Why this blog?

Yonah Biers-Ariel refused to have a Bar Mitzvah. His parents insisted on an alternative rite of passage. In order to avoid leading a half-dozen prayers and dancing with his grandmother at his Bar Mitzvah party, Yonah pedaled a bicycle 3,804 miles—San Francisco to Washington DC—joined by his parents and little brother. Along the way, the family collected thousands of signatures on a global warming petition calling for the United States to undergo an energy rite of passage moving from our dependence on oil to a non-carbon energy future.

99 GALLONS OF GATORADE is the father’s memoir of this ordinary family’s extraordinary journey.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Death of a Blog

Dear Friends,

Thank you so much for faithfully reading 99 GALLONS and for the wonderful feedback and encouragement you have given me. The bad news is that I am stopping the blog. The good news is that The Mountaineers will be publishing the renamed book The Bar Mitzvah and The Beast: One Family's Cross-Country Ride of Passage by Bike. It will be available in Spring of 2012.


Friday, November 26, 2010

Chapter 22 - An Atheist Covers His Bases

A good omen at dawn: the campground flags snapped in a stiff west wind. The map indicated a 2,000-foot descent to look forward to. Because of that same law about life being a zero-sum game, yesterday’s arduous ride needed to be evened out; today we would ride like Lance.

Either the gods didn’t log onto Djina’s blog to learn of our trying day or we had inadvertently upset them, because by the time we ate, broke camp, and mounted our steeds, the good west wind had pivoted into the Wicked Wind of the East.

I was perplexed. “We gave the Family Dining waitress a decent tip, were friendly to the campground owner, and the people camping next to us signed the petition. What did we do wrong?”

“Do you think God changed the wind because he was mad?” Yonah asked.

“Of course not,” I laughed. “I was joking.”

Yes, I am a rational man and know that God doesn’t change weather based on a person’s or a nation’s merits or faults. I know that the righteous suffer and the wicked thrive. And prayer goes unheeded. Yet I pray to God on a regular basis, for better weather, for better health, for better everything. Even though this kind of prayer is delusional, I still do it. Many of us do. Why? We want to believe that there is something bigger than us who is in charge. We want to believe that there is an omnipotent entity that cares. Yonah, on the other hand, has the guts to say the universe is an impromptu accident.

“Do you think the universe or life has any meaning?” I asked.


“That’s what the existentialists say. Their answer to a meaningless universe is for individuals to create their own meanings. Whether existentialist or true believer, they both have the same goal, to imbue life with meaning. What do you think gives your life meaning?”


I asked differently. “What is your life about?”

“Finding happiness.”

I mulled this over and thought about Rabbi Hillel’s famous answer to a heathen who 2,000 years ago challenged, “I will convert if you can explain Judaism while standing on one foot.”

Hillel lifted one foot and replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.” The Golden Rule. Perhaps Yonah’s answer to the meaning of life implied the Golden Rule’s twin, “What brings happiness to you, give to others.”

Rather than being the championship team breezing through Paris on the last day of the Tour de France, we were an exhausted family of four struggling against a wind carrying the combined smelters of US Steel on its back.

It was moments like this with the wind pounding my ears like an incessant bass drum and myriads of tiny sweat wasps stinging my eyes that I struggled with my inner Zen. The truth is that I know nothing about Zen except for the adage, "eat when hungry, sleep when tired." The bicycling equivalent must be, “pedal when going.” The idea is to focus on the pedaling and let all other thoughts wash over like water over the proverbial duck's back. That seems to be Zen. But—alas—hopes for a wind change were the only neural pathways firing, and more bitterness piled on with each new gust. My mantra was, "When is this damn wind going to shift!" Hoping for change that you have no control over leads to disappointment. I tried recalling my friend Chris Kelsch's mantra, "It's all good." No problem when you’re on a 40 mph descent. When it’s all good during a 6.7 mph descent into a 25-mph headwind, then you’ve found your inner-Buddha.

The winds attenuated in Capital Reefs National Park, a 100-mile-long "wrinkle" in the earth’s surface which created a narrow canyon with towering cliffs and hoodoos on either side. (Hoodoos are the rock spires that are left behind when a cliff crumbles.) Bryce Canyon has nothing on this real estate. We stopped at a scenic overlook and stared at a pair of gigantic hoodoos which were taller, asymmetrical versions of the Twin Towers. Their beauty stole my breath. Why does beauty have a hold on us? From an evolutionary standpoint, it seems likely that what we call human beauty is related to the passing down of genes. We want to make sure that we choose a mate that is healthy enough to produce offspring. This evolutionary health is defined as beauty. At least that’s the theory. But what of a hoodoo, a Mozart concerto, or a solitary red rose bud covered in morning dew? Once I was teaching Solomon's baseball team the finer points of sliding, and a rainbow appeared. An entire team of eight-year-olds, whose holy trinity was baseball, pizza, and Gameboy, stopped and stared. I couldn’t imagine an evolutionary reason which created this kind of response. And then understanding struck.

“Beauty is ambrosia for the soul,” I pontificated to Yonah as we gazed at the hoodoos.

“I agree they’re cool to look at, but I don’t think they’re ambrosia for the soul.”

“Do you think there’s an evolutionary reason to think hoodoos are cool?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. But the reason I doubt they’re ambrosia for the soul is because I don’t believe in a soul.”

“If there’s no soul, then what are we? Is a person just the electrons jumping across our brains’ neural synapses? Is being alive simply the evolutionary drive to go forth and multiple DNA?”

“I don’t see evidence for anything else. Believing in a soul is like believing in the Tooth Fairy.”

“That can’t be right. I can’t prove the soul exists through mathematical proof or empirical experiment, but there are too many stories, coincidences, and déjà vus to dismiss the non-material world out of hand. If we are simply the sum total of neurons firing how do you account for goosebumps when you hear a beautiful song?”

“I don’t get goosebumps.”

“You’ve never read a passage in a book or saw a movie that made you feel something in your body? I've read To Kill a Mockingbird with my English classes over 20 times, and I still get choked up when Scout figures out that Boo saved her life.”

“Sure, I get feelings, but why say it’s the soul?”

“What else can it be?”

“I don’t know. I’m only 13 years old.”

We left it at that.

At the overlook stood a couple in their late-50s. He wore a long, gray ponytail to counterbalance a heavily-tattooed body. Crosses and the visage of Jesus shared his living canvas with his mother and granddaughter. He introduced himself as a prison minister. He had been a motorcycle mechanic and drug addict until one morning he arose and heard Jesus call him to minister to prisoners. He customized his Harley by welding on bullets, hand cuffs, and night sticks. For the next 17 years, he and his wife visited prisons spreading the good word. This is religion at its best, when it can save a person and motivate him to bring peace and a feeling of self-worth to others. Soul or no soul, this man was doing holy work.

“What you’re doing, riding across the country on bicycles, is noble. I’d like to pray with you if you don’t mind.”

We held hands in a circle and he offered a prayer, ending with, "Please, Lord, may they cycle no faster than angels fly." Nothing to worry about there unless the angel needed ibuprofen to deal with a pair of arthritic wings.

Back on the road, I asked the resident atheist what he thought of participating in a religious event. I expected cynicism mixed with scorn.

“Actually, it wasn’t bad. Maybe we should get more religions to pray for us.”

“What?” I exclaimed.

“It can’t hurt to cover all bases.”

Either his spirit was growing, or the hot wind short-circuited his cerebral wiring, or my little boy was a whole lot more complicated than I ever imagined.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Chapter 21 – The Toughest Day Yet, I'm Not Kidding

At the end of every day, I'd say something like, "This was the toughest day yet." The boys knew that after the Baker-Milford fiasco of flats, I was just saying it to say it. But the ride from Escalante to Torrey was the toughest. How tough? It started in the cool dawn air of 5:30 a.m. and ended in the cool twilight of 8:50 p.m. In-between the cameo appearances of cool weather was a whole lot of hot. There was a climb of over 5,000 vertical feet and another grade where gravity needed defying.

It was Yonah's first day as mapman. Though initially against it, he came to relish the job for it bestowed him with power and made him de facto leader. He was good, keeping us informed much better than I had. The day began with a steep downhill to the Escalante River. The river valley is a breathtaking piece of natural art made of enormous, smooth, naked rocks. But with constant braking around tight curves, only Solomon could enjoy the scenery. As we dropped closer to the river, the light grey rocks turned terra-cotta red covered with lush green flora.

An overlook stood a few hundred feet above the river. We brought out the petition and every overlooker signed. Even, "only three of the top twenty scientists in the world are convinced about global warming," took up the pen. I asked where he found his "fact." He couldn’t say, but I’m sure it was somewhere on the Rush-side of the Internet.

After crossing the river, there was a 14% pitch which Yonah climbed with nary a bead of sweat. Solomon, too, looked pretty fresh at the top. Djina and me?

“Honey, which pannier has the oxygen?”

“Front left. While you’re down there, could you grab me a couple Vicodins?”

After downing our Gatorade (our blood-Gatorade ratio was approaching 50-50), Yonah informed us that the dreaded Hogback was just around the bend. Yonah first noticed this particularly nasty bit of pavement while poring over the maps a half-year earlier. On every hard climb he’d remind us, "This was tough, but it's no Hogback." The following description is lifted directly from the Adventure Cycling map. "The highlight (or terror) on this section is The Hogback. It is a 3-mile stretch of narrow two-lane road along a ridge spine with no shoulders or guardrails and has drops on both sides."

And then we were on it. Yes, it was narrow. Yes, if you ran off the road you would slide significantly farther than Ricky Henderson stealing a base before a tree trunk or large boulder would arrest your fall. But the wide-open vistas from Hogback were exquisite, and the road itself was actually flat, and the wind light. I think I speak for the entire nation of bicyclists when I say we would gladly ride a road flanked by rivers of 15-molar hydrochloric acid as long as it was flat and no headwinds.

Into Boulder, not Boulder, Colorado that beautiful college town home of good eats and microbrews galore, but Boulder, Utah (population 180). Not for the first time did a town's size belie its character. The Hills and Hollows Market was more than Gatorade, Doritos, cheap beer, and racks of breakfast pastries with "January 07, 2018" expiration dates. There were homemade breads, granola, and real chocolate chip cookies. The store sold Persian carpets, locally found seashell fossils, and gasoline. In addition, the proprietor ran a small lodge. Other examples of multi-tasking stores in rural America include: Gas, Tanning Salon, Groceries, Watch Repair; Gas, Dentist, Tarot Card Reading; and Cafe, Gas, Deer Skinning and Packing.

We bought a feast and took it outside under the shade structure to escape the sun. We chugged quarts of Berry Rain Gatorade, and thirty seconds later returned to the store to purchase Tangerine Rain quarts. Only I needed thirds.

Boulder was at 6,800 feet. The 9,600-foot summit was ten miles away. In other words, it was steep. Thankfully, there was a tailwind. If not, the 3.6 mph average up the mountain would have suffered. No steep climb was ever complete without a couple of chain-wedgies on The Beast. All in all, the climb built character.

One highlight was being passed by a car club of Things. Volkswagen built their Edsel in the early 1970s. Following on the wheels of their perennial success, the Beetle, they launched this vehicle that was so indescribable, they called it the Thing. Think proto-sports utility vehicle with a lawn mower-sized engine, surrounded by metal the thickness of a coffee can. That's the Thing. Probably the last twenty that escaped the scrap yard passed us. We heard them first. They sounded like small planes with asthma as they crept up on us. Truth is, they weren't going significantly faster than us, and that was only because they had sag vehicles hauling their gear.

Near the top was an overlook with a stunning vista of a valley filled with huge red rock obelisks and a snaking river. In the foreground, wildflowers swayed in a large meadow. Trees sang in the wind. The world was alive. The entirety of Creation was dancing, and we were fortunate enough to be invited. Taking in the vista, it was easy to understand why the Transcendentalists saw the natural world as the real church/temple/synagogue/mosque. The Hassidic rabbi Shneur Zalman said, "All that we see, the heavens, the earth, and all that fills it, all these things are the outer garments of God."

I thought of Anne Frank, whose only access to the natural world while hiding from the Nazis was an attic window, and recalled the young girl’s words,

"The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely, or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature, and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow...And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles."

I paraphrased Anne Frank and asked Yonah “What do you think?” knowing he’d come around, for how could he argue with the noble thoughts of this articulate fourteen-year-old girl?

“It’s the grass is greener. She was inside a house for over a year. Of course she’s going to think nature is great. I’m in nature all day, every day. It doesn’t give me comfort. We should get going. It’s still almost 1,000 feet to the top.”

I wanted to argue, but he was right, not about nature or God, but about having a lot more to climb. I reluctantly listened to the new jefe and climbed back on The Beast, who also wanted to take in nature as evidenced by its moribund acceleration. We came upon a forest of quaking aspen and participated in the running of the cows. A herd of free-range cattle grazed along the road. Wanting to initiate cross-species communication, we mooed. They raised their heads at our poor accents, and as soon as we passed the first cow, they ran alongside us with reckless abandon until we reached the day’s last serious climb. One look and I knew we were cooked.

(Dear reader, I know you are thinking that I say this all the time and somehow we’ll summon our strength to get the job done, like always. Perhaps you think I exaggerate in order to build tension. [Perhaps you’re right.] But this time it was real. It was the end of our most difficult day, I had serious lactic acid build-up, and the grade was scary steep.)

Desperation is the mother of invention. While we couldn’t get The Beast to the top with both of us on, maybe if…

"Solomon, do you want to get off the bike and race me to the top?"


He couldn't jump off fast enough. He beat me convincingly, and we didn't have to push The Beast. Victories for all.

It was early evening and still no Torrey, our destination. Yonah was on top of the map, but the map was mistaken. First, Torrey was farther than advertised; and second, the eleven miles from the summit was supposed to be all downhill, but it wasn’t. I had used up all my strength on the summit climb thinking we’d coast the final segment. Each subsequent uphill was a personal affront. The veneer of good, responsible dad peeled off revealing a cranky kid in the back seat of his parents' car.

"When are we going to get there?" I barked at Yonah. Since he had the map, it was his fault. Instead of taking the easy parental action of turning to his son in the backseat and yelling, “Quit yelling or I’m pulling over!” Yonah talked me down. "It's just a little farther. We can do it."

Give a kid a little responsibility, and he grows up on you.

We pulled into Torrey's campground at 8:50 pm, over fifteen hours after shoving off in Escalante. Pulling the panniers off The Beast, my arms couldn't bear the weight, so bags tumbled to the ground.

Every few years, I undertake a particular piece of extreme bicycle masochism. The Davis Double is a one-day, 200-mile ride. It takes 12-15 hours to complete, and for the next few days, I lie around the house mainlining ibuprofen while tending sore knees and complaining muscles. The Davis Double has absolutely nothing on Escalante to Torrey except being easier having multiple rest stops stocked with food and much, much cooler weather.

To replenish calories we went to Family Dining. Like Good Eats and Mom's, one doesn't enter this brand of restaurant with high gastronomical hopes. Our expectations were met. That night, Djina made a rule to never enter another restaurant of this ilk or of any place that misspells a word on purpose such as Kountry Kitchen. But she was just sore because of the flying cockroach that attacked her as we stepped out of the restaurant into the night air.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Cover Article American Bicylist Magazine

Esteemed Readers,

No chapter today. Instead here is the link to American Bicyclist magazine. Last month I wrote the cover story and now it is available online at:


Granted, this article is much more tame than the usual chapter, but at least the pictures are good.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Chapter 20 - Words Are Not Necessary

Ken doled out one more gift before heading home. He hauled our gear to Panguitch, so we could do the 5,000-foot climb out of Cedar City unencumbered. The climb had the same orange rock of Bryce Canyon. We looked down on long vistas of forests. The Nevada deserts were a memory of the past. It was no longer the Battan Death Ride. Today we were the Von Trapps out for a mountain picnic.

Solomon and I sang up the mountain and came upon a 10% grade.

“Ready to kick it in?”


We attacked the climb with relish and pushed the pedals hard.

“We own this sucker!” I yelled.

“Yeah!” Solomon agreed.

The Beast begged to differ.

There was a sharp snap sound accompanied by a spin of the pedals as if there were no load on them. The snap and the spin led to a sudden stop. I looked down. The chain was gone. Where could it be?

“Dad, it’s behind us.”

Forty-two years of riding bicycles and my first chain break.


Luckily we had the chain-tool I foresightfully purchased but hardly knew how to use. Turning to Djina, I proclaimed, "Don't worry. I can fix it."

A pin holding two chain links together failed, destroying the links. The two bad links needed to be removed and replaced with a special repair link. The operation was straightforward but tricky. The trick was to remove enough of a pin, so a bad link could slide out. Remove too much pin, and it falls out. Once the pin is out, it is impossible to insert it back into its hole. The solution then is stick out your thumb. Remove too little pin, and the link can't slide out. I managed to slip out the bad links, but the repair link demanded fine motor skill and patience, two qualities I am not genetically wired for. After I dropped a critical piece in the high grass, Djina volunteered to take over as relief mechanic. I don’t have any hang-ups about gender roles and insisting on doing the man’s job, so after dropping that critical piece in the tall grass twice more, I offered, “Want to try?” She snapped the links together like a pair of Lego pieces, and The Beast was again whole. Djina didn’t say, “Hah!” and lord her successful operation over me. She didn’t have to, for at that moment I knew who wore the mechanic overalls in the family.

* * *

In rural America, art is created by what’s at hand. Hence, the dollar bill wallpaper and the shoe tree. But what about the rancher? What is his art? He hunts, and after eating the venison and tanning the leather, he’s got antlers. What if you’re not Georgia O’Keefe? What if you don’t know how to scrimshaw?

Ranchers make art by nailing antlers to gates, fences, and the sides of houses reserving a central spot for an elk rack whose span is wider than a condor's wings. Until this one installation, none of us were particularly impressed with antler art. But this was different. A good quarter-mile from a lone ranch on a steep climb were sets of antlers spaced a couple of feet apart all the way to the gate. In terms of numbers, the average deer antler is about three feet wide. Fill 400 yards of fence with one set of antlers every five feet and you come up with—well—a lot. But the jaw dropping was reserved for the gate made of two posts planted in the ground twenty feet apart rising twenty feet in the air. A crossbar connected them at the top. Now imagine a colony of army ants attacking a lone hotdog. That's how tightly packed the antlers were on the gate. It seemed as if every deer and elk antler in the entire country came to rest in peace here. It was art of abundance.

If The Beast were to give up the ghost right then, I’d request the rancher allow me to nail it along his fence.

* * *

Two cyclists coming the other way stopped to say hi. Like most people, they looked at the boys with gaping mouths. At the mention of being a kind of Bar Mitzvah, the two volunteered that they were Mormons. I have nothing against Mormons. As I mentioned earlier, I respect their toughness and work ethic. Some of my best students are Mormons. But Mormon theology seems a bit silly with the gold hieroglyphics written in "reformed Egyptian." In addition are the white-shirted, tie-wearing, young missionaries combining a toxic mix of naiveté and sanctimony. Add it together, and you see why I’ve never taken Mormonism too seriously.

(“That’s what passion gets you,” Yonah’s thoughts burst into my mind.)

But these two cyclists were not wearing their religion on their name tags. They were interesting and intelligent. They had graduate degrees. They understood the importance of combating global climate change. Again I was forced to rethink my prejudices. The beauty of traveling is that during our "regular" lives, we stereotype in order to get through our busy days when we don't have time to meet people as they really are. But here the only items on the “To Do” list were riding bikes and meeting people. You automatically become friendlier to everyone, and—lo and behold—you discover you have more in common with other members of your species than you originally thought. You discover how once you become friendlier, everyone mirrors the friendliness back. You vow to hold onto to this new way of being upon returning home.

Unfortunately, no matter how hard you vow, prejudices are impossible to extinguish. When the cynicism returns, it's time to hit the road again.

Following the 5,000-foot climb, I let go of The Beast’s reins, and plummeted down the mountain. If Solomon and I went any faster, time would have stopped.

The town of Panguitch was nestled in a picturesque green valley. Adding to the color were two festivals: the gathering of the hot air balloons and the Harley-Davidson rally. Ken guided us to the KOA campground. While we set up tents, Ken scoured the town and, given the hard-partying balloonists, was lucky to find a six-pack. Ha-ha. The balloonists were strictly a two glasses of zinfandel crowd since they needed to rise before dawn and fire up their balloons for the "Mass Ascension at Dawn."

Ken scored a six-pack of "Polygamy Beer." Its slogan: Why Have Just One? It's Utah, remember? Alas, after our beers, Ken had to ascend on a plane to California and invent a better almond harvester. So we were left at the campground, surrounded by fifty of the Harley crowd. At about midnight, they yelled at us to stop partying so they could get some sleep.

* * *

Though I'm a vegetarian, I have a genetically-induced belief that I should teach my sons manly skills such as hunting and fishing. If I were a real father, I'd teach them basic construction or plumbing, so they could at least build a picnic table or replace a broken toilet. In the old days, fathers taught their sons trades. Of course, the technology is infinitely more complex now, and you need a $50,000 gizmo just to tune a car. Nevertheless, there aren’t many useful skills I've taught my boys.

Yonah's front tire was flat, his first of the trip. Back in Davis, I taught him how to fix flats. Now was the time to demonstrate his expertise. Though he knew what to do, he was tentative with his hands. You can’t massage a tire from its rim, you need to yank it off. It's the difference between tapping the bathroom door to see if it’s occupied versus trying to knock it down when your four-year-old is in the bathtub behind a locked door. Yonah is a tapper. Eventually, after realizing that his father wasn't going to help, he got it. I can’t say if competency in tire changing lifted his self-esteem, but if his life depended on his fixing a flat, he would live.

It was a relatively tough day. Mostly desert, heat, wind, and elevation gain. Late in the afternoon was an ascent. Our destination, Escalante, stood on the other side.

"The summit!" If there are sweeter words after mashing your knees all day, I know them not. And there is no sharper knife to the heart than, "Sorry, one more," when the false summit is reached and another, steeper one, looms ahead.

Following this false summit, stood a short, but extraordinarily steep mountain with a fire road at the top. While I scanned the mountain to find the regular road that would take us over the mountain's saddle, a car appeared on the fire road. First I thought, what the heck's a car doing on a fire road? Then the ol’ heart skipped a beat when it realized the truth—that was no fire road. It was ours.

"No checkmarking way," tumbled out of my suddenly bone dry mouth. A goat would need ropes to scale this grade.

"Can we do it?" Solomon asked.

For our children we attempt the impossible.

"Yeah, we can do it. Slow and steady. Deep breaths. We can make it." The cyclometer dipped below 3 miles per hour and continued falling. At 2.3 miles per hour the thigh muscles unnaturally burn. And so it went, foot after excruciating foot we climbed. 2.2 mph and you can see which individual spokes are not perfectly straight. If we breathed any deeper our lungs would have burst out our toes, but we were not going to walk our bikes. 2.1 mph and your feet are ready to pull out of the cleats, so you can catch yourself when you don't have enough forward momentum to keep the bike upright.

“Don’t give up. We can do it.”


It didn’t seem possible that our legs could keep moving. We weren’t inching up the grade, we were centimetering up it. I wasn’t sure if my heart or knees would be the first to blow.

And with a final grunt/grimace/pull/push we were on top. Did Hillary feel prouder when he summitted Everest? Of course. But we felt pretty darn good as we caught our breaths and took in the Powell Promontory. As we stood gazing, a motorcyclist pulled up.

"Which direction did you come from?" he asked.

"Same as you."

"No way." Incredulous can't describe the look he gave us. It verged on horror.

"Yep," piped up Solomon. Yonah, too tired to say anything but grin, was proud. This was tougher than anything thrown at him yet. And he did it. Words were not necessary; his accomplishment said it all. That is pride.

From the summit was an easy descent to the Escalante Reservoir campground. We arrived at 4:45. There was an excellent camping spot near the showers. However, a sign reserved the spot for handicapped patrons until 5:00 p.m. At 5:00 it was fair game. It was obvious that no one would claim it in the next fifteen minutes, so we set up camp. Solomon didn’t talk to me because his outlaw father once again was breaking the law. At 5:00 he forgave me because both then we were swimming in the reservoir, and it is impossible to be mad when you’re splashing in the water. If there is a heaven, you can take your halos, harps, and wings and give me a jump into a lake on a hot day after a long ride. I could do that forever.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Chapter 19 – A Hot Fudge Sundae for the Eyes

I woke early to check the tire hoping to find air. Sort of like hoping one day the Chicago Cubs will win the Series. Possible, but we all know it ain’t gonna happen. The tire was—no drum roll necessary—flat. The only hardware store was tubeless. I trudged to the train station to see about catching a train to Cedar City.

“Only freight trains here," the station manager said.

Any buses?"

He looked at me as if I asked whether their ionic transporter was operational.

"Car rental?"

"There’s one in Cedar City. Your best bet is to go to the edge of town and hitch."

Solomon would walk the 55 miles first. The last option was to inspect the tubes in the sober light of morning to see if there was a common failure point. And there was, all the seals on the no-glue patches leaked. Maybe it was too hot. Maybe they were too old. Maybe I did a crappy job putting them on. So with slightly more attention to detail than a newly-minted neurosurgeon employs, I repaired the two best looking tubes with old-school glue patches and—voila—they held air. (There must be a lesson about life here, but it eludes me. If you discover it, feel free to send an email.)

Though Cedar City was a mere 500-foot elevation gain from Milford, we averaged eight miles per hour, for as our path pivoted south we took the headwinds straight on. These southern winds weren’t content to keep us in Milford, they wanted to blow us past Polaris. Let me make this perfectly clear. If there is a choice between mountains and wind, mountains win. Mountains offer the satisfaction of accomplishment and then the downhill reward. Wheeee! Wind, on the other hand, offers more wind. It is relentless. It dries you out. It enters your ears, nose, mouth, and pores. It is as if some uninvited, rude visitor climbs into your skin and vigorously rubs. When you see a mountain, you calculate what you need to do, steel yourself, and get the job done. You are in control. It is a finite problem. It can be conquered. Wind, on the other hand, cannot be conquered. It has no form and you are powerless. Your only option is to pray for its demise. The mountain mantra is, "Almost there, almost there," until you're there. For wind it’s, "How long can this bastard blow?" If you’re lucky, the wind shifts. The cyclometer jumps from 7 mph to 28 mph. You can hear yourself think. But don’t get cocky. If Aeolus senses hubris, he will return with a vengeance, and you will weep.

The wind made me crabby until it blew the obvious thought into my head. If Nevada was the Saudi Arabia of solar energy, then Utah was the Iraq of wind energy. And Utah is a gentle breeze compared to the Dakotas. If our country’s leadership had foresight, we'd be putting serious resources into capturing wind. If wind can hold a 300-pound load rolling down a seven percent grade to ten mph, it can power more than a few refrigerators and laptops. China is investing big in wind and putting up humongous wind farms in the United States. Why should we cede wind energy leadership (and profit) to them?

Another idea to tell our elected officials in DC.

At Cedar City we were 13 days and 800 miles into the trip. 800 miles is a significant ride, it is a great accomplishment. It is a roundtrip from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It is 2 roundtrips between New York and Washington DC. It is a distance greater than the width of France or the length of Italy.

It was one-fifth of our route.

Between the heat, the wind, and The Beast, we were beat. We needed a break, a shot of TLC. Lewis and Clark had Sacagawea to guide them through their tough times. The Union Army had Clara Barton nurse their wounds. We had Ken Giles. After abandoning us in Fallon, he missed the adventure. He flew into Las Vegas, rented a mini-van, drove to Cedar City, jumped on his bike, and met us about twenty miles north of Cedar City. Had I ever been happier to see someone? Outside of watching my children's births, and outside of going to that party and realizing that my friend Djina was actually a babe, the answer was no. Seeing the tiny fluorescent dot on the road grow bigger and bigger and turn into Ken was a moment of monumental joy.

With his 25 mph tailwind, he rocketed up the road like a dragster, grinning like George W. Bush after the Supreme Court awarded him the presidency. Ken's new pancreas jokes, sumptuous delicacies, and news from Davis were palliative to the weary family rolling into Cedar City.

Someone once wrote that one's true religion is not Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Wicca, Judaism, or even Atheism. Rather, it is what one focuses the majority of his thoughts, actions, and energy on. If this is the case, our true religious beliefs were defined by what the four of us chose to do upon arrival at the Best Western Cedar City. Solomon was a Cartoontarian, a devotee of Sponge Bob Square Pants and an equally inane show, Camp Lazlo. Yonah, while he denied any religious affiliation, was an adherent of Buffetism. He checked out the room where breakfast would be delivered in a short twelve hours. He praised the waffle iron and blessed the yogurt-filled glass refrigerator. Djina was a religious double-dipper. On one hand, she was an Epicurean. She went straight to the five brands of stinky cheese that Ken somehow smuggled by airport security. After gorging, it was a hajj to the hotel computer where she practiced Blogism. As for me, I was a disciple of Dionysus. After parking The Beast, the trauma of the windy ride melted into a single ontological question: beer or wine? Why choose, spoketh my inner soul, and hence my chalice did overfloweth with both.

After our respective reveries, we found a Mexican restaurant and consumed an amount of calories equal to the three nearest tables combined. Mis hijos los hablan con la waitress en Espanol. She was so moved by these two cute gringos that she brought them a special dessert consisting of tortilla chips, sugar, and chocolate syrup. To an epicurean, it might not sound gourmet, but between bites Djina pronounced it holy.

* * *

We took two rest days. The first morning was dedicated to The Beast. At the bike shop, I jettisoned the patched tubes for new ones. It also needed a new rear tire. The bike shop owner had difficulty finding a tire because The Beast’s wheels were—of course—out-dated. By the mid-1990s, bike wheels went metric, 27-inch wheels became 700 mm, and tire manufacturers recalibrated their products.

“There might be something in the basement. C’mon, we’ll take a look.”

We descended the stairs into a cavern so scattered with junk, it wouldn't have been surprising to find Jimmy Hoffa in cement shoes.

"Oh, that thing? I picked it up at a garage sale in Flint."

His only 27-inch tire was an ancient Schwinn designed for short urban commuting. Its heavy weight was balanced out by its proneness for blow-outs. Nevertheless, it was better than what I had. I sat in his shop and switched tires.

The entire time in the store, the radio was blaring the voice of Middle-America: Rush Limbaugh. I'd listened to Rush before and found him quite entertaining. Entertaining in the same sense of watching eight-year-olds play Little League baseball. The kids in their immaculate uniforms are serious. The coaches with their clipboards and shouts of strategies are serious. The 20 walks and 18 errors render the game ridiculous. And so too with Rush. He tries to come across as a serious, well-informed, political commentator, but his obvious half-truths and outright fabrications are so ridiculous, one can only grin. The question I grabbled with as I switched out tires was: Should I bring out the petition? On the "of course" side, he owned a bike shop and was a super nice guy. On the "are you kidding" side, he was a Dittohead, an acolyte of Rush Limbaugh, a man who claimed that global warming was a conspiracy cooked up by Al Gore and his ilk because they hated America.

"Uh, do you want to look at a—uh—petition we're bringing across America on global climate change?"

"I'll take a look."

For a full minute he studied the document.

I was nervous he'd find a misplaced comma or some grammatical faux pas. (I may teach high school English, but "who" or "whom" isn't any easier for me.) I worried that he'd shout, "Ha! A split infinitive! I'd never sign such drivel! Get Rush on the phone! I got me an ignorant liberal elite here!" But he finished reading, picked up a pen, and said, "We need to do something about this."

I floated out of the shop on a new tire and the realization that if a guy who religiously listens to Rush thinks we've got to do something about global warming, maybe, just maybe, we've got a chance.

* * *

Imagine a giant the size of the Empire State Building built a canyon-sized sand castle. Now imagine a windy rain came and knocked three-quarters of it down. The giant then glazed the remaining walls and towers with paint made from the orange of wispy clouds at sunrise. That's Bryce Canyon. Still can't picture it? Get a Sierra Club calendar.

All of us but Yonah hiked the canyon. Normally we would have dragged him along, but a rite of passage has to involve freedom of choice. Without freedom, he'd remain a kid. Though I wasn't ambivalent about giving him the freedom to stay behind, I was sad. Hiking the canyon was a hot fudge sundae for the eyes and freshly baked bread for the soul. One of the tougher elements of parenting is when you let go and watch your child make what you believe is a mistake and not rag on him. Yonah, however, was anything but sad. He read a book while the rest of us hiked. After the hike, I told Yonah about all the cool sights in order to show him what he missed, so next time he’d want to come along. I’ve used this ploy plenty of times before. One day it’s bound to work.

Later we stopped at an ice cream shop. Solomon ordered a hot fudge sundae. His eyes sparkled with delight as the huge bowl was set down before him. By the time he knocked the spoon against the empty glass, the sparkle was a dull glaze.

Clearly you can eat too much of a good thing. Does the same go with nature? Can you take in too much beauty? Does it ever become dull? For me, the answer is an emphatic no. I’d like to imagine that this is a universal truth. That’s why I didn’t say anything to my older son.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Chapter 18 – Dad is a Jerk

Seven miles from the day’s destination, Baker, The Beast had the squishy feel of riding on a flat. Because of Murphy and his accursed law, it was the rear tire. Though fixing it was down from 65 to 55 minutes, there was a larger issue between The Beast and me. The trust we had built over the half-year relationship was teetering. While an occasional chain wedgie was an inconvenience, a bad tire or tube was dangerous. The next bike shop was 140 desert miles away. The perceptive Djina knew better than to point out the advantages of a new tandem.

Baker consisted of a dozen dilapidated wooden houses set in the middle of the Great Basin. Electricity didn’t appear to be a town feature. Its residents probably had never beheld an ice cube. Most definitely there would be no Gatorade. From the outside, the Silver Jack Inn/Electrolux Cafe looked like a reject from Warner Brothers’ Wild West "B-movie" backlot.

“You call this a saloon! Where’s the swinging front doors? A saloon’s got to have swinging front doors, and one’s got to be crooked! Get it outta here!”

Yet not for the first time, the veneer blinded the eyes, for in we walked and were greeted not by tobacco’s vaporized carcinogens, currency stapled to the wall, or life-size pictures of Dale Earnhard Jr. about to drink and drive. Rather there were poster-sized, museum-quality photographs of wildflowers, New England foliage, and elephant seals. Just as Moses lost his way to the land of Canaan, these photographs lost their way to a SOHO art gallery. An Electrolux vacuum cleaner hanged from the ceiling as either a chandelier or a warning against excessive cleanliness. There was a refrigerated glass case that held not only Gatorade and Budweiser, but tarts, chocolate truffles, and—what’s this?—Sierra Nevada Pale Ale!

We ordered Thai stir fry with peanut sauce, whole grain bread, and chocolate brownies, each as large as an elephant seal proboscis. The café’s four tables were occupied, so we shared the large one with a clutch of local artists who had left the big city to pursue their art and eccentricities in the rarified air of Nevada's high desert. There was the 85-year-old UC Berkeley grad who told us of the house she had been building since 1968.

“I’m still undecided about a tile roof or shingles.”

There was the weaver who used horsetail hair for her yarn and lived in a hole in the ground.

“I’m sorry, I thought you said, ‘hole’?”

“It’s got everything I need, except I have to haul water every other day.”

There was a man with them, but after someone claims to live in a hole, there was nothing he could say short of admitting to be the Zodiac killer that would have been memorable. I wanted to talk to the owner of the cafe/hotel because besides creating gourmet plates, he was the photographer. He was too busy to chat because he also washed the dishes and ran the five-room hotel. Therefore, here is the fictional biography of Terry Marasco. Terry began his career as dishwasher at Berkeley’s world-renowned Chez Panisse and worked himself up to chief pastry chef before being discovered by Ansel Adams who bequeathed him his large format camera on his death bed. Writing recipes for Saveur and going out on assignment for National Geographic proved tiresome for this eccentric genius. “I vant to be alone!” he screeched at his agent before packing up his knives and camera to find the middle of nowhere. He found it and settled in Baker. The rest is history.

“Here’s a guy with passion!” I exclaimed to Yonah. “What do you think?”

Yonah did not respond because, like Terry, he too was occupied, working on his second brownie. After the gourmet feed, we checked into the hotel, our stomachs and souls satisfied but blissfully ignorant of one of the universe’s primary laws: life is a zero sum game; therefore, a magnificent evening, like a tan, needed to be evened out.

* * *

83 desert miles from Baker to Milford with no services? Cake. Eureka to Ely was 84, and our tummies were filled with whole grains not greasy chow mein. Again we lit out before the dawn, rode into a light side/headwind, bid goodbye to Nevada, and waved hello to Utah. A river otter frolicked in a small lake. Prairie dogs poked their heads from their holes to yell encouragements, and pairs of ravens rode the thermals towards the heavens. A grand day to be alive. But as soon as the sun was three fingers above the horizon, the sun went from simmer to boil and the winds from angelic to satanic. The great day to be alive morphed into survival day; our pace was the bicycling equivalent to backpacking up a sand mountain with 75-pound packs. There was a bad omen: a dead cow which was soon followed by a second bad omen, a second dead cow. Neither were roadkill. These bovines died of thirst. Though we started with an extra four gallons, by the second cow it was clear we would not have enough water, not nearly enough.

On a bike, you never know how hot the ambient temperature is until you stop because the wind/sweat air conditioning masks the heat. At mile 40 we got off our bikes and discovered true heat. Up until this moment, the trip’s heat had been a bother, an inconvenience, a running joke. Today the fires from hell leapt forth from fissures in the earth. The Sahara and the Gobi were comparative Gardens of Eden. The wind turned the heat into a convection oven. An egg tossed into the air would come down hardboiled.

There is an apocryphal story that when the Ottomans ruled the Middle East, a man committing murder during a hamsin wind would not receive full punishment due to a temporary insanity caused by the heated wind. I understood why, for this unrelenting wind gave me violent thoughts. I cursed it to stop. It paid no heed and blasted more heat.

We were down to a quart of water from the initial four gallons. And we still had two significant passes to climb. And Milford was still 43 miles away. Terry, the restaurateur of The Electrolux Café, was mistaken. He had not reached the middle of nowhere. We had. And for the first time on our journey, we were encountering real danger.

You might be wondering why we got off our bikes in the first place. It wasn’t to drink since we had precious little water. It wasn't to rest or to lunch. It wasn’t to even out tans. There was a flat tire. Between the three bikes and one trailer there were eight tires. Seven of the tires take no more than five minutes to change. What are the odds that the flat would be on the eighth? 12.5%. Yep. The rear of The Beast.

I was despondent. Not from the heat, the wind, or the water situation, any of which had the potential to put us in serious jeopardy. It was that The Beast decided it had enough of this misadventure. It was calling it quits. Including training rides, The Beast put on over 2,000 miles without a flat. Now it wouldn’t go fifty miles without getting one.

The air leaking from the tire hissed, “You should have bought a new one.”

The boys, oblivious to the peril, occupied themselves as best they could. They made up intricate stories called "mind games" that involved a lingo that could be matched in its specialization only by a physicist giving a string theory lecture to a group of grad students.

I multi-tasked. While fixing the flat, I scanned the road for a car to shake down for water. It wasn't promising, for we were no longer on Highway 50, the Loneliest Road in America. We were on one of its smaller tributaries. We were alone. Finally, coming down a pass five miles away, a vehicle appeared. I waved my blackened hands and stood in the road. It stopped and the elderly couple’s expression was no different had Baby Face Nelson demanded all their money. They quickly handed over two pints of water and did not stick around to schmooze. I meant to save the water for the boys. I didn't mean to drink three-quarters of a bottle. I only took a sip. I swear.

When replacing a tube, you must run your fingers inside the tire to feel for any protruding glass or thorn ready to puncture the replacement. Everything seemed in good order, so in went a previously patched tube. The operation was down to 45 minutes.

The next summit, Wah-Wah, was aptly named. Near the top, a Subaru station wagon pulled over. A family of four climbed out, opened the back, pulled out a cooler, and handed each of us a pint of chilled water. A carafe of Rothschild 1965 Cabernet Sauvignon would not be smoother on the palate. Here was the one command every religious tradition is clear about: kindness to strangers. Most drivers passed us with a one-word thought bubble: morons. But this family’s small act of kindness, a five-minute delay in their four-day drive, saved us. A Jewish teaching claims that by saving a single person, one saves the world. Why? Because a single act of kindness holds the possibility of transforming the world in the same manner that the dislodging of a single pebble might lead to a rock slide. The fact that these Good Samaritans stopped when we needed help showed the goodness of religion. I said as much to Yonah.

He replied, "Atheists can be nice too."

“Sure, but if a person is in a religion that preaches kindness to strangers, then isn’t it more likely that a person in the religion will be more kind than an atheist who has no such teaching?”

“Every year on the first day of school, my teachers make class contracts. Being nice to each other is always at the top.”

“Don’t you think they get the idea from the Bible?”

“Where did the Bible get it from? It must have been from people because the Bible was written by man.”

“Inspired man.”

“Inspired by what?”

“The soul or the thing we call God.”

“It could be an evolutionary thing. Societies where people act nice to each other are selected over societies that kill each other.”

“I bet that family was churchgoers.”

“Or bicyclists,” Djina chimed in.

“Or bicyclists,” I admitted glaring at my wife as she unwittingly subterfuged my attempt to get Yonah to see the beauty in religion.

East of the summit was another desolate valley floor. Twenty miles across stood Frisco Summit. Our destination, Milford, lay on the other side. More water was necessary. We flagged down a large pickup with the license plate ILUVBEEF.

"Wish I could help, but all I got is a half-gallon of water we've been swigging from."

"We'll take it!"

"Uh, I got a quarter bottle of warm Gatorade?"


"How 'bout I sling your bikes in the back, and we just take you to Milford?"

Pause. Begging drink is one thing but begging a ride?

"Thanks. We're going to try and make it on our own."

"Well, okay. Good luck. It's mighty hot today."

Approaching Frisco Summit, the day was no longer a child, nor even middle-aged. But it was nearly the summer solstice, so though it was 6:00 p.m., we felt confident making Milford.

"Dad," Solomon tentatively called as we started the climb. This nine-year-old was smart enough to know what would set his dad off, and like a good social worker wanted to break bad news gradually. "I think we might have another flat."

“No way!” But sure enough there was the squish. Wise Solomon did not issue checkmarks for words that would have made Beelzebub's ears burn. These flats didn't make sense. In five years I had commuted over 20,000 miles to work with fewer than ten flat tires. Here we were with two flats in three hours. I looked the wheel and tire over. Everything seemed fine. It was like the coroner who examines the body and pronounces, "Nothing wrong except for the fact that he's dead."

I would have cried, but the wind and sun would have dried the tears, and I had no water to lose. Plus, I had to pretend everything was all right for the kids. There was nothing to do except put in another patched tube, but The Beast smirked that it wouldn't last. We shook down one more truck and scored a full gallon of water. Close to the top of Frisco Summit, the sun was beginning to descend, and The Beast called it quits with its third flat. The ride was over for Solomon and me. There wasn't enough daylight to fix it. Yonah and Djina continued to Milford while I stuck out a thumb. A large pick-up with four migrant workers wedged into the front seat stopped. We loaded the bikes and panniers into the bed and settled between the bikes. I thought Solomon would be excited about riding in the back of a pick-up, speeding along with the wind in our faces like a pair of desperados watching the setting sun paint orange and red streaks across the sky. But he was sullen and angry. We were breaking the law.

"Solomon, we didn't have a choice.”

"You have to wear seat belts.”

"Not if you ride in the back of a truck."

"You have to wear seat belts. It's the law."

"This is Nevada. It’s not like California. They don't have seat belt laws."

"We're in Utah, Dad."

"Utah has a law against wearing seatbelts."

"Yeah, right, Dad. You're such a jerk."

And so it went to Milford. While waiting for Djina and Yonah at the city’s main intersection, his anger did not abate. Perhaps he has forgiven me, but I suspect that at an auspicious family gathering—say a 50th wedding anniversary—he'll raise a glass, "I'd like to toast my mother for putting up so long with my father, a law-breaking jerk."

I put a repaired patch on one of the tubes and remembered the adage about the definition of madness being when a person faced with repeated failure keeps repeating the same actions which brought said failure. That also defines stupidity and lack of imagination. Thinking the patch might hold, the adage clearly covered me.

Dusk came and went and still no Djina and Yonah. At 9:00, two bicycle lights appeared. We checked into a hotel and ate in the attached diner. I spoke about something that had been on my mind. I wanted Yonah to take more of a leadership role. After all, this was his trip.

"Like what," he asked, not happy with the conversation’s direction.

"You know, like being the leader for the day. Tell us when to get up, organize breakfast and the loading of the bikes. Kind of like what Mom and I do every day."

"Do I have to?"

"It would be part of your rite of passage. You know, build self-confidence and leadership."

"Isn't riding across America enough?" he pleaded.

I said nothing but thought what other father says to his 13-year-old son that covering 83 miles by riding a bicycle for 16 hours loaded with 25 pounds of gear through 20 mile per hour headwinds and triple-digit temperatures isn’t enough?

Solomon was right. I was a jerk.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Chapter 17 - A Woman of Valor

This particular day was 84 miles sans towns, convenience stores, shade. We had to schlep all our water, so Djina packed an extra 4.5 gallons in her trailer. Bonus question: what does a gallon of water weigh?

In order to avoid as much heat as possible, we arose at 4:00 a.m. and powered down the cereal and bananas we filched from the buffet the night before. Yonah bid a wistful good-bye to the waffle maker ensconced behind the buffet’s sliding glass door, locked until long after we had departed Eureka's darkened Main Street.

Though we crossed four named summits: Pinto, Pancake, Little Antelope, and Robinson, nothing was too steep, the heat stayed below triple digits, and we were blessed with a slight tailwind.

It was hard to believe that Yonah was only thirteen as he blasted up the ascents. Though physically he was becoming a man, he still asked questions about obvious common sense things that he could have easily figured out had he trusted himself. A few days earlier, he asked, "How do I wash my socks?" followed by, "How will I know they're clean?" and "How do I hang them up to dry?" It was as if he felt that failure would reflect poorly on his character. The paradox is that the road to success always runs through the towns of failure, fiasco, and defeat. As a youth, I was unlike my son. Once I convinced a commercial rafting company to employ me as a guide after boating with a friend down the American River in his raft and figuring out that all one needed to be a guide was paddle around a few pesky rocks. Heck, any moron could do that. Here let me insert more evidence to support the notion that there is a God who watches over idiots, or at least a patron saint of imbeciles, for no one died or was permanently maimed in my single season on the river as I habitually flipped rafts in rapids with names such as Satan’s Cesspool, Troublemaker, and Meatgrinder.

Djina's the same. Expert in areas she knows little about. So given our natures, how did Yonah become so tentative?

My hope was that the trip would give him the confidence to make mistakes and figure things out for himself. As the old saw goes, while parents can't solve their children's problems, they can give them the tools and confidence to figure them out on their own. This would work if I answered his sock question by stopping what I was doing, smiling, and calmly replying, "If you were on your own, how would you wash your socks?" I would wait and he’d eventually come up with his own solution. What an excellent parent!
Only it wasn’t me.

The incredulous father who could not believe his son was incapable of washing his own socks stared at the boy and huffed, "Are you kidding? Soap and water!"

The boy's tentative nature continued.

It was Father’s Day, the Mother’s Day afterthought holiday invented by Hallmark and the tie cartel. The only use for a tie on The Beast would be to keep Solomon’s hands on the handlebars, and I knew that Big Government must have had some stupid law against that. Instead, Djina cajoled the boys into saying something they appreciated about me at the top of each pass. Despite the earlier sock remark, Yonah joined Solomon and came up with something sweet, thoughtful, and at least partially true. It was the best Father’s Day gift ever.

The day’s only difficulty was that after 7.5 hours on the bike, Solomon started nodding off. I kept knocking him on his helmet to keep him awake. While other nine-year-olds spent their summers running around playing sports, Solomon sat from sunrise to sunset on the back of a bike in the middle of the desert. Again he was offered a plane ride to Los Angeles, and again the budding masochist declined.
We rolled into Ely expecting another pleasant town like Eureka. But though it was significantly bigger at over 4,000 souls, half of the town’s beautiful buildings were boarded up. Young, unemployed men created an angry vibe in the air. Think Main Street at Disneyland. Think crystal meth. Mix together in a cocktail shaker and pour out Ely, Nevada.

We stopped at Sportsworld for tire tubes. A large sign on the side of the building advertised, "Cheapest beer in town."

Djina wondered, "Is the beer next to the guns or the chainsaws?"

Though there were cases of beer that nearly reached the ceiling, aisles of guns and hunting equipment, and enough fishing gear to deplete the western states of trout, Ely’s single sporting goods store had not a single road bike inner tube.

Three miles out of town was a KOA campground. Its registration desk was located in a large convenience store. Besides us, there were about a dozen people inside, all elderly, all sporting yellow shirts.

"Here to camp?" inquired a bright-eyed seventy-year-old wearing a straw cowboy hat, Bermuda shorts, and white knee socks to complete his cheerful outfit. A badge identified him as "Bill, Texas."


"Y'all riding bikes?" asked “Joan, Louisiana” easily seventy-five with a shock of white hair that resembled Einstein's had he gone to a salon.

"Yes," I said, our helmets strapped on our heads. "We came from Eureka today.”

"Well," Bill said, "You've come to the right place. Just fill out this registration form."

The other yellow shirts inched their way towards us. Bicyclists were a novelty in this campground that catered to the RV crowd. Everyone was so nice that my cynicism antennae interpreted the feel as cultish. Of course it wasn’t. It was simply that if you were retired on a fixed income, this was a good place to be. Make a little cash, hang out with your peers, and be helpful. Given the fear that Social Security might go belly-up in the not so distant future, I filed KOA onto my cerebral hard-drive.

Two KOA women engaged in a heated argument to see who would escort us to the "tent area." “Fran, Minnesota” won, and with a toothy smile, she brought us to a large lawn, possibly the only grass within a 500-mile radius. We raised the tents and tucked into a mac and cheese dinner.

Solomon went to the basketball court, a couple of other kids showed up, and Solomon had two new friends. While Yonah tended to keep his own counsel, Solomon made friends with any sentient being: kid, horse, dog, beetle. If there were no life forms around, he’d bring out one of his imaginary friends. Jamie was a family fixture for years. He ate with us and had sleepovers. Jamie was a nice kid, but it was irritating when he left Solomon’s room a mess.

Three Harley-Davidsons set up camp next to us. Harleys are loud to the point of hearing loss, and they conjure up images of those famous bad boys, the Hell’s Angels. Yet Harleys are panache materialized. The bad boy image gives mystique to the accountants and marketing vice-presidents who buy the bulk of them. It's the sparkling chrome, the leather, the custom touches, and the patented engine rumble that tell everyone, "I'm here. I'm bad. I'm cool. I'm Brando." (Of course, Brando rode a Triumph in The Wild One, but that's only fact. We're talking myth here.)
Not only are Harleys thunderous, but for a few moments after the riders shut off their machines they are a bit deaf. But once their eardrums settled, these bikers were friendly. First came the usual comments. "You're coming from where?" "You're not really going to Washington?" "I doubt if I could bike this stomach of mine more than a mile." Then we handed the most loquacious a petition, and after reading it, he handed it back unsigned. Was there a mistake? Didn't he know that petitions get signed? Or did he see us as part of the liberal scare campaign making something out of nothing. Hadn’t Rush warned them about us? And even if there was a smidgen of truth to what those elitists were saying, which there wasn't, who cares about polar bears? You can see them in zoos. Then again, maybe it was part of the Harley mystique not to get involved. They were, after all, rebels.

But every way we looked at it, the truth of the matter was, after almost 600 miles, the petition’s first rejection.

Answer to water question: One gallon of water weighs 8.33 pounds, so Djina began the day carrying an extra 37.5 pounds in water. That’s a woman of valor.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Chapter 4 - Training

I taught at a high school 13 miles away and commuted by bicycle. Many weekends included a 50-mile bike ride. So I was more or less trained. Djina took a spin class a few times a week. Spin? It’s a class where twenty stationary bicycles are crammed into a space the size of a living room. Instead of windows and fresh air, there are industrial fans. Instead of birds tweeting, Green Day, Rolling Stones, and other such truck blare over loudspeakers while an instructor, who makes Arnold Schwarzenegger (circa 1975) look like a pussy, screams, “Push it!” (If spin were an option at Abu Ghraib, there would have been significantly less waterboarding. No more lycra! No more Mick! I'll talk! I'll talk!) So Djina was more or less trained.

The boys played sports and rode their bikes to school, but their in-shapeness to ride across the country was the equivalent of being ready to pilot a jetfighter after mastering the art of folding a paper airplane. Our initial ride was 13 miles to Winters. After six miles at a poky 12 mph pace on a flat road and carrying no gear, the boys were kaput.

"Are you kidding?" I didn’t try to mask my irritation.

"I'm really thirsty," Yonah said.

"I'm hungry," Solomon piped in.

"Yeah," Yonah agreed.

While they took ten minutes to rest, eat, drink, and complain about how hard it was, I calculated. We needed to cover 60 miles a day. At this pace, plus gear, plus mountains, Greenland would be exporting pineapples by the time we'd roll into Washington DC. This was the reality check that we had bitten off too much. Way too much. There was no way. We had to amend the trip. San Francisco to Los Angeles was a legitimate long distance route, and at 400 miles, it might be doable. Yet to change the trip would be to admit failure, and all the naysayers who pronounced, “No way!” when we told them our plan could now crow, “See, I told you you were crazy.”

It wasn’t optimism that said, “Don’t give up, we can do it.”


We told everyone that we were going to ride cross-country, and—damn it—no matter what, we would stick to the plan because pride was at stake.

Pride is often given a bad rap. But it is the great motivator. Without it, our species might still be swinging in the trees. So I kept quiet, and after a few more grumbles, the boys mounted the bikes.

Two more trips to make Winters without stopping. We weren't breaking any speed records averaging 12 mph, but by the end of training, I figured we'd be at 15 mph. That would mean four hours of actual bike time to do the daily 60 miles. This would allow time to indulge in Djina’s pre-trip fantasies: eating at Rotary Clubs' pancake breakfasts, swimming in lakes, and taking in matinees to avoid the midday sun.

After Winters, mileage increased to a 40-mile loop around Lake Solano. Two months into training and it was hill time. Going coast-to-coast is over 150,000 feet of vertical climbing. That's thirty miles straight up, high enough to wave to the Space Shuttle. We live in the Central Valley. It is an ancient seabed. Our hills are the freeway overpasses. Cantelow Road is the only local topography. It is relatively steep at about an 8% pitch, but it’s short. It takes an average rider six minutes to get to the top. Nevertheless, it was our training mountain. It took Solomon and me 20 minutes to struggle up it. Average speed: 4.3 mph.

"Well," I said, "if we need to, we'll just get off and push the bike up the steep roads. No shame in that."

The next step was to add the panniers and trailer, and ride with weight. At this point, the tandem’s metaphor, a Ford F350 truck, was jettisoned and replaced by the bike’s true name, The Beast. If it was on the heavy side without panniers, there are no adjectives to describe it fully loaded. The tired allusion of Sisyphus did not do justice to peddling the fully-loaded Beast up Cantelow. It was more akin to peddling through seven-inch-thick, newly-poured cement. We crawled up Cantelow at 3.2 miles per hour, the same pace of my 80-year-old mother’s daily constitutional. The silver lining: we didn’t have to get off and push.

The goal of a 15 mph average was discarded like a banana peel on the side of the road. 12 mph was the new goal, but probably not doable. 10 mph seemed more likely. Six hours of actual riding time. With breaks and everything, probably on the road eight hours a day. In other words, good-bye to those matinees. I didn’t care. Most summer movies suck.

While both Djina and Yonah's bikes worked like the well-tuned machines they were, The Beast—well—I was not as right as I could have been about buying a tandem on eBay. This bike had been some couple's workhorse for twenty years and was tired and ready to go to pasture. Components failed on a regular basis. I replaced chains, shifters, cables, and reconfigured the brakes. And still it got grumpy at times.

"You can still get a new bike," Djina offered.

And admit I was wrong? Hah! Let facts dictate behavior? Never! Sure the bike wasn’t perfect, but what did she expect? It wasn't new. It just needed a little TLC. It was still significantly cheaper than a new bike, and it rode pretty well except for the problems that brought me to curse it and get busted by the family's language cop. Solomon’s mission was to stamp out curse words. If someone said, "Damn!" "Shit!" or other non-synagogue word, he shouted, "Checkmark!" hoping that through his intervention we would clean our diction and substitute approved exclamations such as "Gosh darn!" But when you strain up a hill at 3 mph, and need one entire breath for every single pedal rotation, and you can't take your hands off the handlebars long enough to wipe the sweat stinging your eyes, and the hill becomes even steeper, and you steel yourself for more pain as you shift into the lowest gear you have, and the chain decides at that moment, that very moment, to jump off the chain ring and wedge itself between the chain ring and the frame as if it had been superglued into place, and your pedals come to a dead stop, and so do you, and you fall, and your knee, hand, and shoulder get bloodied, and all those part replacements and adjustments you made over the last month prove themselves worthless, then "Gosh darn!" or even "Jeez!" just won't cut it. The only words to act as balm are, "Goddamn motherfucking piece of shit!"

And then standing above his sprawled out father is Solomon, hands on hips, "Checkmark, checkmark, checkmark."

The Beast’s most significant problem was its cluster of three chain rings. The largest diameter one was for going fast. (Used every third blue moon.) The middle one was where the chain lived 80% of the time. Then came the small ring, actually it was tiny. It had to be. There was no other way to get The Beast up a climb. Unfortunately, the chain ring was so small that the space between it and the middle chain ring was wider than on most bikes. Occasionally the chain shifted too far and wedged itself between the chain ring and the frame. As a devotee of Murphy's Law, the chain only wedged at the worst of times. To free it meant yanking it with both hands, in conjunction with a good strong oath, and then repetition of these two steps until the chain, satisfied that my hands were sufficiently blackened with grease, relented.


1. Why isn’t spin registered as an enhanced interrogation technique?

2. Should Matt have jettisoned The Beast in favor of a new bike, or is character building more important than having proper equipment?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Chapter 3 - Equipment

At the top of the list: bicycles, those technological marvels that can move a human being four times a walking pace using one-third the energy. A human on a bicycle is more efficient in terms of calories per mile than any other mode of transportation. Though hard to believe for one living in the United States, it is the most ubiquitous form of transportation in the world.

Yonah had a cheap, hand-me-down bike, so we bought him a new one. He was a bit wobbly at first because he was used to his old bike, but it didn’t take more than five city blocks to adjust from the biking equivalent of a 1993 Ford Fiesta firing three cylinders atop four bald tires and lousy brakes to a new Toyota Camry Hybrid.

Djina already had a bicycle, but it was a racing bike. If Yonah's new bike was a Toyota Camry, Djina's was a Porsche Boxster. To the untrained eye, it looked like a touring bike, but while Yonah's was made of steel, Djina's carbon-based graphite frame could be lifted with an index finger. Unfortunately, Djina's bike would not be unencumbered as we pedaled across the States. Loading this bike with mundane items such as sleeping bags and tents would be no different than hitching Seabiscuit to an ice wagon. Still, if you had the choice of hitching Seabiscuit or a nag to the wagon, you'd take Biscuit.

Solomon and I needed a bicycle built for two, a tandem, and they were not cheap. A decent one was $3,000-$4,000. I was never much for tandems; this ride would be a onetime thing, so I refused to pay retail.

Djina recommended, "Buy a new one, and then if you don't want to keep it, sell it."

I replied, "Why buy a new bike when I can get a used one on eBay? It’s better to reuse than buy new, and it’s common knowledge that tandems are bought by guys who want their significant others to get into biking. The guy buys a $4,000 bike, and then they go for the first ride. She doesn't like that most of what she sees is his back, and she's hoarse from screaming at him to slow down. And while he gets to smell all the good nature smells, she smells smelly him. But she's a good sport and goes out with him on Saturdays for a month. On the fifth Saturday she refuses to mount 'that thing.' He argues, but she tells him the only way he is going to ride that tandem is if he finds another woman. So after 335 miles, the tandem is retired to the garage. One year later it’s moved up to the rafters. Five years later, she makes him sell it, so they can buy a bike trailer for the baby. And then I buy it cheap."

“I'd buy a new one."

My thought bubble chuckled, "I'll show her."

As it turned out, the tandem was not a single mouse click away. There were lots of guys looking to get their significant others into biking, and those bastards were too cheap to buy new, so I learned eBay strategic bidding which is to hold off bidding until the very last moment. Unfortunately, there are others employing the same strategy, and as a teacher, it’s hard to do personal business from school.

“…and the reason the theme of my short story is loss of innocence is that when I was six, my dad left us and…”

“Paul, can you hold that thought for a second? I just have to do something real fast.”

I lost three sweet bikes to final buzzer bidders.

After the third one, Djina reiterated her "I'd buy a new one" mantra.

My thought bubble could barely contain itself. “I’ll really show her!” it screeched.

And then I discovered Esnipe, a service that automatically slips your bid in thirty seconds before the auction closes. Pay a nominal fee, tell them how high you're willing to bid, and—voila—you’ve got a new—well—used bike.

A Burley tandem came up. It looked good in the picture. The seller, however, didn't know anything about it. He couldn't tell me the year or model. But that hardly mattered. In fact, it was better because it proved he didn't ride it. It had been mothballed in the rafters since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Lots of people wanted it and the bidding war was on. I contacted Esnipe, observed from the sidelines, and four days later received the "You're a winner!" congratulatory email.

The bike arrived and looked fine. Perhaps it had a few more than 335 miles on it, but that baby was solid. If Yonah had a new Toyota Camry and Djina was cycling a Porsche, Solomon and I were going to cross America in a good-condition 1985ish Ford F350 one-ton pickup.

"See, Djina," I crowed.

She smiled, but her thought bubble was easy to cipher, “I would have bought a new one.”

* * *

To carry gear and food, some transcontinental cyclists have a friend or family member follow in a sag vehicle to haul everything. Since this defeated the low carbon footprint message, we had two options: panniers (saddlebags) or bike trailers. For panniers, a bicycle needs brazons, a threaded nut in the frame that a bicycle rack can be screwed into. The panniers then attach to the rack. Racing bikes don't have brazons, so Djina got a trailer. We put panniers on the other two bikes because a trailer might be too difficult for Yonah to handle, and a trailer on the back of an already stretched tandem, would make it longer than an actual Ford pickup.

Now the gear itself. The plan was to camp most days, so it was to REI for lightweight camping equipment. There was a 3 pound, 11 ounce tent for $168. For $329 we could get a 3 pound, 3 ounce tent.

Me: Let's get the $168 tent. (I had already put it in the cart.)

Djina: 1/2 pound is a lot of weight. (She put the other one in.)

Me: That's like five Clif Bars. And it's $160 more.

Djina: Trust me, every ounce counts. It's not that much money to save your knees.

Twenty more minutes of arguing discussion, and like Solomon’s namesake, we cut the baby in half. One $168 tent, one $329 tent. (One month later, still two months before the trip, the $329 tent was on sale for $159.)

The other items weren't any easier. Titanium or aluminum pots? This time the difference was 3 ounces and $30. We went titanium. Then the stove. There were twenty stoves from which to choose. Djina liked a particular MSR stove. It was light and dependable, but it required a special fuel canister. I was skeptical about finding one of those babies in Kentucky, but the salesman assured us, “You can buy MSR fuel canisters everywhere.” So it went into the cart.

The camping equipment was rounded out with stuff from home: sleeping bags, ensolite pads, matches, sporks (spoon/fork/knife combination utensil), bowls, cups, and our friend Ken Giles' special pencil gift: a number 2 pencil wrapped with duct tape.

Me: Gee, Ken, I hardly know what to say.

Ken: You’ll see. It’ll come in handy. Duct tape can fix anything.

Me: Uh, thanks.

Other equipment included my Leatherman, a Swiss-army knife on steroids. With its pliers, knife, and 13 other gadgets of which I hadn’t the foggiest idea of their uses, we were covered for exigencies such as opening beer bottles that weren't twist-offs.

I bought a bike tool. It had tire irons (for removing the tire from the wheel to repair flats), assorted wrenches, screwdrivers, and a chain link remover.

"A chain link remover?" I asked incredulously. "Why would I ever need that? I've been biking for over forty years, and I've never broken a chain."

"Well," the mechanic at B&L Bikes said, "if you do happen to break your chain in the middle of the desert, it'd be good to have."

"Whatever," I said and he rang it up.

The final piece of equipment was a set of Adventure Cycling maps. This organization produces ten or so map sets that crisscross the United States. These maps are genius. Each one covers between 300-450 miles of roads that avoid heavy traffic and big cities. In addition to giving the safest, most scenic route, the maps provide elevation profiles and locate campgrounds, grocery stores, hotels, libraries, and bicycle shops. Yonah and I pored over them and made an itinerary based on mileage, elevation changes, and campgrounds. We figured 63 days riding plus 6 rest days.

The sleeping bags and tents went in the trailer. The two other bikes had eight panniers distributed between them. Four small ones for the front, four larger ones for the rear. Each person had a large one for clothing. The small ones would be for equipment and food.

The equipment was set. Next, training.

Questions to comment on: 1. Some husbands claim that the secret to a happy marriage is to always agree with one’s wife. Agree or disagree.

2. Predict what foreshadowing was present in this chapter.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

You Can't Bring Your Gameboy

Now that we decided to bike across America, was it possible? 10 weeks of summer vacation to cover roughly 4,000 miles. Throw in a few rest days, and it’s a 60-mile daily ride. The farthest Yonah had ever biked was 25 miles, an all-day extravaganza with innumerable rest stops. Even if Yonah could manage the mileage, he'd have to do it with camping equipment and food strapped to his bike. Instead of riding a 25-pound bike up the Rocky Mountains, he’d be lugging an additional 25 pounds of gear. And even then, so much could go wrong. Bust a wheel in the Nevada desert and it’s days waiting for a new one. Midwest thunderstorms could force us to hunker down for a week. And if either of us got even a cold, the delay would sink us. Though no bookies would give even odds, it was worth a try because like that poem in the Reform Judaism prayerbook, it’s the journey not the destination that counts.

“And if you don’t try, you never know what you are capable of. Anyway, if we need to, we can leapfrog Kansas and Missouri by bus. I mean, how much corn do you need to see?”

“Can we leapfrog the Rockies?”

The plan of the two of us biking across America by ourselves lasted until Solomon walked through the front door. Son number two at eight-years-old was too young to ride across the country, but upon hearing the adventure, there was no way he was staying home due to Little Brother Rule #1: Anything big brother does must be done by little brother. Impossibility of task adds to the allure.

“Solomon, we’re going to be on our bikes at least four hours a day.”


“That’s going to be boring for you.”

“No it won’t.”

“It’s going to be really hard. I don’t know if Yonah can do it, and he’s four years older. I don’t even know if I can do it.”

“I can do it.”

“You can’t bring your Gameboy.”

Long pause. Deep swallow.

“If Yonah can do it, I can do it.”

So Solomon, who recently had been passed by a 75-year-old jogger while riding his bike to school, was coming.

While Solomon would add fun to the trip, he would make it significantly more challenging because it meant he and I would ride together on a tandem bicycle. Tandems are notoriously difficult in hill climbing, and we were not just negotiating hills, but mountains: the Sierras, the Rockies, and the Appalachians. If a tandem with two strong adults is hard going, how about one with a middle-aged man sporting chronically sore knees seated in front of a third grade graduate? For those unfamiliar with young boy energy as played out on a bicycle, it goes like this: Thirty seconds hell-bent sprinting to the finish line of the Tour de France followed by ten minutes of recuperation while naming his favorite baseball players and reciting their statistics before another thirty seconds of sprinting. Repeat until sixth grade.

When Djina came home from work, I announced, “Yonah wants to ride cross-country. Solomon’s coming too.”

“Are you crazy? There is no way!”

“We looked at the maps. It’s possible, but it’s going to be tough. It’ll be like Theodore Herzl said, ‘If you will it, it is no dream.’”

“I mean there’s no way I’m letting you take them on your own. I’m coming too.”

Despite my perfect record with Solomon on the changing table, Yonah’s diaper debacles still weighed on her mind. But to be fair, it was more than about her progeny’s safety. Djina loves cycling and adventure. But there was a timing obstacle. I'm a teacher and share summer vacation with the boys. She's a midwife. She can't say to a eight-month pregnant woman, "Can you put off pushing until—say—Labor Day?" Like Solomon, Djina would not be deterred. She went to her colleagues, they made a coverage agreement, and the whole family was signed on.

* * *

Biking across America would be an extreme physical challenge. But would it be sufficient for a rite of passage? Most synagogues do not consider leading a religious service adequate to complete the Bar Mitzvah. There is usually a social action element such as collecting money for food banks, working at a homeless shelter, taking part in a river cleanup. Yonah needed something too. He suggested tackling global climate change. Every other issue paled in light of rising water levels, mass extinctions, and the whole panoply of requisite disasters that comes with atmospheric carbon dioxide buildup. And wasn't cycling a carbon-free way to travel? Even if we only made it as far as the Sierras, we'd be an example for others to view biking as a legitimate means of transportation.

The idea was simple. Write a petition. Gather a million signatures, present it to the White House and Congress, and watch the country suddenly become carbon neutral and lead the world toward a green future. As a humble family, we did not expect a ticker-tape parade, but if the President insisted...

The petition focused on ideas that had to be practical. While arguably the best action an individual can take to arrest global warming is dig a hole, drive his car into it, and then fill the hole, this idea would not win the day. Our ideas focused on improved gas mileage, decreasing car trips, and creating a green energy industry. The petition would be a kick in the pants for our country to stop dragging its humongous carbon footprint and show leadership. I imagined a media field day as we would pied piper-like lead thousands of cyclists into Washington DC to converge on the White House and deliver half a million signatures, climb back on our bikes and ride up Constitution Avenue to deliver the other half million to Congress. The glacier of American lethargy on global warming would melt. Angelina Jolie would hand us frosty smoothies with organic fruit, and George Clooney would present us keys to a brand new Prius.

If he could make it, riding coast to coast would be Yonah’s rite of passage moving him from child to adolescent. On a larger scale, the petition could catalyze America and her inhabitants to undertake an energy rite of passage from our petrochemical present to a non-carbon future. Like riding across the country, changing our energy usage will be difficult, but a rite of passage is never an easy undertaking.

Collecting signatures would be easy. Besides a few troglodytes, who wouldn’t sign? No one wants malaria mosquitoes in Alaska or tour New York City via a submarine. But how to gather so many signatures? No problem. The Internet. Just turn the petition into an electronic format and glom it onto an already existing organization's website. How about the Sierra Club?

"Yes!" their media guy exclaimed enthusiastically. Unfortunately, President Bush kept the Club’s fingers engaged in plugging up the dikes protecting ANWR and the Endangered Species Act, and they didn’t have time.

How about MoveOn.org? Aren’t they the voice of liberal, grassroots electronic organizing? While they never have a problem getting in touch with me with their weekly action updates, try and contact them if you're not Al Gore. I combed through their website. No contact info. I called 411. "I'm sorry but we have no listing."

A few days later the phone rang.

"This is David Henderson from MoveOn.org..."

"Did you say MoveOn.org?"

"Yes, we are starting a campaign..."

"I've been trying to reach you guys for months! Listen to this amazing idea [five minutes of blather about trip and petition]. Who do I contact about getting the petition on your website?"

"Well, uh, I don't know. I'm just sent information on the various campaigns on my computer. I've never spoken to anyone either."


"Would you like to get involved with the campaign to..."

"Maybe next time. Bye."

Finally, after trolling the internet a few more weeks, we found Cool Capital, a consortium of environmental, business, and other Washington DC groups dedicated to greening the nation's capital. We e-mailed them. The next day the executive director called and said that she was so moved by our trip that tears splashed onto her keyboard. Not only would they set up an electronic petition, but they would host a blog, and help organize the thousands of riders who would converge on DC the day of our arrival. Our dream was actually going to become reality. I suggested Yonah start writing the speech he'd deliver from the Capital steps. I went to the Prius website to look at car colors.

Alas, Robert Burns put it best when he wrote,
"The best-laid plans o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain
For promised joy."

Here's a translation for those whose 18th century Scottish-tinged English is rusty: “We plan, and then through no fault of our own, we fail. And then we cry.” An old Jewish adage puts a different spin on it: “Man plans, God laughs.” An atheist might venture: “Man plans, and maybe another man plans against him, or maybe a hurricane comes, or who knows what, but the plan won’t work.”

The point is that the director at Cool Capital assigned an intern to coordinate everything. The intern had other plans and did nothing. By the time we realized this, the director, who had earlier been moved to tears, had moved to a new job, and we were left adrift, alone on a piece of melting arctic ice. But the petition would not be abandoned. If the glacier would not go to Muhammad, we would go to the glacier and collect the signatures ourselves on the old standby, paper.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Genesis of an Atheist

It didn’t begin as a sudden inspiration. I didn't leap out of bed, wake Yonah, and holler, "Son, we’re biking across America! Fill your water bottle! Pump up the tires! Grab an extra pair of underwear! What are you waiting for? Let's go!"


It began with a conversation the two of us had when he was in kindergarten. We were finishing dinner when little Yonah asked, "Daddy, what happens after you die?"

I remember scant little from Yonah's early childhood except for the times when I caused him bodily harm, such as walking through a low doorway with him sitting astride my shoulders. While changing his diaper, I almost sent him to the emergency room, twice. Once I shishkabobed his delicate baby's butt with a safety pin while pinning his nappy. I pushed and pushed trying to get the pin through the thick, unyielding cotton. And then it was through, and I closed it. He didn’t make a sound at first, but his face had a strange look of surprise, and I knew I done a bad thing.

A few months later, I asked my smiling infant, "Where did that penny go?" I had given him a penny to play with, so he'd stop squirming while I cleaned his tush. It wasn’t in his hands; it wasn’t on the changing table; the carpet was bare.

“You didn’t…no…don’t tell me you…your mother is going to kill me.”

For the next two days, Djina and I went through his poop to make sure the penny passed. If it didn’t, it would be a possible surgery and a probable divorce. Fortunately it passed.

With a father like me, no wonder the five-year-old was curious about death.

I am sure that Yonah's first words, his first steps, and the first time he slept through the night are stored somewhere in my brain, but I cannot access those memories. But that question, the question that launched a thousand religions, I remember it as if it were ten minutes ago. I remember thinking that this was the essence of fatherhood: conversing with your child on issues of truth and passing wisdom from one generation to the next.

I said, "That's a great question, and the truth is that no one really knows what happens when a person dies because no dead person has ever come back to tell us. But there are at least three ideas that people have. The first is that the part of you that makes you you, your soul, lives on after you die. It goes to a place like heaven or to somewhere else and lives forever. The second one says that after you die, you are reborn into something different. It's called reincarnation. Maybe you'll be born as another person or maybe as an animal. What kind of animal would you like to be reincarnated as?"

"I like cheetah-birds," he replied.

"That's nice. The third possibility is that when you die, nothing happens. When you die, you're dead, and that's the end.”

The third possibility sounded harsh, and I didn’t want to burden a young soul with existential nightmares, so I softened it with, “It’s like being asleep."

Yonah digested it all. I could sense his frontal lobes cogitating. When he finished, he looked into my eyes and announced, "I'm the kind who thinks that when you're dead, you're dead."

He climbed off his chair and skipped to his room to play with Thomas the Tank Engine. I sat dumbfounded because my five-year-old was more definite about the nature of life than I was at thirty-nine, for I was a liberal Jew who had some amorphous faith in a god or higher power imbuing the universe with meaning. I also believed, or at least wanted to believe, in the immortal nature of the soul. But here as I sat at the dining room table cluttered with plates smeared with the remains of spaghetti and pesto, newspaper innards, junk mail, and mismatched dirty socks, I witnessed the genesis of an atheist.


Not only are we Jewish, but I went to graduate school at Hebrew Union College to study the Bible and its commentaries. I did not come from a religious background. My family went to synagogue twice a year for the High Holidays where I sullenly sat, watching the prayerbook’s page numbers slowly trudge to the end of the service. Whenever the rabbi mercifully skipped thirty pages, my heart leapt, and it sank when, in a fit of sadism, he sent us back twenty. Passover was a week of choking down stale matzah sandwiches and scrubbing bright red lipstick from my cheeks after being kissed by relatives as old as the children of Israel themselves. For three years I suffered in Hebrew school and had a Bar Mitzvah. Following that day when I became a man in the eyes of Judaism, I vowed never again to step into a synagogue.

So how did I wind up in a Jewish seminary?

As a young man, I travelled to Israel to work on a kibbutz, a collective farm, partly due to socialist leanings, mostly in order to meet blond Scandinavian volunteers. One day in Jerusalem, I happened upon a poster featuring a bagel smothered with cream cheese and lox. Underneath the bagel was the message, “Is this the culmination of 3,500 years of culture?” No doubt about it, that poster perfectly captured my relationship to Judaism, but it gave me pause. 3,500 years. That's a chunk of time. Could there be something more to my heritage than smoked salmon? After all, while Jews number less than one-hundredth of one-percent of the world’s population, 20 percent of Nobel Prize winners have been members of the tribe. Maybe it was worth giving it one more chance. I enrolled in a yeshiva, a religious college, and spent two months studying the Talmud, Judaism’s sacred post-biblical text. Though I was a UC Berkeley graduate, I had never found more serious students than the ones arguing over these ancient books. And there was wisdom. I had fancied myself an environmentalist, and here was Yahweh, 2,000 years before the first Earth Day, proclaiming, “Take care of My Creation, for if you destroy it, there is no one to clean up after you.”

I became religious, returned to America, and enrolled in Hebrew Union College, a liberal seminary. Following grad school, it was fifteen years in Jewish education. I became known for Jewish environmental and wilderness programs and co-wrote a Jewish naturalist guide. Turning my hand to fiction, I penned three books of Jewish short stories. Christ, you couldn’t be much more Jewish than me. But as Yonah approached age thirteen, his Bar Mitzvah year, the joke about the shoemaker's shoeless son became personal. Yonah refused to go through the Jewish rite of passage ceremony because if he was only theologically opposed to immortality at age five, by twelve he had developed a severe loathing toward religion.

Djina and I spoke of Judaism as more than a religious belief. We explained that Judaism could be thought of as a culture, an ethnicity, a civilization. Plenty of Jews have little patience for the religious doctrines but are proud of being Jewish. Yonah had none of this. He saw religion as a way to dumb people down; he believed religion to be the root of the world's conflicts. I felt he was rejecting a child’s version of religion. The Judaism he rejected was the one of that long-bearded, grandfatherly, muscular God painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I, too, had rejected that God and his religion. For me religion meant community, beautiful stories, and a taste of the spiritual world. It was not a dogma of rules and rites; rather, religion was a conduit to find meaning in life. Yonah’s rejection seemed like a Christian rejecting the fellowship and charity that come with Christmas after discovering Santa Claus didn’t exist. But nuances and paradoxes are difficult for young teens. The bottom line was Yonah had no desire to be a Jew.

Should Djina and I have pushed the Bar Mitzvah on him as many parents do? Wasn’t there a Jewish teaching: if one acts first, understanding will follow? Though the ritual might be meaningful, it more likely would have bred resentment and fury. Perhaps if it wasn’t forced down his throat, Yonah would find his Jewish soul in his own time, like we did. Still for one year he attempted Hebrew school. He didn't do it out of love of tradition or at the behest of his parents. It was a cold Machiavellian calculation. At age seven, he announced his desire to become President of the United States. Now at age twelve, he understood that Americans would more likely elect a Jew than an atheist because the most disliked people in America are those who do not believe in God. A 1999 Gallup poll found that while 6 percent of Americans would not vote for a Jewish presidential candidate, and 8 percent would refuse a woman, 48 percent would not cast their ballots for an atheist.

So Yonah dutifully went to Hebrew school.

"What have you learned so far?" I asked after a month.

"There’s like a hundred prayers, and they all say, ‘God, you're great!' You’d think if God were so great, he wouldn’t need us to keep telling him."

Yonah also attended religious school and actually enjoyed debating the great philosophical questions such as the nature of good and evil.

Unfortunately, much of the curriculum dealt with the "boring" Jewish laws such as kashrut, and why one must never eat chicken and cheese together. Yonah had been a strict vegetarian since age eight and, without realizing it, had been living a de facto kosher life.

“See you’re more Jewish than you thought!”

“Right, Dad.”

For a year he went and then announced, "No more." The chance to pontificate on a Torah passage in front of an audience held no appeal. The chocolate fountains of the Bar Mitzvah party did not entice him. Even a vision of the presidency didn’t exert a strong enough pull to get him to wear a kipa for a single Saturday morning. His thirteenth birthday would come and go like all his others, and I'd be sad.

The truth was Djina and I didn't need, nor especially want, Yonah to become zealously religious. But thirteen is an auspicious age because puberty dramatically changes both body and mind. While a boy is not a man at thirteen, he is clearly no longer a child. Almost every ancient culture recognized puberty’s importance, but in America it is mostly ignored. We wanted Yonah to mark his 13th birthday with a ritual, a rite of passage. But if not a Bar Mitzvah, what?

I always admired the Native American vision quest or at least the popular impression of it: a solo physical journey into the wilderness with the express desire to experience a spiritual awakening. The fasting boy hikes deep into the wilderness pushing beyond his physical endurance where he enters a sacred space. Through prayer, the boy enters the dream world and learns his true name, the essence of his spiritual being. Upon returning, he is no longer a boy, but a young man.

I was sure a spiritual journey wouldn’t appeal to Yonah, but a physical one might. Physical challenges are important. They allow us to measure our fortitude and spirit. We need to find our limits, push against them, and learn about who we are when the veneer of our personality disintegrates in the face of challenge and danger. Hence, the army, rock climbing, and high school football. Maybe if the challenge was profound enough physically, the spiritual might ride on its coattails. I loved to bike and had some friends who rode across the United States. Maybe Yonah could do that, and I’d join him. It would be a real father/son bonding experience. Besides being a physical challenge, it would be eye-opening for a blue-state, West Coast kid to experience the heartland of America and go beyond the stereotype of its gun-toting, pro-lifers who think Darwin should have burned at the stake along with his satanic book. It would be like exploring a foreign culture without having to learn a new language.

“Are you kidding?” he said.

“I’m serious.”

“It’s like 3,000 miles.”

“Actually, because you take backroads instead of freeways, it’s more like 4,000.”

“There is no way.”

“C’mon, you’re an American history buff. Here’s a chance to see the places where history was made. It’ll be fun and a challenge. It’ll look good on your college application, and you’ll probably be like the youngest kid ever to do it.”

“Bike riding’s boring.”

“Did Mom tell you her idea? Going to Israel and visiting the holy sites like the Western Wall…”

“Definitely no!”

“Got any other ideas?”


“Okay, then it’s back to Hebrew school.”

“No, no, no! That bike thing sounds okay.”

So in order to avoid a single day of chanting a small section of Torah, leading a congregation in a half-dozen prayers, and dancing with his grandmother at his Bar Mitzvah party, twelve-year-old Yonah Biers-Ariel, an ambivalent cyclist, decided to pedal a bicycle from San Francisco to Washington DC with his dad.