By Lou Melini — I wrote my first book review for Cycling Utah in 2002. Since that time I have read a half dozen books per year with bicycling as a significant or complete subject of the book. The subjects of the books had a variety of themes that included racing, touring, urban cycling, and some that were simply good literature. Since bicycle touring is what I enjoy most, I have summarized my top 5 touring books. Each of these books listed had been reviewed in Cycling Utah. My first book review, Catfish and Mandala, is included in the list. To narrow the quantity of bike touring books to a “top 5” took some time. My criteria for selection was that the book had to be well written, entertaining, read like a novel (and not a travelogue) and with one exception, tell about a bike tour from the beginning to the end of the book. I did not include books that were a collection of short touring stories such as Willie Weir’s; Travels With Willie, though I would recommend that book. So if you enjoy reading, choose any from the below selections.
Changing Gears: A Family Odyssey to the End of the World (2013), Nancy Sathre-Vogel. ISBN: 9780983718734
This book chronicles the 2-year, 9-month and 18 days that the Vogel family traveled from Prudhoe Bay in the northern part of Alaska to the southern most city in Argentina. The family included Nancy, husband John and their twin 10 year-old boys. Changing Gears details the geography, culture and logistics of traveling for that length of time and distance. Add the boys and one really ramps up the logistics. Just the plane trip to Alaska was an ordeal, transporting one tandem for John and son, Daryl and 2 single bikes for Nancy and the other son, Davy. In addition there was one BOB trailer and an Extra Wheel trailer. These were shipped along with 3 very large containers for all of the equipment that was to be stuffed into panniers and trailer bags.
Their start in Prudhoe Bay was less than auspicious. An oil worker helped them with their baggage after arrival who stated: “For the record, I drive this road on a regular basis, and I think you’re nuts”. On the day of departure, with 17,000 miles to go, Davy was brought to “the verge of tears” when he crashed moments after leaving the hotel parking lot onto the gravelly Dalton highway. After that mishap, they had 240 miles to the first town on the Dalton highway. The Vogel’s thought they were prepared by packing 50 pounds of food. With two hungry boys they ran out of food, or would have had a “road angel” not helped out. Obviously, no matter how much experience and planning one does, things happen.
The road angels are mentioned frequently in the book. When in Mexico, they met a motorcyclist. He had his motorcycle club escort the Vogels into the town they were entering. The club then escorted them out of town. The Vogels were then escorted into and out of a lot of towns by a number of motorcycle clubs from a “telephone tree” that was started on their behalf.
Nancy Sarthe-Vogel does a fantastic job of chronicling the journey. The encounters with the local people along the way were inspiring. Interestingly, or perhaps strangely, they were “stalked” by a small group of women (from the U.S.) that would contact any media or non-profit that publicized the Vogel’s trip and say that the Vogel’s were “abusing their children”.
And so went the travels of the Vogel family. I had a hard time putting the book down. It is very well written. It’s a ‘novel’, an adventure book, a travelogue and a “how-to” cycling book. It is additionally a book chronicling what families are supposed to be doing, though in this case the family is outside the bell curve by choosing to travel on bicycles.
So, after 2 years, 9 months and 18 days, Daryl and Davy became the youngest to cycle the Western Hemisphere. They have all of the documentation. Unfortunately Guinness World Records dropped the “youngest category” during their travels after the rescue of a young teen trying to be the youngest to sail around the world. You as the reader will watch the boys grow-up during their journey, an achievement worthy of an award despite the Guinness organization’s rejection.
Miles From Nowhere (1983), by Barbara Savage. ISBN: 9781680510362
I will be succinct in saying that this is the one bicycle-touring book that everyone should read. It is iconic. Put it alongside your Steinbeck or Hemingway collection. It is well written. You will also obtain a very good sense of what bike travel is about.
Barbara and her husband Larry set out for an around-the-world-adventure. Two years later they returned. In between are adventures in North America, Europe, Egypt, India, Nepal, Southeast Asia and New Zealand. The strain of travel at times negatively affected their relationship but mostly cemented it. There were joyous moments of hospitality by complete strangers, as well as hardships such as the never-seen-before poverty of Egypt. The adventure took place in the 1970’s, before computers, bicycle specific maps, books or even decent touring bikes and accessories.
There were other books about world travel from the 70’s that I tried to read. They tended to read like a diary. Miles From Nowhere is more like an adventure travel novel in which the reader looks forward to the next chapter. The cultural insights that Barbara includes in the book are especially welcome and entertaining. These insights are what make this a classic book. Her interactions with the various populations are described well, and would be told no differently than if she did the trip today. And finally her relationship with Larry and the emotional toil of another couple that they met and rode with are written well.
I’ve always dreamed of a long around-the-world tour. After reading the book I still dream but then had to reflect on whether I could do the ride. The stark reality of one passage in the book stuck with me when Barbara wrote upon entering New Zealand; “We’d return to “civilized” bike touring. Everyone spoke our language, and we were no longer forced to communicate with people in some awkward mixture of grunts, hand motions, and a few foreign words. There was no need to hassle with purifying water or to worry bout getting sick on it or the food we ate. We camped out anywhere we pleased without a thought about cobras, bandits, crowds of staring faces, or government regulations.”
Though published in 1983, the book is as relevant and entertaining now as it was then due to the manner in which it is written. You won’t be disappointed.
Catfish and Mandela (1999), Andrew Pham. ISBN: 9780312267179
Andrew Pham came to America at age 10 after he and his family made a harrowing escape from VietNam after the war. His father, a survival of the “re-education” camps for South Vietnamese soldiers, took his family to America to improve their lives. Leaving Vietnam was not easy, nor legal. Andrew’s family paid a fishing boat to take them initially to Malaysia. With time, the boat ran out of food, nearly out of water, and then started leaking, badly. Despite their desperate plight, a French vessel ignored the occupants of the boat. They were rescued the next day, eventually making their way to America.
Twenty years later, Mr. Pham returned to his home country, traveling by bicycle. His return to Vietnam is a fascinating journey and gives him time to self reflect on the reception that he receives from the citizens of his former country. “Only 20 years” but much has changed as Andrew struggles to find his past. Soon he realizes that “it isn’t the same place I left”. He is treated and preyed upon as a “rich American” rather than a returning citizen.
Throughout the book we learn about Mr. Pham’s family and the changes that occurred being in America. These passages, though not a part of the bike journey, make the book a true novel. Despite the book not being a “cover-to-cover” bike tour, it made my “Top 5” due to the quality of the writing. You will have a hard time putting this book down.
Catfish and Mandela was recognized for excellence with 10 different literary awards.
Once Upon a Chariot (2008), Iris Paris. ISBN: 9781606047880
In 1947 there was a famous Norma Jean that went by the stage name of Marilyn Monroe. There was another Norma Jean in that year, less famous, with the last name of Belloff. As a near 20-year-old, she decided to ride across the United States on a single speed bike with her possessions stored in a handlebar basket with additional gear strapped to the top of the rear rack. She carried little in the way of money, hoping to find work along the way. She ends the first phase of her journey during a snowstorm at her aunt’s house in Connecticut. In between her start and arrival in Connecticut are countless small adventures.
Norma Jean leaves Connecticut and returns to her California home also by bicycle. She happened to meet a leader in the bicycle-racing scene in New York during her first crossing of the U.S. She is given a “proper” bicycle to return to her home by the racing organization. With her new bike, also a single speed, she sets the women’s record for riding across the U.S. This book is truly an amazing journey that will rivet you to your seat.
Norma Jean’s daughter, Iris Paris, authors Once Upon a Chariot. Ms. Paris never knew the history of the bicycle that sat unused in the garage as she grew up. She apparently was unaware of her mother’s accomplishment, “locked in the hearts of certain family members until 1989”. As part of the inheritance from her deceased grandmother, Ms. Paris received, “5 trunks full of documents including my mother’s trophy”. The trophy was for finishing 3rd in the 1948 Women’s National Bicycle Championships. From the trunks, Iris Paris wrote her mother’s story.
While reading the book I kept thinking about how this was a story about a 19 year-old girl in post WWII America that rides alone for nearly 18 months. She is using a single-speed, balloon-tired bike, with all of her possessions strapped to a rack. She leaves with the intent of finding work along the way to pay for her trip. She is helped immensely by the kindness of strangers, sleeps along the road, eats very little at times due to lack of money, and shows a sense of perseverance that would stop the average person. Would any of us do this? Once upon a Chariot is a wonderfully inspiring story of a girl seeking adventure and self-understanding. For anyone contemplating a bike tour or just wants to read an inspirational book, this is it.
The 2 Norma Jeans’ did have one thing in common. In 1962, Norma Jean Baker (AKA Marilyn Monroe) was found dead at the age of 36. Officially listed as a suicide, there are multiple theories, including homicide, for her death. In 1971, at the age of 44, Norma Jean Belloff also committed suicide. She was diagnosed with an undisclosed mental illness at age 28. Coincidentally, her daughter and author Iris Paris, was 19 at the time of her death, the same age when Norma Jean Belloff rode off on the adventure of her life.
Mud, Sweat, and Gears: A rowdy family bike adventure across Canada on 7 wheels. (2009), Joe “Metal Cowboy” Kurmaskie. ISBN: 9781891369940
Joe Kurmaskie has written a number of very good books, including 2 books about his cross-country travels with his children. I have read 4 of Joe’s books. In Mr. Kurmaskie’s earlier book, Momentum is my Friend, Joe rides across the U.S. with his 2 sons. In Mud, Sweat and Gears, Joe rides across Canada with his wife Beth, the 2 sons and the new addition to the family, Matteo. Put yourself in Joe or Beth’s shoes. Two parents, 2 boys aged 9 and 7 and a 1-year-old in a trailer riding across Canada, an adventure sure to bring a lifetime of memories. You will share these adventures and memories throughout the book. You will read about the kindness of strangers, mixed with the reality of a family riding on 2 wheels, or should I say 7 wheels. (The tandem pulling a trail-a-bike and a trailer, plus Beth’s single bike)
You will put the book down every few pages to let out a good laugh. Here is an example of their welcome to a Canadian park. “Not 50 yards through the entrance, Ranger Selwin blocked our path. My greatest fear was that this grandfatherly-looking type would tell us his campground was full, overrun by bears, closed for repairs, or most crucial, suffering a tainted water supply. In an act of good will he extended a baseball cap full of thimbleberries. I started to ask him something but he waved me off. Eat first, then we’ll get to the questions.”
Of the books by Joe Kurmaskie, I chose Mud, Sweat and Gears for my top 5-book selection mostly due to the inclusion of his wife’s little footnotes that are in response to Joe’s writing that are simply hilarious. Initially Joe and Beth considered a triplet for the journey. When Joe decided that the triplet wasn’t working out and thought Beth should ride his single touring bike, Joe wrote; “She was stunned”. Beth’s footnote reply was “I was relieved. No matter how hard it was to wrap my head around soloing across Canada, I would have taken a bullet before getting back on that beast”.
Mud, Sweat and Gears is a very good read. It’s about bike touring, it’s about family, and mostly it’s about what can happen when a family of 5 ride across Canada. All of Joe Kurmaskie’s books are deserving of space on your bookshelf. If you can’t make up your mind about which book by Joe Kurmaskie you want to read, this is the book.
For my own bike tours I have the 4 “R’s” for each day’s ride; Ride, Relax, Read and Repeat. (It would be 5 “R’s” if eating started with the letter R). I hope the above reviews inspire to pick up one of the books and stuff it into your pannier for your next tour.