As the crow flies, there are roughly 850 miles of land and water between Cardiff, Wales, and Volterra, Italy. I'm not a crow, however, and I'm traveling by motorcycle—a vehicle that abhors direct routes. Getting there and back will see me clocking 3,325 miles across eight countries (nine, if you're a Welsh separatist.)
Covering that distance will take me places I've never before visited and present me with riding challenges I've never before faced. I'll ride in the Alps, witness Dirt Quake, and experience the autobahn. I'll swim in a glacier-fed river, sleep under the stars, and consume huge quantities of bratwurst and beer.
It's not a life-changing event. I won't feel intrinsically altered at the end of it. We've fallen into a modern trap of thinking all long journeys have to reveal hidden truths of the universe, that every road trip has to be a film written by Nick Hornby. This won't be that, but it'll be worth it nonetheless.
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The trip starts, as all my motorcycle trips do, with my running behind schedule. I set off at 12:42 pm, just three hours and 42 minutes later than intended. That's OK since I always build in windows of snafu time. Almost all the 255 miles I need to cover today can be done on motorway. The ferry doesn't sail until 11 pm.
Still, I'm annoyed and tired. The reason for my delay is that when I woke up this morning, I decided to repack everything. All of it. Every single bit of kit out of the bags, then back in a different way. This after staying up packing until 2 am.
Seven hours later, I'm sitting in a line of cars and bikes at Harwich International Port, waiting to be let aboard the MV Stena Hollandica, an overnight ferry to Hoek van Holland, in the Netherlands. I'm tired and sore from having spent so much of the journey tensed up.
The M25, which circles London, is always busy and always chaotic. If I hadn't gotten off to such a late start I could have avoided it.
Actually, I could have avoided it regardless. The ferry is running late. Labor strikes and an ever-worsening migrant crisis are affecting the far busier cross-Channel route of Dover to Calais, about 60 miles to the south. The British government has turned an entire section of motorway near Dover into a parking lot for semi-trucks. Drivers unwilling to wait it out pour into other ports –– Harwich, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Hull, and so on –– and everything is moving slow.
Motorcycles are the first to be let aboard, but the ferry doesn't actually leave until 2 am, by which time I'm sound asleep in my cabin. I'm awakened by the shudder of the ship's engines as it pushes away from port, then fall back into dreams of perfect roads.
According to the ambient temperature gauge on my 2015 Suzuki V-Strom 1000, it's 34C (93.2F) when I make my first stop the next day. It's 11 am. I'm in the Netherlands, but the terrain prompts memories of going to college in northwestern Minnesota. The rest area I'm at is a reminder, though, that I'm in Europe. Men's urinals are placed out in the open with only a waist-high metal curtain for privacy. Weary Polish truck drivers smoke cigarettes and nap in the shade of decorative trees.
I clean and lube the bike's chain. The rear tire is so hot I get blisters on my fingers when I touch it.
The Netherlands are proof that every argument you will ever hear against infrastructure is nothing more than selfish BS. Roads are not magic. Building good ones is not some exclusive art that only the Dutch have mastered. The reason roads here are in amazing condition is simply the people of the Netherlands have made the effort. They actually try.
Drivers are reasonably courteous. Filtering (i.e., lane splitting) is permitted, and alongside almost every single road in this country is a second road dedicated for bicycles and scooters. It's a transportation Valhalla.
The speed limit on Netherlandic motorways is 130 kph (80 mph) and the free-flowing nature of the roadways allows me to drift a little above that. A nifty feature of the V-Strom is that it switches easily between mph (which we use in Britain), and kph (which is used in the rest of Europe). I randomly pick 137 kph as my cruising speed. This puts revs at an comfortable 5,000 rpm, well below the Strom's 10,000 rpm redline.
The bike eats distance without effort, but if you've ever read a V-Strom 1000 review written by a tall person you'll know its stock screen is poo. I've not yet had the time or finances to replace the screen, so as I drop into Belgium I give my neck a rest from fighting the wind and head onto slower roads.
Almost instantly, I'm rewarded with a sign pointing me to Bastogne, which is home to one of the more inspiring battles of WWII.
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Surrounded by Nazi forces, ill-equipped for winter, and unable to receive supplies, US forces were trapped in Bastogne in December 1944. The Nazis demanded surrender. The Americans' response was a message that said, simply: "To the German commander: NUTS!"
American forces (the famous 101st Airborne Division among them) battled tooth and nail, eventually gaining the upper hand, vanquishing the Nazis and liberating Bastogne. The whole story is told in the 1949 film Battleground (featuring soldiers who were actually there). Without hesitation, I head toward the town hoping it has a plaque or something commemorating the siege.
Yeah, they have something: an enormous 40-foot high stone monument in the shape of a five-pointed American star. The names of all 50 US states are written in steel letters. Plaques denote all the divisions that took part, and huge stone tablets tell the story in slightly vainglorious prose. Roughly 200 yards away, a museum offers more depth and context.
For an American, the quiet subtext of this whole place is that we can do great things when we try. We can be a force for good if only we decide we want to be. Today also happens to be the 4th of July. I climb the stairs to the top of the monument, look out on the countryside my grandparents' generation helped liberate, and feel immensely proud.
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On to Luxembourg, then Germany. I spend the next few days staying with a friend, Chris, in Saarbrücken, a small city on the Germany-France border. Gregarious and Welsh, he seems to know everyone in town, especially its bartenders.
One night he introduces me to a group of friends. I find myself sitting across from a stunningly gorgeous woman of –– I'm guessing –– Turkish descent. She reminds me of a girl from Istanbul I dated a long time ago.
That girl had a scar running down the entire left side of her face from a bar fight. It took nothing from her looks. She was beautiful—perfect skin, dangerously beguiling smile, incredible physique, and insane. All the best ones are.
This girl lacks any visible battle damage, but carries herself in the same alluringly mad way. As with my ex-girlfriend, half her head is shaven and her dark eyes are simultaneously unsettling and captivating. Walking to another bar, I tell Chris he should try his luck.
"With her?!" he yelps. "I sense that'd be a bit dangerous, mate."
"It'd be a glorious death," I say.
We trundle into the night, our laughter bouncing down the city's narrow alleyways.
On another day, we end up at an illegal street party (that cops blatantly don't care about) at an abandoned grain silo by the river. A barrel-chested German tank commander insists on buying me beer. A sunburnt girl asks that I teach her the words to "Star-Spangled Banner," and I get a chance to hear live German hip-hop. It's surprisingly not awful. I tell Chris he has made the right choice in moving here.
Back on the road, the weekend catches up with me in Baden-Baden. The Strom claims it's only 26C (79F) but I'm hot, dehydrated, and out of sorts. At a rest stop, I lose my sunglasses, become convinced that a Danish couple have stolen them before driving off, go into a silent blue-flame rage, and make all kinds of empty threats against Denmark. I then find the sunglasses on the handlebars –– where I had set them.
This dumb anger persists as I'm leaving the town and I rev my engine at a man who has chosen the worst possible place to cross the street. I scare the living tar out of him and get a free lesson in German profanity. As I pass, I see he is disabled. Karma's payback for my douchebaggery is swift, and a few seconds later I see that the bike's "FI" light is on.
Ostensibly, "FI" stands for "fuel injection," but Suzuki uses this light to indicate all kinds of potential flaws. At a turn, I discover that any attempt to signal causes the hazard lights to come on. Great. I'm hot, angry, confused, really far away from anything I might call home, and my bike is banjaxed. I pull to the side of the road, lay on the ground and mumble the first part of Psalm 46:10 to myself: "Be still, and know that I am God."
I'm not terribly religious—it's just something I like to say to myself these days. It's the scripture the pastor quoted to me back in May when they were putting my grandmother in the ground. She had lost her short, brutal fight against cancer. Her death has crippled me mentally and I'm still prone to uncontrollable bouts of crying.
The cost of a sudden flight to Texas to attend her funeral is the reason I'm couch surfing and camping on this trip rather than staying at hotels. The leukemia that doctors discovered in late March is the reason I bought the Strom in the first place; it was something I could control. I couldn't stop the rock of my family dying, but I could sure as heck buy a mid-range adventure motorcycle.
A mid-range adventure motorcycle that is now acting up on the edge of the Black Forest. Be still. Some things are beyond your control. I clean and lube the chain, drink a bottle of water, eat a breakfast bar and sit for a while listening to the birds. My mind calm, I turn on the bike so I can begin to try to assess what's wrong. The "FI" light does not come on. The signals function properly. The problem is gone.
The Black Forest is as pretty as everyone says, and the best way to see it is via the Schwarzwaldhochstraße –– the Black Forest High Road. The well-maintained, wide-shouldered road offers smooth curves, looping bends, and all kinds of breathtaking views that don't translate well to a photo because a camera can't capture the full of what you see.
I stop for lunch at a roadside cafe and get into conversation with two Dutch guys who, it would seem, are the world's biggest V-Strom fans. One of them uses the phrase "rock 'n' roll" in place of the adjective "good." As in, "This bratwurst is rock 'n' roll," or, "What I love about Suzukis is that they have such rock 'n' roll transmissions." Quietly reflecting on my poor mood from earlier in the day, I remind myself what a lucky so-and-so I am to be here, doing this.
Moto-journalism icon John Burns talks often about the can't-believe-my-luck nature of being a motorcyclist. As he puts it: "Why doesn't somebody take this thing away from me?" The world seems too unfair that it should allow us this much happiness and connection from two wheels and a bunch of tiny explosions. I am living the dream, man.
This is reinforced at the end of the day when I arrive at the home of a German couple I have never met. Sonja and Roland had gotten in touch through my personal blog and a place to stay on my way through the country. When I arrive, they hug me and help unload my bags off the bike. Noting the meticulous way in which I have attached everything to my bike Roland jokes: "You have quite a system. You have some German blood in you, I think."
They are incredibly kind and a testament to the weird camaraderie so many motorcyclists have. Why are we this way? Why doesn't somebody take this thing away from us? There's no reason for it. Just because you and I choose the same mode of transportation, why should that make us pals? I take the train to work from time to time, but that doesn't mean I show up and dispense cupcakes to my fellow commuters.
The Harley dudes will yammer about "brotherhood" or some such nonsense. But then, it's not nonsense, is it? Owning a motorcycle is an open invitation to conversation, and everywhere I go lots of really cool people accept that invitation. And from there all kinds of great things happen. Someone buys you beer. Someone gives you a place to sleep. If you're immensely lucky, you'll even get to write about it on a popular website.
And the next day you'll wake up early in the morning and point your motorcycle toward Switzerland.