The Man Who Would Stop at Nothing (Book Review)
Writing about riding isn’t easy. Choosing and stringing together words to describe the visceral experiences and deeply felt passions of motorcycling, not to mention the essence of the mechanical contraptions that transport and transform the lives of men and women in profound ways, is difficult. I struggle with this endeavor almost every day, trying to communicate clearly and authentically to a diverse audience about a subject they hold near and dear. Fortunately, some very good storytellers focus their attention on the two-wheeled source of our obsession, sharing their unique insights and turns of phrase. We revere Clement Salvadori, Peter Egan and Fred Rau, among others, because they articulate feelings and experiences that unite us with clarity, honesty and wit. They share the folk wisdom of experience. They are our champions, our ambassadors and, even if only vicariously, our friends.
Melissa Holbrook Pierson is such a storyteller, and she’s one of the finest voices in the cozy, intimate literary canon of motorcycling. Pierson’s first book, The Perfect Vehicle: What Is It About Motorcycles, published in 1997, blends her autobiographical tale of becoming a motorcyclist with a penetrating history and sociology of the motorcycle and its devotees (read a review from the August 1997 issue of Rider). It’s an intelligent, well-written and absorbing book. In addition to sharing her romance with motorcycles (particularly Moto Guzzis), Pierson writes about the guy she dated who introduced her to motorcycling and suggested she learn to ride, about her two-year relationship with the motorcycle mechanic from whom she bought a Moto Guzzi Lario, and, ultimately, about her marriage to a man named Luc. This last detail introduces a paragraph in the seventh of the book’s eight chapters, a paragraph that also includes “he did not ride” and “During the first year of our courtship, I rode far less than in any year since I first bought a motorcycle.” Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Pierson’s next two books were not about motorcycles.
Life has a way of getting in the way of doing what we love. Activities we enjoyed during the carefree days of our youth are all too often put on the back burner as we preoccupy ourselves with the responsible demands of adulthood: marriage, parenthood, career development, home ownership, consumerism. I learned to ride a motorcycle in my early twenties to escape the grind of graduate school. Then I got married and struggled with the burden of credit card and student loan debt. Seeking relief, I told my wife I was considering selling my 1994 Honda VFR750, a bike that I had long coveted and bought with the signing bonus I received when I got my first “real” job, to pay down debt. Though we’ve been divorced for almost six years now, her response will forever be seared into my memory: “No, you can’t sell your VFR. We’re motorcyclists. We ride, that’s what we do.” Had my wife not enjoyed riding with me and had she not earned her motorcycle endorsement, I very likely would have sold my VFR and may have gone years before buying another one. Had I taken that left turn at Albuquerque, I wouldn’t be working full-time at a motorcycle magazine. Seemingly small decisions can have large consequences.
Not until the fourth chapter of The Man Who Would Stop at Nothing: Long-Distance Motorcycling’s Endless Road do we learn that Pierson got divorced. During her 15 years of marriage, she “had fallen into a long sleep in which motorcycles appeared only in vague and unsettling dreams.” A puppy, a baby boy, a new house, new books—worthwhile pursuits that pushed motorcycling aside, out of her life. The man who is the subject of Pierson’s new book, John Ryan, was instrumental in getting her back on a motorcycle. After they met at a motorcycle rally, Ryan made it his personal mission to rekindle Pierson’s two-wheeled romance. She bought a used BMW K75 and they cultivated a friendship.
Just as life can distract us from things we love, it also offers wondrous moments of serendipity. John Ryan wasn’t just a fan of The Perfect Vehicle who wanted to repay the pleasure of reading the book by nudging its author back onto a motorcycle. He’s also a legend among hardcore long-distance riders, the 50,000 or so guys and gals that have earned membership in the Iron Butt Association. Early in the book, Pierson addresses an issue that often comes up in discussions of long-distance riding: why do they do it? “The people, and there are many, who simply don’t get LD riding are seeing it in a place it does not belong: the standard motorcycling paradigm.” Particularly in a nation where the largest segment of motorcycles is cruisers, bikes that are designed for leisurely rides down the boulevard, that often place greater emphasis on style and sound than functionality, many of the millions of motorcyclists in the U.S. simply do not understand why a small subset of their tribe would spend hours upon hours racking up hundreds of miles while fastidiously obsessing over miles per hour, miles per gallon, minutes per fuel stop and so on.
“But the way you must see this melodic variation on the motorcyclish theme is that the adventure is internal. It aims itself toward the mountainous passes and river crossings of the mental and emotional landscape, as brutal and awe-inspiring and challenging as any route outside. This inner country is rarely explored comprehensively, for the simple reason that the common structure of life has no quarter for it. But engage in the peculiar mechanics of deep time on a machine that focuses the mind like a laser at the same time it frees the bonds of the physical, and you go, fast, into infinite slowness.” Buddhists meditate, alpinists climb and long-distance motorcyclists ride, and they do so to achieve a higher state of being, to live in the pure, unalloyed experience of the moment.
Pierson’s new book provides an in-depth look into the world of long-distance riding, from the origins and growth of the Iron Butt Association, to the exacting discipline and professionalism exhibited by the organization, to the remarkable achievements of some of the organizations members. She describes completing her own SaddleSore (1,000 miles in less than 24 hours), she takes us inside the Iron Butt Rally (11,000 miles in 11 days, by invitation only) and she recounts, among his many achievements, John Ryan’s 2009 completion of the Ultimate Coast to Coast Challenge. He rode 5,645 miles, from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Key West, Florida, in 86 hours, 31 minutes, besting the previous best time by 9.5 hours.
If you’re like me, you’ll have a hard time putting the book down. And if you’re not already a member of the Iron Butt Association, it will inspire you to join, to test your limits of mental and physical endurance. As Pierson writes, “We were built to contend with threats that swept down from trees, food that ran swiftly away, blood that spilled and could not be stopped. Pushing an overflowing cart through Wal-Mart does not count. And so it is that long-distance riding can be seen as a proxy for the daily life-and-death struggle we were kitted out for as forest-dwelling hunters…We want to feel fully alive, and fully ourselves.” Amen, sister.