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Travellers’ Tales

He used to laugh at those people with the funny faces and the bells.
Ah, jesters ma’m.
No…lepers.

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