The First Day of
My Unicycle Trip Across America
I had learned to ride my unicycle with ski poles but eventually could ride without them. With a backpack, however, mounting was more difficult, and I wished again for ski poles, if only to ensure that the inaugural mount of my journey would go smoothly, so Trina [his sister] could give a promising report to our parents and eventually to Chris [his other sister], who was in India on a Fulbright scholarship.

Left foot on the left pedal, the seat situated under me, the next action would be to step up and sit on the seat. I hesitated, trembling slightly. My first actual maneuverings past the back porch steps of our central Kentucky farmhouse had been crooked and painstaking, and I had labored a week before I'd had enough balance to toss away the ski poles. Still, I'd moved only slowly, and it took some time after that before I learned to use my body to make turns. The first time I pedaled around the house my sisters ran from window to window to check on my progress, but later, when I was able to circle the house continuously, they had either lost interest or were afraid of becoming dizzy. My record was ten times around the house without falling down.

At the side of a road in the middle of North Carolina, the thought occurred to me that I should have stopped at ten times around the house. Nonetheless, I stepped up, and my right foot quickly found the loose pedal; I wobbled a bit and then moved more surely down the road. I stuck my arm out. Trina beeped the horn. The photograph she took showed my body at an odd angle with the unicycle.

I'd never liked how photographs stole grace from a unicyclist, whose only redemption was movement. Very few could look at such a photo and imagine how a shift of the body could avoid a fall and result in movement, sometimes in the desired direction; how the awkwardness of that captured moment was the genesis of unicycle travel.

Most would look at the photo and be convinced of the rider's doom. The backpack felt very heavy. I reviewed its contents: the lightweight sleeping bag borrowed from my uncle, who had used it after high school on a hitchhiking expedition to Alaska; a five-pound tent; a candle lantern that weighed practically nothing; a paperback copy of Small Is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher; a one-pound twig-burning camp stove; a water pump for purifying water; a cup, a spoon, and a pot; matches; notebooks for writing; a collapsible plastic water container; peanut butter, bread, cookies, several packages of instant oatmeal, two bananas, one apple, a bag of split peas, instant rice, and some oatmeal squares from Trina. Each item, it now seemed clear, added to the weight of the pack. Daddy had told me I was taking too much.

In my right pocket was $500, money saved while running a basketball game at carnivals and festivals. I would try to keep my expenses under $15 a day.

That my shoulders were sore already was becoming apparent. I shifted the position of my pack. The movement caused my unicycle to turn to the left. So I took a detour, the best of my options. I'd learned to virtually always give in to my unicycle. There were a few more slight corrections --- to the right, to the left --- before I got myself straightened out, relatively speaking.

In front of me then was a hill. With this hill, I would prove to myself that this journey would be possible physically. I leaned toward the incline.

Each time I pushed one of the pedals down, my unicycle swayed in that direction. I would quickly push the other pedal down to balance myself. A third of the way up the hill, the pedals hardened even more. I moved like a pendulum.

When I was halfway up, a car without a muffler came up behind me, accelerating hard. Without granting me space, it raced past me to the top.

I stepped off my unicycle. My legs were rubber. Going down the hill on the other side, the car backfired. After all, I didn't choose a unicycle for its ability to transport me up a hill, I told myself. I would walk up hills; I needed walking breaks anyway. Sweat streaking my face, I pushed my unicycle to the top.

I walked down the hill too, began to breathe less heavily. At the bottom I encountered a flat section of road with no cars. I mounted again. These are the best conditions possible for a unicyclist. No cars, no hills. I took a small notebook from my shirt pocket, drew out a pen from the metal spiral binding. With my hands thus withdrawn from the air, I wrote a few words. The danger was that I would not be able to use language as precisely as an arm flung out for balance.

"Cross Dan River" I wrote in the notebook, my letters going about the white, lined paper much the same way my wheel was on the road. Still no cars. The number of ants on the road surprised me. I'd never traveled slowly enough to see so many. With a slight shift of my body, I could miss whole columns of them. I set my pen to work again. "I want people to slow down, see a different shape." The sentence was a half-mile long.

Later in the afternoon, the road suddenly had heavy traffic. Vehicles passed me constantly. I'd battle each one in my head to give myself a buffer. The car or truck would pass without hitting me.

As motorists stared, I, too, found myself contemplating a man on a unicycle, a tiny measure of fascination mixed with a larger portion of dread. This man was traveling insecurely, his movement undulating. He was foolish and exposed to the world. He was in pain.

Finally, the exit to Hanging Rock State Park appeared, and I left the main road for a narrow one, which turned steeply uphill. I walked it, pushing the unicycle in front of me, exhausting myself. I took rest breaks, sitting on guardrails.

Closer to the campsite I strapped the unicycle to my backpack. I didn't want to answer questions about my journey. I would pretend that my unicycle didnt exist, that I was only a hiker. That, however, proved hard to do, given that the nonexistent item turned my pack almost unbearably heavy.

I found a site at the end of the campground. Too tired to light a fire for a hot meal, I flopped down and did nothing. A quick look at the map helped me to determine that I had traveled only five miles.

For supper I ate one of the "survival" bars that Trina had baked, one of the few times I'd ever appreciated the weighty oatmeal squares.

Dark came. I lit the candle lantern, took out a postcard. Not enough light to cover the entire card. I wrote home, my sentences ending in obscurity. A park ranger drove over and collected four dollars. She told me there was a phone in the office in case of sickness or, "in your case," she said, "if you need transportation help."

--- From Slowspoke
Mark Schimmoeler
©2014, Chelsea Green Publishing
Go to a review of the
from whence comes this reading

Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH