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Book Review: The Man Who Cycled The Americas

I’m trying to find out who said they hadn’t read anything they hadn’t written. The internet won’t tell me, which is a bit rude because the internet normally tells me everything. Was it Naomi Campbell? (Who perhaps should have said, I don’t read anything that hasn’t been ghost written for me.)

Anyways, I’m in danger of falling into that hole, what with four websites and two blogs on the go… To my credit I did finally manage to finish The Man Who Cycled The Americas (in only slightly less time than it took Mark Beaumont to cycle it).

Summary

Back when the dinosaurs roamed the internet we still relied on words on a screen but thankfully now we have unlce Beeb here to summarise the book in video format. I’ll pass you over to the guy from the BBC with the charming Scottish brogue:

Okay, so you get the idea. He cycles from the top end of North America to the bottom end of South America, and the journey is book-ended by two bloody great mountain climbs. Mark Beaumont is first and foremost an adventurer, or would like to be, but was cast as a cyclist yet again (after cycling round the world) only because his other adventure (paddling a boat with some mates) got sunk on a test run.

The Review

What I like most in a travel/adventure book is for the author to gloss over the hardships for me. I’m sure they all go into the room of pain at some point, and we as readers should be made aware of that, I just don’t want the narrative to get stuck there. It’s part of the reason I’ve read so many books by Paul Theroux even though not a big reader of travel books. His attitude is that, while hardships occur on  a journey, they’re kinda boring for the armchair traveller if you harp on about them. Happily Mark Beaumont must have got the memo and his book doesn’t spend too much time wallowing. In fact, he comes across as being remarkably resilient and the journey we take with him is all the more pleasurable because of it.

Cover of Mark’s book, The Man Who Cycled The Americas

 Mark is engaged on almost the same journey as Dominic Gill (reviewed here on Single Speed GC) except he’s not on a tandem and he’s got those two bloody great mountains to climb. The two books make for interesting comparisons. Mark makes quick work of the tour (compared to Dom, but still 7 or 8 months) and that has its advantages and disadvantages. The  journey has more purpose and the speed of the journey drives the narrative somewhat but you also lose something, Dom’s ability to stop and engage with the locals. Not being a great traveller or reader of travel books myself I think I prefer Mark’s approach (because I always felt like I was getting somewhere) but that’s not to say everyone will.

Mountains

Every time I read a book about climbing mountains I can’t but help wonder why anyone would bother, the splitting headaches, the fatigue, the sleeplessness, the losing of toes to frostbite, the very real possibility it may kill you… I’ve read Edmund Hillary‘s account of being the first to climb Everest and that was ebullient and inspiring reading. (See High Adventures.) I have also read Jon Krakauer‘s account of the disastrous 1996 climbing season on Everest (Into Thin Air) which fully relates what happens on high mountains when the shit hits the fan. Even the strongest die. Climbing mountains always makes for interesting reading because of the logistics of it, the physical hardships, the beauty of the mountains and the very pointlessness of it, and of course the danger. Mark does witness someone die on the mountain and he does spend his share of time staring at his toes while climbing slowly in his own world of pain, but he’s fit and strong and naturally optimistic and this makes for good mountaineering reading.

On The Road

The mountains make up a small but important quantity of the book. The rest is spent on the road with Mark as he traverses the Americas. The real interest in this for me is when in Central and South America. The North American culture is one we know well, being so similar to our own, but you cross a little line from the USA to Mexico and suddenly everything shifts in a weird and inexplicable way. (How can one border make so much difference?)

Always when I read of people travelling through poor countries I wonder about the level of hospitality there. I’m sure as hell not welcoming perfect strangers back to my house for the night but in Central and South America they do. They house them, they feed them and they stock their bags with food for the next day. Reading accounts like this always make me reflect on my own behaviour (but inevitably don’t change it, I’m not naive enough to bring smelly backpackers into my house) and whether there is something to be envied (but probably not aspired to) in real poverty. (Yes, until you get a toothache or develop prostate cancer and there is no help available.)

Many of the accounts of interactions with the locals are quite mundane, and you wonder why those got included and not others, but they are nevertheless interesting and of often humorous. I suppose in a way it is these mundane interactions that provide the real interest, it’s these that give you an insight into the countries and people he passes through. I imagine also that true travel is less full of exciting highlights (like climbing mountains) and more full of the banal, or at least my travel is, the sort of encounters that make for fun anecdotes rather than gripping recountings of adventure. I’m comfortable with the pace and style of the book, but then again the pace in which I consumed the book was somewhat pedestrian. My bite sized consuming of the book did allow for at most one or two anecdotes per reading, which gave me time to properly digest those anecdotes and of course bore my wife by relaying each and every one to her. “Hey, I just read in this book…”

The Prologue


If you like a travel book or an adventure book then here you have a combo of the two. It’s a book about travel neatly book-ended by two adventures. That for me was personally a good compromise. As I said earlier, I like my travel writers to take the burden out of the journey for me, and adventures are by their very nature uncomfortable and wearisome, so adventure books can harp on the negative a little much at time. On the other side travel writing can be a little bit same-same and if you’re not prepared to shift down into the tempo of the travel you can lose interest. This book is a book about cycling travel but with two adventures thrown in. It’s not a perfect balance but it’ll certainly do for a read.

And of course, Mark completed his journey with several cameras, a computer and a satellite phone, so there is plenty of video footage and a blog for you to get into. I’ll leave you with another snippet from the man at the Beeb.

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