Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Another Video Update

Here is our latest video update. Also, new pictures are posted on the picasa page.

Underground Railroad Video Update #4 from Eric Hittinger on Vimeo.


Biking Small Town USA (by Rachael/Rae)

Adventure Cycling maps largely avoid large cities for safety and ease of biking. There is less traffic, and that's better for us bikers. So instead we are zigzagging our way through small towns. This has both ups and downs.

One trend is that we see more churches than gas stations, a lot of people in Kentucky are voting for Jesus in the local elections. In Mississippi and Tennessee a lot of places were closed on Sundays, and we were told that many places close on Wednesday and Monday afternoons for people to go to church. We didn't experience problems with the latter, but we do make sure we have dollars as Sunday approaches in case the only place to get cold drinks is a rare soda machine. This past Sunday we were welcomed by the Breckenridge Mennonite Church where we stopped to get water and use the restroom. The only store in town- closed.

Biking through small towns is preferable to all the crazy traffic of big cities, but it also gets me to notice the really small things and I find I have a childlike excitement for really little things. There isn't much going on, so anything out of the ordinary is exciting. One day I was excited to see a horse in the pasture trotting along as if to chase or follow us. It was among the highlights of the day. I find myself tickled to see so many butterflies and moths everywhere, everyday (it must be their season- there are tons of them!). I've been 'run into' by butterflies (as well as some less interesting and likable insects).

One nice thing about small towns with nothing for miles in between is that the people there are as interested in you as you are in seeing other humans. Between these small towns are farms, forests, and state parks, and stretches of rural America with lots of hills. As we approach a town I get excited because it often means we'll take a break. The towns are also a good way to measure progress and I find myself excited when I see signs that say "Reduced Speed Ahead" because it means we're a mile or two from town.

I've enjoyed riding through small towns in the South, especially meeting new folks. I find myself really excited to get to Ohio (we cross the border tomorrow). This is my home state. It's not that great, but it does have a special place in UGRR history- especially Ripley, Ohio (which we're skipping in our shortcut but I will go visit later to visit the home of John Rankin). It's true value is a return to what is familiar. I found myself really excited a few days ago just to see an IGA grocery store (there was one in my neighborhood growing up) and as I belted out the lyrics to an IGA add/song and felt immense relief and joy I realized how valuable it is to be in a place that is familiar.

As we travel through the middle-of-nowhere I have come to appreciate Dollar General and WalMart and Gas Stations. These places have what we need in places where we really need them. I find myself excited to hear there is a WalMart nearby, whereas I used to be morally opposed to shopping there. I probably won't shop there a ton when I return to civilization, but I understand why people shop there. I still wish they would change some of their business practices, but I realize that this opinion is a luxury that those of us with real incomes and many shopping options can afford to have.

Breaking into biking (by Shira)

After pedaling for 1300 miles over 115 hours and 22 days, I think I've finally gotten the hang of this. In case you find yourself in a similar situation, here's how you know when you've been broken in:

1. Your discount rate for hills becomes negative. i.e. you would rather bike uphill now, so you don't have to later. In fact, you now hate going down hills because you are throwing progress in the garbage, and even worse, sometimes have to use your breaks.

2. You drink more calories than you eat.

3. You only start to worry if there are more than 3 dogs chasing you.

4. 6 donuts or less is considered a snack. 7 or more is a meal.

5. You are happy to see rain clouds and wonder why you bothered to bring rain gear.

Michael is Gone

So, you heard it first on the Twitter feed, but wanted to hear it explained.

In Owensboro, KY, Michael had his Mom's friend Amy come out and pick him up from the motel we were all staying at. His Mom (JMN) drove over from Alexandria to take him home.

Big bike trips like this are sometimes hard (and sometimes tons of fun). The real challenge to such an outing is not (as many assume) the physical difficulty of getting on the bike and pedaling each day. Neither is it the obstacles along the way: heat, hills, dogs. The force that enables you to do the bike trip is one of attitude and a general control over your mental state. You have to find a way to accept the things that are happening, not battle them. You have to find a way to push through the bad times, trusting that there are good times ahead. And that is not easy, especially if you are 15 years old.

I have also noted in the past that a lot more people would quit bike trips if there was a magic "Quit" button on the handlebars that would teleport you back to your living room. In many cases, the fact that you don't have any choice but to continue (even in the US, quitting usually involves biking several hundred more miles) is the only thing keeping you on the trip. In this case, Amy was nearby and could pick him up (along with what must have been a suspicion that his Mom would drive out to get him), which provided an exit.

So, yes, it sucks that Michael quit the bike trip. But on the plus side, he did bike 1000+ miles from New Orleans to Owensboro, KY, and that is a pretty impressive feat on its own.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Biker Bios (by Shira)

Hello faithful blog readers. Most of you probably know only one or two of the bikers on our trip -- here are some bios on the rest of us so you can keep up with the blog posts:

Eric: Age 30, unemployed graduate student, Pittsburgh, PA. Chief bike mechanic -- able to change a rear, drive-side spoke (and true the wheel) in 37 minutes flat, while swearing on the side of the road in 105 degrees. Dog slayer: in charge of pepper spray and knives. Ensures that we look as homeless as possible. Navigator.

Rachael, Pittsburgh, PA: Age 29, high school English teacher (the only biker with a job). Chief dog yeller, mom and historian. Chef. Reminds us that the slaves had to walk this route, with people trying to hunt them instead of dogs.

Michael: Age 15, unemployed high school student, Alexandria, VA. Chief boy scout and doctor. Can distinguish between sweat rash, bug bites and fungus, which is quite handy on a bike trip. Can tell you what kind of tick is on your leg.

Bill: Age 57, retired computer programmer, Nashville, TN. Found us on the side of the road somewhere in Kentucky. In charge of discouraging homelessness. Able to get lazy graduate/high school students to wake up at 5 am to bike. Chief electrolyte supplier.

Shira: Age 26, unemployed graduate student, Pittsburgh, PA. Other chef. Dog bait.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Our Dynamic Bike Group

So we are now a group of 5, down from a group of 6 yesterday. This dynamic group operation is a side effect of the Adventure Cycling route that we are riding.

Let me explain: We are on a mapped route, for which Adventure Cycling sells great map sets. Of course, an unknown quantity of other people also buy the maps and bike these routes [as an aside: I am continually curious how many maps they sell and how many people actually bike the routes. In my experience on the Northern Tier and the UGRR, I would guess that there are maybe 25-50 groups on the route at peak season, but that is a WAG.] Thus, while the routes are by no means saturated with bikers (In my experience, only 1 in 3 store/hotel/camp clerks have ever seen people on bikes passing through), there are always other folks out there somewhere. If you get lucky (or use technology) you can run into them.

That is how we ran into Eric (another Eric, not me) and Bill. We found Eric on the internet through twitter (or rather, he found us). Shira was using the Adventure Cycling Underground Railroad hash for some of her posts and he found us through that. We met up with him in Waverly, TN and he biked with us for a day and a half, before setting off for points unknown. (Eric's blog is linked on one of the sidebars to the right)

We met Bill by chance, or something like that. Actually, we were hunting him (and his friend) for several days out of Mobile. At almost every stop we made, folks would tell us that there were two bikers just a day ahead of us (note that in some areas there are very few services, so bikers are pretty limited to particular stops). And each person would give us more information about them: how fast they were going, how old they were, etc. From what we heard, we expected that we would be able to catch up with them in a week or two, but after the first week the scent went cold. Three days ago, we were resting by a road sign on a snack break when Bill rode up. We quickly realized that he was one of the guys we had been tracking. We lost the scent because he went back to Nashville (his home), and lost his friend (who had to go back to work). So now Bill is biking with us, and is a great addition to our team. I'm not sure how long he will want to bike with us, but this sort of linking up by chance is a lot of fun.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Chased by Dogs by Rachael

Tennessee is full of hills and dogs. Our technique for responding to dogs has improved, and the fear that I carried for the first two days of biking in TN has abated. This fear reminds me of many of the readings I’ve come across in both historic fiction and nonfiction alike. I’ll summarize some of the reading experiences that relate to both dogs and the Under Ground Rail Road.

1. The Slave narratives include a story of a woman (slave) who ran away. She was hunted with dogs, and when she was found the dogs attacked and ripped of her breasts. The teller of this tale goes on to say that the woman was able to have children, but had to have other women feed her children. I remember having trouble believing this story when I first came upon it. No more! There are dogs here on chains (thank god) who nearly choke themselves as we pass by. And the brutality/ferocity of dogs seems to increase as their numbers increase. Dogs have group think too…. The Slave Narratives have a complex history and I recommend anyone interested in reading about them to find the book Unchained Memories.

2. In the time traveling neo story Kindred a free Black woman is caught trying to help her husband (or lover?) escape to freedom. She is nearly killed by the dogs that are sent after the pair, stopped only because a man expresses his desire to purchase the ‘free’ Black woman.

3. Mississippi and other states had laws denying slaves and sometimes free blacks from owning dogs.

Video Update #3

Hey guys, new pictures are up. Also, here is video update #3:

Underground Railroad Video Update 3 from Eric Hittinger on Vimeo.

Dog Days

So we have entered dog territory, which is identifiable due to our increased use or rural backroads. We now have at least several dog encounters per day (an "encounter" being defined as when a loose dog comes barking and running towards us). Both Shira and Rachael have had dogs bite their bags and I have sprayed two dogs with the pepper spray.
The good news is that we have defensive weaponry and are getting increasingly good at anti-canine tactics. Each of us is equipped with pepper spray and bamboo stick (see picture). Of course, we also all are able to shout and kick at errant dogs as well.
As far as tactics, we have started using military tactics to defend. In risky areas, we ride in convoy and look/listen for dogs. When one is sighted (or, more frequently, heard), we call out the vector of attack ("Dog left!"). If we are changing tactics from just biking, such as stopping or engaging the dog, we call that out, too. This communication helps us identify and respond to dog assaults.
As to the exact actions, it depends upon the situation. Most loose dogs don't want to do anything more than run to the edge of the property and bark at you. While this can be a bit worrying, it isn't really a problem. We have also encountered lots of dogs that will chase you down the road and have encountered 1) spots with dogs coming from both sides of the street, 2) areas with continual loose dogs house after house, and 3) packs of dogs up to 10 in number.
Our responses range from yelling (which sometimes helps), stopping (which does a lot to make the dogs less interested in chasing you), taking out the stick and raising it (most dogs really do not like this and will turn around and run away), and the pepper spray (which is effective but difficult to use accurately).
We also spoke with two postmen who both said that dogs were a problem for them, but that pepper spray was very effective. They also both told us that the real problem is the dog that you don't see - that's the one that is going to bite you.

For those biking this route in the future: The dogs start in earnest after Fulton, MS and run at least as far as Waverly (where we are now - I will update this as we go further). I suggest getting a stick (bamboo from a side of the road bamboo stand is good), as this is very effective when combined with stopping your bike as a deterrent.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Quick One While We're Away

Hey guys,

We are staying in Aberdeen, MS which is a really nice town. We stopped here because they are having a bunch of events, starting with a charity auction/concert tonight, a church is being driven across town tomorrow, and an associated parade (which we will be in). We have met many of the local business owners, as we seem to be located at the center of town, and the newspaper guy wants to write up an article about us. Also, HGTV is filming abunch of stuff about town, including the church moving and parade, so maybe we will be caught on that, too.

EDIT: We have much more to report about how great this town is, but that will wait for a dedicated post tomorrow.

We uploaded some more geo-tagged pictures (check the top of this page), and this hastily made video:

Underground Railroad - Video Update #2 from Eric Hittinger on Vimeo.


History Report

We stopped in at the public library in Columbus, Mississippi.I had the opportunity to look at some really old documents, so old I had to put on gloves to protect the pages. I was given a book that was called a slave manual, but it really was a collection of legal records that state who bought slaves, when they were bought & that they were for the purpose of personal use and not to be resold. The only date I saw was for 1837, and the records didn't have the names or any real way of noting who the slaves were -which is telling and sad. After the fugitive slave act was passed (a federal law mandating that escaped slaves could be captured and returned to their 'owners' upon proof of ownership) it was dangerous for free black persons and escaped slaves because slave hunters and slaveholders would frequently kidnap or claim anyone because it was hard to disprove ownership. After this law was passed many free and escaped blacks moved farther North or to Canada, which is why our destination is Canada.

The underground railroad was at first completely unorganized, and made up of free blacks and even people who weren't against slavery but offered food or shelter to a fellow human being in need. The UGRR became organized by the cooperation of free & escaped African Americans and largely Quakers and very devout Christians. From my current research I have come across three heroes of the underground railroad. Harriet Tubman, William Stills and John Rankin. Harriet Tubman decided when her 'master' died that she would live free or die trying. She left her free black husband who was afraid to run away with her. She then traveled between 8 and 19 times back into the South to rescue slaves. She helped free some 100 slaves in order to fight int he civil war. William Stills was a free black man who recorded the stories of the slaves he helped escape (and in the process found his brother!). He was among those who assisted Henry Box Brown. John Rankin was a minister in Ripley Ohio who was among those who helped create the abolitionist movement by traveling throughout the country to speak out against slavery. Hew also publicly stood against slavery on his farm and protected and aided the escape of slaves from the slave state of Kentucky to Ohio and farther north.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Biker to Hobo (by Shira)

When camping behind a grocery store in Coffeeville, Alabama, I had the following conversation with the store manager:

Shira: Thanks so much for letting us camp behind the store, we would have been homeless otherwise.
Manager: No problem, but you're still kind of homeless.

At that moment, on day 6 of our bike ride, I knew that we crossed the boundary into the land of the hobos (pictures to follow of the shantytown we put up behind the supermarket, complete with our laundry hanging on a shopping cart). I think we made the official transition 2 days earlier when we spotted a b0x of half eaten Krispy Kremes left in a gas station, and ate them without question. Later that night, the folks camping across from us gave us their leftovers for dinner, and we saved our leftovers of their leftovers for breakfast.

The next day, Michael fell asleep on a bench at a closed gas station.

The other day Eric said this to the rest of us, in all seriousness: "So I got some good advice from the homeless guy outside Wal-mart: non-dairy creamer is good foot moisturizer, corn startch is good for sweat rash". Hopfully we will be able to dispense some good advice soon.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Living Life on A Bicycle

It is day six, and everything that has come before this trip, even recent events like sightseeing in New Orleans, seem so far away. It was at first terrifying to set off from New Orleans with 2,200 miles ahead of us. But now the miles are less daunting and having 300 hundred miles under our belt I feel a lot more confidant and upbeat. We are getting into our routines for setting up camp, cooking dinner, preparing breakfast and packing up camp.

After two or three days of flats, we’ve come to the beginning of the rolling hills here in the South. I decided very early on to enjoy the down hills. It would be very easy to hate all down hills because they demand that I go back up again (always). Finding peace with down hills (&up) is pretty important to keeping my morale up. So far I rocked an awesome hill going just over 35 miles an hour.

Part of the impetus for this bike trip was to gather information about the South, a place I’d never been to but as a Northerner have plenty of stereotypes about. Someone (from Mississippi) on our train ride said we’d find the best hospitality and we’d also find some ignorant people. So far we’ve experienced a lot of the first and very little of the second. I am really enjoying myself here, and I love listening to the accents of the locals.

Geography Lesson (By Shira)

In case you ever take a road trip in the South, and find yourself without a map, here are some tips to figure out where you are:

1. Look at the roadkill: If you see mostly dead crabs on the side of the road, you are probably in Louisiana. Massive frogs means you are in Mississippi and Armadillos are the most common road kill in Alabama.

2. Look at the houses: If they are built on 20 foot stilts, you are on Louisiana. 10 foot stilts is Mississippi. In Alabama they are flat on the ground.

3. The dogs: In Louisiana they are fenced. In Mississippi they are big. In Alabama we have only been chased by Chihuahuas.

Finally, if you can't buy gas because all the gas stations are closed, you know that it's Sunday.

Video Update #1

Hey guys, the web is slow here, so I'll be fast. There are new pictures (and I fixed the geotagged album link at the top of the page). Also, there is this video update:

Underground Railroad Video Update #1 from Eric Hittinger on Vimeo.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Aboveground Railroad

Hey folks,

We took the train from DC to New Orleans, which was quite a nice experience. We are now in New Orleans, prepping to start out tomorrow. I don't have much time to write, but I will upload some pictures to the picasa gallery momentarily.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Train ride to The South (by Rae)

Eric, Michael & I are taking the train from DC to New Orleans tomorrow. This is an exciting part of our journey. Not only are trains fun (and particularly better than flying), but this train ride is connected to the historical aspect of our journey. The adventure of biking across the country is very exciting; however, I am equally interested in exploring this part of our American History. As the "literary specialist" on this trip I am collecting poems, stories, and interesting information about slavery and the Under Ground Rail Road. I hope to have one little story/fact/poem per day of the trip to share with my fellow bikers.

On that note, our imminent train ride evokes images of Harriet Tubman, a woman/heroine who escaped slavery and risked travel into slave states in the South to rescue family members and other slaves. Despite having a high reward for her capture, Harriet traveled by train on a number of these journeys. And so, on our luxurious train ride, I will pause for a moment to remember this inspiring and courageous woman who risked her own liberty to help others attain their own. She is the only conductor of the UGRR known to risk her own freedom in this way.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

How to Pack for Every Occasion (video)

Hey everybody. I'm pretty busy here, packing and such, but here is a video showing all of the stuff I am bringing. This is filmed in standard definition and not edited really at all, and will reflect the type of short video "vlogs" that we will be posting during the trip.