On a July day in 2001, the temperature in Memphis at 5 in the morning was already in the high 70s, and for breakfast, Bill Hancock had toast, a banana, then a cinnamon roll, followed, for lunch, by cheese crackers and Vienna sausage. The carbs didn’t stop there.
Dinner consisted of a hamburger, a hot dog, onion rings, tater tots, and peach cobbler. To wash it all down, Hancock went through six quarts of water, three quarts of Gatorade, and a root beer. He had to to keep hydrated, because he was on a bike, and he was pedaling cross-country — from Huntington Beach, California, to Tybee Island, Georgia.
And no, that wasn’t Memphis, Tennessee, Hancock was passing through that July day. It was Memphis, Texas.
Hancock’s wife rode ahead in the couple’s pop-up tent trailer, where Hancock would spend nights. But on his bike, he was on his own — except for what was on his shoulder, the “blue moth,” the name given to the grief Hancock and his wife shared after their son Will, age 31, died in a plane crash six months before.
The plane was carrying members of the Oklahoma State University men’s basketball team and athletic staff, and Hancock describes that horrible day in the opening pages of Riding with the Blue Moth, a memoir of his 36-day, 2,746-mile bike trip.
Originally published in 2005, the book has been reissued in paperback by Nautilus Publishing of Oxford, Mississippi. Hancock will be discussing and signing Riding with the Blue Moth at the Memphis Botanic Garden on Monday, June 1st, from 6 to 8 p.m., with Burke’s Book Store handling the event.
But for someone so identified with sports, it’s surprising to learn in his book that he planned to study piano or math in college. That helps to explain why, in Riding with the Blue Moth, Hancock was a stickler for counting out his Fritos and peanuts and why his diary entries often come with a “song stuck in my head” — from “Play That Funky Music” (while he rode through desert California) to “Farmer and the Cowman” from the musical Oklahoma! (while Hancock headed to Onward, Mississippi).
“The best thing you can do with death is ride off from it,” says a character in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, as Hancock reminds us. But that’s not what Hancock and his wife Nicki did on their cross-country road trip. “Not once did we discuss the journey as a balm for our souls,” Hancock writes, “we were going on an adventure. Nothing more.”
And it was … an adventure: flat tires, sun, wind, bugs, the changing landscape, the changing cast of characters Hancock met on America’s back roads (he avoided the interstates). His trip also drew the attention of a growing number of supporters who contacted Hancock by email — supporters who asked him questions that ranged from his diet to his bike, to his favorite state, to what he thinks about all day, to the condition of his rear end:
"You haven’t written a word about your, er, tail end. If I ride more than five miles, my tail is sore for a week," one emailer wrote. Wasn’t a problem, Hancock responds. He credits his Cannondale’s split-style seat, which “spreads the burden.”
“I had ridden the bike to a place where I could see the world differently,” Hancock writes at the tail end of his journey and after he’d dipped his front tire in the Atlantic.
What he also saw differently was the blue moth. Where once it was something to shake, it was something now to accept.
“I know the moth will come and go as it pleases, and not as I dictate,” Hancock concludes. “Now I do not try to escape when it arrives. I simply listen to what it has to say, and wait quietly for it to fly away. And it has always done so.”
That’s the great insight Hancock arrived at after completing his cross-country adventure, and Hancock’s words — scattered throughout Riding with the Blue Moth — to his grand-daughter Andie are just as insightful. Readers can’t help but benefit too as they ride with Bill Hancock in these honest, heartfelt pages. •