Following the Drinking Gourd

Erick Cedeño, Freedom Biker

Over the past three years, Erick Cedeño has traveled long distances by bicycle: from Vancouver to Tijuana, and from Saint Augustine to New York City. But in August of 2013, he embarked on a different kind of trip: one measured not only by miles but also by history. He rode from New Orleans to Niagara Falls along the Underground Railroad route, developed by the Adventure Cycling Association using the spiritual slave song “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which relays directions for escaping to freedom by following the North Star. One known path followed waterways from Alabama north to the Ohio River—and this became the basis for his route.

Bani Amor: Tell us about yourself. What do you do and why do you do it?

Erick Cedeño: My dream is to see the world by bicycle. In 2011, I did my first trip–2,300 miles from Vancouver, Canada, to Tijuana, Mexico. Then in 2012, I rode from Saint Augustine, Florida, to New York City. My last trip was from New Orleans, Louisiana, to Niagara Falls, Canada, retracing one of the original Underground Railroad routes by bicycle. I do it to challenge myself mentally and physically, but also to learn about history and people. After my first bicycle trip, I fell in love with traveling by using my own power.

With traveling by bicycle, you get to smell, see, and feel like no other method of transportation. You engage with and discover people, nature, yourself. I learned that traveling by bicycle gives me an inner peace. You learn to stay in the present moment and not to think about the challenges in the past or the future. You learn that you have only the few miles ahead.

Bani: Sounds mad Buddhist. When did you first experience the urge to travel?

Erick: When I was five or six years old, my mother would take me walking to a restaurant every Friday. We would walk about a mile and half to McDonald’s and walk back home. One day, my mother (who did not drive and depended on public transportation) saw me walking by myself past the McDonald’s about almost two miles from my house. She stopped the bus and got off. She asked me where I was going. And my response to her was – I just wanted to see what was past McDonald’s. I had a love for traveling and exploring at a very young age. She never was upset with me from that incident. As a matter of fact, she encouraged me to travel and explore.

Bani: Yesss, I was the same exact way.

Erick: I always said that I was born to the perfect mother because she would never limit me. She would travel everywhere and I always wanted to go with her. One time, we dropped my mother off at the airport and I said to her, “I want to go with you,” and she said you can’t because you do not have clothes or your passport, and I replied, “I do, they are both in your suitcase,” which I had placed there myself. She bought the ticket at the airport counter and I got to travel with her.

Bani: Hehe.

With traveling by bicycle, you get to smell, see, and feel like no other method of transportation. You engage with and discover people, nature, yourself.

Erick: One time, when I was 11 years old, my mother took me on a two-week trip to see the pyramids of Mexico, and that had such an impact on me and my love for travel. I believe it came from having been born and raised to a mother who always wanted to travel and see the world. She always told me when I was young, “when I die, I will die happy because I will not have any regrets. My love is to travel and that brings me happiness.” Those words have stayed with me ever since.

Bani: She sounds like such a badass!

Erick: She was fearless…

Bani: Back to your cycling adventures, what inspired the Underground Railroad trip?

Erick: One day, I was having lunch and thinking which route to travel next and it came to my head…I wonder if I can retrace the Underground Railroad. From that moment, I got home and started researching to see if it was possible to travel, ride, and visit historical sites of what is known as the “Freedom Trail.”

Bani: Why did it appeal to you?

Erick: I find traveling by bicycle physically and mentally challenging. But when you travel with a purpose it is more enjoyable.

Bani: Did you come out of that trip different than you were before? How?

Erick: Every trip teaches you different lessons and you always come out different. This particular trip taught me many lessons – how previous people who had traveled the same route endured many sacrifices to reach freedom. It taught me that when we travel with a purpose we can endure challenges. My bicycle was stolen in Buffalo, only 15 miles from reaching Canada after traveling more than 2,100 miles. I did not want to give up on reaching Canada. I wanted to experience the same feeling the previous freedom seekers felt in crossing Niagara Falls. I was able to borrow a kid’s ten-speed bicycle to finish my journey.

Bani: That’s incredible. So what’s next for you? I heard you wanted to bike from Florida to Panama, and across Africa.

Erick: I would like to retrace the Trail of Tears from North Georgia to Oklahoma. The Trail of Tears was the forced relocation of Native American nations from southeastern parts of the United States following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. I would also like to ride from Miami to Panama City, Panama, where I was born. My goal is to travel through Mexico and Central America to learn about the ancient civilizations, speaking to elders and shamans along the way.

I just want to encourage people of all ages to travel and discover their world by bicycle. It could be their neighborhoods, towns, cities, countries or the world, but when you travel by bicycle you will definitely learn something new. Every single time.

By Bani Amor

Bani Amor is a queer mestiza travel writer from Brooklyn by way of Ecuador on a mission to decolonize travel media. Her work has appeared in Paste, Nowhere, and Bluestockings magazines. You can follow her writing at Everywhere All The Time.