Best-selling author Michael Lewis takes a run at the power brokers of Wall Street in his new book “Flash Boys.”
In January, Lewis learned that a bike ride through Centre County in winter with a group of ladies used to outdoor excursions presents a different kind of challenge.
While putting the finishing touches on “Flash Boys,” Lewis came to the region hoping to travel a portion of a fiber-optic line that is a key element of his exposé on the dark secrets of high-speed stock trading.
The line was installed with little publicity in 2010, running from Chicago to New Jersey, and cutting right through the heart of the county along Route 45.
Lewis asked his chief copy editor to track down someone who could take him to the path of the line, and an adventure ensued.
“I had the perception going in that I was going to walk it,” Lewis told me in a phone interview. “I Google-mapped it and realized that would probably be insane.”
Janet Byrne, a member of Lewis’ publishing team, reached out to Lisa Wandel, director of residential dining at Penn State and a co-founder of the Women’s Adventure Club of Centre County.
“I got this strange email looking for someone from this area who could help out a friend who was writing a book,” Wandel said.
“I thought, ‘That’s really weird.’ So I deleted it.”
Lewis is persistent in chasing down a story, and took the same approach to securing a guide in Centre County. Wandel said the author emailed her directly and described his plan. He wanted to see the fiber-optic path, and track the white poles with orange caps along the route.
“We became the sherpas,” Wandel said.
“That’s what they were looking for. Somebody to take them around.”
So in the dead of winter, the Berkeley, Calif., writer flew to Pennsylvania. He got a room at the Carnegie House and rented wheels at The Bicycle Shop in downtown State College.
Lewis was urged to buy a heavier jacket.
He also added a hat.
“He was used to California weather,” Wandel said. “He had no idea what he was getting himself into.”
“They hooked me up with all of the stuff I needed,” Lewis said.
Then the writer met members of the adventure club at the Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg, ready to see his story’s fiber-optic trail.
“They told me, ‘If you survive, you can write about it,’ ” Lewis said. “It was cold, but it didn’t faze them at all.”
He added: “I thought I wanted to walk the Wall Street trail, that fiber line. And I knew it would take me through Pennsylvania, because that’s where the challenges were. And it ended up taking me through the prettiest stretch of the line.”
The women’s adventure club was founded in March 2011, and now boasts more than 750 members. Lewis quickly learned that the organization’s members are a hearty bunch. He said he consistently ran last in a string of riders.
“It was embarrassing how much better shape they were in,” he said. “They’re in fantastic shape.”
Wandel and several friends took Lewis from Boalsburg to Old Fort. They traced the line, and checked out a cell tower atop Centre Hall mountain.
“We followed the fiber-optic line and the deer carcasses, past the Round Barn and all of that,” Lewis said. “I needed a scene-setter for the book, and I got exactly what I needed. The area there is gorgeous. Incredible.”
Lewis said that “by that time, the book was written.” He traveled to Centre County to gather context, perspective on the region the line crossed, “but I really got more than I came for. It was perfect.”
Lewis described his day with the women’s adventure club in his book’s epilogue, titled “Riding the Wall Street Trail.”
“That line intrigues people. It grabs people right away,” he said. “How the hell do you dig a tunnel from Chicago to New Jersey, go right through Pennsylvania? As a writer, you’re as good as your material, and this material was great.”
Apparently readers agree. This week, “Flash Boys” was listed as the No. 1 hard-cover nonfiction book on the New York Times bestsellers list, and was among the top downloaded books.
“It’s been a hit,” Lewis said. “It’s been the best-selling thing I’ve ever written.”
Lewis recently appeared on “60 Minutes” to discuss “Flash Boys” and the Wall Street secrets he uncovered. His many popular works include sports stories “Moneyball” and “The Blind Side,” both made into hit movies.
Lewis sent Wandel and her team a case of wine to say thanks for their efforts in finishing “Flash Boys.”
“In what other country in the world could a total stranger call up and say, ‘I’m landing there in two days. Would you take me on a bike ride or hike?’ ” Lewis said. “But she jumped into action.”
Wandel calls the adventure club her outlet “to balance out the stress of trying to feed 14,000 students.”
Club members climb mountains and hike trails, sharing fitness and camaraderie, their website proclaims. They are into skiing, kayaking, snow-shoeing and, of course, cycling.
Wandel cherishes the day with Michael Lewis among the group’s greatest experiences.
“It taught me that you never just say no, that you never know what might be ahead,” she said. “It turned out to be a fantastic adventure.”