How I Roll: On tour with a recumbent and a guitar

By Peter Mulvey

I’ve been a touring songwriter for 25 years, playing shows from Anchorage to Amsterdam, from Seattle to Boston. It’s a truly lovely life, and the endless flow of airports and rental car counters is a small price to pay for the privilege of getting to share night after night of music with my far flung, loyal audience.

I’m also an avid cyclist; I ride a recumbent around my native Milwaukee, and I often travel with a Brompton so that I can ride the Golden Gate Bridge or the Silver Comet Trail when I’m on the road.

One of my favorite venues, the Cafe Carpe in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, is only 56 miles from my house, and much of what lies between is the achingly pretty Glacial Drumlin Rail Trail. For years, an innocuous thought rattled around the back of my head: “If I could find a way to bring my guitar, I could commute to a gig at the Carpe by bike!”

Eventually, this innocent thought collided with a second thought: “Then I’d only be 38 miles from Madison. Why… I could do a little tour!”

I bought a BOB trailer, packed far too much in the way of clothing and CDs to sell, and hurled myself into the task. That first September, in 2007, I did a 350 mile loop that included venues in the Wisconsin towns of Fort Atkinson, Madison, Green Lake, Oshkosh, Cedarburg, and Milwaukee. I got sunburned, rained on, exhausted… and hooked.

pm bike

The next year I streamlined down to a recumbent with no trailer, and repeated a similar loop. In 2009 I and a small band of fellow cyclists (including the opening act, Minneapolis songwriter Brianna Lane, who has since become the permanent opener on these tours) took the ferry from Milwaukee to Muskegon, Michigan, and then biked from there through Michigan, Ontario, upstate New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire, playing gigs along the way to a final show in Boston. 1100 miles. A life-changing trip.

This year will be the tenth annual bicycle tour, a run from Milwaukee to Minneapolis. Of course the exercise is welcome, and of course the back roads and the scenery and the hills and the guiltless stops for ice cream are all worth the price of admission… but I was truly startled to find such a vivid expansion of my life. There is a bond that is only accessible to humans when we are traveling over land, under our own power, getting rained on together, getting hungry together, facing hills together. I noticed us all (there are usually between four and seven people on these tours) bonding in a way that felt, and of course truly is, millennia deep. We had become the tribe.

pm recumbent

Granted, there are no elk or mastodons, but rather gas stations with Gatorade. And there are no tigers, but rather motorists. Still, once the tribe is safely to the shelter of the next cave (or, in this case, the trailside B&B) and telling stories of the day’s adventures, there is nothing quite like the feeling of having done what we were, in a true sense, built to do.

Bicycling has changed many lives; what strikes me is how many different ways we keep finding for it to change us.

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