In Mongolia, the farewell phrase when someone departs is “Zam” It means, roughly, “good road, good way, good travel, good road.” Before wheels and engines there were no delineated roads for the horsemen of Mongolia; it was all a wide open route, to travel by horse, perhaps like a bird.
Many of you know I like to ride my bike. I don’t race. I like to ride and look around and think about stuff, stuff I see, or just stuff I think about. And sometimes, while I ride my bike, I think about riding my bike. I’ve examined my cycling in terms of fitness and cardio-vascular health. I’ve examined my riding in terms of renewable resources and ecology. I’ve examined cycling as an endorphin-producing mind and emotion altering activity, a mind-clearing Zen exercise. However, whenever I examine why I love to cycle, I come back to its fundamental essence. It’s fun. Kid fun. I feel terrific when I ride a bike. My spirit soars. I smile. I may look goofy, but I just smile and am full of joy. I feel fully alive.
And I know why I feel this way, too. Riding a bicycle, like the bike itself, is so elegantly stripped down and simple and fluid, that the act itself is wildly liberating. It’s fun; it’s free; it’s freeing, and it’s vital. Likewise, traveling by bicycle is liberating. You who have done or will do the sophomore bike trip can know that. Out in the country, in the weather, in small towns, in farms and forest, wandering through other people’s home, we lose the shell of cool we so carefully construct for other days, and as we move we become again our more physical, communal, aboriginal selves.
Last spring I was granted a sabbatical leave from Peddie to travel by bicycle (and by car too) from Pensacola, Florida and Mobile, Alabama on the Gulf of Mexico, and meander up through Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta to Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Ontario, following stories of slavery, white terrorism, Jim Crow, movement towards freedom, the Great Migration, the blues, Abolitionism, Underground Railroad, and the astonishing power and complexity of the American land and people. I’d done lots of research and reading, and I had a map, a mission, a guitar, and plenty of excitement. And I had a plan. Gotta have a plan – so you know what you need to do when you don’t know what you’re doing, so you know what it is that you’re going to change when you pay attention to the omens, when you listen to the spirits on the road, when you feel and touch the inside edge of the greater outer psyche inside of which we all operate.
There were three moments I want to share with you today, each glorious and lovely, and they only happened when I stopped and turned around on the road.
I. A barbeque love fest in the Mississippi Delta
Almost two weeks into the trip I was riding through the Delta of Mississippi, aiming for Jackson Mississippi. I’d already played some tunes with an old time planter I met in St. Francisville, Louisiana. I’d found the edge of a cotton field near Itta Bena, Mississippi where B.B. King was born in a long ago fallen down shack. I’d already spent time at Bryant’s Grocery in Money, Mississippi, where Emmett Till was lynched and tossed into the Tallahatchie River. The Delta was deep and poor and seemed lost in slow time. Mississippi is the poorest state in the union, and the Delta is the poorest part of Mississippi, and riding into Jackson on a Saturday morning on the old road was coming into town on the poor side. As I came into the outskirts of town, up ahead on the right was a ramble down shack with a barbecue smoker belching smoke that swirled out from under a corrugated roof down the highway. Three or four young dudes were hanging out there, helping the barbecue cook right, I suppose.
They saw me and I nodded to them, and then, as I rode by, they started yelling at me, hollering all sorts of stuff. I kept riding for a moment and then – I don’t know why – I slowly made a big circle with my bike and trailer and headed back toward the shack and the smoke and the hollering. I stopped my bike, took off my helmet, and then – I don’t know why – I hollered back at them: “What are you guys….cooking that smells so good out here?” Well, that changed everything and the hollering turned into a barbecue love fest. One guy wanted to know about my guitar, so he played some blues while I ate, I played a little too, then they all signed the guitar, and they taught this Yankee prep school English teacher all about barbecue.
II. Clementsville Road: "Just in case we are kin."
A couple of weeks later I was traveling away from Nashville, Tennessee on my way towards Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. I was heading down Clay County Highway 52 and passed a road sign on the left, angled away from me. Old Clementsville Road it said. Took me a little while to think this through, and another mile down the road another sign appeared. Clementsville Road it read, angled back. Now I can do both geometry and geography, so I knew what was up. I turned around and headed back this second road, Clementsville Road, eager to find an eponymous town. I knew this was going to be even more special when I saw the name Clements welded into the gate of a working farm yard. Yes! There’s not just a Clements town but Clements people too! A little further down the road was an old man on a riding lawn mower doing his side yard. There had been no other automobile traffic. I pulled into the barn driveway of this man’s house and stopped. He stopped his mower. We were still 20 yards apart but time and distance seemed in no hurry. I then pulled out my driver’s license, and hollered at the mower man: “Your name Clements? My name’s Clements too.” I walked up, handed my license to him, he looked at it. Then Carrell Clements and Pat Clements became pals. “Been here for generations, but I don’t know who’s who,” he said. “My brother Ray does though. Head back to old Clementsville road and you’ll see his house. It’s red.” Well Ray wasn’t home, but his nephew was around whacking some weeds on the next farm on the road. He called Ray. “Be back in an hour. They’d love to meet you.”
When I arrived at the red house an hour later, Ray and his wife Corrynne Clements welcomed me into their home as though they’d been expecting me for years: coffee, a folder of family history, stories, including Andrew Jackson Clements, U.S. Congressman from Clay County. Turned out we’re not related most likely: they came to America through Virginia in the 1700s from Protestant Amsterdam, settling in Clay County Tennessee in the early nineteenth century; we’d come to the Erie Canal region of New York in the early 1900s from Catholic Ireland. They took me out to dinner, offered a place to stay for a couple of nights, “As long as you want, honey.” And handed me a copy of a folder of genealogy “just in case we are kin.” As I was leaving, Corrynne said “You know, we heard there’s a Clementsville up somewhere in Kentucky, and they’re Catholic.” She nodded and knew what new destination she had delivered.
III. Elgin Settlement: A place of freedom and liberty
Finally, after leaving the Clementses in Tennessee and finding another cemetery full of Clements stones in Kentucky, after exploring some of the towns and routes of Underground Railroad traffic, and enjoying the legacy of pre-Civil War racial and gender integration of Berea College in Kentucky and Oberlin College in Ohio, and finding in Kentucky the Sweet Home plantation of Toni Morrison’s novel "Beloved," and walking among the soughing sycamores and the barn where white boys and roosters ravaged Sethe and Paul D, I made it to Canada and my destination, the Elgin Settlement. This 9,000 acre piece of land in the rich flat Ontario farmland on the shore of Lake Erie (that’s a rectangle 3 miles wide and 6 miles tall), was a sanctuary for run-away slaves from the States and free blacks from Canada, drawn up in 50 acre homesteads. It was created in 1849 by Irish born Louisiana minister William King. On the death of his Louisiana wife’s father, the Reverend King inherited 14 slaves, something he could not abide. With his entire household he headed to Ohio where he freed all his slaves and then, with a free household intact, established and became the first settlers of the Elgin Settlement, where there was no slavery, or Fugitive Slave laws. And they rang the bell every time someone new arrived in this sanctuary. By 1853 there were 130 families in the settlement. By 1860 there were 2,000 people living in this refuge. The school they established in the settlement was so good that white businessmen from Buffalo and Toronto sent their children to school there; by 1856 half of the students in this school were black, half white.
When I arrived at the Settlement on a Saturday morning, now just a little museum, a school house, a chapel, and a cabin, I was elated. I had come by bicycle and by car from a slavery port on the Gulf of Mexico through 400 years of racism, white supremacy, and astonishing and inspiring struggle, and I had arrived at an early and successful refuge of freedom. I walked up to the museum. The door was locked, the museum closed. I was crushed. I had come all this way and was stymied. So I walked around the grounds, rattled all the doors, looked in the windows, read the plaques, climbed around as best I could and made peace with this unsatisfying conclusion. It was starting to drizzle and because I had nothing else to do, I jumped on my bike, turned around, and rode back down to Lake Erie to look off toward Ohio and the source of these fleeing settlers. A little depressed, but resigned, I rode slowly back to Buxton and was putting my bike up on the car I was using when a vehicle pulled in. A man emerged, and opened the museum door and entered. I did not let my hopes rise, but when he came out, 2:15 in the afternoon now, and flipped the "Closed" sign to "Open," I stopped my packing and headed inside. I paid my five bucks, followed his instructions to watch the introductory video, and then was given a private tour of the whole place by Spencer Alexander, the museum’s assistant curator. Turns out Spencer is the 5 times great grandson of fugitive slaves who fled bondage in Maryland to arrive in freedom at the Elgin Settlement, and Spencer Alexander still lives in the house on the 50 acre parcel of another 6th generation grandparent. And then he asked what I was doing on my trip, and I explained its arc – starting at a slave trading port and ending here in a place of freedom and liberty. and that I was carrying a guitar along and playing with folks, and having them sign it. So I asked if he played guitar. He said “No,” then paused, and continued, “but I SING!” I ran back outside, snagged my guitar, and he sang Big Joe Turner’s 1955 jump blues tune “Flip Flop and Fly.” And Spencer’s signature is the final mark.
So? Walking away point? Let’s all dream big: make a plan, big plans; understand that that plan won’t work out the way you first planned it; and that’s what is supposed to happen, and be sure to turn around when the still, small voice of the spirit of the journey suggests that that’s probably what you should do.
May we all have good road. ZAM, and Ala Viva!