Riding the South

The blog of Scott and Jenny Morris

Part 4

Escape to Canada on

Underground Railroad

By Scott Morris 

Day 34, July 2, 2019
Miles: 1,814

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.

Day 33, July 1, 2019
Miles: 1,760

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 32, June 30, 2019
Miles: 1,691

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 31, June 29, 2019
Miles: 1,630

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.

By Jenny Morris

Day 30, June 28, 2019

Miles: 1,571

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. 

By Scott Morris

Day 29, June 27, 2019
Miles: 1,498

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.

Day 28, June 26, 2019
Miles: 1,413

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.

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.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Cincinnati to Erie