Book Review: Digging Mud, Sweat, and Gears

Joe Kurmaskie’s latest book, Mud, Sweat, and Gears, is funny, genuine, and inspiring. And it isn’t just a memoir about the Kurmaskie family’s epic bike trip across Canada one summer; it’s about the mud, sweat, and gears that keep a family together.

Mud, Sweat, and Gears: A Rowdy Family Bike Adventure Across Canada on Seven Wheels by Joe Kurmaskie, Breakaway Books, 304 pages, $23.95

Reviewed By Tom Samph

The Kurmaskies (Joe, his wife Beth, and three sons, Quinn, Enzo, and Matteo) left home in Portland, Oregon at the beginning of the summer with their panniers packed to the brim, headed East for Nova Scotia.

The men of the family are all aboard one bike. Joe takes the helm of a tandem bike with his eldest son, Quinn, behind. Next in line are Matteo and Enzo, who ride a trail-a-bike and trailer, respectively, attached to the back of the tandem. The bike is 16 feet long and 500 pounds—a monster of a bike that made it all the way across North America. In an equally impressive feat, Joe’s wife Beth makes the entire trip solo alongside the boys.

The setup makes for witty banter, tense arguments at times, and in the end, a stronger bond between the family members. Along the way, Joe tells of frequent, ravenous eating escapades after long days of pushing pedals, like Joe and Beth devouring the Trucker’s Dream—a three-tiered mountain of meat, gravy, potatoes, and veggies with a hamburger plopped in the middle—at a roadside diner. Stopping only to re-order macaroni and cheese for the kids, they finish the massive meal and the waitress presents them with mud flaps as their prize.

They meet quirky and sentimental characters on and off the bike like “Canada’s Robin Hood of rocking chairs,” an old man who rescues old rockers, repairs them, and donates them to libraries, schools, and anyone in need. And a singing, semi-nude, Irish cyclist they meet on the road who entices them to play a game of “I believe” while pedaling full speed.

Through their encounters with elk, bear, and rowdy Canadian hicks, the family bonds around their incredible feat of traversing a continent by bike. The book is a portrait of an energetic, adventurous family who uncover a new love for life and for each other over a 3,000-mile bike trip. Disconnected, no phones, it’s just the family, the road, and the people they meet along the way.

The mud and sweat collected on the road draw the family closer. The gears keep turning, and the intrepid family cruises across Canada. The trip itself shows the family’s spirit, and Joe shows his endless enthusiasm and passion for living, his family, and cycling, through his writing.

Joe lives and writes with incredible energy. The loves of his life—family, cycling, and writing—were present at every turn, and his retelling of the 3,000-mile family bike ride mirrors his vitality in life.

At times the story is laugh-out-loud funny. But while the humor is punchy and matter-of-fact, Joe also reflects on his past, weaving memories of his mother and the story of how he met his wife Beth with chapters of cycling, making the book both attentive and amusing.

Beth voices her opinion on Joe’s retelling of the adventure in brief footnotes at the bottom of each page as well. At first, the footnotes are a bit jolting, but once the reader is accustomed to the footnotes, they are a clever dialogue between the husband, wife, and reader. Plus, Joe didn’t take the trip by himself. The footnotes are just another part of the family’s honesty and passion. We were made to take risks and adventures, and the Kurmaskie family shows us it is possible.

Joe is an experienced cyclist, having ridden across the United States multiple times, taken tours across Africa, and braved the Australian outback. Beth, however, hadn’t ridden a bicycle since her teenage years, after she suffered a gruesome accident. Even with Joe’s formidable cycling experience, his family came to the rescue countless times throughout the book. Sometimes they disagree, sometimes there is tension, but through the mud and sweat, the relationship gears keep turning and the family is as close as ever.

The family is typical in many ways. Sons who think something is easy despite their father’s struggles to understand (“Can’t you just reboot your brain, Dad?” – Quinn). Sometimes skeptical, always protective, and loving mothers who keep their husbands from over exaggerating (“That’s a load o’ crap. I saw him power across the highway like he owned the roads.” – Beth). And gung-ho fathers who eventually give in to a lesson learned.

Reading the book is like sitting down with the Kurmaskies for a conversation over dinner after just having returned from their trip across Canada. They tell the story as a team, with bits of input here and there from each. Their story is enviable. As Joe tells it, even from the beginning of his relationship with Beth there was a sense of humor in both of them. Joe has an infectious energy and humor that is apparent in his writing.

While Mud, Sweat, and Gears tells the epic story of a family’s journey by bike across Canada, it really is a thoughtful collection of lessons and anecdotes about the Kurmaskies. This is not your ordinary (if anyone could ever call it ordinary) jaunt across Canada by bike with a description of the sights along the way. It’s the Mud, Sweat, and Gears of a relationship and a family told through a bike trip across Canada.

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