Tour de Gullah weaves health and heritage

Herman Blake, executive director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, talks to the group about slavery and slave owning families during a stop at Mother Emanuel AME Church last Thursday.

Fifteen-year-old Zack Locke admits he and his friends back in Rhode Island are not physically active.

So the fact that he’s biking 60 miles a day for two weeks in the middle of July along the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and East Coast Greenway is not only a new experience for him but it shocks his friends.

“I think it’s really cool,” says Locke. “When I go back to school and people ask me what I did this summer, I’m going to say, ‘I biked through the South in summer.’ Nobody’s going to be able to beat that.”

Every summer, I get dozens of emails and phone calls pitching stories about someone doing a cross-country bike trip. And though most are related to charity, not every adventure is special enough, in my opinion, to interest readers.

But when the East Coast Greenway Alliance, the nonprofit that is creating the 2,900-mile Maine-to-Florida bike and pedestrian route, contacted me about the Gullah Geechee Youth Bike Tour, it caught my attention.

The tour is one of the most multi-dimensional I’ve heard of, fostering a sense of health and adventure, learning about history, culture and the importance of public service and volunteerism and exercising an important lesson of life: bonding and cooperating with others who aren’t exactly like you.

The tour is paid for with donations, some raised from the participants. They are selected for the tour after showing a commitment to training for it and coming to meetings.

Twenty youth and 14 adult coaches, most of whom hail from the Chapel Hill, N.C., and Atlanta areas, are riding 60 miles a day along the 700-mile corridor from Wilmington, N.C., to St. Augustine, Fla. Along the way, they are sleeping in campgrounds (no air conditioning!) and doing mini-service projects.

While in Charleston, half of the group stopped and collated 150 training manuals at WINGS for Kids, a nonprofit that teaches youth how to behave well, make good decisions and build healthy relationships.

Despite being a “youth” tour, the rainbow of participants – blacks, whites, Hispanics and an Asian — run from ages 12 to 77.

The oldest is Alpha Bennett. The spry Bermudian who now lives in Atlanta is quite the role model and has been an avid cyclist since 1986.

“I love cycling,” says Bennett. “If anyone breaks into my house, they can take everything but my bicycle and passport. They are my most valuable possessions.”

Najah Walker, 15, who is with the Chapel Hill group, is participating in her second summer tour but admitted that “last year was the worst.”

“I don’t know why I wanted to come back and do it again,” says Walker. “It (the tour) is not just about biking. You get to see history and socialize.”

Camilo Hernandez, 17, of Chapel Hill, likes the cycling a bit more than Walker, despite having run into a pole on the first day of the ride when riders ahead of him failed to warn him about the obstacle.

Hernandez is among some of the youngsters who enjoying riding in a pace line, working together on riding fast as a group by taking turns at front carving a draft in the headwind for those behind him or her.

The Gullah Geechee Youth Bike Tour is the fifth consecutive collaboration between BRAG (Bike Ride Across Georgia) Dream Team in Atlanta and Spoke’n Revolutions Youth Cycling and Triangle Bikeworks in North Carolina.

The first tour took a 1,800-mile route, from Spanish Fort, Ala., to Niagara Falls, N.Y, exploring the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th-century enslaved people of African descent in the United States to free states and Canada.

In 2013, the National Park Foundation awarded the tour an “America’s Best Idea” grant to help fund a Mississippi River Valley Tour that retraced Abraham Lincoln’s flatboat voyages where he encountered slave trading in New Orleans.

Last year’s route, K2K Tour, went from the Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Atlanta to the one in Washington, D.C. Kevin Hicks, the lead coach from North Carolina, says the decision to choose the Gullah Geechee Corridor stemmed from the East Coast Greenway Alliance conference in Charleston last fall.

Hicks, who serves on the greenway’s advisory board, met Dr. Herman Blake, executive director of the Gullah Geechee Corridor Commission, during the conference. “After I met him, I called Atiba (Mbiwan, the Atlanta group leader) and said, ‘I found out our next tour.’”

Mbiwan, who serves on the advisory board of the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, didn’t need much convincing.

Planning for the tour obviously took place months before the June 17 massacre of nine members of the Mother Emanuel AME Church, which was the main stop on the cycling tour last Thursday.

“I wish it had not have been a memorial stop,” says Hicks, “but it was definitely an important stop for us.”

Blake spoke to the group under the shade of tree next to Mother Emanuel. They were riveted to his words. Prior to his talk, I asked him what he hoped to convey to the youngsters.

“I want them to understand the sacredness of this particular place (Mother Emanuel), which is on the corridor, which represents the Gullah Geechee history and culture, but also the Gullah Geechee future in them,” says Blake.

“I want them to think about the corridor itself. We know from the records that there were people who were enslaved in the Savannah River on rice plantations who were owned by people who lived in this area, on the peninsula. Those slaves went back and forth on foot, probably in chains, and I want them to understand that they have the opportunity to travel the same route with the notion of the path of freedom.”

Blake says while the corridor emphasizes heritage and culture, the bike ride also represents another important part of the goals of the corridor, which hasn’t been emphasized enough: health.

“In this corridor, stroke and hypertension are significant factors in the health of the people. Activities like this help to promote health,” says Blake. “Health should become part of the way of life. ... You can’t preserve a culture if you can’t keep the people healthy.”

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.