An enjoyable retelling of George Nellis’s transcontinental bicycle journey in the late-19th century, smartly plaited with excerpts from his letters home and articles written for a cycling magazine.
In 1887, Nellis, a Herkimer, New York, newspaperman, made a record-breaking bicycle trip from Herkimer to San Francisco. The 72-day adventure was financed with dispatches he sent to his hometown papers and a national cycling magazine, The Wheel and Recreation. And while all credit is due the man for his achievement, even more is owed him—certainly in Hayes’s reckoning—for stopping to smell the coffee in the small towns, ranches, and railroad bunkhouses along the route, for taking the time to attend a sunset over the Mississippi River, an opera, and a nighttime lantern parade, to dawdle at picnics and ball games (“The way Clarkson twirled the sphere for the next hour was a caution to stolid Detroiters”), or inspect the catacombs of a state prison. Nellis combined the grace of a belletrist with the nut-and-bolts of his stories that much of his readership hungered for. He injected humor into his reports—when an Iowa farmer asked if his home state was good for farming, he replied, “yes, we raise immense quantities of cheese, politicians and gum chewers out our way”—along with news of road conditions, from macadamized to ugly (where the clay stuck to his huge front wheel “like bloodsuckers to a dead mule”). There is some excitement, as when he had to shoot a coyote late one night, but mostly the telling is a spry ground-level travelogue passing from metropolis to metropolis through what was still the American frontier and experiencing country hospitality almost every night. Hayes (English/Univ. of Central Oklahoma) adds invaluable historical footnotes to the places Nellis cycles through.
It made the record books, but Nellis’s journey was also companionable and allowed him to tarry, and so was twice blessed.