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November 27th 2013

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Far Horizons by Andrew Earnshaw

If you're going to ride around the world in instalments, then America would seem like a fairly safe place to start. Rowena Hoseason reads all about it...

Most motorcycle adventure books revolve around an extraordinary premise. The rider may be extraordinary in some way - a celebrity, or perhaps a person overcoming a substantial impediment who wouldn't normally be considered capable of riding across a continent. Or maybe the motorcycle itself is unusual; something utterly inappropriate to the task of travelling 20,000 miles in four months. Or perhaps the journey is the key: a recreation of an original ride to a far-flung land beyond the edge of civilisation. Whatever the hook, it usually serves to separate the reader from the writer. The armchair traveller can only admire the exploits of the adventurer who risks life, limb and sanity to conquer fear, new territories and the inner mechanical workings of, say, a 50 year old two-stroke 125…

Far Horizons isn't like that.

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Far Horizons is one of those enabling, encouraging and (sorry - buzzword alert) empowering tales of an ordinary bloke on an off-the-shelf bike who chose to go on a very long ride. He didn't go over the Himalaya or across the Outback or up the Amazon. He chose to start his round the world ride in North America - foreign, yes, but familiar, and mostly English-speaking. This is an adventure by and for everyman. There's nothing at all to stop you or I doing exactly the same thing, should we choose to do it.

Andrew Earnshaw hit that moment in life at a certain age when circumstances conspired to present him with a 'now or never' opportunity. He'd just left a long-term relationship and had one of those health issues which parades a great big flag of mortality front and centre. So he carpe'd the diem all right. Bought a BMW, got to know it, took a professional leave of absence, shipped the motorcycle over the big briny to Baltimore and set off to circumnavigate North America (including great big chunks of Canada), and see something of the world.

This journey took place at an inauspicious time, just when the world economy was wobbling. Indeed, the big banks collapsed part-way through Andrew's journey - now that's a scary proposition. Bad enough to lose all your cash and assets at home, but for the banks to go belly-up while you're halfway around the planet, leaving you stranded in a foreign land on a tourist visa… now that's daunting.

But it's not actually as intimidating as getting to grips with the reality of America, on your own, with little more than a SatNav and a lifetime of Hollywood movies to guide you. America - as so many travellers have discovered - is exactly like it looks in the films. And it's nothing like it looks in the films. Andrew has to overcome that bewildering sense of dislocation and the universal misunderstanding of scale (America is big: really big) and get to grips with riding his BMW for hundreds of miles each day. He's on a schedule, to pick up his girlfriend in California; to meet chums at various points, and to return in time to ship the bike home. And he has a tight budget, an overloaded bike, a stab-in-the-dark sense of direction (at one point while trying to leave Canada he manages to lose America: all of it) and an awful lot of time alone with his thoughts on the open road.

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So what we have here is a highly detailed travelogue. Andrew is an affable and entertaining travelling companion - often quick with a witty quip, never shy of laughing at his own mistakes and mishaps and candid enough to admit his fears and worries. Far Horizons runs to around 600 pages in softback and relates the highlights and low points of every single day of Andrew's giant ride.

Mixed in among Andrew's quest for clean and cheap motels, his ongoing battle with the SatNav, his search for something resembling nutritious food (fat chance, literally), his concerns about being bothered by bears, his goal to meet moose, his experiences with riding gear, passports, paperwork and all the other travelling jazz; amid the daily rituals come his encounters with real-life America, and his impressions of the people he meets and the places he visits. At one point he says something along the lines of 'I had so much distance to cover each day that there was no time for sight-seeing' - but that's far from accurate.

Andrew makes time to explore, and shares what he learns at historical battlefields and at sites of natural magnificence with us. He also relates some of his own personal history along the way so - just as if we were riding alongside - we experience the niffy gritty of the day's mileage, and then chew over what we've seen in the evening, getting to know our riding companion. He has a sharp sense of humour and seldom misses the opportunity for a drily witty observation. (Although 'Fauquier' really isn't that funny. In southern drawl it kinda comes out as FAWL-keeyah. In accented French, it's Foe-key-yay. No fokkers required!)

Along the way, heaps happens. Andrew runs out of road more than once, so has to rely on the BMW's dirt-track dexterity. He gets mugged by a band of thugs who literally steal his last sandwich. His camping, riding and electronic equipment all but disintegrates during four months of constant, high mileage use in every weather condition. He endures miles of straight line interstate; runs for cover when hurricanes loom on the horizon; gets roasted in the Mojave desert and soaked in New England. Through it all, the BMW boxer remains his steadfast companion, coughing into life each morning and shrugging off the miles with only another worn set of tyres to show for its effort. And when it counts, the BMW's weird steering and ABS are all that stand between Andrew and a very hard landing…

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This is a weighty tome, a big beast of a book. The chapters are split into short chunks so it's easy to read but, just like the journey itself, this is not something to be rushed. I've been dipping in and out of it for a month; joining Andrew in Little Bighorn or maybe at Sturgis, on the snaking switchbacks of the Pacific coast, or in one of the other 36 states he visits. This is very much a traveller's diary so would be extremely useful to anyone contemplating a similar trip - although maybe it would have been a more rewarding read if there was slightly less of the daily routine in it; I didn't need the 'searching for a sandwich' or 'looking for an off-licence' anecdote repeated in every single chapter. Likewise, the text would have flowed a little better with some tighter editing and some grammatical tweaks to make the most of Andrew's anecdotes. Minor grumbles, mind,

Overall, Andrew succeeds not only in telling his own travelling tale but also in capturing a snapshot of modern-day America. He discovers along the road not only the hospitality of strangers, but also an unexpected situation of gradual decline. The banking crisis aside, Andrew encounters a country in transition. Oh, and the odd bear or two.

The next leg of Andrew's stop-start world tour is going to be Russia. Talk about culture shock!

RC Reviewer: Rowena Hoseason
Photos: Andrew Earnshaw

Far Horizons by Andrew Earnshaw is published in paperback and electronic editions by Matador, ISBN 978-1780885285. Buy a copy from Amazon

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