Category Archives: The Literary Motorcyclist

Reading & Riding

One or two for the ride.
One or two for the ride.

“Books. I don’t know of any other cyclist who takes books with him. They take a lot of space but I have three of them here anyway, with some loose sheets of paper in them for writing.”
– Robert Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

Oh, I do.

I always take a book or two on motorcycle rides. It’s true, they take up space, and they’re heavy as heck.

Linda and I do a great deal of reading at work; among other things, she edits, researches, rewrites and clarifies news stories to make them infinitely better and I do research for graphics and other projects. Much of this is on deadline and under the gun.

Riding motorcycles is a getaway from work and deadlines. Reading for pleasure helps us attain escape velocity. With exceptions for the Weather Channel, we try to stay away from the TV.

Vintage Kerouac novel...
Vintage Kerouac novel…

I was jarred into this realization during an impromptu layover one night years ago at a lonely, run-down motel in Adelanto, Calif. I was on U.S. 395 going home to Reno from San Diego, got tired, and decided to call it a day with 200 miles down and 400 to go.

The room TV had absolutely nothing worthwhile and I plundered the saddlebags on Discovery, my ’94 Yamaha 750 Virago, to see what I had.

Besides a repair manual, I had one book and it was perfect: an old Signet paperback of On the Road by Jack Kerouac, given to me by my good friend Van just before I moved from Ohio to Nevada. I didn’t even remember stowing it aboard the bike. I read it again that night and started packing books on every long-distance ride.

...with some of Van's original artwork.
…with some of Van’s original artwork.

I still do that to this day. I pick the titles carefully, tending toward lighter fare. There’s no pattern I can discern; the choices are as scattergun as an outhouse squirrel.

You won’t find The Brothers Karamazov or In Search of Lost Time or Les Miserables in Terra Nova’s sidecases. I prefer substantial meals on the bike, not seven-course dinners.

But the authors who accompany me are pretty good, I think.

Some of them include Mark “Tiger” Edmonds, who writes about motorcycles and is a great storyteller; anything by Ted Simon, author of Jupiter’s Travels, the premier tale of motorcycling around the world; Edmund Morris, whose The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt I literally could not put down; and Michael Korda’s Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia was fascinating and illuminating.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance comes along for a ride every once in while, too.

Mark "Tiger" Edwards.
Mark “Tiger” Edmonds.

I used to carry tales of motorcycle adventure, an effort to bolster the documentation of my own travels. That’s faded away in favor of other books.

My écrivain du jour is Alain de Botton. I discovered The Art of Travel, which fit my own perceptions of life on the road, especially the pauses at gas stations and greasy restaurants.

But I found de Botton fascinating. How Proust Can Change Your Life was unexpectedly funny and illuminating about the life and work of venerated French writer Marcel Proust and how even a schmuck like me could benefit from knowing him.

Alain de Botton.
Alain de Botton.

His other books, on architecture, work, and philosophy, are equally good. So de Botton has earned his place in my sidecases.

Just a couple of books, on every ride, nestled among tools, a quart of oil, tire pump, battery charger, and other essentials for the road. While the latter items keep you going, the books stay in the confines of your helmet and offer something to think about while you’re getting there.

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That’s Not Gonna Work

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One of my secret vices is motorcycle movies. I’ve gotten more selective over the years – crikey, some of them, especially from the sixties and seventies, are really bad. The bikes are there as props or symbols of danger or ruggedness or whatever.

wildhogs

But anyone who’s spent any time aboard a motorcycle soon realizes that most movies simply gloss over the reality of being on a bike. The riders never get tired or sore or cold or miserable. The weather is always nice…ever notice how it never rains in Easy Rider and only once in Wild Hogs?

That’s what I think about when I watch the pilot of the 1969-70 TV show Then Came Bronson and see Michael Parks and Bonnie Bedelia riding together – two-up, as we say – on a Harley-Davidson Sportster. They’re literally crushed against each other on a saddle that’s thick as a Better Homes & Gardens magazine. And they’re going mile after mile after mile…

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I shake my head at this, even though I like Then Came Bronson. (Despite some admittedly sappy episodes, some were good and the show had its heart in the right place.) And Parks on his motorcycle fired the imagination of any kid who watched him.

But people watching Parks and Bedelia weren’t thinking, “Gee, that looks like fun.” No, they must have been thinking, “Good God, that looks painful.”

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But the prize for Most Uncomfortable on a Motorcycle should go to Theresa San-Nicholas, the young woman at the end of the 1991 movie Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. Mickey Rourke offers the attractive hitchhiker a ride on the back of his Harley; she sits on the bare fender, about an inch from the spinning tire, wraps her legs around him, snuggles in, and they’re off. And you know darn well she won’t last a mile in that position.

Hemingways on Handlebars

Many books have been written about motorcycle travel, some epic tales of vast distances covered, others simple recitations of where the writers have been.

Some are great reads in which you, the reader, are actually there; others no more interesting than reading a road map aloud.

Ted Simon is one of the originals, and perhaps the best. His books:

  • Jupiter’s Travels
  • Riding Home
  • Dreaming of Jupiter

pretty much define the genre. His first book, Jupiter’s Travels, was written in 1977 after he rode a 500cc Triumph Tiger around the world in four years.

Round-the-world rides had been done before  — Robert Fulton’s One Man Caravan comes immediately to mind — but Simon’s book helped inspire many others to do their own adventures.

Simon was an established writer in his early 40s who learned how to ride a motorcycle, a distinction from motorcyclists who try to write. The writers usually turn out better-told stories, even if the motorcyclists take more exciting rides.

Simon repeated his epic ride in 2001, when he was 70 years old. He wanted to know how the world had changed and if he could do it again. Those travels are chronicled in Dreaming of Jupiter.

There are other good books, of course. Ted Bishop’s Riding with Rilke does a great job of conveying the thrill of riding, as does Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s The Perfect Vehicle.

Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has a paragraph on the first page that begins: “You see things on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. …” That paragraph is worth the price of the whole book.

Ewan McGregor’s and Charley Boorman’s Long Way Round deserves a mention, not for great literary prowess, but for its motivational effect on other would-be adventurers. (I once heard a guy in an MSF course cite Long Way Round as the reason he got into motorcycling.) The book is good, but the filmed documentary is better.

McGregor credits Jupiter’s Travels as his inspiration, and Simon himself appears in the Mongolian segment of the documentary.

For the motorcycle traveler, books are often in the shadows of travel gear, somewhere behind the bikes themselves, the helmet, riding gear, and maps that are part of the journey.

But the books provide the dreams and dreams of future rides are what we live on, especially during cold winter nights when we need the possibilities to be endless.

The Best Motorcycle Magazine

iron.horse

You may not expect a non-Harley rider to say this, but the best motorcycle magazine was Iron Horse under its best editor, David Snow.

I discovered Iron Horse during my want-a-Harley days in the mid-1990s. Iron Horse was a Harley-specific mag with a few British bikes thrown in.

Snow and the staff didn’t like the way Harley and most of its dealers were doing business — Harley taking credit for style changes that were pioneered by others and dealers for marking up prices when the bikes were objects of lust.

Snow held them accountable for their actions, and he also criticized other motorcycle magazines for their inaccurate — and often sycophantic — coverage of the Harley scene. He did it with wit, erudition, profanity, humor, and dead-on respect for the facts.

Most motorcycle magazines (with the exception of Motorcycle Consumer News) exist only to sell you something. There’s usually very little in the way of interesting content.

Not so in Snow’s Iron Horse. Every issue had something interesting in it. He could ride bikes, work on them, and build them. Snow was a genuine hard-core rider and he was a master at writing about his rides. It wasn’t just a recitation of where he’d been; reading it, you felt as if you were on the ride yourself.

The magazine’s writers were pretty good, too. Some are still deeply involved in motorcycles:
— Scott “Genghis” Wong
Flynch
— Noyes B. Livingston III
J.T. Nesbitt

Snow left Iron Horse in 1997, after more than 10 years at the helm. He came back for a few issues when the magazine reopened under a new owner, but he didn’t last long under the slapdash regime. It’s a shame this talented guy is not writing about motorcycles. It’s like Stephen Hawking leaving physics to work at McDonald’s.

Jack Kerouac is Dreaming of a Motorcycle

I have always been mildly disappointed that Kerouac never wrote about riding motorcycles. He was much more interested in cars, probably taking his cue from Neal Cassady, who reportedly stole hundreds of them as a teen in Denver.

To Cassady, cars were great places to make out with girls. In their drives across the country, Kerouac and Cassady would drive all night, blast the radio, and talk. It’s tough to do that on a motorcycle. But Cassady was given to discourse, not self-reflection. You can’t have an audience aboard a bike. Maybe there’s a correlation.

I’m certainly not a Kerouac scholar, but I’ve found only a single reference to motorcycles in Kerouac’s writing; I stumbled across it in his Book of Dreams, a collection of his remembered dreams:

“Joe and I are riding his motorcycle, I’m sitting ass back, heels of my new crepsoles dragging in the Southern town street — I want to ask Joe to slow down so I can turn around but he doesnt hear or care, it’s Rocky Mount or Kinston, we cross the railroad tracks and go out and go speeding over the countryside but suddenly it leaves us and a great gap of nothingness and sand hundredfoot canyon yawns beneath us and all we can do is fall but Joe has that wild crazy hope the wheels’ll stay upright which they more or less do, we ride the saw horse, at the bottom is a dry creek, another climb up sand steep bank like those we tumbled on Lawrence Boulevard nightmarish vast waiting…”