Boy meets girl. Boy gets girl. Boy and girl ride shiny new Fuji bicycles on a 2,000-mile trip from boy’s Wisconsin hometown out west in search of adventure and spiritual fulfillment. Brian Benson’s memoir, Going Somewhere: A Bicycle Journey Across America, embarks on a journey to the great, white Somewhere, and kept me wondering throughout: Will this end as romance or tragedy?
Benson, who grew up in Land O’Lakes in northern Wisconsin, has written his first book about his favorite subject—himself—during the few months he and girlfriend Rachel planned and undertook a cross-country journey by bike. A confused but proud twenty-something, the Benson we meet in this memoir is ready to take on the world, but clueless as to how to do so. While Benson’s world-weary narrative occasionally tests the reader’s patience, as with any lost boy we are curious to know if the journey will end with discovery.
At the center of the memoir is Benson’s road diary, and certain passages in the book seem to be taken from it whole cloth. “There was something comforting about this quantitative account of daily life … every entry packed with headwinds and tornado threats and sex and blown spokes and selfless strangers and stunning scenery and sex. I’d done a good job recording these moments—and, inevitably, burying them in masturbatory adjectives and shitty landscape metaphors—but the play-by-play had left me too spent to write about much else. About, for example, my anxiety over the horizon. Or my frustrations with Rachel.”
Frustration is at the core of Benson’s experience. And, even though he claims to be self-aware—characterizing himself as a brash, privileged, inexperienced, white male making an expensive bicycle trip with a beautiful, smart woman he can’t begin to appreciate—he can’t stop feeling dissatisfaction. For instance, he resents Rachel’s inability to match his pace, yet he struggles with the selfishness of his resentment, thus entangling himself in a Möbius strip of unhappiness.
Benson writes best when his and Rachel’s relationship is at odds with the vague, selfish quest for the “something” that hangs over their trip. The couple’s initial enthusiasm and moxie darken as the elements and their bodies turn against them. Too many hours in the saddle battling headwinds, troublesome tires, and numb limbs creates a friction that any person who has ever taken a long trip with a loved one can understand. At the end of bad days, they take time for themselves at opposite ends of city parks, eating candy bars in silence.
The sour moods break during brief moments of glee when they find their way (in the spirit of adventure, they purposefully haven’t bought bicycling maps) and when friends and strangers offer them a hot meal and the opportunity to reflect and reconnect.
Like all good first-person accounts, Going Somewhere is a conversation between two people: the insecure Brian who takes this journey, and the slightly-wiser older Brian who lives to tell the tale. There are awkward moments when this conversation is not conducted elegantly, but even this feels like a natural part of Brian’s frustrated song of himself.
By its rushed epilogue, Benson’s book arrives at a hopeful place, a place further from tragedy than I had anticipated. If nothing else, Benson’s minor adventure proves that the spirit of young America may still lie in the unexpected cracks of the frontier, even if that frontier no longer exists and perhaps never did.