Dude, where’s my car?

I have spent two days rebuilding the Lomax. I was supposed to be in a luxury dog-friendly hotel in the Malverns, thanks to a Christmas present from a generous friend. The 2CV had other ideas and shed its exhaust before we got there. While annoying, I take this as vindication of my diagnostic skills, because I have been certain for about 10 months that I could hear an exhaust leak but couldn’t find one. Should have looked at the back of the torpedo…

So instead of checking in, on Sunday afternoon I was trucking back to Coventry with the lovely Lukas from Poland. We had a chat about how to pick a good Ural, how to make it better, what kind of top speed a 2CV with a working exhaust would do, and how terrifying it is to take on a mortgage. About 10 miles from Coventry he asked “And what do you think about Brexit?” Given that my last three recovery drivers have been from Eastern Europe and have all cheefully scooped my temporarily-expired machinery off the road and taken us home, I was able to tell him quite truthfully that I think it’s a bloody stupid idea.

But I didn’t come here to talk about politics….I came to talk about the Lomax. Last May all of its oil fell out as we were coming over the Lecht home from an excursion to the North Coast 500 and the engine has never been right since. Then I went for an MOT and the crack on the number plate wasn’t the only one the tester picked up – he also spotted a large crack in the chassis. **DANGEROUS,**  said the failure certificate, just so I was clear. No, he couldn’t weld it. Try the boys behind the log heater shop in Tayport. No, they couldn’t weld it either, because it was right underneath the fuel tank and they didn’t want to set themselves on fire.

The Proprietor of the Northern Rest Home for Distressed Machinery said he would do it. I paid a man with a recovery truck 170 quid to move the Lomax even further north for its surgery and in the end all of the insides had to come out and the body come off the chassis so we could get the fuel tank out. Welding done, the body went back on and then it got dark, I went back to the forest, and about a week later, went back to England.

The Proprietor and I met a little over five years ago. We were on for a while, then off, then friends again, but like the  engine it was never quite the same and now he seems to have moved on for good, with a request that the Lomax be removed from his front garden by the end of January. I organised an overnight dash with a big truck and a borrowed burly chap, and I asked whether he had ever got a chance to refit the insides. “It’s all there,” was the slightly careful reply.  It turned out, in the sub-zero small hours of a Scottish winter, that yes, it was all there, just not attached. Some tears.

Since January the poor thing has been hiding behind the garage in my landlady’s garden because I have been scared of the rebuild, and thinking about it made me sad because it felt like such a demonstration that something that had been good, in parts, was now very firmly over. Also it has been snowing. But rebuilding can’t be ducked for ever. A couple of weeks ago I cut the new carpet and made holes in the right places, and on Monday with the sun shining it was time to get stuck in.

Monday was scraping, de-rusting, treating and painting, and trying to work out which bolts went where. Some of them were too mangled to re-use.  Tuesday began with a search for four M6 x 130mm coach bolts, the moral of which is go to your neighbourhood Brown Overall Store first rather than last. But if I had followed this excellent advice Dog and I woudn’t have had fun in the sidecar touring the building supply depots of Coventry. Then it was swearing, cursing, wrestling the steering wheel back in, reattaching the gearshift, and putting the drivers seat back in. And tea. Lots of tea.

AdventureDog came out for a look around Third Tea and there was much excitement and tailwagging as he jumped in to inspect progress. He’s coming round to the sidecar but he does love his Lomax.



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Have a little patience

Finally! After the dark, the first signs of spring are here. Not the daffodils spearing up through the verge ready to get widdled on by the dog (sorry, daffodils) and not the fact that it’s daylight at home-time. No, spring is on its way because Saturday was the RBR awards dinner.

This year (and last year, but I couldn’t go last year, because Scotland) we gathered in The George Hotel, Lichfield, in a blue, vaulted room lined with slightly dodgy paintings (“Look,” said Jenny. “That chap’s feet are floating above the grass.”)  The Wingman isn’t allowed to come and it’s a bit too cold for him to sit in the car so he stayed at home to watch the Olympics. The good news was that despite me changing the fuel line and cleaning out the carb on Saturday morning Hortense still made it. The bad news was that I stabbed myself in two fingers with the end of the choke cable doing the job and they still bloody hurt.

“We’ll do this in reverse order and start with the Finishers,” announced Dave the D. Yes, that was me. I had the fewest points of all this year’s awards guests. That’s what happens when your Lomax dies in June and your job only lets you take days off if three other women agree you could have those days. (And that, dear reader, is why it isn’t my job any more. Three women with a veto on my riding time!) I got six landmarks out of more than 50. But they were good ones, in the remotest corners of the Highlands.

Now I have to scrape together as much patience as I can muster because the 2018 list won’t be released until March 11.  A few years ago Graham began auctioning preview copies for those whose pockets were deeper than their patience – an innovation which has raised nearly £4,000 for the Air Ambulance. I bought a preview list one year – but these days the moths are in charge of my wallet so I am just going to have to wait.

Still, that gives me three weeks to fix the Lomax….


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“Is there a technique to pushing this button?”

I have the flu. Too unwell to do anything that requires serious concentration, well enough to be bored stiff. To add insult to injury I have the flu in someone else’s house, because I am still a lodger despite trying to buy a house a month for the last six months.

What can an ill person do when they’re trying to be unobtrusive, and especially when their landlady’s electrician bellows ‘so what’s your lodger like, then?’ from the other side of your door.

Headphones seemed a good idea. So did podcasts. Armed with a list of recommendations from twitter friends, I figured I’d start with a dead cert – Chasing the Horizon, featuring Sam Manicom.

You probably already know that Sam is one of the friendliest stars in the overland galaxy. He gave me great advice when I was planning my Australia tour, and while he’s always ready with a welcome and a word when I see him at shows and events, I feel guilty because time chatting to me is time not making new converts or selling copies of his books.

So what a treat to be able to listen to Sam in conversation with Wes Fleming for just over an hour. Gently self-deprecating, Sam drinks tea and tells stories against himself – no Lone Hero Triumphing Over Adversity ego here!

Wes is a great host, and guides the conversation from the day Sam turned up to collect a brand-new Libby and was stumped by the absence of a kick-start – a feeling I remember well in making the shift from my own kick-start L-bike to a 600cc four-stroke with twin exhausts and an electric starter! – to his recent crash and broken arm.

Without being preachy, Sam reminds us that every ride is a good ride, and everyone on two wheels is part of the brilliant biker community.

I love that a man who has ridden quarter of a million miles still sees value in an everyday commute or a ride to the shops. If riding is feeling like a chore at the moment, or if you’re struggling on your L-plates and wondering if it’s really worth it, I thoroughly recommend finding a comfy chair, a cup of tea, and giving Sam and Wes 60 minutes of your time.

Find Chasing the Horizon here: http://www.bmwmoa.org/page/podcast

And Sam here: http://www.sam-manicom.com/

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All isn’t quiet, on New Year’s Eve.

When I was about twelve my best friend and I went on a bicycle adventure to visit her nanna in the next town. I’m pretty sure we cycled up the disused railway track, so we weren’t in peril from inattentive drivers. It was a magnificent, Enid-Blyton-style adventure and we probably had cake and lashings of ginger beer at our destination before returning home, triumphant.

To receive a bollocking from my dad. What was I thinking, going on a journey on a bicycle in inadequate mechanical condition? Slightly baffled pre-teen me was puzzled by the revelation that bicycle maintenance was one of my chores, and also couldn’t see anything particularly wrong with the bike, apart from a slightly wonky front light, which we didn’t need as we weren’t cycling in the dark.

Parade duly pissed on, I gave up bicycle adventures.

But I pondered the lesson anew while I waited in the rain for the recovery wagon a couple of weeks ago. If I had packed a can of WD40, we would probably have been able to get going again – a point proven by my trip home from Birmingham after Christmas, when we coughed majestically to a stop in the slush and quick deployment of the Smart Straw on all the under-seat wiring saved the day. If I had packed my waterproofs, I’d at least have had a less uncomfortable wait. And if I’d done my pre-trip maintenance, like my dad told me to, it might not have happened

My excuses are legitimate. I live in a spare room of a Rather Naice House. I have already created puddles of castor oil and Kurust on the front drive after some emergency 2CV maintenance. While the outfit would fit quite nicely into the conservatory, which would be an excellent winter fettling venue, I fear my tenancy would not survive. Also it’s dark when I get home from work.

But in these #twixmas days (now rebranded Chrimbo Limbo) I am at home in daylight and can get the toolkit out.

Electrical problems are a bastard and can only be resolved by being methodical. It’s really quite soothing. Cup of tea, camping chair, can of contact cleaner, big roll of kitchen towel, vaseline. It’s also a chance to get to know the bike, which I should really have done back in July but I was too busy learning how to ride it.

Everything under the seat is dirty, wet, and some connections are a bit loose. In the interests of checking my work as I go, there’s a fair amount of starting up and revving what is, if truth be admitted, a noisy, smelly 2-stroke.

On the fourth round of test firing, next door’s front door opens and the neighbour pops her head out. She’s an older lady and spends a lot of time in her garden. I cut the engine and wait for the smoke to disperse so that I can apologise, before realising she’s giving the thumbs up.

“Well done you! Great to hear it running properly.”

We have a chat about engines, cars and 2CV gearlevers. She recommends WD40 and Jizer as the two fluids a woman can rely on and gives me a couple of shop towels from her stash.

Never judge.

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“I belong to the road.” #thedarkisreading

IMG_0325“Expect nothing and fear nothing, here or anywhere. There’s your first lesson.”

According to the internet, which as we know can always be relied upon for truth and accuracy, in Iceland people look forward to the Yule Book Flood just as much as the coming of Father Christmas.

Jólabókaflóð has been a tradition there since the Second World War. Family and friends exchange books at Christmas, which must be opened and read straight away. This seems a far better way of spending Christmas than bickering over who gets to be in charge of the remote control, or sitting in separate rooms bingeing on box sets.

This year I was given a very special book by a wonderful friend so that I could take part in #thedarkisreading, a community read-along of Susan Cooper’s fantasy novel, The Dark is Rising.

I can’t remember a time when I hadn’t read it. I re-read it in 2016 when I was reading books where the plot is inseperable from the location, for a feature I was writing. The novel is set rather firmly in 1970s Buckinghamshire, at a time when villages still have post offices and London still has docks.

Both of my copies are currently in storage in Scotland. So now I have a lovely new edition, and am slightly disturbed to find that it is now a Vintage Classic.

There are no rules to the read-along – just to enjoy the book, and share thoughts. I’m reading it in real time, to match the action to the days between the Winter Solstice and Twelfth Night, so we’re currently in the pause between Christmas and New Year. The snow is falling, and the Stantons are cooped up in their rambling rural home.

It’s a story about lots of things, which I won’t go into in detail because you might want to read it for yourself – and you should.

When I read it as a child it was about British folklore, Herne the Hunter and the king who sleeps under the hill. I grew up near Alderley Edge and we don’t doubt that he is there, ready to ride out when Britain faces its greatest peril. And it was about being the youngest in a family and how that makes you separate from the rest of them.

This year I’m reading it and it’s a story about the power of the landscape, the old roads and those who travel them. John Smith says to Will Stanton:

“They can do me no harm. I come of the wrong breed for that. And in this time I belong to the road, as my craft belongs to all who use the road.”

Which means, of course, that it’s really a story about bikers. Those of us who like to trundle around the byways of Britain, at least. And the rector’s motorcycle plays a small but important role on Christmas Day.

From Susan Cooper the road winds through Alan Garner, Joan Aiken, T H White, Robin of Sherwood and J R R Tolkein to Terry Pratchett. Next Christmas I might start at the beginning of the Discworld and come back to reality some time in mid-January.


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Filed under Riding, Round Britain Rally

Ring out solstice bells

It is the longest night of the year. Traditionally it’s a time for reflection on the year just gone, and a time for renewal and for faith in the future.

I think it is safe to say this last year has not been a resounding success. There has been a lot of darkness. I thought I was going home, to live in the place I always wanted to live, and to do an amazing job. These things did not come true.  Now I am back where I started, precariously housed, indifferently funded (thanks, taxman) and starting again. Again.

But there has also been light.  I lived in the forest, like Granny Weatherwax. Friends came to visit, and we ate cake, drank gin and looked for woodpeckers. I met some wonderful spiritual teachers. I walked with the dog  in an ancient grove visited and decorated by the Picts. Gordon gave me a shot of his sidecar and I bought a Jawa outfit for me and for the Wingman. If I may mix and match my spiritual traditions, the light shone in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

The darkness keeps having a bloody good try, though. Last Sunday Dog and I went out to a pre-Christmas classic car and bike meet. At 40 miles it was our longest sidecar adventure to date and we did OK, if slowly. The tea was good, the sausage baps were excellent and I had a very niche chat with another lady biker about the challenges of persuading recovery services that your obscure vehicle needs taking home, not bodging by the roadside.

It proved to be prophetic. Half an hour later, ten minutes down the road, the Jawa choked and died. 2 hours later the recovery van turned up.

Lessons I need to remember :- always pack a golf umbrella. Buy WD40.

May I judge the chap from the classic meet who, on his way home in his little roadster, pulled over to ask what was happening but carried on when I said I had a fuel problem and was waiting for the wagon? I’m sure he had Sunday roast calling him home, but a nice dry car to wait in would have been lovely. “Thanks for coming, though,” he said, as he fucked off down the road.

Apparently the Japanese recommend a practice called ‘forest bathing’ for spiritual renewal. I was certainly well-bathed by the time Marcin arrived to wrangle the rig into the van and take us home. “It nearly didn’t go in,” he told his boss on the phone. ‘It’s a good job I’m a manly man.”

But now the sun is coming back up and life is renewing, again. There is a lot to look forward to, and many new connections to make.  Blessed be.






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Filed under Introspection, Other

Zen mind, beginners mind.

My luck is not getting any better. I had to pull out of my house purchase after the survey found that the roof needed replacing. My tax is so screwed up that I will be paying twice as much as normal until next April. And the weekend I had planned to ride the Jawa down from the Northern Rest Home for Distressed Machinery was the weekend that winter decided to show up, with Met Office warnings for ice and snow.

I decided that the preservation of mental health made the outfit a survival item and arranged for it to come down on the back of a lowloader. If I don’t eat for the rest of Decmember I’ll be able to cover the fee.

The outfit arrived at 7am on Saturday morning. The keys followed in the post two hours later. I’m not saying I was desperate but the postie looked very surprised when I wrenched the door open as he turned into the drive. He was getting no chance to stick a card through and run away.

Wingman and I have been out twice already – the weather was horrible yesterday but today the sun came out while we were having a coffee and a burger at the drive-thru. I am remembering how to turn left and right, and that you need to give it an extra boot to get from third to fourth.

And it is lovely to be out on a bike and learning again. Wingman isn’t convinced yet but if I keep taking him to McDonalds for a plain burger he might come round.



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Filed under Riding, Sidecar

Standing in the shadows

Slightly odd day at the bike show. A kind benefactress sorted me out with a ticket, meaning my sorry skint ass could get through the gates – but how to get to the show?

I’ve recently become a convert to getting the train to Birmingham International and walking over the bridge, but the car park for my starting station is always rammed by 9am. So I could have taken the 125 to the car park, then got on the train carrying my lid – but we’ve all seen That Bloke who drives to the NEC, parks up, and opens his boot to reveal full race replica leathers and a helmet, which he changes into on the tarmac.

I don’t want to be that person!

I consulted.

Take the wee bike and have an adventure, said @scunjee, and since I have outsourced all major decisions in my life to my twitterati, I did.

We trundled doggedly along the A45 and round the back of the exhibition halls to the bike parking, shadowed by an Africa Twin. Way to rub it in, universe. And then when I was about to take a photo to show that little bikes can have big days out too, I discovered that being well-organised and putting your camera battery on to charge is only helpful if you remember to put it back into the camera.

Nothing to report on, nothing to take pictures with. I had become strangely invisible, written off as Not A Biker, despite my Overland tshirt.

Perhaps the Adventure Handbag was confusing people. Perhaps I have resting bitch face.

“Excuse me! Were you at the Overland Event?” asked a bloke in the Adventure bit. No, I said, sadly. Dogs aren’t allowed so I can’t go. Apparently that’s a conversation killer.

“Hello! Would you like your boots cleaned?” No thanks, I had them done at the Classic Bike Show last week. “Oh, you’re with that gentleman? Sorry!”

Not fit to be out alone, it seems.

Sam Manicom was warm and friendly as always, but I worry that if I chat too long I will stop him from selling books, so I bought Elspeth Beard and wandered along. Triumph’s new clothing range looks fantastic and after payday I might buy myself a birthday present from it. More importantly, it’s Shakey’s BlightyVersary soon, four years since he came to live with me from Portugal, so he now has a Kickstart mug from the cunningly disguised Tim Midlifeclassics, who had come to the show as Team Ogri. If you know an Ogri fan (with or without a coffee table) then buy them the magnificently presented complete works and keep them quiet until Spring.

As I trundled home, I had a moment of revelation.

In recent years, I have been experiencing my motorcycling at one remove. I could have said hello to Alun from Adventure Bike Rider, as a friend of Clive. I could have said hello to Nathan Millward, who I know through Nich. I could have said hello to Nick Sanders, as I bought a ticket to Mach 2 after Nick cleared me to attend in the Lomax with the Wingman, but couldn’t go (office politics from hell.) But that would have been odd.

The cure seems simple. Ride more.

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A sort of homecoming

“Are you famous?”
No, not really….
“Do you want to be?”
Er…I just wanted to ask about joining the Vintage Motorcycle Club…

Volunteering for charity is supposed to be its own reward. I have recently signed up to be a Fat Controller for the local Blood Bikers – I have been looking for something useful to do with my time and I can answer telephones and send volunteer riders to hospital while based at home with AdventureDog.

Bob the Rota came to my temporary residence with an impressive set of induction materials and talked me through my new responsibilities. At the end of the evening, after he’d successfully co-ordinated two riders to collect from Nuneaton hospital and deliver to Coventry, he asked if I was going to the Classic Bike Show this weekend.

As earlier that day I’d opened a 600 quid legal bill and a tax demand for another 185 on top, I have had to slash all current spending that isn’t on food or petrol. I explained, with my sad face on. So he slipped me a wristband, and on Saturday morning I took my packed lunch to the NEC – on the train, to save the price of parking – and had a lovely day.

Last year I was being an Eastern Bloc Schraubenschlüsselfrau to promote the SALT tours, blissfully unaware that I was about make a really poor decision and turn my life upside down, again.

This year SALT wasn’t exhibiting but the Wartburg-Trabant IFA Club was out in force and it was just lovely to catch up with everyone and talk about what’s going to be happening next year. Now I am back in England again I’ll be able to join in – even though I don’t have the Trabi any more, because of the Jawa outfit I’m still eligible, so I’m looking forward already to Drive-it-Day in the Spring.

I wandered among the car clubs that – unlike the excellent value IFA Club – want the best part of a hundred quid as a membership fee, and was gently ignored by the sleek chaps at the desks, and then I got to the bike section, led there like a Bisto kid by the tempting aromas of rubber, oil and petrol rising under the hot lights. I couldn’t find Bob the Rota but I did get a warm welcome from the VMCC. We discussed whether I was qualified to be a member, being an owner of a G-reg motorcycle. I didn’t like to say that it was a pedal-and-pop Honda – I might join anyway and keep schtum.

Queuing at the 2CV Shop espresso Acadiene, the chap in front of me said “You have the blue Lomax, don’t you?”

I’m very sorry, but I don’t remember where I met you! Or maybe I haven’t met you, and you just know from my outrageously indiscreet social media profile.

So maybe the answer should have been yes, after all.

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Filed under Great writers, ifa

Travellers’ Tales

He used to laugh at those people with the funny faces and the bells.
Ah, jesters ma’m.

My friend Reg has a bright green Trabant called the Daisywagen. Not because it pushes them up, or smells of them, but because it transports his Airedale Terrier, Daisy. Well, he says Daisy is an Airedale, but I’m still suspicious that he got sold a Shetland pony in a chenille coat.

Ever since meeting Daisy I’ve been keen to read Gasoline Gypsy, the story of a woman who travelled through Canada, the USA and Mexico with Matelot, an Airedale she bought for the trip. Matelot travelled in a box on the back of a BSA Bantam, rested his head on Peggy’s shoulder when he felt affectionate, and jumped out and ran ahead when bored.

Yesterday I was at the National Motorcycle Museum for Museum Live and amid the stalls of Whitworth spanners , ethanol-proof fuel hose and stickers (“have you got any Gulf Oil stickers?” “Probably, I bought a collection of ten thousand.”), Gordon G May had a stall selling his own books and copies of Peggy’s. And he was very gracious when I told him I wasn’t after one of his. Maybe next year?

I left the museum with a large syringe, a date with the Warwickshire Blood BikersZoë Cano’s first book, Bonneville or Bust, which is next on the pile, and a hardback copy of Gasoline Gypsy,

I’m super-jealous of the cartoon on the cover, having my own hairy travelling companion. If anyone would like to draw me a cartoon of the wingman and I in the Lomax I’m very willing to pay!

But I digress.

Peggy’s book is a great read about a great adventure but a bit of a period piece. I love the detail that she travels with a typewriter and a camera – two essential tools now wrapped up into a tiny smartphone – though in a shocking oversight, Peggy doesn’t say what machine she used to capture her thoughts.  I’m less comfortable with her attitude to some of the people she meets – at times the tale does shade into ‘look at the funny Mexicans,’ and her relief at being back in the States is very, very clear. Is it all we can expect of someone travelling in the 1950s, or is it a reflection of a certain Home Counties Englishness?

Perhaps I’m being unfair. Peggy makes a lot of friends on the road and she comes across as brave, resourceful and able to strip a cylinder head in 15 minutes.

For me, the book absolutely excels when Peggy captures those magical moments when the road gives you its blessing.

“Once again we climbed up into the darkness of the silent mountains and the warm night. Then I gradually came into the light of the moon, which was steadily rising over the summit of the mountains. The road ahead was like a silver ribbon, winding up and up round the dark mountain sides. The beauty of the night was intense, and I wished that the drive would last for ever.”

One quick health warning: Any readers of the ‘all the gear, all the time’ persuasion should steer clear of this book. At various points, Peggy rides in a sundress, a ‘riding skirt’ that she had specially made, and, when struggling through a series of downpours, in bare feet. It’s an argument I occasionally have on twitter – the bike struggles to top 30mph, why does she need to wear any more than you’d wear to ride a bicycle?

The other aspect that troubles me is the reliance on being a solo woman traveller to get out of scrapes. Of course it’s wonderful that passing truckers, motorcycle shop proprietors, hotel owners, policemen and Dutch cargo ship captains should want to help a lady traveller and go out of their way to do so. But is this a good way to travel? At one point Peggy is down to her last few dimes and can’t afford to pay for a pitch in a state camping ground. She pitches, hopes to get away with it , and the kindly warden lets her off.

“Hope you had a good night’s rest, and say, I didn’t bother you about that seventy-five cents, I reckoned you were short of dough.”

Cheryl Strayed, half a century later, faces the same dilemma and it ends with her being forced to move on.

“If you’re going to stay here, you have to pay. If you can’t pay, you’ve got to pack up and leave. Them are the rules. We’ll keep the lights on while you pack.”

Cheryl isn’t a biker – she’s a hiker. She walks a thousand miles to get her life back on track after losing her mother, her family and her husband. Her story is also a period piece – she walked in 1995, when email was in its infancy and the internet still came down phone wires in black and white. She relies on letters from friends to keep in touch and has to telephone REI from a cafe for help with her boots.

I guess it’s human nature look for the parallels between our own journeys and the journeys of the people we come to know and admire through their words. I would definitely follow Peggy’s example and travel with a typewriter to Mexico, if it was possible to take AdventureDog with me. I love that Ted Simon is a journalist, like I have been, and according to Ted that means I have the skills and toughness to follow his example.

The things I hold in common with Cheryl Strayed are the things that I swept under the carpet. I might write about them again, but I fear it would be boring. Perhaps I only need to say that if you, like us, lost a mother to cancer when you were barely an adult, if your family drifted apart and you have nothing in common with your siblings, if your marriage didn’t stay the course, and if you did things that hurt yourself and others because nothing really mattered any more, then you should read Wild. And even if you haven’t, you should read it anyway because it’s a really great story. It will just probably make you cry a bit less.

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Filed under Books, Great writers, Riding, Travel