“It was in the summer of 1981 that my brother and I bought a motorbike and rode it across America. The bike was a BMW R75/5 and it was during that trip when I got this slightly mad idea to ride around the world. The following year I went off and did it.
Forty years ago the world seemed a much larger place and setting off on my own was quite a daunting thing. I think the spirit of travel has lost its way a little bit since then, particularly that sense of being completely alone, and I mean completely alone, with no back-up, no comfort zone, no safety net and no mobile phone. I was 23 when I left and just had to deal with stuff on the road as I went along, it was a real adventure, but I don’t think I would have gone if I hadn’t done our trip on the R75; it gave me confidence.
My brother, Justin, had been picking apples in New Zealand and I was at a bit of a loose end, so I suggested we both fly to Los Angeles, buy a bike and ride across the states. Trudging around LA trying to find one was really hard work, it’s one of those places where you have to have a car – which we didn’t – and the bus service was almost non-existent, so we had to walk for miles, and miles, and miles.
In America then, and probably still a little bit now, they were really into flashy, noisy Harley’s so they didn’t really understand the appeal of an understated BMW that does everything nice and quietly and gently. By then, I’d owned my R60/6 for two years so was keen on finding a BMW because I felt comfortable that if something went wrong I could fix it, but because the Americans didn’t want them, there were very few around.
It was completely by fluke that we found the R75/5; it was buried beneath boxes and covered in dust at the back of some garage. We were being shown another bike, probably a Harley-Davidson, but when I saw the back of a seat which looked familiar I went straight over, ripped all the junk off and there it was. I paid $1500 for it, which was a bargain – the guy obviously didn’t have a clue what he had.
The R75 was a ten-year-old bike and it never gave us any trouble; I was amazed by it. We piled it up with so much gear – which included a really heavy, really old, thick canvas tent with big wooden poles – that the back was almost like an armchair. With both of us on it as well, it’s hardly surprising one of the rear shock absorbers broke, but we didn’t replace it, we just bodged a repair. On one occasion Justy and I were really suffering in the plus 40°C heat, and this poor old thing, doing 80mph and heavily laden, looked like it was about to explode. I did feel for it a bit, but BMW bikes are built like tanks; they’re so robust, you can take them anywhere, through anything.
I can’t remember exactly where we were when I had this fleeting thought ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if I could ride a motorbike around the world’ but it was a pretty open and desolate place. I don’t think I told Justy, and I know it probably sounds a bit daft now, but back then I didn’t know if it was possible because there was no internet to help you find that sort of thing out.
I’d ridden around the UK and Europe, but going across America was a big step for me and I suppose the trip, which the bike facilitated, was quite symbolic, although I didn’t realise it at the time. I didn’t keep a record of our route, we just rode, but I think we did about six thousand miles. From LA we went up the West Coast, to Oregon and Washington State, then through Montana, the Dakota’s, Illinois and Chicago to Michigan, where my aunt lived. I already had my R60 back home and couldn’t afford to ship the R75/5 to the UK so that’s where we left her. In contrast to California, the East Coast isn’t much of a bike place because it’s really cold and snowy for three months of the year, so the R75 was quite a hard sell – but my aunt managed it.
In 1982, the first place I headed on my round the world trip was America. I shipped my R60 to New York and rode a completely different route westwards. I was apprehensive, but because I’d been there a year before I felt reasonably comfortable. I then went to New Zealand, Australia and carried on from there.
I believe in making life as easy as possible when you’re touring on a motorbike so my route was determined by the weather; I simply followed the sun and as long as it was on my back I knew which way I was travelling. It was all very intense, I felt really alive and ended up in the most extraordinary places.
I didn’t have maps for a lot of the countries I travelled through but I didn’t worry about getting lost because it didn’t matter; over planning takes away the uncertainty and the unknown. When you can’t find your way, you find yourself. Today, technology makes it possible to plan almost every single minute of every single day – where you’re going to eat, where you’re going to buy petrol, where you’re going to stay – and to me, travelling like that is boring. Following a red line on a screen just isn’t the same and I’m glad I didn’t have the option because on a recent trip to Mexico, although I wanted to do it the old-fashioned way with a map, I couldn’t stop myself from using GPS. I think of the late 1970s and 1980s as the golden age of overland travel because motorbikes had become reasonably reliable and the world was still a place to be freely explored – there I was in my old leather jacket, boots and a pair of jeans with what I thought was a cutting edge bike.
I picked up my post every three months from a post resonate, and at various stages of my journey I packaged everything I’d collected up and sent it home – amazingly it all arrived. I’ve got everything, from shipping documents to tickets for temples and ruins I visited in Thailand. I became slightly obsessed with keeping everything, which was a huge help when I wrote my book 35 years later.
Recently, I found an amazing letter that I received in 1989 from a man called Dale Joiner. He wrote: ‘Dear Elspeth, You don’t know me but I have been intending to write to you for four years. I’m a great procrastinator, however today I will put off this letter no longer’. Dale went on to explain that he had bought the R75/5 off my aunt in the fall of 1985, that he was ‘elated to finally have a Beemer to call my own’ and was intrigued to know more about my travels. The letter continued: ‘It seems you are not an ordinary kind of person… I’ve had wanderlust all my life and some day plan to graduate to globetrotting… Since I got your bike I’ve taken many trips… I love riding it and it’s been the most reliable transport that I’ve had…. I am hooked. Thanks for the help, write to me if you can…’
It’s so lovely and I remember getting it, but I was going through one of the hardest times in my life and never replied – it’s something I’ve always felt bad about. I keep calling the R75 my bike, but I sense that it was quite an important bike for him too because it helped him get into motorcycling. It’s nice to know that it went to somebody that really appreciated it – and has hopefully still got it.
I’m going to write to him and apologise for taking nearly 30 years to reply, but after that I’m not really sure what I’ll say. I’d love to own it again, but I’ll start off gently. If I were able to buy it, I wouldn’t re-live the journey I did with Justin; I don’t tend to do things I’ve done before. I’ve ridden around the world, but actually, all I’ve done is see both sides of one line around the world, there’s so much more to explore.
I’ve still got my R60, she runs and I still ride her. I’ve always bought my bikes with care and I really, really regret selling the R75. If I hear back I’ll let you know, this story could indeed have a next chapter.”
To buy a signed copy of Lone Rider, by Elspeth Beard, click here.
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