Sunday, January 19, 2003

After 800 miles, walker will put her feet up

Catching up

By Mike Pulfer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Except for trips around her East Cleveland home, Joan Southgate is hanging up her walking shoes.

Mrs. Southgate, 73, traveled on tennies from Ripley to Cleveland for eight weeks last spring in a re-creation of an Underground Railroad escape. Unfazed, she hit the Underground Railroad trail again in September and walked from Cleveland to Edinboro, Pa., just south of Erie, and north to St. Catharines, Ontario.

"That's the end," she promised in a recent phone interview. "The summer was not easy. It was too hot for training, and it was still hot in September. That (second, three-week walk) was rougher than the spring."

Altogether, she calculates, she covered about 800 miles, walking along highway berms and staying overnight with strangers who supported her cause.

She remains healthy, she says, with an occasional ache or pain. "That goes with being 73."

In her first trip, she made numerous stops to talk with students and civic groups about the Underground Railroad and her walk.

"I was looking forward to just walking straight ahead in the fall," she said, with no diversions to classrooms and historic sites. "But I ended up learning all the way along."

She said she stopped at three schools in September and met "wonderfully gracious people who invited us in."

"I learned about three or four Underground Railroad sites I hadn't known about when I was laying out the walk.

"There's wonderful history in those stretches of Ohio," she said.

Mrs. Southgate, a former teacher and social worker, started her first foot journey in April at the historic John Rankin House, a recognized Underground Railroad layover station in Ripley.

"For some reason or other," she said at the time, "I've been thinking about slavery a lot. ... Slavery was on my mind as I did my usual stay-healthy walk a year or so ago and a question started singing pace to my footsteps:

"`What was it like, and how can I praise them (escaping ancestors)?'

"The answer fell into place just as I rounded the corner for home," she recalled. "`I am going to walk their path.'"

With help and support from her two daughters, two sons and seven grandchildren, some of whom walked short legs of the route with her, she organized, somewhat loosely, the trip across the state.

From northern Ohio, she says, she now is following the construction of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.

Will she be visiting again when it is complete?

"I certainly will."


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