The long winter has stirred Nancy Irwin’s memories of a long-ago trip that still resonates within her today. Now she’s urging others to get while the getting’s good.
Lately, I find myself reading back issues of Canadian Biker, reliving a trip I made around the world in 1987. It was an adventure that continued for much longer than my planned two years, and took a route I never imagined. Back then, I was the only person I knew setting off on such an adventure, and I went alone. These days many do it, many more want to, and some publish books about their adventures.
I didn’t have my trip planned at all. And I knew little of the world. I did what I’d always done, ever since my pedal bike was able to take me. I’d set out from my parents house and ride to the top of the street, then pick a direction. It was much the same with my trip around the world, but on a broader scale. I left my own home, having chosen a direction. My plan was to ride into South America in the fall, and return home in the spring. Then I would get my bike to Europe and proceed from there. What I didn’t count on was meeting a fellow traveler who would lead me “astray” in New York City, introduce me to friends who’d already traveled the Sahara, and provide me with a home base in Germany.
I also didn’t expect a military takeover to stop my access to the West Sahara; a truckers’ strike in Algeria to halt my movement; or a major mechanical breakdown in the middle of the Sahara to end my descent into West Africa.
Beyond that, a war in the Middle East (named too much like an action movie for my comfort) impeded continued travel in that region.
I changed my plans and chose to fly and rent, and so continued my trip around the world in the reverse direction, making use of airplanes and rental motorcycles where I could find them. Because I had no firm commitment to any route, there was no failure, only adventure. I didn’t have to follow anyone’s rules but my own.
My two-year adventure turned into five years. I met many travelers spending months or years on the road, but I met only a few on motorcycles outside of the Sahara, which turned out to be the prime vacation spot for Germans with a yearning for adventure—much like Mexico is for some of us.
It was fortunate that I invested in real estate, which is a glorified way of saying I bought a house that I intended to live in for the rest of my life. But then things happened ... The real estate market is risky, but can yield a trip around the world, if you choose to play that card and sell when the market is high. If there’s $100,000 beyond what you owe, you too can buy a brand new bike and support Third World travel for a couple of years (along with some first world adventures), and still come home with enough money to land. But do you really want to?
Living off the back of a bike may be a fantasy for some people, but the reality of it can come as a surprise. I still use the items in my BMW tool kit for most of my motorcycle repairs, because I got used to doing everything with them. I remember having one pair of jeans, one or two pairs of shorts, my Wesco boots on my feet and either sandals or running shoes in my bag, along with rain gear, cold weather clothes, camera, tooth brush, writing materials, maps, needle and thread. Fact is, there’s no room for extras. Living for months with only the gear carried on one mule becomes easy. Pack for a week and live indefinitely! I didn’t buy souvenirs because I had nowhere to put them and no home to mail them to. But I sure ended up with photographs and memories.
If setting off for a world tour seems a bit daunting, consider a week or two with a motorcycle tour company. There are a number that will take you away from your daily grind and sell you the adventure of a lifetime. Many people fly to New Zealand for fun off-road adventures. I’ve noticed that KTM of Austria offers fabulous off-road adventure vacations that I would pick in a heartbeat.
My advice to anyone who wants to travel is to do it, and do it now. If now is too soon, then do it soon. We got “too soon old” and sedentary. I believe we will never be as young as we are now, and will never travel as easily as we can now. When the time comes for the couch, it’s my plan to have plenty to reminisce about.
When I traveled, telephone calls were often impossible or prohibitively expensive. Postcards would take a month or two to arrive. Imagine being my mother! There was no internet, Hotmail, or Skype.
Now, you can still go to remote places if you wish, while still staying in daily touch with loved ones. Many of us in Canada are unbelievably privileged and benefit from an abundance of natural resources. Our money goes a long way in other parts of the world. One benefit of travel is learning how fortunate we are.
You never know how much you’ll learn about yourself or how traveling indefinitely becomes as much work and pleasure as a life at home. It’s not a vacation, though there may be patches. Constantly finding the way is work, as is finding quality vegetarian food if you happen to be me. Five years of being essentially homeless taught me more about myself, life, language, culture, geography and deviance than I could every have learned in school.