Tag Archives: ted simon

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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Old School: meeting Jupiter

They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes. Most of mine are dead, so it’s not a dilemma I face very often. I have stopped entering those competitions where you nominate your ideal dinner party guests because no-one seems to agree with me that Nina Simone, Ayrton Senna, Che Guevara and Teresa Wallach would sparkle over the canapés.

In the small days of December when I was desperate for a distraction from packing up my life into another array of cardboard boxes, Coventry Transport Museum tweeted that Ted Simon would be visiting the city to launch a new exhibition and would be giving a talk about his travels.

Faithful readers will know that Ted Simon is the reason I still ride. They may not know that I missed out on seeing him a few years ago, when he launched the Ted Simon Foundation. I promised then that I wouldn’t let the next chance escape. But I have no Serious Motorcycle at the moment. In the winter half-light I puttered down to the Museum on the 125, and locked it up out of sight of the array of Large Gnarly Beasts that proper bikers arrive at such events on.

It is a popular internet trope that bikers would rather be on their bikes thinking about church than in church thinking about their bikes. On this occasion, we got to do both, because the venue wasn’t the museum, it was the beautiful medieval chapel round the corner. Which was suitably adorned with a large number of copies of Overland magazine and a large Triumph. And Ted Simon, seated near the altar, suave in suede, yellow socks, and reading glasses.

I have the very greatest admiration for anyone who sets off on a Big Trip. I have had the chance twice and bottled it both times. A dear friend has just set off. His biggest worry was that he wouldn’t achieve escape velocity, that responsibilities here in the UK would keep him tethered. But he fully expects to be able to come home, should he so choose. Ted reminded us that he set off, “on, as my girlfriend called it, ‘your fucking mission’” fully at peace with the idea that he might die on the road – “but somewhere along the way you have to throw your life into the hands of chance.”

These days, Ted concedes, “the idea of going round the world isn’t very dramatic any more. People are doing it all the time.”

But there are still roads to conquer. “Riding a motorcycle around the world is a political act,” Ted said. “We must take an interest in the world around us. It’s not where you go, it’s what you find.

“It’s about self-awareness and improving other people’s understanding of the world. Pick somewhere your imagination draws you to and go there.

“Find out what is really happening. Find out what it’s really like, come back and tell other people. Counter the impressions given by TV. It’s a liberating thing to do.”

For Ted, travel is a personal as well as a political liberation. “When you travel you are free to be whoever you want to be. We can free ourselves of the everyday contortions of trying to live up to other people’s expectations.”

What does the successful round-the-world traveller need? A bike, “the smaller the better,” and “an abundance of curiosity.”

I have the bike but I lacked the courage. Maybe it will be third time lucky for me. After all, another world is possible. And Ted said that journalists make the best travellers because we are scrappy, resourceful people. There is still hope.

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Inspiring find!

I knew Ted Simon had written some follow-ups (follows-up?) to Jupiter’s Travels more recently but didn’t know he’d written one in the 80s. So I was very excited to find this in a brilliant bookshop in Eastbourne called Tome. Every book is £2, even beautiful old Penguins and big gardening books.  I was in Eastbourne because old friends were worried about me and didn’t want me to be on my own but I think things are OK now. 

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That’s the bike your grandad used to ride…

Wide-eyed child:”Wow!”

Coventry Transport Museum is a place where dads and granddads come to impress small boys with things that go very fast, are very old, or just a bit funny to look at (yes, De Lorean, I’m talking about you!). Potential Biker and I had come to look at the bikes, which were surprisingly hard to find and, when I did find them, seemed to be chained down on steel pallets. The Not-The-Ace Cafe mock-up was quite sweet, but the big sign that said “CCTV in operation” served as a robust reminder that we’re no longer in genteel times when the most controversial topic at the dinner table was whether or not one’s Aunt should be encouraged into Rational Dress.

Just when I’d decided I’d seen it all before, we rounded a corner and I had my own “wow!” moment – Ted Simon’s round-the-world Triumph, casually poised on a podium as if ready to go round again should Mr Simon just say the word. Jupiter’s Travels was the second motorcycle book I bought (from the Oxfam Bookshop in Oxford) and, together with Zen and the Art of…they did a lot to set my biking frame of reference. Nice to know that at the age of nearly-40 I can still get just as excited as a three-year old clutching his sister’s pushchair 🙂

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Vox Hunt: This Book Is A Gift

Book: Show us a book that you like to give as a gift.
Submitted by Ross.

This is a book about travelling, not just about riding.

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