In search of the Underground Railroad: Reporter, photographer begin 500 mile trek
In search of the Underground Railroad: Reporter, photographer begin 500 mile trek

From May's Lick to North Buxton, Canada, reporter Chris Lackner and photographer Malcolm Taylor will spend about three months on the road as they delve head-first into the history and heritage of the Underground Railroad.

Lackner, a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen newspaper in Canada, and Taylor, a freelance photographer hired by the newspaper, were both recruited to take part in this incredible 535-mile journey by an editor, Ruth Dunley, who emphasizes the past as much as the present.

"She is a big supporter of journalism, and the newspaper investigating history," said Lackner as he sat outside Second Baptist Church in May's Lick Monday, where he would be spending the night. Lackner said that while newspapers do a great job covering the present, they also need to investigate the past.

Lackner plans to walk much of the 500-plus miles of the journey, while Taylor will drive in a van loaded with his equipment, and books they may need to refer to along the way. The two plan to stay in various locations of historical significance, or camp outside of the sites if necessary, as they make the trip. Lackner said he will interview many people along the way, and make daily updates of his progress, as well as what he's seen, heard and learned in a blog accessible through the newspaper's Web site, www.ottawacitizen.com.

The newspaper will also publish, in hard copy, articles twice a week detailing Lackner and Taylor's progress.

While the history of the Underground Railroad has achieved new interest in America, Lackner said many sometimes forget how much of a role Canada played. It was often the destination of slaves who sought freedom.

"In no way am I trying to recreate the experience of a fugitive slave," Lackner said about his trip, noting that he cannot understand their flight to freedom as a white, middle class man in Canada. "But by walking … it allows me to get a sense of the geography."

Not only the geography, Lackner said the trip will also allow him some inkling of the distance the fugitive slaves traveled, though he admitted many often traveled much farther than he, beginning their journey in the deep south.

Lackner said walking also allows him the chance to meet people and spend time in key communities. While it may have been easier to "blitz" into a town, snap a photo and write a feature story, Lackner said the trip is about fully immersing himself in the history.

"The walk will allow us to kind of live in these communities," Lackner said.

As a reporter for the paper, Lackner said his love for feature writing, as well as availability and willingness to take part in the journey, helped secure his part in the trip.

As a freelance photographer who had completed an internship with the newspaper previously, Taylor said he and others were sent a mass e-mail to gauge interest in the trip.

"I jumped on the chance," he said.

The newspaper knew his work, and hired him about three weeks before the two would leave their homes for Kentucky.

Lackner said he spent four months planning and preparing for the trip.

"I've been reading nonstop for months," he said, including Uncle Tom's Cabin in his required reading.

He mapped out his trip in detail, and made contact with individuals along the path for accommodations, as well as to have access to the history of the various areas. He's also had to prepare physically for the toll the journey would take.

"I've been trying to walk at least five miles a day," he said. However, he missed a few days while attending an Underground Railroad conference this past weekend.

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"Tomorrow, (I'm) going to be … hurting," he said. Though he wore sandals through the day Monday as he interviewed May's Lick residents, Lackner said he acquired a special pair of running shoes made to fit the specific shape and size of his foot for the walking portion of the journey.

Lackner will walk from May's Lick to Maysville today, stopping in Old Washington at the Paxton Inn, and Marshall Key's home, as well as other key sites. Then, in Maysville Lackner plans to visit the National Underground Railroad Museum, Bierbower House, Mason County Courthouse, Phillips' Folly, as well as other locations.

Though Lackner and Taylor will be investing their summer in the series, "Tracks to Freedom," Lackner said the trip will be something he'll remember forever.

Lackner said the story-line is a rich one to explore, full of heroes, and villains, trials, and all the other elements of life.

"The journey itself, and the people along the way, will stay with me forever," he said.

Contact Misty Maynard at 606-564-9091, ext. 274.

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