Cycling adventure through a new Lenz

My wife leaned over and whispered, “You’re thinking about something.”

It was hard not to. (And drat the telltale look that signals when thought is finally occurring.) It was Monday evening and we were among 30 or so others listening to author David Herlihy recount the adventures of cycling explorer Frank Lenz. Lenz was a Pittsburgh bookkeeper who became caught up in the early stages of a cycling boom that swept the country in the late 1800s. He started pedaling a “high wheeler,” participating in races on dirt (usually mud) roads and tracks that might draw 20 competitors and thousands of fans. Begrudgingly, he switched to a “safety bicycle” — the prototype for the modern bike — when that style began to curry favor. In the meantime, he was honing his skills as a photographer, and in 1892 convinced Outing magazine to back an ill-fated trip around the world. That trip is the basis for Herlihy’s  “The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance,” and constituted the bulk of his talk and slideshow Monday at Quail Ridge Books & Music.

It would be easy to romanticize Lenz’s worldwide journey on this exotic new machine through lands of which, even in the 1890s, little was known. Easy, if you didn’t listen closely to Herlihy. The roads Lenz traveled were not paved, they were dirt, and often of the loosely packed or wet variety. Lenz’s bike alone weighed 58 pounds, and then there was his gear, which included a 35-pound box camera. Many of the countries he rode through had never seen white people, let alone a white guy on a two-wheeled thing-a-ma-bob. There were no maps for many of the places he traveled. Cash was the currency of the day, and some countries didn’t have paper money: Lenz had to tote weighty coins for long stretches at a time.

This was not cruising paved highways on an 18-pound, 27-gear touring bike with just a change of clothes and a piece of plastic. Still, my face betrayed a lust for adventure.

Beginning in the mid- to  late 1800s and lasting into the following century, a profound sense of adventure had captured the imagination of the masses. In the U.S. alone, the Iron Horse was making its way west, opening vast expanses of territory for exploration, if not personally then through the eyes of adventurers, some financed by magazines such as Outing to lure readers. And this thirst for adventure hardly ended at our expanding borders: Explorers such as Ernest Shackleton, David Lingstone, Percy Fawcett, Richard Byrd, and others were pushing into terra incognita. And then …

And then, it seemed that we’d explored just about everything there was to explore here on Earth. Space was the final frontier, and I don’t know about you but I’ve yet to figure out how to pack for a trip to Canis Major. In fact, though, just because someone else has explored a place doesn’t mean we can’t. Reading about a place, watching a documentary, getting Tweets from out in the field, none of it is a replacement for being there. Great adventures await just out our front door, and that was why I had that look on my face. Riding a bike around the world had already been done: I didn’t have a couple years right now to spare anyway. But there was a local bike adventure I’d been contemplating, one more than three decades in the making that now, with a short detour or two, was within reach.

Riding my bike on greenway from Cary to downtown Durham.

In the early 1980s, a 22-mile rail line running south from downtown Durham into western Wake County was abandoned. Later that decade a plan was made to turn the corridor into a rails-to-trails project, opening the former rail line to a variety of non-motorized traffic. Today, the American Tobacco Trail is all but a bridge (over I-40) and a mile and a half of pavement from being completed. Meanwhile, greenways were popping up elsewhere in the Triangle; as the assorted stretches of asphalt grew in length, someone got the idea that they should become one big ol’ greenway throughout the Triangle — “Circle the Triangle,” the notion was called — with the American Tobacco Trail at its core. Listening to Herlihy and being touched by Lenz’s sense of adventure, while at the same time realizing that I was no Frank Lenz, made me realize that save for about five miles of road riding at the start, I could pedal most of the rest of the way to downtown Durham on greenway, safely segregated from my sometimes inattentive four-wheel brethren.

The next morning around 11, thought turned into action.

Monday: Thought turns into action.

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