It was the summer of ‘85 when the Moto Guzzi blew its engine. I borrowed money for a big Laverda then flipped a friend’s Honda 550, snapping my sternum and wasting a bunch of ribs. Stuck on my mother’s couch in my hometown of Paignton, England, coughing blood and swallowing narcotics as winter set in, my mind ran over my travels in the USA and Central America the year before: living with the bank robber, falling in love with a raven-haired beauty while dodging bullets and trading money on the black market in war-torn Nicaragua.
I yearned for the Florida sun and adventure. Selling everything I owned-except the Laverda-as soon as I could move, I hitchhiked to London, bought a one-way ticket to New York, and a bus ticket to Florida. With $100 in my pocket and a bottle of Johnny Walker Red in my bag, 36 traveling hours saw me back in the Sunshine State. I would never permanently live in England again.
Fast forward 30 years and eating dinner at 30,000 feet in a 600-mph metal bird heading for London, my twelve-year-old son Patrick is by my side as I contemplate the 2013 BMW R1200GS that awaits our arrival. A machine that on a physical level will take us along the roads and lanes of England, Scotland, and Wales, but one I suspect will take me deep into the memories of my formative, two-wheeled years, as I watch the country of my birth come to life in the reflection from my son’s eyes. Soon to turn 13 years old, his ever-quickening march to manhood is matched only by his continually changing view of life, and I’m intrinsically aware it could be the last time we have a chance to do this before I become completely boring. A father’s job is to prepare a son not to need him though, and, riding into my history, while creating his in what has become modern England, will be another part of that process as he helps with the electronics, photography, and navigation. They sure are making kids a lot smarter than we were growing up.
How differently will the two of us view the passing scenes from the seat of our BMW? Like my old Moto Guzzi, it still has two, big cylinders and rolls on two wheels. But the person who left England wrote airmail letters, used phones attached to the wall, and had only two TV channels to watch. We are riding on electronic suspension with fly-by-wire throttle and power brakes, our phone works anywhere in the world, Google has replaced a bicycle ride to the library, and no one lifts choke levers or adjusts points anymore. Somehow all these changes have arrived, integrated, and become the new normal. What will be left of my memories? An ever-shrinking collection of random thoughts, color-tinted now like an old, restored black-and-white movie. Defying gravity, and traveling through time somewhere over Greenland, they mix together in a confused, congealed blob of thoughts that are going to take some long days in the saddle to dissect.
London is a foreign place to me now: a multi racial, multi-cultural, multi-story, fast-paced, jam-packed, bumper-to-bumper city. But as we slide out of town, the country of my birth comes back, and thankfully our Polish driver taking us to the dealer in Guildford isn’t jet-lagged, and knows what side of the road to be on. Our GS1200 is waiting, and we quickly work out a system for our luggage, mount up, and head for Oxford to the home of my good friend, travel author Shelby Tucker. Spinning through the twisting, English country lanes in glorious sunshine is using up most of my remaining grey matter, but the bike feels secure, the speeds are respectful, and with six points and a hefty fine awaiting anyone using a cell phone I’m feeling comfortable. A late lunch in the beer garden of the Hare and Hounds pub is a little piece of heaven. The smell of the beer, the slow, lethargic service, and the landlord’s laundry hanging out to dry, catch me between two worlds, where there is a strangeness to the familiarity as I try to piece it together. But watching Patrick slumped back half asleep, I decide resistance at this point is futile, drink my tea, and we saddle up.
Arriving on Osney Island, we find Shelby and his wife Carole at home, and enjoy an excellent meal in their small garden. Warm memories of arriving in Oxford on the Laverda in 1985, and an insane boxcar ride through Nicaragua after Shelby had dragged me to a hospital and probably saved my life, have Patrick’s eyes wide open. I wonder how we will deal with this past: How will we discuss that wild-eyed, hard-drinking, pot-smoking, high-octane candle burner that turned into Dad? Don’t get me wrong I still fight: wringing the neck of 200-horsepower, 200-mph race bikes and riding big GS BMWs through the sands of Peru making adventure television. But now I have to go to bed early, stay sober, and eat clean, and if I caught one of the girls I’m chasing I’d be as confused as a dog finally getting its teeth into a metal car bumper.
Shelby has traveled significantly in over 140 countries around the world, written two best-selling travel books about his experiences in Burma and Tanzania, and is working on a third about hitchhiking to India at 25 and then 75 years of age. This new book, which will be called “Two Roads, is the inspiration for the journey Patrick and I are taking as I recall my life and thoughts from 30-years ago when I first rode motorcycles before leaving to travel the world. Returning home sporadically over the decades, I’ve seen the changes England has gone through as staccato movements, almost the way we made stick-figure people dance in our school notebooks one page at a time.
America might have never had a physical empire the way Great Britain did, but the way the world’s cultures are dissolving under her influence is quite astonishing: clothing, fast food, credit, convenience stores, 24-hour business, bars open ‘til 2 a.m. When I started my drinking career, pubs shut at 10:30.p.m, during the week, and 11. p.m on the weekends, retail stores were closed Sundays and by 5:30 p.m. during the week. Television was over by midnight, heralded by the playing of the national anthem before shutdown. Patrick has been surfing hundreds of 24-hour TV channels since he was old enough to hold a remote. Stores never close. He has a laptop for schoolwork, while I was sucking ink into a fountain pen at his age, and recording everything in notebooks. The first calculators were cumbersome affairs with basic functions. Now they are apps on phones. We saved money from our paper routes to buy singles from record stores; he surfs YouTube, Pandora, or iTunes from his phone.
As my hero, friend, mentor, and inspiration, Shelby provides one last story before the road north to Scotland calls. Today, we hear how he had all his money stolen in India and traveled on to Katmandu with ten rupees to his name on faith and the kindness of strangers. Some days later Patrick wrote about Shelby’s stories in his journal (Shelby is an author so he obviously told many stories that were completely insane but the amazing thing they are all true.) and I feel the imprinting of the great man’s wisdom on Patrick’s soul.
It’s a journey of 350 miles through the heart of England, and as my sister is expecting us for dinner we use the motorway. We take 90-minute stints in the saddle, and relaxed breaks where we discuss the landscape and our thoughts. Middle England is very industrial, but by late afternoon the mountains of the Lake District rise along our horizon. Arriving at the Scottish border I fight to find something to remember from the numerous trips I made up and down this route as a teenager, hitchhiking back and forth from London to see my girlfriend. As hard as I look I don’t connect, and the twisting, winding two-lane road has been replaced with a slick, fast-moving motorway my memories nowhere to be found. I am making new ones with my son, though, and we point at old farmhouses and churches that appear from time to time. I’m relieved that Patrick is content and engaged both on the bike and during our breaks.
Since the time I arrived unannounced the day before my sister’s wedding, after being missing in Latin America without word for months, there’s no way to surprise her. So, we just pull in at reasonable hour and within minutes it’s like I’ve never been away. Patrick comfortably slots in with his cousins, and we sit late in the Scottish twilight catching up on all the family gossip. I’m happy to have the long, fast-paced day behind us as for the next few days we are going to be striving for quality not quantity in our miles.
The first time I rode east across Scotland it was late in the year, and so cold I had to pull in at the Glasgow airport to wrap my frozen fingers around a steaming mug of tea to bring them back to life. Hopelessly unprepared for the bleak Scottish, morning without proper riding gear, it was a painful ride to Edinburgh on my old ‘73 Honda CB250 K4. Mother Nature smiled on a poor spotty youth that year by warming up enough that the remainder of that first, sophomoric tour around Scotland didn’t leave me with frostbite. Repeating the first leg of that journey in mid-summer in full BMW gear, we cruise into Edinburgh with a plummy English voice announcing our every turn from the GPS, and we are soon touring the magnificent Edinburgh Castle. Nothing’s better than exploring dungeons and sitting on cannons for a twelve-year-old boy, and we lose a few hours walking back hundreds of years in time.
Patrick’s an exceptional traveler, so next up we meander off along the Royal Mile to see the sights. After an hour or so, we stop to watch a young European artist creating magic with newspaper and spray cans. And there on the ancient Edinburgh streets, I have, as Spalding Grey would say, “my perfect moment.” Patrick is entranced and doesn’t want to leave. As a father, wanting to impart the world as I see it to my son, it’s a home run.
Standing amongst Muslim tourists in full birkas, Japanese tour groups taking hundreds of pictures, Scotsmen in kilts, and young Italians playing classical music he completely connects to the whole experience. As I watch him watching, thoughts swirl through my head of everything from puppet theatre in Indonesia to Aboriginal dancing in the Australian Outback. A thousand other moments from 35 years on the road come back, and my spirits soar higher than the prayer flags along the Tibet/China border I rode past in Northern India. I’ve experienced these perfect moments before, and savor every moment as the picture is finally painted and the crowd applauds.
The days slide by with fish suppers, curries, day trips up and over the Rest and Be Thankful to Inverary, and slow, thoughtful rides to the small village of Kilmacolm where I spent my teenage years. It was a wild time, with a mixed bag of memories from my first love to occasionally being caught in the religious hatred and violence that was prevalent in the late ‘70s. Sitting holding someone’s face together with paper towels after he’s been stabbed with a broken bottle, or having your head stitched up with no anesthetic, leaves a few dark shadows, but the mid-summer sunlight chases them away as I show my son the beauty of this area. He loves the old pubs that have been serving ale for hundreds of years, and the magnificent churches that have been opening their door to the faithful even longer. Not much has changed in these parts, but my only connection now is to my family and it’s a tough ride south as we say goodbye and roll for England.
On this trip Patrick will see his cousins, his aunt and uncle, and his grandmother who all make up parts of the DNA he feels but can’t touch. It’s his history, his story, his fabric woven with the predominant influence he has from America. What is going through his mind right now as we ride through the peaceful countryside? Out here, the fields and hedgerows haven’t changed for decades, maybe centuries, a large number of landscapes Identical to those I would have passed through as a child. My conscious doesn’t recognize a lot of it, but deep inside it connects to something stored internally like an ancestral code to navigate by that we lose piece by piece with our ever-growing reliance on electronics and electronic voices telling us what to do. “There are no signs out here, Amigo.” The words of my Inca buddy, Flavio, echo through my mind from journeys taken into the wild places of Peru, and I smile inside my helmet. There are still untamed places on the planet, but they are shrinking daily and I wonder what will Patrick have to work with at my age? Can progress possibly keep up this frenetic pace?
As my eyes absorb the landscape, I realize I will always see Britain with my early ‘80s eyes. Punk Rock evolved through the New Romantics, unemployment escalated, we went to war with Argentina, and Japanese motorcycles ruled the roads. A well-sorted Triumph Bonneville could still catch you out in an impromptu race along a country lane, but even their days were numbered as my weapon of choice, the Honda CBX550 hit the streets. BMWs were few and far between, and until this time were decidedly boring and the preserve of mature, well heeled riders, who for some bizarre reason rode long distance. For a generation addicted to racing along the lanes and trying to pull birds at the pub, the BMWs weren’t attractive. Even the poor old “flying brick,” or BMW’s K100 to those too young and tender to remember that nickname, did nothing to improve our view.
The R80GS was the first BMW that got on my radar with its exploits racing the Paris/Dakar, and I would go on to own one, but by the time Patrick was invented, I was riding a slick, race-framed Triumph T595. He cut his motorcycle teeth riding on the gas tank of the Triumph as a small boy, and by the time he graduated to the passenger seat, he had been on many a test bike. At the age of five a Yamaha PW 50 started his two-wheeled career, but not before he had begun to master my digital SLR, having his first pictures published in a magazine at the age of seven. Moving on through XR80s to XR100s, a TTR125 and now a Honda CRF150, he is both a proficient motorcycle rider and photographer as we work our south past Hadrian’s Wall and then through the Lake District.
I hitchhiked here from Scotland when I was fifteen years old for a camping trip, but even though the scenery and villages are beyond spectacular, we don’t stop long. We are on a mission to make Wales by nightfall, so there are some easy miles on the motorway to sit and think. After 30 years, I’m not a Brit anymore, but then I’m not American either, which is clear to me on a daily basis from my default thought process. So am I a man without a country? Or maybe the world is my home as we are all just tourists stopping off on planet Earth as part of some cosmic journey around the universe, traveling on one day as dust and particles, or members of a chosen group who have been promised eternal bliss for their faith, depending on your belief. To an Englishman I sound American. To an American I sound like an Englishman. Patrick’s Englishness is more hidden, and he will never have trouble with this form of identity.
Out on the roads Patrick is a great passenger. Well engaged for the ride, he moves in unison with me, and it’s here I realize where my love of the whole motorcycle experience comes from. The roads require meticulous attention to detail as I work the gear change to ensure the right amount of forward motion for the constantly changing conditions. They weren’t built for a modern marvel of technology with fuel injection and 120 horsepower, so the strictest attention is needed due to all the blind rises, hairpin turns, gravel, and sudden downhill sections we encounter. On an old air-cooled Triumph twin, though, there would be little need to brake as you carved through the heart of the English countryside. These roads beautifully follow the contour of the land, up hill and down dale, and mostly run through the center of the small villages where front doors open onto the street. Each moment is like an invitation card to stop and explore, but we ride on. Nightfall sees us in Wales enjoying a fish supper in the garden of a bed and breakfast Inn, as the surrounding countryside slowly fades out of view in the advancing twilight.
Today we ride for England through the historic city of Bath, where we will do battle with tourists for photos and eat lunch in a hippy restaurant. Rural country lanes will lead us south and then one, last push on the motorway where slowly the hills and valleys coming into focus will take us home. I’ve ridden these roads a hundred times creating a myriad of wilder motorcycle memories, but there are also moments of quieter and deeper reflection. My mother is 86 years old this year and has slowed significantly after being the charging matriarch for so many decades. Lives have ended, marriages floundered, children grown, people moved, and my best friend in the world has suffered a rare brain complication.
Wibbly the Mighty One: How he went to Morocco on a drug-taking holiday and after some weeks of smoking kief with the Berbers in the Atlas Mountains came down to Marrakesh. Here he had a nasty incident while wearing a pair of lemon-yellow dress pants after eating some spicy meatballs, but we’ll leave the details for another day. A number of brain surgeries have left him in a similar state to a stroke victim, with little to no short-term memory but an unfettered access to his long-term vaults. In a cruel twist of fate, the madness of the formative years lives, while what happened yesterday is gone.
There was the time he borrowed money from his parents to go to India, bought a chunk of hash, and hid out at a friend’s house a few streets away. He jumped ship in Trapassey, Newfoundland, after sailing the Atlantic in a wooden tall ship, usually so stoned they would find him asleep on iceberg watch. He got us thrown in jail outside Calgary after we had hitchhiked across Canada together, and we drove a Datsun 210 Sunny from Miami to the deep jungles of Belize one time, before the yuppies found it and started building hotels and casinos. That was a long, weird trip, as well as being particularly unpleasant without AC, and we didn’t speak for a year after I walked off and left him in the jungle. Wibbly headed Stateside through Mexico, hitching lifts with crack dealers and others at the fringe of society before jumping a plane for Thailand where he smoked too much opium. South East Asia became some sort of blur and he ended up in Australia for a time. There was no Facebook, e-mail, or cell phones in those days, so I had no idea where he was, nor he I. A year later while I was in London having my guts pulled out through my stomach to repair my spine, I learned he was home. With large bottles of narcotics and muscle relaxers on hand, Wibbly was actively involved in my recovery as we raged over copious cups of tea about the days that I rode my Laverda 1200 and he, resplendent in his fur jacket, rode his mighty Norton.
Over the next few days, Patrick and I ride to most of my favorite places, enjoying the best English summer weather in my memory. The Brits are all pissing and moaning about the heat, so it’s business as usual for the locals. We ride ferryboats across the River Dart, fishing boats along the coast, then meander through the South Hams along roads barely wide enough for a small car: before spending a day with Wibbly and his family traveling to and across Dartmoor. Patrick and I ride the BMW, and he spends a lot of time shooting pictures as we ride. The view from the top of Haytor looks down across the area we have just been riding, with the sea a brilliant blue smudge across the final horizon. We have visited sandy beaches, dined in 600-year-old buildings, visited monasteries and churches dating back over 1,000 years, and seen a good number of my friends from the formative years.
Nick Roskelly, the man who built both Wibbly’s Norton and my Laverda back in the day has restored an old Z900, and it’s a fabulous job. Somewhat famous in these parts for his incredible Harleton, which uses a 1942 WLC 45-cubic-inch Harley engine in a 1960 Norton Wideline Featherbed frame, it’s a sign of the times that this old biker is working on Japanese bikes. We make a point of visiting Les Harris’ old Triumph shop at the end of the high street in my home town, where I stared in wonder at the shiny motorcycles as a boy. Les Harris is the man who kept Triumph alive for the five-year interval after Meriden closed their doors in 1983 and Hinckley opened theirs in 1988, (NEED TO FACT CHECK) so it’s a little ironic that his building is now an Asian convenience store. I shoot a picture of Nick’s Kawasaki in front of it for posterity.
All too soon it’s time to say goodbye and head back to London for our return flight. We have to drop the BMW and stage up at a hotel for the night before our metal bird takes us to America. Patrick and I have spent the last two weeks with no radio-communication devices, becoming more connected without our cell phones. We’ve played games on pad and paper, talked excitedly about the day’s ride and what’s to come, and worked in perfect harmony from photography to packing. We’ve ridden through my memories and created a whole set of new ones we can share. The world has changed, and so have I, but the one conclusive thought that ties the whole journey together is that the spirit of travel and adventure made possible from the saddle of a motorcycle is just the same as it ever was, no matter what or where your ride.