Cyclists return home after Mississippi River Tour

Jul. 05, 2013 @ 01:40 PM

The dozen or so high school students and chaperones who cycled from New Orleans to St. Louis over 28 days exploring the Delta and the blues it made famous are scheduled to return home today.

The Spoke’n Revolutions Youth Cycling Program began its 1,500-mile Mississippi River Tour on June 9, and spent 28 days traveling north to St. Louis where the cyclists were expected to celebrate the Fourth of July.

From there, the group was expected to take a short trip July 5 to Alton, Ill., to visit an Underground Railroad site, before beginning the journey home, pulling their bikes behind them in a trailer.

The Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes used by slaves to escape to freedom, was the theme of the group’s first trip in 2011 when cyclists rode from Mobile, Ala., to Niagara Falls, N.Y., following the Underground Railroad Trail.

Kevin Hicks, who founded the program with wife Suepinda Keith, said in an interview last week as the group approached St. Louis that the previous  three days had been rainy, and before that very hot, with temperatures approaching 100 degrees.

“We plowed through it,” Hicks said of the heat. “Pedialyte is a blessing. It solved a lot of problems by helping us to stay hydrated.”  

The cyclists had hoped to visit the fabled intersection where blues legend Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil, but were unable to do so because the site was too far off of the planned route.

“Clarksdale [Mississippi] was about 40 miles off the route, and it was a 100-degree day, so it was just too far off the route to make it,” Hicks said.

Between New Orleans and St. Louis, the cyclists and chaperones visited many other places in the Delta famous for their enduring contributions to the blues.

They also saw the abject poverty of the region, a side of America that many of them didn’t realize existed.   

“I’ve never seen towns this poor, day after day after day,” Keith said.

They also learned that the people of the Delta are as generous as they are poor.

In Rosedale, Miss., another town that claims to be where Johnson sold his soul, Keith said the group arrived to find that the camping ground they had planned to use for an overnight stay was closed due to flooding and funding issues.

They contacted the local police department, which contacted the mayor, who allowed them to use the grounds of the town’s country club to camp and her home to take showers.  

“We met wonderful people on this tour,” Keith said. “They made sure we were safe and comfortable.”

The one thing Keith said the cyclists noticed is how little there is for the children of the town to do.

She said very few of them even had bicycles to ride.

That gave the cyclists the idea to launch a campaign to donate 20 to 30 bikes to the town of Rosedale.

“Our plan is to make Rosedale a sister city and to give the town some bikes for the kids there,” Keith said.

She said she and Hicks will likely load a trailer with donated bikes and take them to Rosedale sometime in October.

In West Helena, Ark., the cyclists met Carl Westmoreland, a noted historian and curator of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati and Robert Stanton, a former director of the National Parks Service who was its first African American leader.

The cycling program was recently named one of 34 recipients of a 2013 America’s Best Idea grants from the National Park Foundation, the official charity of the nation’s national parks.
The $15,000 gift that came with the grant was used to help fund the Mississippi River Tour.

Last year, Spoke’n Revolutions cyclists traveled out west where they followed the path of the Buffalo Soldiers and the Lewis & Clark Trail.
The 1,800-mile trip began in Council Bluffs, Iowa and wound through state and national parks until the cyclists reached Astoria, Ore.
On that trip, and the one the year before, the cyclists learned a lot.

But Keith said the Mississippi River Tour will stick with them in a way the others might not.

“It certainly made us all appreciate home more than ever before,” Keith said. “The kids got a real lesson about the haves and have-nots.”