We are locked down here in Sydney, land of Oz. Allowed out to shop for food or seek medical attention within a ten-kilometre radius. Also allowed out to work, if the work is essential. I kind of think that riding bikes is essential because if I can’t, then I can’t write about them for you or for Australian Motorcyclist magazine. And writing stories seems essential to me.
Don’t laugh, this line of explication works. My editor was sprung by the cops while out riding, with our magazine’s staff photographer taking photos. It took a bit of talking, but he convinced them that this process was essential. I just don’t fancy having to do the same thing, so I don’t ride much. Follow your local laws. French, New Zealand, or Canadian police officers may take a different view of motorcycle journalism.
I prefer to not just sit at home feeling sorry for myself, so I sit at home in front of the computer and… no, I don’t feel sorry for myself, at least not all the time. What I have been doing instead is reliving some of my rides, and this morning I started making a list of some of the places I found most (and in some cases least) interesting or impressive on my journeys.
Keep in mind that this is a bit like nominating your most and least favourite song: it can change from day to day. That is true of my ‘’least impressive’’ nomination, which today is Marshal Josip Tito’s wartime mobile headquarters, a train which is mouldering near-forgotten in the ex-Jugoslav forest. Not to be confused with his luxurious post-war Blue Train, this is a pathetic and – no matter what you think of Tito – sad wreck held together by graffiti and rust.
I couldn’t help comparing it with Che Guevara’s train in Cuba which is kept spic and span. Even the anti-aircraft gun on its last carriage looks ready for action, whereas Comrade Josip’s train features little but dry leaves and pee in the corners.
There is no ambiguity when it comes to recommending the most impressive and beautiful place I have seen: it is the Taj Mahal. Built as a tomb for Shah Jahan’s favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to their 14th child, its workmanship and the proportions of its white marble are simply wonderful. When it was finished, Shah Jahan ordered an identical tomb to be built on the opposite side of the river for himself, only in black. His son Aurangzeb decided that this was a tomb too far and threw the old man into jail. At least his cell was in the nearby Red Fort where Shah Jahan could look out at the Taj Mahal. He was buried in it, too, next to Mumtaz.
Something beautiful and otherworldly does not need that kind of classic back story, of course. It doesn’t even need to be made by people. Take the 5000-year-old bristlecone pines that grow high above Yosemite Valley. I can stop and look at one of these for ages, following the tortured lines of the bark and heartwood with my eyes. There is a dignity here that nothing man-made can match.
Not to dismiss the man-made. Take the canals of Europe, dug originally for the most prosaic of reasons: the economical transport of bulk goods like coal. They have become a tranquil network of remarkably beautiful waterways. The tow paths are accessible to walkers, and some of them can even be ridden. You want to take some care there; engine noise from barges might once have been ubiquitous here, but today it is partly the peace and quiet that makes the canals, like this stretch of the Canal du Midi in southern France (opening photo), so wonderful.
That reminds me of one occasion when southern France was not at all wonderful. It was late November, and we were on our way to Biarritz and then Spain. As the bikes rolled into Toulouse the sky was excreting a thin sludge of mixed rain and snow, and the late afternoon clouds made it dark enough to pass for a perfectly good night. We found the municipal campsite and cooked up a sketchy, quick dinner before beating a strategic retreat to our tents. In the still dark morning, we found that the flysheets had frozen stiff, and we had to be careful taking them down and warming them in the heated amenities block before folding them or we might well have broken them. I still don’t know why we didn’t just sleep in that amenities block; there was nobody else in the campground.
I was fortunate enough to see the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan not just once but twice, in 1970 and again in 1978. They were almost supernaturally powerful, even missing their faces and hands. I have discovered that these had not been carved from sandstone, like the bodies, arms and legs but crafted in wood, leather and other ephemeral materials back in the 6th Century. It was no surprise that they had disappeared. The Taliban demolished what was left, so I cannot ever go back.
Likewise, I cannot go back and spend another morning with Arlen Ness among his many weird and wonderful creations. Arlen was very generous with his time when I visited him and not only showed me around his headquarters but shared some of his design ideas. Arlen passed away on in 2019, but his offspring is keeping the flag flying in Dublin CA.
And finally, I am nothing if not pleased that I have learned my lesson and will never, ever have to drink any root beer again. I should perhaps apologise for this rude dismissal of an American staple but seriously, people. It is vile. I’d almost rather be locked down than to have to face that stuff again.
(Photos The Bear)