You & a Bike & a Road is a remarkable achievement for both the cartoonist and the amateur cyclist behind it.
In March of 2016, Ignatz Award winner Eleanor Davis embarked on a solo cross-country bike tour from her parents’ house in Tucson, Arizona to her home in Athens, Georgia. She was armed with little more than a bicycle built by her father, a modest pack of supplies, and a pencil and paper with which to record her experiences. The result is loosely drawn visual journal You & a Bike & a Road, the latest charming release from Koyama Press, which takes Davis and her reader on a journey through changing landscapes both natural and societal, a number of weird and wonderful strangers’ homes, and plenty of physical and mental challenges along the way.
With its spontaneous art and equal balance of humour and heart, You & a Bike & a Road is immediately striking. The bright colours and clean lines of Davis’s earlier work make way for simple sketches with an unedited, haphazard feel, which nevertheless maintain the boulder-shouldered, neckless grace of her previous character designs.
The writing is similarly playful, yet never glib, as fun anecdotes cleverly convey cultural, political, and environmental observations. From a stay in an “historic plantation house” to encounters with the silent yet ever looming presence of border patrol, contrasted with the epitome of big-hearted Southern hospitality – an invitation to an all-you-can-eat catfish fry – Davis’s travels double as an anthropological expedition; the lines on her page working like modern day cave paintings.
Where many a first-person journal comic might struggle to break free from the inward-looking egocentrism common to the genre, You & a Bike & a Road stands apart for its transcendence of the self. Davis’s initial motivation for taking the trip is indeed personal (“I was having trouble with wanting to not be alive. But I feel good when I’m bicycling”, she reveals to the reader), however her interactions as she traverses the variegated fabric of the Southern United States, buoyed or deflated by others’ acts of kindness or intolerance respectively, sees her experiences reach beyond the individual and her transportation move beyond the physical.
We meet, for example, ‘the bike guy’ in Alpine, Texas, who happens to be a former social worker and lends an ear to Eleanor’s problems before hooking her up with Luke, a friend who’s a sports masseuse, as well as Brian and Gail, who provide a place to stay, a dog to cuddle, and unlimited bowls of homemade soup. We do also meet a crowd of people lining up to “watch the ropin’” of an “illegal” in Fort Hancock, though.
Moments in which our protagonist is completely alone in nature – the vast expanse of which is beautifully mirrored by the absence of panel borders and word balloons – are just as poignant; not just in the sheer liberation and affirmation of a woman hitting the road on her own, propelled through swathes of land by her legs and lungs, but also in the humanity of when she falters. She cries over the phone to her husband* back home. She doubts her ability to keep pedalling on swollen knees. She fears the depression that might await her when the adventure stops. Nevertheless, she presses on. “Mountain in the distance. Move toward it. Now you’re climbing it. Now you’re over it. Now it’s gone”. It’s difficult not to feel inspired.
“I like going further than we tell ourselves is possible”, writes Davis at the beginning of her story. You & a Bike & a Road is a remarkable achievement for both the cartoonist and the amateur cyclist behind it. Saddle up and prepare to feel the wind whipping through your hair on this most riveting of rides.
*Fellow cartoonist Drew Weing
Eleanor Davis (W/A) • Koyama Press, $12.00