Motorcycle Traveler – Book Review

What would you do if you came face to face with your own mortality? For many of us, especially in this sport, it’s a scenario we think about in the abstract; we’re either going to go out in a blaze of glory doing something we love, or Father Time will continue undefeated. We don’t think, much less expect, something like cancer to get in the way of our plans. Peter Starr was one of those people, living comfortably – some would even say successfully – thanks to motorcycles.

One fateful day in 2004 would turn his world upside down. Starr was diagnosed with colon cancer, bringing into crystal clear focus how finite his life really was. It was then that he stopped giving in to the excuses he told himself and decided to check off something he’d always wanted to do: explore the world on two wheels. In his book, Motorcycle Traveler, Starr takes us through his six-year journey, crossing 12 countries off his bucket list long before that was ever a phrase.

The Legend

If the name Peter Starr rings a bell to some of you, there’s a good reason. If not, let’s put it this way: any motorcycle video you’ve ever seen since the 1970s has been shot and/or influenced by him. Starr is the godfather of motorcycle movie-making. Ever watched a race and marveled at the on-board footage? He started it way back in 1980, long before GoPros, putting a shoebox-sized camera on the gas tank of Don Emde’s bike and having it record during the 1980 AMA national at Laguna Seca. Yes, during the race. In all, Starr produced and directed more than 50 movies or TV shows centered around motorcycles and motorsports. 

The film Starr is best known for is his 1979 classic, Take It To The Limit, chronicling the life of the top motorcycle racers – spanning several different disciplines – of the time. These include Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey, Freddie Spencer, Mike Hailwood, Roger DeCoster, Jay Springsteen, and Barry Sheene, just to name a small few. Never before had viewers been exposed to the beauty of motorcycle sport in such a cinematic and immersive way.

Motorcycle Traveler

A remote location in Ecuador, accessible via motorcycle.

It was because of his contributions to motorcycling as a filmmaker that Starr was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 2017. But to only recognize Starr as a passionate motorcyclist with a camera would be doing a disservice. Since his cancer diagnosis, he has dedicated himself to cancer awareness and, as he puts it, living a purposeful life. This led to the desire to explore via motorcycle. In Motorcycle Traveler, Starr takes us along for his journey, and as any good motorcycle travel guide does, he describes the beautiful landscapes, delicious foods, and gracious people he meets along the way as he travels to Thailand, Poland, Canada, Ecuador, Wales/Isle of Man, New Zealand, Scotland, Taiwan, Finland, Romania, Australia, and Israel. 

Each country gets its own chapter, so it’s not imperative to read each chapter in successive order. Because of this, I chose to prioritize the countries I was personally interested in first. It just so happens my curiosity was piqued initially by Israel, the last chapter.

Likely not an image you’ll see on a postcard from Israel.

Not a destination I’ve considered for motorcycle travel, as it turns out, it wasn’t on Starr’s list either. Ignorance and a misguided view from western media skewed Starr’s perception of the country, but an invite from a friend who organized a tour led by government certified tour guide Duby Nevo changed Starr’s perceptions entirely. Everywhere Starr rode – from Tel Aviv to Caesarea, Masada to Arad, the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, and of course Jerusalem, rich history was everywhere, explained in great detail by Nevo. And if the group couldn’t stop to see a sight, Nevo would talk about it via communicators in their helmets, making the ride that much more fulfilling for Starr. A self-proclaimed history buff, visiting a Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holy site like Jerusalem resulted in information overload.

Personally, I enjoy a travel log so rich in sights, people, and food, that I forget all about the motorcycle. Sure we all want to ride on exciting roads, but the people you meet along the way and the experiences you share are the memories that will last far longer. In Motorcycle Traveler, Starr seamlessly intertwines the excitement of traversing foreign lands on two wheels with the excitement and wonder that comes with exploration. Take Thailand for example. A popular tourist destination, Starr’s imagery through Thailand showcases the breathtaking temples, statues, and people, with far fewer references and pictures of the motorcycle or the roads – partially because his hands are busy riding to take a photo, but also because that’s saved for the body text of the book, where I think it’s better suited. There Starr lets the reader imagine the scenery (and the conditions) through his descriptions, providing historical context along the way. The occasional exception is when Starr can show the curiosity locals have when encountered with a modern motorcycle.

It’s hard not to be inspired when beauty like this surrounds you in Thailand.

While not a self-proclaimed history buff, I do have an appreciation for the past, and Starr’s visit to Poland caught my attention for one simple reason: Auschwitz. It’s hard not to stop and reflect whenever Nazi death camps are mentioned. In reality, the chapter on Poland only briefly mentions Auschwitz and instead takes the reader on a whirlwind 1400-mile tour covered in 29 hours. The tales of castles, fine dining, and illegally riding motorcycles through the pedestrian walkways of Wawel Royal Castle (and the ensuring police intervention!) were fun and lighthearted, only to be weighed heavily by the imagery of the Birkenau extermination camp.

Take It To The Limit remains a classic motorcycling film, and part of it had to do with the mystique surrounding the Isle of Man TT. So, it’s only natural for Starr to relive the nostalgia on his trip to the Island, this time going on a joy ride instead of filming a race – though, of course, he timed his visit to coincide with the world’s most famous road race. There have been many a documentary, diary, and story written about the TT. Starr’s is yet another reason to visit the tiny landmass should you ever get the chance.

Mike “The Bike” Hailwood hiding in plain sight getting laps in for his return to the Isle of Man TT after 10 years away. Ostensibly he was riding Starr’s camera bike for video footage, but after getting the shots he came back to win the illustrious race two more times.

What was different in the book is the two-page aside where Starr reveals a fascinating secret about the legendary Mike Hailwood coming out of a ten-year retirement to not only race, but win, the TT. Only a few months prior, however, Hailwood needed a way to self-evaluate his own skills after the time off without raising any alarm bells the rumor mill could use to announce his comeback. It just so happens Starr needed someone to ride a camera bike around the 37-mile course and provide commentary. When fate collided, Starr got some amazing footage and commentary, while Mike The Bike confirmed he still had “it,” winning both in 1978 and 1979.

No chapter in the book brings home the Purposeful Life message better than the chapter on Taiwan. In 2011, Starr watched a Youtube video about a group of old Taiwanese men sliding into the final years of their lives, looking back at their life’s adventures together, before one breaks free from the proverbial shackles of old age and decides to ride a motorcycle again. The rest soon follow and the message is about making the most of life. Shockingly, this was a commercial for a bank(!), but the message rang loud and clear for Starr.

The chapter on Taiwan is near and dear to Starr, as the impact the Grand Riders made on him is deep and long-lasting.

Turns out these men are real and are called the Grand Riders. Starr tracked them down and went on a ride with them – men ranging in age from 75 to 92! This initial ride led to more, wherein Starr brought an increasing number of Americans. As Starr notes, the difference between this ride and a more traditional motorcycle trek in foreign lands is the “cultural exchange between two peoples of similar needs and challenges where the glue that holds their experiences together is the joy of riding.” Further proof that, when the years behind you far outnumber the years you’ve got ahead, riding with like-minded, similarly-aged compatriots will still keep you young at heart.

Parting Message

Peter Starr is still alive today, having done his best to keep cancer at bay. I spoke to him at length during a chance meeting at a vintage racing event, where he seemed calm, at ease, and yet still very excited about whatever life has in store. It didn’t really register with me at the time, but after reading the book, along with the accompanying DVD (which, honestly, was a small disappointment, as it features quick narration about each country from Starr followed by brief b-roll footage seemingly taken from a local travel bureau), I got a better understanding of Starr’s purposeful life message. Seeing the world helps break you of your prejudices, but seeing the world from the seat of a motorcycle expands your mind even farther.

Motorcycle Traveler is an ode to live life to the fullest. One could say Isle of Man racers, including the late Joey Dunlop, take that message to heart.

Motorcycle Traveler is a hardcover available in most places books are sold, though U.S. customers can buy direct from Starr at MotoDVD.com for $59.99. International customers will have to ask their local retailer.

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