Using a Bicycle, Author Follows Roads to Freedom Taken by Harriet Tubman on Underground Railroad
By Terri Schlichenmeyer
The Bookworm Sez, LLC
It’s all in the balance.
You need to maintain that first and everything else comes next. Without balance, you can’t pedal and the wheels won’t turn. Without balance, you’d dream of a place with no chance of biking there. No balance, no movement — and, as in the new book, “On Freedom Road” by David Goodrich, forward, northward, is the only way to go.
In the early spring of 2011, while taking a rest from a cold bike ride, David Goodrich wandered into a museum. There, he was handed a large brass ring that was once a slave collar.
It reminded him of something he knew: one of his ancestors was a ship’s captain in the “Triangle Trade,” also known as the Atlantic Slave Trade.
Holding the collar and acknowledging that “white folks like him” have different ties to slavery than do Black Americans, he yearned to “discover how some … [African] descendants later brought themselves to freedom.”
In 2015 and 2017, he and a friend had taken trips from New Orleans, Louisiana, and Jackson, Mississippi, respectively, following routes that enslaved people might have been forced to travel. He writes about those trips in later pages here, but he begins this book near the birthplace of Harriet Tubman.
To find Tubman’s exact route north on the Underground Railroad took some effort, Goodrich says, because she was illiterate and written details could have been dangerous. Still, there were notes and clues indicating where she went. She tried not to attract attention but the owners of the safe houses along her route knew her. Those facts helped shape the journey that Goodrich and two fellow riders took in the summer of 2019.
From Maryland to Canada, they biked up hills, through wooded areas and mud, following an app, notes, roadside signage, and traveled along many of the same roads that Tubman had made repeatedly under cover of night, despite threats on her life and that of her ‘passengers.’
As for Goodrich and friends, “we would be traveling by daylight, without dogs in pursuit, and with the benefit of Gore-Tex, shiny gears, and freedom.”
“On Freedom Road” is a pleasantly odd read.
The timeline, first of all, is backwards: author David Goodrich opens this book with a recent tale, leaving a later journey for the back half. It’s somewhat befuddling.
And yet, neither part lacks in excitement: because a bicycle isn’t a car, Goodrich had a vantage point that’s unique in travelogues, which is at least partly what this book is. Readers will find descriptions of bicycling and scenery, yet it doesn’t distract from history, which is the reason behind the ride. The nimbleness of the transportation mode helps Goodrich share the smallest, bravest, most impactfully historic tales of danger, determination and daring.
“On Freedom Road” is not filled with the tales you learned in school; no, it recounts the wild and violent and heroic, told between gentle accounts of weather, traffic and flat tires. Readers who are looking for something unusual will find that to be a nice balance.
“On Freedom Road: Bicycle Explorations and Reckonings on the Underground Railroad” by David Goodrich. c. 2023, Pegasus $27.95 246 pages
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