Monday, January 5, 2015

A Potpourri of Cycle Touring Books

Now that I'm pretty much caught up on the latest batch of books devoted to the racing side of cycling, I've had a chance to turn my attention to a strain of books on touring that I've recently come upon, some that I discovered in libraries on my ride to Georgia last month, and others that I found along side them when I sought them out in a Chicago-area library.

There is a seemingly bottomless reservoir of touring books out there from small publishers and the self-published that don't receive much distribution and are pretty much unknown and unread.  One never knows where one might turn up. Its always a pleasure to make such a discovery, but I'm slightly hesitant to plunge into such books, knowing how lackluster and formulaic the writing can be, as they're generally written by someone with limited writing credentials who has been deluded to think their long bike ride is worthy of a book.  Some are, but not all. Occasionally I discover an actual gem, such as Margaret Logan's "Happy Endings," a most literate and poignant account of a mother and daughter cycling across France that a friend alerted me to a couple of years ago after meeting the author years after she wrote her book.

Another such gem turned up in this recent plunge into books on touring--"Once Upon a Chariot," by Iris Paris, the daughter of Norma Jean Belloff, who bicycled from San Diego to Baltimore to visit her grandmother and then back in the late 1940s as a nineteen-year old.  Her return trip in 54 days set the woman's coast-to-coast record at the time. The majority of the book though is devoted to her long ride east that took her to Florida and then up the coast to New York.

Paris didn't learn of her mother's feat until 1989, seventeen years after her death, when she was given five trunks of her belongings by her aunt. The trunks included the journals and newspaper clippings of her exploit.  Her mother succumbed to mental illness four years after Paris was born and never told her about her bicycling.  Paris was nineteen herself when her mother ended her life by her own hand.

Thirteen years passed after Paris received the trunks before it came to her that she ought to make a book of her mother's journals, doing "what God required of me," as she phrased it.  God figures prominently in Belloff's writing as well.  She traveled with a Bible.  She occasionally quotes a passage, but is no Bible-thumper nor proselytizer unlike another of these books, just someone trying to cope with life and turning to the Bible for comfort and guidance, such as when a snake slithers past her campsite.  She grabs her Bible and starts reading Psalms to remind herself that God is mightier than the snake.  When she encounters a hurricane in Florida, she thought, "Why should I be afraid?  This hurricane is God's creation."

She traveled with a sleeping bag, but not a tent.  She camped, stayed in YWCAs and would ask people if she could sleep on their porch or in a spare bedroom.  One night out in the middle of nowhere she stayed with a cowboy in his humble one-room shack.  She felt no fear for her safety, reasoning, "If a horse would trust a cowboy, why couldn't I?  Perhaps viewing too many western movies had created my delusion, but I have to trust him, trust God, if He exists, for protection."  She was likewise brave enough to camp in New York's Central Park and another time in a cemetery.  She had a hard time falling asleep amongst the tombstones, wondering if she was courageous or insane to be camping in such a place.

She submitted stories of her travels to her home town newspaper, the "Ocean Beach News," and was written about quite frequently by newspapers in towns she passed through, some who had been alerted by her mother.  She supplemented the ten dollars per week she earned from her writing with work along the way--packing lettuce, waitressing, as a caretaker for an elderly woman and more.  When she was particularly low on funds she asked a woman if she could help her with her weeding in exchange for a meal.

Not only did the subject matter make this a pleasure to read, but so did the quality of the prose, written with flair and polish. It went beyond being a story of a bike ride, as she had more on her mind than simply riding her bike and finding a place to spend each night.  She set out with just $25, wrapped in wax paper and hidden in her brassiere.  Earning money along the way was a large part of the first half of the trip, as she found funding for the trip back, when she set her record.   Recurring side stories included her alternately warm and contentiousness relationship with her mother, concerns over a boy friend she left behind and concerns over a younger brother who had problems with the law.  It was sad to know, though, from the forward on, the unfortunate conclusion to the story.

"Trail of 32" is another remarkable record-setting bike adventure resurrected from the past.  Paul Rega recounts years later his bike ride as a fifteen year old from Chicago to Florida in 1972.  He was one of 27 Boy Scouts aged 11 to 16 and five troop leaders who accomplished the longest organized bike ride in the history of Scouting--1,253.7 miles.

The first half of the book is devoted to the Scouts' preparation and fund-raising.  Each scout needed $265 for the ride--$40 for a Sears Free Spirit bike, $51 for a plane ticket back, and $174 for food and other expenses.  They didn't have to worry about paying for camping, as the governors of all the states on their route had waived their camping fees.  

They were quite a spectacle, all in uniform and sporting a crew cut their 31 year old troop leader required of them just before departure.  They rode in a set order and within a few bike lengths of one other, except on mountain descents when they separated themselves by minutes rather than feet to avoid crashing into one another.  

Their story, too, captured quite a bit of attention at the time.  Before their departure they rode in their town's Fourth of July parade. During their thirty-day ride the Scouts would take turns appearing on a popular morning Chicago radio show.  Chicago television reporters greeted them on their return to O'Hare airport.  They were given a police escort the final ten miles to their hometown of Wood Dale.  And, of course, there was plenty of newspaper coverage. The book is as much a tribute to Scouting as to the bicycle trip. Though the writing seemed to be slanted towards a teen-aged audience, it was still an enjoyable and inspiring read.  I was glad a friend had recommended this Ebook.

"Going Somewhere"  is another book that breaks from the standard bonds of the bicycle touring book genre.  It is the story of a young couple who meet while traveling in Central America, fall in love and decide to return to the US for a bike ride from Wisconsin, the home of the guy, to Portland, Oregon, the home of the girl.  It would be their first long bicycle ride, something the girl had long dreamed of doing.

The author, Brian Benson, is an aspiring writer.  He doesn't complete the book until several years after  their trip and he has honed his writing skills and gone on to teach creative writing.  The book reads as well as a novel, with well-developed characters, descriptive writing, genuine dialogue and sex every so often, a subject generally avoided in such books.  I was fortunate the book was filed among bike books, otherwise I would not have stumbled upon it.

Benson doesn't shy from profanity, writing in a casual vernacular, tossing in phrases such as "I shit you not," and "couldn't give a flying fuck." It is more a piece of literature than a travelogue and is the only one of the seven books I'm reporting on here that didn't include self-congratulatory photographs of their authors dipping wheels into oceans or standing at summit signs, as do most cycle touring books.

Benson and his girl friend are full of youthful zest and a genuine spirit of adventure.  They thrive on all the fresh stimuli in the first days of their ride.  They stay with friends and friends of friends and are the frequent beneficiaries of kindnesses from strangers, at times asking one other if it is for real.  But when they reach South Dakota and have to contend with head winds, the glamour of the experience begins to wear off and their rapport is put to the test. Benson writes with a steadfast honesty, unlike his journal.  When he rereads it later, he admits he had been trying to maintain "the lie that Rachel and I were still living our big romantic story."

He embraces the many challenges and hardships and uncertainties, aspects that Rachel came to hate, feeling at times that she would rather be anywhere than where she was.  He tries to encourage her, rhapsodizing about the scenery and the many exemplary people they have met, but to no avail.  She only wants to talk about how tired she is.  But they endure to finish their trip, helped by a week's sojourn at Glacier National Park.  Benson loved the experience so much that he rode their route a few years later on his own going in the opposite direction.

The remaining four books I've just plowed through were all typical fare--older guys, fifty and beyond, fulfilling a dream of riding coast-to-coast and putting something on the record to pay testament to their feat. Edward Wright at 62 is the oldest of the lot.  He rode from San Diego to Hilton Head in 1990.  Seven years later he published a 150-page book, fifty of which are photos, two to a page, and called it "The Great Bicycle Caper."  He didn't bother to train for his ride, thinking he would save all his strength for the trip.  Early on he realizes that may not have been the best strategy.  He tries to make his struggles easier by sending home his tent and sleeping bag and sticking to motels, some quite shabby, one of which he "wouldn't check his mother-in-law into."  

This is one of those accounts that proves one doesn't have to be an accomplished cyclist to ride a bike across the country.  He knew so little about bikes that he he refers to his tire valve as "presto" rather than "presta."  When a dog chases after him he threw his "speed lever into overdrive."

Paul Stutzman was another non-camper.  He stayed in motels from the very start of his trip, diluting the full sense of freedom and independence that makes the touring experience much more authentic and enriching.  Even though he undertook a slightly more ambitious route than most, setting out from the northwest corner of the country in Washington to its southeast corner in Key West, he simply titles his book "Biking Across America."  He undertook his trip in 2010, two years after hiking the Appalachia Trail, which he also wrote a book about.  God revealed to him to take the hike shortly after the death of his wife.  Her loss is a feature of this book as well.  He tells whoever he can that one should cherish their loved ones, as one never knows when one might lose them, and also that they should take Jesus into their life.

There is no warning on the front or the back of the book that it is an unabashed religious tract.  Only once does he identify himself as being a Mennonite, and not until page 82, but he continually asserts that he listens to and is guided by God in all that he does.  Wright in his "Caper" once mentions that he asks for The Lord's protection every day before he sets out, but he doesn't bludgeon his readers with religion, as does Stutzman. 

Everything that happens to him he credits to God.  After meeting one particular person, as he could have said of everyone he met, he wrote, "This was one of the folks God had in mind when he sent me out on this ride."  Heaven and hell are so real and meaningful to him he takes offense to the bumper sticker "The party in hell has been cancelled due to the fire."  He's alarmed that many in the world think hell is a joke.  He tells a hitchhiker he must let Jesus into his life and if he doesn't it will effect him for all of eternity. 

Bill Hannock's "Riding with the Blue Moth" is another God-driven and God-inspired book.  Hannock had no intention of writing a book about his 2001 coast-to-coast ride, even telling an RV park owner who asked if he was writing a book that he wasn't, as "authoring was for professionals and I was just a regular guy out for a simple adventure."

He may have been a regular guy, but he had an irregular job--the director of the NCAA Final Four, allowing him to name drop Mike Krzyzewski and quite a few other basketball dignitaries.  He had planned on biking across the country to celebrate his 50th birthday, but tabled it when his son was  killed in a small plane crash that took the lives of all ten passengers.  His son was the sports information director for Oklahoma State University and two of the passengers were members of its basketball team.  They were returning from a game.

Hannock and his wife were devastated.  Their lives became smothered by the "blue moth of despair."  Several months after the accident he decides to go through with his bike ride in hopes of escaping the depression that had him on the verge of suicide.  Still that blue moth accompanies him all the way.  His wife tagged along driving an RV, arranging camp sites for them each night, often picking him up when he tired at the end of the day and then returning him to the spot where he quit.  The minimal amount of gear he carried on his bike included a shampoo bottle of water from the Pacific Ocean and a sign he could put along the road for his wife if he left the route he was supposed to be on.

Four years after completing his ride he felt compelled by "The Lord" to write a book to help "others deal with the blue moths in their own lives."  He doesn't overwhelm the reader with religion as does Stutzman, but he does affirm that he is an instrument of an all-powerful God.  Despite his belief, the book is sodden with his tears and those of his wife and his daughter-in-law and many others. This book wins the award by a landslide for the most mentions of movies, with over thirty, in this set of books.  He cries every time he watches "Its a Wonderful Life," a favorite movie that he mentions seven times. "Field of Dreams" receives five mentions and also brings him to tears. 

Baseball is a favorite metaphor.  After he suffers two flat tires within a few minutes of each other, he's so incensed that "all the balls and bats came out of the dugout."  He undertook his ride in July and August.  The heat was so intense that it "rolled like a baseball-stadium tarp over the countryside."  

He maintains a detailed account of everything he eats, giving an exact number of his daily consumption of Fritos.  He acknowledges that he was once a nerd. When he began dating his wife at the age of sixteen, a year older than her, they were "the beauty and the geek."  He didn't bike in high school as it would have been too geeky.  He didn't take to the bike until late in life when his knees were worn out from having run fifteen marathons.  He loved his 2,746 mile ride across the country so much that he followed it up with a 1,700 mile from bottom to top two years later with his wife once again driving along in an RV.

The honor of having the longest, though not necessarily the most ambitious, of the rides in these seven books goes to John Triggs, who pedaled 17,300 miles through the 48 contiguous states.  He was 52 when he set out from his home in Kansas City in June of 1993.  He weighed 260 pounds and continually breaks spokes.  He suffered more mechanical woes than all the other riders combined, though Benson too had a rash of broken spokes early in his trip.  Triggs broke a rim, an axle and his chain several times.  He flies an American flag from his bike and  occasionally has to backtrack when he forgets it.  He also manages to lose his sunglasses, a pannier and his address book.  

But he's the only one of the older set to camp, though he does occasionally resort to a motel.  He wild camps, but will also ask to camp on people's property.  He has learned the less tidy the yard, the more likely he will be given permission to camp.  Those with well-manicured yards are inclined to regard him as a blot upon their property.

He spent twenty years in advertising, so does add some wit to his account otherwise bogged down with dwelling on the tedious travails of the touring cyclist--rain, wind, climbs, mechanicals and showering.  He mentions occasional encounters with other touring cyclists, including my friend David Brankley who I cycled with in Turkey in 2010 and Bruce Webber of the New York Times on the first of his two coast-to-coast rides. He rides for a week with a woman who had worked as a bicycle messenger.  He was on the road for over a year.  His trip was padded by seven weeks when he had to return home for seven weeks to recover from a broken arm.

His was one of three of these books to commit that common faux pas of misspelling "pedaling" as "peddling," as did "The Great Bicycle Caper" and "Once Upon a Chariot."  Like most of the authors he comments on roadside litter.  He thought it was one of the least romantic parts of the trip.  Belloff, the lone woman author of the group, on the other hand, regarded road kill as "bits of art, splattered on a canvas of grey pavement." Hancock was enthralled by the great variety of lost and discarded items he spotted along the road--enough to start "a decent second-hand store."  Stutzman referred to the road's shoulder as a "department store" providing almost everything necessary for survival.  

The authors may become bogged down with the mundane and trivial at times and their laments may become tiresomely repetitive, but they all succeed in conveying at least some of the strands of pleasure provided by going off on one's bike for weeks and months and thousands of miles.  Each are writing of an accomplishment they are proud of and that brought them great satisfaction.  Anyone who has shared that experience will be happy to have it rekindled by reading of another's.  Even after this recent glut of reading I am not sated.  I'd be delighted to wake up tomorrow with another to read, though not nearly as much as I'd like to be off riding one of my own.




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