Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure: Aberaeron

I first came up with the Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure a few years ago. The idea was pretty simple: using the map on a touristy dish cloth (aka "tea towel"), I would visit some 66 different villages, towns and cities in Wales, as well as Snowdonia National Park.

The reason for this was twofold:

Firstly, it's an excuse to ride my motorcycle. Wales is a tiny country and just about any location within its borders can be reached and returned to from any other location within the space of a day. Wales has a number of exceptionally good roads for riding and if –– like me –– you live here, the proximity of everything to everything else means you can pretend you're on a fancy, exotic road trip without having to fork out for hotels.

The tea towel
The second reason was that I had developed a deep, unabiding hatred of Wales, and I found this to be somewhat detrimental to my overall wellbeing. I had come to Cardiff in 2006 full of incredulous belief I was moving to my spiritual home, that this would be my place of acceptance, my milltir sgwâr of belonging. But it turns out I was wrong.

In particular, I was wrong about the ever-dwindling community of speakers of Wales' native language. They are isolationist, exclusionary, and welcoming only in the sense that a really good B&B is welcoming. You may feel very cosy and happy and special in a B&B but there is always a clear you-and-them relationship. No matter how long you stay, how frequently you return, you will never be welcomed into the B&B owner's family; you will never become one of them; the B&B will never be your home.

That lesson was learned via a series of personal disasters that created in me a deep, festering bitterness toward Wales and everything in it. Which, as I say, was problematic. First and foremost because I was angry all the time. All I needed do to enrage myself was open my eyes and look at my surroundings. Was I in Wales? Yes? Cue rage. 

That was a silly way to be. Especially in light of the fact I had no solid plans to leave. Convenience and circumstance keep me here: free health care, the fact my wife and I own our home, the fact my wife (an Englishwoman) generally likes Wales, the fact her best friend lives roughly 45 seconds away, and other little things. I want to leave at some point, and have made my wife promise on numerous occasions that she will not bury me in Wales should I meet an untimely end, but leaving right now creates a stack of financial and personal burdens that, ostensibly, may not be worth shouldering for the simple joy of being able to skedaddle.

It took me a long time to come to terms with the Not Going To Leave Soon reality of my situation (I still haven't completely accepted it) but I realized that if I was going to survive here without developing stomach ulcers, I was going to have to find a way to accept Wales for what it is, rather than what it isn't.

The daffodil is the national symbol of Wales.

And what Wales is, generally, is a pretty-but-wet place populated by mostly nice people who will never show you true love. Which means that, of all the places you could end up, it's not actually that bad. I implemented the Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure as a means of reminding myself of that.

But, as I say, that was a few years ago. The idea ran out of steam after a handful of trips and I soon found myself using my motorcycle more as a means of escaping Wales rather than improving my opinion of it. I was working a full-time job and I didn't want to waste those rare moments when good weather intersects with a weekend trying to change my opinion about a place.

Then, late last year, circumstance pushed me into the life of a freelance journalist. With my schedule now more flexible, I decided it would be a good idea to restart the GWTTA project. After all, the financial instability inherent in freelancing roots me even more firmly in Wales; no new home loans for me. And in restarting the project, I decided to go about things in a more systematic way: choosing to visit places alphabetically.

So, Aberaeron –– a small town on Wales' west coast –– was placed at the top of the list. Where it stayed for the next three months, thanks to one of the facets of Wales that causes me the most displeasure: weather. For three months not one day passed in which rain was not forecast for Aberaeron. Sometimes it was an all-day light rain, sometimes it was a heavy rain with gales, sometimes it was drizzle with freezing fog, but always there was rain.

Finally, just a day or so before my 40th birthday, my phone's weather app showed an open window. So, I threw my camera in my pocket, hopped on the bike, and pushed northwest.

Aberaeron is some 95 miles from Penarth via the "slower," more interesting route that I chose. Google Maps would have had me get there by a long stretch of motorway, running from Cardiff to Carmarthen on the M4, then trundling up the A485 and A487. But it's generally my experience that you can get somewhere in Wales more quickly if you avoid main routes, i.e., the routes suggested by mapping programs and GPS devices.

Partially this is because you'll be avoiding the route that everyone else is taking and partially this is because main routes tend to be the ones littered with speed cameras. I can too quickly start to sound like a libertarian wingnut in expressing the frustration and concern I feel toward speed cameras, but suffice to say I think they're a terrible idea.

Fortunately, Big Brother's reach isn't as vast in Wales' interior as other parts of Britain. And the fact that local authorities have abandoned actual policing in favor of stationary yellow boxes on main routes means that the odds of your getting in trouble for riding 110 mph on a 60-mph road are shockingly low.

My route took me first across an eastern section of Brecon Beacons National Park, where sheep served as the only witness to my Suzuki's high-rpm snarling. Twisting routes like the A4069, A4059 and A4067 provide scenic riding that –– in certain sections –– is on par with roads I've encountered in Italy. Sight lines are good across the moorlands, meaning you can see all the way through curves, and road quality is generally better than you'd expect for tarmac so exposed to the elements. Sheep poop and gravel are omnipresent, and overnight ice can sometimes linger into the afternoon, but sane riders can still enjoy spirited biking.

Further east, I hopped onto the A482, which winds its way through slightly more forested terrain all the way to Aberaeron. Technically the speed limit on large sections of this road is a bafflingly slow 50 mph, but, as I say, there is no enforcement. I made good time.

I don't know why my tea towel draws particular attention to Aberaeron. As far as I can tell it isn't noteworthy. It doesn't get a single mention in John Davies' A History of Wales, which, at 718 pages, contains exceedingly more information about Wales than anyone ever need know. 

More than 800 years ago, Aberaeron was home to a fortress known as Castell Cadwgan, named after one of the myriad squabbling warrior kings that fought over Wales until Edward I succeeded in conquering the region in 1283. 

There are no signs of the fortress now, and it was all but gone to the sea when the town was set up as a shipping port in the 1800s. For a very short while it supported the shipbuilding industry but by the start of the first World War it had generally turned its hand to the task of attracting tourists.

To that end it is a lovely place to visit on a sunny day. Aberaeron is located in the Welsh county of Ceredigion but it feels more Pembrokeshire to me. The latter county has been known since Tudor times as "Little England Beyond Wales" thanks to the fact it was the area of Wales most successfully held by the Normans in the 12th century, and roughly 1,000 years later it possesses a certain Englishness.

How you interpret that depends on your view of Englishness. To me it is good. Aberaeron is colorful and it has a handful of little shops, boutique restaurants and charming pubs. It is immediately likeable; it is the sort of place one might choose to take his parents were they to travel several thousand miles from another country. 

In contrast to its perceived Englishness, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, some 70 percent of the town's inhabitants speak Welsh. I suspect some fuzzy math there, however, because in walking around I didn't hear a single Welsh word being spoken.

Not that I cared, really. The sun was shining and it was warm enough for me to take my jacket off. I bought an ice cream and sat on a park bench overlooking the harbor and sent a text to my wife expressing my delight in having a freelancer's schedule. Far better to be doing this on a Tuesday afternoon than sitting in an office.

Aberaeron is home to the annual Cardigan Bay Seafood Festival in July, which might be worth returning for, but on a random weekday in March it was unsurprisingly quiet. Pretty, charming, but still not terribly noteworthy.

Once I had finished my ice cream I walked around town. Maybe I will come back with Jenn in the summer, I told myself. Aberaeron would be a nice place to spend the day –– eat some ice cream, go swimming in the sea. I guess it depends on how many other people have the same idea; the smallness of the town suggests it wouldn't be very enjoyable when crowded. And really, there are similar places –– in Pembrokeshire, for example –– that are easier to get to.

Either way, I suppose it was a good way to restart the GWTTA project. After walking around a little more and finding not much to pique my interest, I bundled up in my gear and sped home to Penarth. Next on the list: Aberdaron.

This post was originally published on my motorcycle blog, The Motorcycle Obsession.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

What was in 2015

Certain stretches of life feel more seminal than others.

I suppose that's an obvious statement: life moves in ebb and flow, stop and start. We stumble along. Sometimes we stumble into important phases that shape and guide all that comes afterward. That was 2015: a year of important stops and starts. A year of things terrible and awesome.


The year started on the "terrible" end of the spectrum.

One of the quirks of my swingy-uppy-downy broken brain is that when I suffer a long depressive episode I tend not to remember much of it afterward. So, I don't know what sparked the misery that had me so firmly in its grip. I know only that it had been around for a while; I remember little to nothing of the months leading up to January.

The other day, Jenn had to remind me we spent last Christmas (i.e., Christmas 2014) in West Sussex with her best friend and best friend's family. I had no memory of that happening. I have no memory of it happening.

No personal memory, at least. I have factual memory. I can remember it in the way I can remember Texas declared independence in 1836. I don't contest the truth of said factual memory. But in the same sense I don't personally remember Texas declaring independence, I don't remember Christmas 2014. I was there but I wasn't. The darkness of mind was already upon me.


January's low mood carried into February and worsened. I can't remember specifics. I can remember it was awful. Really awful.

I mean, Lord.


In early March, my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. Because she possessed all the frailty of an M1 Abrams tank this diagnosis didn't come early. She was not the sort to go to the doctor if something felt not quite right. She had to first collapse from exhaustion and be taken to hospital. By that point the cancer was severe.

To give you a sense of just how tough my grandmother was, in the hospital doctors discovered she had actually broken her back several months before. Of course, she hadn't mentioned it. She had just carried on being everything to everyone: volunteering, hosting parties, cooking all the time, and serving as 24-hour carer to her husband of nearly 70 years.

As a result of Libba's toughness, I had never considered her mortality. There was factual acceptance –– everything dies –– but no personal acceptance. And because of this I was largely dismissive of the news of her illness. This is Lib we're talking about. Indestructible Lib. The woman who by her presence made the rest of the world seem lazy. The idea of my grandmother being ill felt implausible.

I wrote friends who are doctors to ask their opinion of her particular type of cancer and each diplomatically told me to say my goodbyes. I chose not to listen. In my conscious mind I figured Lib would get treatment and start returning to normal by summer; I made vague plans to visit at Christmas. You know, when she'd again be healthy enough to bake me cakes.

But in my subconscious, I guess some part of me understood the reality to which my conscious was oblivious. I think perhaps my mind started to remap itself as a result. I don't know. I'm not willing to touch it yet; if I think about Lib for too long I start crying again. I can't get past it. It feels like there is clawing inside my skull. I need to turn away.

My Suzuki V-Strom 1000 at Llantwit Major

Somehow this all led to my getting a new motorcycle. That doesn't make sense, but it does. I had ridden my Honda CBF600SA to York for a work conference and had spent the first day of the conference with aching/tingling up to my elbow from handlebar buzzing.

Inline fours, you see. Or, at least, that inline four. Anyway, it made me angry and on the way back I stopped at a motorcycle dealer in Bristol and ended up signing an agreement to buy a brand new Suzuki V-Strom 1000.

I can give you all kinds of reasons as to why I "needed" a different bike based on inadequacies of the Honda and superior qualities of the Suzuki. All those reasons are valid and true –– the 'Strom is a better bike that is better suited to my all-round needs –– but none of them were what was going through my mind as I signed the purchase agreement.

Instead, I was simply thinking about the fact that this was something I could control. I couldn't do anything about my grandmother's cancer, but I could sure as fuck pony up downpayment on a mid-range adventure-touring motorcycle. In your face, Universe.

As my friend, Chris, would later observe: "We all deal with grief in different ways. Motorcycle's better than a heroin addiction, I reckon."


The fact I would buy a motorcycle in response to my grandmother's poor health was no surprise to Jenn. She likes to joke that a motorcycle is my go-to answer for everything.

Meeting in York next week? "Fine, I'll ride up on my motorcycle."
Grocery store out of milk? "No problem, I'll ride my motorcycle to the Yeo Valley and milk a cow myself."
Endless war in Syria? "OK, we're going to need a lot of motorcycles..."

And in April my life and motorcycles intertwined even further. I got my first article published on RideApart. To that point I had been keeping my own motorcycle blog and writing for various sites like Asphalt and Dirt, Biker News Online, and ThrottleX, but RideApart is in a different league. Getting to write for them felt like a really big deal. 

And, with the benefit of hindsight, it was. It was the starting point for an action I would take 8 months later, an action that will, hopefully, redefine my future path. 


Lib died. I flew down to Texas for the funeral and came unglued. You know that kind of crying where you shake so hard you imagine your muscle will tear from your bones? Where your arms don't work? Where your head spins and you don't know where you are? Don't know who you are? Where you feel trapped in your body?

I suffered 11 intense episodes of that kind of crying in just the seven hours between my arriving in Houston and meeting my parents in Lake Jackson. After that, my linear memory ceases. 

Clara Elizabeth Cox: 1 November 1926 - 9 May 2015

There were dozens more crying episodes. Amongst the 90 billion reasons my grandmother's death was so hard to deal with was the fact it meant the breaking apart of so much else. My grandfather was not in good enough health to live on his own, and if you honestly considered the assistance he needed you were looking at employing upward of six carers. 

So, losing Lib meant Breezy also lost the ability to stay in the home the two of them had lived in for roughly half a century. If you've ever read "A Drive in Summer" you'll know the whole story is driven by that house, the two people that built it, and the sense of connection they provided. 208 Pine was the centre of my universe, Lib its sun –– providing gravity and warmth no matter how far away I wandered.

The house was to be sold. Breezy would live in a care home in League City, some 45 miles from Lake Jackson.

Breezy's defining characteristic had been always toughness, but what man could handle that? Being physically beat to hell by multiple strokes, losing your wife, losing your home, losing your community. And in as much, I knew that in saying goodbye to Lib I was saying goodbye to him, too.

I cried almost nonstop during the week I was down there. In the time I wasn't hyperventilating with grief I walked or drove around Brazosport (the catch-all name for Lake Jackson/Clute/Freeport) trying to breathe in as much of it as I could.

It was hot and humid, but the Gulf breeze kept you comfortable. Every part of me ached with the need to stay. I told Jenn I wanted to move in to my grandparents' house.

She said no. My parents strongly agreed with her. I could find no one who would even humor me. Even my dad's brother, who lives in Brazosport, furrowed his brow and said: "Gah, Chris, I don't see that as the best idea."

I could fill a book with how much it hurt, how mad I was in my ache. But let me tell you a good thing:

My cousin, Suzanne.

I'm not entirely sure why Suzanne and I never got along as kids, but, man, we didn't. I mean, everything about her agitated me. And when she was hit by all kinds of personal issues in her teens and early 20s I took it as the Universe's justification of my point of view. 

But, you know how this goes: The person getting shit done? The person who kept my grandfather together while his whole world was falling apart? The person who took care of all the unpleasant details without once complaining? The person who made a big breakfast for all of us, just as Lib used to? The person I needed a hug from most at the end of the funeral? Suzanne.

My cousin as a little girl, looking mean as sin. I love this picture.

In all the hell of that week there was the solace of discovering within me an immense respect for my cousin. Yeah, she can still get on my nerves –– I have no doubt she'd say the same about me –– but I'll wear it with immense, shouting pride that she's family. And I will punch you in the nose if you speak ill of her. Of course, you won't feel it because she'll have already ripped out your intestines and strangled you with them.

The space between 

Remember what I said about depressive episodes. After I got back from Texas I effectively shut down. Hell, I don't even remember getting back. And, but for a few key experiences, most of the the summer is blank space in my mind.

Can I digress here to tell you how much I hate having this happen? In this post about looking back on the year gone by, I am unable to tell you what happened in almost half of it because The Great Sadness has robbed me of recollection. 

That's my fucking life. Half of it slipping away into the irretrievable darkness. Not because of drugs or alcohol or too many years playing pro football but just because. Because this interminable ache spins inside my chest.

I am so sick of it. So very, very exhausted by it. And so deeply angry at the institutions that have failed me when I've asked for help.

I am better, though, when I stay on the move. That's always been the case. So, it's no surprise that of the little I can remember July stands out. That's when I rode my motorcycle to Tuscany. I wish it had come at a different point in my life, one that would have allowed me to remember it more vividly, or have built up greater enthusiasm before or during.

I mean, dude, I RODE A MOTORCYCLE THROUGH EUROPE! That is a pinnacle fantasy for some people and I feel I'm too quick to simply catalog it as One Of The Things I've Done, giving it no particular importance above any number of other things I've done. Maybe I just didn't go for long enough...

People wading into the River Aare.
The moments that stand out most for me from that trip were in Bern, where I finally got a chance to go swimming in the River Aare –– something I've been wanting to do since I saw this BBC story almost six years ago.

There's something about playing in water. I am too mentally lazy to try to articulate it, but that's where I feel most purely happy. And when I search my memory for events that took place between May and September the things that pop up first are related to water: the River Aare; the swimming pool in Tuscany; the River Avon, near Bath, in August.

I don't remember much else.


Breezy had made it four months without the love of his life. That's more a testament to his physical endurance than anything else, because, man, he really didn't want to be hanging around. He died on 18 September; Jenn and I flew out for another forced family reunion.

I think Suzanne took it hardest. Breezy had always been a stubborn advocate of her. One of my favorite stories of him comes from a time after he had given his old Cadillac to Suzanne and she was caught going 108 mph.

Upon being told about the incident by Suzanne's father (my mother's brother), Breezy had said: "Nah. I don't think that Cadillac can go that fast. She should fight the ticket."

Lib and Breezy in college.

For me, though, there was a sense of peace. In the space of a season I had lost two of the most influential people of my life, but there was/is the comfort that they are back together. Those last few months of his life must have been nothing short of torture, physically and emotionally.

My mother's memory of her father is as a Superman. As a little girl she would bring friends to the house and get him to show off with feats of athletic skill –– spinning a basketball on his finger or displaying his phenomenal strength. It's nice to think of him like that again, showing off for Lib. Her wryly smiling.

As I say, there was a sense of peace for me. And within it I found myself suddenly more appreciative of my family than I've ever been. My uncles and aunts, all my cousins.

Most of my life I've tended to distance myself from family. I don't really know why. It has to do with being unhappy in my own skin, I suppose. I wanted the people to whom I was related to be extraordinary, in the hopes that would rub off on me, that I could share in their greatness. Arguably, they are extraordinary, in their own way, and I've spent the bulk of my life failing to appreciate it.

With my usual arrogance having been broken down by grief I got to see the good, the kindness, the humor, the deep appreciation for hard work that runs through my family. So, strangely, my memory of being back in Lake Jackson for my grandfather's funeral is a happy one. Or, perhaps "life-affirming" is a better phrase.

Jenn and I explored a bit of Houston while there and I did a good enough job playing host that she was even willing to entertain the idea of moving there one day. Admittedly, she was under the influence of a few margaritas when she said this, but it was still pretty amazing. You have to understand that Houston –– and most of Texas' Gulf Coast –– is an incredibly hard sell: hot, swampy, sprawling, flat, and heaving with mosquitoes, snakes, and, worst of all, conservatives. It's not exactly a dream location for a Devonshire girl. I don't know if I'd ever want to move back down there, but it's nice to know I have the option.

We went to Galveston and stumbled upon a gumbo festival, where the classic Texas mentality of "If I'm standing next to you for more than 30 seconds it means we're best friends" was in full swing. We drank oversized cans of beer and laughed with everyone. Later in the day, we went swimming at the beach and the water was clearer and more pleasant than I have memory of it ever having been when I was a boy.

Jenn walking in Jay Cooke State Park

Before returning to Britain, we spent a week in Minnesota. One of the highlights came in driving up to Duluth and spending the afternoon walking around Jay Cooke State Park. Afterward we ate at Grandma's and the idea of wanting to run the Grandma's Marathon in 2017 started spinning in my head. We'll see if that comes to fruition: finances and fitness are difficult to predict so far in advance.

There was also opportunity to see old friends. I get really twisted up over the fact my friends' lives have dramatically changed in the time I've been living in the UK, and that I've not really been around for that change. It makes me worry that I have configured my way out of the picture.

My best friend, Eric, and his wife, Kristin, have had two kids since I left St. Paul 10 years ago. That means their focus and priorities and interests have changed, as happens with all parents. As my friend Dan put it when his first son was born: "I have to accept that I'm not Dan anymore. That's what being a dad is; you're not that guy you were anymore. Bad fathers are the ones who won't accept that."

Both Dan and Eric are good fathers. Kristin is a good mother (as is Dan's wife, Johanna). What attacks me during bouts of homesickness is the fear that I'll lose my closest friendships because I haven't been around very much to witness, participate and support the constant evolution of self that comes from parenthood and, simply, living. I worry I'll be forgotten.

So, I suppose the highlights of visiting Minnesota came in visiting those friends and feeling so much at home. That seems to be especially the case when I'm around Eric. I love that dude.

I love his kids, too. As the grown-ups were chatting, Eric's eldest daughter came running into the room and shouted:

"Mom! I just made a huge poop!"
"In the toilet?" asked Kristin, in her trademark stoically bemused tone.
"Did you wipe your bottom?"
"And did you flush?"
"Well, good job, honey."


When I go through depressive episodes, one of the things I seem to enjoy doing is setting up little traps to be sprung far into the future. My method of doing this is to close my eyes and click far, far ahead on my Google Calendar to an unknown point where I will then place a reminder for myself.

The reminder almost always speaks to a goal or ambition that I feel I have failed to achieve in the present. Because I've placed the reminder randomly, and the black-hole nature of depressive states, I soon forget about it. Then, several months or several years later it will pop up and slap me in the face.


On 14 October, the reminder was: "BUY A HOUSE."

See? This is the kind of crap I pull with myself. Self sabotage.

One of my long-standing sore points is the fact that the financial stupidity of my youth, coupled with my general laziness, all but guarantees I will never have the savings nor credit to buy a house of my own.

What's interesting, though, is that my mood was still good enough from having seen family and friends that this particular trap didn't work. It didn't kick me into a foul mood, as the reminders tend to do.

Of course, it helps that the old house-buying complaint isn't as solid as it once was. I kind of do own property. Kind of. Our flat is legally in Jenn's name, but philosophically it's something "we" own. We both share in the endless burdens that come with 130-year-old property; we'll both benefit when we eventually sell it.

And therein lies the other reason I wasn't upset by the reminder. Essentially, the reminder's intent is an attack, an attempt to highlight a weakness and make me feel awful. But on 14 October 2015, I felt something close to OK about my life. I had a (leaky) roof over my head that I could ostensibly call my own, but I had, too, friends and family across the ocean, things to look forward to in my life, and an incredibly beautiful, kind, supporting, humor-filled wife with whom to share it all.


One of those things I was looking forward to was EICMA, a motorcycle trade show that takes place in Milan. In early November, I convinced Victory Motorcycles to lend me one of their Vision touring bikes and, for the second time in the year, I rode from Wales to Italy.

The journey was less meandering this time around. On the way down to Milan I covered roughly 1,100 miles in three days. On the way back, I did it in two.  It was also colder and considerably wetter this time; one day I spent six hours riding in solid rain. Nonetheless, it was an immensely positive experience.

Victory Vision I rode to Milan

Much of that has to do with EICMA itself. I was there to serve as eyes and ears at the event for RideApart, the website I had started writing for only seven months earlier. I ended up delivering more than 20 stories from the event and met a few really cool people, which I think will lead to some really cool things in 2016.

One of the coolest things, though, was the sense of confidence I developed in the process –– a feeling of self-sufficiency and the first little sparks of satisfaction that come from freelance work. And, as I say, I'm better when I stay on the move.

Also, let's spell out that experience plainly: I was loaned a $20,000 motorcycle then got paid to ride it to Italy and spend several days looking at motorcycles. That's a win-win-win situation there. Yeah, there was a lot of hard work and some discomfort and I didn't actually make a profit (never eat at your hotel's restaurant), but it's still hard to see EICMA as anything other than a tremendous success.

On the day I returned to the UK, our friends Jen and Dave came out from London for an early Thanksgiving weekend. I've known Jen since the two of us went to high school together in Minnesota. She holds a special place in my heart; she and Dave feel more like family than friends.

On one of the mornings they were in Penarth, Jen tweaked her knee shortly before the four of us had planned to walk down to Cardiff Bay for brunch. Noting that I still had the Victory Vision motorcycle in my possession, I offered to ferry her to the restaurant on the back of the bike. My wife and Dave walked.

Jen and I took a circuitous route to the Bay. I accelerated hard, revved the engine, leaned the bike more than necessary. Nothing insane –– I am notoriously safe –– just enough to give her a sense of what hooks me about motorcycles. Over the engine I could hear her wooting and shouting in the late November chill, could feel her hands excitedly slapping at my shoulders.

"Look at us!" she shouted. "This is awesome!"

A few days later I found out I was being made redundant.

I wasn't too upset. In my heart I had already figured out what I want to do. Going to EICMA had helped me see the potential path to a life I've always wanted: being free to act on my own, to write, to be mobile. I decided I would become a full-time freelance writer.


Jenn and I spent Christmas at Jen and Dave's flat in North London. Jen and Dave, meanwhile, were up in Scotland.

It was a good Christmas. Jenn made pheasant for the Christmas meal, then we went for a walk around Hampstead Heath. Late in the afternoon we stumbled upon a fantastic pub that seemed to attract all walks of life. A baby in carrier had been set upon one group's table, dogs ran around, some folks were singing. It was a pub of the sort you'd put in a film. It was a slice of London life, I suppose. There's something about that city.

Jenn and I in the Southampton Arms

On Boxing Day we went to a pub in Greenwich to meet up with one of Jenn's school friends. It, too, offered a unique mix of London characters. Though, things were made especially surreal by the presence of celebrities.

Lenny Henry fronted a blues band that was performing at the pub. The actual British icon that is Sir Lenny Henry. Also there was an astronomer I had seen on "Stargazing Live" and actress Kate Lonergan. I ended up dancing with an 85-year-old woman who told me that as a young woman she had gotten it in her head she wanted to have an adventure, so she rode a Lambretta scooter around the country.

"I went to all the places that I had heard were nice," she said. "I learned you shouldn't believe everything you hear."

Jenn and I were back home for New Year's Eve. We went to a dinner party at a friend's house down the road. We played games and laughed until eventually spilling out into the cold at 3 a.m. As we walked home, we passed a group of revellers and I spotted amongst them the woman who had been my tutor when I did my master's degree.

She didn't see me. I didn't interrupt as she and her happy group stumbled by, singing. We walked in different directions.

Jenn, holding to me for stability, sighed happy and said: "I think this is going to be a good year."

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Turning pro: The sudden advent of my career as a full-time moto-journalist

Ah hell. I don't even know where to start with this. I feel like more backstory is necessary, but there is a) the question of how far back to go; and b) the question of how much I feel like talking about certain things.

I suppose one necessary element of backstory is the fact that -- at the moment -- I work for the UK's national parks. And the necessary element of futurestory is that, in less than a fortnight, I won't be. Budget cuts, you see. 

In the parlance of Her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, I'm "being made redundant." There's something hurtful in that phrasing: the implication of being unnecessary and unwanted. And, indeed, that's sort of how I feel. I will spend my final day -- New Year's Eve -- in the office alone. There is no "leaving do" planned.

The good news, however, is that I will be sent on my way with a small bit of money and a charming reference letter. And I have a plan. I question whether it is a very good plan -- only time will tell -- but it is a plan, nonetheless.

The plan is this: I'm going to become a moto-journalist. 

Well, arguably, I'm already a moto-journalist. I've been writing for a handful of online publications (most notably, RideApart) for more than a year. In November, I spent three days in Milan reporting on EICMA, one of the world's largest annual motorcycle shows. But hitherto it's all been supplemental income. From 1 January, it will be my full-time gig.

Or, at least, I hope it will be full time. The trick of this plan is that I will be freelance.

Yes, I would rather be tied to a specific publication but I suffer from the geographical disadvantage of living in Wales. And in so doing I am far away from Peterborough, which is (bafflingly) the hub of the UK's motorcycle press scene, and even further away from Los Angeles, home to the U.S. scene.

True, I would be delighted to leave Wales (I mean, really, really delighted), but such a course of action runs averse to my wife's current plans. And there are, admittedly, a few advantages to staying yng Nghymru. Free healthcare being at the top of the list.

The whole of the UK has free healthcare, of course, but in Wales even our prescriptions are free. Which is of benefit if -- like me -- you suffer from chronic asthma and hypothyroidism.

Let us stop for a moment and savor the irony of the fact my living in a country with deep socialist roots allows me to be more free in terms of career choice than I would be in The Land of the Free.

Anyhoo, freelance it is. The advantages are obvious. I'll be making a living writing about motorcycles, which inherently demands that I ride motorcycles. I'll be tied to no particular location (which means I could, in theory, transfer this whole operation to some place warm and sunny) and I'll be confined to no set working hours.

The disadvantages are equally clear: no paid time off, no sick days, no pension contributions, no regular paychecks, and success in one month is no guarantee of success in the next. Think about it too much and you won't sleep; you'll get a headache from constantly clenching your jaw,

Which is what's been happening to me recently. I am deeply worried I won't pull this off. But, at the same time, I know I am capable of doing so. I'm motivated, too, by the fact I really, really don't like traditional workplace scenarios.

The adventure begins.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

A sense of place

I lived the first four years of my life in Austin. I've not lived there since, but do my best to remain familiar with the streets and restaurants so I can claim it as my home, so I can drive places without a map. If I can't be cool, let me at least be cool by association. 

After Austin, my family lived two years in Dallas (well, Irving), then to Houston for six years. So, 12 years a Texan in total. Across that time the most connecting place was Lake Jackson, where my grandparents lived. And after we left Texas it was to Lake Jackson we'd always return. I guess that's why I tend to think of myself as a Gulf Coaster, despite my habit of telling people I'm "from" Austin.

My uncle recently suggested I'm actually just a "wannabe East Texas redneck" and I suppose that's the most accurate description. The "wannabe" part, most certainly. 

Because there are, too, the years spent in Minnesota: six in Bloomington, two in Moorhead and three in St. Paul. Eleven years a Minnesotan. But those years are stretched out across a space of almost two decades, with time in England, Nevada and California in between. I guess one of those years in Moorhead could also be conceded to the state of North Dakota.

Breaking that down into percentages of my life:
- 31 percent Texas
- 28 percent Minnesota
- 23 percent Wales
- 18 percent other

States are big, though; borders sometimes blur. So, when talking about the concept of place it's probably better to think in terms of region -- spaces of mindset. In my life, then, I've lived in nine different regions. Breaking that down:
- 25 percent Twin Cities
- 23 percent Cardiff
- 15 percent Southeast Texas
- 10 percent Austin
- 27 percent other

If who we are and where we're "from" are defined by the geographical positions we've inhabited, then I suppose it's appropriate that so much of me is "other." I realised this morning, though, that with Jenn and I committed to being here until at least 2019, I will soon find myself having spent the small majority of my life as a Cardiffian.

Which is depressing, because it's the region to which I feel the least connected. Whilst also being the one to which I have made the most effort to connect.

Of course, the idea of geographical location imposing identity is incorrect. Both for the individual and for those who interact with the individual. No one will ever accept me as being "from" Cardiff, no matter how much time I serve. Texas might want you, but Cardiff will passively remind you every day of your lack of belonging. If even 1 percent of you is "other" it might as well be 100 percent.

I'm not sure where I'm going with all this except to say that I desperately want to go home. But I honestly don't know what the fuck I mean by that.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Road Trip! Europe On a Suzuki V-Strom 1000

Originally published on RideApart in three parts (Part 1 –– Part 2 –– Part 3)

As the crow flies, there are roughly 850 miles of land and water between Cardiff, Wales, and Volterra, Italy. I'm not a crow, however, and I'm travelling by motorcycle, a vehicle that abhors direct routes. So, getting there and back will see me clocking 3,325 miles across eight countries –– nine, if you're a Welsh separatist.

Covering that distance will take me places never before visited, and present me with riding challenges never before faced. I'll ride in the Alps, witness Dirt Quake, and experience the autobahn. I'll swim in a glacier-fed river, sleep under the stars, and consume huge quantities of bratwurst and beer.

It's not a life-changing event. I won't feel intrinsically altered at the end of it. We've fallen into a modern trap of thinking all long journeys have to reveal hidden truths of the universe, that every road trip has to be a film written by Nick Hornby. This won't be that. But it'll be worth it, nonetheless.

The trip starts, as all my motorcycle trips do, with my running behind schedule. I set off at 12:42 pm, just 3 hours and 42 minutes later than intended. That's OK. I always build in windows of snafu time. Almost all the 255 miles I need to cover today can be done on motorway. The ferry doesn't sail until 11 pm. Still, I'm annoyed. And tired.

The reason for my delay is that when I woke up this morning I decided to repack everything. All of it. Every single bit of kit out of the bags, then back in a different way. This after staying up packing until 2 am.

Seven hours later, I'm sitting in a line of cars and bikes at Harwich International Port, waiting to be let aboard the Stena Hollandica, an overnight ferry to Hoek van Holland in the Netherlands. I am tired and sore from having spent so much of the journey tensed up. The M25, which circles London, is always busy and always chaotic. If I hadn't gotten off to such a late start I could have avoided it.

Actually, I could have avoided it regardless. The ferry is running late. Labor strikes and an ever-worsening migrant crisis are affecting the far busier cross-Channel route of Dover to Calais, about 60 miles to the south. The British government has turned an entire section of motorway near Dover into a parking lot for semi-trucks. Drivers unwilling to wait it out pour into other ports –– Harwich, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Hull, and so on –– and everything is moving slow.

Motorcycles are the first to be let aboard but the ferry doesn't actually leave until 2 am, by which time I am sound asleep in my cabin. I'm awakened by the shudder of the ship's engines as it pushes away from port, then fall back into dreams of perfect roads.

According to the ambient temperature guage on my 2015 Suzuki V-Strom 1000, it's 34ºC (93.2ºF) when I make my first stop the next day. It's 11 am. I'm in the Netherlands, but the terrain prompts memories of going to college in northwestern Minnesota.

The rest area I'm at is a reminder, though, that I'm in Europe. Men's urinals are placed out in the open with only a waist-high metal curtain for privacy. Weary Polish truck drivers smoke cigarettes and nap in the shade of decorative trees.

I clean and lube the chain. The rear tire is so hot I get blisters on my fingers when I touch it. The Netherlands are proof that every argument you will ever hear against infrastructure projects is nothing more than selfish BS. Roads are not magic. Building good ones is not some exclusive art that only the Dutch have mastered. The reason roads here are in amazing condition is simply the people of the Netherlands have made the effort. They actually try.

Drivers are reasonably courteous. Filtering (i.e., lane splitting) is permitted. And alongside almost every single road in this country is a second road dedicated for bicycles and scooters. It is a transportation Valhalla.

The speed limit on Netherlandic motorways is 130 kph (80 mph) and the free-flowing nature of the roadways allows me to drift a little above that. A nifty feature of the V-Strom is that it switches easily between mph (which we use in Britain), and kph (which is used in the rest of Europe). I randomly pick 137 kph as my cruising speed. This puts revs around 5,000 rpm, well below the Strom's 10,000 rpm redline.

The bike eats distance without effort, but if you've ever read a review written by a tall person you'll know its stock screen is poo. I've not yet had the time or finances to replace the screen, so as I drop into Belgium I give my neck a rest from fighting the wind and head onto slower roads. Almost instantly I'm rewarded with a sign pointing me to Bastogne, home to one of the more inspiring battles of WWII.

Surrounded by Nazi forces, ill-equipped for winter and unable to receive supplies, US forces were trapped in Bastogne in December 1944. The Nazis demanded that surrender. The Americans' response was a message that said, simply: "To the German commander: NUTS!"

American forces (the famous 101st Airborne Division among them) battled tooth and nail, eventually gaining the upperhand, vanquishing the Nazis and liberating Bastogne. The whole story is told in the 1949 film Battleground (featuring soldiers who were actually there).

Without hesitation I head toward the town, hoping it has a plaque or something commemorating the siege. Yeah, they have something: an enormous 40-foot high stone monument in the shape of a five-pointed American star. The names of all 50 US states are written in steel letters. Plaques denote all the divisions that took part. Huge stone tablets tell the story in slightly vainglorious prose. Roughly 200 yards away, a museum offers more depth and context.

For an American, the quiet subtext of this whole place is that we can do great things when we try. We can be a force for good if only we decide we want to be. Today happens to be the 4th of July. I climb the stairs to the top of the monument, look out on the countryside my grandparents' generation helped liberate, and feel immensely proud.

On to Luxembourg, then Germany. I spend the next few days staying with a friend, Chris, in Saarbrücken, a small city on the Germany-France border. Gregarious and Welsh, he seems to know everyone in town, especially its bartenders.

One night he introduces me to a group of friends. I find myself sitting across from a stunningly gorgeous woman of –– I'm guessing –– Turkish descent. She reminds me of a girl from Istanbul I dated a long time ago. That girl had a scar running down the entire left side of her face from a bar fight. It took nothing from her looks. She was beautiful. Perfect skin, dangerously beguiling smile, incredible physique. And insane. All the best ones are.

This girl lacks any visible battle damage, but carries herself in the same alluringly mad way. As with my ex-girlfriend, half her head is shaven and her dark eyes are simultaneously unsettling and captivating. Walking to another bar, I tell Chris he should try his luck.

"Her?!" he yelps. "I sense that'd be a bit dangerous, mate."

"It'd be a glorious death," I say.

We trundle into the night, our laughter bouncing down the city's narrow alleyways.

On another day we end up at an illegal street party at an abandoned grain silo by the river. A barrell-chested German tank commander insists on buying me beer. A sunburnt girl asks that I teach her the words to "Star-Spangled Banner". And I get a chance to hear live German hip-hop. It's surprisingly not awful. I tell Chris he has made the right choice in moving here.

Back on the road, the weekend catches up with me in Baden-Baden. The Suzuki claims it is only 26ºC (79ºF) but I'm dehydrated and out of sorts. At a rest stop I lose my sunglasses, become convinced that a Danish couple have stolen them before driving off, go into a silent blue-flame rage and make all kinds of empty threats against Denmark, then find the sunglasses on the handlebars –– where I had set them.

This dumb anger persists as I'm leaving the town and I rev my engine at a man who has chosen the worst possible place to cross the street. I scare the living tar out of him and get a free lesson in German profanity. As I pass, I see that he is disabled. Karma's payback is swift and a few seconds later I see that the bike's "FI" light is on.

Ostensibly "FI" stands for "fuel injection" but Suzuki use this light to indicate all kinds of potential flaws. At a turn, I discover that any attempt to signal causes the hazard lights to come on. Great. I'm hot, angry, confused, really far away from anything I might call home, and my bike is banjaxed.

I pull to the side of the road, lay on the ground and mumble the first part of Psalm 46:10 to myself: "Be still, and know that I am God."

It's the scripture Rev. Foster quoted back in May when they were putting my grandmother in the ground. She had lost her short, brutal fight against cancer. Her death has crippled me mentally and I am still prone to uncontrollable bouts of crying.

The cost of a sudden flight to Texas to attend her funeral is the reason I am couch surfing and camping on this trip, rather than staying at hotels. The leukemia doctors discovered in late March is the reason I bought the V-Strom in the first place; it was something I could control. I couldn't do anything about the rock of my family, but I could buy a mid-range adventure motorcycle.

Which is now acting up on the edge of the Black Forest.

Be still. Some things are beyond your control.

I clean and lube the chain, drink a bottle of water, eat a breakfast bar and sit for a while listening to the birds. My mind calm, I turn on the bike so I can begin to try to assess what's wrong. The "FI" light does not come on. The signals function properly. The problem is gone.

The Black Forest is as pretty as everyone says, and the best way to see it is via the Schwarzwaldhochstraße ––  the Black Forest High Road. The well-maintained, wide-shouldered road offers smooth curves, looping bends and all kinds of breathtaking views that don't translate well to a photo because a camera can't capture the full of what you see.

I stop for lunch at a roadside cafe and get into conversation with two Dutch guys who, it would seem, are the world's biggest V-Strom fans. One of them uses the phrase "rock 'n' roll" in place of the adjective "good," as in, "This bratwurst is rock 'n' roll," or, "What I love about Suzukis is that they have such rock 'n' roll transmissions."

Quietly reflecting on my poor mood from earlier in the day I remind myself what a lucky so-and-so I am to be here, doing this. Moto-journalism icon John Burns talks often about the can't-believe-my-luck nature of being a motorcyclist. As he puts it: "Why doesn't somebody take this thing away from me?"

The world seems too unfair that it should allow us this much happiness and connection from two wheels and a bunch of tiny explosions. I am living the dream, man.

This is reinforced at the end of the day when I arrive at the home of a German couple I have never met. Sonja and Roland had gotten in touch through my personal blog and offered a place to stay on my way through the country. When I arrive, they hug me and help unload my bags off the bike. Noting the meticulous way in which I have attached everything to my bike Roland jokes: "You have quite a system. You have some German blood in you, I think."

They are incredibly kind and a testament to the weird camaraderie so many motorcyclists have. Why are we this way? Why doesn't somebody take this thing away from us?

There's no reason for it. Just because you and I choose the same mode of transportation, why should that make us pals? I take the train to work from time to time but that doesn't mean I show up and dispense cupcakes to my fellow commuters.

The Harley dudes will yammer about "brotherhood" or some such nonsense. But, then, it's not nonsense, is it? Owning a motorcycle is an open invitation to conversation, and everywhere I go lots of really cool people accept that invitation.

And from there all kinds of great things happen. Someone buys you beer. Someone gives you a place to sleep. If you're immensely lucky, you'll even get to write about it on popular websites. And the next day you'll wake up early in the morning and point your motorcycle toward Switzerland.

––– ~ –––

"Harley," says the grinning Russian, pointing first at his motorcycle, then himself. "HOG!"

His female companion offers a frenetic grin and thumb's up.

"HOG!" she shouts.

It's day five of my trip. I'm stopped at a gas station just north of the Germany-Switzerland border, trying to decide where to place the vignette on my bike. A vignette is a sticker required when using Swiss motorways. Get caught without one and you'll face fines upward of 200 Swiss francs (US $205).

The instructions are in German, Italian and French, so I don't have a clue where to put this thing. The Russian and I confer through gestures and grunts. Eventually we agree to disagree; I place the sticker on my windscreen, he chooses his fork.

With more gestures and broken sentences he communicates they are travelling from Moscow to Madrid for a Harley Owners Group meetup. Madrid! In this heat. On that bike. Good lord.

The continent is in the grip of a heatwave. Heat is always dangerous in Europe; almost no buildings have air conditioning and bafflingly few cultures use fans. There is no escape, especially on the road. The sun is a cutting torch. Oven-like heat bounces off the road surface. It is mind-bending. Unrelenting. I'm forced to stop every 45 minutes or so to gulp whole bottles of water or ice tea. It is hell.

The bike, however, is doing just fine. The LCD dashboard on my Suzuki V-Strom 1000 tells me the engine is running no hotter than it would on a British winter day. Unfortunately, it manages this by pouring all the heat of the engine and the road and the sun and every other hot thing onto me. The heat is liquid in its omnipresence, like riding through lava.

I tell myself things will improve when I reach Switzerland's higher ground. I'm wrong. The only respite comes in tunnels; within them, slightly cooler air and a break from the sun. The longest tunnel I encounter is 12 km (7.5 miles) long. It is bliss. I consider pulling over and setting up camp inside.

I push on, trying to reach a restaurant I've heard about in time for lunch. I arrive shortly after 2 pm, starving, exhausted and delirious. I have reached peak discomfort. I'm dehydrated. My head hurts. I'm developing saddle sores. My feet, lower legs and knees burn from the bike's heat.

I sit outside in the shade, with a pint of Coke and pitcher of ice water. After a few minutes I start to feel human again. The beauty of my surroundings starts to process. The gasthaus is set next to a winding mountain road that cuts through thick pine forest. The air is intoxicatingly fresh and pleasantly cool when you stand out of direct sun. I take in deep, happy breaths.

The woman running the gasthaus places a whole trout and potatoes on an outdoor wood-fired griddle. Soon the smell of it has me clapping in anticipation. This is the kind of experience you live for, the kind of story you hold on to for the sake of telling it at a high school reunion.

After lunch, rejuvenated, I decide to tackle San Bernardino Pass. It will be my first experience riding an Alpine pass and afterward, in the journal I'm keeping for this trip, I will write, simply: "Jesus F***ing Jones. Beautiful up there, though."

I live in Wales where there are no direct routes, just narrow, tight-cornered roads that draw motorcyclists from all over Europe. The fact I've ridden thousands of miles there without dying had led me to believe I was prepared for the Alps. I wasn't. The Alps are a level beyond.

Narrow and excessively steep, the route through San Bernardino Pass is littered with psychotically tight switchbacks. It feels like high-stakes moto gymkhana. Almost instantly I allow myself to become unsettled. I goof every bend: running wide, operating the clutch with no finesse, sloppy throttle, consistently choosing the wrong gear, and too often looking where I don't want to go. Once, I almost ride straight into a boulder. Twice I am forced to rely on the skills of oncoming drivers to avoid collision.

Somehow I manage to make it to a roadside vista, halfway up the pass, without crashing. I stop, get off the bike, drink some water and pull myself together. Be still.

I dig deep in my brain to recall every riding tip I've ever read, seen, heard or experienced. I mentally work out what I need to improve upon and set off again. There isn't much traffic, which is lucky; I still run wide on some bends. But by the time I arrive at the top of the pass I'm feeling more confident. Things are easier above the treeline because I'm able to see more of what's ahead. Again, praise for the V-Strom is due, with its traction control and slipper clutch helping to keep me upright despite a number of idiot downshifts.

Heading down the other side of the mountain I manage something close to a rhythm and am feeling pretty good when I reach civilization. But I'm ready to call it a day; the pass has worn me out. I point my bike toward Zernez, a village near Switzerland's only national park. A campsite on the village's outskirt will be my home tonight.

But first I get stupidly lost. Well, not so much lost as confoundingly rerouted. Construction blocks one road and thereafter my GPS becomes desperate to turn things into Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Which is how I end up on Albula Pass –– even more intense and ridiculous than San Bernardino Pass. In part because certain sections don't appear to have been repaved since Adam Sandler was funny.

The plus side, though, is coming across a farm stall where I'm able to buy provisions for the evening: eggs, an aromatic Gruyère-style cheese, bread, jam, and some stale croissants thrown in for free. I make it to my campsite just 5 minutes before the office closes.

I'm up at sunrise the next morning, watching the last gasps of a thunderstorm blow through. I brew a large pot of tea to wash down the croissants and jam. The fresh air, the morning cool, the roar of the nearby Inn river, and the mountain scenery collude to do that outdoors thing of leading me to believe my pauper's breakfast is culinary bliss: "Man, this is good. I mean: really, really good. Two stale croissants and a liter of tea is going to be my new thing. I'm going to have this for breakfast every day."

I'm on the road by 7:30 a.m. There's a long day ahead: just shy of 400 miles to cover. And the first part of that involves tackling the infamous Stelvio Pass. To some extent, I use the word "infamous" in the Three Amigos sense ("Dusty, infamous is when you're more than famous."). The pass was once named by "Top Gear" as the greatest driving road in the world. Its reputation is such that Moto Guzzi named their adventure motorcycle after it.

According to the unimpeachable Wikipedia, Stelvio Pass contains 75 hairpin turns. I can find no information about the number that aren't hairpin, but I can assure you there are a lot. Add to this the equally daunting turns and bends of Umbrail Pass, which I take en route, and the whole thing is pretty mentally taxing.

For my money, Umbrail is more terrifying. The road surface is poor, it is mostly single lane and much of it is sans guardrail. Putt-putting along in second gear beside a sheer cliff I feel like those L'equipee girls riding in the Himalayas. But, you know, not quite as sexy.

At the top of Stelvio I stop to take pictures and run into a group of Brit riders on an extended bachelor party (what the British call a "stag do"). There are about a dozen of them, wearing fluorescent yellow T-shirts over their riding leathers. On the back of each shirt is the rider's nickname within the group ("Gazza" "Stiffy" "Rent Boy"). On the front is the epigram: "KEVIN IS A C*NT."

They spot the GB plates on my bike and run toward me as if I'm a long-lost member of their group. Only one of them isn't wearing a T-shirt. I presume this is Kevin. I suffer a sympathy hangover just looking at him. He looks as if he has been dragged up Stelvio, thrown off the side and dragged back up.

"Bout time we had some proper weather," one of them says, nodding at the morning grey. It's lightly raining and about 15ºC (59ºF). For the first time in almost a week I'm not dying from heat. We commiserate that our gear is suited to the British climate, rather than continental Europe in a heatwave. Some time later, I will read in RiDE magazine that wearing too much gear on the continent is a notorious British rider mistake. I guess I've been assimilated.

Which might explain why, despite the rain, I don't bother to zip in my jacket's waterproof lining. I'm happy to let the wet seep through just for the sake of not being hot.

Six hours later, I'm far from the mountains, standing in the middle of the autostrada on the outskirts of Modena, Italy. My riding suit is damp once again, this time with sweat. A semi truck has jackknifed across the motorway. I've filtered (aka "split lanes") through about a mile of stopped traffic to arrive at the wreck and be told by a police officer I can go no further.

"Please?" I beg. "It's hot. I don't want to stand here. I need to keep moving."

"Where you go, eh?" he says, shrugging his shoulders in stereotypical Italian fashion.

He's right. The truck has turned so completely it is touching the guardrails on either side of the road. It is 39ºC (102ºF). Not a cloud in the sky. No shade.

"How long do you think we'll have to wait?" I ask.

"Few hours, maybe," he says. "Maybe not."

All the vents on my jacket are open but I don't take it off. Exposed skin causes rapid dehydration. I do my best to ration my remaining 500ml (16oz) bottle of water. I consume it within 5 minutes. Sweat is pouring out of me like I've sprung a leak. I can feel it running down my legs. The sun stings my face. Heat radiates from concrete, metal, and the idling engines of the cars and trucks.

"Well, this is what it would be like in Austin," I tell myself.

Ever since my grandmother died I've been daydreaming of moving back to Texas, fearful of losing touch with my roots. My wife, English born and bred, has vetoed the idea. Last time we visited my family, she ended up in hives because she refused to believe me that chiggers are a real thing.

I call her now and tell her I'm 125 miles away, with no idea when I'll be arriving.

She, her best friend and family have been at a villa a few miles from Volterra since last week, having flown rather than travel by land. The spacious seat on my V-Strom has improved her attitude toward being on a motorcycle but not enough that she was willing to travel such a distance as pillion. I explain my situation and suggest that in this case she probably made the right decision.

"Sounds terrible, babe," she says. "I'm by the pool. I may have had some wine. Ha ha!"

––– ~ –––

Take a second to recall every example of bad driving you've ever witnessed. Excessive speed, excessive slowness, no-look lane changes, drifting out of lanes in curves, drifting out of lanes in straights, tailgating, hard braking, passing on blind curves, slowing down after passing, reversing on the motorway, stopping on an entrance ramp, talking with hands whilst using a mobile phone and driving a manual-transmission car, etcetera.

Now imagine a land where all of this is commonplace, where it happens with such regularity that no one cares.

That land is called Italy.

I spend a week in the country's Tuscany region and I'm the only one using my horn. Everyone else seems to be OK with this. They thrive in it.

Making good progress through a particularly twisty bit of road one day, I get schooled by a dude on a Vespa. He is wearing a T-shirt, shorts and sandals. The strap on his 1/2 helmet is undone and a cigarette hangs from his lips. He waves cheerfully as he passes me in a corner.

In temperature and topography the area reminds me of Texas Hill Country. But, thankfully, no one here takes Toby Keith seriously.

There is no air conditioning, and after a week in 38ºC (100ºF) heat I'm ready to head north. I push hard toward Genoa, then up the quiet space between Milan and Turin. The eastern side of the Piedmont region has a charming flatness. By European standards it is sparsely populated, which allows for some of the quietest roads I've experienced this side of the Atlantic.

I spend the night by a river in northern Italy's Gran Paradiso National Park. It is one of the prettiest places you could ever hope to go, but I don't get much chance to enjoy it. I'm up early the next morning and pushing toward Switzerland's capital city, Bern.

Before this trip, I knew little about Switzerland beyond its being home to watches, fancy knives, and WWE superstar Cesaro. Now it's one of my favorite countries. I arrive via Great St. Bernard Pass. The corners here are swooping, allowing more speed with less stress. The quality of the road is good. The views are incredible.

I make Bern by noon. Tomorrow, when I ride out, I will wish I had arrived earlier and stayed later. The primary reason for this is the Aare, a glacier-fed river that serves as a tributary to the Rhine (which I will be following back to the Netherlands over the next few days). I first heard about swimming in the Aare five years ago. It's the nature of being an expat, however, that when I have money/time for travel it almost always gets spent on trips to Texas and Minnesota, where my family and friends are.

The desire to come to Bern has been a constant, but it's taken me this long to get here. I've been missing out. The jade-colored, mineral-rich Aare rushes through Bern at a pace of roughly 4.5 mph. That doesn't sound quick but it's faster than most people walk. It will pull you off your feet.

Stand near the river's bracingly cold water and you'll hear the sound of its rocky bottom churning –– thousands of stones and pebbles being ground smooth. Dip your head below, and the sound is intense: a whooshing, crinkling ring. An adventure film would use this sound to represent something immense and unstoppable, something with its own gravity. A gravity that pulls people to the river's banks and encourages them to jump in.

It is hyperbole to say EVERYONE in Bern swims the Aare, but it's not a huge exaggeration. At any given time on any given warm day, you'll see hundreds of people in and near the river. You'll hear their laughs and shouts in response to the cold. A surprising number even let out a distinctive yodel: "Ahh hoo-hoo hoooo!"

A popular jump-in point is Eichholz, the urban campsite where I've pitched my tent. From here, it's a roughly mile-long float/swim to the city center. There is a ritual of getting in, of building yourself up mentally. People stand knee-deep in the water like wildebeest amassing at a crocodile-infested river, waiting for some instinctive cue to jump.

I wade in, feel my feet ache from the cold, and my shins go numb. Inspired by the Swiss yodels, I offer up my best grito and leap into the current. I pop my head out of the water with a deep, "huhuh" –– cold pushing air from my lungs. The flow is so strong I'm already 20 feet downriver. And just as quickly, I am the most purely happy I've been in a year.

There is a reason we baptize in rivers. They don't just wash away sins, they also take away pretense. Jewellery and expensive clothes cannot be worn; makeup will be wiped off; fashionable hair styles will be undone. Jump into a river and all that's left is yourself.

Because the Aare is so central to Bern life, this clean and clearly wealthy city maintains a welcoming, come-as-you-are feel. Young and old, rich and poor, float down together.

Once in the city center, a walking path follows the river back to Eichholz. This path is crowded with hundreds of barefoot and shirtless souls, energized and chatty. I get into conversations with Swiss, Polish, Italians, Americans, and Germans over the course of my several runs down the river. I feel like a kid. I am so happy, so euphoric that I don't eat lunch. I don't notice the cumulative 8 miles I walk in bare feet.

Eventually, the shivering is uncontrollable. I begrudgingly put on dry clothes and head to an outdoor cafe that's part of my campsite. Bratwurst, fries, and beer. The healthy traveller's choice. As I eat, I hear occasional yodelling ring out. It becomes too much to ignore and I make four more runs down the river.

It is dark when I return to my tent, and I sleep heavily. Only once am I awoken: by a yodel moving down the river at 3 a.m.

If you walk 12 miles on hot pavement with bare feet you will feel it the next day. Especially if you are riding a motorcycle on the German autobahn. Europe is still in a heatwave and the temperature hits 37ºC (98ºF). The discomfort is exacerbated by the stinging heat that comes off the V-Strom's engine when cruising at 100 mph.

The Strom itself has no problems, of course. Even when I push the bike to 130 mph the engine never feels overworked. But it does produce heat and I am struggling. My feet are blistered from the day before; the heat from the exhaust comes up through my boots and causes intense pain. Whatever good time I'm making by travelling at such high speed is lost in the need to stop and rest often.

At a gas station near Offenburg I meet a couple from Scotland who are touring on a Honda Super Blackbird (aka CBR1100XX). The woman is lying on the ground with her jacket off and riding trousers pushed down to the ankles (she is wearing shorts). She uses a bottle of ice tea to cool her womanly bits.

It's their first time riding in Europe. The man is nonplussed to have discovered the Blackbird is the sort of machine that naturally runs hot.

"Hadn't ever noticed that back home," he says in thick Strathclyde drawl. "Burned me trousers, too."

Nodding at his wife he says: "This one's none too happy with it. Are ya, love?"

Her response is more a string of expletives than coherent sentence. She is sick of the heat, sick of hanging off the back of a sport bike, sick of her husband's attempts to maintain a 120-mph cruising speed. While he goes into the shop to buy her more ice tea ("We'll call it 'fanny tea' from now on," he says), I tell her they should detour to slower, cooler roads. In particular, I suggest the Schwarzwaldhochstraße.

I read to her from my travel guide, show her pictures on my camera, and tell her about the massive, kirsch-soaked Black Forest cake I had there. By the time her husband returns she is sold and shows him the route.

"That's the 500," he says. "That's the road I wanted to go on."

"You didn't tell me there was cake," she says.

Turning to me, he smiles: "I think you just saved my marriage."

Unfortunately, I'm not able to take my own advice. I stay on the autobahn, pushing hard to get as far north as I can. In the early evening I find a campsite by typing "camping" into my GPS. It guides me to an RV resort brimming with German and Dutch families.

I eat dinner at the restaurant on site and my waitress thrice brings beer I didn't ask for. When I get my bill, I discover she hasn't charged me for it. A week later it will occur to me she may have been flirting. She probably wasn't but I'll tell myself she was.

The next day, I have 12 hours to cover just 200 miles. I decide to avoid motorways entirely. I am rewarded in this decision by the roads of rural Rhineland. Beautiful, undulating, well-paved and dotted with farm fields, it reminds me of Southern Wisconsin.

Keeping with the Upper Midwestern theme, I soon cross into the Minnesota-esque Netherlands. Here I continue on slower roads. Very slow; the maximum speed on non-motorway routes is 50 mph. But it's enjoyable. How could it not be? I'm riding a motorcycle across Europe, for the love of Pete.

This is the sort of thing you hope will come back to you in your final moments –– when everything's flashing before your eyes: "There I am singing Christmas songs with my grandmother. There I am on my wedding day. There I am in the Aare. Ahh hoo-hoo hoooo!"

I arrive at the ferry port early. I clean and lube the bike's chain and chat to an English couple who have been touring Sweden on their BMW R1200GS. A Suzuki Bandit 1250 rolls up. Its rider kills the engine, dismounts and pulls off his helmet in a single action.

"Hello chaps," he says. "Sorry I'm late."

He's English as well –– a sergeant in the Royal Army who travels frequently to a base in Germany. Soon afterward, a 24-year-old from Newcastle, recently fully licensed. He's been flogging an old Honda Hornet 600 to Finland and back. I don't know these people but it feels like a reunion. Something wells up in me I wouldn't have expected: eagerness to get back to the UK.

The next morning I'm exploring East Anglia –– a part of Britain I've never before visited. The weather is perfect: sunny and 22ºC (72ºF). You'll get none of that continental heatwave stuff in ol' Blighty. The Strom seems happy back on the left side of the road. It pops through roundabouts with renewed energy. It dances around traffic. I spend the day constantly asking and answering the question: "What's over there?"

Sunset finds me cruising through Norfolk on an uncharacteristically serene A47. It is one of those sunsets that kicks you in the chest, that makes you ache with the joy of being alive. Warm yellow-orange becoming bright pink; glowing across farm fields, the road, and broad sky. The late-day cool. The steadfast thrum of the motorcycle's engine. It is perfect.

Add this to those moments I will recall in my final one. Not too soon, though, Lord. This bike and I have a lot of places to go.