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Bruce Weber on bicycling, mortality and Life Is a Wheel

Bruce Weber's memoir Life Is a Wheel chronicles his journey across the country and out of middle age.
Bruce Weber's memoir Life Is a Wheel chronicles his journey across the country and out of middle age.
Credit: Marcus Yam

As an obituary writer, Bruce Weber confronts mortality more than most. So he decided to bid farewell to middle age by taking a cross-country bike trip which he used to reflect on aging and mortality in his memoir: Life Is a Wheel: Love, Death, Etc., and a Bike Trip Across America. In advance of Weber's reading at the Tattered Cover Colfax on Tuesday, March 25, Westword spoke with him about his adventures and his thoughts on mortality.

See also: Poet Yosimar Reyes on the power of personal narratives

Westword: Talk about your reading in Denver.

Bruce Weber: I'm going to be reading from Life Is a Wheel, which is a new kind of cycling memoire. It's a book about a bicycle trip across the United States and how I took it as an occasion to look backwards and forwards. It's a very personal book. I hope that people won't mind climbing into my saddlebags and riding along with me.

Talk about what that trip was like.

It was the second time I rode across the United States by myself. I did it in 1993, when I was 39 years old. At the time, at 39, I thought the trip was an excellent way to salute my youth and head on toward middle age. I thought it was probably the last time I would have the opportunity to do something like this and the last time I'd be physically able to do it.

As it turned out, in 2011, I got the urge to do it again. I had been continuing to ride, so it wasn't completely insane, although it was moderately insane. I thought that this time, if I could manage to do it, it would be a good chance to write about a lot of the things I'd been thinking about. I write obituaries for a living now. Since I was growing older, I've been doing a lot of ruminating about what it means to get older. This trip struck me as an opportunity. It was probably the last time that I would have the opportunity to create experiential bookends to look at what happens to a life as it goes from early middle age to late middle age. That was the spur for the book. The trip went as predicted: exhausting; terrifically difficult; very, very challenging and thrilling.

As you were biking across the country thinking about these aging issues, were there any surprises as you moved along?

Anybody who has ever traveled by bicycle will tell you that there are a certain number of surprises every day. When I say things went as predicted, the trip was sort of what I understood it was going to be like. I knew that there was going to be an evolution of my mood over the course of every day. You always begin with a certain amount of energy and optimism in the morning, particularly if the weather is nice. You take off, and there is always some kind of arc to the day: Exhaustion and difficulty and surprise and weather and decision-making; turn left here; turn right here; take this road; take that road. You never quite know what's around the next bend.

The country is so big, and I hadn't been to any of these places before. You just don't know what's around the next curve. The things that change can be as small as crossing over a county line and finding that one county doesn't pave its roads as well as the last county. It doesn't mean too much to you if you're in a car, but on a bicycle, it means a great deal. Or you go from traveling due east, take a left turn, and you head off northeast. Suddenly, you're facing a whole different wind. The weather changes, or you're incredibly hungry. You stop at what looks like a crappy roadside diner, and you have the best bowl of chili you've ever had in your life.

All of these sorts of things happen in the course of every day, which is one of the truly marvelous things about a trip like this. It's partially because when you're traveling on your own on a bicycle, everything is self-powered. You're responsible for everything that happens to you, which is kind of an interesting way to go about things when you're used to interacting with so many people every day and having to consider other people in your life on a daily basis, on an hourly basis. To have every moment of every day depend upon you and only you, I think that's both formidable and rewarding.

Continue on for more from Bruce Weber.

Bruce Weber is the obituary writer for the New York Times.
Bruce Weber is the obituary writer for the New York Times.
Credit: Marcus Yam

Talk about the relationships between an epic journey like this and writing a book.

There is a lot in the book that I borrowed from a good old teacher of mine, the novelist Richard Ford. Richard said: "A novel makes its own place in the world. There's nobody out there waiting for it. It has to carve its own welcome." I sort of felt that way about taking this trip. Nobody was waiting for me. Nobody was looking out on the road to see me coming. I was trenching this little narrative path across the United States. I felt very much like the narrator of my own story. The cyclist as protagonist felt very real to me as I was going across the country.

There are a number of surface similarities between somebody who is telling a story and somebody who is riding a bicycle across the United States. First of all, it's a formidable task. Second, there is a kind of control that you have to take over the journey. Third, you can only see in front of you a certain distance; you have to have the confidence to keep going down the path you're on. Hopefully, when you get down to the end of what you can see, you'll be able to see further down the road.

Since you can't foresee what's going to happen, there are all sorts of whimsies that can overtake the narrative. As a bicycle rider, you don't know what characters you're going to meet and what circumstances you're going to encounter. You have to be prepared to adapt to those, and for the writer of a book, the same things happen.

When you're working on a book so rooted in this question of mortality and you approach the end of a bike trip that's a reflection on that, what does it feel like?

There is a certain amount of relief. I'm very upfront in the book that the solo journey across the country is a metaphor for the solo journey that we all take through life. On the other hand, I'm also quite conscious that it is only a metaphor. You get to the end and you think, this journey has to do with the end of my life in certain way, but thank goodness there's more to come and time to look for another metaphor.

It seems like the challenge of writing a book like that is to be able to dwell on that metaphor without winding up in some sort of overly sentimental place. How do you do that?

People will read the book; either they will think that I've done it successfully or not. I think the book is original in many respects, but one of the things that I discovered as I was writing about my own life and writing about this trip and reflecting on all the things that we've been talking about is that I'm not the first one who has thought about these things. Facing mortality is something that we all end up doing. We have to do it alone. We have to do it according to the methods that our lives describe for us. If there is a consolation in that, it's that everybody else that's out there is doing the same thing.

Bruce Weber will be reading from his book at the Tattered Cover Colfax, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 25. The appearance is free; call 303-322-7727 for more information.

Follow me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris