I loved the smell of the road. The hay and manure, and pollen from the corn, and even the hard smells of pigs. They were like living smells. I know it sounds stupid, but they were smells with muscles. Each morning the smells were crispy and separated from each other, but as I pedalled into the afternoon, the wet heat of the Midwest mixed all the odors together. Both times of the day were wonderful.
Ron McLarty, The Memory of Running (2005)
I came across Ron McLarty’s ‘The Memory of Running’ a few years back and read it virtually in one sitting. It’s a novel that borders on schmaltz the whole way through but manages somehow to stay the right side of the line and is actually very moving. Smithson Ide, an overweight, unlikely cyclist, recounts his recuperative and transformative journey across America on an old steel Raleigh. McLarty, who is as well known as a television character actor as he is as a writer, beautifully captures the sensory experiences associated with cycling and the sense of oneness it can engender with the road and the natural world.
After a while you get into a bike trance and don’t have to think too much about pedalling. At least, because I was going so slow, I didn’t, and I could look around at where I was. This was new for me. The whole idea of a place, I mean. And a way from the big interstate road system –which you couldn’t use if you didn’t have an engine—New Jersey was, I suppose, gorgeous. In Rhode Island the words ‘New Jersey’ were interchangeable with ‘dog shit,’ but its amazing to see how many perfect farms and groves and forests there are. And the rivers and streams are great. Around Ralston I walked my bike off the road and sat by the Raritan River. Beautiful. I had a couple of bananas and splashed some of that good water over my face and hair. I had a beard coming up, and the cool water stayed around my stubble, taking away the itch. Every stop has a purpose. I was learning, I suppose, about refreshment.
McLarty also captures the sense of awe and envy we have all felt when coming across a new and beautiful bike, and the emotional tug between the desire for the new and the thing you love.
The Moto bike was another thing altogether. When did this happen? When did bikes become things like this? This was a jet plane of bikes! This was a happy dream of bikes! It was dark blue, and it looked so solid you would think it weighed a hundred pounds, but you could literally pick it off the ground with one finger. The seat was padded with lambswool, and the handlebars curved wide and down and had a soft foam cover. It was a bike that could make me forget my Raleigh (but I would never forget my Raleigh).
‘The Memory of Running’ was first published as an audio book (McLarty reads for audio book recordings) and was described by Stephen King as the best book you can’t read.