LIFE IS A WHEEL: Love, Death, Etc., and a Bike Ride Across America, by Bruce Weber. Scribner, 336 pp., $26.
Bruce Weber claims that traveling by bicycle isn't "the contemplative, mind-meandering activity that it is generally presumed to be."
And The New York Times writer, whose "Life Is a Wheel" chronicles his 79-day, 4,122-mile pedal from Astoria, Ore., back to his apartment in Lower Manhattan, has a point: riding 50, 60, 70 miles a day, sometimes on busy blacktops with tractor trailers rocketing alongside, on county roads that suddenly dissolve to gravel, through endless prairies, wondering if you're going to a find a place to eat, or sleep, the concerns are more immediate, practical, particular.
Weber took his custom-built, $8,000 touring bike across America in the summer and early fall of 2011, and blogged about it on the paper's Travel site (and in its pages). This was Weber's second transcontinental cycling jaunt -- he had traversed the States in 1993, when he hadn't yet hit 40. Now he's 57, fit but not without health issues: acid reflux, occasional gout, nearsightedness, tinnitus, spinal stenosis in the neck. And a tendency to fall melancholy.
"The standard joke," he writes, "is that I'm both perfectly healthy and falling apart."
Although Weber had some beer cans thrown at him, for the most part the folks he ran into offered only good wishes, good company and the occasional back-of-the-pickup conveyance when he was faced with a dead end. The kindness of strangers, even in a country fiercely divided into red states and blue, is much in evidence.
"Life Is a Wheel" isn't just journal entries about fields of North Dakota sunflowers, about grinding through baking heat, pouring rain, gusting winds, about the shabby inns and Indian-reservation casino hotels. Weber loses a best friend to cancer in the early weeks of his ride, parks his bike and takes a plane to LA for the memorial service, where he delivers a eulogy.
The book is full of reflections about growing up in suburban New Jersey, about romance and regrets. Jan Benzel, a fellow journalist who became the girlfriend of the commitment-phobic Weber on a bike trip through Provence, accompanies him on the Great Allegheny Passage -- carless bliss and dramatic gorges on a reclaimed railway from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md.
"Life Is a Wheel" is for cyclists, certainly, and for anyone who has ever dreamed of such transcontinental travels. But it also should prove soul-stirring to those who don't care a whit about bikes but who care about the way people connect -- strangers, friends, lovers, parents and children, lovers.