When most people think about long distance trails in the United States, they probably go straight to the big-name classics like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. But this country is crisscrossed with plenty of other lengthy routes, the likes of which were originally traveled long before Cheryl Strayed chucked that infamous Danner boot off a cliff.
Among these historic paths, there’s the Trail of Tears, which is less a single route than it is a tangled web, each strand signifying the violent forced removal of Native American people from their ancestral homelands. There’s the Pony Express National Historic Trail, which commemorates the famous pre-telegraph communications system that galloped through eight western states. And there’s the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route, a 2,000-mile journey that roughly parallels its clandestine namesake, which was staffed with abolitionists and traveled by African-Americans who sought freedom from slavery in the early 19th century. This is the trail Daniel White chose to travel—for himself, for his ancestors, and for the next generation.
White is an electrician by trade, a carpenter by skill, a rapper by passion, and a hiker by happenstance. He grew up in the largely African-American enclave of Shiloh, on the southern fringe of Asheville, North Carolina. Here, he indulged in the joys of childhood—riding bikes, playing basketball, fishing with his parents, and chasing salamanders across the humid landscape.
He had never hiked, never camped, and only barely traveled away from home when a Facebook comment from a cousin sparked his curiosity about the Appalachian Trail. He began researching the trail in his spare time and was so intrigued by its possibilities that he decided to just go for it, seeing how much he could knock off in two months. When that time was up, (now with a trail name—“The Blackalachian”), entranced by the community he found on the AT, White decided to go ahead and finish the rest of its 2,200 miles. His Twitter bio now reads “First Rapper to hike the Appalachian Trail.”
“It kind of changed my outlook on everything. It’ll restore your faith in humanity, it gives you a sense of belief in yourself, confidence in yourself; you really believe you can do anything after that,” says White. “I’m still discovering ways it changed me today. It’s a never-ending gift, I think.”
During his post-trail transition back home in Charlotte, North Carolina, White began giving talks about his experience and leading hikes with an array of local nonprofits and schools including the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the University of North Carolina-Asheville’s Center for Diversity. He also began dreaming about a follow-up experience, and wondered how he could use that experience—and his newfound influence—to help inspire young people to get outdoors.
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“Even though the Appalachian Trail was beautiful, I didn’t have a heritage connection to it,” he says. “I just didn’t have that soul connection to it.” Enter the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route, which would allow White to not only learn more about his ancestors, but also travel along the path they took toward freedom.
The trail stretches just over 2,000 miles between Mobile, Alabama, a port city that participated in the slave trade, and Ontario, Canada’s Owen Sound, where freedom-seekers found a permanent home in the village of Sydenham. It doesn’t follow the exact path used by slaves and abolitionists, since many of the original routes were kept secret to protect its travelers, but it winds past plaques, homes, churches, statues, rivers, and other locations key to their passage.
When White decided to undertake his journey, he hadn’t been on a bike for the better part of twenty years; in fact, he only acquired one a month before departing, thanks to a sponsorship from REI. He was only able to fit in a few training rides, but still felt confident in his ability to learn along the way—after all, that’s what he did on the Appalachian Trail.
White spent 49 days riding from the route’s southern terminus to Niagara Falls, averaging 40 to 50 miles per day. He found it challenging to deal with untethered dogs and unpredictable traffic; in fact, he got sideswiped on his third day out (“a wakeup call”), but he soon fell into a rhythm, enjoying the faster pace of cycling and the solitude of riding along a trail rarely traveled in modern times.
There were plenty of memorable moments along the way—stringing his hammock right above a pile of fire ants, camping in a small cemetery, and narrowly avoiding being trampled by a herd of angry buffalo. White took it all in stride. “It keeps you fresh, it keeps you in the moment, it keeps you on your toes,” he laughs. “It’s all good.”
But the most meaningful parts of the journey were those steeped in history. On the first day of his ride, White stopped in Africatown, a Mobile, Alabama, neighborhood settled after the Civil War by those who arrived on the Clotilda, the last slave ship to dock in the United States. His visit affected him so much that White now wants to help restore the now-dilapidated community cemetery. “That’s almost like an ancient burial site, so that should be protected,” he says.
Through the miles, White made more stops. In Louisville, Kentucky, he visited a statute of Andrew York, who served as a prominent member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, despite being enslaved to the very same. In Ripley, Ohio, White learned about abolitionists Reverend John Rankin and John P. Parker, the latter a former slave who risked it all to help others be freed. In New Albany, Indiana, he took a small detour to the Second Baptist Church, where Pastor LeRoy Marshall showed him the basement that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. And after finishing at Niagara Falls, White made one last stop, to embark on a private tour of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged in Auburn, New York. “They had a bible in there,” he says. “That was a good culmination of the whole experience for me.”
White has been home for almost a month; he went back to work his third day back. As when he finished the Appalachian Trail, the experience of returning to Charlotte has been surreal. “The whole trip was just kind of dope,” he says. “I don’t even think I’ve been able to process it yet.”
Still, a few overarching themes are beginning to come through. First, he’s as convinced as ever in the overall goodness of fellow humans, despite the heartbreaking history of the route he traveled and the pervasive negativity of the news cycle. “All of us have, deep down inside, that kid in them, that dream. When you see somebody doing something that you feel like is kind of beyond, above, just out of the ordinary, you’re like, Wow. People can really latch on to that because deep down, they wish that they could do something like that, too,” he says. “Everybody I met showed me love. They was all different colors, all walks of life—it was just all love.”
Even more than that, perhaps, White knows he’ll always carry with him the lessons of the past. “Having to live through the eyes of your ancestors every day—I definitely felt that on a daily basis. Even just coming through Mississippi and Alabama, and seeing all those cotton fields, and just thinking, Man, all that blood on that,” he says. “Cotton should really just grow red, you know. Imagine if it just grew red. I don’t think it would be as pretty as it looks.”
But he’ll also carry his ancestors’ strength. “That’s what we came from. You came from courageous people, black and white and Native,” he says. “We need some backbone again, I think. I’m not trying to say that people are weak or anything like that, but I just need us to understand where we came from as a country.”
For now, White will continue processing his journey (and uploading fresh videos to his popular YouTube channel) while eyeing future travels, including a “collaborative trip with a few other big guys in the outdoor industry” that he’s not yet ready to name. He hopes other people will consider taking trips of their own, whether big or small.
“I know how therapeutic [it is] getting out in the world, seeing stuff, meeting people from different walks of life, and learning about new cultures. I know how good that can be and how healing it can be for this country, and just for people in general, so that’s why I encourage people to get outside, go try something different,” says White. “The world is huge—don’t get me wrong—but it’s a lot smaller than we think it is. I’m showing you I can just ride up the middle of it on a bike or I can walk up the eastern seaboard with my feet. I’m showing you this. So it’s like, even if you jump in a car, go somewhere, do something. If you’re saying the world is mine? The world is yours.”