A unicyclist muses across the land while braiding a memoir.
Slowspoke: A Unicyclist’s Guide to America by Mark Schimmoeller
Guest Review by Lanie Tankard
The wheel is come full circle; I am here.
—William Shakespeare, King Lear
One day Mark Schimmoeller decided to do a little traveling, “attempting to visit people living for something other than what our consumer society deemed was important.” Thus was his mission when he set off in 1992 atop one wheel for a cross-country unicycle trip.
Body balance steers this upright one-wheeled vehicle driven by pedals. Unicycles appear to date back to the late 1800s and a bicycle called a “penny farthing.” The benefits of riding a unicycle are documented, and riding on one wheel has even been pushed to an extreme sport.
The author of Slowspoke meets all types of people living along the byways of America as he buys provisions, dodges cars, and seeks out places to camp for the night. He sketches word portraits of folks who don’t trend on Twitter, just as real as the ones who populate reality shows on television.
Schimmoeller muses as he rides, in no hurry to arrive. The reader ponders along with him, about topics such as time: “It had become cool to have no time, to be busy.“Ah, I thought, but Socrates long ago warned: “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”
It was just this type of recurring silent mental dialogue I found myself having with a unicyclist that decelerated my progress through Slowspoke. We ramble along in our thoughts, he and I, noticing patchworks of woods and fields, hearing the sound of the wood thrush, and feeling the hot morning sun on our faces.
Schimmoeller becomes so comfortable riding as I read that he begins to tell me about his childhood. His parents were former Peace Corps volunteers who became Kentucky homesteaders raising their children far from the madding crowd. Gradually he rolls out the story of how he courted his wife. He gently chronicles a life off the grid as he and his wife construct their own home in the woods near the one his parents built.
Then, bit by bit, Schimmoeller starts weaving in another thread—his quest to save a large parcel of Kentucky property next to theirs so that it can be rescued from logging and turned into a land trust. Will he succeed?
The book by now has become a braided memoir with three strands: the unicycle journey, the author’s family life, and the quest to save land from logging. As he crosses the USA, Schimmoeller delves deeper into himself to work out philosophical aphorisms to live by. While commenting on hidden beauty during his coast-to-coast crossing, he isn’t afraid to air out his own personal weaknesses as well.
Schimmoeller is not the only rider to make a long unicycle trek. A few books and blogs record others, such as Bob Mueller’s Bob Across America, Cary Gray’s CaryOutThere, Dustin and Katie Kelm’s Refugee Ride, and Gracie Cole’s One Wheel for Life. Schimmoeller’s writing, however, is glorious.
Slowspoke did seem to drag in a few places toward the end, although one could certainly view it as an intentional rhetorical device to symbolize running out of steam on a long expedition. The story braids worked in most places but on occasion were timewise confusions, as they didn’t alternate in regular intervals. Several small repetitions of information occurred.
All in all, though, Slowspoke is a tale very well told. Schimmoeller manages to convey enthusiasm for the common bonds he unearths with those he encounters on his quest across the land while at the same time share insights into his own psyche sparked by these interactions. He does so in a calm straightforward manner, a method that is effective because it is not didactic. His prose meanders in a way that matches the pace and wanderings of his unicycle. That thought process forces the reader also to slow down and enjoy the ride.
The book reminded me in certain ways of The Road to Somewhere: An American Memoir by James A. Reeves and Blue Highways by William Least-Heat Moon, but Mark Schimmoeller’s Slowspoke is distinctly different in both the mode of transportation and trifocal nature of the braided storylines.
“Time is the longest distance between two places,” Tennessee Williams wrote in The Glass Menagerie. Do we have time to read an unhurried book like Slowspoke? Such softspoken slow-paced volumes are easily overlooked, but they contain large-scale wisdom.
Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.