This is a travelogue with a twist. Bill Hancock decided to live out one of his long-contemplated goals - after his son Will was tragically killed. His constant companion on the 2,700 mile bike journey across the U.S. was a creature he calls the “Blue Moth” of grief.
His wife, Nicki, was also there much of the time, setting up camp ahead of Bill’s torturing trip, a trip for which he was only barely prepared. Both parents were devastated by their son’s untimely death. Bill worked through some of his sorrow through physical suffering, trying as a middle-aged man in slightly better than average condition to do something that many younger people would not attempt – to cross the U.S. by bicycle.
In part,Bill dealt with his mourning by addressing his book to his granddaughter, Will’s daughter Andie. Will was an Oklahoma State basketball player killed when the plane transporting his team was lost in a snowstorm. Bill, an NCAA director, had to face his colleagues who were also Will’s cohorts their lives linked to sport and to one another in many ways, making the death all the more insupportable.
But Andie, seventy-two days old when the tragedy occurred, would have to grow up without her father. Bill talks to her as he travels, trying to establish a link, through his insights, to her lost parent. He writes, “Andie, we’ll learn the reason when the time is right…the first day when I get to Heaven, I’ll be sitting in the front row with my hand in the air…my question for God will be, Why have you been so good to me?”
The scenery and the difficulties of traversing it by bike make the book exciting and often amusing. But the counterpoint to every chapter is Bill’s sadness. When Bill encounters the “blue moth,” he realizes that he has lessons to learn. At one juncture, the moth seems to be telling him that “Will could be forgotten like that tree branch, his existence slowly fading as his friends and colleagues found substitutes to take his place.” But he also realizes that by riding hard he could chase the moth away, at least temporarily.
Biking fans will enjoy reading about Bill’s triumphs and falls, and travel buffs will appreciate vignettes of the American back roads experienced in such solitude. There’s inspiration to be garnered from Bill’s encounters with various odd angels: The Peach Angel, Arizona Bad Man, One-Eyed Pop in Pie Town. Each of them pushes Bill along with a little jolt of kindness or wisdom. Anyone who’s traveled much will recognize these archetypal figures who loom up out of the landscape for a few minutes give the sojourner something new to contemplate, some fresh way to explain the day’s passage.
As he follows a path across the southern states (the trip is mapped and chapters divided into segments of travel augmented by Bill’s diary entries, notes on distances, temperature, meals, etc) Bill’s relationship with the Blue Moth changes. The Moth becomes an almost welcome companion, allowing Bill to mourn when he needs to. “Now I do not try to escape it when it arrives. I simply listen to what it has to say, and wait quietly for it to fly away.”