WILLIAMSON — In the spring of 2008 Jim and Carol May embarked on a 2,000 mile journey of discovery. They rode their bikes from Mobile, Ala., to Owen Sound, Canada, following one of the Underground Railroad routes taken more than a century ago by slaves seeking freedom.
Not surprisingly, the Mays learned a lot about slavery, abolitionists and the Underground Railroad during the course of their 43-day trip. What the couple didn’t expect, however, was to discover parallels between the challenges faced by fleeing slaves and the challenges today’s migrant farmworkers face.
"We realize that the search for freedom is not over for some," the Mays wrote in Bicycling the Underground Railroad,their 2009 book about their experiences. "Today the quest of individuals seeking a better life is still a part of our American fabric. The challenge of our migrant workers, and the challenge of those who courageously help them looms in front of us."
The 2008 trip was not the first lengthy bicycle excursion for the Mays, who belong to St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Wayne County. In 2004 they completed a 3,440-mile trip across America, departing from San Francisco in early May and arriving home in Williamson in early July. The next year the couple chronicled their journey in Bicycle Odyssey, A Pilgrimage to Discover the Real America.
Although both trips tested their endurance and took them across miles of American countryside, the Mays said the two trips were vastly different.
"The last trip was really about the challenge of the ride, can we do it, and the spectacular scenery," Jim May told the Catholic Courier during an April 14 interview at the couple’s home.
"And the people," Carol May added.
"For this trip the primary thing was the history and the comparison with issues today," Jim remarked.
The Mays set out from Mobile April 16. Neither of them had spent much time in the Deep South so they weren’t sure what to expect, but Jim said the Southerners the couple encountered were very welcoming and friendly. The Mays’ route took them through some of the poorest and most rural parts of Alabama, and once they left Mobile they didn’t see another newspaper for nearly two weeks, although they did see plenty of hunting, fishing and tractor publications on Alabama newsstands. The Mays also were surprised to find that the Underground Railroad is not always part of the curriculum in Southern schools.
"We were surprised at the responses from people who didn’t know what we were talking about," Jim said.
Plenty of people did know about the Underground Railroad, however, and often Southerners and Northerners alike would recommend local Underground Railroad sites for the Mays to check out. The Mays saw many "stations" or houses that had tunnels, secret compartments and even rooftop lookouts so residents could spot runaway slaves coming down a nearby river.
The Mays were especially intrigued by the quilt patterns that are believed to have served to as signals for runaway slaves. A quilt bearing a star, for example, reminded the runaways to follow the Northern Star, while a pattern called "the drunkard’s path" told slaves that they were being followed and should not travel in a straight line.
The first few days of the Mays’ trip were hot and muggy, with temperatures in the 90s, but many of the following days dawned cool and rainy with temperatures in the 40s. The Mays occasionally stayed in small motels and bed and breakfasts or with kind strangers along their route, and the rest of their evenings were spent in the shelter of a small two-man tent. They had their fair share of run-ins with angry dogs, inconsiderate drivers, and even a friendly yet intimidating homeless man and his drug-dealing friend, yet the history behind their route helped them put their experiences in perspective.
"We would come to realize how our personal trials and tribulations on this journey paled compared to the brave men and women, black and white, whose footsteps we were following," the Mays wrote in their book.
The Mays thought of the people who offered them shelter, directions and kind words as modern-day conductors on their Underground Railroad route, and gained a new respect for the conductors who helped slaves navigate that dangerous route in the 1800s.
"Those were ordinary and everyday people like you and me," Jim said.
"Just people who were saying, ‘Hey, this is not right, and I’m going to see what I can do,’" Carol added.
These conductors of old reminded the Mays of people they know who help migrant farmworkers in Wayne County, such as the citizens who belong to Church Watch, a group that stood guard while farmworkers attended a Spanish Mass in Sodus.
"And finally, a realization would strike us of a generation of people who, even today in America, are subject to hiding out, traveling secretly, fearing for their safety while they do the menial physical labor so needed to feed, clothe and house our nation," the Mays wrote.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Mays’ book may be purchased online at www.lulu.com for $11.95 plus shipping and handling. It also is available at several local stores, including Apple Crate in Williamson, Books, ETC. in Macedon, Books in Palmyra, Mac 5 Bikes in Webster and RV&E Bike and Skate in Fairport.