[This story was written during our Clockwork Angels European tour in May, 2013, for a British motorcycling weekly. They asked for about 700 words and a photo or two, and I gave them 1,700 words, and eight photos. They said they would run it like that, but took a few liberties - not so much with the text, but perhaps because the story was part of an “adventure touring” issue, they replaced Brutus’s and my iconic U.K. photos with more exotic images from a previous tour in South America.
That’s fine, for their purposes, but not for mine - trying to share an experience as deeply as I can. So I decided to present it here in its original form, which would also fill a gap in the tour’s documentation, before the “Shunpikers in the Shadowlands” story about Continental Europe.
I will retract the British spellings, for consistency (and personal taste), but keep the “cultural references,” for fun.
As recounted elsewhere, while writing this story I consulted an experienced British motorcyclist about whether riders and readers over there would know the word “shunpiking.” He said they wouldn’t, so I redefined it here.
Our previously-informed readers may feel free to skim over that part . . . ]
On the night of May 29, 2013, Rush drummer Neil Peart will perform with his bandmates, Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee, in front of 6,300 people in Glasgow. That afternoon, Neil commutes to work on his BMW 1200 GS motorcycle, via a muddy singletrack in the Cairngorm Mountains. He tells us why.
Photo by Brutus
Since 1996 I have been traveling on Rush tours by motorcycle, riding to virtually every concert in the United States, Canada, South America, and Europe. Hundreds of shows, tens of thousands of miles, and a million memories - almost all good, and many spectacular, like the American West, the Brazilian rainforest, the Stelvio Pass, and the Yorkshire Dales.
A more-or-less typical example of my touring life would be the U.K. part of our Clockwork Angels tour in May, 2013. Here’s how it works . . .
On a show night, after I have pounded and sweated for about three-and-a-half hours, we reach the last song in the encore - a version of our “Grand Finale” from the 2112 album.
While the final echo of our burnout ending rings in the arena, and Geddy is still saying a grateful good night to the audience, I bow and wave and run offstage. Through the dark backstage labyrinth, I follow the bobbing blue flashlight beam waved in my direction by the running shadow ahead - Michael, my American riding partner and road manager. He leads me to the bus, and I run onboard. While I change out of my sweaty drumming clothes in the back, driver Malcolm gets underway. My riding partner in Europe (and anywhere outside the U.S. - long story), Brutus, pours me a refreshing measure of The Macallan, and I sit down in T-shirt and towel at the front lounge table, usually browsing through the photos Brutus and I have taken, editing, cropping, and refining my “three star” selection. After a long day of motorcycling and drumming (some days it’s difficult to say which activity was harder), it is an unspectacular, but rewarding time.
After an hour or so, Brutus and I wander off to our berths, while Malcolm pilots the bus through the night, then parks at an agreed-upon dropoff point. After sleeping in a non-moving bus for another few hours, Brutus and I rise painfully early. Ahead of us is always what Brutus calls “a full day.”
On a show day, my mental and physical energies necessarily have to peak at about 11:00 at night, so coming down takes a while. I won’t get to sleep before about 1:00 a.m., and that means the alarm at 7:00 is not always a welcome sound. Still, I raise my tired and aching body (drumming is a serious athletic workout for me, especially as I begin my seventh decade, so it causes some pain), and - here’s an important distinction - I don’t get up against my will, but because of it. Stumbling up to the front lounge, I greet Brutus and Malcolm, cut and squeeze some oranges, fix a little cereal with bananas and blueberries, and draw a cup of good strong coffee from the bus’s excellent grinding-and-pouring machine.
That will, that resignation, is only possible because I am powerfully enough motivated for the “full day” ahead.
I define my approach to each day I am given as, “What is the most excellent thing I can do today?” Sometimes, like nearly everyone, the most excellent thing I can do today is go to work, and that is fine. I do love most everything about my job, but it requires being away from home a great deal, and that is not the fantasy it sometimes seems to others. However, the silver lining is that I am free to choose an excellent way to get to work.
That’s where motorcycling comes in. Our bus tows a small trailer holding two BMW 1200 GS motorcycles, and after breakfast, Brutus and I suit up (ATGATT - “all the gear all the time”), layering according to the weather. (We follow the ancient Canadian wisdom, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.”) Malcolm helps us unload the bikes, and we arrange our luggage (dress-up suits for fancier destinations carefully folded in a suitbag and packed alone in one side-case, so we can look good after arrival - helpful “Roadcraft” technique for upscale bikers).
Mounted up, I lead Brutus away into the morning, following his route, carefully researched and designed, on the GPS screen in front of me. Its motorcycle-shaped cursor traces the purple line that squiggles along the smallest roads Brutus can find, through the most scenic parts of Britain.
To our sportier natures, the lightly-traveled B roads of Wales and Scotland are endlessly entertaining, inspiring us to rail through a series of sweeping bends with controlled aggression and technique. That is certainly exciting and fun, but our favorite roads are the little singletracks.
“Slow Touring,” I call it, like the Slow Food or Slow Blogging movements, emphasizing quality over quantity. Creeping along between the dense hedges and stone walls of Devon or the Cotswolds in first or second gear, dodging sheep and tractors (I call us “hedge-huggers” in country like that), or on a narrow, winding ribbon of pavement laid across the barren Welsh and Scottish mountains (with more sheep), or threading the fells and narrow valleys of the Lake District (dotted ditto), the riding is relaxing, even serene, yet technically demanding. There is definitely an art to riding slowly over dynamic terrain.
On a previous tour, Brutus and I tackled the Wrynose and Hardknott Passes in the Lake District (“Britain’s steepest road”), in teeming rain, and when we had successfully climbed the narrow zigzags of the tightest switchbacks imaginable, I said to Brutus, “That took everything I know.”
Brutus replied, “That took some stuff I didn’t even know yet!”
The delightful term “shunpiker” goes back about 500 years, to a time when British roads were lawless, especially at night, prowled by highwaymen and footpads. Villages blockaded their entry roads with a long pole - a pike - stretched across them. Around the same time, toll roads were invented, and a similar pike blocked the way until travelers paid their fee, when the pike would be turned - hence “turnpike.”
In those days, travelers who deliberately avoided toll roads called themselves “shunpikers.” Lately, the term has been adopted by drivers and riders who deliberately avoid all major roads. By nature, Brutus and I are both radical shunpikers, and stay well away from motorways (literally one per cent of our riding, at most), and even A roads - the crowded and potentially deadly hunting grounds of White Van Man, Mondeo Woman, Yellow Vest Man, and marauding gangs of the dreaded Kneepuck Man. (Knee sliders on the public roads? Seriously?)
On the singletracks, other than the sheep, we may encounter an occasional rare specimen of Welly Man, or Landy Man.
In four tours of the U.K. by motorcycle over the past decade or so, Brutus and I have explored hundreds of miles of singletracks, stopping often for photographs. A “full day” does not mean a great distance, because rambling around like that we might average twenty miles per hour - then fetch up at some splendid country hotel Brutus has booked.
Post-ride refreshments mark that most pleasurable time (inspiring one of my stories in Far and Away, “The Hour of Arriving”), then a fine meal (Lord Byron was right: “Much depends upon dinner”) with good wine. We retire early - to catch up on the previous night’s missed sleep, and ready to rise as soon as breakfast is served and get back on the road.
Early one rainy morning in the tiny Yorkshire village of Ramsgill-in-Nidderdale, I looked out the window of our hotel (“a restaurant with rooms”) at the soggy gray sky, the deep green trees and grass, our dripping-wet motorcycles in the forecourt, and, leading away between the ancient stone buildings, a narrow strip of shiny wet pavement. I smiled to realize that despite the unpromising weather, and the need to get to Sheffield and perform a show, I was actually looking forward to the day’s ride across Yorkshire’s lanes. (And did I mention the sheep?)
After all these years, all those miles, all those rainy days, and all those sheep - obviously I still love to ride those sweet little singletracks.
Back in the mid-’90s, Brutus and I took up serious motorcycling at the same time, and soon discovered we shared a preference for a style of travel that didn’t have a name then, but soon became fetishized as “adventure touring.” (See ADV Man.) After thrashing our way to Arctic Canada and around Mexico in our first, more sport-touring BMW models, we each bought the first “oilhead” GSs, the R1100 GS, and promptly shipped them to Europe and made our way down through Austria, Italy, and Sicily to the Sahara in Tunisia, then back through Sardinia and Switzerland.
“Oh yes,” we thought, “this is the way we roll.”
Around that time I began to consider the notion of using my motorcycle not just for adventures, but for “business travel” - riding it between shows on the band’s tours. My bandmates were happy to fly, and I had my own bus with a trailer and a riding partner (in case a mechanical or tire problem interrupted my commute to work, I could commandeer the other bike and get there - but in tribute to the GS’s reliability, careful maintenance, and good fortune, that has never happened).
[Fateful words - see “It’s Not Over When It’s Over.”]
Since then, with Brutus or Michael, and sometimes both, I have ridden tens of thousands of miles of backroads, adopting the motto, “The best roads are the ones no one travels unless they live on them.”
Better yet, and infinitely more rare, are the roads no one even lives on (except millions of sheep) - like around Britain’s fantastic national parks.
However, one thing that puzzles Brutus and me while we’re riding these wiggly singletracks and serene country lanes is that we never - but never - encounter other motorcyclists.
We agree that, all things considered, that is for the best. Those little lanes are messy and unpleasant, often rainy, and quite possibly dangerous. Terrible, really. Not scenic or anything. And there are all those sheep.
We strongly advise other riders to keep far, far away from those nasty little British singletracks. Trust us, they are not at all fun, and we’re sure you wouldn’t like them.
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