Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Into the Margin 

A gay unicyclist might understand
more quickly than me how the danger
of Virginia roads resembles gay America,
how lack of safe space threatens life.

Three weeks into this journey I begin unicycling in Maryland, in safety. Pedaling on One Wheel, alongside the 5:30 a.m. commute near Frederick, I barely notice the traffic speeding past at 70 miles-per-hour. Some good transportation planner built this Maryland highway with its grassy median and with shoulders big enough to park truck convoys. On this stretch my mind wanders freely, anticipating the final two weeks of unicycling Straight Into Gay America.

Everything changes as I cross the Potomac River to Virginia. All the four-lane traffic converges upon an old bridge with no shoulder. Compression brakes of a big-rig roar behind me, the driver jamming down to my one-wheel speed. The trucker has no choice. Against opposing traffic she has no room to pass. I glance for the briefest second at the Potomac that I pedal above. Otherwise, cycling at top speed to cross the bridge, I eye the grille of the giant Freightliner filling my rear-view mirror.

Winding the first few curves into Virginia, the dozen inches of shoulder turn into four inches and then two. Every single car must consciously consent to pass me, calculate survival space before swinging around. Trucks pound their brakes and time their passes with opposing traffic. Long trailers press into me as I balance on One Wheel.

One cell phone distraction, one ill-timed look
in the mirror to finish morning make-up,
one Starbucks spilled in a lap— I die.
Heartbeat rocketing,

I make ten minutes in Virginia
then dive off the road and give up
unicycling, too little space even to hitchhike
out of this danger, 711 miles of unicycling Straight

Into Gay America. I become nothing, tensed to bursting,
quivering in the weeds and stickers at the side of the road.
All my privileges of white skin, male features, economic power,
do nothing for me here. The center of the road

which I typically command, has become a killing field.
Panic. Frustration. Anger. I turn to walk back, pushing
One Wheel through gravel and grass,
to a solitary EZ-Gas station half-a-mile back.

Not until I buy coffee from the EZ-Gas
and return outdoors, pacing on the asphalt
parking lot, heart still pumping madly,
tension dominating my body,

watching traffic pouring by,
do I begin to see connections,
to see how being gay in America
is like the lack of safe space

on the shoulder of this road,
how gay people must make decisions
with every person they meet,
calculating whether to trust

that others will honor their life
as transgender, lesbian, bisexual, or gay.
"Will you give me space on this road?
or will you kill me with your bumper?"

Every legal right of cyclists matters
not a bit when riders have no space
to put their cycles, their bicycles, their unicycles,
their identities—when no room exists for difference.


For the first three weeks of my tour, the margin of the road has provided me with safety.  This morning my ride reaches the line between life and death.  Equal rights have become survival rights. I want to make it through these next two weeks of riding.  I want to return safely to my family.  The parting at the start of this ride had been so painful.


Son Kai grumps his way along the gravel road, this ten-mile bike ride from our family's home at Holden Village in Washington State, to the ferry dock at Lucerne. "I really don't want to do this," he says, nearing the ferry that will shuttle me downlake away from our remote community to the land of automobiles, airplanes, cell phones and a unicycle tour. At the boat Kai follows suit with KariAnna, tears rolling as I pack my gear onto the ferry, beginning my five-week journey, Straight Into Gay America.
Anne hugs the kids into herself, their mother hen. I watch from the ferry railing, impotent, voice gone, crying at what I am doing to her. Again. Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests. I am flying the coop once more. How much I take for granted, my own blue pillow, the eight kisses for Kai each night, to mark his years, and the eleven for KariAnna. Of falling asleep with Anne after the pattern of another day, two bodies as one, two souls resting into each other.

"What's that part about flying the coop?" Poetry Man breaks in, beginning to work through my manuscript.

"I wore Anne out when I toured through the fifty states. She took care of the kids and finding campgrounds and calling the churches where I was speaking. She drove the old motor home with the broken air conditioner through the South, suffered through every mechanical breakdown. When we finished the trip, she wrapped up the keys to the motor home and gave them to me, saying she'd never drive it again. When One Wheel – Many Spokes came out, I wanted to unicycle my book tour along the West Coast, from Canada to Mexico. I planned to do it alone if I had to, or see if my Dad would drive for me. Anne ended up coming along with the kids. We tented that trip; she drove our car. It was shorter, simpler, but I still wore her out."

"Were you scared about your marriage when you started this trip?"

"We've got a lot of LGBT friends who've been hurt by the church, and we both believe in equal…"

"Were you scared?"

"What I'm scared about is sitting here talking to you, turning this manuscript into a book about myself instead of about LGBT life in America today. Yeah, I was scared about being away from Anne for five weeks. I knew she'd be safe in the community we lived in and have good company. But the last time we were apart was the three months she was teaching in Alaska and I was back in Berkeley, finishing seminary. In those three months Anne's father died, we miscarried our first baby, and the Mt. Spur Volcano erupted; all while I was gone."

"That's what Anne was thinking about the whole time back at Holden while you were riding?"

Suddenly I'm remembering our honeymoon, six months of bicycling through Europe, from Stockholm, Sweden, to the Rock of Gibraltar, and how when we tell the story to friends Anne tells of the night in Spain, four months into the trip, when I said to her, "We could just keep riding. In three years  we could get all the way around the world." Anne tells friends how she went to sleep crying in our flashlight tent that night. "I wasn't crying for myself. I was crying for Lars, for what I was doing to his dreams. Four months was a good trip. Six months was okay. But not three years."

I tell this to Poetry Man.

"You think that's not part of your ride this summer?"

"Yeah, that's part of the ride."
Poetry Man puts his glasses back on and returns to the manuscript.
On the plane tonight, heading toward Vermont to begin the tour, I will sleep upright, six miles above earth's surface, putting thousands of miles between KariAnna's wet tears and my own, between Anne's body and mine. Our hearts will ache with pain, stretching to bridge this distance.

At the Sea-Tac airport, Jennifer Ting meets me for just the second time. Five feet tall. Asian features. The purposeful walk I've already come to recognize. A week ago she and her videographer, Tan Vo, were visiting us at Holden Village. After a spring announcement about my tour in The Advocate, (the nation's largest LGBT magazine), Jennifer had called up her videographer, Tan Vo, to announce she'd found their next documentary project.

"Yeah, right," Tan had replied when she heard Jen's idea. "Gay rights? A unicycle? You're sure about this?"

Jen went ahead and wrote me an eight-page proposal describing why she wanted to follow my ride. She noted her discouragement with the 2004 elections: Eleven states passed anti-gay marriage amendments. She mentioned her disillusion with religion, including her Catholic background. "I thought Jesus was about including everybody," she wrote, "not judging others."

Along with her proposal Jen mailed the DVD of  "Not Straightforward," her and Tan's first documentary. Tan starred in this film; ten Seattle dates to explore lesbian relationships. Watching the mixture of humor and insight, I had a feeling I'd be in good hands with these two. Their interest goes far beyond capturing the best camera angle. Gay America is their life.

Jennifer gets right to work. "What does this feel like? You've been preparing for this ride for two years?"

Tonight my heart is still back at Holden with my family. I don't know yet what this ride feels like. Right now I'm taking it step by step, checking my unicycle in at the counter, walking through security, finding the gate where I'll step onto the plane. As Jen films my image reflecting off the airport window, the ride begins to feel real. Watching Jen work, I realize how we will observe the same tour, but we will author different stories, each of us interpreting as best we can.

Here at the airport, Jen films me walking onto the boarding ramp, taking the next step toward returning to the road with One Wheel. She will catch up with me tomorrow in Burlington. Finding my seat,  I settle in for this overnight journey. While we wait for takeoff I begin my first conversation of the trip. The proud aunt sitting next to me tells energetically of her nephew's college graduation. She listens with interest as I tell her I'm starting a unicycle tour, but mentioning Straight Into Gay America disconnects us.

"Do you know any gay or lesbian people?" I ask.

From Charleston, South Carolina, she answers:

"Only by suspicion."

"So there's not much conversation?"


She seems to pull away but her considerable
size defies the effort to disconnect her thick black leg
from the side of my freckled white one, all through
the long hours of this overnight flight.

Looking down at our parallel legs
I see Straight Into Gay America in clear
perspective. Individual seats are a deception.
Isolation is an illusion.

 Sun shines on the New Jersey tarmac through cloudless 6:00 a.m. sky. The TV monitor announces a coming high of 95 degrees. I change planes here to get to Burlington, Vermont.

Not only am I leaving Anne and the kids for five weeks,  I also don't know what route I will ride or where I will stay on this trip. I have an eight-pound backpack that holds all my gear. Other than this first night I have planned in Burlington, I hope to journey day by day, staying each night at the invitation of someone along the way, creating my route according to the stories I follow, propelled by hospitality from one place to the next. The night on the plane felt long and lonely, separating from my family, transitioning into this wandering existence.

The pilot announces our arrival. "We've got 72 degrees in Burlington, scattered clouds, a chance of rain." The landscape outside is a rich green of hardwood forest. Inside the airport, I notice an immediate difference from New Jersey; almost everyone here has white skin. Then I see one Asian woman, then an Asian couple. After a while an African-American woman walks past the baggage carousel; none of Newark's rich racial mixture. The things I seek on this trip are less apparent than the color of skin.

Baggage arrives. At a seat near the baggage carousel I unpack two boxes of unicycle parts, arranging pieces like an altar around me for the beginning of my tour. Seat post, wheel, water bottles, knee and elbow pads—I savor One Wheel in its parts. I stop to write. I stop right now so I will remember to stop all during this journey. Jen asked me if I prayed the night before my ride. This is prayer. This is a great thanksgiving, and now lifting the elements, assembling the parts, I pray for five weeks of holy communing. I pray for safety; I want to show doubters that travelers can still find grace on the shoulder of the road.

While I screw in pedals, Dayton and Sarah walk up and offer a first story. Born, raised, retired in Vermont, they tell of a Governor Hoff, from the 1960's, the first Democrat elected after 49 Republicans in a row, "that would be the beginning of movement toward civil unions."

Then middle-aged Matt stands next to me, washing large hands in the restroom. "Follow your conscience," he advises. "Personally, though, I'm Roman Catholic; that sums up my position." He holds up one finger like a bolt. Circling the fingers of his other hand like a nut, he jabs the bolt through it again and again. "That says it all. That's normal."

"Good luck on your ride," he adds. "I'll look for your book when it comes out."

The woman at the information desk tells me where I can leave my packing boxes. I call my mom to tell her I've safely landed. Mom has always been my safe place. Although she worries about me providing a living for my family, she has always encouraged my path. She doesn't need to know where it is leading. When friends ask her what I'm up to next, she answers, "We'll have to wait and see."

Rain drips down on me as I pedal the three miles into the center of Burlington. I barely notice this weather. Cars honk greetings. Drivers wave. Pedestrians turn to stare. Bicyclists hurry to catch up and ask about my unicycle. I am back on the road, riding again at ten miles an hour on my 36-inch wheel. Handlebars rise up from behind me, and I grip them as old friends; the half-year of memories from unicycling the fifty states start rushing back.

Three years ago I pedaled coast to coast and back again. During 9,136 miles, I set two long distance Guinness World records. More than the miles or the records, I sought out Native American lands and people wherever I could. American bombs were falling on Afghanistan when I began my tour; we were ramping up for Iraq before I finished. Watching the news I saw only fear, violence, and retribution. On the unicycle I heard different stories, like the 90-year old man who was out for his daily bicycle ride near Sundance, Wyoming. "Keeps the belly fat off." He'd come out west from Pennsylvania, on a motorcycle, seventy years earlier. He'd seen wars.

The deeper I rode into our land, the more people sought me out, the guy on the unicycle. They'd pull off the highway and wait for me to catch up. "Where are you going?  What are you doing?" For half a year I dove into the daily life of this country. Having served as pastor with Native Inupiat Eskimo people in Nome, I buried suicides and officiated other tragic deaths. Pedaling across the country I put these horrors into the bigger story of genocide and the American destruction of Native life. After a Nez Perce man in Washington State blessed my ride, he told me to pray when I reached the East Coast. I prayed questions.

How can a nation of such hospitality be so violent? 

How can a nation of such violence be so hospitable?
Riding on the road feels more like church than sitting in a pew. The physical meditation of pedaling thousands of revolutions each day helps keep me going even as the ride exposes dark sides of life. This ride too will have genocide in its background. Homosexual people wore pink triangles on their way to the death camps in Nazi Germany. Some fanatics quote the Bible today, saying homosexuals should be stoned to death. The 1998 Wyoming fencepost crucifixion of Matthew Shepherd remains fresh in people's minds. New hate crimes make news, then fade away. Friends worry for my safety. "Watch out for the crazies," they say.

Now, unicycle assembled, beginning this ride into the complications of our country, I enter this dialogue with a single question. What is everyday life like in LGBT America? 

My departure anxiety fades to the background now. Worrying about Anne and the kids ceases. I feel the thrill of finally starting this ride; no doubts, no jitters, no worries as I take the first pedal strokes. I have only the trail of this story for my route. Other than an e-mail with an offer to stay in Manhattan, my only known destination is this first night with Dave. I hope to see Washington DC. I hope to worship at Jerry Falwell's church. All I know is wherever the story leads, if all goes well, my flight home to family will depart from Baltimore on the afternoon of July 19th.

Riding these first moments out of Burlington Airport, I turn One Wheel into the adventure of the road, into this big wide summertime country. Dave speaks directions into my cell phone. I get them mangled on the way into downtown. Ending up on Church Street, four young people, sitting on their possessions, tell me my unicycle is the coolest thing they've ever seen. One has a half-inch plug through the center of his nose. They are dressed in khaki clothes, darkened by weeks of unwashed grease, "We live on trains," they say. I tell them my own ride is headed to Baltimore. They're interested until I ask their thoughts about my riding Straight Into Gay America; then they close off conversation and resume their separation from the crowd.
I'd stand here longer to see if we could start conversation, but a young man comes striding up,  "Is that a Coker?" he points at my unicycle.

"You know these?"

"Sure, I unicycle. My girlfriend and I just had a baby, though, so no time for pedaling. I'm still a member of the Vermont Unicycling Club." Ashley talks about riding, club, and new family, as he walks me to the porch of Dave's apartment.

Dave at the door is the same as I remember, some inches shorter than my 6'1", still lots of curly dark hair. Seven years ago we met at Holden Village. I led a retreat and Dave quizzed me hard when I claimed all theology, all thinking about God, begins with the old bumper sticker, Shit Happens. "Most of us didn't start wondering about God because everything was going fine," I told the participants. "The challenges are what make us wrestle with God and struggle to make sense of our lives."

Dave's story fit, but he'd never heard God talked about that way. The death of his Dad. The death of his brother. Ostracism for being gay. Strained relations with his mom.

We kept intermittent contact while Dave lived in Fargo, North Dakota. When I decided to start my ride in Vermont, Dave e-mailed, "Guess what, I just moved to Burlington; can you stay with me when you come through?

Now, in his apartment, he tells me. "This is the first place I've felt at home. I can walk down the street, and I can talk openly with people here. When someone hears I'm gay, it's fine; it doesn't end our conversation."

Fargo felt different:  "When people discovered I was gay, they snickered, said something snide, and couldn't treat me the same."

Growing up in Iowa felt different:  "In 8th grade I told a boy in school I liked him. He told the others, and school turned into torment. Heck, I didn't even know what the word gay meant. I just knew I liked that boy and wanted to be friends."

Family felt different:  "Being gay means I'm a disappointment and an embarrassment to my mom. I remember when I told her about being gay, and having the most wonderful news, ‘Mom, I have a boyfriend!' She lost the son she wished I was. I'm in my forties now. This is a lot of years to live this way."

"Why did you write these things down?" asks Poetry Man. "Why so short?"

"Because I've got a lot of people ahead of me on this ride. I'm not trying to write an encyclopedia." I look again at Dave's summaries:  The words ‘Embarrassment to my mom' jump off the page and bite me. Just as Dave was an embarrassment to his mom, riding Straight Into Gay America seems to embarrass my dad. I tell Poetry Man the connection.

"Remember how we met?" he asks.

"Yeah, one week after I announced I was going to do this ride. You were visiting Holden Village, leading a poetry workshop."

"You had a letter in your pocket that very night. "

"From my Dad. He'd written right away to express concern about my plan to unicycle Straight Into Gay America."

"That's what I remember. And I remember the poem you wrote at that workshop. Do you still have it?"

Poetry Man keeps working through my manuscript while I pull a pile of other pages from my shoulder bag. When I find the poem that I wrote back then at Holden I hand it over to him.  He takes the pages and then begins to read the poem out loud to me, starting with the quote I included from my dad,

With that in mind
I would suggest to you
that you should try to find
a way to stay in the mainstream.
And the unicycle ride
is not moving toward the mainstream.

Poetry Man continues with the letter poem I composed as my response.  He reads slowly, driving the words more deeply into me.

I came to the poetry workshop last night
with nothing in writing except the mail in my back
pocket, the letter you'd written, Dad. I thought to read
a paragraph out loud, but it didn't seem the place.

Then, at the end of class, in the way serendipity intrudes,
the class assignment came—write a letter poem. I walked back
to Chalet Three, and here I sit, your thoughts pulled
from my pocket, trying to gather my own for you.
How old was I then, anyway?  Eighteen?  Twenty?
The time we took that cross-country shortcut to finish
our weeklong trek in the Sierras?  Remember
that white-granite crevasse we started up,

which got so steep we couldn't turn around to come back down? 
How we ended up taking off our backpacks, handing them up
from ledge to ledge, and joining tandem hands to push and haul
each other up impossible steepness until at last we came out on top,
in bright high-altitude blue sky that felt closer
and more wondrous than before the challenge of that chute?
Remember in the afternoon, at the trailhead,
after the hike was finished? 

And Don's old Toyota pickup
we'd promised to spot for him to retrieve
at the end of his own hike? How it wouldn't start
and wouldn't start, even for you the master

and me the aspiring mechanic? 
And how, when more than an hour later we gave
up, and sat in our car eating crackers and drinking
from our water bottles, I had told you to go

and start the truck?  And you'd said no,
and I'd insisted, and you'd gone over to crank
the starter one last time, and that little green pickup
turned right over and started running smooth?
And I followed you in our red Pinto, and we spotted his car,
and we drove home through Yosemite Valley.
And how a week later when you talked to Don,
he told how he'd needed a tow for the truck,

from the trailhead to the auto shop
in Bishop, and the mechanic there had voiced amazement
over how it ever reached the trail junction,  "These points
are completely burned out. Your engine should never have started."

I grew up with no doubt of your love
for me, of your hand being there to haul
me up when I am in need, and hoping mine can always be there for you,
no matter the size of the mysteries or the miracles.

Strange then, how we two lovers of philosophy
seem to grow increasingly farther apart. The very places
that you admired me learning from, the Air Force
Academy, Cal Berkeley and seminary,

all helped me see the holes in the center,
and the hope in the edge. The Christianity
I studied revealed a conflicted core, even while Jesus
the person became a stronger partner for my pathways.

It's not new, your pushing me to the mainstream.
You would have preferred something other than my bicycling
across the USA in 1987. Same with my first job, first unicycle tour.
Still, at the end of all journeys, you offered your congratulations.

Now as I announce my next hope,
to unicycle Straight Into Gay America,
you let me know once more
I'm moving against your sentiments,

"There must be a way to work
for a better future without listening to the shrill
voices and the ‘Chicken Little, the Sky is Falling.'"
Know I feel both gift and question in your pushing.

Few others cause me such careful reflection, and my own voice
is always stronger because of yours. I wonder,
though, from the center of this conversation,
what you would want for me if I were gay.
Would you want me not to be a pastor? 
Would you want me not to have your grandchildren? 
Will you treat those grandchildren differently
if they grow up gay or lesbian,

or even wonder if I'd helped to cause their homosexuality
by my own efforts at inclusion? Perhaps we're back
in that Sierra chute again, no turning back,
passing gear above our heads to one another,

handing ourselves into each other, not knowing
where the crest is, or where the easy hiking will resume.
At the end of this trail, will we find
another green pickup?


Poetry Man asks if I remember what he told me that weekend.

"You said poetry is dangerous. In a poem there's no place to hide." 

"That's right."

"And you told us at the start of each session, ‘We're all in this together. We're all just trying to figure life out.'"

"That's right."

"And you told me to mail that poem to my Dad. You told me he'd cry when he read it."

I remind Poetry Man that my Dad did not cry when he read it. "He wrote me another warning about not getting too far outside the mainstream."

"Yeah," says Poetry Man, "but I cried."

Read Chapter 2

Straight Into Gay America:
My Unicycle Journey for Equal Rights.
by Lars Clausen
(Soulscapers, 2006)

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Lars Clausen is the author of Straight Into Gay America: My Unicycle Journey for Equal Rights.  Visit for more information.