Our family packed up the van and went off in search of adventure. We’d read stories of long-ago courage, hope, determination; of men, women, children daring insurmountable obstacles. What we called history; they’d known as life-and-death. Distances that once took them tortured weeks on foot, by buckboard, upended in crates, took us eight hours by car—and actually seemed a long time. It had been 150 years since Harriet Tubman’s crusades. This was our chance to rediscover trails of the Underground Railroad.
On a lonely road in the Ohio chill, we were tired, hungry and cramped from riding too long. It was dismal outside, wet and foggy. Lights shone smoky in the distance. We were ready to complain. Then we drove a deep stretch of woods and the thought came that froze us mid-lane, focused us mid-thought. Lonely groups of travelers, running, walking, crawling for their very lives, had come this same way before. They were cold, hungry, worn and wished nothing more than to be left alone. But slave-catchers and dogs yapping in the distance drove them on.
We’d heard of one woman who found herself on the half-frozen Ohio River, jumping from ice patch to breaking ice patch — afraid she’d drown if she tried; terrified of what was to come if she didn’t. But she carried a priceless bundle on her back. And that weight, the life of her child, made her light as rain as she slipped along the checkered route. She would be free!
As she stepped forward on the ice it must have seemed like the ancient parting of the waters she’d heard promised in the Spirituals. As the ice broke behind her, it separated her from her would-be captors, from her past life of slavery.
We thought of Eliza as we traveled on the road that night; and of the countless other mothers, fathers, children whose courage knew no bounds — or chains. Cold and worn, tired and hungry we grew quiet, intense and very grateful. This we knew: we could be where they’d been, travel the route they’d traveled. We might even see some of what they had seen. But, thanks to them, we would never live what they’d been forced to endure.
In the cold of the northern night, we knew warmth. The sky unsheathed its trail of stars; guiding our route north along the winding trail to freedom — our freedom to rethink life’s possibilities. Even in desperate times, some people dared take their lives in their hands; others dared outstretch theirs. Not all had been successful, but there had been moments when people, knowing what to do, did, and got it right.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine… Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine
I sang for my daughters, reviving voices of old. Looking in the rear-view mirror, I could see them cuddled in the back seat, not asleep, just looking out at the stars.
Everywhere I go I’m gonna let it shine… Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine