I’m embarrassed to admit that, at first read, I took the title of JRW Case’s memoir, Cycling Through Columbine, at face value. That is, mostly literally. The cover image is of a man (maybe Case himself) on a bicycle, and I knew this memoir by my fellow Northeast Ohio native to be a travelogue–and the author to have a connection to Columbine. So you can see how I got there: cycling through, as in moving past, moving beyond the terrible 1999 school shooting that forever colored how we think of Columbine, Colorado.

It wasn’t until the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that I began to read the title’s first word in a different way–cycling as a repeating cycle of violence chronicled in these pages. The memoir is an emotional journey of remembrance and a physical journey of forward-moving action. But there is no moving beyond such violence, is there? Maybe only a “metabolizing,” as Case says, “the chaos of memories like those from Columbine.”

It was then that I lamented once more my own connection to a school shooting, however removed. Nearly 20 years after I graduated from Chardon High School, a student opened fire in the cafeteria, killing three other students. According to Wikepedia, the motive was a personal beef; the shooter is serving a life sentence. I’ve never written about this event, a stain on my hometown, but much more a stain on our collective American–and human–morality.

In one of Case’s blurbs, memoirist Emily Rapp Black summarizes the power of the reckoning with violence that Case attempts within these pages:

“The aftermath of Columbine is the aftermath for all of us.”

A little dust jacket plot summary to get you up to speed: JRW (Robert) Case’s “bicycle journey across the USA began during the summer of 2017, the story of which became this travelogue adventure, which includes a quest for values and the tragic massacre of Columbine in 1999 with its profound and pervasive implications. Robert worked then as a child protection attorney with a personal connection to one of the Columbine victims and deep ties to the community.”

If the form of this memoir is a bit ambitious–dual timeline narrative travelogue, utilizing written letters and texts from his past while contextualizing the narrative present with lesser-known history of spots along his route–Case’s heart is in it all. He grapples, and I like that kind of struggle for purchase in a memoir:

“…I find myself wondering if this adventure is more than just a travelogue about five guys who band together out of a shared interest in completing a bicycle tour across the USA,” Case says. “Or is it a coming of age story told by an aging parent trying to reconnect with a prodigal child, who is an adult daughter and Iraq war veteran? Or, maybe, the real story is a quest of a self-sufficient cyclist and former child protection attorney, who gets blown over by a ghost from Columbine, and has to come to grips with his long-avoided beliefs in a higher power?”

The memoir is all these things. Which makes me think that maybe neat narrative arcs are for fiction writers. Memoirs, like real life, can chart their own way, look forward and back, start and stop, and take detours before they find their way home.

Case’s bicycle journey begins is Astoria, Oregon, and ends in Minneapolis, Minnesota, short of his planned destination of Bar Harbor, Maine. Still, a summer of 2,000+ miles on a bicycle leaves him with plenty of time for exploration–emotional and physical, both. Case’s quest starts simply enough, as “a journey, a personal quest to reclaim some lost health and vitality.” He heads east, first among a group of cyclists, before breaking off on his own, left to find friendly campsites and the occasional motel room along with enough food-as-fuel to make the trip. The panniers over his bicycles sides can only carry so much. The one over his handlebars carries his trusty journal–the beginnings of this memoir.

“We have wind for breakfast this morning.”

In the reading of Case’s story, I note the camaraderie and language all its own between riders, these “self-propelled tourists,” and their bicycles. One of Case’s favorite things about cycling: “feeling a kind of kinship developing between me and this two-wheeled, mechanical device,” his own, Daedelus, named after the ancient Greek inventor. Cycling seems the perfect way to engage in a more eco-friendly tourism, while getting a real feel for the land and people along this country’s “blue highways.” Theirs is a much different experience than that of tourists enclosed in the metal, plastic, and glass of cars and trucks. All the senses are explored in this journey. “We have wind for breakfast this morning,” Case writes. Shortly into the trip, he and his pack of cyclists find themselves riding through several small-town July Fourth celebrations, and form a sort of Greek chorus in comment on the Americans they meet:

In one celebration they “joined in the festivities by purchasing, slicing, and consuming an entire watermelon, all five of us, in a grocery store parking lot. We aped for the passersby, grey-bearded men in bicycle attire laughing together and allowing the sweet sticky juice to run down our cheeks and chins. A few last-minute shoppers would even let their natural curiosity detain them long enough to connect with perfect strangers and ask the easiest of questions, “Where are you going? Where’d ya come from?” Such answers, for Case, are easier than the answers to the questions he’s sorting out in his mind on this quest for emotional peace.

A travelogue of this kind allows for much reflection, and Case turns his attention to sorting out one of the most harrowing events of his adult life, when two students from Columbine High School opened fire, killing twelve students and one teacher. In describing the events, Case’s voice is concise and clear, as it is throughout the memoir:

“When the shooting started, I was about fifteen miles away in Golden, Colorado, the home of Coors beer and Colorado School of Mines. But I worked at the courthouse. That’s where I was when I heard the news, eating lunch in the basement cafeteria…” his children were about the same age as the students who were killed, and, Case says, “that was more than I wanted to think about during the daylight hours.” The author was also there at the memorial service for the victims, national dignitaries spoke–with much grandstanding and not enough memorializing. “When do we start paying tribute to the victims?” Case wondered. The fact that the NRA was scheduled to come to nearby Denver within a week for its annual convention feels like fiction…but was not.

What’s that quote about time and distance?

Nearly twenty years later, on his cycling quest, Case would get the time in the saddle and distance–from Oregon to Minnesota–he needed to come to some emotional terms with Columbine. Except that it keeps happening, as we were reminded earlier this spring, when we learned of the news out of Uvalde. No printed record of these shootings can keep up, it seems. Case’s statistic is already out of date. “…more than two thousand living, breathing Americans have been killed or wounded in mass casualty events since the 1999 Columbine Massacre.”

How to balance grief with gratitude at being alive? For Case, a youth on his caseload left for school at Columbine one morning and never returned home. I struggle with this, as I drop my kids off at school each morning, and I pray. Case also grapples with the “higher power” and its place in our lives and finds a well-earned peace within these pages:

“With every crank of the pedals my endurance is building…my confidence grows. Today is for riding next to this wild and scenic river, a self-propelled visitor moving through majestic forests shimmering with filtered sunlight…I’m feeling grateful to be alive for the first time in years.”

Case’s memoir soars where he connects the emotional resonance of cycling with his emotional past. And in this connection, this parsing out of life’s lowest valleys and highest heights, we find hope. What more could we want from such a story?

Hope makes all the difference.

“The day is still young and there is hope for a better campsite ahead. My mid-morning fatigue is nothing compared to the hopeless resignation that once deadened my senses and stooped my shoulders when I came through the door after work on that first Friday evening, three days after the massacre. Hope makes all the difference.”

Cycling Through Columbine

by JWR Case

Bottom Dog Press, Inc. (2/04/22) $18

Thank you to the author for the copy for review!

*Features photo, free from Pexels, of Idaho, one of the states along JRW Case’s bicycle journey

Do you read memoirs? Have you written yours? Do you ride? Have you ever taken a cross-country trip? I’d love to hear about it. And, what are you reading or writing this week? 

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26 thoughts on “Cycling Through Columbine…and Chardon and Uvalde

    1. Thank you, Kelly! Tough subject matter, yes, and there’s no “getting over” for witnesses to such tragedies. But I think that’s what memoir does best–get through, with a fuller understanding of what we’re humanly capably of getting through (maybe with a little help from that higher power).

      Liked by 1 person

  1. It’s difficult to imagine how one goes about dealing with a personal experience with a massacre. It might be interesting to read how the cycling and rumination bring Case’s world back into a semblance of normalcy. I don’t generally read memoir, but the fact these things keep happening and he might give me food for thought makes it worth a look.

    I’ve thought of a cycling trip, and have done tours where our bags get delivered ahead to hotels, but the self-supported, long-distance kind will probably always remain just a dream.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. One interesting thing I didn’t mention in my review: Case talks about the physical exertion needed to pedal more than 2,000 miles, and the changes in his body that affect his emotional outlook. Maybe some memories we need to sweat out?

      Hotel tours sound more my speed, but I’ve never really cycled before. (I’ve got a cruiser!) Certainly there’s also the safety aspect that comes into play–probably even more for women than men daring to cycle on their own. Case had mostly positive experiences with kind strangers along his route, but that’s not a chance I’d take. It was affirming, however, all the very helpful folks he ran into, who put him up at their places, helped him when he broke a chain…

      Thank you for reading Eilene–I’ve been so sporadic with the blogging. Now to check out what you’ve been up to at yours!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yeah, I’m not certain a solo trip would be a good idea. Physical activity has its positive effects, but my older body is not always thrilled with some of it (she says as she slurps down a couple ibuprofen and, groaning, settles into the recliner for the evening).😉

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yes, you’re my go-to memoir reader, John! I bet that bike trip was gorgeous. The extent of my biking is around my little town–mostly back and forth to the pool–on my turquoise cruiser! But I love the idea of covering some real ground not closed up in a car.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My son lives in Vancouver BC right now and there’s a ten mile loop around Stanley Park that is a great way to get exercise in the midst of nature close to the big city!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for reading, Rebecca! (Sorry I’m just seeing your response.) I do think the ride was cathartic for the author. Some of these terrible events we can’t make sense of per se, but I think we can come to some terms with–enough to move on. I’ll be meeting the author in person at Lit Youngstown’s Lit Festival in Ohio in the fall, so I’ll be able to ask him all kinds of questions then!

      Your memoir sounds very interesting. I’ve never been to Spain, but I’m sure it has many wonderful lessons to teach! Thanks again for being here. I’m off to check out your blog–HUGE flamenco fan over here!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a beautiful reflection on what sounds like an emotional and thought-provoking memoir, Rebecca. I’ve always admired long-distance cyclists. Entertained doing myself, but never could I ever.

    I’ve heard there’s a mass shooting everyday in America, but we only hear about some of them. I wonder how many presidents and Congress members we must go through in order to get the changes we crave and need.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My friend! Sorry I missed this reply. I’m in vacation mode and clearly spacing out. Thank you for reading. I have much reading to catch up on over at your blog! I hope you’ve been reading and writing up a storm–or at least keeping a toe in it all. What does life always have to get in the way of our TBRs?

      Yeah, I’ve never even been on a road bike, like the author of this memoir’s. I’m a cruiser-around-town sort of girl, but I’m sure my health would appreciate the real exercise. I do think the camaraderie among packs of long-distance cyclists is intriguing, and it could be a great way to see the U.S. I suppose I’d get used to the non-cushy bike seat!?

      America and her guns–ugh. I’m sure you’re right that we only hear about some of the shootings. As it is, it can feel incredibly overwhelming and makes those of us who aren’t, say, members of congress, feel so powerless. We also seem to have such short memories, collectively, and while many say they want change right after a shooting, the fury then dies down and it’s back to the status quo. And the status quo in America is just frightening. I’m glad for you that you don’t teach here–can’t imagine the stress and worry.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t think I knew you were from Chardon. I had a cousin going there at the time of the shooting. It was really rough for her and I’m thankful I never had to deal with the struggles the victims of school shootings have to go through.
    Like you, I worry every day about my stepdaughter’s safety in school, but also just in the world in general. There’s so much unwarranted hate sometimes and it can be crippling if you let the fear overwhelm you.
    Great content (as always 🙂).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh wow. I feel for your cousin! “Unwarranted hate” is right–and so much worry for the rest of us. But you’re right, too, that it can really smother your zest for life, if you let it. What I liked about this memoir is how the author kind of worked out his worry on the bike. Thank you for reading, my friend. I need to get over to look at your blog soon. And your new profile pic is so great, btw!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Insightful review, Rebecca. School shootings are something that touch me deeply because I have my own kids in school and I worry about this a lot. I don’t know what I’d do if something like this happened to one of my boys. I pray we can do something about it before too many more lives are lost. I’m going to look into this book. It sounds like one that will touch me deeply. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading, Lisa. Yes, a tough subject–and the worry never ends, does it? It is frustrating that it seems the will of the people is there to do something about gun violence, but the will of the government doesn’t show up. We can keep sharing stories and working for it, though. Hope you’re enjoying your summer and getting trips to the lake!

      Liked by 1 person

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