Christopher and Quincy Briscoe had just biked through a mountain pass along Route 66 in New Mexico and were relaxing at the end of a long day outside a small cabin they’d rented for the night when Quincy spotted a cliff whose position promised spectacular views of the winding road they’d spent the entire day tackling.
“Dad, let’s hike to the top of that cliff,” Quincy said.
“Oh, Quincy,” Christopher said. “I’m so tired.”
He was also 64 to Quincy's 23. The father and son were nearing the halfway point of a planned 2,800-mile bike trek along the famous highway and Christopher was ready to call it a day. But Quincy was persistent and, in the end, his dad surrendered to the spirit of adventure he’d carried with him throughout his life and passed onto his son, climbed back onto his bike and chased Quincy up, up, up.
When they reached the precipice, its vista proved worthy of the effort, and Christopher, the renowned local photographer whose job has taken him around the globe, suddenly felt a pang in his chest that had nothing to do with the steep climb or thin air.
“He coaxed me out to the edge of this cliff that was so high it made me almost nauseous,” he said, choking up. “We looked down on this ribbon of road that had taken us all day to bike and here I was with my son, and it was as emotional then as it is now thinking about it. We just had this moment where we looked at each other and we realized that we’d never really have that again.”
That was only one of the memories that Christopher Briscoe brought home from their cross-country odyssey, which began last May in Santa Monica, California, and ended about two months later on the deck of a 27-foot trimaran sailboat docked in Chicago Harbor. He’ll be sharing that and other first-hand accounts plus photographs he took along the way in an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute community lecture Thursday, Feb. 15, at the Camelot Theater in Talent. (The lecture is free, but reservations have already filled up. OLLI is expected to announce a second date. Check the OLLI website at bit.ly/ollisou for details.)
Biking thousands of miles by way of "The Mother Road," a celebrated but poorly maintained relic of the pre-interstate highway era, didn’t sound as crazy to Christopher Briscoe as it probably would to just about anybody else when his son tried to sell the idea at this time last year. The older Briscoe had already conquered the U.S. on the seat of a bike four times between 1976 and 2000, his last trip stretching from San Diego to Florida.
Quincy wanted to follow Route 66, and he wanted to do it soon. The not-so-subtle subtext Christopher heard loud and clear was that they needed to go before it was too late. Fair enough, but the years leaning over a computer monitor working up photos had done little to counter the effects of age, and dad simply could not see himself crossing the Mojave Desert or climbing the Black Mountains again in something that didn’t have a motor attached.
So reluctantly, Christopher bowed out.
“Quincy,” he said, “I’m honored that you want your dad to do that with you, but I’m old and I’m fat and I don’t think I could do it again.”
And that’s where Quincy’s Hail Mary likely would have fallen helplessly to the turf if not for a small bike shop named Piccadilly Cycles, which happened to be stationed across the street from Christopher Briscoe’s studio on A Street. On a whim, Briscoe paid a visit to Piccadilly, which had just added to its inventory a bike with a pedal-assist drive system. Legally classed as bicycles, E-bikes don't take over when it's time to charge up a hill, but they will make that incline considerably less daunting.
“You don’t just push the button and go,” Briscoe said. “But it’s like having a couple of extra gears and a tailwind. And I test drove it around the block. Then I called up Quincy and I said, ‘You’ll never guess what I just did.’”
Encouraged but not quite convinced, Christopher Briscoe later returned to Piccadilly for another test ride, and this time he put the bike through the real test by pedaling up a steep hill. The drive system kicked in, Briscoe did his part and for the first time in years he was, while remaining seated, moving up the hill steadily without zig-zagging. That’s when he knew.
“This electric assist bike leveled the playing field,” he said. “It closed the gap between the 23-year-old macho kid and the 64-year-old guy. It completely narrowed the gap. At the end of the day we were equally exhausted. This technology gave me another 10 years.”
Quincy Briscoe, who captains a sailboat in Maui, admitted he was “totally surprised” when his dad called to say he’d do it.
“It was a son testing his dad and seeing if he’d jump into the icy pond,” said Quincy Briscoe, who’d biked through Europe and across the U.S. before he was old enough to order a beer. “And then the dad says 'yes' and jumps in, and the son goes, 'oh, alright,' we’re doing this.”
The Briscoes set out May 15, loaded down with camping gear, clothes, a precious few supplies such as bike repair tools and, for Christopher, equipment to properly document the experience — space and weight were limited, so he decided his iPad, not laptop, would have to do for editing photos and publishing diary entries. The world travelers were guided by the road itself, the GPS apps on their smart phones and little else, as the plan strongly endorsed by both as a prerequisite was to follow 66 and their whims in equal measure, with no arrival date that may stunt improvisation considered.
It was that seat-of-your-pants philosophy that led them to Charles, a “desert rat” living alone in a trailer six miles off the main road in the middle of the, yes, desert; and Archie West, a handlebar-mustached rancher in Sante Fe, New Mexico, whose dad had moved there from Oklahoma to escape the Dust Bowl; and Harley Russell, a candy-striped overalls-clad, flag-waving, scraggly-bearded, self-described redneck who strums rock and roll classics on his guitar for strangers in his Sand Hills Curiosity Shop in Erick, Oklahoma.
Christopher Briscoe described many of the trip’s highlights in great detail in diary entries still available on his website (chrisbriscoe.com), but to hear him relive the experience firsthand is to understand that besides possessing a keen eye — his photographs have appeared on Oprah and in Time Magazine and The London Times, and he’s shot some of the world’s most iconic faces, such as Catherine Zeta Jones, Kirk Douglas and Mikhail Gorbachev — he also happens to be a natural storyteller.
Reminiscing about West, Briscoe says, “We’re talking as he’s repairing his barbed wire fence. He’s got these cowboy boots on and he talks about the weather, and he’s scraping the dry dirt with the side of his cowboy boots. The clouds are circling around and he’s hoping it’s going to rain but it never rains enough. After Quincy and I got back on our bicycles and rolled off down the highway, I said you could never take a college class and learn what we just learned from Mr. West. You could read about it, but you can’t learn in any class about a guy like that without talking to him, without watching his boots, without seeing his weathered hands fix that barbed wire. And the passion and love he has for that ranch he’s been on his whole life — you can’t take a class like that.”
“I wish every high school English class, after reading “The Grapes of Wrath,” could go and ride that route because you really understand what our ancestors had to go through to get to the west and to escape the Dust Bowl. It was pretty mind-blowing.
“Because us with great bicycles and the funds to do so still had the struggle of a lifetime. Getting through the Mojave, climbing up to Flagstaff, Arizona, and going through 112-degree heat in Oklahoma City, where you are on the verge of a heat stroke and you don’t even know it. It sneaks up behind you. I can only imagine what it was like repairing their Model-A on the side of the road with shoe laces.”
Besides stories, Wednesday’s lecture will also include a slideshow of images capture during what will probably be the older Briscoe’s final road trip. He was almost coaxed into another, albeit on a different continent, by a couple who offered to pay his way if he would come along for the ride and document their own bike adventure in Australia. It was tempting, but Briscoe declined.
“I was flattered by their offer,” he said, “but I thought, you know, I will never be able to top the trip that I had with my wonderful son. I think this is my grand finale.
"This is the greatest of all of my adventures, and I’m good with that.”
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.