Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A New York Times Writer Bikes Coast-To-Coast

More than a few of the cyclists who have ridden coast-to-coast across the United States have written a book about their trip. Not many though have the credentials of Bruce Weber, a writer for the New York Times since 1986 who has had four above the fold front-page stories.  This is his third book.  His journalistic skills shine forth not only in his prose, but also in how thoroughly he covers his subject matter.  He also has the very useful skill of pitching a story he'd really like to write.  Twice he has succeeded in convincing an editor at The Times to let him ride his bicycle across the United States and write about it for the paper, in effect earning himself a paid vacation, if such an endeavor can be considered a "vacation."

The first trip was in 1993 when he was 39.  The second was in 2011 when he was 57.  He had recently published a book on baseball umpires, "As They See 'Em," and wanted to write another book, maybe regretting he hadn't written one on his first ride, since so many people do.  He had taken a two year leave from The Times to write the umpire book. He attended one of the two sanctioned umpire schools in Florida, did a little umping and then traveled the country following a few of the umpires he went to school with who had won a position among the 220 umpires in the minor league system.  He gets to know, as well, quite a few of the 68 umpires working in the majors.  As with his bicycling book, "Life is a Wheel," he gifted himself the pleasure of writing a book about something he liked a lot and knew fairly well.

He is a more ardent baseball fan though, than bicyclist, calling himself a dilettante despite two coast-to-coast rides and a few others, including the length of Vietnam with a group of sixty.  His baseball-consciousness is highly evident in his bicycle book, with repeated mentions of the game.  He times his three-month ride to arrive back in New York in time for the World Series.  Not once though does he mention biking in his umpire book.  One of his nearly forty mentions of baseball in his biking book is the movie "Moneyball," which he didn't think was particularly baseball savvy. The movie mentions, from "Planet of the Apes" to "Psycho," actually outnumber his baseball mentions.  One of them is the comment after a hard climb in the heat, that he'd like nothing more than to disappear into an air-conditioned movie theater.   

He didn't take up bicycling until after his second knee operation when his doctor told him to say goodbye to his basketball and softball playing days.  Despite a number of significant bicycle trips, he laments he's not very good at maintaining his bike.  He replaces his chain three times on his trip, paying a mechanic to do it each time.  He describes himself as being capable of sensing when something is wrong with his bicycle, but rarely capable of fixing it. His bike terminology isn't always that of someone fully versed in the lexicon.  He refers to the bags on his bike as saddlebags, rather than panniers.  He is traveling with two on the back and no "front wheel bags," not how any veteran cyclist would phrase it.  He refers to the bicycle touring website as

When he lists the components on his new $8000 bike, he doesn't give the all-important number of teeth on his chain rings, just those on his cassette, an 11-28, which he redundantly refers to as a "rear cassette."  He only test rode his new bike 65 miles before he flew out to Oregon to begin his trip.  Early on he realizes his cassette isn't adequate for the climbs, some of which he has to walk, and replaces it.  He also has to replace his saddle after 1,600 miles of discomfort.  

He makes it easy for casual and non-cyclists to relate to him, portraying himself as an every-man without overly glorifying his ride.   He only averages fifty miles a day and stays in a hotel every night and occasionally the home of a friend or a reader of his Times coverage.  One was an ardent cyclist who had celebrated his 50th birthday by riding fifty miles in all fifty states.

He brought along a tent and sleeping bag in case of emergency, but never needs them.  He doesn't say if he ever camped during his first trip, only that he averaged sixty miles a day.  He admits that he can feel age catching up to him.  He no longer desires to ride late into the day, one of my greatest pleasures, preferring to be done by mid-afternoon.

About a third of the way into the book he confesses that he was struggling much more than he let his newspaper readers know during his first two weeks.  He came close to quitting half a dozen times, feigning an injury and flying home.  Another confession is that he will turn his bike upside down and solicit a ride when conditions are beyond his tolerance.  He does turn down the offer of a ride from a police officer in Montana, though, when he calls ahead to check if the department can book a motel room for him in their town.  They succeed and then volunteer to come and pick him up.  It was one of many countless examples of the benevolence he encountered, something he wished there was more of in New York.  "In most of the country, the default temperament is decency," he observes.

He only rarely refers to his first trip.  Rather than repeating the route to relive it or to comment on how places might have changed, he takes a more northerly route so he can pass through North Dakota, the only state he'd never been to.  It is a great moment for him when he crosses into the state.  He debates what adjective he should use to describe the accomplishment.  He settles on "creditable," explaining, "It isn't quite remarkable, and its not special enough to be singular; amazing is way overstating it.  Estimable isn't bad, but creditable is better, more modest, a deserved but unostentatious pat on my back, self-satisfied without being smug."  

A few pages earlier he tells how he spent two days wrapped in thought over a colorful phrase on a historical marker he came upon. It described gunslingers as "tolerably lurid."  He knows how hard it would be for him to get that by an editor and tries to imagine how whoever wrote it convinced their editor not to modify it.   He can tend toward the florid himself, referring to a vast field of sunflowers as a "gigantic silk scarf." One can appreciate his literary craftsmanship, trying to find a fresh and precise word.  He describes winds as "well-behaved," "genial," "stubborn," "accommodating," "a malign cohort," "nudging me," "contrary," "heartening."  He describes some cattle as being "handsome."

Some of the best writing in his book comes from one of his emailers responding to his stories in The Times, someone by the name of "Scorpion."  He chastises Weber, calling his endeavor a waste of time and effort.  When he becomes too harsh and personal, Weber no longer allows him to post.

The book is as much a memoir of his life as it is the story of his bike ride, as implied by the book's subtitle--"Love, death, etc., and a bike ride across America."  He had recently fallen in love with a fellow Times reporter, who was based in Paris.  They had been friends for years, but became a couple on a group bike ride in Provence.  Weber had never been married, though he had had a series of girl friends, many of whom he mentions.  His new girl friend was in the process of divorce and had two grown daughters, one of whom didn't wholly approve of Weber and told her mother, "don't come crying to me if it doesn't work out."

He takes several breaks from his ride, one to fly to a friend's funeral, where he unexpectedly meets an ex, and another to fly to a wedding of a friend of his new girl friend.  She also rides along with him for a couple of days on a fold-up bike.  He devotes two chapters of the book to his ride in Vietnam, including a sidetrip where he was detained.  He calls the experience of his arrest, "Far and away the most interesting thing that has ever happened to me."

It was his first time in Vietnam, unlike some members in his group who had served in the war.  When he was in junior high school he was so beset by fears of being drafted and sent to Vietnam some time in the future, he suffered his first symptoms of depression.  His parents sent him to a psychiatrist, who he saw for a couple of years, although they mostly just played chess.  That didn't turn him off to shrinks though.  Over the years he spent "endless hours blathering with a shrink," largely about the many women who passed through his life as if it were a revolving door.

His time on the bike serves as an antidote to what he terms "life's irreconcilable vexatiousness."  It assuages his "despair over the fate of mankind."  Its not always easy on the bike, he acknowledges, and when it isn't there is always the chance that it can get worse, but he tries to be an optimist, knowing that most often it will get better.  He fully approves of Samuel Beckett's assessment, "The bicycle is a great good, but it can turn nasty if ill-employed."

I had been eager to read this well-reviewed new contribution to the ever-increasing canon of significant bicycle literature since it was published just before I headed to Europe in April.  It was a book I didn't want to end, except that I have a backlog of recently published bicycling books to catch up on--memoirs from the racers George Hincapie and Phil Gaimon, the latest book by Richard Moore on great stages of The Tour de France and another book on the lanterne rouge of The Tour, and a few others.  

Even though Weber traveled in a style much different than mine, staying in motels rather than camping wild and not once mentioning a library, Carnegie or otherwise, the two cornerstones of my travels, his book greatly inflamed my urges to be back on the road living the touring life rather than reading about it.  My friend Tim, who has joined Janina and me on our two rides to the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, planted the idea of joining him for the 25th anniversary of the protest of the School of the Americas at Fort Benning in Georgia next month.  It would be an 800 mile ride there and then 800 back.  How can I resist?


Stuart said...

...who has joined Janina and ME...

george christensen said...

Yikes, thanks for the correction.