The book Pilgrim Wheels: Reflections of a Cyclist Crossing America by Neil Hanson follows the author on a cycling journey across the United States. This is the first of an expected two books by the author on this journey. Pilgrim Wheels takes us from the West Coast to Kansas, which the author says will be picked up in the next book.
I started reading this book because of the cycling, but what I found was actually something different, and more. My reading experience actually seems to align with the author’s own experiences on the journey. In his own words:
The trip didn’t take shape to be a journey of discovery. I wasn’t trying to heal from a lost job, or a failed relationship, or trying to discover myself. I just wanted to ride my bike a long ways, with a really open mind, to see how I did riding 100 miles a day, day after day.
— Neil Hanson, from an interview on JustAnotherCyclist
The result immediately drew connections in my mind to the iconic work Zen and the Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. Both books are ostensibly about travel across the country, but ultimately use that trip as a literary device for deeper, and perhaps less tangible, topics.
However, while Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance tends more towards the metaphysical, Pilgrim Wheels has a much more grounded feel. In this way it does a great job of actually capturing the feel of long distance cycling. On longer rides you definitely are concerned with issues of the bike, but your mind also wanders to topics triggered by, but unrelated to, sights and events from the road.
A downhill tailwind for the last 20 miles, I feel strong and fit, it’s gloriously hot out in the sun, and I have a belly full of beer and burrito.
Really, is there a better place to be in life?
— Pilgrim Wheels, Chapter 25, ‘Flying with the Wind’
Neil Hanson wonderfully captures this sense of mental wandering in the pages of Pilgrim Wheels.
The book spends some time in the practicalities of self supported long distance cycling as well. The author discusses issues of packing and weight, and the mental struggle between wanting to take everything, and knowing that means you’ll have to drag that weigh up the hills. He touches on the decisions all cyclists have to make regarding routes, road conditions, and traffic. These discussions are done in a way that will hit home for those of us ride, without alienating those that don’t. Another example of the grounded feel to the entire text.
Rocketing head-on at highway passing speed, they pass me at a couple of feet, though it feels like inches. I’ve got no shoulder. No where to retreat. I’m completely exposed and vulnerable, left to trust completely, trusting both the drivers and the wheel of karma.
— Pilgrim Wheels, Chapter 8, ‘Mustang Terror’
The book is well written and a pleasure to read, conveying the sense of journey and discovery throughout. Cyclists such as myself picking this up for the bicycle connection will come away with much much more – possibly without even realizing it. Others picking it up for the journey may find a little taste of the joy cycling can bring. The two perspectives are skillfully woven together in a way that is enjoyable, and left me anxious for the conclusion in the next book.
An award-winning author and native of Kansas, Neil Hanson received his B.A. in Psychology from Kansas State University and has worked as a carpenter, mason, truck driver, waiter, cook, bartender, landscaper, furniture mover, salesman, ranch hand, draftsman, manager, and executive. At one time, he owned a trucking company and has held positions at the corporate level and as a consultant for financial services, logistics, and defense contracting firms. He is currently employed as project manager at Kaiser Permanente. An inveterate traveler, Hanson has visited Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Italy, Mexico, and Canada, and has traveled through all fifty U.S. states. Besides being avid cyclist, Hanson also enjoys walking, gardening, birding, hunting, fishing, and reading. Hanson is the recipient of three 2010 EVVY Awards from the Colorado Independent Publishers Association for his first nonfiction book, Peace at the Edge of Uncertainty (ISBN 978-0982639108). He currently resides in Centennial, Colorado, which he now calls his permanent home.