My African Queen

Riding, reading and risk.

OK, she’s really my 2016 Honda Africa Twin but riding and reading being parallel passions, how could my mind not drift during this afternoon’s ride to Ernest Hemingway’s ride with Debba, the compelling African Wakamba native girl with whom my favorite writer becomes enamored in his posthumously published novelized safari memoir “True at First Light”? When they consummate their affair in the hut in the shamba the bed breaks. Naturally the lit critics, who couldn’t carry Papa’s shoes, savaged the book when it was released, but trust me, like all great writing, it’s unforgettable.

Ride, ride, ride. Read, read, read. It’s what I do. Another tome that often comes to mind on a road of soaring majesty is Colonel T.E. Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” in which a luminous heroic genius of the 20th Century leads an epic defined in his first sentence: “Some Englishmen, of whom Kitchener was chief, believed that a rebellion of Arabs against Turks would enable England, while fighting Germany, simultaneously to defeat Turkey.” What follows is equal to Homer’s Odyssey, and Lawrence’s life ends on the rainy day of May 14, 1935 when he’s at blur speed through the green Dorset countryside on his beloved SS100 Brough Superior, and takes rubber side up instead of two schoolboys on bicycles, and thus becomes graven in motorcycle lore.

Riding around my home ground here on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, the wheels and the pages turn, turn, turn, this description from Murray Morgan’s “The Last Wilderness” published in 1955: “The fist of land thrust north between Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean, a wilderness of six thousand square miles, as large as the state of Massachusetts, more rugged than the Rockies, its lowlands blanketed by a cool jungle of fir and pine and cedar, its peaks bearing hundreds of miles of living ice that give rise to swift rivers alive with giant salmon; the first land in the Pacific Northwest to be reported by explorers, the last to be mapped.”

Now we must dive into Pulitzer Prize country to fully appreciate motorized two wheeling this national treasure by perusing Edmund Morris’s bio trilogy defining the life and legacy of President Theodore Roosevelt, “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt”, “Theodore Rex” and “Colonel Roosevelt”. In 1909 as loggers were approaching the last virgin stands of rain forest, TR used the Antiquities Act to set aside 615,000 acres as Mount Olympus National Monument, but efforts to expand protected acreage into national park status were being stymied in Congress as a battle raged between the Forest Service (and its allies in the lumber industry), and the Park Service. When President Roosevelt decided to visit, and assess the situation himself, he was hosted by Forest Service officials who tried to deceive him by excluding the Park Service from the invitation list and removing a national forest boundary sign, giving the impression that a heavily logged area was not on federal land. When TR saw the devastation, not realizing that he was looking at a national forest and his guide was the forest supervisor, he said, “I hope the son-of-a-bitch who is responsible for this is roasting in hell.”

Thirty years later, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, TR’s cousin, learned of the deception, he promptly enacted legislation to convert the national monument to Olympic National Park status and expanded its boundaries by stripping 187,000 acres away from the Forest Service.

I won’t further belabor this apart from a final thought spurred by the two r’s, reading and riding. It’s impossible to summarize a life as disparate and contradictory as that of President Theodore Roosevelt, but contradiction isn’t a bad start. He loved war (he called his charge up San Juan Hill through withering fire with his Rough Rider comrades something like his swollen moment) and he loved peace (he nearly single handedly negotiated the treaty that ended the carnage of the Russo-Japanese War). Reading of his lead of an expedition down a dangerous tributary of the Amazon, and of his adventures hunting big game in Africa, and of galloping his stallion down a tree-lined Capitol pathway that would one day be called the National Mall, one can safely assume he also loved the exhilaration of risk. Which brings me here to the raison d’etre.

I don’t care how you cut the cheese, how safely and defensively you ride, motorcycling is an activity pregnant with risk, especially in these days of A.D.D., that’s Attention Deficit Driving. Is that a dreadful thing? Would you trade a bracing ride on the road in the wind for something more mundane like a round of miniature golf? Or video games? Or watch television interrupted by all those pharmaceutical commercials? Me, I don’t think so. And it’s that dang reading again. A metaphor from Shakespeare that only needs slight paraphrasing to apply to the activity we love most: “There is a tide in affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads to fortune, omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and miseries.”


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