I woke up surrounded by the darkness of an early-morning sky on a brisk November autumn morning in Delaware. I had driven the short ride from Prince George’s County, Maryland, to my neighboring state to participate in the annual Hike Across Delaware, presented by the Wilmington Trail Club.
Yes, the title is precisely what the event is — you are signing up to hike across an entire state, albeit a small one; it’s still a 15-mile walk from side to side.
You’re probably reading this and wondering why anyone would voluntarily walk across a state. My answer is both complex and straightforward. I wanted some semblance of what the ancestors experienced walking to freedom. I carried that thought with me during the entire day.
The day began with 179 other hikers and 31 club volunteers on a 20-minute bus ride from Battery Park in Delaware City to Chesapeake City, Maryland, where the trek back to Delaware City begins. The hike takes only about 3 miles in Maryland before crossing the Delaware state line. And then, willpower and perseverance are the only things that lead you through the adequately marked trail back to your parked car at the end of it all.
As I walked alongside my husband, Donney, who joined me for the hike, I couldn’t help but continuously shift my gaze from the incredibly clear sky to the crashing waves in the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and then, along the other side of the paved trail where the fall foliage was in abundance amid opened cotton grass plants and water that was reminiscent of swampland. I marveled upon tall trees with branches that hung just above lynching height and the winding path in front of me with clearly marked directions leading the way.
Soon after taking in the serenity of the hike, I began hearing shotguns in the distance, likely from area hunters taking advantage of Delaware’s general firearm/shotgun deer-hunting season. But because of the headspace from which I joined the hike, my heart ached for past travelers at whom such guns were aimed.
What a journey our ancestors must have been on — the ones who fled Maryland through the equally dangerous slave state of Delaware to find themselves on the other side of the fields in nearby Philadelphia. While there is an Underground Railroad passage in Delaware, it’s important to note that the path I had taken was not that one. In no form other than my emotions was I truly on the same path enslaved people were once on. I was also appropriately clothed in layers, with my feet wrapped in blister-protecting gear and proper footwear. I carried a hefty book bag with snacks, water, extra shoes, bandages and a map, among other provisions, and there are several actual restrooms along the path. Yet, I still felt close to the purpose. It still felt like an emotional escape.
The hike itself is an easy one, even for someone like me who has fibromyalgia and can oftentimes struggle to put one foot in front of the other. I breathed in the clean air and listened to the waves crash against large rocks. Mile by mile, it was a freeing experience, one that our ancestors had likely hoped we would someday have — freedom to move about as we please.
As we neared the end of the excursion, a swaying American flag appeared in the distance, surrounded by high fields. Coupling that sight with my reason for taking the journey was laughable until I reached the actual placement of the flag. It was smack in the middle of the African Union Cemetery, where, according to its website, five federal tombstones mark the graves of African soldiers who served the Union Army in Delaware — James Elbert, Joseph Byard, Lewis Taylor, William Crawford and Alexander Draper. I never even considered the Black legacy that was left in America’s first state. Before the journey, it also never crossed my mind that such a northern landmass would have upheld slavery until the Emancipation Proclamation. Just around the bend from that site was a landmark for the Equal Suffrage Study Club, founded in 1914 for and by Black women. We were nearing the end of the hike by then, and my legs finally became weary.
At some point earlier in the hike, my interest in Delaware’s Black history was piqued, so I looked up its Underground Railroad and found that there are several landmarks in Wilmington, which is incredibly close to what was a free territory in Pennsylvania. Once we crossed back over to Battery Park and to our car, we took the 20-minute ride to Wilmington. It seemed only perfect to end the experience paying homage to Harriet Tubman, who, not even 200 years before we stood on similar land, led herself and many others to freedom, from Maryland through Delaware and into Philadelphia.
A stunning monument of this feat is located in Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park, named for both Tubman and abolitionist Thomas Garrett. It is hard to put into words the feeling that consumed me when I stared into the stoic eyes so beautifully depicted in the multifigure sculpture that also features Tubman holding both a sleeping baby and a pistol, along with Garrett “leading two fugitive enslaved persons.”
I must have circled the monument four times before finally just saying, “Thank you.”
We owe our freedom to people who braved the harshest of winters carrying nothing but determination through the dangerous wooded areas of an underdeveloped young and tumultuous America. They were being led by perseverance, the stars and the flow of the rivers surrounding them. My debt of gratitude for being able to walk peacefully along a long trail through an entire state knows no end. I am glad I was able to have such an experience.
If you are interested in taking this hike, you do not have to wait for the annual Hike Across Delaware. You can visit the Ben Cardin C&D Canal Recreational Trail in Chesapeake City, which leads to the Michael Castle Trail in Delaware to follow the various clearly marked pathways on your own.
Don’t forget to be fully prepared for the journey and please bring the ancestors with you.
Leslie D. Rose is a New Jersey-born, Xavier-educated, veteran journalist, editor, photographer and poet. She resides in Hyattsville, Maryland. First published by Travel Noire.