The First Big Ride
by Eloise Hanner (Afghanistan 1971–73, Paraguay 1999–2000)
Nashville: Cumberland House Press, 2000
256 pages

Reviewed by Rich Wandschneider (Turkey 1965–67)

IN 1997 ELOISE HANNER WAS 48 years old and tired of her life as a Merrill Lynch financial planner. Husband Chuck had already cashed in his Merrill job and Eloise was mentally done but hanging on when Chuck phoned her at work with the idea of a cross country bike ride.
     In an earlier life the couple had been Peace Corps Volunteers in Afghanistan. Now they were comfortable and living the good life in San Diego, California. But troubled too, looking for a next and more meaningful turn in their lives. After some discussion, Eloise gave notice, they bought new bikes and began training, gained some measure of acceptance from friends and family, and set out on the Big Ride from Seattle to Washington D.C.
     The book is a straight forward, cleanly written, chronological account of the ride: flat tires and sore muscles; wind, rain, snow, tornado watches, heat, bugs, state lines, Continental Divide and Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and other geographic and geological markers and monuments. Unfortunately, there is little reflection on the things they see along the road. She counts 113 railroad cars of coal, and wonders who uses coal anymore, but drops it there. She wonders what the Amish farmers do for cash, but never asks. Although she loved Laura Wilder’s books as a child, and admires the fact that the Little House books are delighting children decades after the author’s death, there is no mention of later controversy surrounding Wilder’s writing and politics. Sometimes, she admits, it seems as if they are just “going from pit stop to pit stop.”
     The central purpose of the trip is stated concisely on page 199 of a 278 page book. “My biggest accomplishment at Merrill had been in making enough money for early parole. I wanted to do something now that was more meaningful. I kept hoping that the bike ride would show me what that was.” She connects with a friend from California, with relatives, and at one point they meet up with old Peace Corps friends, but we don’t get any reflection on previous experiences — don’t learn anything about their Peace Corps pasts and how it led them to Merrill Lynch and now to this ride. We don’t learn anything about the conversations with old friends or even with their biking mates that might help Eloise and Chuck find their next and more meaningful life.
     The ride ends. They are teary and sad that they will probably not see these fine people they’ve grown close to again. They go back to San Diego. In the Epilogue, we learn briefly that Eloise is writing the book, but nothing about the process or the reasons for doing so. They are talking about what to do next. They feel like they have “used up” the city. One day Chuck says “What about South America?”
     There are no children (but no discussion about this issue either). They are obviously OK financially. They had always talked about rejoining the Peace Corps, but had thought that it would be when they were in their 60s. I guess the Big Ride had somehow changed all that, because in the flick of a sentence they have their Peace Corps applications in — which explains why the Epilogue is written from Paraguay.
     So it is a pleasant little book, but unsatisfying too. Several times I wanted to jump up and say “Tell me more. And tell me why!” Good memoirs and good travel books explore the minds of the travelers and the people met on the road. They describe and relate inner and outer geographies. Writers discover things about places and about themselves, and share their discoveries. They whet your appetite for a Big Ride or for the Peace Corps. The First Big Ride: A Woman’s Journey didn’t do that for me.