When I decided last summer to take up motorcycling again, the first book I pulled from my depleted reference shelf was Melissa Holbrook Pierson's The Perfect Vehicle.
I'd read the book several times and was invariably provoked into deep thought about what she had to say on one of my life's great pleasures.
Imagine my delight to discover she'd joined Open Salon. She doesn't post much, unfortunately, but was kind enough in response to a comment to say that she'd written another book about riding that I might like -- The Man Who Would Stop At Nothing.
So I ordered a copy for the public library and, having read it, will be getting one for my permanent collection.
At once personal and compelling, while remaining stubbornly honest, the book centres on John Ryan, probably the greatest long-distance motorcyclist in the world. Among other things, he rode from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Key West, Florida, in eighty-six hours, 31 minutes, in the ultimate coast-to-coast trip. It's hard to imagine anyone ever doing those 5,645 miles quicker on two wheels.
I doubt I'd like him much in person, nor him me, but I admire what he and the others in this book have done.
Pierson, no mean rider herself, qualified for membership in the Iron Butt Association by completing the SaddleSore -- 1,000 miles in 24 hours -- soon after returning to two wheels following an 11-year hiatus. After that "easy" test for initiates come dares like the invitation-only Iron Butt Rally -- 11,000 miles in 11 days. And it gets worse.
I was once a pretty committed rider, and by that I mean I racked up impressive -- to me -- mileage annually, most of it alone and on classic and cranky British twins. I rode them for work, I rode them for fun. I rode fast and hard and in all kinds of weather -- snow, rain, sleet, ice, heat. I did it in leather and denim jackets or Belstaff suits, and I learned to carry extra throttle and clutch cables, spark plugs, fuses, tools. (Bikes were more temperamental then, but simpler to maintain at the roadside.)
But no way in hell would I have ever undertaken the kind of forbidding challenge that attracts these exceptional people. I'm fascinated by them in the way I'm fascinated by mountaineers -- another group I have no inclination to join.
In fact, George Leigh Mallory, who famously answered, "Because it's there" when asked why he wanted to climb Everest, would no doubt understand Ryan, Pierson and their kin, whose response to some seemingly impossible long-distance proposal would likely be, "Well why not?"
They are a substratum of motorcyclists, every bit as exclusive as those other "one-per-centers" -- the original outlaw bikers of several decades ago -- with whom they share certain (non-criminal) traits.
I suspect they'd be less than thrilled to hear that, but back when a distinction was made between "bikers" and "riders" (evil versus good), and before the disorganised thuggery became organised crime, I had an association, and maybe an affinity, with the former that was rather more than superficial.
As I was reading The Man, I kept noticing similarities: small numbers, strict codes of behaviour, stringent entry qualifications, unusual ways of thinking about themselves and others, a certain insular elitism, pushing themselves to some unbelievable limit. And if the long-distance riders don't travel together -- it's not generally a group experience -- they do have a mastery of their two-wheeled world not unlike the outlaws once had of theirs.
When Hunter Thompson wrote about the Hells Angels in the 1960s, he used a broadsword, or maybe an axe. Pierson uses a rapier to deftly dissect, insofar as possible, the psyche of those drawn to marathon riding.
And along the way, she lays bare her soul, especially about the journey that we all are on and the camaraderie and kindness we encounter.
In short, this book is more than the sum of its parts. I've already read it twice, and will do so again soon. It's the perfect vehicle for an over-the-hill, born-again, wind-in-the-face believer.
Hardcover: 191 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (Oct. 3, 2011)
List price: $24.95 ($29.95 in Canada)