When I attended a reading of Fanny and Me, the story of author Brian Phelps’ 86-day bicycle tour across the country, I expected to hear tales of harrowing adventure. I expected a selfdetermined, goal driven narrative, a story, perhaps, about finding meaning in the hardship of the trail. What I experienced, instead, was something even more unique.
At the beginning, Brian didn’t refer to the event as a reading, but rather an experiential memoir. Just as soon as he said that, he was bounding left and right across the floor, talking about his trip and bringing the audience right into each and every moment—the hairpin turns on the bicycle, the freeway tunnel he thought he was going to die in on the second day—all of this and more, while actually yelling as loud as he must have during the events. It was a performance. Brian is a natural storyteller, and in the end, he didn’t need to have read from his book at all. Flipping through the pages it was clear that Brian’s personality was stamped firmly onto each one, and the tale of his voyage from coast to coast is not one that you can afford to miss.
However, throughout the reading I was struck by the moments in between the hilarity and adventure. Brian said that, prior to his trip, he was experiencing “the trifecta of life.”
“I hope you never have to go through it, but for me that trifecta was: losing my job, going through a divorce, and a close friend passing away.” All of this led Brian to ask a simple, but daunting question: “What have I done to make a difference?”
For myself, I don’t usually go in for books like Fanny and Me. I’ve never cycled or hiked much of anywhere, let alone cross-country, so the genre doesn’t really appeal to me. Listening to Brian talk about it, however, I realized that this book was something different.
It was a story that needed to be told because it was rooted deep in Brian’s humanity. For all of his comedic storytelling ability, there is a clear sense of being lost in his work, and it is that sense that I think drives people toward him.
One interesting feature of the book is that Brian refers to Fanny, the bicycle, like a person. When I asked Brian why he thought he started to do this, he said “I don’t have a fast answer to that. I’ve never thought of why. Maybe it’s because I was so frustrated at the time. I needed an alter-ego to talk to, to project. One of the shrinks that I had been seeing said Brian, you have a very strong subconscious, and I think it was that subconscious that animated Fanny for me, and also put that idea in my head let’s travel across the country on a bicycle that you don’t have. It was my subconscious saying I needed to get out of Dodge, get my act together. That’s what I think.”
It was interesting to hear Brian talk so frankly. The moment he stepped GOLOCALMAGAZINES.COM 13 on stage, he had an enormous personality, but talking one on one he settled into a quieter, more thoughtful mode. I asked how he viewed his “past self” that he referred to often throughout the reading, the version of him before the events of the book.
“I haven’t really thought of a word to describe it. I’m very happy with my present life. Goose bump happy—like, right now I have goose bumps. It’s like I’m a totally different person, and that’s a good thing. Like I said earlier, my past was so limiting, so isolated from what I wanted. I just watched life go by without wanting to do something about it. I didn’t participate before, didn’t become active in my own life. I was so overloaded with payment of bills, my failing marriage, that I couldn’t step outside of that to do something. When I look back on that, I think I’m glad I’m not that person.”
Whether it was meeting friendly motorcyclists or staring out across the waters of Glacier National Park, one thing that Brian continuously mentioned was that over 86 days he cried tears of joy almost every single one.
“Every single day I was running into people, having experiences, and realizing stuff about myself that scared me, but also gave me goose bumps. The original name of the book was going to be Wow and Beyond. It was like this revelation of Who am I, why am I getting these tears? They were tears of happiness. I was making friends, impressing people with how far I had been, and I would just think but I’m just Brian Phelps-laid off, divorced, living like a castaway, life spiraling downward—why are people responding to me like this?”
Fanny and Me, in the end, becomes much less about the travels themselves, even though Brian’s original intent was to write a travelogue. In the end, it is about what you would expect. It’s written in the title. Fanny the bicycle, beat up, used, unsure of whether it would make it over 4,000 miles, was the perfect vehicle for someone like Brian, who never knew how much he could offer, or how much he already had. When reflecting back on the question that set him on this path, what he had done to make a difference, Brian said he now has a very different answer.
“The answer now is that, surprisingly, I made a massive difference and impact on people. On the trip, and even before that, I never really realized it. The scary part is that I wanted to make a difference so badly, and I wasn’t expecting people to be so friendly and helpful and supportive of me. I never expected that they would make a difference for me.”
Brian’s book is available for purchase at fannyandme.com