Saturday, February 13, 2016

Miles from Nowhere



This year marks the 40th anniversary of Bikecentennial, America’s great participatory cross-country ride in 1976, which signalled a moment of great optimism for bike touring in America. Bikecentennial’s legacy includes the formation of the Adventure Cycling Association in Missoula, MT, not to mention countless golden memories for a generation of Boomer cyclists.

In honor of Bikecentennial’s 40th, I recently re-visited Barbara Savage’s round-the-world-bicycle-adventure book Miles from Nowhere (1983), which tells the story of husband-and-wife team Barbara and Larry Savage setting out from their California home in 1978 and venturing through 25 countries and across 23 000 miles over a two-year-plus journey.

Now, the Savages journey wasn’t technically a Bikecentennial project, and, in fact, the book makes no mention of Bikecentennial (though there is reference to an inspirational slideshow by another couple who had recently cycled across the United States, possibly as part of BC). But it seems to me that, consciously or unconsciously, the trip is inextricably linked with the BC zeitgeist, which lingered over American cycling for many years after the bicentennial. The Savages embody the plucky, can-do, hit-the-road ethos of Bikecentennial, with their twin goals of operating as frugally as possible and seeing as much of the world as they can on their bikes. (They were no credit-card bike-tourists; their commitment to camping cheap, even amid dire circumstances, is commendable.) In my view, Miles from Nowhere is an embodiment Bikecentennialism.


The book is widely considered a classic of cycle-travel literature. It has been reprinted a gazillion times; it is frequently included on Top 10 lists, and is almost universally lauded by an impressive number of amateur reviewers on sites like Amazon and Goodreads. (Confession: It was one of the first cycle-travel books I ever read, so it will always hold a special place in my memory.) Its status within the cycle-touring community is legendary, so much so that you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who has a bad word to say about it.   

So, the question is this: why this hallowed status and is it really deserved? Looking at it now with fresh (and older) eyes, I have a few theories.

Sure, the book’s chock full of great stories. The California hippy cyclists growing sprouts on their handlebars; douche-bag Florida drivers running cyclists into the ditch; nasty Egyptian kids whipping rocks at the Savages' bikes; a dysentery-riddled Barb shitting in a shower in a hotel in India; Kiwi Geoff's pet tapeworm. These are classic tales--the stuff of cycle-touring legend.

(Incidentally, re-reading the book, I was struck by just how excremental it is. Outside of Jonathan Swift, I can't think of another book with so much shit in it. Dysentery, diarrhea, food poisoning--Larry and Barb and friends spend a lot of time in Asia, especially, dashing to the toilet and telling us what happened there. At first, these frank accounts of bodily emergencies startle, but there are so many of them, in the second half of the book especially, that we get used to it.)

But there's more to the book's appeal than just the stories of eccentrics and disasters, parasites and assholes, of various kinds. The first third of the book, describing the Savages initial noodlings across North America, captures the freshness of the couple's adventure and Barbara's gradual evolution from cycling noob into toughened road warrior capable of handling Floridians' bullshit antics.

As with much of the best travel writing, it’s the voice of the author that makes readers want to stick with a writer over a long journey, and Barbara Savage’s voice has an honest and disarming candor that accounts for much of the book’s appeal. She talks frankly about some of the challenging aspects of cycle-touring, especially couples cycle-touring, that are usually played for laughs or omitted altogether these kinds of books. The petty fights in the ditch, the unabashed yelling, the temper-tantrums, but also the small acts of kindness, the making up, and the profound intimacy of living within a few feet of one's spouse for most of over two years. For instance, the passages where she casually mentions "lovemaking" (how 70s!) in their tent are utterly surprising. In another writer's hands, they'd be corny, but not Barb's. The Savages come across not as cyclists so much as genuine human beings—who happen to be riding bikes. 

But the maybe the biggest appeal of this book now is its idealized image of these American travelers. We all know the all-too-common stereotype of the ugly American abroad, but Barbara and Larry offer an appealing counter-example of the best kind of Americans. They’re adventurous but polite, smart and resourceful, curious and outward looking, flawed but resilient. Fairly or unfairly, these are qualities that most of the world no longer associates with Americans, much, either at home or abroad, but many readers, mostly, but not exclusively, American, must, these days, hold some nostalgia for the myth of the plucky, likeable American traveler.  If only there were more Barbaras and Larrys out there in this age of Donalds.

There is one other explanation for the book’s status. And it’s the elephant in the room that I’ve been gingerly stepping around to this point: that is, the death of the author. It’s hard to raise this without sounding insensitive, but I do wonder if Miles from Nowhere would have the same cult following if Barbara Savage hadn’t died when and how she did. The story is tragic and horribly ironic. As the book was going to press, she was struck on her bicycle and killed by a car near her home in California. This after surviving all manner of hair-raising and dangerous situations around the globe. For readers who know this grim story (and it’s right there on the back cover), it’s hard not to find so many parts of the book especially poignant—I’m thinking of the bits where Savage imagines her future adventures with her husband.

To criticize the book in any way might seem, to some, like bad form, like picking on the victim of an awful twist of fate. Like a rock star who dies young, Barbara Savage seems to us now purer and bigger than most of the rest of us. No wonder her book has achieved a mythical status; it’s come to represent something much larger than a bicycle journey.

To be honest, reading MFN this time around, I found myself a bit bored in places, skimming more than reading in the second half of the book. It's a common problem with travel books, this sameness of things. Lots of other great travel literature suffers from the same disease; it doesn’t diminish the many charms of Miles from Nowhere.

This summer, expect to hear lots about the glory days of Bikecentennial. I hear ACA is putting out a coffee table book in honor of the anniversary, and I’m sure many tales of ’76 will get re-hashed. Celebrate it all, I say, but if you want to read about the legacy of the Bikecentennial spirit, I’d point you towards Barbara Savage's book, as quite possibly the best articulation of a new age of adventure cycling in America and beyond. 

2 comments:

  1. I will have to raid your bookshelf for this one, Jasper.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great post! Thank you! One of my travel memoirs.

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