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Monday, August 20, 2012

Kent Nerburn: Road Angels

I believe in serendipity. This belief of mine, that good things can and do come upon one unexpectedly, is an optimism born of experience. I am a fellow who finds duct tape in the middle of nowhere at the moment when it is most urgently needed. While I still endeavor to be cynical and cautious, and my upbringing and independent nature will always prevent me from counting on the kindness of circumstance, I cannot ascribe evil intent to the universe or the vast majority of my fellow human beings. I've seen too many good things in the world and had far more than any good cynic's share of fine interactions. As Bob Dylan wrote in a wildly different context, "I can't help it if I'm lucky."

I have learned over the years that just as water will flow past a full cup, fortune finds no gaps to fill in a life too precisely planned. And thus I wander, at least a bit every day, with vague intention and no clear destination. Not knowing what I'll find, I tend to find things. Very often they are wonderful things.

Which leads me to Kent Nerburn, or more precisely, his books. A few years ago, with no particular plan or urgent need, I strolled by a shelf in my local library and glimpsed, out of the corner of my eye, my own name. My first name, that is Kent, which is not a common name. I do not know if the Steves and Marys of the world stop when they see or hear their own names, perhaps it is too common an occurrence for them to bother with, or perhaps they are less egotistical than I, but I seldom see the name Kent in print and so the name Kent Nerburn called to me from the shelf and that is how I found a book called Neither Wolf nor Dog. It is one of the best books I've ever read. This story is not about that book.

This story is instead about another book of Mr. Nerburn's, a book I'm reading now called Road Angels. Road Angels called to me from another shelf, a few years after I'd read Neither Wolf nor Dog. I was not looking for Mr. Nerburn or this book, I was randomly wandering past a shelf of some old books in a book store that was new to me. Road Angels found me.

This a book on serendipity, a mediation on roads less traveled by, a wandering journey by someone prone to telling little stories and perhaps to thinking too much. It's wonderful. I'm one hundred pages in and I've been stopping to read passages to Christine. Just when I would say it's not about bicycles and this is a bike blog and I shouldn't burden my readers with something like this, I find this passage where Nerburn finds himself in Seattle near the University of Washington:

Since I'm near the university, I decide to poke around. University neighborhoods are especially dear to my heart. However, they all share one common curse: they're anathema to automobiles. If you live near a university, the best thing you can do is burn your car. Or, at least, that's the decision that was come to by a friend of mine at the University of Minnesota.

He owned an evil Volkswagen bug that defied the efforts of every mechanic to solve a recurring electrical problem. Time after time it would stall for no reason at all, always with no warning and always in the most inconvenient circumstances.

He would have it towed to a mechanic, spend money he didn't have, be assured that the problem was finally fixed, and within a week find himself stranded on another freeway or busy city street with a car that once again refused to start.

He would dutifully call a friend, who would dutifully come over and pull the beast back to his house. Then he would dial up the mechanic, who would shrug his shoulders and offer to try again for more money. My friend would get angry and curse the mechanic, then drag the car to a different shop, and the same process would begin all over. The only thing that changed was the balance in his checkbook, which had been almost nonexistent in the first place.

One winter morning he awoke to find the curbside in front of his apartment peppered with signs announcing that all vehicles had to be removed by eight o'clock so the streets could be plowed. It was already seven forty-five.

The Volkswagen, of course, refused to start.

He cranked and cursed and enlisted the neighbors to try to jump the battery, but nothing worked. After almost inducing coronaries in three out-of-shape passersby who he conscripted to try to push-start the car, he shoved the beast into neutral, pushed it into the middle of the street, and began yelling, "If anyone wants this car, they have fifteen minutes to come and take it." But no one emerged to take him up on his offer. Perhaps it was because he kept referring to the Volkswagen as "the piece of shit that has ruined my life."

At any rate, the fifteen minute deadline came and went with no takers. So he did what any reasonable man would do. He set the car on fire.

By the time I stopped by later in the day, it was only a charred carcass resting by the side of the curb. The firemen had come and put it out, and he, like Peter, had denied any knowledge of its ownership. His wife, who was expecting a child, was ready to divorce him. The kids in the neighborhood were ready to canonize him. But in his own mind, only one thing mattered: he was free. He bought an old black bicycle, too wretched to be stolen, and proceeded to ride it through, one of the snowiest Minnesota winters on record. He was a happy man.

Nerburn continues down the coast, telling small bits from his past, meeting people and the land, finding more stories and more ways people make their way in this world. It's a road well worth a wander.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

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