When illustrator Eleanor Davis began drawing comics during her two-month cycle trip from her parents’ house in Tucson, Arizona to her home in Athens, Georgia, she wasn’t imagining that they’d become a book. “I was mostly drawing to post online so that people didn’t think I’d dropped off the face of the planet,” says Davis, who uploaded the images onto her social media accounts as she made her way across the Southern states. They’ve since been edited into a gorgeously raw chronicle called You & A Bike & A Road, released this month with Koyama Press.
It’s been a year since the illustrator first embarked on the trip. “It wasn’t too lonely because as I posted the sketches, people were so nice and supportive,” she says. “Some of them even messaged me to come visit as I passed by their town.”
Arriving home with 100 sketches in her bag, and buoyed by such positive feedback, it seemed only inevitable that the project should become some kind of publication. “I thought it was interesting enough to make into a mini-comic,” she says.
“I began adding pages—diagrams of watching the landscape change slowly over time, the things I hadn’t documented on the road—and it was so much material that it needed to be a book. At first I was distressed, I thought, ‘it’s all too sketchy!’”
This sketchiness, though, is integral to the impact of the work. The loose hand echoes the movement of Davis on her bike: her outlines are like that of a cyclist passing you by—fast, evocative, and a quick impression of shape and energy. As Davis’ recent comics deal with themes of sadness and mental health—her lauded 2014 How To Be Happy is an abstract collection of short stories that explore depression’s many forms—there is also something freeing in the looseness of the sketches in You & A Bike & A Road. In the story, Davis addresses the fact that the journey is, in part, a way to keep depression at bay. “I was having trouble with wanting to not be alive. But I feel good when I’m bicycling,” she writes on one page. The form of her drawing, its lightness, seems to reject the weight of crippling sadness, just as the process of cycling does for Davis.
The work is also powerful as a story rooted in the lineage of the American road narrative. Historically, women have few road narratives: there’s Tom Robbins’ bestseller, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, featuring hitchhiker Sissy; or Dorothy on the yellow brick road, wandering the land of Oz. Most often though, the story of a woman alone on the road is thought of as dangerous, and rarely ends well; we’re familiar with the narratives of rape, violence, and death. A man on the road means a quest: Frodo wants to get to Mount Doom, Dante wants Beatrice, Kerouac’s Sal wants to explore every kick. Quest means agency and the pursuit of greatness. Women have been denied this experience, and while Davis’ individual story of a woman on the road occasionally depicts fright, it does so in a way that doesn’t define its protagonist or prevent her from carving out her own heroic tale.
“It’s risky to travel on your own, especially because of how our culture is set up. I was genuinely scared throughout the traveling, but I didn’t want to emphasize that and make the reader feel concern,” says Davis.
Like many great road narratives, geography in You & A Bike & A Road reveals larger issues: as Davis makes her way along the southern border of America, she meets a constant barrage of patrol cars and helicopters which always come close to check the color of her skin. “I grew up in Arizona, so I was aware of immigration issues. But usually I would only pass by border control officers in a car,” she says. “Being on a bike, you’re more physically present than when you’re in a car, you’re more aware. I was sleeping out in the open and counting the helicopters overhead.”
Sometimes we see our hero laughing hysterically with joy, at other times she’s crying with exhaustion and frustration. We also see her recording the overlooked practicalities of adventuring on the road—cleaning blood from her legs in a church yard when she forgets to put her tampon in one day, wiping sweat from her body in a gas station’s bathroom.
Davis is uncertain whether her experience changed how she approaches drawing or not. A moment of illustrator’s block is depicted in the book, and I’m curious about whether cycling and movement helped counteract that feeling. It doesn’t seem that simple though.
“I don’t understand how my drawing ability works,” says Davis. “I go through a panic once every couple of months where drawing stops feeling intuitive, I start thinking too much about it or it starts hitting the wrong notes. I think: ‘It’s all over. I’m done.’ Then, somehow, I usually pop out of it.”
What you take away from the comic, then, is to keep moving, to continue striving. Sometimes it’s a slow climb up a tall mountain, but then it’s downhill from there. Then there’s usually another mountain.