The snow is rolling into the Colorado Front Range. It’s no weather for riding but good weather for reading.
I’ve been thinking about teaching a course on motorcycle literature. It would have to have some sort project associated with it that I haven’t quite figured out—something to get people out of the classroom and into the world. I don’t know if it will ever come to fruition, but thinking about it gave me an excuse to stack a few motorcycle books up on my desk and read through them in the last few weeks. Fair warning—I don’t think I spoil the these books in what follows, but if you want landscape unspoiled by my editorial, my advice is stop here and order up a copy of Elspeth Beard’s Lone Rider: The First British Woman to Motorcycle Around the World.
Any reading list is selective, and the stack of books here is pretty arbitrary. Still, I’m coming to the feeling that fiction isn’t really at the heart of motorcycle narratives. There is plenty of motorcycle fiction—László Benedek’s The Wild One and Denis Hopper’s and Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider share pride of place. Gary Friedrich’s and Mike Ploog’s Ghost Rider warrants a mention, at least to me. But none of these are novels. There does seem to be a sizable industry of outlaw biker romance novels, and I guess if I was serious about discovering the fictional core of motorcycling, I’d wade through them, but I’ll let them be.
Jupiter’s Travels and Riding High chronicle Simon’s four-year odyssey across the globe on a 500cc Triumph Tiger from 1973 to 1977.
Although not the first trans-global motorcycle narrative, it’s fair to say that Jupiter’s Travels is among the most inspirational. Simon repeated his journey when seventy years old, and that story, is next on my list.
Jupiter’s Travels and Riding High are about motorcycling, but perhaps also about inwardness, or more rightly, the impenetrability of inwardness. Every page is, on its surface, packed with the details of travel: with motorcycle repairs, with packing and repacking motorcycle luggage, with tactics for fording rivers on a motorcycle and for surviving dodgy accommodations when alone.
The two books skirt a parallel story, a story more figural and ellusive than the first that lurks just beneath text. If Simon doesn’t fully lay bare this figural layer—and maybe in the end he simply can’t reach it—he points to it again and again over the course of the story.
“I had launched myself on a journey to circle the globe, but I seemed to be on another journey as well, a great voyage of discovery into my own subconsciousness. And I trembled at little at the thought of what monsters I might encounter there.
Simon’s monsters are not to be found in the journey’s relentless chronology projected over the globe’s topography but in reoccurring images of birds and of shadowy thieves, and in dreams that are never fully resolved. At the very end of it all, in the very last sentence of Riding High, this irresolution takes on a powerful finality, which is itself is a resolution.
I’m being a bit oblique here, because I don’t want to give the literal ending away. In the end, though, the second story never finds a complete answer, and that is its answer, as if to say that the tragedy of the human condition is to know oneself well enough to ride across the world, and to write that story out mile by mile, confessing each emotion but still not be able to explain oneself to another person.
Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman set out to craft a Motorcycle Buddy Experience as a motorcycle reality TV show. Two committed motorcycle enthusiasts, and fast friends from working together on Serpent’s Kiss, they concoct a plan and ride from London, through Europe, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Siberia, and cross over to Alaska, arriving in New York City four months later. And ride they do, even rendezvousing with Ted Simon at one point. The riding is intense. If McGregor and Boorman start as motorcycle enthusiasts, they end as having accomplished an impressive piece of riding. Honestly, McGregor’s and Boorman’s descriptions of wrangling the big BMW’s through the Road of Bones had me humbled.
The book alternates narrative voices between McGregor and Boorman, each telling a passage of travel and then handing it back to the other. Making a motorcycle show takes a lot of work. An entire paid staff is roped in to supply visas, passports, and papers. BMW supplies three bikes. There are training sessions on an off road course from BMW and with automatic weapons from a former SAS officer. There are two chase trucks, and it seems a total of at least six on-the-road support staff. As it turns out, the staff has as much of an adventure as McGregor and Boorman. Still, they remain staff, mostly invisible in the book, often scolded, and contriving little surprises for the two mates right through to the end. As a result, there is a little bit of Downton Abbey in Long Way Round, for it’s a Motorcycle Buddy Experience of celebrities, with servants who are kept out of sight. That makes it a bit of an odd read, after Ted Simon’s solo, and deeply anti-capitalist, experience.
What stands out from beneath the surface of Long Way Round, then, is that it takes work—literally a paid production crew and staff—to produce a Motorcycle Buddy Experience.
This rings true to me. Every ride I’ve been on with other people over a night out—with the significant exception of my trips with my wife and daughter—out has ultimately fallen upon some sort of tension, which had us all looking for the barn at one point or another. On these rides, it took us work to remain together, and, I have to confess, at times we haven’t—riders heading off on their own. The problem is never mechanical difficulties or cartographic obstacles, which in fact are the cement of emotional bonds, so much as that pesky second layer from Jupiter’s Travels, that difficultly in communicating what it is to be a person on the road in the world.
In 1982, at the age of 23, Elspeth Beard set out to ride around the world. Lone Rider, published thirty-five years after the fact, tells the story of her journey. That it took so long to publish Lone Rider is deeply intertwined with the story itself, part of the loneliness of the ride.
Read back-to-back, it’s impossible not to make the comparison between Lone Rider and Jupiter’s Travels, let alone McGregor and Boorman’s Long Way Round. Beard’s narrative is more hard-hitting than Simon’s, if also less meditative. Where Simon continually points to an elusive meaning below the surface, Beard moves from the mundane to the tragic in a single sentence, much like a motorcycle crash: Everything is humming along, pleasantly enough, and suddenly it’s all upside down, painful, bloody, and, at times, permanently changed.
Because of this, and because, too, of her youth and her gender, Lone Rider is a story of the very threshold of survival. Simon was sponsored by the Sunday Times and given a brand new bike by Triumph. Resupplied at various depots around the world, Simon may be broke today, but he only has to make it to the next dealer to stock up with parts and cash, and then it’s on to the next adventure. In this regard, McGregor and Boorman exist in an entirely different universe. Theirs is a commercial venture, with a production company and a contract, as well as the three beautiful bikes from BMW.
Far from sponsoring her, BMW had no interest in supporting Beard at all, and the motorcycle press mocked her for being a woman rider with big plans.
What Beard does she does alone: She rides a second-hand BMW, an R60/6, and she financed the trip by working two jobs. Beard has no sponsors, no money coming from abroad, no cache of parts waiting for her in the next big city, and certainly no support staff in trucks soon to catch up. She fends off attackers on multiple continents, and when she is put up for an evening, she had better watch the recipe for the evening’s dinner and lock the bedroom door behind her. At times she makes poor decisions, yet she keeps going, and that is nothing short of heroic.
Upon her return, no one is interested in her story. Her parents, self-absorbed in her telling, are glad she is back, but detached. The press passes her inquires by:
“The indifference and disinterest I encountered from my family and friends soon made me retreat into myself. I moved into the front basement flat, where I hunkered down, sticking photographs, mementoes and carefully annotated hand-drawn maps of my route into a series of albums that I constructed from card and gaffer tape…. Over the next few weeks, I wrote letters to bike magazines, newspapers and book publishers, asking if they’d be interested in my story. A few replied, but only to brush me off with similarly worded explanations each time: ‘Your story is not quite right for us.’ It seemed nobody wanted to know.”
In Simon’s internal world, the monsters of his subconscious burble to the surface almost against the book’s narrative will. Beard, unable to communicate the profundity of her adventure to her family or to the motorcycle community, hunkered down in a basement apartment, is reduced to scrapbooking.
Both Riding High and Lone Rider end, unexpectedly, with the birth of sons and the building of houses, custom houses, fantastic houses, dream houses. Simon builds a cabin in Northern California. Beard converts a Victorian water tower into a home. I won’t spoil how the notion of family plays out in these magical homes, except to underscore what I’ve already said: loneliness is these two books’ currency, perhaps the core of the motorcycle travel narrative itself, and although both Beard and Simon are tremendously creative and resourceful people, brilliant storytellers, improvisational mechanics, and brave travelers, they are still bound to the terms of a narrative form that constitutes them.
Such is the story of Johnny Blaze. Ghost Rider is part of Marvel’s portfolio of supernatural heroes of the early seventies, which included werewolves, vampires, and the Frankenstein Monster, all reborn as misunderstood anti-heroes when the Comics Code Authority was forced to loosen its draconian grip on comics narrative representation. My copy of Ghost Rider’s debut in Marvel Spotlight #5 is literally read to pieces, such was my love of that motorcyclist outsider when I was seven years old.
Ghost Rider’s origin looks a little routine now: to save his stepfather from a fatal illness, Johnny Blaze makes a pact with the Devil (“Yes…Yes! Grant my wish… and I will serve your faithfully through all of eternity!”). As might be predicted, the deal works out poorly for our hero (D’oh! That tricky Lucifer!), and Johnny is granted his wish and more—immortality!—but only to serve as Satan’s pawn: enter the Ghost Rider.
The threadbare nature of the narrative aside, as Ghost Rider, Johnny is a permanent outsider, a person with a monstrous counter narrative he can never speak, never share, and never resolve. This too is Simon’s story, always moving on to the next romance, never facing the monster within. It’s Beard’s story as well, shut away as she is in her basement apartment, pasting her past into a scrapbook no one will read. She too is a Ghost Rider, an individual condemned to ride out alone, her story one of the shadows.
For Johnny Blaze, this loneliness is the mark of his pact with Satan. It’s also immortality. A deep ambivalence, this. Ted Simon puts the problem well early on in Jupiter’s Travels.
“At times I experience a degree of misery and lovelessness I have not known since adolescence. I wonder whether I will have the capacity ever to bear such pain again. It occurs to me that that may be the condition for perpetual youth.”
If the condition of perpetual youth is the capacity for the unbearable pain of lovelessness, then the consolation for such tragic loneliness is fantasy, a supernatural machine to ride the endless road through innumerable adventures and a magical home, built by hand. Yet riding out, as well as building castles, comes at a cost, Lucifer might remind us, and that cost is the inability to communicate who we are no matter how many stories we tell.