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natebriggs

The Closet Marxist

A great writer - a discerning reader - and a person who often forgets why he has walked into a room....

One Person's "Moon Landing"

Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle - Dervla Murphy

This book begins as matter-of-factly as it ends: with Dervla Murphy announcing that—since it was her childhood ambition to ride a bicycle from her home in Ireland, to India—January of 1963 seemed as good a time as any to cross that item off her “To Do” list.

And so off she goes—totally alone—with nothing like the kit that a long-distance cyclist might carry now, on a bicycle that many of us would not consider sturdy enough for a jaunt to the Post Office and back.



The career of Travel Writer is an unusual one: since so much of it involves “ruining”. After all, the headline “The Ten Unspoiled Beaches of Anywhere” means that those beaches won’t be unspoiled too much longer. The job, most of the time, is giving directions to the Garden of Eden so a sweaty mob can hurry on down to Paradise and destroy it.

The travel writers I tend to prefer are those who “board in dread”: believing that staying home would be so much better than going away. Paul Theroux is the classic example of this Reluctant Tourist: in book after book seeming to suggest that seeing distant places is fundamentally torture, mixed with episodes of simple misery.

So, of course, I enjoyed this example of an amazing traveler, seeing amazing sights, having amazing adventures, because—much of the time—she’s enduring amazing hardship with the kind of “well...you know...shit happens” style of pluck and gumption that gets almost comical after reading awhile.

To begin with, one of the elements that makes this book so thought-provoking is the fact (and it is a Fact) that—a little over forty years later—this journey could not be replicated...by anyone.

The most optimistic, forceful, and pious Muslim woman could never ride a bicycle, unveiled and unaccompanied, along this route: Ireland, across Europe, to Tehran—all the way across Iran—all the way across Afghanistan—across the northern reach of Pakistan—and into India.

The politics in the region have changed so much, and so many new battlefields have opened new wounds that now a woman just attempting the transit could expect no happy ending—and could only hope that her very dire end would be private. Not uploaded to social media so that her family, her friends, and people who knew her as a child would not be appalled by her blood-drenched end.

In the happier (and certainly more innocent) world of 1963, Dervla Murphy has her troubles. Food is frequently scarce—and monotonous when abundant. Drinkable water is often a problem. Roads appear, here and there, but much of her route is unimproved. The people are dirty and smelly, and sometimes she’s sleeping on the floor in a corner. The route takes her through glaciers, and days when the metal of bicycle is too hot to touch.

But all of it is just “foreign”—none of it is “lethal”—and, again and again, she demonstrates a rare gift of meeting people more than halfway: inspiring them to assist her, to collect simple gifts, and attract the kind of good will that allows her to continue.

This book is, in a sense, one person’s “moon landing”.

With a working bicycle, a few changes of clothes, and a few pounds of English money in her pocket, Dervla Murphy makes a journey that no one might ever duplicate in its logistical details—and absolutely no one will ever make again in its sense of visiting parts of the world before they became famous as military and ideological battlefields.

Our traveler, in this case, just rode through—hoping for the best. On a lot of days, “the best” didn’t happen. But what often did happen was “very good”.

Highly recommended for anyone who admires a story of high adventure presented without photographs, with some pert comments, and a modest kind of shrug. This book begins as matter-of-factly as it ends: with Dervla Murphy announcing that—since it was her childhood ambition to ride a bicycle from her home in Ireland, to India—January of 1963 seemed as good a time as any to cross that item off her “To Do” list.

And so off she goes—totally alone—with nothing like the kit that a long-distance cyclist might carry now, on a bicycle that many of us would not consider sturdy enough for a jaunt to the Post Office and back.



The career of Travel Writer is an unusual one: since so much of it involves “ruining”. After all, the headline “The Ten Unspoiled Beaches of Anywhere” means that those beaches won’t be unspoiled too much longer. The job, most of the time, is giving directions to the Garden of Eden so a sweaty mob can hurry on down to Paradise and destroy it.

The travel writers I tend to prefer are those who “board in dread”: believing that staying home would be so much better than going away. Paul Theroux is the classic example of this Reluctant Tourist: in book after book seeming to suggest that seeing distant places is fundamentally torture, mixed with episodes of simple misery.

So, of course, I enjoyed this example of an amazing traveler, seeing amazing sights, having amazing adventures, because—much of the time—she’s enduring amazing hardship with the kind of “well...you know...shit happens” style of pluck and gumption that gets almost comical after reading awhile.

To begin with, one of the elements that makes this book so thought-provoking is the fact (and it is a Fact) that—a little over forty years later—this journey could not be replicated...by anyone.

The most optimistic, forceful, and pious Muslim woman could never ride a bicycle, unveiled and unaccompanied, along this route: Ireland, across Europe, to Tehran—all the way across Iran—all the way across Afghanistan—across the northern reach of Pakistan—and into India.

The politics in the region have changed so much, and so many new battlefields have opened new wounds that now a woman just attempting the transit could expect no happy ending—and could only hope that her very dire end would be private. Not uploaded to social media so that her family, her friends, and people who knew her as a child would not be appalled by her blood-drenched end.

In the happier (and certainly more innocent) world of 1963, Dervla Murphy has her troubles. Food is frequently scarce—and monotonous when abundant. Drinkable water is often a problem. Roads appear, here and there, but much of her route is unimproved. The people are dirty and smelly, and sometimes she’s sleeping on the floor in a corner. The route takes her through glaciers, and days when the metal of bicycle is too hot to touch.

But all of it is just “foreign”—none of it is “lethal”—and, again and again, she demonstrates a rare gift of meeting people more than halfway: inspiring them to assist her, to collect simple gifts, and attract the kind of good will that allows her to continue.

This book is, in a sense, one person’s “moon landing”.

With a working bicycle, a few changes of clothes, and a few pounds of English money in her pocket, Dervla Murphy makes a journey that no one might ever duplicate in its logistical details—and absolutely no one will ever make again in its sense of visiting parts of the world before they became famous as military and ideological battlefields.

Our traveler, in this case, just rode through—hoping for the best. On a lot of days, “the best” didn’t happen. But what often did happen was “very good”.

Highly recommended for anyone who admires a story of high adventure presented without photographs, with some pert comments, and a modest kind of shrug.