Bearing Witness to History by Bicycle

April 25, 2012

I've just finished Edward P. Jones' extraordinary book, The Known World. Published in 2003, the novel explores the painful relationships wrought by slavery, weaving in a little known historical fact that there were freed blacks who owned slaves.

It's a beautifully written, absolutely gut-wrenching tale about the corruption faced by nearly everyone whose lives were touched by this institution. There are no simple characters, no judgement, just clear-eyed storytelling that will rock your soul.

The Known World offers moving entrée to a time in our nation's history that is certainly painful to remember, but important to keep alive in our memory. For me, it's clear that this period still reverberates in our culture as we work to shed its legacy.

Reading the novel made me think of many things, one being work-related: how proud I am of Adventure Cycling's Underground Railroad Bicycle Route (UGRR), which memorializes the Underground Railroad, a network of clandestine routes by which freedom seekers attempted to escape slavery before and during the Civil War. The route guides cyclists through some of the landscapes and landmarks along the Underground Railroad corridor from Mobile, Alabama, to Owen Sound, Ontario.

The treachery that faced escaping slaves, and those who assisted them, is explored in detail in Jones' book, and while no bike tour in the world could (or would want to) mimic this reality, along the Underground Railroad route, the pace of bike travel does allow you to take in the many signs, landmarks, and landscapes that bear witness to this history, up close, at a human pace. To enhance cyclists' appreciation of the Underground Railroad's history, the UGRR maps list key historical sites, and traveling cyclists can find listings of additional route highlights on Adventure Cycling's website.

Because no one route could ever reflect the true Underground Railroad, which comprised a vast number of secret routes and safe houses, we've always intended to expand the main Mobile to Owen Sound route to include other important communities in Underground Railroad history. So, in February of this year, we added the new Detroit Alternate, a 518-mile alternate route from Oberlin, Ohio, to Owen Sound, and the response was overwhelming.

Our friends at  OutdoorAfro wrote a blog post to promote the new route to their members, the story was picked up by HuffingtonPost, and The Morning Journal in Oberlin wrote a great feature about the new route and Oberlin's growing bicycle culture. Pittsburgh's Essential Public Radio (90.5) also conducted a great interview with Executive Director Jim Sayer. Plus, local cyclists flocked  to gatherings in Detroit, Toledo, Oberlin, Cleveland, Columbus, and Pittsburgh (which is not on the new Detroit Alternate but connects to the main Underground Railroad Bicycle Route via the Pittsburgh Spur.

Thanks again to all the communities who helped make this map release a great success and thanks to Edward P. Jones for bringing this painful but important part of our history alive through his vivid characters and skillful storytelling. I'd highly recommend The Known World to anyone considering a journey on the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route.


NEWS, NETWORKING, AND NEW MEDIA highlights cool media (articles, videos, photos, etc.) and meet-ups related to Adventure Cycling and bicycle travel. This column is usually written by Media Director Winona Bateman. Writing a story about bicycle travel or Adventure Cycling Association? Contact Winona via email at pressATadventurecyclingDOTorg. Visit our media room, view our news releases, or follow us on Twitter.


Liezel July 3, 2013, 10:59 PM

As stated on your web-age: Available maps from most of the seven cietis involved in the South Bay Bicycle Master Plan are available here. Are you aware of other cietis in the South Bay with an existing bike master plan? Email us. Please send me any available info. on Hermosa Beach. Thanks.geoff hirschhermosa beach

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