The gift of slow travel: Shaun Griffin’s new book traces the 1,200-mile bike trek of a father and two sons 

For Shaun Griffin, a journey on bicycles with his two adult sons across the mountains and valleys of three Western states was an act of faith. 

Griffin, a Virginia City-based poet and teacher, knew a month of pedaling across hard country in the summer of 2019 would be physically challenging, and subject to the whims of weather and equipment. Other things also were unpredictable. 

“I hoped to have four weeks of close time with my sons as peers,” Griffin said. “It was 10 years since they had moved away.”  

Griffin was 65 during the trek; his son, Nevada, was 35 and Cody was 30. “I wanted to let our relationships rekindle and become more important,” Griffin said, “to live and learn and joke with each other, not as a father and sons but as grown men, to see ourselves as equals.” 

In his latest memoir, River Ask Me Why: Into the West on Two Wheels, Griffin takes readers on that journey from the Oregon coast to the peaks of Idaho’s Sawtooth Range. The distance is about 700 miles on a map, he noted, but side trips and detours added another 500. Along the way, one of Nevada’s most celebrated poets meditated on fatherhood, family, the impact of people on fragile landscapes and the freedom of what he calls the “gift of slow travel.”  

“The elements of wind and sun reveal how close things are,” Griffin wrote. “We lifted our heads to examine much beyond the wheels. This was our place of rhythm for weeks and it became a winnowing rhythm. It took us from our lives and poured us into this new one. … The sheer stamina it took to cross miles of lava, hay, mountains and river valleys required us to pay attention, to be present, without affiliation. This was what we left for; this is what we left behind.” 

Wind and wildlife were constant companions. “No matter what we did, the wind came with us,” Griffin wrote. “We learned to live with its covenant of dust and surgical precision. It cut the road ahead and behind like it was cloth. When we turned into the corn rows, the killdeer distracted us, screeching at our proximity: Their eggs were on the ground. I learned to live with the birds; they followed us every mile. So did the hooves and horns and tails: Cody happened upon a herd of bighorn sheep; Nevada (saw) an elk, and I looked up to see red-tail chicks standing as their mother fed them.” 

The trek, Griffin said in an interview, was “one of the best things I’ve ever done in my adult life. I was incredibly physically stretched, but also emotionally very fulfilled. We encountered incredible wildlife, beautiful country and incredible people. We experienced the West in a way we couldn’t have done in a car.” 

On most days, the riders didn’t even look at their phones, he said, “and when we did, we often didn’t have any service.” Travel was slow, purposeful and methodical, he recalled, and occasionally grueling. Temperatures exceeded 90 degrees on some days, and the trek over the Sawtooths left the trio exhausted after 10 hours in the saddle and a climb of more than 6,000 feet in elevation. 

“But you just keep on pedaling and find the end of the road,” Griffin said. “Then everything is better. You find sleep and food. (While riding), there’s really not much else to think about. You become the bike and become the path you are riding on.” 

The riders followed roads that snaked along rivers; on rest days, they often took their fly rods to the water. They camped in forests and sometimes stayed in motels. Traveling by bike proved to be a conversation-starter whenever they stopped to rest. “So much of what we experienced, the people we met, were just wonderful and kind, really good people,” Griffin said. 

Griffin said the best part of the journey was being able to spend time with his kids. 

“They are so busy, we would not have this time otherwise,” he said. “It forced us to get closer together physically, emotionally, to push through this thing called the West.”  

While speeding down switchbacks on a mountainside in Oregon, Griffin said, his perspective as a father changed. He realized his offspring were now leading, and he was following. 

“At the top of the volcanic pass, we looked down to the John Day River canyon,” Griffin wrote. “(It was) a descent that was a first of many for my sons, who could not find the brakes and chose instead the howl of wind in their faces. I tried to ask them to slow down, but they disappeared before I heard any response.” As in life, the young men were traveling their own paths at their own speeds. 

“I got to watch them as they rode away from me, literally and metaphorically,” Griffin said. “They are men now, and I had to let that idea of them being boys go. There were so many good moments like that, coming to that understanding. When you are in the saddle for a long time, you think a lot. At other times, you are just completely empty of any noise, which is the beauty of it. You are just riding, and there’s not a lot to interfere with that.” 

At journey’s end, he said, his “act of faith” was affirmed. The trip left him with the feeling that “what just happened really matters. Human relations are absolutely necessary, yet very fragile. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, have a special bond. It takes work to keep it, and it takes work to make it lasting.”  

Griffin’s attempt to “find a way to keep our relationship sacred” was rewarding. In 2020, he wrote an essay about the trip; friends suggested he expand the narrative into a book.  

“Writing the book was much like the ride, an act of faith,” Griffin said. “When we started the trip, we didn’t know if we could finish, whether our bodies and bikes would hold up. Like writing the book, I wasn’t sure if I could do it. … It’s escaping the highs and lows of everyday life and the intensity of the experience that makes it so potent, that made it really intense, just like any journey you may go on. 

“It’s something the three of us will never forget.” 

River Ask Me Why: Into the West on Two Wheels by Shaun T. Griffin is being published by the Southern Utah University Press and will be available in bookstores and for purchase online after March 15. Griffin’s other works include Anthem for a Burnished Land: What We Leave in This Desert of Work and Words; Bathing in the River of Ashes; The Monastery of Stars; and Because the Light Will Not Forgive Me: Essays From a Poet.