Taking a break from life halfway through


Bicycling beyond the Divide: Two Journeys into the West, by Daryl Famer (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008)

At age 20, Daryl Farmer writes twenty years later, “I felt an anxiety I didn’t understand, a longing for something I couldn’t define. So I did what countless other lost young men have done in this country, I headed west.”

On his Trek 520 touring bike, loaded with more gear that he could easily manage, he cycled from his family home in Colorado Springs “through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, and Idaho, across Washington, into Vancouver, before returning down the coast through Oregon and half of California, east across Nevada, Utah, Arizona,” and back home again (xii, xiii).

After his return, the anxiety was relieved enough that he could get on with schooling, marriage, and a career in academia. At the age of 40, however, seventy pounds heavier than when he had made his youthful journey, Farmer realized that he needed to recover his sense of self.

“I have fallen increasingly into a life that moves me away not only from good health but also from a relationship with that land of the West, the day-to-day connection of a life lived outside, in physical exertion, among the elements. What I fear is that all I learned on that journey is lost. I’m a different person now, thank God, but I want to feel the road beneath my tires again” (xv).

On the same Trek bicycle, Farmer traced the route that he rode the first time around, revisiting many of the sites that had been important in his earlier journey and in a few instances seeing people again whom he had met before. The second journey, however, delivered its own challenges that caused Farmer to alter the route, and as he moved back toward Colorado Springs terminate his cycling at Jacob Lake, Arizona.

At the end of the second trip, standing in the driveway of his parents’ home in Colorado Springs, he mused: “It was good…to take a break from life halfway through and reacquaint oneself with the natural world, with physical and spiritual health, with one’s own past. Now this journey, too, was a part of that past” (311).

The plotline of this book is the journey itself, as Farmer traces his bold, triangular route. He gives readers just enough information that they can keep track of his progress through each state as he rides along. Most of the detail, however, is left out; readers rarely are faced with reports of how many miles he rode, how fast (or slowly) he traveled, and the minutiae of his daily activities. When he does report these matters, it is for the sake of his larger story about the region, its people, and his own interior life.

Although Farmer camped most nights on both trips, he spent a lot of time talking with people in cafes and bars. He uses these conversations to bring out the character of the people themselves and of the village or section of the country where they lived. As I read these conversations, I realized how much Farmer’s gregarious habits differ from my own mode of traveling, which tends to be solitary and with little opportunity of extended discourse.

Farmer has great skill in depicting the character of the terrain and communities through which he traveled. “Nevada was a peculiar place,” he writes. “Strange seemed a fair word to describe it, though it was a strangeness imbued with quirkiness and magic. Whatever fear I felt was not driven by rational thought, but Nevada was a place where rational had limited bearing” (284).

Describing his second trip  through the state, he wrote: “By early evening there was a skew to the light, a magnificent glow that seemed to be a cross between the blue of day and the golden hue of dusk. There was no accounting for that light…I removed my prescription sunglasses and realized that even without them, I could see clearly. Large boulders, the size of tool sheds, lay haphazardly over the desert floor, as if they’d been dropped like marbles from the sky” (286).

Throughout the book, Farmer’s introspective nature shows through as he notes his insights into travel, self-understanding, ecstatic moments of experience, and religious understandings. Reflecting upon his marriage, he writes: “Whatever I was feeling about never settling down, it wasn’t regret but yearning. Regret was a word that implied an emptiness, while yearning was an avenue toward fullness, a form of dreaming, of longing for all that we’d yet to do” (177).

Although I like this book very much, some of Farmer’s approach to bicycle travel is troublesome. He started both trips with virtually no physical conditioning, which caused some of his difficulties. He seemed unprepared for equipment failures, even something as basic as tires and tubes. Despite the passing of the years, the twenty-year-old and the forty-year-old were much the same person.

At first, I was surprised that a university press would publish a book about bike trips. Now that I have read Bicycling Beyond the Divide, I understand. Not only is this book a good story, but it is a serious reflection on life.

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