'Life is a Wheel' a propulsive account of bike trek

LIFE IS A WHEEL. By Bruce Weber. Scribner. 352 pages. $26.

Engagingly told, "Life is a Wheel" recounts a now-familiar adventure with fresh spin.

Journalist Bruce Weber set off on his second cross-country bike odyssey in the summer of 2011, mentally as well as physically conditioned, or largely so. The road would administer its own regimen of toughening.

"Perseverance is, after all, easier for the poorly informed," as he so aptly puts it.

Weber departed Astoria, Ore., on a northerly route - taking advantage of the prevailing winds - pedaling an average of 60 miles a day through the lonely vastnesses of Montana and the Dakotas as well as through such liltingly named towns as Trempealeau, Wis., and Orbisonia, Pa. Each town left a trace of itself in his memory.

Unlike his first trip in 1993, the 57-year-old Weber, a theater critic turned obit writer for The New York Times, enjoyed (or endured) significantly less solitude in the wide-open spaces. He was accompanied by a smart phone, a tablet computer and constant feedback (most of it encouraging) from readers of his real-time blog for the paper.

Weber, a Manhattanite well aware of his provincialism, is a fine, observant writer. And his account is as propulsive as his cycling style. This, despite many a digressive side trip: asides on his parents, old friends, loves lost and found, his adventures biking in North Vietnam and a frightening "heart event" that occurred shortly after his arrival back in New York.

One of the most interesting facets of "Life is a Wheel," is its author's mindset. Weber ventured across the continent still imbued with the exotic quality of America's great geographic and cultural expanse. Completely open to experience, he took nothing for granted.

Of his many reasons for undertaking the trip, apart from understanding why he was doing it in the first place (and to tell a good long story), was to thumb his nose at mortality.

If driving in a car too often insulates a rider from experience, a bike immerses, not least in the vagaries of weather. Weber battled the elements, and the armadas of fast-moving cars and trucks, to an uneasy truce, yet had an uncanny knack for meeting the right person at the most opportune moment. Indeed, he was rarely as alone as he supposed, discovering with gratitude that "the default setting" of most Americans is kindness. Politics? Never discussed.

Weber measured miles by the steady pumping of his legs, absorbing the landscape in distinctive segments, convinced that as a fellow with weakening eyesight and not-so-great knees, "ordeals can be as satisfying as pleasures." Regarding long-haul biking as "a qualifying exam for an enhanced form of citizenship" lent a certain ballast to the equation.

After his repeat 4,000-mile excursion, Weber still views cycling solo as a metaphor, not only for the solitary experience of living but as a bargaining session with the Fates.

This time, they were smiling.

Reviewer Bill Thompson is a writer and editor based in Charleston.