Riding the South

The blog of Scott and Jenny Morris

Part 3

Escape to Canada on

Underground Railroad

By Scott Morris

Day 27, June 23, 2019
Miles: 1,361

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.

Day 26, June 22, 2019
Miles: 1,291

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 25, June 21, 2019
Miles: 1,215

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 24, June 20, 2019
Miles: 1,157

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 23, June 19, 2019
Miles: 1,103

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 22, June 18, 2019
Miles: 1,051

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 21, June 17, 2019
Miles: 982

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. 

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. 

Read Part 1
Read Part 2

Read Part 3

Owensboro to Cincinnati