By Sarah Miller
Life is a series of moments in time, strung together by our memories to form a narrative that suits the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. What happens when those moments are captured on the page one by one as they happen, rather than being collected all at once when the perceived narrative arc is already over? In deceptively simple sketches, Eleanor Davis answers this question as she tells the story of her cross-country journey from Tucson, Arizona, to Athens, Georgia. You & A Bike & A Road is a diary comic that lets us into Davis’s mind as she confronts the challenges inherent in such a physically and mentally strenuous undertaking. Her story is told as a series of moments that add up to what seems at first glance like a simple cycling narrative, but which at second glance proves to be a series of existential questions about identity and belonging. “I want to bike fast and draw beautifully,” she says, and so she does, in the process revealing the splendour and inescapability of both our physical and conceptual selves.
The mistakes that are crossed out in the first few pages of the diary lend the work an air of immediacy that lasts throughout the whole book. It feels like Davis drew everything the day it happened, almost as it happened, and didn’t make any revisions, didn’t erase any lines. We have knee pain to thank for this—Davis wouldn’t have had as much time to draw if she hadn’t had to rest her body. The unrevised feeling is emphasized by uncertain lines and overlapping objects, giving the impression that the drawings were made as the scenes were observed, instead of plotted and planned. And this leaves the impression that the feelings and thoughts expressed in the drawings are also immediate and true. It is a record of events, filtered through the act of creation.
Davis places a lot of hope in the act of cycling, and this hits home for me: I place a lot of hope in the act of exercise, as well, as a defense against depression, against the black dog that threatens to catch me if I don’t run fast enough. The answer that she doesn’t give to people who ask why she has decided to cycle across several states is simple and moving: “I was having trouble with wanting to not be alive. But I feel good when I’m bicycling.” Davis belongs in the cycling world, and is indeed welcomed by several sets of strangers who admire her tenacity throughout her journey. The big question is: can she belong in a world that isn’t mostly made up of cycling? In other words, “What if I go home and get depressed again?”
On Day 2, Davis sees into a hopeful future, passing a woman headed from Georgia to Arizona who calls Davis a badass. “Obviously this woman was some sort of future self, my mirror self,” says Davis. “Surely she is stronger. Surely she is less afraid.” It’s difficult to get there, however, to become this future self. Sometimes there are headwinds, sometimes there are mountains, sometimes your knees give out and sometimes your mind gives out. On Day 7, hope returns. “I like going further than we tell ourselves is possible,” Davis writes. But will this hopeful attitude hold steady throughout the arduous ride? As is to be expected, there are moments of doubt interspersed with moments of reassurance, both of which come from within and without, from Davis herself and from family and friends.
Davis also captures moments of movement and the illusion of stillness in the midst of movement, which is itself an illusion on the still pages of the graphic memoir. A hawk flies against a headwind, going nowhere. Davis leans into a sidewind at an angle that would topple her over if the wind blew in any other direction. Davis’s expertly varied pacing mirrors the changing pace of life, and the reader’s experience mirrors Davis’s pacing. One moment, we are flowing along the highway, a tailwind at our back, going fast. Next, Davis crowds the page with uncertainty followed by comforting from her parents, leaving barely enough room for the reader to breathe. Then each page contains a single, brief line, slowing down our reading to match the deceleration of Davis’s frantic thinking. We approach a mountain, then climb it, then descend, and then it is behind us—each stage takes a whole page, and most of the page is empty, with only the most minimal line drawings pulling us in.
Later, there are pages of clean drawings of changes in the grass from one place to the next: more moments of stillness in a story that is essentially about the movement from one place to another and how our selves stay with us no matter where we go. Even though You & A Bike & A Road is made up of moments that seem self-contained as we read them, Davis’s work—intentionally or unintentionally—comes together to form an overarching narrative that raises questions about identity as much as it comforts through its depiction of overcoming challenges.
You & A Bike & A Road
Writer/Artist: Eleanor Davis
Publisher: Koyama Press