, Mississippi, to Counce, Tennessee. I stayed at Little Andy’s Sportsman’s Lodge, a rustic old motel with knotty pine paneling and hardwood floors. I watched Mayberry reruns to complete the experience.
The weather looks wet and blustery for the next spin, but it’s the shortest mileage day of the trip so far. I plan to sleep a little later and take my time while pedaling through nearby Shiloh National Military Park.
This may be the Underground Railroad ride, but many of the route’s features in the South relate more to the Civil War than to runaway slaves. Of course, the war freed almost 4 million people from slavery, but that isn't what the memorials I pass are commemorating--a feature of the complicated South I'm sure I'll ponder as I look again at the fields of Shiloh steeped in Southern blood.
Day 13, June 7, 2019
As I walked a mile down a four-lane highway in the pouring rain, wearing swimming trunks, a neon green raincoat, Teva sandals and a homemade hat, I considered all the indignities of bicycle touring.
Some of those indignities are too personal and painful to mention - like chafed nipples and a dangerous zipper accident. Maybe I’ll muster the courage to tackle those issues another day.
The fine residents of Crump, Tennessee, may have wondered yesterday at the strangely dressed man walking their streets. I was hungry, it was raining, the town’s three restaurants are all about a mile from the town’s only motel and there ain’t no Uber. So I assembled a trendsetting fashion ensemble out of my meager touring wardrobe and hoped not to get beaten up by the locals.
The most remarkable fashion statement was my waterproof hat, which I created by stretching a helmet cover over a baseball cap. It looked very distinguished.
Day 13 was a wet one. I only rode 31 miles, and several of those were during a leisurely tour of the Shiloh battlefields.
Riding in the rain requires extra caution and some mental adjustments, but I’ll take it any day over extreme heat. The hills don’t seem as steep on a rainy day with temperatures in the 70s and 80s.
Next up is about 40 miles along the Tennessee River to Parsons, Tennessee. It’s supposed to rain again, so I’ll probably turn dinner into another episode of “What Not to Wear.”
Day 14, June 7, 2019
“Don’t be jealous,” I texted Jenny along with a photo of me sitting with two women at Little Josh’s catfish restaurant.
The popular dining establishment in Parsons, Tennessee, was so crowded Friday night that the waitress asked if I minded sitting with strangers.
By the time I left, my new friends, Carol and Barbara, had given me their contact information in case I ran into any trouble.
The only thing Carol could find to write her name and contact information on was an old envelope, which she had previously used to dab her lipstick. I figured I better tell Jenny before I accidentally left the lipstick-tattooed paper with a woman’s name in my pocket.
“Watch yourself,” Jenny texted back, along with a winking emoji.
The road to Canada is turning me into a reluctant extrovert. Hours in the saddle and sitting alone in motels makes me ready to do the unthinkable: talk to people.
Most of these folks are eager to find out where I’ve been, where I’m going and why.
On yesterday’s 46-mile spin from Crump to Parsons, I ran into two fellows at a convenience store who were discussing the virtues of John Deere tractors before they turned their attention to me. We had a good talk and a few laughs while I ate a double-decker banana Moon Pie.
About an hour later, after I labored through a thunderstorm and multiple hills, one of the John Deere experts drove up to check on me and see if I needed a cold drink.
I know anything could happen out here alone, but most people have been friendly and helpful. It’s the kind of affirmation I need at an uncertain juncture in my life.
If you’re curious about the last day’s progress, check out the map at the top of this page. I passed through Saltillo and stopped just north of Perryville.
Next up is a hilly 60-mile ride to Waverly, directly west of Nashville. If I run into trouble, I’ll call Carol and Barbara.
Day 15, June 9, 2019
Anyone who has had the misfortune of bushwhacking in the wilderness with me will confirm I never get lost.
But I confess I have made a few wrong turns so far on the bicycle tour from Mobile, Alabama, to Ontario, Canada. That’s bound to happen during a 2,000-mile adventure on back roads.
A few weeks ago in Columbus, Mississippi, I accidentally departed from the official Underground Railroad Bicycle Route, but it turned out for the best because I found a Waffle House and enjoyed an early lunch. You can’t say I was lost because I knew exactly where I was: the Waffle House.
Yesterday’s 58-mile ride from Parsons to Waverly was particularly tough because counties in Tennessee are a little too casual about putting the names of their roads on signs. To complicate matters, there were 17 turns.
Here is one section of the route instructions from Adventure Cycling Association:
After 5.5 miles turn left onto unsigned road, after 6.5 miles turn right onto unsigned road, after 10 miles turn right onto unsigned road, after 14.5 miles bear left onto unsigned road.
When roads have no signs, you’re never sure you’re still on the route. The only way to stay on course is to closely track the miles between turns and know when to expect the next turn. The navigation slows you down because you’re constantly checking the mileage and directions.
At best, getting lost on a bicycle can be discouraging. On a hot and humid day, it can be dangerous.
Yesterday’s ride was the hardest and most beautiful day so far as I climbed 4,159 feet -according to the Strava app - along the Tennessee River, with many waterfront views. A thunderstorm drenched me about five miles before I arrived at the Imperial Lodge.
Next up is about 42 miles to Dover, at the southern terminus of the Land Between the Lakes. I never get lost, but if I take a wrong turn, let’s hope it involves a Waffle House.
Day 16, June 10, 2019
As I zipped down a hill at 41 mph with a grin on my face, I suddenly remembered Newton’s Law of Bicycle Physics.
What comes down, must go up.
And sure enough, immediately after crossing a creek, the road to Canada took an ugly upward turn. Thanks, Newton.
Over the past five days, I have climbed 16,549 feet using a variety of strategies, which will sound familiar to cyclists:
Using all my strength and strategy yesterday, I traveled from Waverly to Dover, which is west of Clarksville, Tennessee. I was either going 3 mph up or 30 mph down all day.
It was another beautiful route with zero water stops so I had to carry extra fluids and had no contact with humans, although a few dogs tried to make friends.
Next up is about 50 miles through the Land Between the Lakes to Grand Rivers, Kentucky. I understand there might be a hill or two somewhere between those lakes.
Day 17, June 10, 2019
Fatigue crept into mind and body yesterday, making me debate whether to take a rest day before proceeding north.
The day started well enough with lower temperatures and humidity after days of rain. Navigation came easy. Just follow The Trace from end to end through the Land Between the Lakes.
The main road through the Land Between the Lakes reminded me of the Natchez Trace Parkway, only more hilly and with less traffic. Although the park features 300 miles of undeveloped shoreline, none of it is visible from the main road because the lakes are miles away.
I did pass a bison prairie where I watched buffalo grazing in tall grass.
But easy navigation and a peaceful ride were offset by a fearsome headwind that built until I was fighting 23 mph gusts while simultaneously climbing almost 3,000 feet of nonstop hills. The wind pushed against my panniers and made it almost impossible to maintain speed, even downhill.
It was demoralizing, but I kept going and finally crossed into Kentucky where I collapsed at the Grand Rivers Inn after 49 miles.
Grand Rivers is a cool little village at the convergence of the Cumberland, Tennessee and Ohio rivers. But I noticed something weird. Villagers are driving golf carts up and down the streets with wild abandon.
The hotel rents golf carts and has five parking spots reserved for carts in front of my room. It’s The Village of the Damned Golf Carts!
The journalist in me wouldn’t let this whole golf-cart Twilight Zone thing go so I did some quick research. The town passed an ordinance in 2010 that allows golf carts on any street within five miles of a golf course. The village had a golf cart drive-in movie last summer in the park.
Maybe it’s a good place for a day of respite. My legs are twitchy and threatening to cramp. Maybe the cumulative effect of pedaling a loaded touring bike up hill for too many consecutive days is taking a toll. Riding around town in a golf cart is looking pretty good at this point. It might even be a better way to get to Canada.
Next up: almost 60 hilly miles and a ferry ride across the Ohio River to Cave-in-Rock, Illinois, to either a motel or campground. There’s no bike rack on the golf carts, so I guess I’ll keep riding.
Day 18, June 11, 2019
It seems impossible I was in Illinois yesterday, less than a week after setting off from Mississippi.
But here I was after taking a ferry across the Ohio River from Kentucky to the campground at Cave-in-Rock State Park.
I decided against taking an unscheduled rest day yesterday because a good-looking woman has agreed to meet me down the road this weekend. For that to happen, I must stay on schedule.
So I dragged myself out of bed and got back on the bike. I’m glad I did. It was a rewarding day with morning temperatures in the mid-50s and a high in the 70s. I made decent time over the 59 miles.
The ride included miles of beautiful waterfront scenery along the Ohio River, and sprawling corn and wheat fields once I climbed the adjacent plateau.
Several cross-country bicycle routes share roads in Kentucky and I met four other long-distance cyclists at the campground. We sat around a picnic table and competed for best dog-chase story. Martin Seybold said he is writing to the governor to complain about the 40-something dogs that chased him across the Bluegrass State.
Seybold, of Pennsylvania, and Layne Covet of Florida are pedaling more than 4,300 miles from Virginia to Oregon. They met the day before on the road and decided to ride together. They’ve already crossed the Appalachians and are headed for the Rockies.
I was ashamed to tell them about my problems climbing the huge mountains of Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky.
The other two riders, Erin Polard and Jono Freeman of New York, are pedaling to Los Angeles. They are raising money for mental health and writing about their adventure.
I started to tell Erin and Jono that I’m riding for world peace, but thought better of it.
We all had a good talk but retired early so we could get up and do it again.
Next up for me is crossing back over the Ohio River on the ferry and riding to either Morganfield or Hendersonville, Kentucky, depending on how I feel.
Two more days and I’ll finish off the second leg of the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route. Then Jenny and I hope to relax in Owensboro for a long weekend before Part 3 begins.
Day 19, June 12, 2019
The sign said “Road closed one mile ahead.”
The map said I needed to turn left one mile ahead.
Something had to give onward yesterday hoping my left turn would arrive before the road closure. It was not to be.
As I approached, I could see my turn immediately across the missing bridge.
Then I thought, “Maybe the road crew is on break and will help me.” I mean the odds of a road crew being on break are always good, right? But these guys were actually working.
Finally, though, a backhoe operator spotted me. He shut down his machine and walked over to me. Soon, the whole worksite shut down as guys huddled around my map, devising a five-mile detour.
As I rode away with the crew’s directions, I heard the backhoe operator say, “Let’s go ahead and take our lunch break.”
It was a long day in the saddle, covering 67 miles from Cave-in-Rock, Illinois, to Henderson, Kentucky. I didn’t intend to go that far because I didn’t sleep well the night before in the tent, and felt weary.
But it was overcast and cool, and I had a brisk tailwind, so I went for it.
When I arrived in Henderson, it felt like home. The city was having its W.C. Handy Blues and BBQ Festival on the banks of the Ohio River. We have a Handy music festival and bike ride in Florence, Alabama, which is the musician’s hometown.
I was wearing my Handy festival bicycle jersey when I arrived in Henderson, unaware we both celebrate the “Father of the Blues.”
Next up is 42 miles to Owensboro, which will conclude Part 2 of the ride to Ontario, Canada. Hopefully, there won’t be any road closures, but if there are, I trust the crew is willing to take a break long enough to help.
Day 20, June 14, 2019
Take the flat land of the Mississippi Delta and throw in the winds of Kansas.
That would describe yesterday’s cornfield spin leading to Owensboro, Kentucky.
The 24 mph tailwinds were a gift from above, which I needed considering several navigational issues. The map and the road signs were not in agreement, causing me to waste time and miles.
In one section, I rode in a big circle, ending up where I began. I stopped and asked for directions five times, which was a first for this adventure to Canada.
What I thought would be 42 miles ended up being 52, but it was a fun day. The last 10 miles were on Owensboro’s greenbelt system of paved trails, which made me wish my home of Florence, Alabama, had a bicycle/walking beltway.
Parts 1 and 2 of the trip are finished. I’m enjoying some needed rest, and waiting for Jenny to arrive for a long weekend.
The third leg of the trip is 379 miles to Cincinnati, starting Sunday.
Thanks for reading and for the continued encouragement.
Preview: June 16, 2019
A long weekend with Jenny in Kentucky inspired me to purge more gear from the bicycle panniers.
She brought my lightweight down jacket, which I may have to use to supplement my thin fleece sleeping bag in Canada. I sent back with her several heavy items I will try to do without.
I removed the backpacking stove, butane fuel canister, stove windscreen, cooking pots, freeze-dried meals and dish soap. In their place, I bought a P-38 - a tiny military can opener. On nights I have to camp, I plan to buy Beanee Weenees or some other canned food and eat it cold.
I must be motivated if I’m willing to give up a hot meal to save weight. I hope the sacrifice makes Part 3 of the ride to Canada a little easier. This 379-mile section takes me from Owensboro, Kentucky, to Milford , Ohio, with a short spur into Cincinnati.
The Underground Railroad Bicycle Route passes back and forth over the Ohio River several times between Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio.
Runaway slaves considered the Ohio River their River Jordan. Once they crossed it, they didn’t go back unless a slave catcher found them. After mostly relying on themselves to get to the border states, they often had to trust both black and white abolitionists with the Underground Railroad to reach the promised land.
Safe houses and river crossings that they used in the borderlands dot my map from Adventure Cycling Association.
Today, I said a difficult goodbye to Jenny for what may be a month. I packed my P-38 and set out on a short warmup spin to a hotel in Lewisport, Kentucky.
Day 21, June 17, 2019
Jenny says I’ve discovered a new weight-loss plan.
Just ride a bicycle to Canada. My kind wife claims I’m getting skinny. That might be a stretch, but I’ll take the compliment.
According to my Garmin GPS cyclometer, I’ve burned 61,458 calories so far on this trip. And Garmin doesn’t know I’m hauling an extra 70 pounds of bike and gear, so the total may be significantly higher.
I can’t help but think there are easier ways to lose weight than leaving home to ride up and down steep hills through heat and rain, sleep on the ground or in cheap hotels, and eat whatever you can find at gas stations.
However cycling is a good sport for old age because it’s easy on the knees. If you get tired, you can coast. But it’s not for everyone. In fact, it shouldn’t be for me.
My body type is not optimal for cycling. This is a sport for featherweights, not Clydesdales. But I’m stubbornly determined to keep plugging away as long as I can.
I didn’t burn many calories yesterday. I rode just 30 miles from Owensboro to Lewisport, Kentucky. It was the easiest day of the trip so far with flat terrain and a brisk tailwind.
Next up is much tougher: about 68 miles to Brandenburg, Kentucky, with several difficult climbs and thunderstorms in the forecast.
Day 22, June 18, 2019
I passed the thousand-mile mark yesterday, and on Wednesday should reach the official halfway point to Owen Sound, Ontario.
The 69-mile spin from Lewisport to Brandenburg, Kentucky, put me at 1,051 miles.
The Underground Railroad Bicycle Route is officially 2,010 miles long, but that doesn’t include mileage to hotels, campgrounds and stores, and occasionally getting off track (not lost).
The official halfway point will be about 40 miles past Louisville, Kentucky, in Indiana.
Yesterday’s ride started flat and turned hilly as I pedaled many miles along the Ohio River and the bluffs overlooking the river. The heat index was high, but I finished fresher than I expected.
I stopped at several historical sites, including the Holt House, which is being renovated. This was the Italian-villa style home of Joseph Holt, an attorney who helped keep Kentucky in the Union. In 1862, President Lincoln appointed Holt advocate general of the U.S. Holt later prosecuted the eight conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination.
Next up, I will cross the river into Indiana and ride about 45 miles to Jeffersonville, which is directly across the water from Louisville. Some of the ride will be on the Ohio River Greenway, which I explored last fall while attending a media conference.
I will have to study the weather radar and try to avoid the severe thunderstorms that keep popping up and causing flooding. It may mean a late start today with the worst storms forecast for morning.
Day 23, June 19, 2019
By the time I left the hardware store yesterday in Edwardsville, Indiana, every worker in the store had been out to inspect my cycling rig.
It’s much the same every where I go. People want to know more about this strangely dressed man and his beast of burden.
At the hardware store, I bought a piece of half-inch water-pipe insulation and four zip ties. Any guesses why?
My new high-tech Bontrager WaveCel helmet is supposed to prevent concussions, but it has been driving me crazy for days. No matter how I adjust it, the front of the helmet slides down and pushes my sunglasses to the bottom of my nose. So, I’m constantly pushing the helmet back up and repositioning my glasses.
After stopping to recover from my second thunderstorm in one day, I spotted the hardware store and developed a plan.
With a pair of borrowed scissors from the store, I cut two small pieces of pipe insulation and secured them inside the front of the helmet with the zip ties. The thicker padding is working great.
In case you’re interested in such things, I’m riding an aluminum-frame Trek 920 touring bike. It’s equipped with front and rear racks, a double chain ring with 10 cogs on the rear cassette and disc brakes. I replaced the 700 cm knobby mountain bike tires with skinnier, smoother tread.
The bike is comfortable for long days in the saddle and stable on the kind of downhill run that my new friends at the hardware store warned me was ahead. After a slow, 12-mile climb, I dropped 450 feet in just two curvy miles. The disc brakes worked great on the wet descent, even with the heavy load.
In all, I covered 52 miles from Brandenburg, Kentucky, to Jeffersonville, Indiana. I enjoyed several miles on the Ohio River Greenway. I took photos at the Falls of the Ohio River, a series of rapids which I suppose are similar to Muscle Shoals before TVA dammed the Tennessee River. The difference on the Ohio is that the river has a lock and dam system to allow navigation, but a portion of the river is diverted over the falls.
I also stopped directly across the river from downtown Louisville to take in the skyline.
Next up is about 50 miles to Madison, Indiana. The TV weather people are talking about severe thunderstorms and flooding so I’ll have to watch the skies again.
Day 24, June 20, 2019
Jim Moyer asked if I minded company yesterday while helping me with directions on the Indiana riverfront.
After more than 1,000 miles of riding alone, I welcomed the companionship.
Jim is a riding encyclopedia of information about both sides of the river in the Louisville area. The retired federal judge graciously served as my tour guide for about 15 miles.
He showed me which neighborhoods are protected from flooding by levees and seawalls, and which residents are likely to load their belongings into a U-Haul and flee when the Ohio River threatens to overflow its banks.
An avid rider, Jim also knew one of the roads on the Underground Railroad route near Utica, Indiana, was closed. He showed me how to detour around it, saving valuable time and stress.
Jim’s hospitality was welcome on a journey that is often lonely, even for an introvert like me.
I rode 54 hot and humid miles from Jeffersonville to Madison, Indiana. Madison is definitely the coolest city on the tour so far. Its vibrant downtown would make a picturesque movie set. The 133-block section is the largest contiguous National Historic Landmark in the U.S., in a city populated by just 12,000 people.
My room at the Hillside Inn included a balcony overlooking the river and downtown. That view last evening was soggy, but the storms held off until I arrived.
I’m over halfway to my ultimate destination, Owen Sound, Ontario.
Up next is 58 miles from Madison back across the river, past Kentucky Speedway to Dry Ridge, Kentucky.
Day 25, June 21, 2019
The glamour of a self-supported bicycle tour struck me as I plopped down on a plastic shopping bag to eat lunch behind a kerosene pump at a rundown gas station.
One of my routines for life on the road to Canada is to request a plastic bag when I buy cold drinks. I use the bag to keep my clothes a little cleaner when I sit down on the dirty concrete to take a break. (Cleaner, in this case, is a relative term.)
Such indignities are an afterthought when I'm trying to fuel an engine that’s burning 3,000 calories a day
Lunch yesterday outside the combination gas station/bait shop/lottery-ticket outlet in Sparta, Kentucky, consisted of teriyaki beef jerky for protein, a half bag of Fritos for salt and carbs, and a Kickstarter drink for a midday caffeine pep.
I stop every hour and force myself to eat a snack. I’m sure Jenny will smile at the word “force.”
My go-to choices are bananas, Clif bars, peanut butter crackers, and oats and honey granola bars. About once a week, the engine requires a special ice-cream sandwich additive to keep it running cool.
Occasionally, I run across a convenience store in an affluent neighborhood that has healthy choices like pickles, fruit and fresh sandwiches. But most of the stores have the standard chips, candy and soft drinks.
I eat out at night at whatever restaurant is within walking distance of my lodging. My favorite is a small sirloin, baked potato, steamed broccoli and bread. But some small towns only have one restaurant so the engine has to adapt. At one hotel the restaurants were two miles away and it was storming so I ordered pizza delivery.
Last night, I walked to Cracker Barrel to settle a craving for salty, well-done vegetables.
Yesterday’s 58-mile ride from Madison, Indiana, to Dry Ridge, Kentucky, was a gift from heaven. The temperature never left the low 70s, it didn’t rain and the gusty breeze was headed in the same direction I wanted to go. Did I mention it didn’t rain?
I passed Kentucky Speedway and was tempted to see if NASCAR would let me set a new lap record on my Trek, but I decided to have a snack instead.
Next up is a tough 70-miler to Maysville, Kentucky. I set the clock to get an early start on breakfast.
Day 26, June 22, 2019
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ...
Charles Dickens was riding shotgun yesterday on the road to Canada. His iconic opening to “A Tale of Two Cities” perfectly describes my experience on a 76-mile run from Dry Ridge to Maysville, Kentucky.
The map for this stretch had so many turns and unnamed roads it became frustrating. Then, about 50 miles into the ride, another county road on the route was closed for construction.
Eventually, I gave up on the paper navigation and used Apple maps on my phone. I plugged in the earbuds to hear the instructions.
The issues added only about eight extra miles, but they consumed a lot of time and caused a lot of stress on my longest day in the saddle so far.
Now the good part. In case you haven’t noticed, we live in a beautiful country, no matter where you go.
I have spent most of the last two days riding up and down the ridge tops of rural Kentucky, with spectacular views of the countryside.
As a bonus, the cloudy skies parted and turned blue with big white fluffy clouds. The temperatures started in the lows 60s and never climbed out of the 70s.
But beautiful scenery or not, I went to bed exhausted from climbing 4,527 feet, according to the Strava app.
Next up is a 65-mile ride to Milford, Ohio, adjacent to Cincinnati. At least part of that distance will be on foot: the trail instructions say I have to walk the bike across the Ohio River on a sidewalk on the bridge.
This will be another tough day, and the rain may return.
Day 27, June 23, 2019
Ripley, Ohio, may be small, but its standing on the Underground Railroad can’t be overstated.
That’s why I was determined to spend time there yesterday while riding 70 miles from Maysville, Kentucky, to Milford, Ohio.
Black and white abolitionists established Ripley as an entry point for Southern slaves seeking freedom in the North.
Two of the best-known conductors on the Underground Railroad operated from the town.
Former slave John Parker lived a dual life from his house on the riverbank in Ripley. By day, he operated a foundry and machine shop, and earned patents for his work. By night, he ferried escaped slaves across the river from Kentucky.
Parker worked with the Rev. John Rankin, a white abolitionist whose home was directly above Parker’s house on a high hill overlooking the river. Rankin hung a lantern on a post at night to guide the slaves. He used his home as a safe house.
Harriett Beecher Stowe’s family in nearby Cincinnati became acquainted with Rankin. She incorporated some of the minister’s stories of escaped slaves into “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
The road up to the Rankin house is unbelievably steep. I ran into three men who were walking up and down the hill to prepare for an upcoming hike to Mount Ranier in Washington. I was gassed by the time I pushed the loaded touring bike to the top.
But once up there, I gazed down on the river and tried to imagine the fear and anticipation of former slaves waiting for their shot at the Promised Land. Would they get caught after making it this close?
I also thought about Underground Railroad conductors like Parker and Rankin. Think of the risks they took in violating the Fugitive Slave Act, which compelled citizens to report runaway slaves.
I often wonder how I would have acted in those turbulent times leading up to, during and immediately after the Civil War. Would I have had the courage to challenge my culture?
The last few days have been exhausting, but I have enjoyed riding through several historic downtowns with beautiful old buildings dating to the early 1800s. Maysville was particularly stunning as I looked back while crossing the bridge out of town.
I’ve decided to spend three nights at an Airbnb in Milford, just east of Cincinnati. I will rest today.
On Monday, I’ll leave the heavy panniers in my room and ride 30 miles round trip to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. That will conclude the third part of the ride to Canada.
Preview: June 25, 2019
I’m leaving Cincinnati and heading for Lake Erie on the fourth leg of the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route.
This 418-mile section is flatter than previous portions, but has a few hilly parts. I want to continue increasing daily mileage but that goal depends on lodging options. I’m growing more dependent on Airbnbs because of price and more locations.
I’ll never be entirely comfortable sharing a home with strangers, but so far the boarding-house experiences have been mostly positive. One Airbnb home on the upcoming leg is advertised as a working farm with chickens and other animals. I need to read the house rules to make sure they don’t include predawn chores.
I haven’t made any major adjustments for Part 4 of the ride to Canada. Several portions include car-free and mostly flat bicycle paths. Maybe I’m fitter and will ride faster. Maybe I’m tired and will ride slower. Maybe it will rain and I will seek shelter under a bridge.
Who knows what the weather holds in this unfamiliar territory. Hopefully, the temperatures will be milder than the South, but what will the winds do as I head north toward the Great Lakes and then eastward to my next rest day in Erie, Pennsylvania?
Another concern is staying off the road on the Fourth of July holiday. If I proceed at my normal pace, I’ll be at Niagara Falls for the holiday, which is not ideal because of congestion and lack of lodging.
Now, I must head to towns on the Underground Railroad that were just a few days north of the Ohio River crossing. Danger remained for runaway slaves. The towns were buzzing with bounty hunters who could still capture fugitives and return them to the cotton and sugarcane plantations.
As a side note, Part 3 of the ride didn’t end like I intended, but that’s OK. I had planned to pedal 16 miles into downtown Cincinnati and tour the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. With severe weather threatening, however, I started thinking how miserable it would be to walk around a national museum soaking-wet in bike clothes.
So I took an Uber ride and toured the center for several hours in dry, nonbiking attire.
Visiting the museum was an emotional experience, which I will try to sprinkle into future updates. For now, I’ll say it’s sad how little we learned about slavery as children of the South. For example, I regularly travel on the Natchez Trace Parkway and Andrew Jackson’s Military Road through the Shoals, but never knew they were major slave-trading routes.
Day 28, June 26, 2019
The Green Tunnel rewarded me with the best day so far on the bicycle ride to Canada.
There were no cars, no logging trucks, just a narrow ribbon of paved bike path.
From Milford, Ohio, yesterday I hopped onto the Little Miami River section of the Ohio to Erie Trail. This Rails to Trails pathway is part of the longest paved bike path system in the nation.
Dennis Pierce, a local resident and former Navy man who claims to like my home state of Alabama, stopped me somewhere along the trail to find out where I was going.
“I know a guy who moved here from Arizona who calls this trail The Green Tunnel,” Pierce said. “He rides it all the time.”
It’s a perfect description. The emerald canopy envelops riders with 360-degree protection from ultraviolet waves.
I decided to stay in the moment for the 52-mile spin to Xenia, Ohio. I took my time and enjoyed the scenery. I passed hundreds of people spread out over the miles - everyone from mothers pushing baby strollers to hammerheads on triathlon bikes.
One of my favorite bicycle towns, Loveland, is a few miles north of Cincinnati on the route. A local man told me the trail transformed Loveland from a nondescript village to a bustling cycle hub.
As I chilled downtown in an Adirondack chair with a cold energy drink and a breakfast bar, I noted how the trail served as a social gathering spot for all kinds of people.
Then, I got back on my bike, forgot how much space my panniers take up and promptly knocked over a sidewalk restaurant sign.
After the loud exit, I ran into probably the creepiest building I’ve ever seen. The old abandoned Peters Cartridge Factory at Kings Mill looks like a horror movie set. In fact, it’s a hotspot for ghost hunters.
Construction crews haunt the site now. Pierce told me an investor is turning it into a brewpub.
Incidentally, the plant was founded by Gershom Moore Peters, a former Union Army soldier and Baptist preacher who went on to become an inventor and innovator of guns and ammunition. The reverend organized the factory in 1887, and it was the first to supply machine-built shotgun shells. The plant supplied ammunition for World Wars I and II.
Farther down the trail, I talked to a professor from Xavier University who was out for a two-day bike tour.
“My wife won’t let me do what you’re doing,” he said of my cross-country ride.
The professor told me to try the Mexican restaurant in Xenia when I stopped for the day.
He also recommended I visit Fort Ancient Archaeological Park near Oregonia. I hid my bike in the woods and locked it to a tree while I hiked about two muddy miles through the site. It consists of a sprawling set of earthworks, which the Hopewell Indians dug 2,000 years ago as a social and ceremonial gathering place.
The ride ended where four paved Rails to Trails intersect near the old Xenia Station. I imagine the trailside cottages here were a real estate agent’s nightmare when trains still ran the tracks. The trails that replaced the rails flipped the location into a real estate agent’s dream, with cottages renovated into neat homes and vacation rentals.
My Airbnb was just off the trail and an easy walk to the Mexican restaurant where my day of good fortune got even better with Taco Tuesday.
Next up is a long 79-mile ride to Delaware, Ohio, about half of it on the Ohio to Erie Trail.
Day 29, June 27, 2019
I have tried not to air any dirty laundry about the bicycle ride to Canada, but the issue will wait no longer.
Carrying only two sets of cycling clothes means I must wash clothes every other day to always have a clean set. Washing clothes that often is seldom an option on the road, so I have a few tricks to keep from stinking up America.
The constant need to do laundry is a hassle when I’m exhausted and just want to relax. Unfortunately it has led to one conflict in which I was afraid a woman was going to beat me up.
When I went to use the guest laundry at a hotel, someone had left wet clothes in the washer. I went back to my room, and set my phone timer to return an hour later. The wet clothes were still there.
It was getting late, so I did the unthinkable. I rolled a luggage cart to the washer. I placed a plastic shopping bag on the cart. I removed the stranger’s clothes and carefully placed them on the protective plastic bag on the luggage cart.
Then, I started my laundry.
When I returned 30 minutes later, the stranger’s clothes had been placed in the dryer along with a large note taped to the dryer that said: “Don’t touch my clothes. It’s impolite!”
I walked to the nearby lobby and plopped down in a chair to wait. A few minutes later, a woman walked up to the hotel clerk and complained that someone removed her clothes from the washer.
For the sake of personal safety, I kept quiet, and waited for the woman to empty the dryer and vacate the area. It was a late night and an early morning. I finally put the clothes in to tumble dry while I ate breakfast..
When a washer and dryer aren’t available, I do things like ride with the previous day’s sweaty clothes attached to my bike until they dry. I use my bike as a drying rack in my hotel room. Or sometimes I put deodorant on my clothes. Sometimes, I just stink.
Today will be one of those days when all my clothes are dirty because I was too tired to care about laundry last night.
I rode 85 miles from Xenia to Delaware, Ohio, near Columbus. It was 89 degrees when I finished, after six hours and 47 minutes on the bike, according to my Garmin cyclometer.
I went to bed with cramping calf muscles and the knowledge that I have a 65-mile ride ahead of me today as I head to an Airbnb farmhouse near Ashland. Maybe the owners will let me do my laundry.
By Jenny Morris
Day 30, June 28, 2019
Scott is on his bike again, as he seems to be every day. And last I heard, he was still alive in an Airbnb near Ashland, Ohio. He was pretty tired last night so I told him if no blog post showed up, I would share my perspective of his trip today.
Sometimes people ask me, "Aren't you scared something's going to happen to Scott?"
Occasionally I think about how many dangers he avoids each day, from dogs to logging trucks to sunstroke. Sometimes I think about how scary it can be to ride his bike through a transportation infrastructure made for cars.
But scared? Not really. Or at least not too much. But sometimes I think about the history of the route he's taking and I think about how scared the slaves were who traveled it years ago.
There are good people everywhere, and some people willing to risk lives, livelihoods, and community good will to follow the dictates of the New Testament. But self-interested people can easily out number them.
How to recognize the safe people we can depend on today can be quite the trick. How to recognize the safe houses on the slave escape route then was a different, life and death challenge.
So I have been thinking about communication, and signals, and how we read the unspoken messages around us.
I am spending the summer teaching an abbreviated class load and finishing quilts in progress. It’s a fitting pastime, given the romantic notion that quilts were used to communicate directions on the underground railroad route.
But the quilt I started years ago for Scott can’t be seen from his current location and our talks are brief at times and perfunctory, full of the minutia of daily life.
So I made a mini-dictionary for Scott to translate what I mean from what I say during those less than satisfactory phone calls.
I told him when I say, “It was 74 degrees today when I started my walk”—what I mean is, “I miss you.”
When I say, “I made another roast today”—what I mean is “I miss you.”
When I say, “The car insurance is screwed up again and I might have to find another agent”— what I mean is, “I miss you. And part of me is scared you will spend the rest of your life riding your bike across continents and I will be left at home to handle everything. And maybe it’s time to sell one of our surplus cars that make our house look like a fraternity. But mainly that ride across continents thing.”
When I ask for the fourth time what he is doing the next day, or hour, or minute, what I am thinking is “I miss you. Daughter No. 1 is stressing over upcoming law school. Daughter No. 2 doesn’t want to go back to school at all. And are you ever coming home?”
When I say, “I am so glad you are getting to do this.” What I mean is, “I am so glad you are getting to do this. But I miss you.”
I am glad Scott is getting to experience this trip. And I am glad you are all reading along with him as he tries to communicate some of that experience to us. Here’s hoping he’ll be back at the keyboard tomorrow. I have a quilt to finish.
Day 31, June 29, 2019
As I negotiated a minefield of horse manure on the road to Canada yesterday, a thought occurred to me.
“I should have bought those fenders the guys tried to sell me at the bike shop before touring Amish country.”
In my defense, I thought I was touring the Underground Railroad. Along the way, I became an accidental tourist in Amish country. Medina County, Ohio, is just one community connected to the state’s 60,000-population Amish.
It was interesting to ride slowly (because that’s the way I roll) and watch the men and their horses plow fields, plant seeds and cut hay the old-fashioned way. Signs in front of the white farmhouses advertised everything from eggs to raspberries.
Eventually, I left Amish country and arrived in Oberlin, Ohio, the subject of a book titled “The Town That Started the Civil War.”
Oberlin is home to Oberlin College, which has been integrated since 1835. The city was a key juncture on the Underground Railroad, connecting to at least five routes to safety for runaway slaves.
In 1858, Congress passed a law compelling citizens to turn in fugitive slaves. Shortly thereafter, a group of Oberlin residents and college students rescued a runaway slave whom a U.S. marshal had captured. The group helped the fugitive escape to Canada.
The federal government indicted 37 people for aiding in the escape. Then the state of Ohio arrested the marshal. Subsequent negotiations between the state and the federal government led to the release of the marshal and all but two of the abolitionists. The two men, including well-known abolitionist Charles Henry Langston, were tried and convicted.
The convictions led to wide protests against the Fugitive Slave Act and became a pivotal point leading to the war.
I have been fighting a much less significant war on a personal basis.
The last three days of riding have been exceptionally difficult because of the heat and high mileage. I covered 217 miles in those three days with temperatures approaching 90 degrees. I can’t seem to drink enough to stay hydrated.
Lodging in remote places in recent days also made it difficult to find a healthy dinner. Thursday night, I ate ramen noodles and Fritos. Last night I ordered pizza delivery because all the restaurants were two miles away. This is not the way to fuel a bike tour.
I’m looking forward to a much-needed rest day and better food choices early next week in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Yesterday’s 59-mile ride took me from Ashland to Oberlin. Next up is about 50 miles to Hudson, Ohio, between Akron and Cleveland.
Day 32, June 30, 2019
The Weather Of Northern Aggression almost made this old Southern boy raise the white flag yesterday.
I’m glad I didn’t. The day ended with a spectacular ride through a national park on a historic trail.
You would think I was built to endure whatever heat and humidity those Yankees could fire in my direction. But back-to-back days of this brutal assault are taking their toll.
Fortunately, the kindness of strangers and late-afternoon cloud cover got me through another day.
At one point while I was sitting in the shade on the side of the road, a man pulled up with his family to check on me. He kindly offered me his kids’ juice boxes.
The low point came during a long, hilly stretch of road with no convenience stores. The tar on the road surface was so hot, it turned sticky and was popping under my tires. Desperate for fluids, I rode up to Constantine Nursery and Garden Center and asked a young man if they had a drink machine. He told me I was welcome to use their water cooler.
I sat on a bench in front of a fan for a long time sipping cold water out of a plastic cup and trying to cool down. Then, the young man brought me a quart of cold Gatorade and told me the electrolytes would help.
He was right. I gulped down the lemon-lime concoction and felt rejuvenated. It also helped that the next two miles of the route descended into the beautiful Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
The Cuyahoga River was once so polluted it kept catching fire, which helped lead to the modern environmental movement.
My map from Adventure Cycling Association provided two options for traversing the park. I chose the gravel Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail because I knew it would be flat and in the shade.
Horses and mules used to tow small barges on the adjacent canal, where you can still inspect the old locks used to raise and lower the boats. Eighty-five miles of the trail are open for cyclists and hikers, with plans to expand in the future.
In all, I traveled 61 miles from Oberlin to Hudson, Ohio. My cheap hotel was in a remote area again, but at least there was a dining option, the Tiki Underground.
To escape the rowdy crowd, I found a quiet table in the back room. About the time my steak arrived, however, a rockabilly band set up next to me and started jamming. I could still hear them from the hotel room hours later.
Jenny is trying to presuade me to ditch my leaky 35-year-old tent and ship the other camping gear home to save weight. It's tempting. I will scout out the upcoming last leg of the tour to make sure I don't have to camp.
Next up is about 66 miles to Austinburg, which ends with a stretch on the Western Reserve Greenway Trail. With an expected high temperature of 78, maybe the weather will show mercy.
Day 33, July 1, 2019
One lesson from a long-distance bicycle tour is that you never know how your body will respond from day to day.
After struggling most of Saturday, I enjoyed one of my best days Sunday.
I set the clock for 5:30 a.m. and got an early start.
The air was drier and the temperatures never climbed above the 70s. The hills seemed easier and even the north headwind didn’t bother me.
I veered into another Amish community, but based on the conditions of the properties, this one was more affluent. Geauga County, Ohio, is home to the world’s fourth largest Amish settlement.
It was strange to ride by these striking white farmhouses and matching white barns for miles and see no cars or trucks cluttering the driveways.
It was interesting to note the Sunday afternoon pastimes. I kept passing single-file lines of Amish girls on kick scooter bikes, and families out for open horse-cart rides.
I took a break in the impressive town square of Burton Village. Burton was founded in 1798 and the center of town was patterned after village greens in New England.
The last 10 miles of the ride were on the well-shaded Western Reserve Greenway Trail, which passes through lush wetlands. I knew I wasn’t in Alabama anymore when the trail signs directed snowmobile riders how to use the path.
In fact, the feel of the countryside is changing as I get closer to the Great Lakes. The streams have sandy bottoms and brackish water that seems in no hurry to move along.
I made yesterday’s 69-mile journey from Hudson to Austinburg, Ohio, without my old tent and plastic ground tarp. I threw both of them away. This lessens my burden by about four pounds, but it scares me to travel without emergency shelter.
As soon as possible, I plan to mail the rest of the camping gear home, which will save more weight. And without the camping gear, I may be able to get by with just two panniers instead of four, shedding a few pounds for each one I send home.
Next up is about 56 miles to Erie, Pennsylvania, for the next rest day. Then, it’s the final push into Canada on the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route.
Day 34, July 2, 2019
After everything I’ve endured to get this far, the first glimpse of Lake Erie was an emotional experience.
A cool north breeze refreshed my soul as I gazed out on a horizon where blue water met blue sky. I was filled with the spirit, ready to be fully immersed right there in Ashtabula, Ohio.
Later in the day, I reached Erie, Pennsylvania, concluding Part 4 of the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route.
What did escaped slaves think when they stared out over this same Great Lake after so much suffering and hardship?
As early as 1813, Southern slaves were escaping through Ashtabula County, where I began yesterday’s ride on the Western Reserve Greenway Trail. I lingered at a trailside exhibit to learn about another piece of the Underground Railroad.
Two-thirds of the people who settled what was called the Western Reserve in northeastern Ohio were former Connecticut residents. These anti-slavery activists became the final aides to many escaping slaves before they fled the United States.
The region was home to several ship captains who took fugitive slaves across Lake Erie to Fort Malden in Ontario, Canada.
A cycling friend told me he has been talking with others about the Underground Railroad, and was surprised at the misconceptions surrounding it.. So here are a few details.
Most importantly, the Underground Railroad was not a railroad and was not under ground. It was a secret network of routes used to hide and smuggle runaway slaves to freedom. It had its own railroad-themed terminology:
-Agents were owners of safe houses.
-Stations were the safe houses, and were often given code names like Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard.
-Escaped slaves were called freight or passengers.
-Conductors moved the former slaves between safe houses, sometimes using wagons with a secret compartment under the floor.
-Trains were groups of escaped slaves.
-Messengers were people who looked out for bounty hunters and reported their activities to others in the network. A home in Ashtabula called the Octagon House had a secret room just below the roof where messengers could sit on a bench and look out over the town for slave catchers.
It has been interesting - at least for me - to learn more about this part of our history, which we don’t seem to honor in the South. As a region and as a nation, we have a complicated history when it comes to letting freedom ring.
I am taking today off but may go on a 13-mile spin around nearby Presque Isle State Park in Lake Erie. I just can’t seem to get enough.
Preview July 3, 2019
The final leg of the ride to Canada began today with a 52-mile spin to Dunkirk, New York.
I will spend the next few days negotiating the congested areas of Buffalo and Niagara Falls on what for some people is a four-day Fourth of July holiday. The timing is not ideal because of traffic, but I’m ready to finish this adventure and see my wife.
I do plan to spend two nights at Niagara Falls to allow time to explore the falls, which I have never seen.
And just to set the record straight, the ride to Canada doesn’t end when I cross the border. The Underground Railroad Bicycle Route continues another 272 miles to Owen Sound, where many runaway slaves settled.
By land’s end, I will have seen three of the Great Lakes: Erie, Ontario and Huron.
Yesterday, I went to the post office in Erie, Pennsylvania, and shipped the rest of my camping gear home. Fearing I would spend $50 mailing $2 worth of junk home, I threw away the heaviest item, a 20-year-old fleece sleeping bag. I tossed my ratty old tent back in Ohio.
I’m like a hot-air balloonist slinging ballast out of the basket in a desperate attempt to gain altitude. Look out below!
So I will be pedaling a lighter load. This is good because Adventure Cycling Association warns that cyclists will struggle to climb the Niagara escarpment and other steep hills in Canada with a fully loaded touring bike.
I’m starting to think former British Prime Minister David Cameron has the right idea about bicycle touring. He said the best way to carry your gear is in the car behind you.
Friends have asked if I have experienced any mechanical problems or flats. So far so good, although my rear tire is wearing thinner after almost 2,000 miles.
The rear tire wears out faster than the front because it bears a higher percentage of the rider’s weight. We cyclists ask a lot of our rear tires and wheels because of the rider’s weight and torque from the chain. Rear wheels are a common problem area for broken spokes and cracked rims.
On a tour, you prepare for common mechanical problems, but you can’t foresee everything. Part of my extra weight comes from spare tire tubes, patch kit, air pump, multi-tool, chain tool, chain lube and zip ties. I also carry a roll of self-fusing silicone plumbers tape, which only sticks to itself.
I met another cross-country cyclist in Kentucky who broke his chain and learned the nearest bike shop was 100 miles away in Missouri. He regretted his decision to save weight by not carrying a chain tool.
He was able to repair his bike by borrowing my chain tool and a pair of pliers from another camper.
I hope my good luck for mechanical issues holds out for the remainder of the trip. Breakdowns mean extra stress when you’re hot and tired and have limited time to reach your lodging.
Once I arrive in Owen Sound, probably around July 12, Daughter No. 1 is driving up to retrieve me. Bless her. It will save a tired old bike rider the hassle of disassembling his bicycle, shipping it home, renting a car, driving to Toronto and flying to Alabama.
Day 35, July 4, 2019
Danger lurks on the shoulders of American highways.
That’s why I have always avoided riding a bicycle there as best I could. But I surrendered to the shoulders on the ride to Canada in the name of self-preservation on high-traffic roads.
If you aren’t a cyclist, you might ask what hazards hide on the highway shoulders. Terrible things. Things that flatten fragile bike tires, break wheels and send cyclists hurtling over the handlebars. Things that keep the pedaling public up at night.
Pretty much anything that used to be on the road eventually ends up on the shoulders. It stays there until the end of time unless it attracts a team of adopt-a-mile buzzards.
A rider has to be vigilant to avoid catastrophe. Below is a partial list of hazards I have seen (although it can be hard to see through steamed-up cycling goggles) on highway shoulders:
-Walnuts, crabapples, mud, dirt clods, falling rocks, sharp stones, loose gravel, tree limbs, meteorites and quicksand.
-Live snakes and alligators; dead birds, possums, armadillos, raccoons, deer, buffalo and African elephants.
-Broken glass, fish hooks, nails, wood screws, galvanized bolts, barbed wire, butcher knives, Kevlar-bike-tire piercing ammunition, Freddy Krueger, the murder weapon from some chain saw massacre in Texas, WMDs, WTFs and weapons-grade uranium.
-Manhole covers, manholes without covers, covers without manholes, drainage grates, and potholes that lead through a secret underground labyrinth to a forgotten realm.
-A random guy who stands there all day waving at traffic, walkers, joggers made stupid by earbuds, flagman-ahead signs and the actual flagman.
-Underwear, trucker hats, beer cans, big chunks of truck tires, Mountain Dew bottles, previously owned diapers, hypodermic needles and portable meth labs.
I am rating the quality of road shoulders on my big adventure.
Alabama and Mississippi are the worst because the overzealous departments of transportation cut rumble grooves into every possible space in the shoulders to wake up sleepy log-truck drivers. If DOT misses a spot to cut a groove, a big piece of pine bark magically falls off a log truck and fills the void.
In Tennessee and Kentucky, packs of loose dogs protect the highway shoulders, making sure the cycling traffic keeps moving at a brisk pace.
Ohio is terrible because a six-inch depression in the asphalt surrounds every manhole cover and drainage grate to help you find it.
New York is the best, with smooth, wide shoulders and no dead armadillos, live alligators or loose dogs.
Yesterday, I rode 55 miles, mostly on the fine shoulders of Lake Road, from Erie, Pennsylvania, to Dunkirk, New York. It was a beautiful route, passing through miles of wine country. Vineyards surrounded both sides of the highway, and I could look out over the grapevines and see the blue waters of Lake Erie.
Next up is a short 40-mile hop to Hamburg, New York, on the outskirts of Buffalo. Happy Fourth of July, and remember to share the road.
Day 36, July 5, 2019
The decision to abandon all hope of camping on the ride to Canada has been a good one.
I mailed the heavy camping gear home from Pennsylvania, and threw away my old tent and sleeping bag.
The results on the road are positive. I wouldn’t say I’m zipping up hills like Lance Armstrong on performance-enhancing drugs, but the experience is definitely more enjoyable.
On small hills I’m able to stay in the large chainring. Of course yesterday’s 42-mile route was mostly flat from Dunkirk to Hamburg, New York. But I think the weight difference is significant enough to help me up the steeper climbs in Canada.
Even with a lighter load, I was apprehensive about riding on the Fourth of July, but the traffic wasn’t bad on the rural route.
One small beach community where I stopped to check the map was bustling. Three guys on the porch of a cottage were getting a midmorning start on their celebration when they started shouting questions at me in New York accents.
Where you going? Where did you start? How many miles have you gone? Why are you doing it? Have you had breakfast? Do you want a drink?
One of the guys walked over with his phone to record me answering the same questions again. He said he was going to send the video to his cousin, who “just thinks” he’s a cyclist.
We all laughed, they held up their glasses and yelled “cheers” and I was in my way again.
As I rode along Lake Erie, I could see the skyline of Buffalo on the distant lakeshore. I intentionally stopped just short of the city for the night so I could hit it early today and hopefully avoid the worst traffic.
The map from Adventure Cycling Association said to expect urban road conditions and to ride defensively. That sounds intimidating to someone accustomed to riding quiet county roads in Alabama.
From Buffalo, today, I will cross the Peace Bridge into Canada. Total mileage to my Airbnb in Niagara Falls should be about 60 miles with the last leg on a bike trail.
Day 37, July 6, 2019
The ride to Canada would have ended one bridge short of the border if it weren’t for a guy named Skip.
Construction crews have been building a new cycling/pedestrian lane across Peace Bridge from Buffalo, New York, to Fort Erie, Ontario. According to news reports, the new lane opened about two weeks ago.
When I arrived at the bridge yesterday, however, an orange sign said the bridge was closed to cyclists. It gave a phone number to call at U.S. Customs for a shuttle ride across the bridge.
When I called the number, it went to voice mail and said the mailbox was full. I tried to find a real person at the entrance kiosk, but it was vacant.
This caused me great stress on a day when the temperature had already climbed to an Alabama-like 87 degrees with high humidity. Was the ride going to end here after all my effort?
I knew there were other bridges across the Niagara River downstream, but I had no idea how to reach them on a bicycle in Buffalo traffic. I thought about standing at the crowded bridge entrance with my hitchhiking thumb in the air in hopes someone in a pickup would have pity.
Finally, I decided to ignore the sign to the nearby duty-free building that said no pedestrians beyond this point.
That’s when Skip yelled at me to stop. When I explained the dilemma to Skip, a U.S. Customs agent, he said he would call for a shuttle. But he couldn’t get anyone on the phone either.
Then all hell broke lose. An 18-wheeler illegally drove through the duty-free car lane and Skip had a conniption.
A second problem presented itself when another driver pulled up and told Skip he got on the bridge by accident and didn’t want to go to Canada.
As Skip tried to juggle these issues, he looked back at me.
“Are you a good rider?” he asked.
“I’ve made it almost 2,000 miles,” I answered.
He glanced at the bridge and then back at me again. “If you want to go that badly, you can ride in traffic.” He said it with hesitation, like it was a bad idea. “Just stay as far to the right as you can and be careful.”
As I rode away still thanking Skip, he yelled “Good luck.”
Only one northbound lane was open, and because of construction barriers, cars didn’t have room to pass me. By the time I got to Canada, a long line of drivers was backed up behind me. So as soon as the road widened, I kindly pulled over and let them pass.
Then a Canadian customs agent yelled at me to follow him. I thought I was in trouble, but he escorted me to the front of the line - in front of all the traffic I had just held up - and told me to go next.
I had heard terrible things about Canadians - things like they provide health care to everyone - but the customs agents were
polite and even helped
me find the best way to the bike path.
The ride that followed was probably the most scenic trip of my life, along the swift-moving river to Horseshoe and Niagara falls. I was too hot to enjoy the falls, but since I’m staying two nights here, I plan to spend lots of time there today.
The ride will resume Sunday with a 55-mile spin to Stoney Creek, Ontario.
Day 38, July 8, 2019
The seed that led to the Underground Railroad began on the Canadian side of the Niagara River.
If the British Empire had not abolished slavery here, slaves trying to escape from the United States would have had no place to go.
And it all started with Chloe Cooley, an enslaved woman in Queenston, Ontario.
This was just one of the history lessons I came across yesterday as I passed the 2,000-mile mark on my bicycle ride into Canada.
On March 14, 1793, Cooley was bound, thrown into a boat and sold across the river in New York, which once had the second most slaves in the U.S., behind Virginia.
“Her screams and violent resistance were brought to the attention of Lt. Gov. John Graves Simcoe by Peter Martin, a free black and former soldier in Butler’s Rangers, and William Grimsley, a neighbor who witnessed the event,” states a historical marker along the Niagara River.
Simcoe immediately moved to abolish slavery in the new province. But he met opposition in the House of Assembly where some members owned slaves.
They reached a compromise to prohibit the introduction of any new slaves into this region of Canada and to slowly abolish slavery altogether.
This decision was significant because it was the first time the British Empire limited slavery and it set up Canada to become a safe haven for fugitive slaves from the U.S.
Trying to capture everything about this region’s history and natural beauty in words and photos is beyond my abilities.
As long as I have memory, I will treasure my 36-mile ride along the Niagara River from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. I have never seen water so magnificent in color and power.
It was surreal to stand and watch the river as a wide and swift stream on its way to roar over Horseshoe and Niagara falls then to churn white through a deep gorge and swirl in the great Whirlpool Rapids, before it pushed through power turbines in two countries at once, and finally settled into the waters at Niagara-On-The-Lake.
I expected less grandeur as I pedaled away from the river along Lake Ontario, but the region held another kind of wonder. The route took me through countless wineries, fruit farms and rows of colorful commercially grown flowers.
I passed so many fruit stands selling locally grown cherries, strawberries and blueberries that I finally had to stop. I bought a small box of strawberries that were the best I have ever tasted. At a rest stop earlier in the day, I had a delicious fresh strawberry muffin with a cold bottle of Gatorade.
The only trouble Canada has given me so far were two miserably hot days in Niagara Falls and a problem I have encountered in other areas of my route involving road signs.
I stayed last night in an Airbnb built in 1893. The old mansion was magnificent in every way but one. There was no air conditioning.
The Asian woman who owns the house is still struggling with her English, which caused her to sound bossy in an endearing way.
“You come to breakfast now,” she said after knocking on my door at 8 a.m. An hour later, she knocked again. “Time for you to take tour of house now,” she said through the door.
But she was a wonderful host to me and about 20 other guests, and she was constantly checking to see if we needed anything.
The other challenge has been navigation. Many of the rural roads either don’t have signs or the signs don’t match my maps. So, yesterday’s 55-mile ride turned into 67 miles.
But I met several nice people who helped me find my way, including Pip and her husband. They actually drove part of the route in their car and then came back to show me the best way to go.
“If you didn’t already have reservations, we’d take you home with us and let you spend the night, and I’d cook you a good meal,” Pip said.
Next up is about 55 miles - plus navigational corrections - to another Airbnb in Milton, Ontario.
Day 39, July 9, 2019
When the women I left at home read this post, they will think I've shed all my inhibitions along with any weight I've lost on this road to Canada.
But no account of my journey would be complete without a litany of the physical indignities I've suffered.
Early on in the trip, I discovered what cross-country cyclists have in common with runners and breast-feeding mothers.
Yes, we’re talking about sore nipples.
I almost quit the tour back in Mississippi after the pain caused by my jersey chafing against my chest day after day.
But I decided not to give up without seeking a solution.
The internet is the go-to resource for embarrassing medical conditions, but you have to be careful when you choose your keywords. You can’t just search for “nipples,” because who knows what might appear on your computer screen.
I can’t remember the exact word combination I used, but I stumbled upon the condition called joggers nipple. It can cause bleeding and scabbing in severe cases.
I learned women generally don’t have this issue because they wear sports bras. This made me wonder if anyone makes sports bras for men. Maybe something called “The Bro,” as once referenced in the TV comedy “Seinfeld.”
But I couldn’t find a Bro. So I went to that place where every internet-savvy person goes when seeking obscure products, Amazon.
There I found something called Nip Guards. I read the customer reviews. “My wife and kids walked in while I was putting them on and I think they’re scarred for life,” one reviewer wrote. But he endorsed the product.
So while I was home for a two-week break, I risked the ridicule of the three women in our house and ordered 20 pairs of Nip Guards. They arrived in a discreet plain brown box, so the mailman and neighbors wouldn’t talk.
Nip Guards look like pasties without tassels. They consist of a octagon-shaped piece of foam about a quarter-inch thick covered with a thin beige plastic film. They have adhesive and stick to the body through hurricane conditions.
I’m happy to report they work so well that I ordered enough to get me to Owen Sound, Ontario. Maybe the ride for world peace should become the ride for joggers nipple. Let's remove the stigma and find a cure.
There have been other pain points, too. Just about any part of the body that touches the bike presents a problem after too many miles.
The outer edges of my palms stayed irritated and the skin was peeling until I bought a new pair of cycling gloves with more padding.
I won’t provide details for another issue, but the cure is a wonderful product called Chamois Butt’r.
There you go. More than you ever wanted to know about bicycle touring.
Yesterday’s 50-mile ride from Stoney Creek to Milton, Ontario, was not very exciting. It included 3,300 feet of climbing.
The day began with an ascent of the steep Niagara Escarpment, a ridge that runs 450 miles and has cliffs almost 1,700 feet high. For the first few miles, I could look down on Lake Ontario and the city of Hamilton, population 535,000. Across the lake, I could make out the sprawling skyline of Toronto.
But most of the day was spent on crowded urban streets getting through Hamilton and the adjacent bedroom communities.
Next up is 45 miles to Orangeville, Ontario.
Day 40, July 10, 2019
When I run into people on the road, they ask me where I spent the night before.
Usually, I have trouble remembering.
That’s what happens when you combine age with sleeping in 39 different places in 39 days. Besides, I’m usually thinking about where I’m going instead of where I’ve been, which sounds like a good habit to continue.
It’s strange to think only two more days of riding remain before the tour of the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route ends.
I’ll keep riding and writing for the next couple of days. Then, please, may I go home? In a car? With the air conditioning running?
I plan to rest a few days, catch up on my neglected chores and write an epilogue. Maybe by then I can better explain why an old white dude from the South chose a route that commemorates slaves who escaped to Canada.
I hope I haven’t offended any of you with the weird mix of history, humor and travelogue contained in these blog posts. I can tell you with all my heart that I mean well.
The mental and physical effort to keep this journey up for so long has prevented me from taking as many photos as I intended and visiting as many sites as I planned.
But maybe I will come away from the second greatest adventure of my life as a better person. I know the greatest adventure of my life - marrying Jenny and helping raise six children - led to self-improvement.
I popped open my sixth bottle of sunscreen yesterday and enjoyed a ride that was an improvement over the previous day’s tour of big-city streets. After leaving Milton, I entered several miles of farmland that looked like the Midwest, with wheat fields and corn. Then it changed to hilly tree farms and giant nurseries.
Then I rode three beautiful mountain miles along the Forks of the Credit River, a popular fishing stream for brown and brook trout. The region includes the famous Bruce Trail for hikers and an area called Forks of the Credit Provincial Park, which sounds like the queen herself just showed up for a picnic.
Ascending back up the Niagara Escarpment from the stream was part of the 3,800 feet of climbing fun contained in the short 43-mile ride.
Just for the record, I spent last night in Orangeville, Ontario, at the Atlanta Motel of all places. And I treated myself to a handful of fresh cherries and a beigne, which looks suspiciously like a sour-cream doughnut.
Next up, I head to the hinterlands for about 62 miles with very few places to get drinks and food. I’ll be hauling more water than a fire truck.
For my cycling friends from the Shoals, my destination today is Collingwood, Ontario. If you guys are riding to Collinwood, Tennessee, on the Natchez Trace, think about me. And say hello to the Dragonfly.
Day 41, July 11, 2019
I may be the most excited man to see windmills since Don Quixote.
Cervantes' character tried to fight windmills because he thought they were giants. Any other parallels between me and the would-be knight errant will rest unsaid.
The miles and miles of gentle giants I passed yesterday kept watch over fields of yellow canola blooms, amber wheat, and dark green corn stalks, alfalfa and soy beans. And this high-tech revolution is occurring in a countryside populated by Amish and old-school Mennonites.
The seemingly endless rows of power generators mesmerized me as their white fan blades swooshed in the breeze. I couldn’t quit looking or taking photos.
As someone who loves riding through farm country, it was the perfect day on secluded county roads. Add a brisk tailwind, a route that descended 2,851 feet and temperatures in the low 80s, and the 62 miles were the easiest I have pedaled on the trip to Canada.
The 12-mile home stretch to Collingwood, Ontario, dropped from 1,650 feet elevation to 600 as I rode through Pretty River Valley Provincial Park. It was a lazy rider’s dream.
Collingwood is an adventure town on the banks of the Georgian Bay, off Lake Huron. Everywhere I look, I see bicycles, kayaks, paddle boards, hiking boots, and snow-ski shops. The Blue Mountain ski area is part of the Niagara Escarpment that I descended to get here.
But I’m at the bottom of a bowl and must climb out to reach my final destination today, So, as bicycle karma would have it, I face an 800-foot ascent to start the day. But it’s only 43 miles to the end.
Until this tour, I didn’t think 43 miles was short.
Day 42, July 12, 2019
I made it!
The final day wasn’t easy, but I made it to the end of the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route in Owen Sound, Ontario.
Sometimes the bicycle teaches spiritual lessons, as was the case yesterday.
I may not have the faith to move mountains or to calm strong headwinds, but I can ask and receive enough strength to endure those mountains and headwinds. That’s important when they team up against me.
The day started in wonderful fashion. From Collingwood, I immediately hopped on the Georgian Trail, a former rail line turned into a trail for hikers, cyclists and cross-country skiers.
As the pea gravel crackled under my tires, I could look left and see the ski slopes of the Blue Mountains and on the right, the vast Georgian Bay, an arm of Lake Huron. The skies over the Great Lakes can turn the most beautiful hues, and yesterday’s was turquoise.
Steve Shirtliffe rode up while I was shooting photos and wanted to know my story. He was on vacation from the Saskatchewan region.
I told him my family watched several Netflix episodes of the comedy sitcom “Corner Gas,” which is set in Saskatchewan.
“That’s pretty much how it is there,” he said with a laugh. “Probably a lot like Alabama.”
After Steve rode away, I had to leave the trail and head toward Owen Sound. The red and white Canadian maple leaf flags were flapping in my direction.
At the same time, I had to ascend the Niagara Escarpment one last time, after going up and down it for a week.
The wind and mountain were a brutal combination. I shifted to the lowest gear, put my hands on the handlebar drops to be more aerodynamic and gave it everything I had for miserable mile after miserable mile. Most of the time, I could only muster about 5 mph.
I finally got to the top and collapsed in the shade of an old Anglican Church steeple. A banana and some Gatorade perked me up and I set off again.
I took my next rest stop in the village of Walter’s Waterfall at a place called Corner Gas. No lie. They don’t actually sell gas at Corner Gas, but you can get cold drinks and a fresh caramel muffin.
The proprietor told me he has met thousands of cyclists through the years riding the Underground Railroad route, but not many who did it alone. He asked me how many flat tires I had.
“You’re the first person I’ve ever talked to who had none,” he said.
So I guess I owe a shoutout to Eero Wilson and the guys at Spinning Spoke Bicycle Hub in Florence for recommending the puncture-resistant Bontrager H5 tires. I spent a lot of miles on the shoulders of highways in broken glass and other hazardous debris with no problems.
I did have an issue yesterday when the rear disc brake quit working, made a weird sound and emitted an odor similar to burned banana peel. Later, I discovered the peel from my snack stuck in the brake. I had placed it on the bike to dispose of it and forgotten it.
It was a relief to finally descend the escarpment that leads to Owen Sound. I was a gritty, limestone-colored mess from seven miles of the day's route on wet gravel roads when I arrived at the end of the official route and a memorial to the Underground Railroad. I read all the displays. Then I sat sat on a bench for a while and thought about my journey to this place.
When I set out from Mobile, Alabama, I dipped my shiny new bicycle tires in Mobile Bay. When I passed by Lakes Erie and Ontario, I did the same. Sometime today, I plan to baptize the muddy, worn tires in Lake Huron. Then I'm going to sit back and let Daughter No. 1 drive me home.
Since I returned home from Canada, a slightly different version of the same dream keeps spinning into my sleep.
I’m on a loaded touring bicycle in unfamiliar territory. The map is no help. I’ve forgotten where I’ve been and don’t know where I’m going. I just know I have to keep riding, keep pedaling toward whatever comes next.
The dream could simply be the product of 42 days of repetition on a 2,229-mile adventure from Mobile, Alabama, to Owen Sound, Ontario. But every morning, I replay the dream and wonder if it holds some greater meaning.
Most of the people I met along the way, and a lot of you who joined me by reading daily updates about the trip, asked about the meaning of the journey. Why did I take this trip on the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route? Was I riding for some cause? What did I take away from the experience?
C.S. Lewis said there is nothing about the raw materials of glass that would indicate the final product would be hard, brittle and transparent. I may have the materials at hand to make sense of the Underground Railroad bicycle tour, but whether I can create glass out of them is yet to be seen.
The first material is simple. I love self-propelled adventure involving a journey from Point A to Point B. In my younger years, I had an unfulfilled dream to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. The hikes I did take, though memorable, were much shorter. Later this passion to travel without assistance encompassed kayaking and cycling trips.
Because of work and family obligations, these adventures had to be brief. I did bike the entire Chief Ladiga Trail, Virginia Creeper Trail, New River Trail, Natchez Trace Parkway and Katy Trail. In the back of my mind, though, I wanted to go bigger. So, I joined Adventure Cycling Association and started studying the group’s national route system.
The second raw material was opportunity, born out of personal pain. This past year has been the most difficult year of my professional life. I fought the good fight. I stood up for college students who were sexually harassed and assaulted. I stood up for the First Amendment and the light it shines in the darkness. I endured injustice at the hands of people in power. And suddenly, I was set free. I wasted no time in relishing this newfound freedom. My employment ended on a Friday and I left for Mobile the next day.
But with so many riding options, why did an old white dude from the South choose the Underground Railroad, a 2,000-mile route that commemorates people who escaped from slavery? This is where the key raw material lies, tangled in my cultural underbrush.
It starts with my great-great-grandfather, Scott Morris, a Confederate cavalryman for whom I was named. Various family members gave me my namesake’s framed portrait, Bible and old bank ledger to form some sort of shrine to the old South. As a child, I felt an unspoken responsibility to honor a man who, in truth, was just another army private on the wrong side of history.
Eventually, life experiences and a keen interest in the civil rights movement led me to a long overdue realization. I had been indoctrinated into the culture of the Lost Cause. I held an incomplete view of my heritage. What kind of people were my ancestors? Was I celebrating a Southern myth by walking around with this name?
Like most people, I have a complicated family history. The first Scott Morris grew up next to and married into a family named Speegle who sent two sons to fight for the Yankees in Paducah, Kentucky. But my namesake, like his three older brothers, joined the rebel army.
Two of the first Scott Morris’ brothers were casualties of the fighting in Georgia, either through illness or battle. And according to a family letter, Scott’s father, John Jarman Morris, died of an apparent heart attack after learning one of these sons was near death. So, this family of Confederates lost three members in a matter of months. A younger brother was charged with murder immediately after the war. And the man we believe was the Alabama patriarch of this family, William “Red-headed Billy” Morris, had to flee to Mississippi after he was found guilty of adultery in a case that went to the Alabama State Supreme Court. All of this ruin compacted into such a short time period might elicit a degree of sympathy.
But there is more to the story.
The Morris family owned slaves. Not many. But how many does it take to define your humanity?
As I scoured court records and gathered family stories, I had a growing desire to know more about the people who were enslaved by my ancestors. What hardships did they suffer? What became of them? Were their descendants able to overcome the injustices of the South?
I have a poem supposedly composed and recited orally by one of the slaves, written down by a family member and eventually published locally. The poem describes an idyllic life on the farm followed by tragedy during the Civil War.
I have estate records that name six slaves who were still on the farm when the war ended. According to family stories, two other male slaves died on the property, one who drowned and another who was crushed by a boulder. There may have been others, as family legend has it that my great-great-great grandfather, John Jarman Morris, offered all the slaves their freedom at some point during the war, if they wanted to leave.
I have a copy of a family story printed in a newspaper that says John Jarman Morris bought a slave named Granville from a slave trader. After learning the trader had separated Granville from his wife, Morris went back and bought Ails to reunite her with Granville. This could have been an act of kindness, but it surely shackled Granville’s loyalty to his new owner.
The family lore seems designed to form one conclusion: My ancestors were good and benevolent Christians who treated their slaves like members of the family. This may or may not be true, but I don’t see any slaves listed as heirs in the estate. And how much goodness and benevolence does it require to offset the fact that you own other human beings?
When I set out for Canada on the Underground Railroad, I carried in my heart Granville, Ails, Edmond, Henry, Mary Lewis, Willis and the unnamed slaves who labored on my ancestors’ farm.
In Mobile, I passed the Old Plateau Cemetery, holding survivors of the Clotilda, the last slave ship to land in the United States. I skirted around the murky waters of the Mobile Delta and disappeared in the dense pine forests. I followed the Tombigbee River into Mississippi and inched my way northward toward the hills of Tennessee.
I moved in a gentle rain through the hushed fields and forests of Shiloh, forever stained by blood. I followed the North Star into Kentucky between three mighty rivers, and received aid from many kind strangers. I remembered the secret directions and warnings from hanging quilts: the flying geese, the sailboat, crossroads, drunkard’s path, monkey wrench, Dresden plate and log cabin.
I crossed the River Jordan into the Promised Land of Ohio. But I had to keep moving, always moving, deeper into northern Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York. I felt the cool spray of thundering waterfalls on the Niagara and passed between the deep blue waters of the Great Lakes.
I reached the final destination in Owen Sound at the Underground Railroad cairn, exhausted in body and soul. I ran my hands over this collection of rough stones that serve as a memorial to the 30,000 slaves who escaped to this land. I walked the footstones in the memorial and read the inscriptions they held:
“Steal away to Jesus, steal away home, I ain’t got long to stay here.”
“When Moses was in Egyptland, let my people go.”
“Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home.”
“We are free at last.”