New York Times writer Bruce Weber writes about changing times — for him and for the country — as he bikes across the United States.
In July of 2011 Bruce Weber began a trip similar to one he had taken 18 years before: He was going to bicycle across the country, but this time he was going to blog about it for the readers of the New York Times, where he worked as an obituary writer.
As a relatively healthy 57-year-old (“relatively healthy” includes ailments from gout to tinnitus), he had read, and written, enough obituaries to realize his own “midlife reckoning story” came out of a common well “teeter[ing] between the poles of love and death.” He had recently discovered the love of his life while on a bicycle trip, a woman he had known 25 years, and his childhood friend’s death from cancer was imminent; it was a perfect time for a contemplative ride across the country.
The title itself has kind of a rambling feel to it and aptly reflects the tone of the memoir. There are no revelatory scenes or great surprises along the way. There is equal space given to the cycling details of the ride, Weber’s reflections on his family and his life in journalism, and daily scenes of the United States, where he finds his sense of patriotism fired up. He writes, “You can’t gobble up the nation, mile by mile on your own power, without assimilating a sense of its greatness.”
It’s also an adventure in new journalism for him. During his last big trip in 1993, he barely kept up with the news and phoned in his copy; this time, he was reading feedback to his blog posts in real time, which included a range of comments from dinner invitations to outright scorn (the latter from a commentator he nicknamed “Mr. Scorpion”).
He may lean a little heavy on the wheel metaphors, such as “Moving forward is the cure for all ills” and “When you move forward … things change,” but it’s hard to hold these aphorisms against him when he loses steam on the second day of his journey or when he has finally climbed a very long hill. His memoir is about his life’s journey, which has been in small, consistent steps as opposed to leaps and bounds.
Weber’s memoir has an air to it that reminds me of Richard Ford’s novel “The Sportswriter” (even before I noted in the epilogue that the two are friends). Looking back, looking forward, making sense of what we face now. Or as he says as he pedals a stationary bike back in his gym after his trip, “the present is where you want to be. Never wish away distance. Never wish away time.”
Meganne Fabrega is a writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.