Life Is a Wheel

What can you learn about life biking from Oregon to New York?

Life Is a Wheel, by Bruce Weber, Scribner, 352 pages

Early in Life is a Wheel, Bruce Weber’s chronicle of a cross-country bike ride from Astoria, Ore., to New York City, Weber struggles with the unforgiving summer heat of eastern Washington State. Resting in the shade of a rare tree, waiting out a spell of dizziness, he wonders how he’s going to make it the rest of the 3,000 miles to the George Washington Bridge if he can’t make it to the end of his third day.

“But I also thought, You can’t stay here by the side of the road, deep-breathing with your head between your legs,” he writes. “Now, or in five minutes or ten minutes or an hour, you’re going to have to get back on the bike and pedal the final miles into town.”

Weber is a practiced long-distance cyclist, though maybe not a fanatical one. He completed a ride across America before, when he was 17 years younger (he turns 58 on this ride), and toured the highlands of Vietnam by bike in 1995, soon after the United States reopened diplomatic ties with the country.

But he still concedes the charge from thick-toothed gear heads that he’s “a mere tourist in Bikeland”; he gladly hands over his bicycle to paid professionals for tuneups and spends only a brief footnote on the specs of his custom-built rig. From past experience he knows this moment of despair in Washington’s dusty heat can be answered with “the basic philosophy of long-distance cycling.... Moving forward is the cure for all ills. Keep pedaling.”

Weber intends the metaphor for life and death, for “the inevitable direction that all lives take and that it behooves us to get as far as we can before we can’t go any farther.”

He also acknowledges that he may be more inclined to think this way because he makes his living writing obituaries for The New York Times. Perhaps because of his decades of experience as a journalist, his practice in “rendering, as entertainingly and informatively as possible in a handful of hours before deadline,” an obituary from the raw facts of a recently ended life, Weber is able to balance his experience of the cycled road with modest postulates about its meaning, to cut through the tedium of a million pedal strokes with a sharp eye for the urgent moment.

One revelation of Weber’s travelogue is that he’s not the only one taking such a trip. There was his own prior journey along much the same route, but also, this time around, he crosses paths with Australians heading east to west on a postgraduate walkabout, Europeans tracing mountain trails across the Rockies, and Americans happy to join a stranger for a day’s ride through a quarter of their state. This isn’t a pioneering bike ride, nor is it one pushed to attention-grabbing extremes.

But it is, to borrow Weber’s titular analogy, a tour of the current cycles of care and worry in one man’s life, told with humility, humor, and probity. “Traveling by bicycle is, actually, my personal antidote to a good deal of life’s irreconcilable vexatiousness,” Weber says. “There’s an hour or so at the end of each day, when I swing my leg out of the saddle in front of a motel ... and begin envisioning pleasant things – a shower, clean clothes ... a ball game on TV, an uninterrupted, rejuvenating sleep – during which I feel indisputably worthy as a human being.”

Weber documented the ride at the heart of this book in a blog and on Twitter for the Times. Quotes from supportive commenters (and from one particularly dogged detractor) accompany his descriptions of the landscape.

He navigates by smart phone. He breaks from the open road to fly to a wedding and a funeral. The abundant connections Weber enjoys are a far cry from the harrowing, thrilling isolation he found on his earlier, younger rides.

These connections bleed into the book itself, as some of the quoted blog responses serve to review the travelogue as it’s happening. This sort of recursion might quickly turn into a story that resembles a stationary bike, always moving but never getting anywhere.

But Weber is able to juggle such thoughts about thoughts with a distance earned by equanimity. “What is distance,” he asks, “but experience?” It is a pleasure to share the length of these with him.

Andrew Cleary regularly reviews books for Rain Taxi.

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