The Displaced Nation

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Gotta helmet? Time to burn some rubber, have a real travel adventure

The Displaced Nation has dedicated the month of September to the ideas within Robert Pirsig’s classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But enough with theory. What’s it really like to see the world from the back of a motorcycle — and what are us more timid types missing out on? Rubber hits the road today with Matthew Cashmore, aka The London Biker. Braaaaown… brraaoom…… rrooaaarr………. Take it away, Matthew! NOTE: This post has not been edited for British spelling.

There are some things in life that just have to be done. Laying on your back staring at the stars, wondering which ones are dead and which are still blazing. Getting so drunk on cider that you can no longer stand (perhaps that’s just me). Or travelling the world by motorcycle.

The last, many people would say, is optional. But it’s not. If you feel as I do, motorcycle travel is as essential to life as water or food, then there is only one way to do it.

I’m not the first to point out that seeing the world from a motorcycle is better than any other means of travel — just dig out a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or my personal favourite, Jupiter’s Travels, by Ted Simon.* You’ll only read a quarter of each book before you discover why this method of travel trumps the rest. You’re part of the world in which you’re travelling. There is nothing between you, the elements and the people with whom you interact.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see much of the world. I’ve backpacked, travelled by plane to amazing cities, jumped on buses or driven cars. But nothing, absolutely nothing, can match the experience of the wind rushing past your head trying to knock you off your bike, as you hurtle between towns and villages. And nothing can give you a greater grin than riding across the bay in San Francisco on the back of a growling Harley — safe in the knowledge that in a car this would be just another American highway.

If you don’t ride in the rain, you don’t ride…

It does take a certain amount of effort, though. This summer I did a short run from London out to Budapest via France, Germany, Austria and then into Hungry. The return leg took me through northern Croatia, Slovenia, back into Austria and up into the Alps over into Italy and then back over the Stelvio Pass into Switzerland, France and finally home. It rained the entire trip. Every single morning I was greeted with sheets of rain. I was beginning to suspect it was actually following me to Budapest. Each night I was soaked to the skin — even with the most expensive rain gear. Each night I was dog tired, and I really had to question what I was doing. What kind of a nut case chooses to spend his summer holiday riding a motorbike half way across Europe in the rain?

The reason I, and many others like me, do this is because you can ride for eight days in the rain — and then out of nowhere the clouds will clear and you’ll be presented with a road of perfect grace. A strip of tarmac that sings as you press on, a view that leaves you crying because of its beauty. Something you would never have seen had you been in a car or a bus. Something you’ve had to work to achieve — and it’s even more beautiful for that.

A parable of the hospitality shown to bikers

On the Budapest trip I found myself at the top of the Austrian Alps. I was running a day behind because I’d had a stomach bug back in Budapest. I was determined to make up that lost day so that I could still get over the pass into Switzerland ahead of a (yet another) rain front. I had been riding for ten hours, I had another six ahead of me, and I was already on my fourth change of clothes. I was incredibly fed up. Why on earth was I doing this?

I pulled into the first service stop I’d seen for about 150 miles, 2000 metres above sea level and hidden by cloud, rain and spray. Filling the bike up with petrol I spotted a small restaurant complete with a hotel — bliss, escape! I headed inside, dripping water everywhere. As I walked through the door I must have looked like a monster from the deep. I was dressed head to foot in every single piece of waterproof gear I could find — complete with an army surplus poncho. The restaurant manager took one look at me and ordered me onto a piece of lino, where I promptly created a rather large puddle. She demanded I remove my clothing leaving me standing there in just my thermals. I shivered, waiting for her next command. Did they have ways of making me warm?

My gear was whisked off (it came back nearly dry and very warm), and I was pointed in the direction of the shower and given a hot towel. I emerged a different man. Clean clothes, warm, and for the first time in two days, dry. Ushered to a seat, I took the opportunity to eat well — feasting on sausage and strudel, the best Austria had to offer. Buoyed by such amazing hospitality I got back on the bike and rode on. As I rounded the first corner the rain stopped and I hit Italy, sun, and the kind of twisty roads God clearly made for bikers.

I could say this was a one off, but the more I travel the world by motorbike the more I come to realise that the very thing that makes you vulnerable is the very thing that makes you approachable. It’s different if you’re travelling with other bikers, but when you’re on your own it’s a perfect combination of being totally exposed to the environment and more importantly to people.

This is what makes travelling by motorcycle so special. The openness, the access, the smells, the sounds, the people who are curious because you’ve rolled into town in something other than a bus or 4×4. If you want to experience, to imbibe, the world through which you travel…there is only one option. Gotta helmet?

* Suggested further reading:

Matthew Cashmore works in digital publishing. He keeps track of his “random thoughts” on his blog, The London Biker. He also has a YouTube channel, where he posts videos about his life on the road, camp cooking and related topics.

img: Matthew Cashmore in Budapest, July 2011.

STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post, on the diner food that has played a part in many an American road trip.

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