FRANKFORT, KENTUCKY — My parents gave me a unicycle when I was a teenager, and I became perhaps inordinately fond of it. My first milestone beyond learning to ride it without the help of ski poles was to cycle ten times around the house without falling down. But I didn’t stop there. I proceeded to wander into cow fields and wobble around grass clumps and manure piles and make plans for even grander journeys.
I went to college and got a job working as an intern for The Nation. My plan had been to complete my internship and work myself up the fabled career ladder. But then a very different idea came to me: I could quit and ride my unicycle across the country. Maybe as a unicyclist I’d learned that dizzying turns were possible. Or falls, depending on one’s perspective. I quit the internship and took my grand adventure in 1992, traveling circuitously from North Carolina to Arizona, a backpack hanging from my shoulders. I was twenty-four.
Fifteen years later, I live with my wife, Jennifer, in Kentucky, and my unicycle is hanging in our toolshed, the last piece of foam rubber I used still strapped to the seat. Our house — a small cedar cottage that we built with our own hands — is a half mile away from the road where we park our car, and it’s off the grid, as stripped of necessities, one might think, as a unicycle.
I never was able to get on that straight path to a mainstream future. Is my unicycle a cause or an expression of this? I only know that, in a time when people are consuming more, producing more, rushing more, I have adopted the meandering rhythm of my unicycle, with playful inefficiencies characterizing many aspects of my life. For example, we don’t own a microwave, the totem of fast food in the home. Instead, we cook in an insulated cardboard box with a glass top and reffiectors aimed at the sun. We adjust our solar cooker two or three times during the day; by early or late afternoon, depending on the brightness and constancy of the sun, the casserole or soup or lasagna is cooked.
“What do you do on rainy days?” people ask. This question reminds me of one I’ve received about my unicycle: “How fast can you go?” (A woman in a sports car once registered my speed at zero.) The concern behind both questions is that gratification or arrival may not be instant. We have a gas stove for rainy days — but clouds also influence us, as does bright sun. We may attempt rhubarb pie with a perfectly bright day, baked potatoes with partial cloudiness.
When rain falls, we catch it off our roof and store it in our cellar tank. Then we hand pump it into a bucket in our house. Perhaps as a result we use only a fraction of the water a typical North American couple uses. “Why do you use so little water?” I sometimes hear society ask. Because it’s heavy and scarce? Because restraint lends itself to gratitude? Because I like water?
I’ve attempted to explain my slowness for years, but my answers have always seemed ill-fitting or odd in American culture, which would have us take the straight line, the shortest distance between two points. I am not attracted to this approach, which seems complicit with how quickly we are destroying the planet. The creed of this unicyclist would have us balance out society’s current rush with a bit of hesitation, loopiness.