I’ve read my share of motorcycle travel books and articles, and it seems everyone sets out on the road for a reason. Even if the trip takes the traveler in an unexpected direction, that trigger, the reason that sent them on the road shapes their adventure.
The reason Nathan Millward hits the road at the start of Running Towards the Light isn’t one of the usual; he hasn’t just been ditched by a girl (that was the start of his first book), he isn’t an adrenalin junkie, and he isn’t running away from a boring but high-paying job. Instead, Millward is learning how to live with himself and handle the world around him.
Millward’s first book was ultimately about him learning to confront himself, but at the end of the trip and the start of his second adventure, he finds himself still unhappy with life back in Western society. Instead of drifting off into a medicated haze, he throws away his prescription and does what he knows best: He turns back to Dot, the 105 cc Honda that took him from Australia to the UK in his first adventure. A chance meeting with a couple of other postie bike-mounted adventurers shows him the way out of his mental funk. He packs his bike on a plane, without telling even his parents, and flies to the US, to see the country from the ground up and confront his fears head-on.
At first, he’s mired in the same fears that plagued him back in the UK; he’s afraid to move out of his comfort zone and camp in places unknown. He worries (understandably) that his $800 budget won’t be enough to complete the trip. He dreads being hassled by American police, unused to the sight of a Brit traveling on such a small bike. He worries about the strangers he meets, and his own vulnerability as a traveler.
But, his fears prove groundless. Dot doesn’t break down. He doesn’t run out of money. The people he meets give him food, gas money, and places to sleep. By the book’s end, Millward has stared down his fears and won, bombing across the US from soggy New York City to the dry wastelands of the Southwest, finally seeming to reach a level of comfort with himself.
The book itself has plenty of details on what it takes to get across the US on a small-capacity bike; choosing a postie bike and having a small budget means Millward has to carefully plan his routes, camp in the wild, and eat cheap food. In some ways, the book is a how-to of small budget, small-capacity motorcycle travel.
But along with the riding descriptions, the book also has plenty of observations on the people he meets. Instead of skewering the individuals for their eccentricities or loudly complaining about the differences between European and North American culture as so many writers do (Guns! Fast Food! The Horror!), Millward shows the people he meets for what they are – human beings who want to help.
Running Towards the Light isn’t full of stories of camping amongst African tribesmen, or fording swollen Bolivian rivers. Instead, it’s a story of confronting the greatest fear of all – fear of the unknown. That venture into the unknown is the greatest adventure of all.
EXCERPT – Running Towards the Light
At this point in the book, Millward is on the west coast, without a return ticket to the UK, or the money to buy one:
I’d walked into a room of older men, all wearing orange duffel coats with Oakland Motorcycle Club embroidered on the back. I was nervous at the sight of them; a room full of angry white men, as Vermin might have called them. Fortunately Suzanne was there, the lady who’d invited me to give the presentation in the first place. While the chairman went through the club’s formalities, Suzanne led me to the back of what was effectively a big scouts’ hut, with a bar and a kitchen at the rear, where a plate of food they’d been saving me was heated up, and a fresh cup of coffee made. I wolfed it down, feeling quite nervous, knowing I would soon have to speak in front of all those duffel-coated men, when really, I just wanted to go to bed.
Finally came the time to introduce me to the fifty or so people sat in a square of chairs, many of the men with their arms folded, my stage right in the middle of them. But first impressions can be deceiving, because they were a great bunch, immediately voting to allow Dorothy to be the first bike allowed into the clubhouse, so that I could have her taking centre stage for my talk. We wheeled her in, placing a cloth beneath the engine to catch any dripping oil.
I began telling my story of how I came to be there, in their clubhouse that evening. How, starting in Australia, one day I decided that rather than fly home to England, I would ride home instead. And so began a 23,000-mile journey across the world, leaving after only two days of planning, in only the clothes that I had, not sure if I had enough money, not even sure which way I was going to go. But knowing full well that I was going to give it a damn good go.
I talked to them about Indonesia and what that was like. I explained the process of putting the bike on a plane to get it over Burma, and then the carnage and chaos of India, the surprising delight of Pakistan, and then what a rush it had been coming across Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine and Poland with the engine oil bolt held in by a toothbrush, and a real panic as to whether we were going to make it or not.
I skipped briefly over the three years that followed before explaining how finally one day I snapped, riding the same bike down to Heathrow airport, putting her on a plane to New York and landing with no real plan other than to get back on the horse and start riding again. I told them about Chicago and Detroit, how slightly disappointed I’d been by Route 66 and how Kansas had been a weird old place, which they laughed at, because everyone says that about Kansas. Poor Kansas.
I shared my joy of Colorado and the Rockies, telling them how I’d had to push the old bike up and over the mountains, then down through Utah and Nevada to see the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley. I told them of my failed attempt at climbing Zion, mentioned Las Vegas briefly, before Death Valley – my favourite place – and how the last two days, from there to here, had been moronic and destitute in trying to get here in time. I made apology for my lateness, talking for a good hour or more until finally they decided it time to shut me up, at which point I received a warm round of applause, which was nice.
Kindly they said they’d have a whip around for me, to thank me for coming, and having collected over $300 in dollar notes, the club chairman said they’d double it, and so I got handed what amounted to around $650! I told them I didn’t think they realised this, but that amount was almost equal to my entire budget for coming across the States, and so it meant a great deal to me. After that I was almost lost for words, because these were just strangers, and they didn’t have to have given me a dime.
Stranger still, in the audience that night was a member of the San Francisco Motorcycle Club, who invited me to give a talk the next night at their clubhouse, which I did, and because there’s a friendly rivalry between the two clubs, they too handed around a collection bucket at the end, being instructed that they had to beat the $650 I got from Oakland. And they did beat it, by about twenty dollars. This meant that having crossed America on bits of fluff and cheap McDonald’s burgers, I now had over $1,300 in cash in my pockets, much of it one dollar bills, fives and tens, so my pockets were practically bulging with folded money. I felt like a pimp.
The cash injection was certainly handy, as I’d just missed my return flight out of New York (I’d booked it as a return rather than as a single), and had no other means of getting home. This money would pay for a ticket to get me there. How things have a strange way of working out in the end.