One of the unexpected pleasures of bicycle touring is the opportunity to stumble upon historic sites of great interest. Mostly, I confess, these sites are interesting because of my woeful ignorance of U. S. history. How many times have you stopped the car to read the roadside markers that explain some nugget of “what happened here”? When travelling by bicycle, especially east to west, these roadside markers give a sort of commentary on how America was founded.
Take for example the markers on the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail in central Kansas. One marker commemorates the homestead of George Washington Carver. He was born in Missouri and spent most of his life in Alabama. It seems life on the prairie was not to his liking.
Another set of markers further to the west described the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. I don’t know if I ever learned of this in school. How sad for this country that there were so many of these attacks on native encampments that it’s nearly impossible to remember them all. As I stood there looking north toward the site some miles distant I couldn’t help but think that I was standing in the middle of literally millions of acres of land, much of which was utterly unoccupied. What a stain on this country that the white settlers could not figure out how to share peacefully this massive canvas of prairie. Of course, I also could not see the native prairie grasses, the millions of bison, passenger pigeons, or other wildlife that the settlers wiped out in the name of progress and Manifest Destiny.
In Montana and Idaho we came upon sites connected with the Nez Perce War. We spent about an hour at the Big Hole Massacre site shaking our heads in disbelief. The massacre was directed by General O. O. Howard. Howard had made a good name for himself as the director of the Freeman’s Bureau which helped formerly enslaved people of the South transition to life during Reconstruction and who founded Howard University in the District of Columbia. History is complicated, it seems.
These sites are not without comic relief. Later on the way up Lolo Pass into Idaho, we came upon the site of Fort Fizzle, where the Nez Perce outfoxed the Army that was lying in wait. Rather than take the trail right past the army’s position, the Nez Perce simply stayed higher up in the mountains. I’d like to have seen the look on the fort commander’s face when her realized he’d been punked.
In 2022 I stopped to check out the remnants of the Sante Fe trail near Cimarron, Kansas. Many hundreds of miles later my route intersected with the Oregon and Mormon Trails where they coincide at Split Rock, Wyoming. Riding is hard but I can’t begin to imagine hoofing it across these plains.
In Wyoming, we came upon the gravesite of Sacagawea, the famous guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition, on the Wind River reservation. The gravesite itself wasn’t nearly as interesting as the rest of the still operational graveyard. As we moved west we encountered the ghosts of the Lewis and Clark expedition time and again, ultimately reaching their winter encampment at Fort Clatsop near Astoria, Oregon.
Yet another oddity encountered on my tour was the Supermax Prison near Florence, Colorado. You can see two or three lower security prisons from the road and they are quite massive, but the Supermax is out of view. In it, are the baddest of the bad. (The county includes a total of ten prisons which is a pretty creepy statistic.)
David Goodrich took a different approach to bicycling through history. He intentionally rode three sections of the underground railroad. I had seen roadside signs describing where Frederick Bailey – who would become Frederick Douglass once he escaped enslavement – and Harriet Tubman on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Goodrich rode Tubman’s route through Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York to her ultimate destination of St. Catherines, Ontario in slavery-free, British-controlled Canada. Amazingly, she passed through and stayed at a safe house in Albany, New York where I grew up. I had absolutely no idea that the underground railroad came through Albany. This may be because Albany was about as racially segregated a place as you could find in the north. Redlining will do that.
Goodrich’s travels also took him places in Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio. In Mississippi he toured Civil War sites and checked out the early locations where delta blues music took root and flourished. His account of these travels is contained in his new book, On Freedom Road. It’s wonderfully written and informative. After I finished reading it, I immediately ordered his two two other books about the intersection of his bicycle touring and climate change.
I met the author at a book signing event at Bards Alley bookshop in Vienna, Virginia. My thanks to the good folks at Bike at Vienna for bringing it to my attention.