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IN USA by URAL, Intrepid motorcycle travellers Austin Vince and Lois Pryce take to the roads once again, this time dodging the preachers as they make their way across America on a classic Russian sidecar outfit…
There were six of us at the table, two Brits, three Americans and an Australian. We were discussing ‘the ascent of man’ as the dominant species when Dwight, one of the Americans, said something extraordinary: “Well, I don’t know much about all that stuff but what I do I know is that the way it says in the Bible is good enough for me: Adam, Eve, garden of Eden, yup, I reckon on how that’s what happened.”
There was a moment of silence and then another moment of silence. I knew I had imbibed too much, given that it was still daylight but I wanted to scream and mutter all at once.
Admittedly, the pages of a motorcycle magazine are not traditionally a forum for Creationism vs. Darwinism but here I was, motorcycling on a Ural outfit across the USA and sharing a table under the most convivial of circumstances with someone that I feared may be mentally ill. I got here on three wheels, but how?
My wife, Lois Pryce had tapped up Ural USA in Seattle and had convinced them that they should lend her and her husband their latest sidecar outfit to do a trans-America crossing. Rather superbly, they said ‘Da’ and before I knew what was happening it was two days after the end of term and we were taking receipt of a fully prepped 750cc Ural combo from Velocity Motorcycles in Richmond, Virginia. Velocity also do motorcycle hire and as a starting point for an American road trip they’re hard to beat.
Having been on the Mondo Enduro, Terra Circa, Salt and Gold and A to Z of Morocco expeditions I have acceptable ‘adventure’ motorcycle credentials. However, in all my days I have never embarked on a trip of such splendid comfort, order and civilised predictability as my seven weeks and 6000 miles across the States in the summer of 2009. Because the trip obviously holds no jeopardy and was in every sense ‘a jolly’, I write these words as your humble correspondent who spent that time not roughing it in any sense but instead, putting all my efforts into trying to suck as much out of every experience.
I am desperately enamoured with America but after about fifteen major trips across the USA I have to report that I am terrified that I might be falling out of love with her.
Not because I was wrong to be so smitten in the first place but for that most painful of divorce citations: she’s not the same person I fell in love with….
I am 44-years-old and so my childhood was ‘the seventies’. Thousands of you were there with me. Our TVs crackled with hours of Spelling Goldberg productions. From Mission Impossible to the Waltons via the Banana Splits there was no question (growing up in Harrow) that America wasn’t just a place, it really was a way of life. We hear of ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ and even if we’re not sure what that means, I hope you’ll agree that there isn’t any other nation whose very name is an adjective describing all that we strive for in the human condition. It has been a long time coming but I am sad to report that I had too many experiences this summer for me to carry on as an altar boy of Uncle Sam’s faithful.
We pulled away from Velocity and trundled our way across Virginia, destination Bluegrass country. Naturally, with not a moment’s experience on a sidecar outfit I was driving way faster than I could cope with. The first high speed right hand bend and I lost control and almost had a heart attack. Natural three-wheeler I am not but it’s good to get a humbling…
In hindsight, I really am surprised at how uselessly I failed to control this nimble Russian rig.
The first thousand miles across the lush fenceless rolling hills off the Appalachians were a feast for the senses. I had hitch-hiked almost exactly these roads on the Roadside USA project back in 1997 but even then, I didn’t remember seeing so many churches. Each one bore a signboard outside sporting a message that changed every week. Only once did I see a slogan that spoke of love for our fellow man. The remaining 200 that I bore witness to spat bile about what awaited those who failed to answer the ‘message’. Like many white middle-class liberals I was crestfallen after 9/11 and 7/7 being perpetrated by people from our own communities. Why do they hate us so much, even when they have lived among us?
As we wound our way across the hate-flanked back roads of Carolina and Tennessee I wondered how I could bring a fundamentalist Muslim on this journey and make him think that here in the Christian west it was us who had the answers.
At every gas station or traffic light we were bombarded by questions. In all my motorcycling days I have never known (even whilst riding a killer 1969 Triumph Trophy) the bike itself to be such an ice breaker. In the seven weeks I honestly feel Lois and I must have been engaged by around 2000 total strangers. It was
absolutely what it must be like to be genuinely famous. We couldn’t pause without being embraced by the smiling locals. Interestingly, hardly one in 200 realised it was a Ural. Everyone assumed the archaic chair and industrial spoked wheels revealed that we were on some kind of 50s classic. Those with a bit of nous presumed that the horizontally opposed twin showed that we were on a vintage BMW but when we explained the Russian pedigree of the outfit they were all completely confused.
Anyway, if you’re lonely and you want total strangers to come up to you then don’t waste time in internet chatrooms, just get a Ural and hit the highways!
The sweltering humidity of the Deep South was offset by the deliciously cool breeze that the open chair afforded. Lois and I took turns driving and I quickly realised that the tub was so voluminous that I could fall asleep in it totally stretched out. Business class at last, Soviet style!
We noodled our way across the Virginias and Tennessee. Friends in Knoxville took us out to a bluegrass pickin’ session that Lois had wheedled out of the internet. Why? Because she is pretty much obsessed with Old Time American music, 50s rockabilly and yup, Bluegrass. The mighty Ural’s back rack was loaded with a tottering pyramid of baggage the pinnacle of which was Lois’ treasured banjo. Our destination was the old 40s High School in a tiny mountain village called Saltville. The car park was crammed with pick ups and bushels of musicians.
As we crept nervously (Britishly) down the main corridor, each room came gradually into view. Individually they revealed a gang of feverishly plucking confederates meticulously fingering the frets of the hallowed roll call of Bluegrass instruments: mandolin, acoustic guitar, standing bass, fiddle and banjo. The sanctity of this line up was never, not never altered. The communal come one, come all atmosphere meant that in a thrice Lois was pickin’ away on ‘The Wreck of the old 97’, a woeful tale of a horrific local train crash in the 1890s. This was rural conservative backwoods America at its most vibrant. However, I was utterly distressed by the confusion I felt at this homely welcome weirdly combined with our hosts’ barely concealed pathological fear of the world outside their door.
We crossed the mighty Mississippi at Memphis after a morning spent nerding at the soul shrine that is the Stax museum. We felt guilty that we hadn’t found the time to visit Graceland but although, like any normal people, we worship Elvis, it took second place to the vulgar marvel that is Isaac Hayes’ gold encrusted Cadillac. By now things were getting flatter and after Kansas City we picked up the thread of one of the arrow straight A-roads that lances the 440 miles due west across the Great Plain. It was on this Kazakh-like stretch (that we nailed in one day) that the religious messages started to come in with ever more chilling frequency.
What I had never seen before were these giant hoardings, substantial and professionally built but with huge hand painted lettering revealing that in fact they were ‘private’ after all. They bore messages like: “Hey mom, thanks for not having me aborted”, “Hell is real” and “God Hates Fags”. I could barely imagine the confused mental landscape of the person who would feel that such proclamations would sit easily alongside the teachings of that carpenter’s son from Nazareth. It was in Kansas that I really started to sense what had changed for me in America. I used to think that the people were honest and the government was to be mistrusted.
With Obama getting in and being openly reviled by an unbelievable proportion of his citizens, I realized it might now be the other way round. Up and over the Rockies and with the altitude came some sanity. At the American Motorcycle Association Women’s Conference there were more than 4000 delegates assembled. It was with not a little pride that I watched my sweetheart Lois receive a standing ovation at the closing dinner after she’d delivered an inspirational presentation. The subject? Her solo ride from London to Cape Town on a 250cc trail bike crossing the Sahara, the Congo and Angola into the bargain.
The Ural came in for plenty of punishment as we loaded up our bellies with the best American Diner fayre. We sploshed through endless fords, careered around hundreds of miles of dirt roads and ploughed through sand drifts in Utah, Nevada and Idaho. Never once did the beast cough, whimper or whine.
This was the only distance trip I have ever done where I took absolutely no tools with me. If I had, they’d never have come out. The punchline is that the frame and chair are still manufactured at the original Irbit plant in the shadow of the Urals.However, everything else on the bike, i.e. the stuff that actually has to do something, isn’t Russian. We rolled across the USA with among other things an Austrian wiring loom and Italian brakes. After the most glorious three days crossing Oregon we finally glided into the Seattle car park of Ural’s USA HQ. The big cheeses here are all Russian and revealed that unbeknown to us, we’d been testing their latest engine design. Six-thousand maintenance free miles? Not a squeak out of the lump? Our benefactors were thrilled. Their senior mechanic bod wheeled away what had become a good friend. He couldn’t wait to tear it down and assess the wear! We were sad to be parted from what I really must say is the most smile-makin’ and sociable vehicle I have ever encountered. Silly really, we’d passed a zillion places of worship all exhorting us to ‘come aboard’ and it didn’t work but as far as three-wheeled kicks go, we were converted!
With thanks to Austin Vince and Lois Pryce.
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