Soon after I began my avocation as aggressive cyclist—sometime in the late 1970s—I worked my way through the cycling section of the card catalog at the central library on St. Clair Street in downtown Indianapolis. That’s how I discovered Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle. Its author was an Irish woman named Dervla Murphy, and the book recounted a journey she had taken all alone in 1962.
She had received a bicycle and a world atlas as gifts when she was eleven years old, and soon thereafter decided to take this long journey. Calling herself a cunning child, she writes that she had refrained from revealing this decision to her parents and had waited until she was old enough to make her own decisions unimpeded.
On rereading her book these many years later, I see that she chose her destination because it was the furthest she could go without having to cross a major body of water. (The Soviet Union was ruled out because of the Cold War.) I have remembered that she had taken this journey soon after turning 21.
In my second reading, I was surprised to discover that she was 31 when she did the trip. She was only a year or so younger than I, and when she took this daring ride across Europe and Asia, I was already starting my career as professor in a theological seminary.
From my first reading, I have remembered that she crossed from Italy into Yugoslavia in the dead of winter, with severe cold and deep snow. Caught after dark, quite some distance from any village, she was rescued by a passing trucker. When his vehicle skidded off the road, leaving the driver too shaken up to go himself, Dervla trudged two miles through the snowy woods, hoping to find people in town who would come back to rescue the driver.
She carried a firebrand to light her way. When she felt a powerful blow against her shoulder, she realized that a small pack of wolves were stalking her. She fired her small pistol at them, and they disappeared into the darkness.
A little later in her trip, as she was nearing the Persian border, she was spending the night in a tiny box-like room in a place described as an “Otel.” During the night she woke up to find her bedclothes missing and “a scantily clad Kurd” hovering over her in the moonlight. She fired her pistol into the air and he disappeared. Other than a few mutterings in the adjoining rooms, nothing more happened and the noise seemed not to be taken as anything out of the ordinary.
Except for these episodes, most of this book has faded from memory. What has remained has been a general sense of wonder that anyone could make this journey alone, unsupported, and unabashed by the extreme contrast in cultures that Dervla encountered.
In later years, this bold Irish woman has continued solo cycling, along with other travels, sometimes with her daughter. Although she has continued to publish books describing her travels, I have read only one, a substantial volume which is part of a trilogy describing her travels along the entire length of East Africa.
A two-week trip that would allow me very little time for cycling of my own provided the occasion to reread Full Tilt, which deservedly continues in print (although I used a much-used copy from the Multnomah County Library in Portland).
Despite its sub-title that refers both to Ireland and India, this narrative says nothing about the first part of the journey as she traveled through Western Europe to the Yugoslav border where her riding through winter became so challenging. She brings her story to a close soon after crossing over into India, giving us virtually no information about that part of the journey.
The one map in the book is a simplified line drawing that shows only international borders, major roads on which she traveled, and the names of places that figure prominently in her narrative. If readers were to pay attention to the map before they get into the book itself, they would be prepared for the fact that its primary contents are Dervla’s travels through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir.
My second reading of Full Tilt has made me realize that the travelogue, which is the narrative line for the book and is interesting in its own right, is only one aspect of this book. It also deserves attention because of the character study it gives of this confident and thoughtful traveler. While Dervla is not as skillful as the great travel essayists such as Thoreau and Muir, there are moments when she shows similar qualities. I am especially interested in the great love she developed for Afghanistan and its people.
Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle. More than forty years after the trip, still worth reading!