Living the First Draft

Open Road

Ever since finishing my Book Tour by Bike, I’ve been doing the things one does on the heels of a long trip: I’ve recommitted to routines. I’ve caught up with friends. I’ve enjoyed Quiet Time with Blankie. And, many times over, I’ve failed to come up with a suitable answer to: “So, how was it?”

I’ve never been very good with this question. My answers always come out like a first draft—rambling, full of tangents, far afield of what I’m actually trying to say. I mean, I know I should just share a choice anecdote—something, perhaps, about the transition from a long, lonely ride to a dizzying, packed reading—then neatly wrap it up with: “It was a great experience, thanks for asking, how are you?”

I know I should do that.

But here’s the thing: now that I’m done with the ride, and gaining a teeny bit of perspective, I want to give more than that glib, polite answer. I want to talk about everything. I want to explain, all at once, how it felt to be writing a blog about a bike tour in support of a book about a bike tour.

And so I try to do that. I try. And, usually, I fail.

Last week, though, during the Q&A at my Broadway Books homecoming reading, a guy in the back row—the clever ones, they’re always in the back row—raised a hand and asked: “Did you find yourself behaving differently on the (GOING SOMEWHERE) trip, once you knew you were writing a book about it?”

I smiled, and I said “yes,” and I proceeded to tell the crowd that, as soon as I knew I was writing a book, everything seemed like story material. When a guy at a campfire explained to Rachel and me that dachsunds were bred to hunt badgers, then started joking about a wiener dog army led by “Captain Shnookums,” I thought: fascinating dialogue. When we tried to heat some pork ‘n’ beans, only to watch in horror as the uncooked gelatinous mess rose from the can, as if levitating, I thought: amazing scene. Whenever anything made me feel nostalgic for the miles behind or anxious about the horizon ahead—which, this being the end of the trip, was happening like ninety-two times a day—I thought: Resonant Moment. Sometimes, I even found myself making in-the-moment decisions based on how I thought they’d play in my to-be-written story. For example, when Galen (a pal with whom we rode in Oregon) proposed biking the final miles to Portland on an interstate highway, I pushed back and suggested we stay a night in Hood River and finish on quiet back roads—partly because I liked back roads, but mostly because a highway-shoulder marathon didn’t feel like the right kind of ending for my story.

And, well, as I stood in front of the Broadway crowd and said all of this—as I explained how the moments I was living were colored by the story I hoped to tell about them—I began to again think about the Book Tour by Bike; about “how was it?”

I kept thinking as I biked away from the bookstore, up the Alameda ridge, toward home. And somewhere in there, I realized that I’d found my answer: my tour—just like that final, hyper-self-aware leg of the GOING SOMEWHERE ride—had felt like living in the first draft of a story.

Let me explain.

During my Book Tour by Bike, I was also preparing to write a story. Mainly, this was because I’d agreed to do a blog series for the Huffington Post, but I also knew I’d be asked about the ride while at readings and on radio and in the homes of friends old and new. So, from day one, I was on the hunt for meaningful moments. I was ready to make choices that would lead to whatever story I thought I wanted to tell.

Example: on the first day of the tour, while riding the same route from the GOING SOMEWHERE trip, I got surprised by a gorgeous bike path. I stopped at a trailside lake, and I had a nap, and by the time I’d gotten back on the bike and ridden to a boat landing where Rachel and I had a memorable moment (read: sex), I didn’t feel like stopping. So I passed it up. Then and there, I decided that the tour—or at least, the first day of it—would be about finding novelty in the familiar. And so it was.

Also: as I was riding on the south shore of Lake Superior, after a few days of doing very different things in rapid succession—hard rides on lonely roads, funtime with old friends, Q&A with total strangers—I decided that my new story would be about “transitions”: about tipping into, and being grateful for, whatever came next. And so when I arrived in Duluth, exhausted from the seventy-mile ride, only to arrive at my reading and find all but two of the chairs empty, I reminded myself about transitions, about gratitude. And it ended up being one of my favorite readings of the whole tour.

Also also: while riding toward Madison, my old stomping ground, by way of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, a gorgeous place I’d never before seen, I told myself that the story was now about approaching the familiar from new angles, with new questions. And so when I arrived in Madison, I avoided my usual did-I-waste-my-years-here? regrets, and instead I told myself that moving forward could be as simple as asking new questions. And, lo and behold, it was.

Over and again, I did this. I rode and read, and I looked for themes, and I tried to live up to them.

Maybe all of this sounds prescriptive, icky. Maybe it sounds like I was cutting myself off from the moment—or, even worse, engineering it.

But I don’t know. I mean, aren’t we always doing this? Aren’t we always trying to decide where we’re headed, then making the choices we hope will lead us there? I sure am.

Yes, there were drawbacks to my incessant search for the Story. I’d often catch myself thinking of how this barroom conversation or that prairie view would play in my next blogpost, rather than just enjoying the conversation, the view. Or I’d spend an hour stopping over and over, trying to get the perfect picture of a bike path, only to realize I’d ridden ten miles and felt none of them. Or I’d break my hard-earned momentum to stop on the shoulder and pull out the phone and (I’m not proud of this) look for comments on those posts, those photos—to check how my story was playing.

But there were some definite benefits, too. First off, I took more pictures on this book/bike tour than I have on the rest of my trips combined—and, because I knew I’d be sharing them with all of you, I was fussier about the framing, less satisfied with lazy selfies and blurry horizon shots. Also, since I was looking at everything with the idea I might be writing about it, I noticed more sights and smells, did more eavesdropping and note-taking, asked better questions of folks I met along the way. And above all, I forever had that fuzzy feeling—the one I often get while working on a new piece of writing—that each little moment might be leading toward something bigger.

And so that, for now, is my answer: the Book Tour by Bike felt like living a first draft.

Check back with me in about six years—hopefully, I’ll have written the final version by then.

Author: Brian