Jour­ney on two wheels through cli­mate change and de­nial

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Al­lan Fal­low is a free­lance writer and book edi­tor in Alexan­dria, Va. MEM­OIR REVIEW BY AL­LAN FAL­LOW

Cli­mate sci­en­tist David Goodrich was rid­ing his fully loaded Trek 520 tour­ing bike along a des­o­late stretch of Wy­oming’s High­way 287 when a storm boiled up from the west, catch­ing him out in the open. “I was rapidly folded up in dark­ness, gust­ing winds, and light­ning flashes,” he writes in his mem­oir “A Hole in the Wind,” a de­tail-rich chron­i­cle of the half-dozen epic bike rides he has un­der­taken since 2000, in­clud­ing a 2011 cross-coun­try trip. “There was noth­ing to do but ball up low on the side of the road, away from the metal bike, and get drenched. I com­forted my­self that the steel road­side re­flec­tors were a lit­tle higher than me.”

Though Goodrich makes no al­le­gor­i­cal hay of the in­ci­dent, it per­fectly crys­tal­lizes his larger mes­sage: We live at the mercy of the el­e­ments — a de­pen­dency that should mo­ti­vate us to com­bat cli­mate change.

Af­ter a post-col­lege stint as a rough­neck on a Gulf Coast drilling rig, Goodrich set­tled down to a sci­en­tific ca­reer, work­ing for both the U.N. Global Cli­mate Ob­serv­ing Sys­tem in Geneva and at the Sil­ver Spring, Md., head­quar­ters of NOAA, the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion. In the early 1990s, he be­gan com­mut­ing to work by bike from Rockville, Md., a daily round trip of 26 miles. On his re­tire­ment in 2011, he log­i­cally re­ceived not a gold watch but a Gore-Tex jacket.

By then, writes Goodrich, “the no­tion of com­bin­ing what I did in the morn­ings and even­ings with what I’d learned in my day job [had be­come] en­tranc­ing.” A few weeks later, he was two-wheel­ing from Cape Hen­lopen, Del., to Wald­port, Ore. — a 4,208-mile odyssey that would al­low him to wit­ness “what changes in the cli­mate sys­tem looked like on the ground.”

That may be a flimsy premise to light out for the ter­ri­to­ries, but show me the travel book with a truly bul­let­proof ra­tio­nale. Hap­pily, Goodrich is a good enough re­porter — and a suf­fi­ciently gifted stylist — to make the miles fly by. And he must have pro­pi­ti­ated the cycling gods at the start, for he suf­fered only one flat tire the en­tire ride.

All sorts of em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence can be gath­ered from the seat of a bike, it turns out, es­pe­cially if the ob­server has passed this way be­fore. As­cend­ing 10,276-foot-high Cameron Pass in north­west­ern Colorado, Goodrich searches the sur­round­ing hill­sides in vain for the green car­pet he recalls from an Out­ward Bound stint there in the 1970s: Thanks to the tree-top­pling moun­tain pine bee­tle, “the forests of Cameron Pass were gone. As my breath came back from the climb, there was a slow re­al­iza­tion of what had hap­pened. I could re­mem­ber hik­ing in the Colorado high coun­try 40 years ago, rock and snow and pine up to the tree line. It was our play­ground, a place to test our­selves, a place to lis­ten to the quiet. Now it was a ghost for­est.”

Be­liev­ing that cli­mate is “not re­ally that com­pli­cated, and that I could ex­plain it if given the chance,” Goodrich broaches the topic with just about ev­ery­one he meets along the way. As in this ex­change with a volunteer at Prime Hook Na­tional Wildlife Refuge on the Delaware coast, how­ever, get­ting peo­ple to ac­cept the ev­i­dence be­fore their eyes is an up­hill battle:

“Are you see­ing sea level rise?” Goodrich asks.

“I don’t know about that,” comes the an­swer, “but the bay has cer­tainly moved in . . . . . What’s killing us is the flood in­sur­ance. Get­ting harder and harder to stay.”

In­deed, de­nial seems to be wash­ing in on the tide up and down the Eastern Seaboard. In Vir­ginia in 2012, Goodrich notes, the Gen­eral Assem­bly did not pass a study on sea level rise un­til its ti­tle was changed to “re­cur­rent flood­ing.” And in Florida — the state most im­per­iled by the trend — of­fi­cials with the Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion were co­erced into re­plac­ing “sea level rise” with the an­o­dyne “nui­sance flood­ing.”

Goodrich’s evan­gel­i­cal streak may tempt some to mis­read the book ti­tle as “A--hole in the Wind.” (In re­al­ity, “A Hole in the Wind” de­notes the author’s yearn­ing for a break from gale-force head­winds in Kansas.) De­spite de­liv­er­ing 17 pre­sen­ta­tions on cli­mate change in eight states, he wak­ens only slowly to the fact that “in many places cli­mate is a con­tro­ver­sial topic. Usu­ally the ‘cold’ email to a sci­ence teacher along the route was ig­nored.”

Might he have over­looked cer­tain in­con­ve­nient truths? Dur­ing a pre-trip talk at Bradley Hills El­e­men­tary School in Bethesda, Md., for ex­am­ple, the third-graders’ “real in­ter­est was fo­cused more on the bike parked at the front of the room.” And af­ter a lec­ture to col­leagues at NOAA’s Earth Sys­tems Re­search Lab in Boul­der, Colo. — Goodrich ham­mered 200 miles in 21/2 days to ar­rive at the gig on time — he found “a big­ger crowd gath­ered around my bike af­ter the sem­i­nar than around me.”

Yet the man is aces at con­vey­ing how cli­mate change — a fact, he cites, en­dorsed by 97 per­cent of cli­mate sci­en­tists — has been polemi­cized by doc­u­men­taries such as “The Great Global Warm­ing Swin­dle” and os­trich-chan­nel­ing screeds such as “The Great­est Hoax: How the Global Warm­ing Con­spir­acy Threat­ens Your Fu­ture” (penned by a cer­tain Ok­la­homa se­na­tor). “Over and over, across the coun­try,” Goodrich dis­cov­ers, the topic is deemed too hot (sorry) for po­lite con­ver­sa­tion. “You could talk about the weather,” he con­cludes, “but not the cli­mate.”

So how do you avoid bor­ing read­ers when nar­rat­ing a lengthy bike trip with a lofty pur­pose? You can leaven your text with the oc­ca­sional har­row­ing run-in — a pack of vi­cious dogs in Mis­souri, say, or rail­road tracks that toss you over the han­dle­bars in Kansas — but ul­ti­mately you must con­vince read­ers that they could tag along and en­joy your com­pany. Goodrich does just that, whether it’s de­tail­ing his mythic quest for the per­fect col­lege-town cof­fee shop (“Strange mu­sic must fill the air, with lots of peo­ple talk­ing in­tently”) or de­scrib­ing a camp­ing ad­ven­ture that in­ad­ver­tently flaunts his range as poet-sci­en­tist-hu­morist:

“That night [in Mon­tana’s fire-rav­aged Boul­der Val­ley], wind blew the smoke away and the sky ex­ploded in stars. The earth turned to­ward Sagittarius and the cen­ter of the galaxy, the bright­est part of the Milky Way. I fell asleep lis­ten­ing to coy­otes in the draw.

“The next morning, I woke to the sound of wa­ter on the rain fly. The rancher’s dog was pee­ing on my tent.”

LUKASZ OGRODOWCZYK/EURO­PEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Cli­mate sci­en­tist David Goodrich en­coun­tered vi­o­lent storms and a chang­ing land­scape — as well as skep­ti­cism of global warm­ing — on a 4,200-mile bike ride across the United States.

A HOLE IN THE WIND A Cli­mate Sci­en­tist’s Bi­cy­cle Jour­ney Across the United States By David Goodrich Pe­ga­sus. 249 pp. $27.95

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