After listening to a presentation the author gave at a BMW motorcycle dealership in Raleigh, NC, I bought a copy of this book from his wife Collette and had Rene sign it. His 90 minute talk, with big-screen powerpoint slides, covered many of the details in the book, jokes and all. As a result, reading the book was less a process of discovery than one of remembering him talking about his trip. Both experiences were enjoyable, but my first journey through the story was understandably a little more exciting.
Readers often have wildly different expectations for travel writing, especially when motorcycles are involved. The University of Gravel Roads is not a book about the act of riding, riding skills, or the machine he was riding on, although those are obviously a part of Rene’s story. I tend to enjoy the descriptions of the locations as much as anything else. The book provided those descriptions for me, both in writing as well as with inspiring pictures. I would have preferred if the pictures had made better use of the large format pages, but perhaps my expectations are skewed because I first saw many of them on a 6 foot screen.
It’s ironic that the book’s most inspiring pictures for me were taken in the early part of Rene’s journey when he was unfortunately shooting at a lower resolution. No matter. The pictures succeeded in giving me a glimpse of the beautiful mountains of South America. The open spaces of Mongolia were also fascinating to me and clearly left an impression on Rene.
I can empathize with Rene’s preference for slow travel to better get to know and enjoy the places he visited. Most trips I’ve taken seem too rushed when they are over. I want to travel slowly and soak in the experience. It’s a great example to see that Rene was able to do that.
Most adventurous journeys end too soon, whether you’re living them or reading about them, and this story was no different. I agree with some reviewers that the the writing seems to have rushed by the later years of his journey. Rene did attempt to explain that within the book as he described his own personal transformations during the trip.
Early in the book Rene shared his feeling that not all stories need to be told. But he had a change of heart after he realized how much the stories of others had helped him prepare for and throughout his own trip. As readers, we can choose to feel disappointed that more of his five and a half year trip didn’t get squeezed into the book. Or we can choose to take it as a challenge to get out and experience our own journeys and transformations. Rene does tell the reader to do just that, whether it’s just for a day or a weekend. It’s important to just start.
I do not have the same motorcycle or world travel experience as Rene, so I found this peek into those possibilities to be entertaining and inspiring. I have motorcycle camped on a trip from the east coast to Colorado, where this story began. I do plan to one day attempt a ride to Alaska, which was the second part of his story. Beyond that, who knows how far the similarities will go? I’ve learned from The University of Gravel Roads that I can go as far as I want to.