Thursday, March 24, 2011

Alice and Bobbi Publish A Book

Ride your bike coast-to-coast across America and you'll be showered along the way with people asking, "Are you going to write a book about it?" Alice and Bobbi, a couple of recently retired Midwestern women, hadn't intended on writing a book about their cross country bike ride when they set out, but succumbed to all the urgings with "Across America By Bicycle."

When I discovered it on the bookshelf at the local Border's book store I didn't know whether to say "Thank you" or "Oh no, not another." I am gladdened that such books are published, but saddened that most of them are self-published efforts by authors with little writing experience or ability to give much more than a sketch of what they're trying to write about. I approach such books with trepidation. Though I am always happy to relive my own cross country trip by reading of another, all too often I am soon soured by the heap of cliches and barely edited trip journal that most pass off as a book. It becomes more of an ordeal to plow through the book than to make the ride itself.

It was promising that Alice and Bobbi found someone willing to publish their book, Terrace Books of the University of Wisconsin, and that both had a facility with the language--Alice as a retired editor and Bobbi as a retired English teacher. From the very start it was clear that the writing was polished and that they promised to offer up a fresh angle on a long bike trip from the perspective of a cycling demographic that doesn't ordinarily contribute to the touring cycling genre.

Alice and Bobbi followed Adventure Cycling's northerly route from Astoria, Oregon to Bar Harbor, Maine. Though they were lifelong cyclists, this was their first significant trip, and also their first trip together. They encountered quite a few other cyclists along the way, but acknowledged that the vast majority were male and the rare women they met were accompanied by a guy or were part of a group, often serviced by a sag wagon carrying their gear.

They began their trip intent on camping as much as they could, but soon softened and blew their budget by staying in hotels whenever there was a threat of rain or mosquitoes or bears or rattlesnakes or if it was too hot or if they simply wanted to. Not once did they wild camp, though they knew it was possible. Nor were they hesitant in accepting rides, even a short climb out of a campground to start the day. It wasn't cheating, they said, but rather "bumps," their terminology for getting bumped ahead, once by 180 miles when they rented a car to bypass an area that was smokey from forest fires.

Though their book fit the blueprint of the touring genre complaining about wind and rain and climbs and dogs and heat, they added several new categories of complaints. One was shoddy hotels. They were aggravated by stained carpets so soiled they avoided walking on them with bare feet, thin and scratchy towels, no Kleenex, no continental breakfast. Not every meal or waitress was agreeable either. At times they would walk out of a restaurant even before ordering.

Another complaint unique to the grandmotherly set was taking offense to bike mechanics who showed them no respect, not thinking they could manage the trip. Alice was particularly irked that not until near the end of their trip did anyone compliment her on the vintage 1982 Holdsworth she was riding.

Early on they confess that as much as they are enjoying their ride, it wasn't quite as leisurely as they had hoped. They both were presented the opportunity to curtail the trip when Bobbi's husband needs an operation and Alice's daughter decides to leave her husband. They do take a break to attend to such matters, but readers can be happy they press on, enjoying it too much to call it off.

Readers can be equally happy they made the effort to turn their journals into a book and went beyond simply publishing their daily diaries, greatly elaborating on them and thoroughly addressing, like the editor and school teacher they once were, the questions they were asked along the way and that they had themselves before setting out and that they were asked afterward.

Since they were only casual acquaintances before they set out, many people were particularly interested in how well they got along. They admitted they both had strong opinions on certain matters, but that they always managed to work things out. They saved themselves some aggravation by early on declaring a fifteen minute rule before one could go into a tizzy over some lost item, as more often than not it turned up within fifteen minutes.

They were also frequently asked about safety issues and if they ever felt threatened. They had similar concerns themselves, but learned that such fears were greatly exaggerated. If they felt concern about someone they encountered along the way they'd let him know, "We're highly trained in the martial arts."

Their humor and joy in doing what they were doing, along with their unique perspective, made this an entertaining and insightful travelogue and a most worthy contribution to the genre. It may be the only one that the riders regularly sought out massages and snuck in a facial.


JamiMaria said...

Thanks for your review! It certainly sounds like a different kind of travelogue!

It does seem like a lot of journals and logs of trips start to seem the same after you read a few. What do you think makes a better book?

george christensen said...

JamiMaria: Thanks for the comment.

Cyclotouring books that win my favor are by authors who make me wish I was along for the ride. First and foremost they need present them self as a strong, resilient, interesting companion, who is thoughtful, observant and focuses on the wonderful time they are having rather than the miseries. Grumpy Paul Theroux would not qualify.

Nor would Dominic Gill, a young Englishman who just published the book "Take A Seat" about a bicycle ride on a tandem from Alaska to the tip of South America giving rides to people along the way. He spent too much time whining about being lonely and companions getting on his nerves and conniving to get people to give him a place to stay.
Gill was also a dreaded attention-seeker, going to the media along the way to publicize himself. He chose the tandem as his means of transport at the suggestion of a movie producer he approached with the idea of making a movie and book of a long bike ride.

Cyclotouring books often get bogged down with the mundane daily adversity (wind, rain, heat, climb, need for a shower) and are rarely very reflective or observant. One has hours in the saddle to think and to spot telling, poignant curiosities. Too often such books lapse into self-glorification, such as Gill's book. His ride could have made for a great read, but he was too self-possessed to dwell much on the over 200 people who shared his bike with him, not even the airline pilot who spent six weeks with him. It could have been a lark of a ride, but he never fully bonded with anyone he rode with nor gave a sense of the delight it might have been.

JamiMaria said...

I just saw your follow-up comment! Thanks! I almost picked up Take a Seat at Borders, but I had the same feeling from a quick glance. It definitely seemed gimicky and even from the back cover as through he didn't like his companions much.

I saw that Alice and Bobbi are presenting at REI tomorrow night, btw, and had to go and see if they were the same people you had mentioned in this review. I'm happy I came back and got to see your follow up comment!