Rough-Terrain Unicycling

Riding a unicycle up and down mountains requires the balance of a gymnast and the temperament of a teenager.

Self-portrait by George Peck

WHY the red unicycle was left in the Seward, Alaska, dump and what inspired George Peck's wife, Carol, to bring it home are both unclear. "I'm a salvager and recycler," is all she will say. "She's a dump rat," Peck says. Carol put the unicycle in the garage, and Peck found it there. This was almost fourteen years ago. His life hasn't been the same since.

"I glom on to things," Peck says. "He gets obsessed," Carol says. Peck taught himself to ride the red unicycle -- no books, no instructors. He practiced daily for more than a month before he could wobble up and down his driveway. Then he attempted to take the unicycle onto the roads. Riding a unicycle is as precarious as it looks -- the "cone of balance," as Peck calls it, is extraordinarily precise. A pebble can be enough to put you on your back. So can a patch of sand or a gust of wind or a crack in the pavement. This may be why the red cycle was tossed into the dump: Seward is possibly the worst spot on the planet in which to ride a unicycle. The place is all sand and gusts and cracks, not to mention ice and snow and logs and boulders and mountains.

Peck learned to ride his unicycle under all conditions. He discovered how to make the cycle hop, and he honed the skill until he could pop over logs two feet in diameter. He figured out how to power through boulder fields, how to jump up and over picnic tables, how to turn in ankle-deep mud. He became skilled at riding in dried-out riverbeds, across frozen lakes, up mountain trails, and through wind-crusted snow. This is clearly not what unicycles were designed to do. When the red unicycle fell apart, Peck drove to Anchorage and bought a new one. When that broke, he ordered another. After a dozen more were destroyed, he began designing his own.

For almost a decade and a half, no matter the weather, Peck has gone mountain unicycling nearly every day -- twice a day most weekends -- in and around Seward. People in town are used to seeing him. He has ridden the shoreline so many times that he notices if a rock has been moved. Seward sits on Resurrection Bay, on the eastern edge of the Kenai Peninsula. It is separated from Anchorage by 125 miles of glaciated mountains and sprawling icefields. The town is so remote -- a Galápagos island of sorts -- that something odd or fantastic can develop there and never be discovered by anyone beyond the city limits.

Until three years ago, when he attended the International Unicycle Convention in Minneapolis, Peck was completely unknown in the unicycling community. At the meet he learned of a handful of other mountain unicyclists. He found out that his sport had not only other participants but also a name -- "muni," short for "mountain unicycling" (a name, Peck feels, that is a little too cute; he prefers "rough-terrain cycling"). Later, through a unicycling newsletter, he read of plans for an inaugural muni convention. Last October he flew to Sacramento for the first annual California Mountain Unicycle Weekend. Thirty-five of the best rough-terrain unicyclists in North America came to show off their skills. No one was half as good as Peck. He is now widely viewed as the best mountain unicyclist in the world. He is credited with helping to invent the sport, and the cycles he has designed are probably the sturdiest and lightest unicycles ever built. He is riding rougher terrain every month. And he is almost certainly the world's oldest mountain unicyclist: Peck is fifty-six.

CAROL and George Peck and their two children, Kristopher, twelve, and Katy, seven, live in a small brown house two blocks from the center of town. Attracted to Alaska's frontier image, Peck moved to the state in 1974, after a stint in Nepal with the Peace Corps and almost ten years in the University of Idaho's graduate schools, where he earned degrees in physics, law, and teaching. He came to Seward to take the job of magistrate, a position he still holds. He met Carol Griswold in 1981.

The inside of their house, especially during the long Alaska winter, is a scene of unmitigated chaos. Peaches and Boomer, a pair of parakeets, like to dive-bomb visitors' heads. Berry and Jessie, two Labrador retrievers, wrestle in the kitchen. Katy prefers roller skates to sneakers, and Kristopher wouldn't be caught dead without his skateboard. The living room contains three unicycles, a small trampoline, a basketball net, an electric keyboard, two acoustic guitars, two fiddles (Carol and George play in a local folk band), an indoor garden, an eclectic library (one shelf devoted to entomology, another to dog training), a general scattering of children's toys, several of Carol's junkyard furniture discoveries, a hamster cage, a fish tank, and a midden of unicycle parts.

"George has been a teenager for forty years," Carol says. This is only partly true. When Peck is in his courtroom, facing the daily litany of drunk-driving and domestic-violence cases, he is fifty-six years old. When he is awake at two in the morning, mulling over the physics of wheel diameter and axle size, he is fifty-six. When he is riding, he is seventeen -- though he doesn't use swearwords. When he falls, he says things like "Gargle!" and "Yug!" and "These shoes are explosively decoupling with the pedals, and that's disconcerting."

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