There are titans in the world of travel writing. Bill Bryson, certainly, but he doesn’t ride motorcycles. In the motorcycling world, there’s Ted Simon (Jupiter’s Travels and Dreaming of Jupiter) and Neil Peart (Ghost Rider and Roadshow). Those four books define the art of the motorcycle travelogue* – equal parts adventure, misfortune, introspection and advice.
With The University of Gravel Roads, Peart’s countryman Rene Cormier is trying to work his way into the lexicon of the world rider; for the most part, he succeeds, but there’s probably more wrong with this book than there is right.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Cormier hasn’t written a bad book. It’s … well, around here, some folks say middlin’, and by that we mean not bad, but not good, either.
The biggest and most glaring problem with The University of Gravel Roads is the photos. Look at that photo of the book. How big does that book look? Just looking at it, it looks 8.5 x 11 in landscape mode, right? It’s actually …uh… 8.5 x 11 in landscape mode.
Now, when you see a book like that, run sideways and with giant, glossy photos on the front and back covers of scenic vistas – albeit one with a half-naked biker on it – it’s not unreasonable to assume, as I did, that the book I was about to read would be filled with large-format, high-resolution photographs.
There are photos on nearly every page, but Cormier admits that on the first leg of his journey, he not only went cheap on his camera, but he went cheap on the storage as well, setting his camera to its lowest resolution in order to pack as many photos as possible onto the memory chip. Mid-journey, he runs out of money and is forced to return to Canada to work/earn/save for a year, and during that year he buys a new camera and clearly learns his lesson about camera memory cards, because the quality of the photos jumps up about halfway through the book. Other than a few beautiful panoramas, however, Cormier wastes the landscape format of his book, and frankly, he includes only a very few spectacular photos.
That seems like a petty complaint, and I don’t want you to think I didn’t enjoy this book, because I did like it just fine. There’s a little Simon-ish action and adventure related, including shenanigans at various border stops. There’s a little Peart-ish soul searching, including the realization that he’s not cut out for travelling with a companion for long periods of time. He learns some lessons and through his lessons, we gain a little advice.
Reading the title, The University of Gravel Roads, the expectation is that we’re about to learn something, because the author learned something. I suppose he does, but other than a highly introspective (but short) final chapter, we don’t really learn what he learns other than his Central/South American experiences seem more rewarding because of the shared language, which he committed himself to learning as well as he could. Travelling in Africa and Asia was a miasma of changing languages, and he makes a point of telling us that the only phrase he had in most of them was “I only speak English.”
I suppose my disappointment with Cormier’s book isn’t because of what it is, but rather holding onto what it is not. It’s not Ghost Rider, Peart’s journey from the depths of emotional pain to something resembling normalcy. It’s not 10 Years on 2 Wheels, Helge Pedersen’s absolutely stunning collection of photos taken during his decade-long journey. I wanted Gravel Roads to be either – or both – of those things, and it’s not. It’s Cormier’s journey, and every journey is different. This book just feels a lot like a fundraiser so he can take another journey.
I say it’s worth reading, but only if you’ve already read the other books mentioned in this post and can – unlike me – let go of some lofty expectations.
* You might wonder why I haven’t mentioned Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. There’s a good reason for that – it’s not a motorcycle travelogue. A lot of people think it’s a book about zen and/or a book about motorcycle maintenance – or at least motorcycles. It has nothing to do with zen at all, and, while there is a solid chunk of motorcycle journey (and a well written one, to boot) at the beginning and again at the end, that’s not really what the book is about. It’s about values and the pursuit/examination of those values.