What follows is a book report about Two Wheels North, the tale of a month long, 1000-mile bicycling trip in 1909 completed by two friends who just got out of highschool.
A brief and somewhat unrelated history: On January 23rd I fell off of my bicycle while riding in the rain, the wheels washed out from under me and I landed straight on my right side. The entire thing was in slow motion, as I had just hopped back on my bike and given it a good kick of the pedal – the wet bricks had an entirely different plan for me that morning: instead of getting to work and enjoying the donut I just purchased, I ended up completely breaking my right hip. I didn’t know it was broken of course, and attempted to stand up and walk a block, then stupidly tried to get onto the bus – which did not work. Call to work to alert them to my accident, and a quick call to my girlfriend to let her know I was hurt (but that my teeth and head were in perfect shape still). Ambulance came, then immediate surgery, then the promise of a very long and slow recovery.
Many of my friends have had much worse injuries, and many of them showed up the very next day to visit me in the hospital. It was a huge outporing of support, and much needed since it was my first bad break and first trip to a hospital. Several days later, when I was released to head home I found a package awaiting me.
Tim is a wonderful friend, a capable mechanic with a vast array of bicycle knowledge and one of the best people that I have had the pleasure of befriending. He is a young guy and has a very infectious smile, and seems to be the most cheery and optimistic person I know. We share a common love of esoteric Italian bicycles dating back to the 70s, as well as a particularily devoted interest to all things Paramount. Tim had actually just finished recovering from quite an accident himself (his unfortunately involved a car as well as a whole lot of irrepairable damage to a supremely special Schwinn Paramount that was ridden in the 1972 Munich Olympics) and, having just been through all the pain and trouble I was just beginning, he thought to send me a nice book to read.
Before I really get into the particulars about the book, allow me to tap into some of the fun and strange thoughts I had about the book while I was recovering under the help of many different pain killers…
I opened the paper envelope and the first thing that I noticed was that the book was nicely used. Corners crunched, pages well read, cover bent, and a nice sticker on the front saying that the book came from the Multanomah County Library (Portland!) This little sticker instantly rewound time for me, and I remembered about 5 years back when I was up in Portland to visit a friend and I thought it would be pretty neat to sign up for a Library card despite the fact that I was only a visitor to town. A fake bit of permanence, something about just possessing the card seemed to give me hope of returning. I’d like to think that this book somehow knew it would eventually end up in my hands, I even like to imagine that I took it off the shelf 5 years ago but decided not to borrow it because I could never return it. Now, back to today, the thing arrives miraculously out of thin air. Also included in the package was a pack of Brooklyn Gum - as I said before, Tim is quite the nice friend!
On to the book itself:
Vic and Ray have just graduated highschool and live in Fresno, California. The year is 1909 and the boys have just finished loading the waterproof waxed-canvas frame bags that their mothers had sewn for them, they have pumped their tires, and after waving to a few spectators they soon push off. The goal: to reach Seattle, via bicycle, and attend the Alaska-Yukon-Expedition which was some sort of World’s Faire type thing that took place back then. Setting detail: The 1906 Earthquake had just forced the boomtown of San Francisco to crumble, then burn. The local newspaper provided them with a job of sending back reports of their ride by way of post card (see below), the boys were some of the very first “roving reporters” and certainly provided the small world of their time with quite an adventure – bicycles at this point in history were only just becoming popular, and bare in mind that the lack of automobiles meant that there were not even paved roads for these two boys to ride on! For the most part, they had to manage with deep rutted mud, dry dust and gravel, and the worst was the “road corduroy” which were simply the trunks of fallen trees laid down endlessly on the ground very similar to an early and crude boardwalk. Not ideal surfaces for bikes!
The odometer ticks each mile the boys travel, and their journey is captured by way of Vic’s daughter. She writes the book from the point of view of the boy and based it on interviews with her father before his death, as well as from the collection of post cards and news paper clippings that were miraculously available and never destroyed. More than 1,000 miles over the course of just 54 days (more than twice the duration of the Tour de France!) the boys head north from Northern California clear through the Pacific Northwest.
(click for larger view!)
(click for larger view!)
I imagine this book, the actual book that I was gifted, making this journey in reverse as I recover. As the two boys travel from their happy home along a new path and towards a distant goal, I feel like I am performing a similar task as I leave my injury behind me. Another day, another quick chapter read – and there feels like an internal odometer of sorts that is ticking forward as my progress moves along. Can’t quite pedal yet, but it’s close! I imagine the book way up near Portland, out in the forrest and mountains, somehow making it’s way down south to Tim’s bookshelf to live for a little bit while he recovers, then making its way a little further on to my own bedside table while I read and mend my body. It is nice to know it has been an inspiration not only for his recovery but my own – the actual object itself must carry some of that power inside it, some restorative yet invisible vibration. We all attach this same sort of importance to our bicycles, it is not such a stretch to assume a book could hold within its pages some sort of special and somewhat magical attributes.
Reading about the early days of cycling is quite interesting. When a tube on one of their frames detaches, they simply find the blacksmith in town to re-braze it. Any plumber, any welder, any mechanic could have fixed (and built) bicycles back then. Another interesting bit of reading was the interesting way in which they stopped their bicycles when they were on particularily tricky descents… they would chop down a small tree, Fir or Pine or something, and then drag it behind them! I have seen some pretty funny and unconventional skidding techniques out there, but the boys of the early 1900′s had a style and grace that none of us can even begin to come close to in these more modern times that we live in. It is quite funny to think of the trouble we go to these days to remove our brakes, juxtaposed with the image of these boys cutting down a stout sapling just so they can safely descend a deep slope. We work hard at risk, they worked hard at safety – what a world we live in! Ray and Vic battle all sorts of other obstacles aside from their environment – getting stuck in the middle of a train bridge while the train comes barreling towards them, crossing rivers, getting robbed, working on farms in trade for pie and sandwiches, and many more stories of their old-timey adventures.
If you find yourself injured, or if you find yourself in need of a great story, go pick up Two Wheels North.
Also, be sure to visit the Wheels North website! They do a recreation of the famed journey, but do it in 14 days. Funny, as wonderful as our modern world is, with our easy infrastructure that allows us to get from point A to point B much, much faster than old Vic and Ray did — I wonder if we haven’t perhaps lost a bit of that magic that the boys were witness to along their journey. What took them two solid months of exertion now takes us only 14 breezy days, and we have much more comfortable bikes and little threat of danger. Fun still, yes; but a different sort, no?