The motorcycle memoir has a special place in the literary garage. Bike journeys have historically offered some of the most vital commentary and insight into the worlds the rider passes through. As Robert M. Pirsig says in his immortal work Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. On a cycle the frame is gone…You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.
Motorcycles embed their riders in the worlds through which they pass, while cars can often wrench you away from them. The barriers between the rider and the road simply are not there. On a motorcycle, you are less a passenger – absent-mindedly adjusting the wheel with a single finger, taking your foot off the pedal and letting cruise control do its thing – than an active participant, inextricably bound to the experience. Such immersion leads to some incredible observations over the course of a long journey, and those observations compiled can create powerful and perspicacious works of literature. Here are 10 of the best motorcycle books of all time.
McQueen’s Motorcycles: Racing and Riding with the King of Cool
“A Husqvarna 405 at about 12,000 rpm—that’s music…I like being out there in the desert on a set of wheels. You’re really alive out there.”
More than a mere compilation of anecdotes and pictures, Matt Stone’s book is encyclopedic record of Steve McQueen’s cycles, and the various stages of his life that each one marked.The action movie star and widely proclaimed king of cool, found paradise by the dashboard lights of his many different bikes. Beginning with the first bike he purchased – a Harley upon arriving in the Big Apple as an unknown actor looking to make a name for himself to the Husqvarnas and to the Triumph bikes he used to race through California and Mexico, Stone details McQueen’s growth into a full-fledged icon – the American James Bond, on a bike rather than an Aston Martin – cataloguing the bikes he picked up along the way.
Author: Matt Stone
Length: 160 pages
Memorable Motorcycles: Triumph TR6, Triumph Desert Bike, Husqvarna 400 Cross
Easy Rider Original Screenplay + Essay Collection
“They’ll talk to ya and talk to ya and talk to ya about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.”
Easy Rider is the quintessential road trip movie. The film follows Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper as Wyatt, AKA Captain America and Billy, as they travel through the south on their way to Mardi Gras in New Orleans in the late ’60s. Their journey is colored by colorful characters, (mis)adventures, and sometimes disturbing and violent episodes. The film, considered one of the greatest movies ever made, illuminated the harsh reception with which members of the countercultural movement of the 1960s were often met, and the attacks they suffered as a result of their long hair and unconventional lifestyle. The film deals a blow to hopefulness and idealism regarding American culture, as the bikers ultimately suffer terrible fates in pursuit of their own, quintessentially American dream – to live freely. This screenplay and essay collection is the ultimate companion to the legendary American movie about two nonconformist bikers living in a violently disapproving world.
Author: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern
Length: 191 pages
Memorable Motorcycles: “Captain America” custom chopper, “Billy Bike” custom chopper
Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga
“The Edge… There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”
Hunter S. Thompson, the godfather of what Tom Wolfe named “Gonzo journalism,” an out-there, poetical and wild style of documentation, might best be known for his work Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or The Rum diaries, bestsellers that both went on to spawn films starring Johnny Depp, one of his lesser-known works might be his most intense. The inscrutable Thompson entered the world of the notorious Hell’s Angels Biker gang, and for nearly a whole year traveled with the rough and tumble company, learning their ways and documenting their lifestyle and members along the way. The brutal violence, the sexual depravity, the rides – all has been recorded by Thompson, who felt himself being absorbed by the band of outlaws by the time he walked away. The book gives insight to a subculture that most of us will never know, and probably hope to encounter.
Author: Hunter S. Thompson
Published: 1967, Penguin
Length: 273 pages
Memorable Motorcycles: Bultaco Matador, various Harley Davidsons
Alone In the Wind: A Journal Of Discovery In ‘The Summer Of ’88
“I don’t always understand what motivates me, but in this case, the seed had always been there.”
Charles L. Schierek published his memoir of journey through America on his Yamaha motorcycle during one of the hottest summers in American history in 2015. His book became an overnight success, shooting to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. This was the year that Yellowstone National Park caught on fire, and the worst drought since the dust bowl days that inspired John Steinbeck to write “The Grapes of Wrath” was ravaging America. Schierek takes you on his journey of endurance, providing vivid descriptions of the astounding, if arid atmosphere that the summer wrought. All told, Schierek registered over twelve thousand miles on the back of his bike, traveling from sea to shining sea, and back again.
Author: Charles L. Schierek
Published: 2015, Independent Publishing
Length: 222 pages
Memorable Motorcycles: Yamaha Virago 750
Long Way Round: Chasing Shadows Across the World
“We’ll get there!”
In 2014, actor Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman decided to take the long way from London to New York, a journey that spanned a total distance of 18,887 miles. On the back of their BMW R1150GS all-terrain motorcycles, the two men rode through Western and Central Europe, the Ukraine, Western Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Siberia and Canada.They rode up mountainsides, forded rivers, drove across treacherous roads, and passed through some of the most fascinating and bizarre places that the passage proffered. They survived various accidents – gasoline sprayed in McGregor’s eyes, Boorman suffered a fall and a sprained shoulder. The book companion to the beloved TV series features diary entries, travel maps, mileage charts, and dozens of photographs documenting their travels, as they chased the spirit of freedom and test their personal resourcefulness on this epic journey.
Author: Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman
Published: 2014, Atria Books
Length: 320 pages
Memorable Motorcycles: BMW R1150GS
Rebuilding The Indian
“In the lives of most cyclists, parts are a driving force…the search for a ’41 Chief shift lever is the reason for late-night trips to bars…junkyards garages and chicken coops.”
Fred Haefele had always wanted an Indian motorcycle. Having experienced a deluge of recent life changes – the dissolution of his marriage, the failure to achieve his dream of publishing a novel, and the imminent birth of a newborn daughter – Haefele sought to focus his mind on a project of growth.With $5,000, he bought the junker parts to an 1941 Indian Chief motorcycle and resolved to assemble it to perfection. Written through diary entries, Haefele painstakingly resurrects the classic bike, weaving in and out of digressions about his own life, as he reconnects with his passion for motorcycles, and the life he has made. With limited mechanical skill, Haefele’s project takes him down a winding road, becoming a journey of personal revelation.
Author: Fred Haefele
Published: 1998, Bison Books
Length: 210 pages
Memorable Motorcycles: 1941 Indian Chief
One Man Caravan
“I probably did too much thinking in India. I blame it on the roads, for they were superb…”
Robert Edison Fulton Jr. lived one hell of a life. A professional photographer, an inventor with other 70 patents – including a flight simulator and “airphibian” car that was flown by Charles Lindbergh – and an accomplished adventurer, Fulton Jr.’s most incredible journey is documented in his book One Man Caravan. The journey was conceived out of an incredible coincidence. When Fulton averred to a friend that his post-college plan was to travel the world on a motorcycle, he had no idea that he was sitting across from Kenton Redgrave, owner of Douglas Motorcycles. Redgrave offered him a free machine to ferry him on his odyssey, and Fulton Jr. packed his bags and hit the road. The 18-month adventure on a customized Douglas motorcycle boasting just six horsepower, took a young Fulton Jr. deep into terra incognita. His wild tales of the trail include being shot at in the Khyber Pass by tribesmen, racing away from Iraqi bandits, spending a night in Turkish jail, and being the guest of Indian rajahs. The terrain of post-WWI, pre-WWII Europe is an entirely different world, and this motorcycle books is as transportive and otherworldly as it is page-turning.
Author: Robert Edison Fulton Jr.
Published: 1937, Whitehorse Press
Length: 275 pages
Memorable Motorcycles: Modified 1932 Douglas Twin-Cylinder
“Maybe you know how it is when you have decided to do something really enormous with your life, something that stretches your resources to the limit. You can get the feeling that you are engaged in a trial of strength with the universe.”
Ted Simon has made a name for himself chronicling his motorcycle journeys. The British journalist has circumnavigated the glove twice, and written many a memoir on his experiences. No book has had the same kind of influence as his 1979 work, Jupiter’s Travels. The book follows Simon’s four-year journey through 78,000 miles. The trip took him across 45 countries, riding on a Triumph Tiger 100 500 cc motorcycle. With a keen eye for observation, Simon remarks on the physical beauty and political calamity that he encounters along the way. If you like Jupiter’s Travels, continue on Simon’s journey with his follow-up, Riding High. Simon says he rode not just for himself, but for those who never could afford to pursue the same dream. “It was going to be the journey of a lifetime, a journey that millions dream of and never make, and I wanted to do justice to all those dreams.”
Author: Ted Simon
Published: 1979, Jupitalia Productions
Length: 456 pages
Memorable Motorcycles: Triumph Tiger 100 500 cc
The Motorcycle Diaries
“I now know, by an almost fatalistic conformity with the facts, that my destiny is to travel…”
Before he was the international, socialist-guerilla-icon emblazoned on the shirts of tourists, Che Guevara was Ernesto Guevara. In 1950, Che was a 23-year-old medical student, who wanted to expand his understanding of the people he would be treating, should he continue to pursue a career in medicine. He and his friend Alberto Granado, a 29-year-old biochemist, set out on a voyage to traverse Latin America on a sputtering single cylinder 1939 Norton 500cc about the size of a modern day electric bike, nicknamed La Poderosa – “the Mighty One” – gaining insight about the impoverished lives of the people in these countries. It was this journey to which many attribute Che Guavara’s radicalization, as the motorcycle journey opened his eyes to the pervasive inequality of the world.
Author: Ernesto “Che” Guevara
Published: 1995, Verso books
Length: 175 pages
Memorable Motorcycles Motorcycles: 1939 Norton 500cc
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values
“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”
Widely known and regarded as a classic, this book follows a cross country journey of a former professor and his young son as they ride for 17-days on a journey from Minnesota to Northern California. Throughout the book, Pirsig delivers what he calls a “Chautauqua,” a series of enlightening talks, about his philosophy on the concept of Quality.He often relates the mentality it takes to do mechanical work, and how that ties into a great philosophical difference of opinions in the modern world. ZAMM is the quintessential instance of a motorcycle journey lending to deep contemplation. In Zen, the internal monologue is the story, while the journey is the structure. He disclaims any serious connection to Zen Buddhism or Japanese culture (though he does ride a Honda motorcycle) but the book has serious epistemological depth that will broaden your scope. Either way, it’s illuminating and a wonderful read – and millions have. Though not the most intense read on the list, it has its twists and turns. Should you decide to pick it up, you’ll find that Zen and the Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance is one hell of a ride.
Author: Robert M. Pirsig
Published: 1974, Harper Collins
Length: 540 pages
Memorable Motorcycles: Honda CB77 Super Hawk