‘Across America by Motorcycle’ by CK Shepherd

CK ShepherdThe English language has always been dynamic, and its recent adoption by the world as a result of globalised capitalism means it is perhaps changing faster now than at any time in its history. It’s probably rather trite to consider there was ever a linguistic golden age, but I’d like to believe that just after the first war, during the roaring twenties when modernist literature and early cinema have combined to paint us a picture and leave a legacy of serenity in a jolly England of tea parties, croquet and open-topped sports cars, there really was one. It was a time when chaps were chaps; embracing modernist motive technology, waxing their moustaches and firmly denying that the Empire may be about to fold. The war had generated massive social upheaval and given many young men a new perspective on life, its temporary nature and the reasons to fill it.

Thankfully demobbed RAF chaps like CK Shepherd, who appreciated the King’s English, but who couldn’t face settling down, getting a job or a wife, were now equipped with a lust for life, adventure and motorcycles and as a result, they left us all with journals like Across America by Motorcycle.

Packed with glorious turns of phrase, perhaps common for Wilde or Coward, this is a terrific read. As a book, I found the text as delightful as the adventure it was conveying: a solo ride in 1919 across the USA, some time before the Great Depression had created the impetus to provide road building employment.
Without roads or any servicing infrastructure, often without food or water, in deep mud or desert conditions and on a machine that was unbelievably unreliable, he pressed on for over 3 months. There were times I re-read passages to make sure I’d definitely understood the severity of a situation which had just been relayed in a sentence of stiff-upper-lip understatement. With a minimal toolkit, why wouldn’t you use a piece of wood to create an oversized gudgen pin in number 1 cylinder to stop the con rod fouling the cylinder wall, if you were 100 miles of broken track away from the nearest habitation and your piston had just disintegrated?

This is proper adventure; it really is sterling stuff, as are his descriptions of the landscapes he traverses, the characters he meets and his observations of what is still a fledgling society. This is extreme motorcycling from the beginning of the golden age of travel, captured during the golden age of English – if there ever was one.

Although originally published in 1922, it’s available again in two editions: as listed below (available here for £16.99) and as part of an anthology of pioneering British motorcycle travel (soon also available here). Neither have been freshly typeset and are facsimiles of the original.

Paddy Tyson

ISBN: 978-1603550956
Paperback 278 pages, some B&W images £18.99
Published by Juniper Grove 2008