In 2009, I joined a group of men from church for a weekend bike ride on the Katy Trail in Missouri. We spent Friday night in a state park near Boonville, and early the next morning we began pedaling east toward St. Louis. It was early August, and it was hot. We rode 92 miles on Saturday, and 70 miles on Sunday.
It’s difficult to explain the experience to someone who doesn’t bike. We sometimes traveled together, but mostly separate. We had a couple of riders who thought of it as a race, some as a social experience, and a few of us as a journey. I was in the journey group. Most of the time I rode by myself, pedaling through slight winds, long alleys of woods, occasional views of the Missouri River, and an almost unimaginable silence.
Neil Hanson took a slightly longer cycling trip – he rode across America. And he considered it a journey, along the Pacific coast of California into desert, mountains, and plains. Approximately the first half of the journey – from Monterrey to eastern Kansas – is beautifully described in
It’s a book about a cycling trip, but it is far more than that. It’s a story, a remembrance, a meditation, and a series of reflections about his own life and the people he meets. This isn’t a “aren’t we a great country with wonderful people” kind of people – some of the people he meets are not kind and often downright strange.
A younger writer might have focused on the geekiness of cycling (and there’s a lot of geekiness in cycling). But Hanson is older – he did this trip at age 57 – and he lets both his experiences with cycling and his own life experience shape and describe the journey, what he sees, and what he learns. A friend joins him for part of the journey, but he is mostly riding on his own.
Hanson is also the author of The Pilgrim Way: A Cyclist Guide to Ultralight Touring (2016); Pilgrim Spokes: Cycling East Across America (2016); and Peace at the Edge of Uncertainty (2010).
What is perhaps most remarkable about his journey is the same thing I experienced on my much shorter and far less rigorous ride -- and that is pedaling through the silence. Pilgrim Wheels is an engaging and profound account of riding across this country of ours.
Top photograph via Neil Hanson’s web site.