Editor’s note: During the month of May I have pledged to ride my bike 100 miles. If you’ve been wanting to get out on your bike more, check out the League of American Bicyclists’ web page for National Bike Month. Locally in Sacramento, CA you can pledge miles and find other fun bike-related activities here.
Last week my daughter was away on a field trip, so I had no one to bike-escort to school. And today we slept in and couldn’t spare the 15 minutes. Fail!
While Camilla was gone I missed our morning bike-to-school conversations. These are different from car conversations. There’s less detail; half of our words get sucked into the wind or covered by the noise of a passing car. And that’s not always a bad thing.
At the moment I’ve got a squeaky chain and dragging back brake, so my motivation is kind of lagging. Thus, I’ve decided that instead of regaling you on my most recent bike adventure, I’m going to tell you about a fabulous book I read recently, in the spirit of Bike Month: The Bar Mitzvah and the Beast, by Matt Biers-Ariel.
Not long after reading the book I got to meet author Matt Biers-Ariel at the Sacramento REI store where he spoke to about 75 of us cycling and outdoor enthusiasts. He signed my copy! Yay!
Ride of Passage
The premise of the book is this: a family of four from Davis, California bikes across the country for teenager Yonah’s bar mitzvah. Yonah passes up the ceremonial Torah reading and party in favor of this “ride of passage.” His a good deed (that’s the mitzvah) is to gather signatures and deliver a petition to his representatives in Washington, DC urging them to prioritize policies that will cool the planet.
So, what’s good about the book?
The Inside Jokes
I tend to remember weird things about road trips. Like, which sibling of mine threw up, on which highway (or on whose lap)? Where were the scenes of my epic vomit events, for that matter? Ask me, I dare you.
My family also likes to keep lists of Top Ten Silly Quotes. These are invariably inside jokes. So it was with the Biers-Ariel pancreas joke in Bar Mitzvah and the Beast.
For while it is natural, and even desirable in many cases, that adults on a cross-country bike trip lose weight, kids must not…. “Solomon, you better eat, or you’ll start metabolizing your muscles,” Djina warned.
Ken added, “Sol…you just digested your pancreas.” And thus the pancreas joke was invented….
“That chocolate bar sure tasted better than my pancreas.”
Throughout the book we are let in on all the quirky nicknames that evolve over the course of three months. We learn those morning ritual sayings that get the family moving each morning. We learn special code words for farts.
Traveling Teaches You About People
Helping in Yonah’s quest to engage Americans on the issue of global warming, Matt Biers-Ariel learns to expect the unexpected from strangers, particularly people about whom he’s held stereotypes and with whom he thought he’d never have a positive conversation. This includes bean farmers, Mormons, even Rush Limbaugh listeners. When they finally get to Washington, the meeting with Congressman Markey’s staffer goes much better than expected.
Thankfully, we had showered, so the Capitol building wouldn’t be evacuated from a tear-gas scare when we entered….Though Mr. Moulton graciously accepted [the petitions], the thought crossed my mind that he would put them in the paper recycling bin as soon as we left, because what else could he do with them?
Then the staffer asks the family about their trip and they enthusiastically oblige.
Solomon…told Mr. Moulton about turtles and going over Monarch Pass. He described how we rode over a hundred miles in one day twice….Yonah jumped in and spoke about wind farms in Utah. To illustrate how little Americans conserve energy, he spoke about how cold a lot of the air-conditioned stores were…
The staffer gives the family his own spiel, detailing the workings of Congressman Markey’s committee toward climate change reversal. Sadly, the boys get schooled in lawmakers’ incremental approach to problems that call for sea change. Still, as a mom and American, I felt proud when I read this scene. Don’t just sit back and complain, folks–follow this family’s example and go see your representatives! Way to set an example, Biers-Ariels. Bravo.
Of course, traveling also teaches you about the people closest to you. I loved the sections where Matt tries to teach confirmed athiest Yonah religious lessons, only to be confounded himself. In one episode, a family stops their car to offer water to the Biers-Ariels as they summit Wah Wah Mountain in Utah. Matt explains to Yonah about the religious value of kindness to strangers. Yonah responds,
“It could be an evolutionary thing. Societies where people act nice to each other are [naturally] selected over societies that kill each other.”
“I bet that family was churchgoers.”
“Or bicyclists,” Djina chimed in.
“Or bicyclists,” I admitted, glaring at my wife as she unwittingly subterfuged by attempt to get Yonah to see the beauty in religion.
Traveling also helps you know yourself and clarify your values. Biers-Ariel describes his frustration with a slow computer and reflects that he’s been unable to slow the workings of his mind despite slowing life down by biking. While acknowledging that every ounce counts when you are moving it with only your own strength, he nonetheless wonders, does every ounce count when your freight includes the last Harry Potter book?
Traveling By Bike Teaches You Geography
Biking teaches certain details of geography you’d never learn while in the car. I mean, I’ve traveled the Loneliest Road in America (Highway 50 through Nevada).
I know about the drying action of the wind in the west: “It is relentless. It dries you out. It enters your ears, nose, mouth, and pores.” But I never thought to contrast wind with mountains. Mountains, Biers-Ariel says, can be conquered. “You calculate what you need to do, steel yourself, and get the job done…Wind cannot be conquered. It has no form and you are powerless. Your only option is to pray for its demise.”
Likewise, I love Santa Fe and its many museums and markets, but never thought of it in terms of the excellent air conditioning and refrigerated water that this book reports is available at the Santa Fe Trail Museum.
And I’ve seen some extreme weather while traveling before, but always from the car or some other kind of shelter. So I’ve never been able to describe the feel of hail of the kind that Yahweh sent down to kill the Egyptian cattle. The Biers-Ariels know this.
Now, Damascus, KY is where the Appalachian Trail and the Trans America bike trail cross, and this is where the book shouts out to my old stomping grounds: Christiansburg, VA, Camp Bethel, Monticello, the Blue Ridge Parkway!
The family exits the Washington & Old Dominion bike trail and beholds DC at night, seeing that they’ve done it. I know the vista he’s talking about, but I can’t say I’ve ever removed my steaming bike shorts there and deposited them in a hazmat container.
Stories Bring About Change
I just realized I forgot to explain what The Beast is. It’s the tandem bike Matt buys to ride with his then 9-year-old son Solomon, or as he put it in the presentation at REI, the bike on which he “pulled Solomon’s butt across the country.” It is heavy. It is forever breaking down. At his Sacramento presentation, Matt related,
Most guys go out and buy a tandem because the want to get their significant other into biking. Then the significant other discovers that there’s always going to be a sweaty guy directly upwind for the entire ride, and that’s gross, so they give up. The bike is for sale on eBay, barely ridden. But the Beast was one of the few tandems on eBay that’s actually been ridden for 20 years and all it wants is to go out to pasture. If you want good stories, and not necessarily a smooth ride, you should buy a tandem on eBay.
Matt’s stories about The Beast and the lengths he went through to fix it gave me confidence to at least get my bike out of the garage, to flip it over and practice popping the front wheel off. To pump up the tires to my satisfaction. To [have my husband] coat the tubes with this goo that’s supposed to prevent flats. Baby steps. I had to look up derailleur when I first came across the word in this book.
Stories can do a lot. And that is the main message of this book: stories change people. Climate change will reverse through the telling of our stories and not because people are convinced by the facts in 30,000 books on the subject.
So tell your stories. You never know what someone might take away from it.