Book Review: The Ghost of Scootertrash Past

© 2004 by Kathleen Kemsley, published in Women On Wheels Magazine Mar/Apr 20004

You have to respect anyone who has ridden more than a million miles on a motorcycle.  At the same time, you assume that anyone who has accumulated that much “helmet time” would have some wisdom to share.  But in the case of Mark “Tiger” Edmonds, that assumption would be wrong.  Edmonds, the other of Longrider, a book of road stories, has penned a second book as an encore to his first.  The subtitle of the new book is Memories and Rants of a Longrider.  This subtitle serves as a warning: mostly what you will be getting is a bunch ofIMG_pene_9 disorganized babble by a man who is a legend in his own mind.

There are some interesting stories related in the book, such as an account of a tree falling on Edmond’s motorcycle while he was riding on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Edmonds waxes downright poetic in some passages, such as this one: “We discussed the wet wind across the Everglades and the hot wind out in Death Valley…We talked about Bob Dylan’s song, Idiot Wind.  And we reviewed the way the wind screams down in the desert around Organ Pipe, and the way it whispers soft in Southern cypress swamps.”

You get the idea.  Edmonds is a better poet than he is an essayist.  For the most part, nothing happens in this book.  It is stream-of-consciousness writing, complete with liberal use of hokey language and deliberately poor grammar.  The author admits to holding a Ph.D. in English, so he obviously knows better than to use the double negative “ain’t no,” unless he is trying (too hard!) to sound folksy.  In one paragraph he uses the phrase “damn near” three times.

Beyond the affected style of writing, Edmonds could have really used some adjectives with teeth.  About Highway 50 between Ely and Carson City, he says, “the whole of that portion is just as scenic as can be.”  This description tells you nothing you didn’t already know.

Every woman rider who appears in this book is a passenger on Edmonds’ bike.  Apparently he has never met a woman who rides her own motorcycle.  At least none that he is willing to write about.  “I put her up behind me,” is his standard phrase in reference to women who ride with him.  As a female motorcyclist who hasn’t been “put up behind” anyone in many years, I was rubbed the wrong way by this man’s chauvinistic attitude.  A little bit of it goes a long way.

Apparently other women feel the same way.  “Once a girl has done heard all my stories and seen all my magic, well, I get pretty boring,” Edmonds writes.  For me, this book was more than enough of Tiger Edmonds’ tedious self-obsessed prattle.  For the reward of a few morsels of lryrical prose, plowing through this book was a chore.

Book Review: The Perfect Vehicle, by Melissa Holbrook Pierson

© 1997 by Kathleen Kemsley, first published in Women On Wheels Magazine, January 1998.   

The Perfect Vehicle (W.W. Norton & Company, 1997, $24.00) is a book about motorcycling that defies categorization.  It is not a travel book, like Ted Simon’s classic Jupiter’s Travels, although it does contain descriptions of the author’s rides on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the New Jersey Turnpike, and in several European countries.  And while the book covers the history of motorcycle racing and women who ride, it is not a historical document of the Hear Me Roar breed.  Perhaps the closest comparison to this book is Robert Pirsig’s part-philosophy, part-travelogue classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  But The Perfect Vehicle resists fitting neatly into any particular genre of motorcycling books; it must be read to be understood.

The author, a Brooklyn woman who is married to a non-riding man, owns a white Moto-Guzzi Lario.  Like most Moto-Guzzi owners, she is completely in love with the somewhat quirky Italian model, although her comments about other motorcycle brands are surprisingly complimentary.  She got started on Moto-Guzzis the way many of us women were attracted to our first motorcycle: her boyfriend rode one.

Out of necessity, Pierson makes friends with men who can work on the Guzzi, which breaks down frequently.  Eventually, she learns how to do most of the repairs herself.

Pierson rides for the first several years with groups of men or with a boyfriend.  Finally, after what seemed to me to take way too long, she signs up for a women-only riding class and discovers the sisterhood among women who ride.  She also gradually gets up the courage to ride solo, relishing the alone time on her bike, where there may be “people all around, in a car in the next lane not five feet away, but they can’t get you…You are spared the burden of words.”  Her reflections about the combination of giddy freedom and abject fear inspired by these solo rides struck a chord with me.

The misguided, strange, and occasionally truly mean comments the sight of a woman on her own motorcycle inspires is fodder for many of the anecdotes Pierson relates throughout the book.  She describes one incident where a couple of men approach Pierson’s male riding partner, John, and ask him how he likes the Lario, completely ignoring her even though he tells them that is her bike, not his.  “Amusing as these episodes were, they and others like them have nonetheless prompted a more sober realization: Apparently the sight of a woman on a motorcycle so profoundly disturbs the way things are that even the eyes are not to be trusted.  In turn, I have to shake myself and ask what year this is.”

To her credit, Pierson does not shy away from examining the dangers of riding motorcycles.  Though she has never herself been in a serious accident, the fear of an accident or a mechanical breakdown is never far from the forefront of her mind.  “Danger is really the wind that passes on either side of a motorcycle,” she writes.  “You may go for long periods of time without feeling it, hours and days and weeks of nothing but routine and happy riding, then it chooses one minute to remind you not to forget it’s there… Sometimes motorcyclists themselves try to deny it, as they do when they wear shorts or bare heads, as if a specially assigned guardian angel drew an impenetrable shield around them.  Or they claim never to have felt fear, only joy; they can certainly get testy, some of them, if you mention the word, as if saying it brings it on.  But somewhere, they all know it.  And they know it is in part why they do it; the mastery of danger, or the feeling of it.”:  As someone who has experienced the pain and terror of a serious motorcycle wreck, and yet couldn’t wait to get back on the bike and ride again, I appreciated Pierson’s unflinching examination of the fears that go hand-in-hand with the joys for riding a motorcycle.

The Perfect Vehicle would have perhaps benefitted from an index,Perfect_Veh or at least from chapter titles which summarized the subject of each.  The book jumps around, describing the visual and mechanical appeal of a Moto-Guzzi on one page and leaping into the details of a group ride in Belgium on the next.  But then, if I had known precisely where to turn to read about the history of women riding long-distance, I might have skipped over some of the most lyrical and interesting passages in the book.

Unlike several other motorcycling books, such as The Investment Biker by Jim Rogers, Pierson includes the personal, and sometimes embarrassing, details of her life.  I did not have to wonder, for example, why her relationship with Franz, a Moto-Guzzi shop owner, broke up.  She writes of her own inner landscape, complete with inconsistencies and irrational fears, as easily as she chronicles the history of the Moto-Guzzi Company.  This willingness to open her heart for examination by everyone who reads her book is admirable.  With Jim Rogers, we never get a clue what kind of mood he was in when he crossed Siberia.  With Melissa Pierson, the moods she describes provide the window into understanding why she loves to ride.

Review: Ghost Rider, Travels on the Healing Road, by Neil Peart

© 2004 By Kathleen Kemsley.  Originally published in Women On Wheels Magazine, May/June 2004.  

The joy of movement, the thrill of discovering new places, the fun of meeting people: Ghost Rider2these are the usual high points cited in motorcycle travel narratives.  One picks up a bike journey book expecting to be spirited along on the writer’s good-time route.

In the case of Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, nothing could be further from the truth.  Author Neil Peart’s journey crisscrossing 55,000 miles of North and Central America is neither joyful, thrilling, nor fun.  Instead, the trip serves as therapy, allowing Peart to begin recovering from staggering tragedy.

The deaths within one year of his wife and his 19-year-old daughter, along with the incarceration of his best friend, render Neil Peart shell-shocked and devoid of hope.  The only decision he can manage is to keep moving, a Ghost Rider on a BMW.  Covering 400 to 600 miles per day, Peart escapes into manic forward motion, all the while searching the wreckage of his heart for some meaning.

“My mission now was to protect a certain essence inside of me, a sputtering life force, a meager spirit,” Peart writes at the beginning of his journey.  With a poetic yet unsentimental vision, Peart relates an absorbing narrative about a two-wheeled quest to repair his damaged soul.

Peart’s first inkling of a return to the living comes almost 100 pages into the book.  On a twisty highway in British Columbia, “the sky remained bright, the air cool and delicious, and the sinuous road coming toward me was so challenging and rewarding that I was tempted into the adrenalin zone.”  He finds himself whooping with an exhilaration not felt in many months, and his ride on the Healing Road has begun.

Despite the author’s melancholy state of mind through much of his journey, he nevertheless manages to write engagingly about the history of such places as Owens Lake, California. Long hikes taken in national parks from Glacier to Zion to Yosemite are well-drawn, alongside un-self-conscious descriptions of inner struggles with the pain of memory and loss.  As the drummer and lyricist for the rock band Rush, Peart knows many musicians and artists throughout North America.  Time spent nurturing these friendships along the way bolsters Peart’s attempts to rejoin the human race.

Some of the book is straight narrative, while other sections take the form of excerpted letters to friends.  In between three rides of several months each, Peart returns to his home in Quebec, Canada.  “Curiosity keeps me going.  If not hope.  That seems to be gone, with idealism and faith.  No more illusions.  It just is.  Deal with it,” he writes.

Acceptance comes gradually, but readers will be cheering for Peart as he emerges from his soul’s dark night.  Both the tragedies and the triumphs of Peart’s life-affirming journey are expertly depicted in this book.  The Ghost Rider’s path back to the land of the living should not be missed.

Whitehorse Press, 2002, 458 pages, $19.95.