Every year, John Shackelford, 26, a bicycle messenger in New York City, takes what he calls a “tour,” or long-distance ride with friends. Following a summer of social unrest sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans at the hands of police, the 2020 tour, he decided, would travel roughly 1,100 miles from Mobile, Ala., to Washington, D.C., visiting places associated with Black history, including Civil Rights landmarks, history museums and memorials such as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. The pandemic was an obstacle to visiting some sites, but not enough to hold back the ride.
It was both a personal mission and a demonstration of diversity, something Shackelford, who is Black, hoped to model for future generations of cyclists. From this kernel of an idea, a movement grew as a film crew signed on to document the trip named the Underground Railroad Ride, which took Shackelford and four fellow cyclists 18 days to complete in October; a sixth rider did half the route.
“With all the anger and animosity going on, I felt this was the time to bring something important to the surface and answer some questions I’ve always had in terms of history,” Shackelford said.
The crises of 2020 — particularly the pandemic and the killings of Black Americans — have caused many travelers to rethink how and where to travel. Rather than taking luxury spa trips or sun-and-fun cruises, many are seeking to put more meaning into their future travels, either through a personal challenge like long-distance cycling, exploring their heritage or realizing a life goal such as visiting all 50 states.
Mission-driven trips also assert a heightened sense of self-awareness. In her book “Getting Away From It All: Vacations and Identity,” author and sociologist Karen Stein writes that “vacations reveal what people choose to do, rather than what they must do. They are opportunities for self-definition.”
It’s impossible to quantify the number of mission-driven travelers out there, especially when travel remains severely depressed and restricted in many places, but tour operators indicate some future travelers may do more than fly and flop. At Hands Up Holidays, a tour operator devoted to volunteer travel for families, bookings for trips more than six months out are 2-1/2 times greater now than in January 2020; restoring homes in New Orleans is its most popular trip.
During the pandemic, the California-based travel agency CrushGlobal Travel created road trip guides in several regions of the United States that aim to make road trips more inclusive by highlighting Black-owned businesses.
And the tour company Backroads, which provided the Underground Railroad Ride with mapping and route logistics, plans to offer a similarly themed biking and hiking trip to the public next October in conjunction with Outdoor Afro, a nonprofit organization that encourages Black participation in outdoor recreation and conservation.
“The pandemic has given our world an opportunity to look within as well as at tourism, which is so catalytic to personal growth and raising awareness of ourselves and others,” said Jake Haupert, the co-founder of the Transformational Travel Council, an organization that, among other things, trains travel advisers in planning more sustainable, purpose-led travel. “I think we’re seeing an awakening to more values-driven travel.”
That sort of awakening is true for Cessie Cerrato, 40, of New York City, who said the pandemic inspired her to overcome her family’s objections and make plans to visit Cuba, a country her grandparents and parents fled several years after the Communist takeover.
“I 100% identify as Cuban,” said Cerrato, a publicist who grew up in Miami, deeply steeped in Cuban traditions, from Christmas Eve pig roasts to wearing azabache jewelry to ward off the evil eye.
Though her family has discouraged her from traveling to Cuba, which would funnel money to a regime that had ruptured their lives, not being able to travel has convinced her to go anyway, perhaps this summer, to explore her heritage and strengthen her connections (the Trump administration’s recent addition of Cuba onto the government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism represents a new obstacle).
“COVID has made me rethink everything and to be more intentional about where I go,” Cerrato said. “Cuba holds a special place in my heart because my family’s from there and I want to discover it.”
During the travel shutdown, fewer tourists contributed to a rise in poaching in some areas of Africa, highlighting the importance of travel in funding conservation.
For sisters Isabella and Willow Poschman, both 15, of Aspen, Colo., the hiatus has pushed Africa to the top of their agendas. At age 7, after seeing a documentary on African elephants being slaughtered for their ivory, the twins, with the help of their parents, founded the charity Kids Saving Elephants through which they have worked to raise awareness by writing letters to the presidents of China, Kenya and the United States, making educational presentations at school and fundraising with things like handmade stationery sales and lemonade stands (their biggest single day record was $1,300).
Now, with their parents, they are planning to travel to Kenya, hopefully this summer, to visit the conservation organizations they support, including the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Retiti Elephant Sanctuary.
“It’s important because, on the one hand, we know a lot, but we’re also so removed from that environment,” Isabella said. “And we don’t really know a lot about the people who are actually living there and their side of the story so that would be really helpful to go there and learn about.”
“One of our big things is information and having people understand what the problem is, so I think it would help to document a trip there,” added Willow, who has been studying Swahili during the pandemic.
Roads to self-discovery
Over the summer, road trips emerged as relatively safe ways to travel by limiting interactions with strangers. But if travelers once motored off to meet other people before the pandemic, now social distancing demands have fed trips of self-reflection.
That’s the case for Randy Buescher, 66, an architect in Chicago who is planning a road trip to New Orleans via Mobile, Ala., where he was born and lived for the first three years before his family moved north. He hasn’t been back since.
“I don’t know if I do or don’t have any memories” of Mobile, he said. “You don’t know until you see a place.”
He hopes to take the trip sometime in the next year with his wife, Janet Roderick, 58, a real estate agent, and any of their four adult children who care to join them. For her, the 2020 election, when traditionally conservative Georgia swung blue, makes the region more intriguing.
“I’m interested in seeing what this New South is all about,” she said.
As more of the country gets the vaccine, some are planning epic road trips to connect with friends and family they haven’t seen anywhere in the past year other than Zoom.
“I just want to go see friends,” said Susan Moynihan, 53, a writer in Annapolis, Md., who is planning a trip to the final six states she hasn’t visited in the United States as her first post-vaccination trip. “It’s about one-on-one connection with friends and places I want to get to know better.”
During his Underground Railroad ride, John Shackelford, the New York City cyclist, learned a lot about what he could do, pushing himself to endure an often hot and grimy 1,100 miles. He also learned not to ride after dark in the South and never ride alone there.
While the film documenting the ride is in postproduction, Shackelford is already planning his next mission-driven trip: traveling cross-country by bus next summer to distribute free bikes to people of color.
“I want to communicate that anyone can ride a bike and feel the exact same high as I felt,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have or if it’s a fancy bike or a cheap bike, just have a good time, and benefit health-wise.”