Monday, January 21, 2019

A Quartet of Coast-to-Coast Accounts

Just as many of those who ride their bike across the country don’t want to stop riding when they reach either the Pacific or the Atlantic, after I read a book about such an adventure I want to keep reading if only to continue stirring the memories of my crossing.  That is no problem, as there is a near bottomless reservoir of books about coast-to-coast rides. After reading the recently published “A Hole in the Wind, A Climate Scientist’s Bicycle Journey Across the United States” by David Goodrich, and having my appetite whetted, I found three more books about coast-to-coast rides that I had yet to read among the extensive collection of cycling books at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library, which I hadn’t browsed in a while. 

The most recent of the three, “The Road Headed West” by Leon McCarron,  was from 2014, while the two others, “Bicycling Beyond City Limits” by Michael Foley and “Free-Wheelin’, A Solo Journey Across America” by Richard Lovett, go back to 2006 and 1992.  All  were published six or more years after the ride, as if it wasn’t easy to find someone to publish another such book.  

Goodrich’s book from 2017 recounts his 2011 ride of 4,200 miles from Delaware to Oregon shortly after he retired from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration where he’d worked for twenty-five years, including three in Geneva as director of the UN Global Climate Overseeing System office.  He was the oldest by far of this quartet at 58, the same age as Steinbeck when he traveled with Charley, a trip mentioned in three of these books.

Goodrich brought touring experience as well as his extensive knowledge on the climate to his book.  He’d been a long-time cycling commuter and had  undertaken a handful of trips on his bike, including the 1,170 mile Nez Perce Trail.  He weaves memories of these trips into his narrative along with a wide-ranging commentary on the alarmingly sorry state of the climate. He had no need to pad his book with the mundane repetitive details of the touring cyclist’s regimen—needing a shower, battling fatigue and winds and  rain, trying to find a place to stay, mechanical difficulties and other commonplaces that often bog down these books.  He doesn’t avoid these subjects, as they are an intrinsic part of any bike tour, but he doesn’t harp on them bringing them up on every other page.  

He seeks out other scientists and speaks at schools along the way and asks those he encounters how their community has been effected by the changing climate.  It’s not a  pretty picture, though he does offer hope pointing out the once expanding ozone hole has been reversed thanks to the Montreal Protocol of 1987. That proves that governments can act and alter deadly trends, but the book is otherwise a compendium of impending doom. He is as well versed on the subject as anyone.  He could have overwhelmed his book with startling statistics, such as the unsettling increase in the ocean’s acidity and the staggering increase in the number of earthquakes in Oklahoma from two a year to 183 in a recent six-month period thanks to fracking, but he maintains a good balance of cycling commentary and climate data.

He was one of three of these authors who had a wife or girl friend who are a faint presence in their stories, two of whom drop in on the trip.  Foley is the only one who doesn’t have the concern of staying in touch with a partner, as he is just a college kid.  He is a last minute addition to a ride five of his collegiate buddies are undertaking from Chico, California to South Carolina in the summer of 1992. The six are all racers and have an intense interest in The Tour de France that will be commencing during their ride with Miguel Indurain going for his second win.  It is a thrilling occasion when they twice come upon a store selling “Velo News,” which they take turns devouring.  

The guys talk about ex-girl friends and flirt with women when the opportunity presents itself, even wishing to turn down the invitation to stay at someone’s home when they were intent on reaching a college town that night.  Nothing ever amounts to their flirtations, which are just barely mentioned.  At just 158 pages, fourteen of which are photos, Foley’s book hops from incident to incident without going into much depth. One hardly gets to know anyone in his group, as he declines to offer more than superficial descriptions of any of his companions, just teasing comments here and there, such as of one who has an aversion to insects, so they take delight in placing them on him and in his gear.

He devotes two or three pages, but sometimes just one,  to each day of their ride, including rest days.  It is a group unlike just about any other that has undertaken this ride.  Their racing mentality prompts them to erupt into sprints on their fully laden bikes to town signs as they are prone to when out on training rides.  They are full of energy,  At night they’ll occasionally have enough left over to play three-on-three Ultimate Frisbee.   They are still capable of reaching the point of exhaustion, and towards the end, after describing themselves as “disheveled and grungy...looking more like weathered bums than college kids,” he adds, “We’re exhausted all the time.”  Foley describes one occasion when he staggers into a general store like a drunk and wanders the aisles shoving powdered donuts and small apple pies into his mouth while gulping Gatorade.  It was such descriptions that had me wanting more.  This book was all too short.  I wanted to learn more about these guys and what brought them together and what brought them to cycling and the fun they had on this ride.

This fun-loving, frolicking group attracts a surprising number of invitations to people’s homes. Sometimes they are leery to accept the offer,  but they are always happy when they do.  Their exuberant personalities reaps them many benefits.  At one campground that had a restaurant, they offer to wash some pots in exchange for dessert.  The owner says if they come back later and wash all the dishes, he’ll treat them to breakfast as well.  With the book published fourteen years after their trip it includes an epilogue that reports they remain great friends and get together for the annual Wildflower Century in Chico. Two of them went on to lead trips for Backroads. 

McCarron too was an entertaining, rambunctious character, who got himself into some hairy predicaments, fleeing once fearing for his life and dropping his trou another time to moon a motorist who had offended him.  His list of equipment included a hip flask of whiskey with the appendum “this is not optional.”  Like Goodrich he opted to ride east to west.  He was less than a year out of college when he set out from Manhattan for Seattle. It was 2008.  With the economy in freefall jobs in his field were hard to come by.  He had just completed a six-month term as an intern in the film industry.  He was Irish and felt lucky to have landed this position in New York.  As long as he was in the US, he decided to take a bike ride across it.

He had no experience and wanted to bring along his guitar and all sorts of unnecessary gear, so much that he supplemented his panniers with a trailer, a huge mistake he acknowledged, though he didn’t relinquish his trailer until well into his trip.  He didn’t have an abundance of warm clothes, so when he’s subjected to some cold nights in the Rockies he puts underware on his head to keep warm. He was the only one in this lot to give his bike a name, “Lola,” a rather cutesy gesture that women are more prone to than men.  But at least he dabbled in wildcampimg, something the others shied away from.  Along with the independence it allowed him, it also helped him get by on a five-dollar a day budget.  

He eats a lot of peanut butter, often by the spoonful.  He soon discovers how prone people are to generosity and  kindness towards a touring cyclist. He takes up the practice of lingering outside grocery stores hoping his “bedraggled appearance” will result in offerings of food.  In what he refers to as his “basic template” he asks people towards the end of the day where he could camp, hoping  they will offer him a place with the added bonus of a meal, which is what he’s really after. His Irish accent his his trump card.  He doesn't seem to mind having to entertain his hosts night after night with oft-told stories.  He calls himself a “highly-regarded public speaker” who has lectured at schools and motivational corporate events.

He fulfills the dream of many a coast-to-coast cyclist by continuing his ride down the Pacific coast to Mexico, where he ends the book, but not his travels, as he talked a large Kiwi coporation into paying for a flight to New Zealand convincing it that his blog would promote travel there.  Then it was on to Australia and Thailand and China, adding eight thousand miles to the six thousand he rode in North America, truly authenticating himself as a touring cyclist.  He says maybe he will write a book about that leg of his travels some day too.

As in all of these books he joins up with other cyclists along the way, injecting a little extra interest into the story.  For two different stretches he rode with a woman whose boyfriend is riding in Asia.  She’d like to be with him, but is dead set against flying, considering it destructive to the atmosphere.  She tries to harm the environment as little as possible living a non-consumerist life. She introduced him to dumpster diving in Toronto.  He is impressed, but doesn’t seem to pursue it after that, preferring to be a freeloader.

The fourth book, “Free-Wheelin,’” recounts a 1986 crossing from Sacramento to Maine by a law professor who also had a Ph. D in economics.  Richard Lovett doesn’t give his age, but it seems to be around 35.  He’d had a few previous tours, so we’re not subjected to the cliched learning curve of a neophyte. As with the six college kids, he takes us back to a period before the internet and cell phones, forcing hm to search for  pay phones to call his wife, a university professor engaged in a research project.  They intend to meet up at the end of his ride for two-weeks of leisurely camping and travel before she must return to teaching.

He isn't at all  disappointed when she gets so involved with her project she wishes to skip-out on meeting up with him.  That means he doesn’t have to cut his trip short or rush to complete it.  He’s continually battling to overcome his driven nature to achieve and shed the life of being a slave to schedule.  He is proud whenever he takes a detour from his route or doesn’t push himself, though it’s not easy to forego a good tailwind.  One day when he had ridden 145 miles, his best ever on a laden-bike, and still had a couple of hours of daylight left, he had to force himself to stop even though it was tempting to put more miles in the bank. 

The highlight of his trip was meeting Vera, a thirty-year old woman on her first bike tour who had the spirit of living for the moment which he wished he had.  They only spent five days together, but he devotes a lengthy 46-page chapter to that episode and dedicates the book to her.  She also gets credit for the photo of him on the book jacket.  Three times after they’ve had a final meal together he decides to continue riding with her even though it’s off his route.  Later in the trip he rides with a guy who is the antithesis of her and mirrors the self he is trying to be rid of. He’s a schedule-monger who is in such a hurry to start each day, Lovett has to forego his usual morning “prayer or devotional reading.”  Early on he mentions he’s a religious sort who believes God cares about every detail of our lives, but fortunately he makes far fewer references to religion than McCarron does to Lola.  Lovett doesn’t blame his failure to pray for a flat he has one morning riding with this guy, but he has to exhibit Christian restraint not to go ballistic when the guy pushes a button on his watch and says, “Let’s see how long it takes.” 

At the completion of his 5,400 mile ride he expresses the desire to ride back to Sacramento, but he can’t overcome his programming of being responsible, so ends his trip at the Atlantic. Time after time previously during the trip he had given into whim extending his ride, including a detour to Iowa to join a friend riding  RAGBRAI, never regretting a detour, but not this time.

All four of these books were the beneficiaries of good editing, relatively free of the typos that flourish in the self-published strain of such books. Lovett did manage to fall victim to that common miscue of using “peddling” rather than “pedaling” on one occasion. McCarron commits a similar stumble with “break” and “brake.” Twice Foley is attracted to Little League fields, once capitalizing it and once leaving it lower case.  Typos can be as deflating as a flat tire, so it was a relief there was such a minimum.

All in all, this was a most worthy selection of books.  I had a hard time putting any of them down, just as it is hard to stop riding on a good day.  Even though they spanned a period of twenty-five years, their experiences, particularly the bounty of kindness they encountered, were timeless and  indistinguishable from each other.  They were all written with a genuine passion and authenticity, qualifying each for my list of the Top Fifty coast-to-coast memoirs I’ve read.  

They each had me asking why am I reading about such travels and not doing it myself.  They have me all revved up for my next tour, either to California and it’s 87 still-standing Carnegie Libraries or to Savanah, Georgia where Don Jaime has proposed meeting up for another ride through the South if he can get away from his bed-and-breakfast in Ecuador.  I’d be gone already if Janina did not have an exhibition of her water colors opening at a gallery in Bloomington, Indiana February 1 that I wouldn’t dream of missing.  

It’s approaching three months now since my last tour, much too long.  I need to be living the touring life, not reading about it, though the reading has prompted a steady flow of memories and allowed me to relive my 1977 coast-to-coast ride and assorted other rides stateside and beyond. I will be happy to gather a new collection of memories  while continuing the harvest of those from tours past as I’m riding along.  And I’ll be searching the shelves of every library I visit for a cycling book I haven’t read.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

David Sedaris and the Bicycle

When David Sedaris was promoting his latest collection of essays, “Calypso,” he mentioned in an interview with Terri Gros that ever since he moved to England from France in 2011, he has been walking the roads where he lives in his rural West Sussex community picking up litter for hours at a time.  His efforts gained him tea with the Queen and the honor of having a local garbage truck branded with his name.  Since I’m very conscious of refuse along the road as I cycle, and often find items of use, it inspired me to read his book to learn what he had been finding and how his experience compared to mine.

He only devotes a couple of pages to his obsession in his short essay “Stepping Out,” which is more about a friend getting him hooked on the Fitbit pedometer and how many miles he walks every day than about his pickings.  He doesn’t find much to get excited about from what he collects, as it is largely just refuse.  One item he doesn’t pick up is cigarette butts.  As an ex-smoker, he fears the feel of one in his fingers might encourage him to resume the habit.

He initially rode his bicycle on his rounds before he got hooked on the Fitbit and became obsessed with taking as many steps and walking as many miles as he could every day.  A further inducement to walk was he could be more thorough in spotting litter.  He made no mention of missing his bike, but I assumed he had to be a cyclist of some sort, especially since he mentions bicycling in seven of his twenty-one essays in “Calypso,” though never at great length.

The bicycle offered him solace after his sister Tiffany committed suicide in 2013 when he gathered with his father and three sisters and brother at their getaway home in Emerald Isle on the coast of North Carolina.  He mainly spent his days there bicycling up and down the coast alone in thought.  In the book’s first essay he tells of outings on the bike with friends when they come to visit him in England, where he presently lives.  In another he tells how his brother lost 65 pounds after buying a “complicated racing bike” and riding in cleats.  He refers to his brother’s Lycra outfit as resembling a “Spider-Man costume.”  These all are evidence of a bicycling-consciousness, though all are just mere drop-ins without any elaboration, as if the bike is a no more of an accouterment, than a toothbrush.

Still there was a hint that he could be attuned enough to the bicycle to have written about it with some passion or reverence somewhere else.  Thus was I encouraged to dive into his previous nine books to learn what else he might have written about cycling, hopefully devoting an essay or two to the subject with his unique sardonic slant.  I was hoping for more wisecracks, such as his definition of well-meaning people as “the kind who wear bike helmets,” which he evidently does not, as he would be horrified to be considered well-meaning.  He had the potential to be more incisive than even the New York Bike Snob in mocking its adherent’s pretensions, while haranguing those who don’t bicycle.  He did observe in his diaries that while bicycling in France, “I tend to think of all the people who are too lazy to exercise.”  Since he uses his diary as a source for essay ideas, I was hoping there would be one on this.  Somewhere in him I knew there had to be an ode exalting the bicycle above all else.  

I thought a potential gold mine of material awaited me somewhere in his writing when he mentioned in “Naked,” his second book, that he had worked as a bicycle messenger in San Francisco.  That would have provided him the material for an even more outrageous and incendiary commentary on those who inhabit planet earth than his renowned “Santaland Diaries,” about working as an elf at Macy’s in New York during the Christmas season. A bicycle messenger is afforded a keen eye to the slaves of the workplace as he zips in and out of offices all day.  Sedaris would have had a wide universe of surly security guards, lackadaisical receptionists, oblivious pedestrians, enraged motorists, impatient dispatchers, clueless fellow messengers, inconsiderate mail room flunkeys and hostile bicycle cops to inflame his pen. 

He could have let his sardonic wit explode with even greater venom and rancor than it had when masquerading as an elf towards all the moronic building policies regarding messengers, some relegating them to freight elevators, and those who administer them.  The frustrations of messengering would have had him writing with unparalleled fury.   But I should have realized that his neurotic, cowering personality never would have allowed him to work as a messenger, or even give it a try.  Even if he’d worked just a few days, it would have left such a deep impression upon him, mentions of it would have turned up in his writing almost as often as his potshots at his father.

Sedaris has been accused of not being entirely truthful, or tending at least to exaggeration, in his story-telling, which should come as no surprise, as in a piece on attending a summer camp in Greece for a month, he claims to have been so stressed by the experience that he didn’t have a bowel movement the entire time.  Yeah, sure.  So it can be assumed that claiming to have worked as a bicycle messenger had to be a fantasy.  If he had been a messenger, that would have been one of his choices of a job when he moved to Chicago in 1984 and was desperate for work. The messenger companies were always hiring in that era.  He couldn’t have missed the many want ads in The Reader, nor the legions of messengers rampaging around the Loop.  He would have known it would have given him plenty of material to write about, as any messenger with a bent towards writing thinks he wants to write a bout about the experience, as Chicago-messenger Travis Culley so magnificently achieved with “The Immortal Class, Bicycle Messengers and the Cult of Human Power.”

If Sedaris had messengering in his past the intensity of the experience would have given him a bottomless reservoir of material, much greater and much more entertaining than the two seasons he spent working as an elf, which he distilled into a masterpiece annually read on NPR.  He would have returned to his time as a messenger time after time in his future writing.  It doesn’t even merit a mention in the first volume of his diaries “Theft by Finding” covering the years 1977 to 2002 published last year.  It commences when he is twenty years old just after he arrived in San Francisco, as recounted in “Naked,” when he wrote, “My friend Veronica (to whom he later dedicates his sixth book  “When You Are Engulfed in Flames”) got me a room at a residence hotel and I found work as a bicycle messenger.”  And that is it on the messengering.  

Equally disappointing, he doesn’t devote more than a sentence or two here and there in all of his writing to the bicycle, despite occasional references that he does not drive and he utilizes a bike to get around.  He’ll mention he bikes to Central Park in New York, but then devote the next few paragraphs to someone who wants the bench he plops down on declared a “No Smoking Zone.”  He’ll casually insert he biked to a bank when he needed to withdraw the money a co-worker stole from the wallet of the person they are working for lest he be accused of stealing the money, but it is just another teaser remaining a mere accessory to the story. No where does the bike assume a starring role.

Not only are his books bereft of an entire story devoted to the bicycle, there is not even a full-fledged paragraph.  The closest he comes is writing about his unstable sister Tiffany, who ran away from home when she was 14 and was placed in juvenile detention.  Prior to her suicide well into her 40s she towed a homemade rickshaw behind her bike for her rounds scavenging garbage while living in Somerville, New Jersey.  Woe is it the person who mocks her rickshaw, as Sedaris would like to do.  He does credit it for keeping her fit.

He references riding his bike repeatedly in his diaries and even offers up instances that could have been made into a fully-developed story.  During the six-and-a-half years he lived in Chicago while attending, then teaching at, the School of the Art Institute, he rode around on an old one-speed that cost him $8.  “Bad teenagers” mockingly called him Pee Wee.  “It gets on my nerves,” he wrote, “but if I had a better bike, they’d just steal it.”  He eventually does replace it with a bike similar to what he had back in Raleigh, North Carolina before he moved to Chicago at the age of 27.  He calls it a “Frankenstein bike, made of different bits and pieces...painted umpteen times.”  He could have written at length and with great affection about any of his bikes, but he declines.  Years later after he has gone off to live in Paris for a spell he buys a new bike for $300 rather than getting his old bike repaired.  He immediately is struck by remorse, feeling as if he betrayed his old bike.  

When he rents a bike while on vacation in Italy with Hugh, his long-time boy friend, it leads to one of their regular spats.  The light didn’t work.  Sedaris wanted to let it be, while Hugh told him no less than fifteen times to go back and have it fixed.  

Despite his wide acclaim, (Yale recently acquired the vast archives of his early unpublished writing and voluminous diaries of which only a tiny fraction will be published), Sedaria tends to the self-deprecating and shies from chest-thumping.  He does not write of his tea with the Queen, nor of the ceremony unveiling the Garbage truck named for him, only that he was asked what font he would like his name written in on the truck. “Roman,” as in “roamin” he requests.  I’ll offer one final bike mention from his diary, the entry on July 17, 1999, the day of JFK Jr’s death.  Sedaris remembered seeing him several times in Manhattan, once on a bike.

Though Sedaris has yet to offer an essay devoted solely to the bike, it was  heartening to learn he is a bicyclist and acknowledges it here and there as if he were a subliminal proselytizer.  It was also nice to learn that he is an avid movie-goer.  When he lived in New York, he saw three or four movies a week.  While in Paris he upped it to six or seven, and without guilt as, “Fortunately, going to the movies seems to suddenly qualify as an intellectual accomplishment.” Even more than the bicycle he regularly inserts movie references, some of specific movies and others just generic, such as defining people who live in trailers as having no “working knowledge of any major Italian movie directors.”   He doesn’t name a favorite movie, but does admit to seeing “Planet of the Apes” seventeen times when it came out and many times since. 

Now I eagerly await the publication of the second volume of his diaries from 2003 to the present to see if he can top the forty-two mentions of the bicycle in his first volume.  His last two collections of essays, “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls” and “Calypso” with eight and twelve had more references to the bicycle than any of his preceding books.  He is a testament to the adage that with age comes wisdom and for the truly wise a bicycling-consciousness.