Review: Eleanor Davis’ expansive bike path

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You & a Bike & a Road is an amiable documentation of the kindness of strangers and the general amiability of most people you encounter has cartoonist Eleanor Davis riding a bicycle that her dad made for her from Tucson to her home in Georgia. It’s a reaction to recent bouts of depression, the logic being that when she’s on a bike she feels good, and this will put her on a bike for a long, long stretch of time. What results from Davis’ journey is a loosely-drawn diary along the Mexican border, through Texas and other states.

Davis’ general narrative talents are important prerequisites for making this book work. She’s got a good sense of humor, sly observational skill, and the ability to talk to people. This comes in handy when she portrays even the briefest of acquaintances, most notably some good samaritans in Texas who boost her up and provide real support just when she’s about to give up, but also in even the smallest encounters with other bikers and various people in bars.

But another important prerequisite is the ability to be alone and gain something from it. This manifests in Davis’ renderings of her surroundings, but also in capturing her inner dialogue, the presentation of which is true to the scattered version any of us engage in, a sometimes free form word association reactive game that takes us from the place we are to the places we’ve been and the places we want to be. And sometimes this resembles incoherency. Davis lets that be.

She is also superior at using her outsider status in many situations to evoke an overwhelming mood to the moment, as when she witnesses the arrest of a young man in Texas, but lingers for the whole incident and becomes fixated by his dazed, unnerving stumbling in a canal as law enforcement shadow him.

There’s a flip side, too — outsider as source of fascination, not lingering on the edges of normal perception, but the focus of it, as in a frantic and adorable encounter with two teenagers in Louisiana where they use Davis to not only probe for information about herself as an emissary from the big world, but gain affirmation about their own weirdness in a small town.

Davis’ diary is also about the physical side of emotional healing and the factor of endurance — really challenging yourself to do things that border on impossible — in that healing. And though her journey has a set goal — Tucson to Athens — the purpose may not rely on a plan. Davis’ journey comes to an end in a heartbreaking way — or rather, a heartbreaking circumstance mingles with Davis coming to terms with her journey’s purpose and length — and illustrates clearly that much like riding a bike, emotional healing requires balance. It’s an unexpectedly poignant ending to a friendly travel book that does much more than scratch the surface of the journey — it gets to the heart of what the journey is actually about.