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One Road, Two Fresh Voices
A Review of the Books,
Spokesongs: Bicycle Adventures on Three Continents
By Willie Weir
Metal Cowboy: Tales from the Road Less Pedaled
By Joe Kurmaskie
Reviewed by Rick Price, PhD.
Note: Rick, a long time cyclist, is the owner and founder of Experience Plus! bicycle tour company.
Bicycling is very much a solitary sport: first, you do it best at your
own pace; second, it's hard to carry on a conversation on a bike;
and third, you spend hours and hours processing your own
thoughts inside your head.
So it is not surprising that Willie Weir and Joe Kurmaskie gathered most of the material for their books on solo rides around the world and in the US. The result, in both cases, is not only very entertaining but interesting.
Weir's book makes for the lightest reading and is a narrative that you might throw in the suitcase to take on your travels with you. It is his account, in brief installments written for the radio audience of KUOW (public radio in Seattle), of three long-distance rides he took from 1994 through 1999. The rides are in the Indian subcontinent, South Africa and the Balkans. Each brief narrative is entertaining, instructive, and suggests that you probably don't want to have Willie as your tour leader on your next bicycle tour.
I learned a long time ago that it is very difficult to give a budding entrepreneur advice. They don't want good advice, they think they don't need it, and they won't take it. Bad advice, they'll snap up in a minute if it fits their immediate needs. Self-supported touring cyclists are made in the same mold. I should know because I am one (both entrepreneur and touring cyclist!)
Tell them the road isn't paved and they'll listen politely and then go see for themselves (maybe someone paved it the night before!) Tell them that there is NO BRIDGE across that river on the map and they'll go down that road anyway, just to see if there is a ferry instead. This describes Willie Weir on the road with his bicycle. In India it was a river with no bridge and in South Africa a beautiful, solitary stretch of coast that he wanted to explore badly but the map showed no road. "Take the shortcut," shouted a fellow on a motorcycle, "you'll be there by nightfall." Bad advice, but going the right direction. It took him an entire extra day to reach his destination.
Willie Weir approaches bicycle touring like Don Quixote crosses La Mancha. No challenge is too big and every hill a windmill that the errant cyclist can hardly turn down. This makes for wonderful, vicarious bicycle touring. Only his travels through minefields in Bosnia gave me pause.
Joe Kurmaskie is different, but only a little. He still uses the same picaresque style that Weir uses, moving from place to place, chapter to chapter, recounting his duels on the road, but Joe's battles are more philosophical treatises on life than they are bicycle adventures. He'll open a chapter with something like: "A solo bicycling adventure of any distance and duration is marked by ups and downs that have nothing to do with the difficulty of the terrain." Or, "have you ever felt as if you were moving through life in slow motion" or, "ever felt you were about to miss the boat?" Then he does (miss the boat, that is) while spinning a yarn about it and wrapping it up with a moral at the end.
Kurmaskie, the "metal cowboy," so named by a blind cowboy he met in Wyoming, sought out people wherever he went. His stories are about fellow travelers and people he met along the way, including those who reached out to him with kindness of one type or another. Weir, too, writes of encounters with people along the way, but his own adventures take center stage. Both, however, seek out people on their solitary bicycle rides. And this is important because too often touring cyclists isolate themselves from the local people, moving through the countryside like a pirate on a mission.
I have a keen personal and professional interest in travel narratives. Twice in the last few years I've had occasion to review books or videos about bicycle touring and these books or videos have displayed the dark side to bicycle travel. The life of a solo bicyclist or even a touring cyclist with an organized group can lead to curmudgeonly behavior if you let it. Put on a helmet, a bright jersey, and sunglasses and you really do look like you came from another planet to the locals in a village in Costa Rica, rural Greece or Sardinia. You can cruise along all day at fifteen or more miles per hour, never stopping to talk with the locals. When you get home you can say you've been there but you can't say much about the local people.
One narrative I came across a few years ago seemed to focus mostly on how two touring cyclists spent a good portion of every day hiding their tent from the locals each night along the side of the road so no one would "disturb" them. The video, in its turn, was a do-it-yourself series on bicycling touring in Europe. The producers hadn't talked with locals about routes (resulting in a very dangerous and irresponsible route in one instance) and they couldn't even bring themselves to ask the locals how to pronounce the names of the villages they passed through. Why not rent a car or a camper and stay completely to yourself?
There are better ways to meet local people but they require some effort. We had a customer who would stop at a farmhouse, empty her water bottle on the ground and then approach the house for water. I once offered to help her but she politely refused, explaining that this was her way of interacting with the "real Italians."
Another customer, Bruce Ekstrand (now deceased), ten years ago brought 20 University of Colorado Buffaloes bicycle caps on tour and handed them out at the beginning to all the participants. Bruce was the Vice-Provost of the University and he knew how to get people involved. "These aren't yours to keep," he explained. "Before the end of this trip you have to trade that cap with a local cyclist or farmer for something of equal or greater value. It might be some grapes they are harvesting, another cap, or just a photograph. Every evening at dinner we'll talk about trades we made that day."
We've kept Bruce Ekstrand's tradition and memory alive at ExperiencePlus! Come on tour with us, whether it is a bicycle or walking tour, and you'll get a bright yellow cap at the beginning of the trip. "This isn't yours to keep," your tour leaders will tell you, "you've got to trade it before the end of this trip." Indeed, I think I'll send Willie Weir and Joe Kurmaskie yellow bicycle caps. They don't need them, they're not curmudgeons, but I'll bet they could write up some pretty good stories about hat trades!
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