Motorcycling has never enjoyed a surplus of international ambassadors, for a number of reasons. Cost probably tops the list for most people, but language barriers, shipping logistics, insurance, border issues and political/ethnic disputes also figure in. And, of course, time.
None of which have mattered much to Clement Salvadori, who has been riding throughout the known world, and writing about it, for nearly 60 years. The regular columnist for Rider magazine has written guidebooks on Baja and California, and his latest title, No Thru Road, takes the reader on journeys to Afghanistan, Alaska, Bavaria, Brazil, British Isles, Europe, Guatemala, India, Italy, Nepal, New Zealand, Peru, Scandinavia, South Africa, Soviet Union, Spain, Tanzania, Texas, Tibet, Vietnam and Zimbabwe. In alphabetical, not chronological, order.
Salvadori was afflicted early on with the two-wheeled travel virus, taking his first tour through Europe at age 17. Riding a ’54 NSU 250, which he paid for by stripping wallpaper the previous summer, he and a high school friend on a BMW 250 rode through Italy, Switzerland and France. And thus, despite a few minor crashes, rain, missing tent pegs and soggy sleeping bags, the die was cast.
“Travel is what interests me,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “seeing places I haven’t seen before … There is no real profit in this passion, other than personal pleasure, no real purpose, other than seeing someplace new. But it’s what I like to do.”
Salvadori’s narrative style is economical and straightforward, easy to read. It shows no ill effects of either his Harvard education or stints as a foreign diplomat, and his observation skills are, as they say, keen. Plus, speaking several languages, and a comprehensive knowledge of history work to his advantage. As does being a tall, gregarious fellow wearing a beret and a winning smile. If Central Casting needed an extra-large, itinerant motojournalist (well-traveled edition), they would call Salvadori.
Not all the travel stories are equally engaging, but most are both entertaining and informative. The only non-two-wheeled trek, across the Sahara in a VW bus, gets bogged down – much as the bus did. Also, the author makes reference to several female passengers on his various trips on BMW Twins but offers little in the way of detail. This may fall into the happily-married-man-who-wishes-to remain-so category, given the vagaries of retrospective jealousy.
His wife Sue shares illustration duties with Gary Brown, which are helpful graphic reliefs in the text, since much of the photography is mediocre. This is partially a printing issue, and the fact that the author admits his limitations as a photographer. Which is to say that the best imagery is in the writing.
Salvadori’s version of the Hippie Highway of 1973 – Turkey/Iran/Afghanistan/India – is good stuff. Ten years earlier, in Germany, despite his rigorous training as a Green Beret, he manages to fetch a Triumph up against a tree, mangling his leg after being dumped by his girlfriend, which, on the other hand, made him a civilian again. Two years later, on another Triumph, the engine blows up in Texas. With a long wait for a new engine, and little money, he finds a job on an oil rig (what could go wrong?). Spoiler alert – he gets away with just the loss of a fingertip. He did manage to not get gored by a bull in Pamplona.
Three chapters, Baja, Japan and New Zealand, warrant return trips, and students of American history should appreciate the sections on the Soviet Union and Vietnam. Then there’s the trip through Tibet on a Royal Enfield Single, the offer to trade a teenage bride for his BMW in Tanzania, drinking heavily before streaking a pub full of old folks in Queensland … The list goes on.
For those of us unlikely to visit many of these places, let alone on a motorcycle, this is an absorbing travelogue. For those who will travel the same roads, they may serve as guidelines on what, and sometimes what not, to do. But it’s not unlikely that, even in the most remote sections of the planet, you’ll meet someone who says, “American, eh? You know Clement Salvadori?”
No Thru Road is available from Amazon.com and other bookstores.