Contemporary Americans are happy to beetle across the suburbs, admiring a ridge or two of passing brush, just so long as it’s narrated by David Attenborough. But pedaling a single wheel 2,000 miles into the middle of nowhere? Here we must submit to the determination of Mark Schimmoeller, who recounts just such an adventure in his worthy memoir “Slowspoke: A Unicyclist’s Guide to America.”
In keeping with Schimmoeller’s transcendentalist outlook, it was best for him to “travel in the manner of a leaf descending to the ground.” Starting at his parent’s Kentucky homestead, the author’s haphazard route took him east into North Carolina, then volte-face, through the Cumberland Gap and, eventually, over the Continental Divide into the giant states of the Southwest. Avoiding urban areas, he rolled past communities with names like Static, Mudlick and Flippin. Frequently he was obliged to walk — for a unicyclist, wind can sometimes be the enemy.
A “utopian English major,” Schimmoeller kept a 660-page handwritten journal of his experience, which took place in 1992. He had worked briefly as an intern at The Nation magazine, but he wasn’t happy in New York, describing himself as “a forest dweller,” who “wanted most to be home and work with the wood, stone, and soil of my place.”
Yet, given the longing for his Bluegrass roost, Schimmoeller decided to engage himself in “Slowspoke’s” harebrained odyssey, during which his childhood unicycle assumes a tutorial role. “It kept me from being spacey and from being normal,” he reveals. “A unicycle is who you are … the pace should be just ahead of sorrow.” As for his peripatetic uncertainty, “The reason for traveling on a unicycle shifted with each locale.”
Schimmoeller approached the hardships of the road with equanimity. He slept in disused sheds and even an “abandoned green car.” On good days, he found sanctuary in cheap motels, church centers and state or national parks. He often lived on peanut butter and “bean spread” from food marts. Some regarded him with pity; others with suspicion. “I’m not comfortable with you here,” said one rural hostile, “not with all that’s going on on television.”
Mostly, though, he encountered an easy-going benevolence. Some folks were “back-to-the-land” people like his parents; others, unorthodox, if affable, true believers like the rural Christian zealots who, improbably, motored a rickety pickup over sharp desert crags. In Lukachukai, Arizona, the pilgrim sat down with a Navajo medicine man who could “see things in coals.”
Far more than a novelty travelogue, “Slowspoke’s” on-the-road episodes alternate in a steady back-and-forth exchange with more present-day accounts of life near Frankfort, Kentucky. Schimmoeller constructs a cabin from found objects and fallen trees. A water well on the property serves as a refrigerator. He sometimes uses a homemade “solar oven” to cook dinner, which requires keeping an eye on the clouds. He cultivates a deep understanding of his property’s old growth and floral spread. But the Arcadian moment is disturbed by a low-intensity struggle to save 150 acres of spectacular forest from “Mr. Gregory,” a peculiar neighbor who plans to develop the land.
Schimmoeller represents a world-view that has an enduring appeal. With its origins in Thoreau’s “Walden,” it’s an outlook that materialized fully with “The Whole Earth Catalog,” the 1968 West Coast publication that was greatly influenced by Wendell Berry, the Kentucky poet and essayist. Berry’s enlightened individualism and agrarian critique of industrial capitalism also had a profound impact on the life-choices of young Schimmoeller.
To fully enjoy “Slowspoke,” the sympathetic mind is called upon to decelerate into a state of naturalist trance. Its language reveres the flute-like song of the wood where “the paw-paw blossoms” become “hanging purple green helmets.” Soft collisions occur with enchanting natural phenomena: the author once stumbles into “a miniature forest” where “canopies clutched at my legs.” At any moment in the Western wilderness, a friend tells him, “You expect to see a mammoth come walking out.”
Elsewhere, a bit of down-home drollery sneaks up. (Schimmoeller once ducked into an isolated general store run by “a woman so old she looked like the previous owner.”) And he has a fine ear for capturing stray quips and odd remarks. He strikes a practical, if metaphysical, note, accumulating a series of helpful apothegms for unicyclists, e.g., “The act of falling partway plus corrections equals movement.”
Despite idyllic moments, “Slowspoke” is not without conflict. On his cross-country trip, the “geography of my bliss” occasionally became more complicated by fleeting romantic pursuit. The ongoing suspense over the fate of Mr. Gregory’s adjacent parcel isn’t resolved until the final pages. Elevating Schimmoeller’s sober ramble is an endearing humility free of sadness, which is surprising considering the man’s solitary preoccupation, tucked away in the Kentucky woods or out in the national open, trundling along. “I liked it better without people. Things were just the way they were.”
“Slowspoke: A Unicyclist’s Guide to America”
by Mark Schimmoeller
Chelsea Green, 328 pages, $17.95