Reviewed: ‘You & A Bike & A Road’ by Eleanor Davis Published by: Koyama Press, Toronto
Eleanor Davis takes us with her on a harrowing journey through the eight states that cradle the lower half of America. With alacrity, she shares her experience of going on a journey where knee-breaking bicycling yields self-debasing songs sung at the top of her lungs as she finds herself lonely and crying her way toward the enlightening fact that we are all wasting our time working 9-to-5s because we aren’t thinking about what it means to be alive. We just live day to day like we were born to do menial tasks like eat, sleep, and breathe without remorse, even though we’re slowly killing the planet with our exhaust-puking cars…
“Train before you go, and if you have weak knees I highly recommend strengthening exercises! Learn from my mistakes!” writes Eleanor Davis, wrapping up her illustrated journal of a journey by bicycle from Tuscon, Ariz. to Athens, Georgia, in You & A Bike & A Road.
Her body is put through hell by the ride. Her mind is also transformed, as she weighs the unexpected bounty of color that Texas has to offer against the struggle of living every second of every day, with the fact that her knees might go out.
She feels like she’s alone in this world. Before and during the ride. It’s only at the end when she has the chance to touch her husband’s face again (and a tiny kitten comes mewling out of the woods) that she begins to appreciate living again.
That’s why she does it. She needs to feel like she’s a person. There must have been something so blasé about living in her own skin that she had to feel the burn of tearing muscle and regrowing it again, over a course of two months, making an average of 50 miles a day, out in the sordid mess that is this sheltered world we live in.
“I haven’t spent this much time alone in a long while.”
She’s alone during this journey. Being the introverted artist that she is, you would think a person would enjoy this much time spent with her own thoughts and her own thighs bracing themselves against indifferent winds constantly trying to push her off slices of stick-thin roads.
But it gets lonely out there. Eleanor is exposed to the cruel reality that everything on God’s green Earth is trying to kill her. At one point, she gets it into her head that she’s anemic, that there most certainly must be something wrong with her. I bet she’s thinking, how did all these other ladies do it. What’s wrong with me?
It’s an exploration of the man vs. man vs. nature theme, fraught with raw depictions of a nation (well, the tex-mex portion of it anyway) of people willing to lend a hand (or a whole lotta catfish) when they come across a person (or a set of knees with a person attached to them) in need.
This story really had my knees quivering, I’ll tell ya that. By day 18 in the story, I was screaming at the page, “You can spend all morning drawing. That’s OK!” I wanted to reach into the past, kiss her knees one by one and say, “Listen to your body. Rest. Draw.”
“Your sovereign body. God’s thrilling indifference.”
At one point, Eleanor is mentally chastising herself with ideas that she’s not strong enough to make this journey. That she’s not performing at her peak level of artistry. And you know what, that’s OK, too. If you want to go ahead and publish a graphic novel that captures the naked emotion of an experience filled with two parts pain, one part beauteous splendor, and you want to show your readers how fast you capture the minutest of details, like a jar of pickles you saw in a bar where a couple tell you their story of how both their exes perished with perfect timing so that they could find each other and fall in love, then I applaud you, Eleanor. You do you.
This reviewer thinks she did a pretty good job, all told. Aside from a couple of idiosyncrasies, she delivers us glimpses into the lives of honest people. That’s what this story is really about. Sure, she does complain about her knees a lot, which she gets acupunctured like five times over the course of a month and a half, but she has a knack for capturing the essence of people.
Her choice of diction stems from personalities encapsulated through cutesy dialog she records with pen to paper. Or pencil, sometimes. The scenes go back and forth from pen to pencil. My guess is, she drew with pencil on the road, then pen when she got back.
In any case, she introduces us to a handful of generous people. People who’ve lost loved ones, people who have small-town-famous puppies. In one scene, she meets a guy who’s eating a mango while she’s also eating a mango and that’s pretty hilarious.
Her use of negative space adds emphasis to the heavier parts of her story, showing us what it means to be small and irrelevant. A dust particle floating in a cloud of ambivalence. On the road, she discovers tiny treasures hidden away in unmarked pockets of America. Did you know there was an Afghan microcity in Louisiana? Whodathunkit. She shows us what one could only see if you were there. On the road. With your bike. It’s just you and your bike, “moving through space”. Who needs cars anyway? Sure, they could save our knees from the peril of grinding bone against bone for almost two months, nonstop, but that’s part of the point. To understand why we have knees in the first place. Makes me feel like a lazy piece of shit, is what this graphic novel does.
“Wake up. Move through space. Mind a clear pane of glass.
And this bright world.”
After this, I’m thinking I should take up biking. I should bike more. Maybe I could bike to work. It’s not that far away. How long would it take me anyway? My car is like a ticking atomic bomb soaring through highways filled with trash and neighborhoods filled with perfect families. After reading this, I’ve started thinking that I’m one of those assholes who’s further promulgating the pollution of this earth. Hey, maybe I should quit smoking, too?
Then again, naw. We won’t change. Sure, we replace all of our skin cells every seven years, but how often do we really change as people? The reality is, we don’t. We don’t go on soul-searching adventures like Eleanor just did. We let sensitive ladies like her do the dirty work for us. Her heart bleeds for this nation of nobodies as she shares her art with the world.
I do have a question, though. Is Eleanor living in Georgia? Or, wait. She started in Arizona, said she was going home to Georgia, and her husband is there, waiting for her. Did he fly to Georgia from Arizona, or was he there the whole time? She might have left out some backstory, here. Maybe she was taking a break from her husband and went to live in Arizona with her parents for a spell…
Plot holes aside, Eleanor Davis’s You & A Bike & A Road shows us that there are people in this world, willing to eschew the vagaries of everyday life that keep us blindfolded and comfortable while racism and apathy persist in destroying the life-giving substances we take for granted, like lovers. Like water that’s available to us at every turn. Eleanor’s senses are keyed in to the “clatter clatter” of dry branches knocking in the wind, the doves that fly from belfries in abandoned churches, and the physical hell of being a bicyclist. We should all be a little more like Eleanor, and stop and take a look around once in a while and appreciate how damn beautiful this gift of life is that’s given to us.
So, thanks for sharing this experience with us, lady. Readers can now know what it’s like to bike across the lower half of America, alone, tired, and eternally hungry for a homecooked meal, thanks to you. Thanks for showing us what worthless pieces of crap we really are.
Shannon Bohnen graduated with a BA in Journalism from the University of Central Florida and now resides in Minnesota where she met her loving husband, Keith. Tweet at her if you like: @w3rdn3rd