One Man Caravan by Robert Edison Fulton Jr. – review
To mankind’s age old comment on the journey of life that “the first hundred years are the hardest,” the traveler on a motorcycle could add that the first thousand miles are equally tough. p.12
And what of those first thousands miles, down the Dover road and across a depressed Europe, June 1932? Tedium and the uncomfortable wearing together of metal, rubber, muscle and bones that motorcycle manufacturers term “the running-in period”. Robert Edison Fulton Jnr. was perhaps the first of many to take the hard way round: eastwards across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the USA. Ted Simon recommended this book to me. Bernd Tesch provides the foreward to this recent edition. They both know what it’s like to sit high over a rumbling air-cooled boxer engine for immense distances. Ted and Bernd ride BMW GSs, like mine. As travelers and writers, we are all descended from Bob Fulton, just as the DNA of his boxer engined Douglas bike is present even today in the latest high powered BMW bikes (some authorities claim that BMW copied the Douglas engine for its early bikes, mounting it transversally rather than longitudinally).
Every long journey by motorcycle has its “running-in period”, whether aboard a new machine or revisiting an old companion. But it doesn’t stop there. Beyond that first 1000, there is a slow oscillation around the point at which all runs smoothly. On a bike their is a much tighter and much more critical feedback loop between the environment, the mind and body of the rider, and the machine; all in fine balance, or working their way out of equilibrium:
As the day wore on the sound became more alarming. When I started that morning, the steady drone of the exhaust had been deep and chesty. But now, after half-a-dozen hours of desert driving, it seemed to fill with static, the machine began to wobble, the tires seemed flat, the whole engine seemed on the verge of falling apart, collapsing.
It wasn’t the machine, it was nerves; strung tight, pulled tighter by the constant thought of “what would happen if something happened?” p.65
Ride a motorcycle if you want to know and master paranoia; get a grip upon the awful power of the human mind to envisage even unlikely disasters, and to be pulled head first towards them. Psychologists now call this “target fixation”. If you look at the kerb you will hit it. That’s lesson 1 on day 1 of any riding course.
Bob Fulton’s journey is about transforming that negative target fixation into something positive: how to fall into the right kind of trouble; how to make something out of almost nothing, even amongst the emptiness and desolation of receding empires and expanding deserts. It is quite an amazing story. In many ways such a journey was easier then. America hadn’t given its people an often undeserved bad name. Imperial outposts provided staging points and frontiers linking every hiding place. Even beyond the beat of the colonial bobbies, their influence reached far: his ride into tribal Afghanistan would make a modern traveller deeply jealous. Then it was treacherous, coming at the tale-end of a serious disruption of the internal balance of terrors. Islamic hospitality was his saviour, along with enlightened rulers and friendly peasants. Now, especially for an American, it would be impossible. One is reminded of Chevy Chase hanging upside down from a wooden post: “hi, we’re Americans” – big mistake, one of many.
And after the Middle East and Central Asia, on to “French” Indo-China as it was then, before the first great US foreign policy disaster extinguished that world of relative innocence. He had assumed the service station owner at Angkor, Cambodia, was trying to rip him off. In fact it was the other way round: he was trying to give money to the brave motorcyclist! Bob Fulton realised, as many others have since, that the world is on the whole friendly and helpful, on a personal level. It’s on a more international global level that nightmares erupt. Japan for example, which in 1933 was deeply in love with all things American. If the Kobe Motorcycle Club had achieved the political power that they so clearly deserved, WWII might have been settled on the race track, aboard Indians and Harleys. And Bob Fulton might have been there cheering his new friends on. At a personal level, amongst the small band of Japanese riders with whom he crossed the islands, there could only ever be great respect.One Man Caravan: a great adventure. Well written, with a scattering of fascinating pictures and maps. Honest. Full of excitement and exoticism, but with many connections between that world (now disappeared) and the present day.