My favourite motorcycle reads have been the philosophical ones that dig deep. The ‘I rode very far every day’ travel trips don’t always get to the why’s of the trip, often getting stuck in the trivial details. The result ends up feeling like a travel advertisement rather than showing the real power of a journey.
Alternately, you have the books that aim directly at motorcycle culture but end up being dimensionless descriptions of it, hyping up the excitement of the ride without making any attempt to understand why people would take these risks and identify with such a divisive cultural icon.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was one of the first books to go deep, showing the depths to which some motorcyclists dive when out in the wind. Anything by Matt Crawford does the same thing for mechanics in general, although he comes from a place of motorbikes. Deep thoughts while flying through time and space on two wheels are kind of the point for me. If I just wanted to go fast, I’d do it in a car or a plane. There is something elemental about motorcycling that zens you into the moment. The immediacy of it makes you honest.
After reading a few pages of excerpts in BIKE, I’m looking forward to reading not so much about Todd’s travels but about his insights. The motorcycle isn’t the point, but it’s one of the best vehicles for taking you to eureka that I’ve found, and I’m more willing to follow an author to those moments of enlightenment on two wheels because I believe in the medium.
I read Lois on the Loose a couple of months back so I put Red Tape and White Knuckles on Kindle for a read over the Christmas holidays. Lois’s ride through the Americas was a great read, so Red Tape had a lot to live up to. If you enjoy well edited, lean writing that is almost pathological in its honesty you’ll love Lois’s writing style. She holds nothing back as she describes her long and arduous route from England to Cape Town. Her vulnerability riding a motorbike colours the entire trip, making this very much a motorcycle focused read. Now that I’ve read both books I often find myself wondering how the people she ends up travelling with find her depictions of them. She is relentless in her assessment of how people deal with the challenges of adventure travel, and it isn’t always (usually?) flattering. Lois is equally honest with her own fears and abilities while navigating Africa’s byzantine politics and sometime apocalyptic landscape. Her doubts creep in throughout this difficult ride, but she also explains how she recovers which is a wonderful insight into resiliency. You’d think that the physical aspects of trying to cross Africa on a motorcycle would be what slows her down, but just when you think that the Sahara Desert will be the ultimate challenge you’re scared to death of what will happen next in the Congo. People are, by far, the most dangerous thing Lois encounters, though they are also often the saving grace. Like Lois on the Loose before it, Red Tape & White Knuckles has some can’t-put-it-down moments (especially awkward when you’re supposed to be getting off a plane). And like her previous trip this one leaves you feeling like you’ve been on an epic journey where the beginning feels like a distant memory as you finish. Like the best journeys, this one feels like it changes you.
It’s better if it’s a tiger…
Toward the end of the novel Lois has an interesting talk with her husband Austin. Lois’s atheism comes up a number of times during her trip through religion soaked Africa, and her discussion at the end about Austin (also an atheist) praying for her safety was enlightening. It got me thinking about what being an atheist means. I’d also describe myself as an atheist, but that doesn’t mean I’m lacking in imagination or meaning in my life. If Life of Pi teaches you anything, it’s that you shouldn’t miss the better story or the resiliency offered by an empowered emotional approach to challenging circumstances. Lois contrasts the dead eyes and mercantile nature of the Congolese with the gentle kindness she finds elsewhere. There is such a thing as being too much of a realist, of allowing the world around you to dictate your reaction to it. We’re powerful creatures able to create our own responses to the circumstances we find ourselves in. On our recent trip south I found myself putting on my lucky socks before I loaded up my son and all our gear to go for a ride in the Superstition Mountains (I know, right?). Do I really believe these socks are lucky? No, not if I dwell on it, but I like these socks, they make me feel like I’ve got my best kit on, they put my mind at ease, make me feel like I’m ready to do a difficult thing well. That confidence has real world value. Same with that lucky hockey stick, or my lovely motorcycle. Am I superstitious? No, I wouldn’t say I am because I spent most of my young adult life learning that things like fate or luck don’t exist, but I recognize the value of empowering myself with positive thinking. If Austin found some peace in fraught times worrying about Lois in Africa then this isn’t a repudiation of atheism and reason, it’s an acceptance of the power of hope. These tentative forays into the psychology of adventure riding suggest an untapped opportunity. Lois’s honesty allows her unpack the complex psychology around dealing with fear, nurturing resiliency and developing an effective mental approach to the challenges of travelling off the beaten path. I get the sense that she shies away from this kind of philosophizing, but I hope she doesn’t in the future. If her purpose is to get more people out and about, this would aid in that. Unfortunately this brings me to the end of Lois’s current works. Fortunately she’s working on another novel due out soon about her riding around Iran…
I just finished Lois Pryce’s first travel book, Lois on the Loose. Unlike many of these find-yourself-on-a-long-bike-ride books apparently written by people with a lot of time on their hands and no financial demands, Lois gives a real world account of the necessary evils of working in a job that anaesthetizes you. You know where she’s coming from and why she leaves.
You’re on board with her once she gets going. On the road Lois is an honest, witty writer who never leaves you waiting for the next moment. Her prose is tight and well edited… you’ll fly through this book, but it never lacks for detail or continuity. Ashuaia feels like the galactically distant goal that it is throughout.
From shockingly rude Canadians to wonderfully supportive Guatemalans, this book makes you question all the prejudices we have about foreign lands (as well as the one I happen to live in). Lois is amazingly fearless and committed to her journey. You can’t help but admire her for her bravery.
If you enjoy travel writing you’ll love this book. If you enjoy motorbikes you’ll love it even more. When things go sideways past Titicaca I was riveted, reading until way past my bed time. You will too!
“On April 30th 2003 I left my job at the BBC and my cosy houseboat in London to motorcycle the length of the Americas on my Yamaha XT225 Serow. My route took me 20,000 miles from Anchorage, Alaska to Ushuaia at the tip of Argentina, the most southerly place in the world that can be reached by road. The book of this journey, Lois on the Loose is available in the UK, USA and has also been translated into German, Dutch and Italian.”