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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

When you hear about a 2,100-mile bicycle tour, you might picture a bunch of physical fitness nuts. That's partially true for the cyclists who are riding from Mobile, Alabama to Ontario, Canada. But they're also history buffs, following the route of the Underground Railroad, the route many slaves used to escape to freedom.

NPR's Allison Keyes joined the group for a part - just part - of their trip through Ohio.

ALLISON KEYES: Under a bright sun and cerulean sky just outside of Cincinnati, the riders streamed in to a park to applause. They're about halfway through their journey.

All of the riders are loaded down with gear - like tents, clothes and cooking fuel. Colleen Shino of Salt Lake City says the trip has been physically hard, but worth it.

Ms. COLLEEN SHINO: When you're riding the route and you're thinking about the slaves escaping to freedom - taking some of the same paths that you are, being chased by ferocious dogs, we can relate to that. And I bet they did it at night, being chased by bounty hunters and their slave owners, so it's been very interesting.

KEYES: The riders left Mobile on April 14. There, they visited the slave market. They also went to a community formed by Africans who escaped from the last known slave ship to come to the U.S. in 1860, 52 years after the importation of African slaves was outlawed.

The average age of the group is 60. The oldest rider is 77. The trip isn't cheap. The six-week tour cost nearly $2,700. The path they're following is based partly on the spiritual "Follow the Drinking Gourd."

(Soundbite of song, "Follow the Drinking Gourd")

Mr. TAJ MAHAL (Singer): (Singing) The riverbank makes a very good road. The dead trees will show you the way. Left foot, peg foot traveling on, following the drinking gourd.

KEYES: The drinking gourd is a colloquial name for the Big Dipper, the constellation that points to Polaris or the North Star. Many slaves followed that star north to freedom.

Unidentified Man: Now, we're going to go again at the speed of the slowest person.

KEYES: As the travelers ride, they've been stopping in key cities along the route. They visited sites like the Harriet Beecher Stowe House. Here, volunteer Barbara Furr gave the sweating cyclists a slice of history about the author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Ms. BARBARA FURR (Volunteer, Harriet Beecher Stowe House): Harriet had been trained by her sister as a teacher in a day and age when most women couldn't read. Okay, so they were already unusual people.

KEYES: Some of the cyclists only joined for the Cincinnati segment. One of them is Dennis Jones. He believes tours like this are important because it reminds people of what they can learn right in their own backyard.

Mr. DENNIS JONES (Cyclist): I didn't know about this house. I live here, I don't know anything about it. Now I know, and oh my God. And, you know, when you read things, it becomes more interesting and it keeps people aware. And Lord knows we need to keep the awareness alive because it is slipping away. So...

KEYES: The riders set up tents outside of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center nestled on the banks of the Ohio River. Less than a quarter mile away on the Kentucky side stand white antebellum homes where slaves once worked, looking across to a freedom most would never taste.

Mr. CARL WESTMORELAND (Curator, Freedom Center): Slavery was legal in every state in America.

KEYES: Inside the Freedom Center, curator Carl Westmoreland walked riders into a rebuilt slave pen. The log cabin-like building housed slaves for 30 to 60 days before they were sold at markets like the one the cyclists visited in Mobile. The trip's leader, Alvin Justelien, says the ride has been like a ministering program to him. He hopes that people learn about the love it required for those involved with the Underground Railroad to put their lives on the line to help others.

Mr. ALVIN JUSTELIEN (Lead Cyclist): And a lot of people try to make it a black and white thing; it's not, because both blacks and whites suffered if they were caught on the Underground Railroad. Whether it was escaping slaves, whether it was whites trying to help the slaves, or whether it was black free people helping the slaves escape, everybody was in jeopardy.

KEYES: Most of the riders on this trip said they hoped it would promote more dialogue between the races. But for the African-Americans trotting along, it has a more visceral meaning, according to Mario Brown. He choked up talking about what it was like to dip his bike wheels in the Gulf of Mexico, where the last slave ship arrived.

Mr. MARIO BROWNE (Cyclist): As I look back and I just imagine those human beings stuffed in ships like sardines and the waste and the filth and the degradation and the humiliation that they went through; there is no reason, no rational reason that I should be standing here today.

KEYES: The cyclists expect to reach Owen Sound in Canada, the final terminal of the Underground Railroad on May 30. Allison Keyes, NPR News.

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