CHICAGO — What sort of person decides, standing in a foot of Chicago snow in February, that it would be a good idea to ride a bike from Chicago to the West Coast, following the storied Route 66?
Michael Sean Comerford is that sort of person and he is not, of course, the first person drawn to that byway, often called the “Mother Road” or “America’s Main Street.”
Not long ago I told you about former Tribune photographer Wes Pope who took to that road with a pinhole camera and gave us a book about it, 2018′s “Pop 66: A Dreamy Pop Can-Camera Odyssey Along Route 66” (Press Syndication Group).
I also told you about writer Susan Croce Kelly’s 1988 book “Route 66: The Highway and Its People” (University of Oklahoma Press) in which she writes, “When it was born, traveling Route 66 was an adventure. For 59 years that highway was a factor in millions of trips, vacations, and relocations. ... Over the years it became a highway the country could not forget.” She told me, “You know that feeling you have when you’re 20 that you can do anything? That’s what Route 66 represents.”
Comerford is not 20. He is some four decades older and has spent much of his adult life as a journalist, working for such newspapers as the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and Daily Herald, as well as papers in Moscow and Budapest. He has also been an energetic world traveler, having visited 100 some countries, swimming in the Nile, studying Buddhism in the Himalayas and dancing “an Irish jig in the Amazon jungle with a jug of local white lightning.”
If you sense in Comerford an adventurous spirit, you are correct. For a couple of years, he worked for traveling carnivals and that time is captured in his 2020 book, “American Oz: An Astonishing Year Inside Travel Carnivals at State Fairs & Festivals” (Comerford Publishing). I wrote then that it is “a remarkable book, colorfully lively and filled with a cast of characters that would do a Fellini movie justice, as well as deep observations of life.”
He spent much of this fall and some of the winter in Chicago promoting the book, as best as one could given the restriction caused by the pandemic. He spent some time with his daughter, a teenager named Grace who is an environmental activist and the author of her own book, “Power of Purple: Jackie’s Purple Ninja Story.”
In February he made what he calls a “snap decision” to tackle Route 66.
“The idea came to me in a dream,” he told me. “I knew the time was perfect since I would be riding during some of the major milestones of the country’s portion of the pandemic, including crossing the 500,000 mark for deaths, the one-year anniversary of the CDC declaring it a pandemic and a record vaccine rollout that in May would see half the country vaccinated.”
And so he rode, pedaling through Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and ended on Santa Monica Pier, in California in mid-May. “I rode about 2,500 miles across eight states through snow, hail, sleet, rain, 50-mph winds and tornadoes in the next county. I rode over the Continental Divide in a snowstorm and had five bicycle breakdowns.”
He was inspired in part by a long ago-meeting he had with former Tribune reporter and two-time Pulitzer Prize winning Paul Salopek, who told Comerford of his own ambitious plans which involved his concept of “slow journalism,” which he described as “another name for immersive journalism … a way to subvert the conventions of the digital media industry.” Nearly eight years ago Salopek began his “Out of Eden Walk,” a perilous, revelatory and enchanting 21,000-mile trip around the world. He is still walking.
When Comerford told his daughter (and his ex-wide, with whom he remains on good terms) of his bicycling plan, Grace was not pleased. “She hugged me and started to cry,” he says. “She said, ‘Dad, don’t do this. I feel like you are going on a death ride’.”
He was able to allay her fears and he bought for $200 a silver 40-year-old Panasonic touring bike through Craiglist and left Chicago. On the back of the bike was a sign: “Tell Me a Story.”
On his journey, he mostly slept outdoors and covered between 35 and 70 miles a day. He can get downright poetic about it: “To be outdoors in the middle of nowhere really and look up at a sky filled with stars, you start to have cosmic thoughts.”
His journey attracted some modest attention and admiration. Sam McManis, a reporter for the Arizona Daily Sun, wrote this: “Part Studs Terkel’s ‘Working,’ part Steinbeck’s ‘Travels with Charley’ and part Hunter S. Thompson Gonzo reportage, Comerford has encountered all manner of Americans with widely divergent stories and opinions, from COVID deniers to those dealing with severe illness to just common folks trying to cope in this most uncommon of times.”
Most people, Comerford says, were eager to talk, and he was impressed at how “articulate they were, how heartfelt their opinions.” He is respectful of even the most outlandish stories, such as that from a rancher who told of curing himself by taking a friend’s advice to drink a de-wormer used on cattle.
He gathered 100-some of these interviews on “The Story Cycle” YouTube channel, through a partnership he formed with The University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program. They are, if you care to sample, compelling, odd, moving and spooky. But there is no doubting the sincerity of the people talking.
“These people and what they had to say deepened my respect for the variety of opinions out there,” says Comerford.
By the middle of May, after 75 days on the road, he reached the end of Route 66, the Santa Monica Pier. Reporter Clara Harter of the Santa Monica Daily Press met him there and later wrote, “From fatalism to folk wisdom, conspiracy theories to church services, and science to superstition, Comerford discovered a vast range of ways people are coping with pandemic life.”
Tired but ever enthusiastic, Comerford and his slightly battered bicycle went from California to Florida (by plane), where he met his “snowbird” parents and they all drove to Chicago, where he plans to spend the next few months reinvigorating his promotional work on “American Oz.”
He will also try to figure out a compelling narrative structure for what he hopes will be a book about his Route 66 adventure. He also is eager to work with a videographer to make a film. As for Grace, she’s happy her dad is home.
“I never thought you’d make it,” she said.