Thursday, April 14, 2022

Conquering the Borderlands


Two things attracted me to this little-known self-published 2009 cycle-travel book that I first heard about on 1) the age of the author (Lorraine Veisz doesn’t say exactly how old she was when she did this trip but I’m guessing, from clues in the book, such as her mention of having done a bike trip with her husband in Maine in 1971, that she was around 60 years old) ; and 2) the fact that Veisz did the trip from San Diego to St. Augustine as part of an organized bike tour.

The age thing first: Probably because of my own age (55), I’ve become interested, of late, in cycle-travel books written by people who are around the age of retirement (though that dream is still a ways off for me). Much like the young person’s coming-of-age bike-trip book (think Josie Dew’s The Wind in My Wheels or Kate Harris’s Lands of Lost Borders), the bookend “going-of-age” cycle-touring book, by a person transitioning out of the working world, has become a popular sub-genre of its own. (See, for instance, Anne Mustoe’s A Bike Ride or David Lamb’s Over the Hills.) Veisz captures the rich possibilities and particular anxieties of this period in her description in the opening pages of this “stage in life when one begins to question if it is still prudent to pursue old dreams, when responsibilities have been largely met but physical limitations are lurking is a type of chronological borderlands.” 

As for the organized-tour component, this is something you don’t often see in serious literary cycle-travel writing. Pretty much every classic bike-travel book I can think of is either a solo venture or a small group. Organized bike tours, involving larger groups, a guide, and supports such as luggage transport and sag wagon, popular as they undoubtedly are, tend to be looked-down-on by some “serious” cycle-travellers and not considered conducive to weighty literary introspection. (In fact, the only literary example I can even think of is by Karl Kron, of all people; the famously solitary author of Ten Thousand Miles on a Bicycle (1887) somehow agreed to participate in a large organized tour in Maine in 1884 and he wrote a fascinating essay about what was, for him, clearly an uncomfortable and bizarre experience.)   

Veisz, from New York– Long Island, to be exact–signed up to do the well-established Adventure Cycling route known as the Southern Tier with WomanTours, a Rochester,-NY-based company (still going strong) that offers North American and European trips between 8-58 days in length. For this particular trip, there were 26 riders, including two guides; they would have 48 days of riding and one off day each week. WomanTours doesn’t mess around; they averaged 62 miles a day. Even with a van sherpa-ing your stuff around, that’s a serious pace for a two-month trip. 

It takes only a few pages to realize that Veisz is a smooth and capable writer who has done an enormous amount of research for this book. At seemingly every point along the route, she relates some interesting local historical factoid, quotes from a novel set in the area, drops a relevant movie reference, or weaves in mention of an apropos song. (In fact, she offers a kind of soundtrack for each chapter–a song title that she says captures the spirit of that particular leg.)

In this sense, the book is highly literary. Veisz seems to have read everything–and I mean everything–written about the places along her route and she sprinkles in a dizzying and eclectic array of references, from the journals of early Spanish colonizers to the travel writing of William Least Heat Moon; from Edward Abbey’s classic memoir Desert Solitaire to the “frontier thesis” of academic Frederick Jackson Turner. Her cultural references include Cesar Chavez, Georgia O’Keefe, Pancho Villa, Robert Pirsig, Jimmy Buffet, and the underappreciated film The Three Burials of Melqiades Estradas. Veisz, bless her soul, even makes a few cycling-literature references: Thomas Stevens, Francis Willard, Annie Londonderry, and PeeWee Herman. 

But the true literary guides for Viesz are her heroes Jack Kerouac, Henry David Thoreau, and, especially, Woody Guthrie, whose vagabond spirit of being “free to wing and wander” infused his music. Veisz has fun imagining a paceline of the three muses on bicycles: “What a team they would make!” (Veisz notes, ironically, that none of those three lived as long as she had when she embarked on this trip. In this regard, one of her other literary heroes Walt Whitman, who lived to age 73 and, in the popular imagination anyway, embodies the image of sprightly golden age, might be seen as an even more apt guide for this adventure. Plus, he’s the one, of the whole bunch, whom I can actually picture riding a bike, long beard and all.) Veisz frequently draws on the wisdom of these muses, quoting their work and drawing inspiration from their examples. (Curiously, relatively few women writers show up in the book; aside from a passage of Pat Mora’s fine poetry I can’t think of any others Veisz directly quotes.)

So this is a thoroughly researched and even deeply literary book. If you are thinking of cycling (or even driving) this Southern Tier route or even part of it, then this book would be a terrific resource to have along on the journey. 

But what it’s not, however, is a particularly compelling travel narrative. Veisz is much more comfortable talking about other people than she is about herself, and that’s a problem in a travel book. We really don’t learn all that much about her. I did love her insistence on doing “make-up miles”--that is, on the rare occasions when a mechanical breakdown led to getting a lift in the sag wagon, she would make up the miles she missed, a few at a time, at the end of subsequent days. That detail says a lot about her. But, in general, Veisz avoids the kind of sharing of personal details or introspection we might expect from this kind of book. 

Aside from a few stories about her husband Howard, Veisz’s personal life remains mostly a mystery. When, at one point, she mentions her mother back home and the recent death of an aunt and observes how Veisz has “been taking care of people most of my life,” I did a double-take. This sudden gush of personal details caught me off guard and made my ears perk up. But it doesn’t last long. In the next paragraph, we’re back to Jack Kerouac (who was also devoted to his own mother) and where and how he finished writing On the Road. Okay, sure, but let’s hear more about Lorraine. 


Nor do the other members of the tour group ever become fully realized personalities on this adventure. Part of the appeal of a tour group, from a travel-writer’s perspective, I figured, was this ready cast of characters that readers would get to know and love or hate. Yet that doesn’t really happen. We hear bits and bobs about Nancy’s bike-cleaning obsession, Annie’s brisk pace-setting, and Rebecca’s feel for fixing flats, but most of these secondary characters kind of melded together in my mind. The mischievous husband Howard is the most memorable. In the end, we learn far more about Jack, Henry David, and Woody, than we do about Nancy, Annie, and Rebecca.  

In the end, Veisz doesn’t actually have that much to say about aging either. The expected complaints about aches and pains, fears of one’s body giving out, never materialize. Veisz is in good shape from the get go and easily settles into the touring routine. There are no doubts, not ever, and no real revelations. 

Maybe my sense of disappointment in this book says more about me and my expectations than anything. I thought it was going to be one thing and it turns out to be another. It may not be my kind of cycle-travel book. But that’s not to say it isn’t very good at what it does. 

1 comment:

  1. "Going-of-age"! Ha! I like that Jasper! Maybe you should write the going-of-age book that you'd hoped this one would be.


Speak up!