25 June 2006

Someone Else's Fiction

A younger friend began bicycle touring last summer. He has a young family - a bit older than my kids were when I took my first trip, but still at the age where a wife and mother might reasonably ask "do you have to?" So anyway, we had lunch recently just to talk cycling and touring. I wondered what brought about this new passion. (His first trip was a hoot ... totally unprepared for the realities of touring; but by the end of summer he was fully equipped and making road repairs.)

It was a novel brought it on. Which in itself is very cool. So, as I really dig cycling literature, I took the name and author. This week I had occasion to do a day-long round-trip to Seattle, on which I took "The Memory of Running" by Ron McLarty. It was a rare day, to read an entire novel. And it was a rare novel - beautiful, sad, sadly beautiful, and compelling.

Smithy Ide narrates the story of his bike ride across the country - Rhode Island to New York City to Los Angeles. If that alone is enough to pique your interest, read no farther. [except maybe to check out the caveats below] I mean, hey! it was enough for me.

I don't think it will spoil the plot to say that the book starts almost unbearably sad, as the 40-something loser Smithy loses both his parents in an auto accident. As the story unfolds we also meet Bethany, his long-lost sister - who is in many ways the focus of his entire family history. Mental illness and tragedy mark the Ide family history. As Smithy reels from all this he finds his old Raleigh 3-speed, rides off drunk, wakes up the next morning at his old fishing hole, and through the rest of the story never returns home. I don't think that spoils anything for those who may want to read this.

As Smithy makes his way across country, he unfolds the family history which is really Bethany's story. The story is almost unbearably sad, yet with some episodes and descriptions that made me laugh out loud. Most touchingly, his encounters with people are generally filled with grace and surprising goodness. Sure, bad things happen, but here's the general thrust of his portrait of America:
"Lots of people, though. Most don't steal."
"Most people are really nice," I said.
"Most people are the best," she said, with a wonderul smile.

Anyway, it's been a while since I've been bowled over by a novel. If you like cycling literature, don't fail to look up this one. [There, now that sounds like a grade school book report!]

A couple of fun things about the novel:
* Smithy is short for Smithson Ide. It sounds like a name I'd make up from a freeway exit sign.
* Caveats - there are disturbing images of mental illness, and some pretty rough language. Not surprisingly, a lot of the language is in the episodes of mental illness. There's a segment of disgusting car sex which I would like to not have read. Just so you know.
* As previously stated, though, it's been a long time since I've been bowled over by a novel.

Cycling literature. When you can't ride ... read about riding!

10 June 2006

Did I mention Dane County?

I guess my blogging frequency indicates a paucity of Awesome Adventures. Well, they would not be Awesome if they were frequent, would they? Today's blog is a look back at a genuinely Awesome Adventure ... perhaps one of the first that I reported to my family of origin under that heading. It goes way back to my previous bike, to son Andrew as a 14-year-old, and to my first experience with Dane County.

I believe I mentioned before: I hate Dane County. That is to say, it is a lovely county, bicycle friendly enough, but very hilly and the reason I "hate it" is that I do not train for hills. So there you have my confession; it's my weakness that brings out this fear and loathing.

It was the year 2000. Two years earlier, Andrew had casually asked one day, "Dad, do you think when I'm 16, we could make a bike trip to Minnesota?" You can imagine that this question was like a dream come true ... one of my kids, wanting to ride with me, and a long way, too! At the time he was still very much missing MN and his friends there, so I was under no illusions that spending time with me, on a bike, was any strong factor. But still ... My reply, "Why wait until then? I think we could do it when you're 14." "Really?" And so - in my mind, at least - it was settled. Fast forward about 2 years, and one day it dawns on Karen and me that Andrew has completely forgotten that exchange, and thinks The Great MN Bike Trip is all my idea, and that he is just doing me a favor by agreeing to go. Total non-recall. And (if you've had teenaged boys, this goes without saying) at best a grudging acceptance that this is probably going to happen or else Dad will get all in a snit for the summer.

So it was without any genuinely adequate preparation that Andrew rolled out of our driveway with me on an overcast morning, June 26, 2000. Yes, we had rain off-and-on that day. But it was a good start, and we ended up late that afternoon at Big Foot Beach State Park, Lake Geneva, WI. Days One and Two are definitely part of this Awesome Adventure, but it is Day Three that ties this post to the last ... Dane County Day.

Most of Day Three was spent cycling the hills in Dane County. Interesting in perspective: I doubt any of the hills that day were as challenging as the ones on my April brevet (see "A Fresh Start" my last entry). We began that morning from New Glarus Woods State Park, and rode up the western part of the county, through Mazomanie and Sauk City, and ended up in Reedsburg for the night.

A common theme - maybe this is what makes them Adventures - is my rather careless attention to details. See, a bike trip's distances should be calculated, not estimated. I am an estimator. This is a problem. I'm sure Day Three was way too long to consider at all practical. I put it at "about 80." Regardless the actual miles, it was the hills done us in. Oh, and later, the wind and rain. Funny, though: re-reading my trip log, I hardly mention the hills at all. I remember them, and I remember being personally challenged (even rolling hills, with 35 pounds of gear, are challenging) and I remember waiting for Andrew a lot at the tops of hills.

But none of that appears in my log, from which I now write, fleshing out a bit as I go:
"A very though, long day" - Wednesday, June 28, 2000
62 miles via Wisconsin Bikeways - 6 hours, 10.5mph average speed
Part I: A tough, rainy ride via lettered County Roads, New Glarus to Blue Mounds. The bike path out of New Glarus Woods State Park is a heady descent; I coasted 7 miles without a single pedal stroke - could have gone much farther on a dry day (i.e. without needing to use brakes). New Glarus terminus to this path brought us to a bakery breakfast and search for cash. [3 banks, 3 strikes ... we moved on] En route to Blue Mounds we stopped in Daleyville to fix Andrew's leaking rear tire; we fixed my rear flat in Blue Mounds - twice. Fueled on Pringles, beef sticks, apples and raisins at the mini-mart that serves town. Noted that Daleyville was the gas station/grocery plus 4 bars!
Part II: County F up out of town, but then a glorious long lovely (now sunny) descent into Pleasant Valley. Not less than 5 miles of downhill/flat before the first rolling hill. This characterized the entire second segment as far as Mazonamie. [Not noted in my log, but pretty clear in my memory - Andrew quickly tired of my tired joke, saying "Mazonamie" like the Muppets' "Menomanah."] A slow leak in my rear tire called for a third repair, then a fourth, at which the valve stem broke. Then God gave us a wonderful gift: 1) Andrew proved to be a great help trouble-shooting (ideas for finding a tube and offers of how he could help make it work); 2) Hardware Hank, the only likely place in town, did NOT have a suitable tube, but DID have a cashier who was an avid young cyclist. And though he also did not have the correct tube, he got in the phone with "Aunt Debbie," who did. Debbie and her sister ("Hanks" mother; isn't it sad that I do not have this boy's name?) are also avid cyclists. Debbie brought the tube over and gave it to us, and would not accept money for it, just telling me "pass it on." (This preceded the movie Pay It Forward.) Having lost 2 hours in Mazonamie - lost but rewarded, really, and rewarding - we were back on our at 5 pm! The valley ride continued into Sauk City -- at which point I believe we were out of Dane County.
Part III: Water stop in Sauk City, and a sudden cooling and clouding/winds. Heading west out of town, it was back on with the rain gear, and a cold long wet ride ahead. At 60 miles (10 out of Sauk City) there we were recovering under a spreading oak tree in front of a farmhouse. It was really pouring, and I have to admit, even I was sick of riding. What a day. A construction worker in a Grand Prix came along and offered us a lift into Reedsburg. You know, I don't think we had anything to prove, so we gladly accepted. We would never have made it before dark. And this way we got a "thrilling" ride into our destination. I am content to call it a joy ride. I don't the guy had been drinking; I think he just naturally drove like a maniac. Our two bikes hanging out of his trunk, Andrew squeezed in the back seat with all our wet gear. "Angels unawares" - yeah, well we don't really know that angels might not get a kick out of appearing like that! Kindly Joe Laborer dropped us off near downtown Reedsburg, and we cycled up the main strip to find a motel. No tenting for us after this day! And ... this is the payoff on days like that ... there is was: a Super-8 with a Pizza Hut across the road and a laundromat two doors down. Score!God is good. We were warm, dry, clean, and full. And had cable TV to boot.

So, funny that with all that in the day, all I could think of this spring in Dane County was the lousy hills. Beautiful, spacious, rolling Dane County. Well ... guess I'd better get out there and work on hills so I can go back and really enjoy it!