Wednesday, July 15, 2020

2020 Interview: John Frederick

Hello, I’m John Frederick. I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood on the edge of Altoona, Pennsylvania. It comes as a surprise to people who didn’t know me then that I was a shy, quiet kid and one of the worst athletes in my neighborhood and class. To make matters worse, when we finally got cable service, I became addicted to television. Yet despite that, I spent much time outdoors, playing in the woods behind our house and riding bicycles whenever we could in our quiet corner of town.

By junior high, I began to grow out of my introverted personality a bit, but remained a skinny, nonathletic twit. But my interest in the outdoors couldn’t be squelched by that and I spent more and more time hiking and bicycling as those next few years passed. This prompted a metamorphism of sorts, physically, socially and academically and I ended up connecting my interest of nature and the environment to my academic pursuits.

Do you have any hobbies?

My interests in nature pushed me toward the environmental movement that was part of the social awakening and protests (and music) of the late sixties and early seventies. Besides reading everything I could and picking the brain of my gardening grandfather, I started my own vegetable garden at home. Bicycling and walking were natural outgrowths of that “greener” life style. When I realized that I wasn’t a bad bicyclist, it only followed that it would become not just a hobby but, ultimately, an obsession. It was unplanned, but my hobbies and studies became intertwined. 

What is your favorite vacation spot?

Having been fortunate enough to visit or bicycle through 48 of the 49 contiguous states, it is difficult to pick out one favorite spot. That said, I can reduce the list to a pair of places to which I have returned every time the opportunity presented itself. Rocky Mountain National Park enthralled me the first time I saw it, albeit briefly, on a motorhome trip with my aunt in 1973. I have many memories of that and subsequent trips, but the most vivid is the exhilaration of flying down the park highways so fast I was passing the cars.

My many trips to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, both on my bike and with my family exploring parks and historic sites, have been memorable and enjoyable. The enthusiasm of my two sons for the historic and natural treasures of the region confirmed time and again that we had pointed them in the right direction and that they valued the things that mattered.

What is your favorite color and what do you love about it?

Orange has been my favorite color as long as I can remember. I suppose its vibrancy has always been appealing, but because of the fruit of the same name, it has always been a sweet, delicious, and refreshing color as well. When many of my cycling friends longed for a cold beer after a long ride, I was looking for a cold orange juice.

What was your favorite book as a child?

I’m not sure if this counts, since it was in high school, but I was moved and entertained by Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. I recall being fascinated by the juvenile sci-fi Tom Swift series in elementary school and read a bundle of them. In junior high, I read one of the original biographies of Yankee star Lou Gehrig (either Pride of the Yankees or A Quiet Hero) and did my final oral book report of seventh grade on the book. His career and life was cut short by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a debilitating and fatal disease still often called “Lou Gehrig Disease.” It was an inspiring story I relive every time the Gary Cooper movie airs on cable television

What is one thing about yourself you’d like to change or are trying to work on?

I can be an impatient person. Though I have come to accept that any wall must be built a brick at a time, I still too often expect rapid change that most often must be incremental. 

What music genre/singer/band is your go-to for a bad day? For working? 

I can’t imagine a better time for music than the late sixties and early seventies – The Beatles; The Rolling Stones; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers, Little Feat, The Moody Blues. I loved them all and still listen to them whenever I can. (Not coincidentally, many of the chapter titles in my book come from the music I loved and often sang to myself during lonely times on the road.)

Do you re-read books? If so, is there one in particular?

Three that I have reread and enjoyed just as much on the second or third go-round have been Thoreau’s Walden, George Stewart’s Earth Abides, and William Least-Heat Moon’s Blue Highways. My first two readings of Earth Abides were 35 years apart and my reactions to the post-apocalyptic novel at two very different points in life were profoundly different.

Are you an introvert, extravert, or ambivert?

I suppose I’m and ambivert. I enjoy the quiet, contemplative air of being alone, but am happy to join a spirited conversation or share or listen to an interesting story.

Does pineapple go on pizza?

I’m not fond of mixing my salties with my sweets.

How many places have you lived? 

Though my travels have taken me all across the country, I have never lived permanently more than a half mile from the Mainline of the old Pennsylvania Railroad in, and just north of Altoona, Pennsylvania.

What was your first job?

I helped in my mother’s corner grocery store. The money wasn’t great, but the penny candy was an exceptional fringe benefit.

What is your favorite down time activity?

Even in late middle-age, you guessed it, bicycling still gives me great pleasure.

Are you an outdoor type? Have a green thumb?

I enjoy the outdoors and have been known to grow a thing or two. Though I must admit, some years my heartiest crops are the weeds, rather than the vegetables.

If you could live inside a movie, which would you choose and which character would you be?

Breaking Away, the 1979 Oscar winner that follows the bicycle racing and life adventures of Dave Stohler (played by Dennis Christopher) remains a special movie and character to me. It was released the same summer I began serious racing myself, prompting my sister to exclaim, “It’s you! This is your story.” 

Are you the type to take a dare?

Though I’m not one to back down when things get tough, I also don’t like to take unnecessary chances and risks. I’ll accept a challenge, but not a pointless dare.

Do you have a favorite motto or quote that applies to your own life?

An old friend of mine taught me that life is an adventure to be experienced, not a drudgery to be tolerated. Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” and I simply refuse to part of that desperate group.

What is one thing you’ve learned through experience that you’d love to pass along to others?

I’m frequently surprised by how the lessons we learn in other parts of our lives are transferable to seemingly unrelated, disparate events and challenges later on. Similarly, we carry lessons from many people, often not realizing their value until it becomes evident long afterwards.

What books, other than your own, would you highly recommend?

George Stewart’s Earth Abides and Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang are two that come quickly to mind. Earth Abides is the engaging story of a geographer who survives an apocalyptic plague which kills nearly everyone on the planet. The Monkey Wrench gang is the hysterical tale of a group of friends intent on sabotaging everything in Arizona that destroys the magical landscape of the region – from billboards to dams, written only as Edward Abbey could..

On to writing: what inspired you to start creating stories/non-fiction? How long ago?

After wandering away from writing early in my career (as an Earth And Environmental Science teacher), I came back to technical writing and then a biweekly newspaper column later on. Especially when it came to environmental policy, I always felt that it was valuable to convey the truth as alternative facts and twisted stories became more common. As to my book, Winding Roads, I long ago sensed it was a compelling story. And when a good story comes to pass, shouldn’t it be our duty to tell it? 

How do you choose your settings (fiction) or topics (non-fiction)?

Whether my book, my technical writing or my newspaper column, the stories and topics seem to fall into my lap. I fear I’ll run out of time long before I write about everything I hope to write about.

Can you tell us a bit about your path to publication?

It was difficult to find the time to write a book while holding down a demanding job, so the writing took much longer than it should have. After shopping for both and agent and a publisher, I finally hooked up with Deeds Publishing in Georgia. This process was also time consuming, though many of the delays were self-inflicted. But when it was finished and printed, I was delighted with how it all turned out. It ended up not just being a good story, but an attractive book as well. It was worth the wait.

Finally, please tell us about your books and add your website so we can find you:

Winding Roads: A Bicyclist’s Journey through Life and America is a memoir that culminates with my cross-country bicycle trip following college. But it is also the story of the dozen years that lead up to the adventure. For a trek across the continent would have seemed to be one of the most unlikely of events, given the embarrassingly nonathletic childhood that preceded it. But like so many lives, unexpected turns (and winding roads) take us the most unexpected of places.

You can learn about both my book and my other writing on my website, 

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