July 14, 2010

Wheel Life: Cycling the Real World. ~ Caron Schwartz Ellis

Cycling changes our Experience.

I was at a cocktail-ish party the other day when a bicyclist rode up to check out the festivities. I peeked into the bike trailer he was hauling, expecting to see a baby or maybe a dog. Instead there were blankets, books, clothing and other stuff not immediately identifiable.

Chris described himself as a homeless-by-choice bike traveler. Clean-shaven, buff (nice bicycling-toned thighs) and odor-free, Chris said he showers and shaves at homeless shelters and usually sleeps outdoors.

Meeting him brought to mind a book that has been coloring my outlook lately.

Miles from Nowhere” is Barbara Savage’s tale of a two-year, 25,000-mile cycling trip around the world. Back in 1978 Savage and her husband, Larry, a couple of Santa Barbara 20-something professionals, chucked the secure workaday world for adventure. “We’ll struggle and sweat and meet the people and experience the world as it really is,” Larry gushes.

Struggle and sweat they did. The late ’70s wasn’t a particularly bike-aware era; adults on bicycles were typically either college students who couldn’t afford cars or European athletes in training for the Tour de France. It was long before today’s multiple-sized lightweight bikes with dozens of stamina-preserving gears. No one had yet invented featherweight, compressible camping gear or the multitalented bike trailer. Barbara and Larry’s clunky 10-speeds were weighed down by nearly 100 pounds of equipment stuffed into chunky panniers.

The reader struggles and sweats, too, as Savage details the pain of nonstop uphill 80-mile days; the insecurity of riding over potholes, rocks and cobblestones; the discomfort of pedaling and camping in wind, rain, snow, or staggering heat; the near-misses and genuine bike vs. vehicle accidents.

At a time when their cohorts were hitchhiking around Europe, Barbara and Larry venture off the beaten track to where locals had never seen white people before. Barbara is often puzzled by their reaction: staring, groping crowds in India; honking horns, lewd gestures, people hurling rocks and sticks at them in Egypt.

The reader roots for the young marriage as Savage discusses the ups and downs in their relationship. You gag on the horrible smells of extreme poverty, filth and disease, and you gasp in wonder at natural and manmade beauty.

Then I grew curious about the Savages. What are they up to now, some 30 years after their adventure? Did they settle down, have a family? Any more bike trips, maybe with new and improved equipment? Has Barbara written anything else?

I was sad to discover she was killed in a bicycle vs. truck accident near her home in Santa Barbara just before the book went to press in 1983. In 1990 Larry founded the Barbara Savage Miles from Nowhere Memorial Award for nonfiction adventure books by first-time authors.

I wish Barbara Savage had lived to have more bicycling adventures. I’d love to get her perspective on improvements in cycling technology. I’m curious to know what she’d think of today’s plethora of comfortable traveling opportunities to places that were barely on the tourist radar when she was pedaling through them.

People like Barbara, Larry and Chris remind us to slow down and savor our planet. Travel doesn’t have to be a whirlwind of whistle stops. Bicycling is my No. 1 choice for transportation, so now I take my folding Bike Friday on domestic and international trips. There’s nothing like the leisurely freedom two-wheeled travel.

These days Caron Schwartz Ellis describes herself as a writer/potter/entrepreneur. When not pursuing her “professions” she’s either on her bicycle or reading her Kindle in fine independent coffee shops around town.

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