Book Review: 'Life Is a Wheel': 1 man, 2 wheels, 4,122 miles

BOOK REVIEW

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEMarch 22, 2014 

  • 'LIFE IS A WHEEL: LOVE, DEATH, ETC., AND A BIKE RIDE ACROSS AMERICA' by Bruce Weber; Scribner ($26)

A man in the grip of a midlife crisis often gets himself a new set of wheels: a Porsche or a Jaguar or a Mustang convertible.

But at 57, Bruce Weber, the author of the memoir and travelogue "Life Is a Wheel," opted for a different vehicle, a shiny, red, custom-made titanium bicycle, which he resolved to ride from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic.

"Why am I doing this again?" That's a question Weber asked himself as he flew from Kennedy International Airport to Portland in July 2011, before embarking upon his cross-country bike trek. Why would he want to cover 4,122 miles in 14 effortful weeks by sheer leg power, especially when, as he tells us, he'd already done it once before? He was making this grueling trip, he decided, "to have important things to think about afterward."

His readers - especially those who share his vision of life as "a self-powered ride" - will find that his meditations set their own imaginations spinning. Weber observes that when "late middle age encroaches on middle age, the impulse to absorb new things or to view old things in a new way" can stall.

At 57, he craved a "jump start" to spark his zest for life after two decades of testing personal change - and stasis.

In the new millennium, both his parents had died, and serious girlfriends had come and gone. He had also written a best-selling book about baseball umpires in 2009, "As They See 'Em," but his job - writing obituaries for The New York Times, where he has worked since 1986 - stayed much the same. Blogging about his journey for The Times ("Life Is a Wheel" grew from his posts) would allow him to shake up his routine and take stock.

In 1993, at 39, before the rise of the Internet age, he had "blithely" embarked on a transcontinental bike ride, which he also wrote about for The Times in a less introspective spirit and without GPS, phoning in sporadic reports of his journey from roadside 7-Elevens. Back then, he suffered none of the qualms that freighted his recent trip. "Perseverance is, after all, easier for the poorly informed," he writes.

But his 2011 ride, undertaken at the dawning of a love affair that he hoped would last, gives him pause. He sees this journey, he writes, as a "bargaining session with the universe: Your legs are jelly and your will is wavering and suddenly there's a gorgeous mountain to look at; then you find an hour's great ride and pay for it with a dizzying climb on a rough road, or heavy traffic."

Starting in Astoria, Ore., on July 20, 2011, ending back in Manhattan on Oct. 22, he cycled 50, 70, even 90 miles a day for months, struggling with stiff knees and solitude, driving rain, steep hills and narrow, scree-strewed road shoulders. Along the way, he found new confidence in his powers of endurance and an exhilarating appreciation of the rich variety of this country and its people.

"You can't gobble up the nation mile by mile on your own power," he writes, "without assimilating a sense of its greatness." Hemingway had noticed the same thing, Weber recalls, citing that novelist's remark: "It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them."

Samuel Beckett also inspired Weber, with his qualified paean to cycling in an early novel: "The bicycle is a great good. But it can turn nasty, if ill employed."

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