on 16 November 2012
A Ride in the Sun/Gasoline Gypsy inspires and delights yet it also intrigues because beneath its carefree image and writing tone there is a complex story going on.
The book should appeal to many different readerships because at its heart are four `characters': the rider, Peggy Iris Thomas; Matelot, her Airedale Terrier, who rides pillion; Oppy, the heavily-laden BSA Bantam, and the 14,000 mile journey itself. So, if you are a motorcyclist, a dog lover, a classic bike fan or adore travel books then this one should please. If you fall into all four of those categories you should be over the moon!
The book was born out of a series of articles Peggy wrote about her solo expedition through Canada, America and Mexico between 1951 and 1952. (I say `solo' but she did have the faithful Matelot for company; the star of the show as far as I was concerned.)
The text can be viewed as a travelog, as a story, and as a historical document. In fact, it is what is NOT said in the book that stirs curiosity. Reading between the lines I would say that the magazine publishers commissioned her to write a light-hearted tale of derring-do. The book's original blurb says: "cheered along by her many new-found friends, she has woven her unique journey into an engaging account of life on the open road."
It is a jaw-dropping, rip-roaring tale as Peggy dashes along the highways encountering sandstorms, earthquakes, tropical gales, desert heat and all manner of creepy crawlies and crustaceans that crawl over her body and she loses Matelot at one point. Yet the book's original artwork included a drawing of a neat, blonde lady with a neat brown dog) who looks like she is riding through an English shire.
I believe that Peggy Thomas was much more interesting, less anodyne than that. I would even go so far as to say she was a potentially subversive character. This is a woman who is travelling alone in the most exposed circumstances imaginable. She blithely reveals how in Hollywood she is taken into the home of Pat and Bernice, two black teachers. Though the couple is clearly middle-class and cultured, and living in the possibly more open-minded Los Angeles, this was at a time of deep segregation in America and readers back home may well have raised eyebrows. What she did flouted the mores of the time but she does not go into detail about that in the text, though she does mention a less comfortable encounter with a poor, black community in the heart of Georgia, in the deeply segregated south, who view her with silent suspicion.
Peggy also travels across a desert with a man who makes a pass at her when, storm-drenched, they finally reach their destination. She manages to sidestep this guy but we must assume that she met with sexual harassment along the way. But we hear nothing of that, apart from the leers and whistles she receives while working as a car hop - a job she sticks for one night only. This is what I mean by saying it is a wonderful historical document. The omissions reveal to us what was acceptable and unacceptable to 1950's readers.
The more I read the more curious I became about Peggy. What gave her the confidence to undertake this clearly perilous journey on her own? This was a time, remember, when post-war women were being forced back into the home and marriage was pushed as the ultimate goal. What did Carl-Erik, her future husband make of it all? (He who posted her engagement ring to her while she was on the road). Why was the marriage short-lived? Was Peggy, the girl who sleeps in lay-bys, swamps and on a Mexican bar's table tops, and who makes the best of a lack of washing and laundry facilities, too much the free spirit, I wonder? And how did Matelot end his days?
There was something of the spirit of empire in Peggy, I felt. She not only knew how to work, ride and occasionally fix a motorbike (a 125cc one at that!) she knew how to work people. She was not averse to using her femininity to escape the wrath of officials or to secure help yet she also used her voice, her bearing, to get things done, for example, among the Mexicans with their insistence on `manana'.
Reading the book 60 years after the ride took place I marvelled at how Peggy, in an increasingly affluent post-Second World War America, could easily pick up jobs and leave them as she wanted, something that we, who have mass unemployment as the norm, can only dream of. And motorcycle lovers will marvel (or reminisce) about a time when there was a thriving motorcycle shop with its own mechanics in every town, such was the practicality and affordability of motor biking.
Maybe the world was a simpler, friendlier, safer place back then because Peggy steps into trucks and cars with complete strangers, many of them lone men, and wherever she goes she seems to be invited into people's houses to stay the night, eat with them and be part of their lives for a short time. She sleeps on beaches and on roadsides, in her tent or just under a sleeping bag, though she does resist sleeping in Central Park because she has heard that murders take place there. She climbs into a truck whose driver is drunk. "So what?" says her friend, Veda. More innocent times indeed!
However, as the book nears its end I felt that Peggy revealed a more honest picture of her journey. Almost penniless she is forced to undertake jobs she finds disagreeable, in fact, downright humiliating, she lives on little more than banana sandwiches, is anaemic and even Matelot is looking a little bony. Oppy, who does an amazing job, is buckling under the strain. You sense that despite all the wonderful people she has met that there is a loneliness to those last weeks.
But there is no doubt whatsoever that Peggy was made for a life on the road. She takes difficulties in her stride, makes friends wherever she goes and though she powders her nose and brushes her hair we suspect she barely cares a hoot for how she looks. For Peggy the adventure is the thing.
She is a true vagabond, the real `Gasoline Gypsy'.