I walk into the mall just in time to hear a woman with a thick Minnesota accent saying, "Please join us at the front of the store, where Brian Benson will soon be reading from his book, Going Somewhere."
I drop my eyes, power-walk past a huge picture of my face and make for the mall bathroom. I hope nobody has seen me. I do not look like a guy who "will be reading from his book, Going Somewhere." I look terrible. My eyes are red and puffy. My helmet has left a banana-shaped imprint in my forehead. I'm sweating through my shirt and feeling more than a little dizzy. Why? Because I rode 75 miles today, and it was hot and hilly and windy, and then I had to climb 700 feet to get to this Duluth Barnes & Noble, where I'm about to give the fourth reading of my Book Tour by Bike.
I wasn't supposed to be this beat. There had been a plan. I was to going to arrive last night, have a good sleep, spend hours walking the streets and thinking deep thoughts. I was going to feel recharged, strong, ready to give an A+ reading.
But, well, I got held up -- as one often does -- by good people, good places. And now I'm paying for it.
* * *
Four days ago, I pulled into Washburn, Wisconsin after a long ride through soupy Midwest heat. My hosts, Mike and Tonia, proceeded to spoil me rotten. They fed me ribs and beer and cobbler and ice cream. They drove me to the Delta Diner for an All-Time Top Ten breakfast, sent me on an awesome hike, invited dozens of people to my reading. They took me out for a swim in 49 degree Lake Superior, where I showed off my perfect diving form.
I didn't really want to leave. And so the morning of my departure, I lingered until noon. Once I did get on the road, I took my time, luxuriated in lake views and deep nostalgia. I'd ridden here years ago, with Rachel, so now I kept stopping, to pick these Bayfield berries, pee on those roadside hay bales.
Eventually, I remembered my plan: get to Duluth. So I buckled down and rode hard, over hills and into wind. And just as I was starting to pick up momentum, I came upon a familiar dirt driveway. It led to a house owned by Jennifer and Andrew, two people who'd been so good to Rachel and me during our ride. All day, I'd been planning to stop here. But now I was riding. I was in the groove. Or whatever.
I decided I'd swing through, have a hug, ride on. But then Jennifer and Andrew invited me to watch the World Cup. And they offered me ice cream hand-made by their daughters. And they were even sweeter and funnier than I'd remembered. Soon, we were cracking jokes like we'd been friends forever.
It was hard to say good-bye. Still, I made myself. Soon, I was again pushing hard, feeling good, up for pushing past sunset. But when I pulled up to a town called Herbster, I had to stop -- because how do you not stop in Herbster? -- and pedal to the lakeside park. And, well, when I saw that view, that liquid gold poured over Superior blue, I knew I was done. I set up the tent, opened a beer and toasted the sky.
And so this morning, the morning of my Duluth reading, I woke at five and packed and rode into the faint dawn light. At that hour, on that stretch, the only place open was the Port Wing gas station, so I stopped in, loaded up on food -- two granola bars, one donut, and one bag of something called "Louie's Finer Meats" -- and kept on. By midmorning, it was pushing 80. The wind was in my face. My legs were sore, and Louie's Meats were not making me feel fine. Still, I was riding through windswept pastoral paradise, so I was in pretty good spirits.
Then I hit the outskirts of Superior. Which, look, I like cities just fine. But after a long day, the last thing I want is to ride car-choked streets through industrial squalor. The final 10 miles were a slog, and by the time I pulled up to my Duluth hosts' home, I was having trouble standing, and was hardly prepared to goof off with Esmae and Elsa, the adorable girls who hovered behind their mom, Erin, as she showed me my room. But they were adorable, and Erin was kind and quick-witted, so I un-crossed my eyes, and soon enough, I, too, was giggling, as Elsa told me about her favorite character from Romeo & Juliet: a seal named Blubberbutt (I think he's a Capulet).
I left for the reading feeling good, refreshed. But the 700-foot climb to the bookstore reminded me real quick that I actually felt like a guy who'd ridden 80 miles while subsisting on Not-So-Fine Meats. In a daze, I locked my bike to a pole and made for the mall.
* * *
Now I'm in this bathroom, splashing water on my face, feeling a blankness between my temples and wondering how I'm ever going to read, speak, answer questions.
I leave the bathroom, walk into the bookstore, up to the front, where, the loudspeaker again tells me, "Brian Benson will be reading from his book, Going Somewhere." I see that 20 chairs have been set out. All but two are empty. I have ridden 80 miles, and climbed 700 feet, to read to two people.
I inch closer, take a breath. I see that the people are a mother and daughter. They're sitting up front, holding my book. Something inside me cracks.
I remember the words I thought, and wrote, a few weeks back. Words about this trip. Words like attentive, grounded, grateful. Suddenly, I feel all that and more. These lovely people have come to this store, in the Duluthian boonies, on a fleeting summer night, and even seeing this sea of empty seats, they walked right to the front. I swallow my pride. I smile. I introduce myself.
This, so often, is all it takes to change my day, my mind. One simple moment, tipping me from there to here, here to there.
These two, I tell myself, they came here for me. And so regardless of how I feel -- or maybe, because of it -- I'm going to be here for them.
For the most current pictures and stories from the Book Tour by Bike, check out my Instagram feed.