18 Apr Erick Cedeño The Bicycle Nomad
For those of us who really love bicycles, I think what we enjoy most is the sense of freedom we get from travel on the open road under our own power. This mechanical device allows us to engage both our minds and bodies to pedal long distances on just two wheels so that we can explore the landscape of the modern world. But through our journeys over lightly trafficked rural roads, as we roll past obscure old towns and villages, we can also reveal the compelling memories of the not-so-distant past. As a modern-day explorer, there’s a man who rides a bike along gravel paths and asphalt highways across time and space and into the pages of history.
Erick Cedeño: My name is Eric Cedeño. Some people know me as the Bicycle Nomad.
JTP: For many years, Eric Cedeño has traveled thousands of miles by bicycle across North America. As a cyclist carrying his own gear from one town to the next, he reimagines the excitement and enthusiasm of human powered transportation toward the end of the 19th century. Back then, even the United States Army thought that the bicycle might change how human beings travel from place to place.
Erick Cedeño: There was a big craze. People were going crazy about the bicycle, the technology, about the bicycle. And the army realized that they needed other methods of transportation to be successful. They only had the cavalry back then, and they knew that bicycles were cheaper than horses. Easier to maintain than a horse. They could go further than a horse could. And also, there were quite in battlefields. So they understood the power of the bikes and they wanted to adapt a bicycle corps.
JTP: In 1896, U.S. Army Lieutenant James Moss came up with the idea to conduct an experiment to see if the bicycle could one day be used to replace the horse. In order to prove the concept, moss recruited a platoon of 20 soldiers.
Erick Cedeño: Fort Missoula, Montana, is where that was formed. Lieutenant Moss approached the Army and says, I have the perfect man to do this experiment. And he did. Luckily for him, he had the Buffalo Soldiers out of the 25th Infantry out of Fort Missoula.
JTP: At the time, more than 30 years after the end of the Civil War, there were stationed there an all-Black unit of enlisted men known collectively as the Buffalo Soldiers. These men who fought the Plains Wars of westward expansion and sadly participated in the displacement of Native people, were given the opportunity for a peacetime mission into the American heartland. Led by Lieutenant Moss, a white officer. Over the next two years, from 1896 to 1897, the Buffalo Soldier Bicycle Corps would make three expeditions across the West. In 2022, Eric Cedeño retraced the route that they traveled from Fort Missoula, Montana, to Saint Louis, Missouri. The distance of more than 1900 miles. In the retelling of their story through physical reenactment, the Bicycle Nomad takes us on a journey back in time. In his travels following the path of the Buffalo Soldiers, Cedeño not only celebrates the accomplishments of black Americans from our past, but also inspires further exploration of our history that is too often overlooked. I’m James Edward Mills, and you’re listening to The Joy Trip Project.
Title photo by Josh Caffrey
Erick Cedeño’s passion for exploration began at a very early age.
Erick Cedeño: Since I was a kid, I’ve always loved history. And I have a story where my mom took me to Mexico to see the pyramids of the Mayan and Aztec civilization. We went to Mexico just for that. She hired a tour guide that took us and told us the history. Now, I’m 12 years old. I have read some of that, those books. And to be walking the steps of ancient civilization just changed my world.
JTP: I first became aware of the Bicycle Nomad several years ago as I was following his travels as he retraced the route of the Underground Railroad from the Deep South all the way to the Canadian border. How did you begin to explore history through bicycle and what prompted that first trip?
Erick Cedeño: So about 2009 2010, I decided I wanted to see the whole country by bike. Every single city. Every single town, but every single state for sure. And my first trip was my major trip was from Vancouver, Canada, to Tijuana, Mexico. Then I followed by a trip from Miami to New York City, and they were grueling. Because you’re traveling 70 miles a day every single day. And at some point, I needed a carrot. I was like, okay, I need to go to the next city without having this mental in my head, right? So I’m like, why don’t I combine two of my hobbies and two of my passions, history and bicycle traveling. So in 2014, I decided to retrace the steps of the Underground Railroad. Not only there was many routes, as you know, of the Freedom Trail, but there was a particular song called Follow the Drinking Gourd and Follow the Drinking Gourd was actually asked to travel to freedom and I said, I’m going to retrace that song. And I did that in 2014. And that’s when I was like, you know what? Ever trip now? It’s about traveling through history. I just loved it.
JTP: While traveling through history by bicycle, Cedeño was in a place where he could find the events and characters that make up our national heritage. At slightly slower than the pace of life, he’s discovering moments in time that some might believe have been lost.
Erick Cedeño: Yeah, I don’t know if it’s lost because the history is there. We just have to tell the story. And when I started traveling by bike and when I started traveling through history, it was just for me to learn what I didn’t learn. But now it’s about telling those stories of those freedom seekers, of freedom fighters, because I need to share that. I would love to inspire the next generation of historians or the next generation of explorers that looks like me. And to feel that sense of pride that I have for even though as dark of history of the Underground Railroad is, I love how the tenacity of those people and that they were explorers. They were explorers. They were freedom seekers, and they navigated through this country for freedom. And those stories have to be told, you know, for us to pay homage. For us to feel a sense of pride where we have been. And how strong we are.
JTP: You know, and I think that it’s from that story of freedom that ultimately gets us into the Civil War. It begins the introduction of Black men as soldiers in the US Army and the units known as the Buffalo Soldiers who came out of the Civil War, who went on to fight the wars of Western expansion, who fought in the Philippines, who fought with Teddy Roosevelt as part of the Rough Riders. Part of that legacy also carries through to a particular group of Buffalo Soldiers on bicycle.
Erick Cedeño: Correct
JTP: In the 1890s? Yes. So tell us a little bit about the Buffalo Soldier Bicycle Corps.
Erick Cedeño: And they were strong mentally, physically strong riders and explorers. Three expeditions were done. The first expedition was 1896, from Fort Missoula to Lake MacDonald about 125 miles. The second expedition was like, Hey, we need you to go further. And they went from Fort Missoula to Yellowstone and back close to 800 miles. And the last expedition, 1897, the Army said, you got to show us more, because from Montana to Yellowstone, the route almost looks the same. The climate almost looks the same. So, they needed diversity to know if this is going to work. And the diversity was from Fort Missoula, Montana, to Saint Louis, because you go through the elevation of the Continental Divide and then you lower into the lower plains, into Nebraska, into Missouri. When I started my trip, it was like 46 degrees. Three weeks later in Nebraska, it was 105 degrees and they dealt with a similar situation, weather pattern, not even on not only just weather, but also the gravel. The gravel in each state is different to navigate. So yeah. (Correction – the actual location was Mc Donald Lake on the Flathead Reservation in Montana)
JTP: So this particular expedition, June 14, 1897 and that’s an interesting thing too, because you are able to tell this story very accurately because there was a journalist that was part of the expedition. What was his name?
Erick Cedeño: His name was Edward Booth. Edward H. Booth.
JTP: And he was the son of a newspaper editor in Missoula, Montana.
Erick Cedeño: And Missoulan newspaper, which the newspapers still around.
JTP: Right. And he’s only 19 years old at the time and years old. And so, he was actually able to tell the story of the Buffalo soldiers as they’re making their way. And it was a 41-day journey. And you literally have notes, handwritten notes that you can document exactly what happened from one day to the next. And for the purposes of your expedition, as I understand it, was to be able to take that expedition and duplicated right down to the last day in terms of even the distances.
Erick Cedeño: And not only distances. But timing, when they arrived, when they left Missoula, it was so important for me to leave at 5:40 in the morning when they left and arrive into Forest Park, Saint Louis. And not just arrived to Saint Louis and say, I’m here. No, I went to the park where those guys arrived.
JTP: So why is it important to get that degree of accuracy when it comes to reenacting an event like this?
Erick Cedeño: For many reasons. Mainly to tell the story accurately. Right? But also, as an explorer, as a traveler, I want to when I when I travel through history, I want to feel what those travelers felt, those freedom seekers, those freedom fighters. I want to see how hard it was for them. And obviously, I’m traveling 125 years later with different technology than they did. But, you know, it’s one thing reading on the books, the history, and it’s one thing engaging in the history and writing the history and knowing like these guys came through here and look at the gravel here. How did they do that with the kind of bike that they had? But also, for me as a historian geek, it’s important to do things accurate if I don’t tell the narrative right. Who else will?
JTP: So what do you think it was like to be a Black American in 1897? I mean, what was it about that experience as a Black man that made that expedition perhaps a little bit different if it had been a platoon of white soldiers?
Erick Cedeño: They, as servicemen, had a sense of pride and they wanted to be equal. And this is how they showed, hey, you know what? We are equal. And that was so important for me when I kept reading. And when I tell their story, I want to tell it accurately, because that is one thing that I know that they wanted to do. And it was a very grueling expedition. Look, I’ve done this for 14 years. I’ve traveled all over the country by bicycle, and early on in this expedition, it was so hard for me that I wanted to quit. It’s the first time in 14 years that I’ve ever thought, You know what? I’m going to quit this. Now, it changed two seconds later, because I knew my purpose, right? I knew that I was telling the story. I knew that I was traveling through history. I knew that I was paying homage to to guys who did it in 1897. For them. It was important and it was a sense of pride. You know, I could only imagine I don’t have written a journal of what they went through in their head, but I’m sure that they also wanted to quit, but they wanted to demonstrate that they were equal men and that they could do this right and they got it done.
JTP: Now, do you have any impressions based on the notes about how they were treated? How were they regarded as African American men making their way across the country in very white rural areas at the turn of the last century?
Erick Cedeño: Yeah. So, I know for a fact, through written journals that Lieutenant Moss, who a white lieutenant who graduated from West Point, who was fascinated with creating this bicycle corps. He respected these men so much. There’s written reports of how he would write to his general and how he’s like these guys are strong, this, that. So that was pretty cool to see that he respected these men. And he knew that he had the perfect men to create a history or to adapt the Bicycle Corps. Now, it was very it’s a very physical trip. Mentally, spiritually. For them. But on top of that, they had to deal with a lot of racism, mainly outside. In Montana, they knew who the 25th Infantry was. They served in Montana and took care of Yellowstone and all that. In Wyoming, some parts they knew, especially in western Montana, western Wyoming, they knew about the 25th Infantry. As they went east towards Nebraska, towards Missouri, they dealt with a lot of racism. Written reports says that some of the locals will give them wrong direction. And there was one incident where they got lost and it was only 25 miles away. But it took them almost like 17 hours to get there. Again, 25 miles, 17 hours. They were lost. And that happened several times in several towns. There’re reports where they were not allowed to camp in and in specific town they were like, no, you cannot stay here. So, they had to continue as tires. There were they had to continue. Also reports where the Lt Moss, a white lieutenant. The surgeon of the expedition is Dr. Kennedy and Edward Booth will go into restaurants to have meals. And these guys will have to stay outside because Black men were not allowed to eat in establishments, and they would have to be eating beans out of a can outside while they were having a feast.
JTP: I think that what is really remarkable about all of this is the progression of racial oppression that had been going on after the Civil War, you know, through the period of westward expansion. And I really think that what your story helps to illustrate is that they were continually trying to prove themselves, to demonstrate to the general public why their role as this experiment was so critically important. What I find interesting, too, is the fact that you actually know their names. You know that the muster rules actually tell you exactly who they are. And in many ways that you also have photographs. But there’s a problem because you aren’t able to identify the men by their faces. Why is that important to you to be able to both identify them by name, but also by their physical descriptions?
Erick Cedeño: It’s important for many reasons. It’s important because these are somebody’s great grandparents, grandparents of of people that may probably not know these heroes. It’s important to recognize who they were. When I came across this history, we already know who Lieutenant Moss was and when the books and the history books always talk about the Bicycle Corps, the Buffalo Soldiers. But I was like, what are the names? Where they come from? These are human beings. They have personalities, right? So me as a bike packer, I usually travel solo most of my expedition. But I have traveled with people, and I know when you travel with people, there’s a dynamic. And I was like, What was the dynamic? I wanted to know more. So, I had to find out what their names were. Right? But then now we have names, but we can’t put them with the faces. Two years ago, is a mission of mine to be able to recognize both by face and by name each of the riders. It’s only then that I’m able to tell the story correctly, because right now I’m just giving you half of the story. Once I am able to complete that, I’m able to share that with my son and say, Look, these are my heroes. This is Private John Finely Mingo Sanders, Elwood Foreman. So far, I’m able to recognize at a 20 of the guys, I’m able to recognize eight of them, and there’s 12 more that I don’t know who they are. I have names, but I’m working on that. It’s very important. And recently someone asked me, What’s your next project? And I said, I cannot continue to my next project until I’m able to recognize each of them by face and by name. Because history did not do it. For 125 years, we have gone without knowing who these guys were by face him by name. And I have pictures now that tell me that they have personalities. Starting with the way they wore that hat. The same hat, but everyone wore it differently.
JTP: And again, it’s these the same men who you now can identify by face. In fact, you recently were able to get a new grave marker for one of them. Tell me about was it John Finely? Yes, the mechanic.
Erick Cedeño: The mechanic of the expedition. Years ago, I decided, okay, I need to know their names. I need to know their faces. I also need to know where they were born and where they died. I recently became a husband and a father, so it’s very important for me to be like. Did they have family? Right? Were they married? Do they have kids? Are there descendants that I could connect with? So, I went into this rabbit hole. And I found where most of them were buried. But I also found a gap and I saw a few of them I couldn’t find where they were buried. And with the help of historians, we realize that is probably because they don’t have a marker and we can. Figure out where they are. So immediately from like naming faces with names put in faces with name. I also say it is very important for me to give them a grave marker because. You have to give them the dignity that they deserve because it wasn’t given to them when they were alive. Right? So it’s important for me to, to go pay respect, you know? Like you pay respect to other heroes of history. Well, let me pay my respect to my heroes of history, and I want to know where they are buried. So I would hate to have my father without a grave marker, my grandfather without a grave marker. So, I put myself in as a family member of those individuals. Right? So, we knew where John Finley went after the Army, and we knew that he was in Chicago. And we knew that he died in 1945. And then eventually we found a location where we thought he was buried. And with the help of historians and the V.A., we got him a marker, which is the first one that we got. That process, it took a long time, obviously, because the VA wants to make sure that that’s the correct person. So, we found a second soldier that we’re we believe, where he’s buried, also buried in Chicago. Private John Wilson. We’re going to be doing some work to try to get him a marker from the VA. Yeah.
JTP: And have you had a chance to reach out to any of their family members? So, you’ve got their names. You’ve got their, you know, previous places of origin. Have you have you managed to connect with any of the members of their family who might still be alive?
Erick Cedeño: Yeah, at this point, I’ve only able to recognize one descendant of Sergeant Mingo Sanders and I met her, actually. She was there when I ended at Forest Park. When I arrived, she was waiting for me. And as I hugged my wife and my baby first and she was the second hug, and I was just emotional to be in the presence of someone that was descendant of one of my heroes.
JTP: I would imagine that there’s a lot more out there.
Erick Cedeño: There’s a lot more. And I’m just one guy and I’m working with historians, but like I mentioned, grave markers, names and and descendants will be a third in line that probably the work that I will be doing after being able to recognize. Right? Because then I’m able to go to that person and say, this is who he was. This is what he looked like.
JTP: It sounds like that’s going to be the focus of your work going forward. Is there anything in particular I know you’re not thinking about it now, but what’s the next journey that you think you might like to do after you’re finished identifying the members of the Buffalo Soldier Bicycle Corps?
Erick Cedeño: If you get into my head, I have many routes in my head, historical routes that I would love to do. Some abroad, internationally and some here. But when I was a kid, I read the story of Lewis and Clark. I was just fascinated, right? To know what they went through. And that’s all I knew. Lewis and Clark. And then as I got older, I learned about York, Sacajawea and York. And I say, how come I didn’t learn that when I was a kid? How come it’s the Lewis and Clark Parkway? Where are the names of these Heroes? Because as I understand history and as I understand. Geography there was no way that Lewis and Clark could have done this by themselves. They would have been killed. They would have got lost along the way. And with the help of these two individuals, two explorers that were able to navigate through native lands, and York was an amazing explorer. I said I need to give perspective to them, too, because history books have not called them out. And it’s so interesting because I when I was in Wyoming, I went through the Lewis and Clark Parkway, and I was like. Yeah. Where are the other guys? In Montana. I did find something in Montana that was pretty interesting. In the parkway because it followed the Missouri River there is an island called York Island. And it was named after York. And I was like, That is awesome. That in the middle of nowhere, Montana. There is a land that pays respect to one of my my heroes. So, I want to tell that story. But that story is pretty long. It’s 3100 miles, you know. So there’s a lot of work that I need to do. But yeah, I’m focusing on this right now. But that that would be something that I would love to do just because I learned so much of the Lewis and Clark expedition growing up. You know, when when my son gets older, I want to add two more characters to that story that he needs to know who they were.
JTP: Well, Eric, it’s an absolute pleasure to talk to you. Thanks a lot for sharing your story with me.
Erick Cedeño: Well, I thank you for bringing me over here to tell this story. And I love what you do, and I thank you for giving me this space.
JTP: The story of the Buffalo Soldier Bicycle Corps and many other amazing moments in Black American history can be easily obscured by the passage of time. Venturing out in the world on errands of exploration is the best way I can imagine that we might discover these critical narratives in our shared national heritage. As Mark Twain once wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness, and many of our people sorely need it on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetate in one little corner of the earth all of one’s life.”
You can learn more about Erick Cedeño, the Bicycle Nomad, on his website www.IAmBicycleNomad.com. For the Joy Trip Project. This is James Edward Mills.
We’re also grateful for the support of our vehicle sponsor Volkswagen of America, who provides us with cars to keep this show on the road.
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