What’s your favorite way to get across the country? A four-hour plane ride? A three-day road trip with your buddies in a van? Maybe, like Forrest Gump, you’d rather just start running.
For Mark Schimmoeller, where there’s a wheel, there’s a way.
The 1989 Transylvania University graduate traveled from North Carolina to Arizona over six months—on a unicycle. His book about the journey, Slowspoke: A Unicyclist’s Guide to America, was published by Chelsea Green Publishing on August 1.
Part travel memoir, part conservation story, Slowspoke weaves together three different threads from Schimmoeller’s life—his cross-country adventure; his attempt with his family to save a 15-acre area of forest near his Franklin County, Ky., home; and his musings on slowing down and not getting swallowed by the speed of progress.
Schimmoeller grew up in rural Woodford County, Ky., where his family grew fresh food and learned to appreciate the nature around them. He has been in love with the outdoors ever since he can remember.
He came to Transylvania and cultivated his passion for creative writing, leading to an internship with The Nation magazine in New York City. It didn’t take long to realize that New York wasn’t the right place for him, and he left the internship and returned to Kentucky to northern Franklin County.
“It was a logical step for an English major, but it was a bit much going from where I was living in an old farmhouse with cows and cornfields all around and going straight to the skyscrapers,” Schimmoeller said.
A bit much?
“It was way too much,” he admitted.
But his love for traveling got the better of him. And he’s not one to do things like everybody else would.
“I’ve loved unicycles since I was little,” he said. “I developed this idea that I wanted to do a cross-country journey on a unicycle. I couldn’t shake the idea. It took hold of me.”
So in 1992, he took his first pedal on his 24-inch Schwinn in the tiny community of Francisco, North Carolina, and started west.
His next six months were spent moving slowly and deliberately on the unicycle on back country highways and gravel roads. He would brace himself as he was passed by 18-wheelers barreling down the street and as he got stares from locals who couldn’t figure out what in the world this strange man was doing.
“I’m kind of a shy person,” Schimmoeller said. “It was hard, at first, to have all those stares. It made me pretty insecure—why did I choose a unicycle?”
But, as he notes, the world passing him by at an alarming speed isn’t a foreign feeling for him. In the fast-paced, ever-connected culture of 2014, he lives in a modest home that he built in order to live “off the grid,” not hooked up to any standard utilities like electric or water.
The house, which they call the “Snuggery,” is 600 square feet and is made from local cedar. He and his wife, Jennifer Lindberg, live off the land, growing their own food, collecting and filtering rainwater, and even running their refrigerator via solar panels on the roof. They cook on a wood-burning stove or in their solar cooker, an inflated box with a glass top and reflectors that can heat food to up to 400 degrees using only sunlight. Large, south-facing windows with eaves heat the home in the winter and keep the sun out during the hot summer months.
“It’s nice being directly connected to some of the things that support you in your life,” he said. “I cut firewood in February and March for the following winter. It’s nice doing physical work that can aid in your comfort months later. It’s a sensory experience living like this.”
Even though many people can’t fathom Schimmoeller’s life, he has discovered that it is possible to live and work at his own speed—even the speed of a unicycle.
“Part of the book is an effort to say, I don’t need to be swept up in all this—I can establish my own pace,” he said. “From my perspective, I would like it if others could slow down a little bit, too, because I don’t know what we’re careening toward as a society. We’re careening toward depleting our natural beauties and natural resources, going over the edge in terms of climate change, and we’re not willing to ask the question, ‘Do we need to go so quickly? Are there any other options for how we structure our lives?’”
Schimmoeller said that his time at Transylvania encouraged him to ask those questions and not settle for the status quo.
“Something propelled me to make the decision to go on the unicycle,” he said. “I think Transylvania gave me a general inquisitiveness of the world—a spirit of adventure.”
Slowspoke: A Unicyclist’s Guide to America is available in bookstores and online through chelseagreen.com. To find out which of your local bookstores carries it, go to www.indiebound.org/book/9781603585903.