CAMBRIDGE — It seemingly wasn’t the most ideal time to walk the 116 miles of the Harriet Tubman Byway from the birthplace of Tubman on the Eastern Shore to Kennett Square, Pa., but life is rarely lived in ideals.
In fact, it was a culmination of events that inspired Linda Harris to even consider walking in Tubman’s footsteps on the route she took bringing enslaved people of Maryland to freedom in the northern states.
After six days of walking 20 miles per day, Harris and seven other women completed their trek on Thursday, Sept. 10.
“It came out of just sheer desperation,” Harris said in an interview Friday about her decision to walk the byway. “I was depressed. There was the pandemic. All the police killings just really, really got to me.”
Because of COVID-19 restrictions necessitating the closure of gyms, Harris started walking outside to get exercise. Her walks went from three miles to five and even 10 miles a day. Then one evening, she said, she noticed an old picture book about Tubman that she’d purchased for her granddaughter.
“The book just started glowing. When I tell people that, they find it unbelievable, but it was kind of glowing. I went over and I looked at it and read it,” Harris said. “I just feel like I made some kind of connection with Harriet Tubman — however strange that sounds.”
The next day, Harris drove from her home in Mitchellville to Cambridge, about an hour and a half drive, where she ended up at the Dorchester County Visitor’s Center. While the facility was closed, Harris was able to talk with an employee for almost two hours, she said, on a bench outside the building. The employee also provided Harris with contact info for local historians.
What started as a day trip to Tubman’s birthplace led Harris to stay the night in Cambridge and spend the following day at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and the Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center there.
All the while, Harris said she felt something drawing her to the area.
“I felt a presence,” Harris said.
After a few visits to Dorchester County where she learned more about Tubman’s history, Harris formed the plan to walk the byway by herself. She soon decided to reach out through her Facebook page and see if anyone else would be interested in walking with her.
“I thought I could backpack and camp, but then I realized that was kind of crazy,” Harris said. “So I put out a call on Facebook and I said, ‘Hey, I want to walk this byway. Is anyone interested?’ And women responded. I was just so delighted, so delighted.”
Harris said the group of women ranged in age from 36 to 65. The walkers were Joann Yelverton, Diane Wilson, Jennifer Bailey, Kim Smith, Tracey Clark, Pauline Dunn, Monica Samuels and Harris. Though none of them knew each other prior to the walk, Harris said she would call all seven some of her closest friends now.
“I didn’t know them. They didn’t know each other and that’s why it is so marvelous,” Harris said. “That’s why I know it’s something divine, because we’re totally different.”
Though the women live in different states including Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C, they all agreed to meet up on weekends for training as well as commit to walking individually during the week.
“We started at five miles and then we increased it to eventually get up to 20 miles to see if we could do this,” Harris said. “None of us had ever done this before, this kind of long distance walking.”
After they set out on the byway Sept. 5, Harris said walking became a full-time job. Days would start around 7:30 a.m. and end at about 6 p.m. The eight women would walk for about four hours, break for lunch and continue for another four hours.
When the full day of walking was complete, Harris said a friend would pick up the group in a rented van and drive them to a hotel for the night. The group would be driven back to pick up where they left off in the morning.
Harris said she knows of a few other people who have walked the byway in sections, however no one she knows of has walked the byway for six consecutive days as her group did.
The route they followed was not straightforward as Tubman’s historical path as they cross through what is now privately owned properties, Harris said.
“We ended up having to do a lot of road walking, which was not the most pleasant thing at the time,” Harris said. “As we went along from Cambridge to Denton to Delaware, we did see signs posted that said ‘Underground Railroad,’ so we know that we were on much of the path.”
In terms of safety, Harris said the group was aware of potential dangers.
“We talked about safety, even before we embarked upon this journey because the Eastern Shore, for lack of a better term, is (President Donald) Trump country,” Harris said. “I don’t want to bring politics into it, but we were very, very nervous.”
While the Facebook page We Walk With Harriet has since garnered nearly 8,000 likes, Harris said she originally created it to serve as a record of where the women were in the event something did happen.
Harris said there were a “couple of incidents” while they walked, but each woman took the precaution of wearing signs on their back identifying them as participating in the walk.
One instance Harris recounted was passing a home on the Eastern Shore with multiple Confederate flags, which Harris said caused her to be very alarmed.
“I didn’t know what could have happened because we did walk along the property line,” Harris said. “The ladies did not want me to take (pictures of the house), but there was no way I could pass that. To me it represented everything that’s wrong right now.”
Another incident, Harris said the group was about 10 miles outside of Denton when they took a break for lunch on a vacant lot. She said she did not see any signs identifying the area as private property. However, there was a man across the street mowing his grass that she noticed watched the group intently.
Later, Harris said another man pulled up to the group in a white truck and informed them they were trespassing. Harris said she apologized, but told him she did not see any signage.
“That really, really bothered me because his approach was not pleasant,” Harris said. “It made me feel bad.”
As the group was packing to leave, Harris approached the man on the lawn mower and asked him why he felt like he needed to call the man in the truck. The man on the lawn mower did not admit to calling the truck driver — Harris said she watched them interact after the truck driver spoke to her. She told the man his actions were not necessary as her group was peaceful.
“I felt I had to say that because I did not want to be followed later,” Harris said.
Harris recounted another incident as the group was approaching the Delaware line where a police officer stopped to address the group.
“He pulls up and gets out of his car with his gun on his holster and says, ‘What are you guys doing?’ And I said, ‘Well, we’re walking with Harriet.’”
After Harris explained why they were out walking, the officer suggested they not stay too long.
Harris said there were other incidents where it seemed to her like cars were coming too close to the group as they walked along the shoulders.
Despite those moments, Harris said the group did encounter some “lovely, lovely people who helped us along the way.”
One of the group’s more positive experiences occurred in Kent County when they veered off their route to find a public restroom, Harris said, and ended up at the Massey Air Museum.
“We saw this beautiful place and we went over because we really needed to use the bathroom. Most of the time we had to go behind trees and the girls were just sick of it,” Harris said with a laugh.
She said staff at the museum were “so nice.”
“That was one of the best stops,” Harris said.
She recounted people stopping to offer them water or food. Others stopped to voice their support for the journey. She said some people even donated to their cause or offered to buy them ice cream.
“It was wonderful. We didn’t know when we started out that we would inspire people,” Harris said. “But by inspiring them, they inspired us.”
Before starting the walk, Harris set up a GoFundMe with the goal of raising $2,500 for the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center. However, people ended up donating $5,166 as of Wednesday, Sept. 30. Harris donated half of the funds to the museum and the other half to the Stanley Institute.
Saying she is so “taken by this land” and journey itself, Harris is in the process of closing on a piece of property in Cambridge where she is going to establish Camp Harriet. The camp, Harris said, aims to promote hiking, walking and the legacy of Tubman. Further donations to the GoFundMe will benefit the camp.
Harris said she hopes to “be a catalyst” to inspire more people to learn about the rich history on the Eastern Shore found within the stories of natives like Harriett Tubman and Frederick Douglass.
“Having Harriet as an example is an example for all of us. Not just African Americans,” Harris said.
As far as advice for anyone looking to walk the byway, Harris’s advice was to simply go for a walk.
“My tip to them is that anyone can walk. It’s just putting one foot in front of the other, but there has to be a commitment to train because walking 20 miles a day is not easy,” Harris said. “Daily walks, two miles a day. It builds up endurance. You can cross-train. I ride my bicycle. I dance a lot. We danced a lot on the road, which was delightful.”