Getting Out of Town by Book & Bike
by Kent Thompson
Gaspereau Press, 2001
Reviewed by Ted Harms
Kent Thompson's Getting out of Town by Book and Bike is an excellent
collection of bicycle-themed essays, personal recollections, and
travelogues. In some entries, cycling takes centre stage, while in others
it is, pardon the pun, a vehicle for observations or an interesting sidebar.
Kent has a good background for mixing literary and velocipede interests;
apart from his large literary output, he's the author of 'Biking to
Blissville', a cycling guide to the Maritimes. He makes no bones that he's
not a master mechanic or could rip the legs off Lance Armstrong; I would
call him, in the best sense of the word, a 'gentleman' cyclist - a serious
hobbyist who knows that there's more to cycling than what he knows; further,
given the philosophical bent to some of his entries, Thompson has obviously
spent time just thinking about cycling.
In one of his historical reflections, Thompson pulls out the story of Lyman
Hotchkiss Bagg, who cycled through Nova Scotia on a penny-farthing (the
style of bicycle where the front wheel could be the same height as the
rider) in the summer of 1883 and self-published his description of the trip
in "Ten Thousand Miles on a Bicycle", which, for some reason, Bagg published
under the penname of Karl Kron. Another cyclist that has his story told is
Karl Creelman who left Truro, Nova Scotia in May of 1899 to cycle the world
and returned with some tall tales in early September, 1901.
Through out this collection, Thompson cites several works of fiction from
around the turn of the century that mention bicycles or use them as a way to
judge a person's character. D.H. Lawrence's "A Modern Lover" is the story
of a man who returns to his hometown and finds that a family (and one of
their daughters) that he had been in favour with now has another suitor in
the picture. Lawrence uses the bicycle riding of the new suitor as a means
for the old suitor to draw inferences on the competitor's character.
Thompson supplies a good overview of what the popularity of the bicycle did
to the social conventions of the time. As seen in Lawrence's story and
other works that Thompson cites, a bicycle afforded a generation of people a
physical liberation that seemed to go hand in hand with social freedom. The
bicycle literally offered expanded vistas in everything from employment to
leisure; for example, in the realm of courtship, suddenly one was no longer
bound to people that lived in your vicinity - the next town was only a short
bike ride away. And, though it'd be out of place to cite the bicycle as
instigator of the women's equality movements around the turn of the previous
century, it was quite a happy accident that that agenda fit nicely with the
bicycle's empowering, yet sexually neutral, potential.
While serving as a background for his own bicycle trips, Thompson features
two Nova Scotian authors. By his own admission, Thompson states that
Elizabeth Bishop and Ernest Buckler are both well down on the list of CanLit
must-read; none-the-less, he makes an argument that both of them should have
a slightly higher profile than what they currently have. Thompson gives a
blow-by-blow description of Bishop's and Buckler's old haunts and how local
sights and features worked themselves into their work.
Thompson has several personal tales that ring true with anybody who has
continued to ride a bike after they've received their driver's license -
reflecting on losing your bike as a child, trying to fix it, buying a beater
and turning into a reclamation project, etc. The most personal tale is
Thompson's writing on the death of local cyclist, hit by a truck on his way
to work; the weight of this death on Thompson is evident in that this
collection is dedicated to the cyclist. Thompson is even in his assessment
of the accident but he knows, as any cyclist does, that cars and bicycles do
not mix well.
That is the unpleasant side of the cyclist's world. The other side is
mentioned several times by Thompson but perhaps received the best treatment
by Robert Pirsig's in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which
Thompson makes a few comments on). Pirsig says that riding in a car
detaches you from your environment - car windows might as well be TV
screens; while, on a bike (or motorcycle in Pirsig's case), you're part of
what you're travelling through - you can touch your foot to the pavement,
feel the rain or sun, hear the sounds of cows in the field or the kids in
As Thompson alludes to in the title of this excellent collection and soundly
demonstrates in each entry, bicycles are not only a physical vehicle, but a
mental one as well - two wheels can do what a good book can: it can free
your soul and make the world around you disappear.
Ted Harms owns too many bikes but only three are currently functional; he
rides his one-speed, coaster-brake Raleigh to work every day.