Teaser for Noel+Leon story

This teaser for the Noel+Leon story uses an image from Noel Kegel

It all seems fated, somehow: The two cyclists, meeting by chance in an empty stretch of the Kazakh desert, yes, but also the writer stumbling across their story years later in an Alabama bike shop.

Author and magazine writer Kim Cross didn’t believe the story when it was first relayed to her by the owner of her local shop; it had all the signs of an urban legend. What were the odds? But Barb, the owner, had met one of the two cyclists through their shared industry and had heard the story firsthand. She made an introduction.

Kim Cross

Kim Cross

By then, it had been several years since Noel Kegel had cycled solo from the Atlantic-facing west coast of Portugal to the easternmost shores of China. He hadn’t kept in touch with Leon Whiteley, the other man he’d crossed paths with almost 5,400 miles into that trip, but they were connected on Facebook. Kegel — best referred to as Noel for purposes of Cross’s story and this analysis — reached out at Cross’s request, and soon she had both her protagonists lined up, willing to tell their story. Whiteley, or Leon here, had kept a detailed diary with daily mileage, dates, and photos; Noel had a Flickr archive complete with timestamps and location data — enough proof and material for Cross to go ahead with a dream piece. “It took a lot for me to believe that this actually happened,” she told me, “and that it wasn’t some big stunt.”

What happened is this: Two long-distance cyclists, strangers, started riding many thousands of miles apart. They converged slowly across months, from the west and the east, and finally met on, in Cross’s description, “an unpaved Soviet road that never seems to bend.” Their meeting was important — read the story to find out why — but in Cross’s careful hands it became something even greater.

That story, “What Happens When Two Strangers Trust the Rides of Their Lives to the Magic of the Universe,” was published this past March online and September in the print edition in Bicycling magazine. (When sketching out the story in her mind, Cross kept the palindrome in mind, and thought of the story as “Noel+Leon: A True Story from the Middle of Somewhere.”) It has since won the Gold Lowell Thomas Award for foreign travel reporting from the Society of American Travel Writers and was named as one of the Best of 2020 in the Sunday Longread. Cross was interviewed about the story for Gangrey the Podcast.

Mapping the story

Cross knew what she wanted to do from the outset: structure the story as a kind of palindrome writ large, one half mirroring the other. The approach would only make sense for this particular story, these men and their mirrored journeys. Ordinarily, Cross prefers not to get too fancy or look-at-me-go with her story structures, but in this case, it seemed worth trying. “I thought, if I can pull this off quietly, if the structure is kind of invisible to the reader, then I’ve actually done my job,” she says. Why a palindrome? It wasn’t just their names, Noel and Leon, but the pattern of differences and similarities between them. “These two guys are kind of like matter and anti-matter,” Cross says. “They’re doing essentially the same thing in opposite directions and for very different reasons.”

To create her story-mirror, Cross decided to start and end at the same place — in the middle, at the meeting point. Then she rewound each journey back to its beginnings and followed the two cyclists through until they finally, inevitably met in the middle again.

Her skeletal outline of the palindrome structure:

The Meeting (“narrative now” – written in present tense)
Leon – the start / reasons for riding (shifts to past tense)
Noel – the start / reasons for riding
Leon – believes world is sketchy / world proves him right
Noel – believes world is good / world proves him right
Leon – world is sketchy / but trail magic opens his eyes
Noel – hardest part / never doubts he will make it
Leon – hardest part / doubts he will make it
Noel – how it ends / what’s at stake (FLASH FORWARD, tense change)
Leon – how it ends / what’s at stake (FLASH FORWARD, tense change)
The Meeting (“shift back to present tense”)

 

Cross also had a clear vision for the language and tone she wanted to use. She remembered reading Paulo Coelho’s novel, “The Alchemist,” in high school, and being struck by its epic, almost biblical style. She decided to strive for something similar in her story. “I really wanted people to feel like they were reading a fable, and be transported to another world. I wanted it to read kind of like fiction,” she says. Especially in the first and last scenes (which are the same scene), “I worked hard to make the language feel a little bit different.” She wanted to signal to the reader: hey, something’s going on here.

Here’s a taste from the lede, describing the travelers’ eventual meeting point:

The earth spins. The sun rises. Long shadows shrink into puddles of shade beneath their spinning wheels. From dawn to dusk, in every direction, the landscape looks the same.

The only thing that changes is the angle of the sun.

Then, through the shimmering heat, a blur appears on their common horizon and gradually comes into focus: a simple white box of a building on the edge of the dusty road. Next to it, a metal shipping container marked by a hand-painted word, шaихaнa. Translation: chaikhana, a teahouse, where travelers can find water, food, and shade. The nearest city, on the Caspian Sea, is 235 miles away.

Cross worked and re-worked her sentences, trying to get the cadence and flow just right. She also scattered palindromes throughout the story, little Easter eggs for herself or for her most attentive readers. Among them: “race car” and “drawn onward.”

She went through a dozen drafts or more, workshopping it with friends as well as her editors at Bicycling magazine. She initially wrote two drafts and sent both to her editor, letting him decide if her structural play worked. “I wanted it to be a story that, if you read it a second time, you might get a second layer out of it, and if you read it a third time, you might get a third layer out of it.”

The result is something special, from the structure level to the sentence level, and beyond.

***

Eva Holland is a freelance writer and editor based in Canada’s Yukon Territory. She is the author of “Nerve: A Personal Journey Through the Science of Fear.”

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