I don’t know whether to blame laziness, the Internet or my bikes, but over the past few years, I’ve noticed a troubling decline in the amount of time I spend reading books. Back in the day, I was almost always working my way through one volume or another, and it rarely took more than a week or two to finish each one. These days, I read a few books per year, and reading one can take nearly a month.
One solution, of course, is to “keep it in the family” and read about my favorite subject: riding bikes. Unfortunately, truly interesting books about cycling don’t come around that often. Lately, I’ve been living vicariously through Into Thick Air by Jim Malusa, a Tucson-based writer who, over six years, pedaled his battered bike to the lowest point on each of six continents.
It’s the kind of book that makes me daydream of building up a good old steel bike and hitting the road for weeks at a time. That’s probably because Malusa is a good writer, and a laid-back guy with a competent but relaxed approach to bicycle touring. Before a trip, he stocks up on cotton clothing at a thrift store. He routinely buys a cold beer and shoves it into his sleeping bag so it’ll be still be cold when he stops for the night. When his frame breaks before a trip—which would send most of us into a frantic scramble to buy a new bike—he has a Tucson mechanic weld the old thing back together.
And while he’s on the road, he’s willing to be flexible. Accept a ride in a car when the headwind sucks? No problem. Chew khat with new friends in Africa? Might as well. Research every last detail in advance? Mmm, not so much. After all, Malusa writes, “Travel without surprise was merely an agenda.”
Malusa approaches a bike tour as a way to see the world and meet encounter new cultures, and great excuse to spend his days doing what we all love: riding around on a bike.
OK, so most of us aren’t as willing to endure the discomfort of pedaling through remote stretches of Egypt and Russia, or as tolerant of being stoned by the malicious youths at a refugee camp in Djibouti. Hell, I’d happy just to pedal across America, braving Mormons in Utah, and tractors on the highways of Iowa.
But some things are universally loved and understood by everyone who loves traveling on two wheels, and, for me, Malusa captures the essence of it:
“When the sun appears and only the solitary can hear the daybreak angels sing and toot their long horns, I set off like a bloodhound, hot on the scent of Lake Eyre. It’s a fine start, wheeling along with my shadow in pursuit, the desert air as clear and intoxicating as gin, everything reminding me of why I ride: to be outside. The bicycle amplifies life, making good times better.”