Book review: ‘Life is a Wheel: Memoirs of a Bike-Riding Obituarist,’ by Bruce Weber
August 20, 2015
Life, death and the passing of time are all variables that none of us can avoid, though the myriad of attempts have grooved a well-worn path over the span of human endeavors. Some have chosen to contemplate mankind's inevitable march to death from the sidelines, while others have opted to step eagerly into the current, relishing the speed of the chase. Author and journalist Bruce Weber has dabbled in both methods, spending years reflecting on the lives and deaths of others, as the writer of obituaries for The New York Times and then as a middle-aged man tackling a 4,000-mile solo bike ride from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
His recent book — "Life is a Wheel: Memoirs of a Bike-Riding Obituarist" — is the tale of a traveler, a man well-aware of the passage of time, given his job as a career journalist, and the daily reminder of another news cycle passing. Bike riding for him is more than just a way to get from place to place: "The relentless pedaling is the cyclist's version of chanting or prayer" — a feeling many fellow riders will appreciate.
Bike riding is almost a right of passage for most Americans, a part of childhood, complete with training wheels and banana seats, and some carry that fondness over into their adult years, riding for recreation, for exercise or for transportation.
Distance riders are another breed altogether, though, their bikes tricked out with carefully-packed and weighed saddlebags, rain gear and GPS. Weber eagerly became one of those rare individuals — twice. "Life is a Wheel" is his account of "take two," at the age of 57, 18 years after his first successful ride across the country. Part assignment for his editor, part balm for his restless energy, Weber said — when the inevitable queries of "why?" began — "in one sense, I am doing this again to consider why I am doing this again."
The journey fed a daily blog, which, in turn, fed this charming and witty memoir that reads easily for both cycling enthusiasts and armchair travelers, alike. The book is filled with endearing anecdotes of the many traversed towns — most exceedingly small and absurdly nostalgic, where folks view him with a blend of polite curiosity or with open concern and distrust.
Weber insists there is no better way to experience a landscape and the people nestled within its folds than from the seat of a bike. Cycling connects you, physically, with the ups and downs of a journey, as opposed to from a car, which, with its speed and metal and glass encasements, serves to remove you from your surroundings. He also notes that a cross-country bicycle odyssey is the perfect template for a storyteller, and, at times, the journey inspires a contemplation of his life as a writer, and he even ponders the physical minutiae of what occurs as thoughts are transformed in the mind and transferred to paper. Thus, for him, his second trip is as much about the writing of the journey as it is of the deed itself.
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He acknowledges that he completed his first trip more quickly, crossing his chosen finish line of the George Washington Bridge in 75 days. That same benchmark finds him only passing through Ohio on his second attempt, but he insists the experience is deeper because it is not rushed but, instead, savored, as he takes the time to really observe and remember his surroundings and the people he encounters along the way.
And there are many fascinating observations with every mile, from the mundane made lyrical by his carefully crafted prose to interwoven stories of his other biking adventures around the world. But, never too far from his mind is the notion of death, partly because of his profession, no doubt, and partly due to a friend's funeral that he must leave the trip to attend. He muses on life, its loves and losses, sharing excerpts from the eulogy he delivers for the funeral, as well as one he wrote for his deceased mother.
Spending so much of his daily work grind thinking — and writing — about death, he sees his cycling adventure as a chance to "tell a story that looks forward and not back." The trip was a challenge, no doubt, but he seems to have reveled in the trials and tribulations of the self-assigned, unique chore of propelling himself across the country on a bike, mile by mile.
"Ordeals can be as satisfying as pleasures," he says, and readers will find the telling of those ordeals is satisfying, as well.
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