When I decided to ride, only the ride mattered. I was not inclined to take photographs or keep a journal, push for hundred-mile days or settle for twenty, climb such-and-such a pass or employ so-and-so’s equipment or be the first whoever to do whatever. But since I could permit myself no unfulfilled responsibilities it took almost two years to finally be riding, and during that seemingly endless preparatory period – while contemplating my journey as a “once upon a time” endeavor and addressing my bicycle by the appellation that, because of my thirty-year relationship with Miguel de Cervantes’ masterwork so naturally became it – I discovered that I wanted to keep a record.
But not as a travelogue or how-to guide.
My manner of coming at life has manifestly been shaped by characters in fiction whose qualities I admire. Virtuous acts proceeding from just principles have inspired me since I was a child, although I could probably not have articulated why until I was in my late teens. Correspondingly, I have long considered the obligatory grownup-to-young-person question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” as essentially meaningless except as a postscript to:
“Who do you want to be?”
I was four months from starting my ride, returning by rail to Montana from Pennsylvania, gazing across the predawn plains of North Dakota while listening to Jonathan Hogan narrate Richard Wheeler’s Flint’s Gift, when I grasped that what I wanted – however and whenever my ride ended – was to someday experience my story the same way I was experiencing Sam Flint’s. I resolved to pen Once Upon a Time on a Bicycle in the third person, and, for the línea de demarcación I believed my ride would represent, I traded my fifty-six-year-old surname for a new one.
About a million pedal revolutions later, over afternoon coffee at a restaurant in Poptún, El Petén, a Guatemalan gentleman referred to me, no doubt complimentarily, as an adventurer. “No, I’m not,” I countered with surprising defensiveness. When he replied, “But you are having some big adventure, no?” I politely conceded his observation and, while riding the next day, pondered the motive for my mildly indignant response.
If an adventurer is, as Merriam-Webster defines the term, “someone who seeks dangerous or exciting experiences,” I am not such a person. I am, rather, someone who, having chosen a path according to a standard not governed by fear, may find himself in dangerous or exciting experiences. Life seen through independent eyes and pursued as an irreplaceable value will seldom be safe or dull, no matter what one’s vocation or non-thrill-seeking hobbies.
In the course of transcribing Once Upon a Time on a Bicycle from handwritten journals, voice notes recorded while astride a leather saddle, and memory, I have found myself time and again validating what Michael Renati realized while squinting into the late-morning sun a few miles east of San Antonio.
He was right to ride.
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