Going Somewhere: A Bicycle Journey Across America

BOOK: Going Somewhere: A Bicycle Journey Across America



grew up in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. He now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches writing at the Attic Institute. This is his first book.


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First published by Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Brian Benson

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Benson, Brian, 1982–

Going somewhere : a bicycle journey across America / Brian Benson.

pages cm

ISBN 978-1-101-63492-9 (eBook)

1. Benson, Brian, 1982—Travel—United States. 2. Bicycle touring—United States. 3. Cycling—Psychological aspects. 4. Man-woman relationships—Psychological aspects. 5. Cyclists—United States— Biography. I. Title.

GV1045.B38 2014

796.6'40973—dc23 2013045251

Penguin is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity. In that spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however, the story, the experiences, and the words are the author’s alone.



About the Author

Title Page





CHAPTER 1: Here or There or There or Here

CHAPTER 2: The Water Beyond


CHAPTER 3: Big Picture, Little Moment

CHAPTER 4: Where Everything Happens

CHAPTER 5: To Carry It with Me

CHAPTER 6: To Leave a Mark


CHAPTER 7: What Awaited Us

CHAPTER 8: Riding Blind

CHAPTER 9: Slightly Mangled but Still Intact

CHAPTER 10: An Answer to All My Questions

CHAPTER 11: The Photographer

CHAPTER 12: A Single Whisper

Chapter 13: Tomorrow

CHAPTER 14: We’re Still Here

CHAPTER 15: Into the Valley


CHAPTER 16: An Arrival

CHAPTER 17: Where I Was and Where I Hoped to Be

CHAPTER 18: The View

CHAPTER 19: Horizon Country


Author’S Note


For my family

To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.

—George Santayana

Here or There or There or Here

pressed my cheek to the clouded glass, took a deep pull of diesel and wood smoke and rain-kissed leaves and sweat-soaked cotton, and watched as
swarmed the pavement,
hoarsely exhorting ancient women in Technicolor
cow-eyed backpackers in full-zip rain pants to go here or there or there or here. “¡A Guate a Guaaaate! ¡A Sololá! ¡A Xela a Xela, a Huehue!” My heart was pounding. My skin tingling. Because, here or there or there or here. Because maybe I was on the wrong bus. Because Cuatro Caminos looked a lot like Los Encuentros looked a lot like every other traffic-jammed junction town I’d seen from a sticky vinyl seat on
El Madre de Dios
El Don Diego
or the dozen other buses that had carried me from destination to destination, from this dusty market to that Mayan pyramid, from that must-see waterfall to this realization: I had mistaken distraction for destination. I
no destination.

Beside me, Dave choked on a snore. I turned to see his head listing toward port, his drooping lower lip on the verge of spilling saliva onto a faded brown T-shirt. Somehow, amid all this, he was sleeping.

El Madre
coughed a Rorschach of smoke, shuddered to life, and lurched forward. Again we were moving, and again that goddamn song was looping through my head:
The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round. The wheels
 . . .

I knocked my forehead against the window, hard enough to wake Dave. He blinked his eyes open and rolled his head from shoulder to shoulder.

“Almost there, Barney?” he asked, yawning.

I’d met Dave two years earlier, back in Madison. He’d instantly forgotten my name and the second time we saw each other had called me Barney Bosworth. I’d been Barney ever since.

I nodded. “I think it’s like fifteen more miles to Xela.”

“So three hours, then.”


He pulled a ratty paperback from his bag and opened to the bookmark. I slumped down, jack-knifed my legs against the seat in front of me, and stared out at the roadside market, at the mangy dogs and roasted corn and stacked tortillas and seven-cent avocados and people, so many people, headed here or there or there or here or . . . Honestly, I could no longer tell the difference.

Just a year earlier, I’d graduated from UW–Madison with a fill-in-the-blank lib-arts double major, a glut of idealist energy, and the deeply felt conviction that I was meant to be a union organizer, or a high school history teacher, or a writer, or the second coming of Che Guevara, or, ideally, all of the above at once. But I’d missed the app deadline for Union Summer, and getting a teaching certificate seemed like a lot of work, and I hadn’t ever written anything more than term papers and student-rag op-eds, and so, having just watched
The Motorcycle Diaries
for the third time, I decided what I really needed was that whole “if you want to change the world, let the world change you” thing. I thus used my degree to land a job waiting tables at a suburban Chinese restaurant, spent a year shoe-boxing tip money and highlighting Lonely Planet pages with Dave, and soon enough we were buying plane tickets, packing bags, and setting off on an epic, yearlong journey from northern Mexico to southern Argentina to Real Life.

I slid deeper into my seat, my knees now above my head. Already, just four weeks in, I was ready to admit it: I
backpacking. I hated the waterfalls and the ancient ruins and the repetitive conversations with wayward Scandinavians, and most of all I hated how, in the space between these supposed highlights, I always felt so lonely, so indecisive, so
guilty. I had a college diploma and no debt and a supposed commitment to Fighting for Social Justice, but somehow I’d ended up here, folded into a bus seat, being not just a pampered tourist but an
pampered tourist.

I couldn’t keep this up. I needed to stop somewhere, do something. I needed some sense that by going somewhere I was going somewhere.

I reached into my bag, pulled out the guidebook, and flipped to the pages I’d read a dozen times over the past few days—pages focused on the Guatemalan city of Quetzaltenango, also known as Xela. It was supposedly a beautiful spot, frequented but not defined by foreigners, full of Spanish schools and seemingly righteous nonprofits. Also, it was like fifteen miles away. Xela was the closest emergency exit, and I was about to kick the crash bar.

I turned to Dave. He was still holding his book, but his eyes were shut, his mouth an oval.

“Dave,” I said.

He opened his eyes. “Barney.”

“We need to talk.”

Two days later, I was at Xela’s bus terminal, waving good-bye to Dave and my delusions.

 • • • 

hose first few weeks in Xela, I was desperate for a sense of belonging. I needed to meet real
people, not just the ghost people who moved in and out of hotels and hostels, and so I enrolled in Spanish classes and joined a gym and helped pour the foundation for an elementary school and chatted up strangers in coffee shops and city parks, and soon enough I found a room in a house with a Guatemalan, two fellow gringos, and an Irish guy named Carl. The night I moved in, Carl invited me to catch a jazz band—a woman from his Spanish school was the vocalist.

The band was already playing as we walked up to El Royal Paris, a warmly lit fishbowl on a second-floor balcony. From the stairs, I could hear a lazy walking bass line, a keyboard tinkling over guitar triads, and horns murmuring in harmony. We approached the door, and through floor-to-ceiling glass walls I saw that the band appeared to be a mix of Guatemalans and gringos, all men.

Carl shrugged. “Maybe she’s sick, eh?”

He grabbed a table, and I headed to the bar for bottles of Moza, the least offensive of Guatemalan beers. As I set the bottles on the table, I noticed a woman stepping through the door and slipping a phone into her purse. She was unfairly, disorientingly attractive: silver-blue eyes against olive skin, watercolor collarbones over a silky subcollarbone swell, and a downright mythical strawberry blonde mane. Now she was shimmying past four-tops and awkward couples, sliding onto a stool by the guitarist. She noticed Carl and waved, and he waved back. I half-raised my own hand, then dropped it, unsure of the etiquette for greeting a beautiful woman who doesn’t know you exist.

Over his shoulder, Carl said, “That’s Rachel.”

“Cool,” I heard myself say.

I watched Rachel lean toward the keyboardist, a scruffy gringo in a baggy button-down. They exchanged whispers, and she tossed her head back in laughter, then theatrically pulled the mic to her lips. The band stayed silent as she sang the first few bars of “In My Solitude.” All around, conversations stopped. Heads turned. I felt my jaw dropping, my eyes deadening, but I could not control myself, could not do anything but absorb. That someone so young could sing like this, with such smoke and power and clarity, seemed impossible.

Minutes, hours, millennia passed. Glaciers advanced and retreated. And suddenly the band was starting an instrumental, and Rachel was walking over to say hi to Carl, and I was panicking, because I hadn’t prepared for this, hadn’t considered that I might need to
to her, and so I just did the midwestern thing and defaulted to effusive praise.

“You’ve got a really amazing voice,” I said.

“Thanks.” Rachel pulled up a chair, sat down, and produced a pack of American Spirits. “Really, I owe it all to these. Do you mind?”

I did not mind. She could do whatever she wanted, so long as she stayed at this table.

As Rachel exhaled cones of smoke and surveyed the room, I tried to make conversation, but her friends kept interrupting, stopping by to plant kisses on her cheek and ask about evening plans. So I just sat back and listened as she talked about an upcoming nonprofit fundraiser–cum–dance party and some guy named Paco and how tired she was of organizing
for every freaking student who’d spent five days studying Spanish at her school, and, well, at some point I lost track of what she was saying and just listened to how
she was saying it. That
So sexy and strong, so utterly entrancing, even offstage, even when she was just talking about . . . Actually, she now appeared to be talking about stomach parasites.

Whatever. She plainly had a life
here, a community, and her rootedness and confidence added to her beauty. Or rather, they complicated it. After a few minutes, I wasn’t sure if I wanted her or wanted to be her.

Now the band—apparently called Soltura, which roughly translates to “flowiness”—took a set break, and Rachel introduced me to Andrew, the guitarist, and his brother Galen, the scruffy keyboardist. I peppered them with questions about the whens and hows and whys of their lives in Xela, and as I listened to their responses, my gut twisted and clenched. They were speaking a language of shared experience, a language of belonging. I wanted to learn it.

 • • • 

he next weekend Andrew invited me to sit in at a show. I knew next to nothing about jazz but I’d played guitar for years, and so I kept up, even shone from time to time, on twelve-bar blues and A-minor bossa novas. As for all the other standards, with their dizzying modulations and impossible melodies, I just held on to whatever I could grasp and focused on not falling off.

As the weeks passed, I sat in for more shows, every one a roller-coaster ride, terrifying and exhilarating. Most afternoons, I’d lock myself in my room for a DIY crash course in music theory. I practiced scales and voicing, obsessed over these “Rhythm for Dummies” worksheets I’d gotten from Andrew, and soon, rather than watching her from the crowd, I was tucking arpeggios under Rachel’s melodies and eliciting the occasional smile or compliment.

One night we all headed from a gig to El Duende, a reggaeton-all-day-every-day bar that was hosting a fundraiser for the shelter where Rachel volunteered. We ordered Cuba Libres and pulled stools around a table. That night’s show had been particularly good, and I was swimming in booze and endorphins, was witty and sharp and asking all the right questions, and soon it was just Rachel and me, leaning close and straining our voices over the music. We were laughing and buying more Cuba Libres and grasping arms while asking, “Could you repeat that?” And then she was asking if I’d like to walk her home, and I was saying yes, yes, I would.

As we wound through cobblestone streets, I was sure this was the moment I had been waiting for. We would have earth-shattering, teeth-shaking, uninhibited-but-of-course-respectful sex, and then do it again, and then fall in love and never grow old but stay young together, making beautiful music and saying beautiful things and being beautiful forever. But when we got to her place, Galen was there—supposedly displaced by houseguests, definitely ruining my life. He followed us into Rachel’s room, grabbed a guitar, and started playing Silvio Rodríguez covers. An hour later he finally headed to the couch. By this point I’d lost my buzz, my momentum, my moment. Rachel and I kissed for a few minutes, but we were both exhausted. She told me she couldn’t keep her eyes open, but that I should stay, and so I tucked up beside her, not removing my jeans or my button-down shirt. I didn’t want to be presumptuous.

The next day Rachel told me she thought we should keep things platonic. I thought keeping things platonic was a terrible idea. But I nodded as if I had been thinking the same thing.

 • • • 

ndrew soon left Guatemala, opening up a spot in Soltura and a room in Galen’s house. I took both and began pouring all my energy into the band. I spent my days studying and practicing and talking about how much more I’d need to study and practice if I was ever going to keep up with my bandmates. Galen joked that if he were to make a talking doll in my image, its catchphrase would be, “I suck! I suck!”

My newfound status as sucky guitarist meant Rachel and I were together pretty much daily. I felt increasingly comfortable around her, and the less I acted like a tittering, wide-eyed fan, the more she seemed to enjoy my company. It turned out we had a lot in common, from our lefty politics to our crazy Jewish aunts to our mutual tendency to go a bit too far with vulgar humor. We got into long conversations that ranged from bell hooks to Boyz II Men, and stuck our tongues out at Galen every time he forced us to play “My Way,” and one night, at a postshow dinner, when I blurted to the band that I’d sell my best friend’s firstborn to see Beck in concert, Rachel not only laughed but responded with something frankly unpublishable.

Soon enough, I again found myself sitting around with her and Galen until well after midnight. Again Galen bid us adieu, but this time Rachel and I stayed on the couch, listening to music, playing nostalgic favorites, and sharing for what or whom that nostalgia was reserved. Eventually a silence fell between us. Rachel stood and started for her room. Over her shoulder, she said, “You can come with.”

We took our time that night, preserved some boundaries, all of which evaporated within days. But in the weeks that followed, we remained cautious. We decided not to tell Galen or anyone else in Soltura, didn’t even talk about it to each other. This thing was new and fragile, and I was afraid if I looked too long it might explode. At any rate, I knew it would be over soon, as we both had commitments that would call us back to the States, she to Oregon and I to Wisconsin.

So we just enjoyed the moments we had. I loved how she would look at me during a set, tilting her head and smiling. I was by no means the first or last guy to admire Rachel from afar, so sitting up there with her—
her—felt like the sweetest secret in the world. And I looked forward all week to Sunday afternoons, when we would finish our last gig, walk back to her house, climb into bed, and spend the rest of the day intertwined, drifting in and out of sleep.

During the week, it was harder to find these quiet moments
Whereas I had little going on outside Soltura, Rachel’s days were ridiculous.
Between her Spanish classes, her
planning, research for her thesis on machismo
volunteer work at a domestic-violence shelter, and her quasi-religious yoga regimen, she barely managed to make our gigs, let alone the biweekly practice sessions. But she made time for me. Soon we were seeing each other every day. And as my departure date crept closer, I began to question where I was going, why I was going there, and whether the answer to both questions might be Rachel.

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