Friday, 25 July 2014

The Road Headed West by Leon McCarron

There is a growing number of very good travel books based around the bicycle. Mike Carter's One Man and His Bike and Rob Lilwall's Cycling Home from Siberia spring to mind and now I'd like to add one more: Leon McCarron's The Road Headed West.
Leon McCarron with Lola, his trusty steed.

McCarron's book is all about his ride from the East to the West coast of the USA at a time when many of his peers are back home – although exactly where home is I'm not sure – looking for work in recessionary Western Europe.

Short chapters make it easy to read and, like all travel books of this nature, the reader has that strong sense of moving forward and being part of McCarron's adventure from the word go.

The book starts in New York where McCarron, a film studies graduate, has been working in some kind of routine job, possibly an internship, and has decided to throw caution to the wind and cycle from one side of the USA to the other. The plan is simply (I use that word 'simply' advisedly) to ride from New York to Seattle but when he gets there, McCarron realises that he still has that thirst for adventure and continues on down the West coast towards the border with Mexico, although this bit of the book isn't really as detailed as the main journey from East to West coast.

While McCarron, like many travel writers, points out that it's by far the best bet to travel/ride alone – and not be influenced by others or, indeed, be prevented from making friends with others en route and decide upon your own destiny – he does spend a great deal of time in the company of others, namely Susie, Matt, Sean and Alex plus somebody called Bryan who, I have to admit, I felt rather sorry for as McCarron singles him out for some reason, not as somebody he doesn't like, but as somebody he seems to have less time for than the others. This mildly annoyed me.

New York – the start of the adventure
That McCarron spends more time in the company of others than Mike Carter or Rob Lilwall doesn't in any way detract from the greatness of his book or the quality of the adventure. In fact, quite the opposite as dialogue here and there brings the book alive. While Carter and Lilwall tended to shun company more than McCarron, I think it depends on where you're going to ride. In the UK, riding around the coast, say, I'd probably shun company to a great extent and allow my thoughts to roam free on the ride. In the USA, however, I'm with Leon on the whole company thing and while, as he says in the book, he gets used to camping alone on occasion, I'd feel a lot happier knowing that others were around in case of emergency. In fact, talking of emergencies, Leon has one encounter with a gun-toting nutter in Iowa, quite a terrifying encounter as it happens, and I was amazed that he made such a clean escape considering he had a heavily loaded bike to lug around too.

He overpacks, as did Mike Carter in One Man & His Bike and even pulls a trailer along behind his bike all the way across the USA, something I would have avoided like the plague. It's odd when I think that Andy and I often discuss books like McCarron's and Carter's and Lilwall's and I've always been of the opinion that if I was going to do something similar, ie ride across the USA or around the coast of England (Lilwall's riding home from Siberia seemed a little excessive to me) I would travel as light as possible: I'd take the tent but I'd probably map out a route that enabled me to stay in cheap hotels or guest houses. Easier said than done, I'd imagine, but for me it would be panniers, not a trailer, some waterproofs, and a few essentials. I might carry a book, but not books, and I'd ensure that I had a credit card too.
Iowa – not Leon's favourite US state (looks great to me).
He doesn't like Iowa and he doesn't like Michigan, mainly because, in Iowa, everything is so flat and samey and, I guess, monotonous. In Michigan it was the down-at-heel nature of the places he passed through. Other close encounters include a bear that pads around outside his tent  because he's left half a chocolate bar in his pocket, but outside of that, traffic is the big danger along with the occasional bout of reckless riding, when he forgets the rules he set himself, and bridges without a hard shoulder.

Like all good adventurers, Leon has the girl at home (Clare) to occasionally consider. Lilwall met somebody en route and Carter was recently divorced (which led to two excellent travel books, the other one being Uneasy Rider).

What I found heartening about Leon's book, as, indeed, Carter's and Lilwall's, was the generosity of those they met on the road and the fact that many folk offered them food and accommodation. Leon meets more good people than bad and relies upon a website ( to find people willing to offer a bed for the night. Invariably the people on appear to be very laid back and always on the way out, ie they're off on holiday or going away for the weekend but are happy to leave Leon with the keys and give him the run of the house or apartment. Still, it seems to have worked and Leon doesn't encounter any problems from what appears to be a like-minded community of people all over the world (and certainly in the USA).

Leon does a good job describing the changing scenery as he progresses from East to West and, as Rob Lilwall says on the book's front cover, it "Will inspire you to chase your bicycle adventure dreams." Well, it certainly did.
Seattle, Washington, but the ride didn't end here
At no stage was I left wondering how the hell Leon could afford to embark upon such an adventure. What annoyed me about Carter's One Man & His Bike and Lilwall's Cycling Home from Siberia was a nagging thought of 'how can they afford to do this?' Well, one thing was clear: they were free from responsibility. Carter was recently divorced and Lilwall single, but that's not the issue, it's the money that bugged me and the fact that the book's publishers in a way misled the reader, although I won't level that criticism at Leon, even if the back cover of his book asks "What happens when you swap the nine-to-five for two wheels and the journey of a lifetime?" Because that's what he does, rather than remain in full-time education or be unemployed.

Carter's back cover asks "What would happen if you were cycling to the office and just kept on pedalling past?" Well, the truth of the matter was that he didn't just ride to work and keep on going, he planned the trip to some degree, the office knew he was doing it and let's not think otherwise. Throughout One Man & His Bike (which I still think is among the best books I've ever read) I found myself wondering how he was funding the trip and I'm guessing that somewhere he explained, although perhaps not that clearly. I know, for instance, that he rented out his flat and I'm assuming that, as a journalist, he wrote about his adventures in the newspaper he was working for, but it's not made crystal clear.

Leon gets by on a few dollars a day and while at first I found this hard to believe, I began to realise that when you're on the road and often in the middle of nowhere, there's not much to spend money on.

Finally, another great thing about Leon's book is the bit at the end entitled Cycle Touring: a how-to of bicycle travel in which he outlines every element of what is needed to embark upon such an adventure. I liked the fact that he makes it clear how accessible cycling is to everybody and that you don't even have to be that fit as the very act of cycling gets you fitter and fitter as the days go by. Start off doing around 40 miles a day (easy if you're a regular cyclist) and build up from there.

In the Epilogue, Leon explains how his journey didn't end in on the Mexican border. "After a little while in Mexico I rode back north to LA on whim, and eventually made my way to New Zealand. Passage came courtesy of a free air ticket that was bestowed upon me by a large Kiwi corporation after I sent them an email telling them I would like to visit their country and ride my bicycle and keep a blog about my travels."

He visited the North and South islands of New Zealand, pedalled the East Coast of Australia and also rode through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and China.

"Perhaps some day I will write a book of those cycling days...". Well, let's hope so, Leon.

Further information,

To buy The Road Headed West by Leon McCarron, click here.

Watch the book's promotional video by clicking here.

No comments:

Post a Comment