Lisa K. Winkler, author of On The Trail of Ancestors: A Black Cowboy's Ride Across America, says the story fell in her lap.
Winkler's book, just out earlier this year, chronicles the journey of Miles Dean, a dreadlocked social studies teacher from Newark, N.J., who spent six months on horseback in 2007 and 2008 trekking from Manhattan to Los Angeles. His goal was to ride more than 5,000 miles and visit sites that celebrate the history of African-Americans.
Dean's pilgrimage wasn't one that was completely divorced from Winkler's life experience. She'd grown up on a poultry farm in Madison, Conn., and spent much of her childhood riding and caring for horses. Winkler describes her parents as liberals who'd marched for civil rights in the '60s. Then her father developed a blood clot that nearly killed him. "So he leased the farm and took three years off," she recalls. "And we traveled across the country for three summers."
Those summers spent roaming the U.S. came back to Winkler in 2008 when she was working in the Newark school system and learned about Miles Dean's odyssey. Her initial reaction was to think, "Oh my gosh, who does this?" But then the journalistic instincts she'd honed as a young reporter at the Hartford Courant and the Danbury News-Times kicked in, and she decided to tell his story.
Winkler, who lives in N.J., insists that Dean's motivation for his trip was simple. "It wasn't about finding himself," she says. "It wasn't a joyride. It was a spiritual journey. He wanted to honor the people who came before him and struggled so that he could do whatever he wanted to as a free person."
Dean had been dreaming of making the journey since childhood, when he fell in love with cowboys, horses and the American West. And he'd made an aborted attempt to ride from New Jersey to Canada on a motorcycle about 30 years before his eventual trip. Planning began in the mid-'90s, but had to stop when Dean was diagnosed with a non-malignant brain tumor. Fortunately, the tumor shrank. And, like Winkler's father, the medical scare added a sense of urgency to his quest.
With the help of his students, Dean laid out a route that would highlight the achievements of African-Americans, with a special emphasis on black cowboys, jockeys, the Buffalo Soldiers and U.S. Marshals. But some of the more surprising discoveries that he made en route weren't ones that Dean had planned for, like the treatment he got from local law enforcement. "He had a respectful, yet wary regard for them," Winkler points out. "But they went out of their way to escort him on roads that didn't allow horses."
Dean also found himself opening the eyes of some of the other people he met. Winkler documents one particularly emotional incident involving an Appalachian rancher who'd offered Dean his hospitality.
"The entire scope of what Miles had accomplished really didn't hit him until the very end, when he put the horse in his trailer and drove back East," says Winkler. "And seeing the whole thing again, he thought, 'I can't believe I did it!'"
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