Review by Woodrow Phoenix
You & a Bike & a Road is an autobiographical travel diary created by award-winning cartoonist and illustrator Eleanor Davis. It covers an arduous eight weeks in early 2016 spent cycling mostly by herself across the southern United States, from her parents’ home in Tucson, Arizona, through Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi to her home in Athens, Georgia.
Davis is a tremendously skilled and inventive artist especially good at dynamic and surprising compositions that turn a potentially mundane subject into beautiful and powerful pictures. The striking and unusual wraparound cover of this book demonstrates those talents, along with her superb use of colour. Sadly, there is no colour inside this book as she sketched these pages loosely in notebooks while she was travelling, but her sophisticated design sense is always in evidence with layouts that employ a variety of angles, vistas, diagrams and occasionally bravura displays of landscape drawing.
She applies the same thinking to the careful, empathetic way she deals with everyday situations and the result is an informal yet intimate and involving read. It’s a distance of 1, 803 miles from Tucson, AZ to Athens, GA so the first thing she has to explain to those she meets along the way is just why she wanted to make such a challenging journey, and a spread at the beginning of this book lays out her answers:
“‘What made you decide to do this trip?’ People ask.” Davis draws her responses three different ways: “‘My husband and I want a baby so I figure I either do this now or wait 20 years.” or “My dad built me this bike and I hate boxing and shipping bikes so I decided just to ride it home!” ‘I don’t say “I was having trouble with not wanting to be alive. But I feel good when I’m bicycling,” but that is also true.’”
Davis posted her drawings on her twitter account @squinkyelo during her journey, with the decision to take the pages and collect them into a book only coming months after she was back home again. Perhaps that creative freedom was the secret behind documenting her journey in such a compelling way. Much of it touches on the bleakness of exposing yourself to the emptiness and vulnerability of being a body in liminal border spaces, a defencelessness that drivers tucked up their cars rarely get to feel. Some of it is funny, some of it is uncomfortable and hair-raisingly brave. You can imagine a less engaged person making exactly this same journey without seeing or understanding half of what she documents here.
You & a Bike & a Road works incredibly well both as a travelogue revealing something of the state of the country Davis moves through and a personal reflection on quests, travelling and goals in general. She certainly doesn’t make it look easy, but if you feel moved to embark on a similar gruelling challenge, take careful heed of her advice on the last page about planning your own journey.