In 1993, at the age of 39, Bruce Weber biked across the country—traveling from Marin County, California, to his home in New York City. In 2011, Weber, now 57, decided to undertake another cross-country adventure—this time traveling from Astoria, Oregon, to New York City—a trip he writes about in his new book, Life Is a Wheel: Love, Death, Etc., and a Bike Ride Across America.
Weber, a veteran reporter for the New York Times, and an obituary writer there for the past three years, reported on both trips for the paper. In the 18-year interim, technologies changed. On the first trip Weber had to phone in articles written out in longhand. This time, he kept a blog on the New York Times’ website and regularly Tweeted updates on his progress. “The first trip was a very solitary one,” Weber says in an interview. “I had no notion that people were actually reading my work or responding to my stories. This time I had all of these people I was corresponding with.”
There are other differences between the two trips—in the country through which Weber cycles and in his motivations for doing so. “In 1993 I decided riding across the country would be a cool thing to do, and I thought this was probably the last time I would get to do it,” Weber says. “In 2011, I thought, ‘You know, I could do this again, and this time I could write a book about it. I could include the other trip and use it to help me talk about aging.’ ”
Biking across the country is a ripe opportunity for a meditation on aging, both a forward- and backward-looking enterprise. Life Is a Wheel is a chronicle of time spent and distance logged on the road, in touch with the land, as much as it is about looking forward to the next downstroke of the pedal, to the next oversized diner breakfast of pancakes and bacon, to the remaining years left for such trips. “[B]iking across the country for the second time is a thing I’m doing to have important things to think about afterward,” Weber writes.
As also befits a discussion of aging, Weber’s cross-country tour is punctuated by two detours centered about death and love. Weber flies to Los Angeles for the funeral of one of his oldest friends, and, later, to New Orleans to join his girlfriend for one of her friend’s wedding. “I wanted to write about these things because it is a personal story,” Weber says. “But I also didn’t want to make the book be about the specialness of my own personal life. Everybody has stories like this.”
In the middle of the book, Weber also inserts the story of a biking tour he took across Vietnam in 1995—several months before the United States’ resumption of diplomatic relations with Vietnam—with a cycling party that included a number of Vietnam War veterans. Here, too, Weber uses cycling as an entrée into a discussion of history and the reverberations of the past into the present. At one point Weber goes off on his own and is arrested by villagers in a remote province, who seem to be unaware of the country’s newly open society.
Describing his first cycling trip across America, Weber writes, “[O]ne of the strongest lingering memories of my last trip was how it fired up my patriotic instinct. You can’t gobble up the nation, mile by mile on your own power, without assimilating a sense of its greatness.” A fan of metaphors, Weber says, “I hope in not too heavy-handed a way I let the idea of a solo ride across America stand for the idea of a solitary life being led as an American over the last 50 years.”
Walter Heymann is a freelance writer and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles.