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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

It is generally accepted as comprehensible, the Once in a Lifetime Adventure beloved of vicarious travelers, to spend three years going around the world with your girlfriend and a soon-to-be battered-looking motorcycle. The public adores it, the idea of someone doing what they would do, if only they could take the time, get free from work, family, all the bonds we spend years tying about our own ankles. So these collect sponsorships (cold-weather underwear, aluminum hard cases), stop by the wayside to write accounts for the blog the world is booting up to read, and publish a book when they return. There’s a lot of riding, but there’s a lot of people-ing, too (the readability factor demands Interesting Encounters). Hotels, hot meals, nights in tents as opposed to the saddle. Seventy or eighty years ago, an individual could easily make a First: first man around the world, first woman, first sidecar. Now you have to work to even think up some minor fillip that would make it new. In the case of Norwegians Tormod Amlien and Klaus Ulvestad, outlandish humor alone could have been their contribution to the 70,000-mile journey (self-titled the King Croesus Contempt for Death “world’s dumbest motorcycle trip” begun in 2009), but they decided to gild the lily by undertaking it on two 1939 Nimbus machines with sidecars “piloted by pure idiots.” Extraordinary, even grueling, though it remains, the round-the-world trip is . . . travel. And travel is the antithesis of the Iron Butt enterprise. Round-the-world the Iron Butt way is covering 19,030 miles in 31 days and 20 hours, as Nick Sanders did, to enter the Guinness Book of World Records.

This yearning to break a record (largest chocolate-chip cookie ever baked; longest solo flight) is a purely human deviation from animal nature. Yet it has become profoundly in our nature to do such essentially unnatural things as expend energy in otherwise fruitless acts. The patently absurd things we do—swim across the Atlantic, compete in the Self-Transcendence Race (ha! exactly!) by running 5,649 half-mile laps in 51 days, kill ourselves on icy mountaintops for the sole purpose of trying to get there—are a compulsion left by our evolution. We were built to contend with threats that swept down from trees, food that ran swiftly away, blood that spilled and could not be stopped. Pushing a heavily piled cart at Walmart does not count. And so it is that long-distance riding can be seen as a proxy for the daily life-or-death struggle we were kitted out for as forest-dwelling hunters. In its absence, we feel a need to find pursuits that exercise the same mental and physical capacities. Or else they start to itch. We want to feel fully alive, and fully ourselves. In this way, riding to extremes takes humans home again.