Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Better Than Fiction: Around the World on a Bicycle

There's a whole class of literature these days dedicated to fictional adventures set in the Victorian age. The period is certainly fertile ground for imaginary adventures, global communications and travel were just becoming reality, yet there were plenty of blank spots on the map where European feet - in some cases any human feet - had yet to tread. At the same time, steam power, electricity and heavy industry were bringing rapid changes across the develped world.

During the period authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were looking at the possibilities inherent in the new technology of the day, while more than a century later, modern science fiction authors look back to the period and imagine how that same world of steam and gears might have evolved into an analog analogue of our digital 21st Century society.

But at the same time, there was no shortage of actual adventure, as evidenced by the travel writings of Thomas Stevens.  In 1884 Stevens, who was born in England but had been living and working in the Western United States, packed a small bag of clothes, some rain gear and a Smith & Wesson revolver and set out to ride his new bicycle around the world.

The Columbia high-wheel bicycle he was riding was the latest innovation and was a triumph of Yankee engineering. The idea of connecting the cranks to the rear wheel with a chain drive was still several years in the future, but with its 50-inch-tall front wheel and solid rubber tires it rolled much faster and more smoothly than the boneshakers that were the former pinnacle of human-powered transport.

Stevens started out in California in April and traveled along railroad routes, canal towpaths, public roads and wagon trails across the country until arriving in Boston 3,000 miles and almost four months later. The American West in the 1880s was still pretty wild, and he could travel an entire day without seeing another soul, and when he DID reach a town or ranch (usually a full day's travel apart) he ran into some fairly eccentric characters. Often the ground was so uneven he found himself walking about a third of his daily miles. After crossing the plains, though, he found himself in more and more settled territory (and on better and better roads) until he hit the Big City in August.

After he become the first person to cycle across America, Outing magazing took notice and hired Stevens as a correspondent, and helped fund his travels from that point on in return for travel reports from abroad. He sailed to England by steamship the next spring and set out from London in April of 1885.

From London he crossed to the continent by steamer and traveled through Europe to the Middle East, wintering in Tehran and, after several misadventures false starts, set out across Asia, finally reaching Yokohama, Japan in December of 1886, having traveled more than 13,000 miles riding (and occasionally pushing) his bicycle.

The distance and difficulty alone are impressive, but better still were his observations about the people he met along the way. The bicycle, which today is one of the most popular forms of transport in the world, was a novelty at the time, so he often found himself treated as a sideshow performer, constantly being asked to demonstrate how it was possible to ride this strange contraption. Many passers-by regarded it as almost magical that a machine which couldn't stand unsupported could carry a person at the same speed as a horse.

It's also quite amusing to read Stevens' accounts of all the local merchants and self-appointed guides, in various countries and languages, who would try to swindle the "English Tourist" for as much money as they could get for their often dubious services - a complaint which is familiar from many modern travel writers.

Stevens was threatened a few times, almost robbed a few more, and run out of town at least once in his travels, but he never had to fire his revolver at another person, and often traveled through some of the most "dangerous" territories in the world at the time as an honored guest of the locals (although, perhaps not surprisingly, he was unable to safely cross Afghanistan, which was a tragic mess even then).

It's a long book, collected in two volumes, and takes quite a while to get through, but it's worth reading if you've ever dreamed of setting out under your own power, by foot, by boat or -of course - by bike and seeing just how far you could go.

Around the World on a Bicycle is available in paperback from your local bookseller or in digital form from Project Gutenberg

1 comment:

Courtney said...

You know, I just got my Kindle Touch today. I think this might make a great addition of my library of books to read on it.