A review of The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa, by Neil Peart (Lawrenceton Beach, Nova Scotia: Pottersfield Press, 1996).
“Some people travel for pleasure,” writes Neil Peart on the second page of this book describing his bicycle adventure in Cameroon, “and sometimes find adventure; others travel for adventure, and sometimes find pleasure. The best part of adventure travel, it seems to me, is thinking about it.”
Travel takes you out of your context, he continues, away from home, job, and friends; “traveling among strangers can show you as much about yourself as it does about them. That’s something to think about, and if you try you might glimpse yourself that way, without a past, without a context, without a mask. That can be a little scary, no question, but you may get a look behind someone else’s mask as well, and that can be even scarier.”
Since I rarely listen to Classic Rock, I had not heard of Neil Peart until recently coming across another of his books, Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, which describes a motorcycle trip around much of North America as grief work following the deaths of his daughter and wife. One of my coffee shop friends in Portland, however, tells me that Peart is one of the finest drummers in the world, and one of the highlights of his own activities was the privilege of chauffeuring Peart when his band Rush played here.
In The Masked Rider Peart describes a trip, “Cameroon: Country of Contrasts,” that he took with four others in 1988. David, who made his living taking groups on bicycle journeys in Africa, told them that this was the hardest trip he offered, which may have been one reason why only four had signed up for it even though he had been advertising it for a year.
David, Neil, Leonard, Anna, and Elsa carried their personal gear on their bikes, bought their meals in restaurants or wherever they could, and found lodging in whatever accommodations they could find in the towns and villages they passed through. Their route sometimes took them on paved roads and streets, but most of their cycling was on unpaved, often unimproved, roads, trails, and rough territory that made cycling virtually impossible.
The European language most often used by people in Cameroon was French, and only Neil and David could speak it. Neil says they used “survival French,” but even that was better that the meager amount of French they frequently met among the people with whom they dealt. The other three travelers had virtually no knowledge of the language that could have helped them communicate in their own right.
Even so, all five of these cyclists, including the two women, soon were willing to travel alone, sometimes riding out ahead of the others and sometimes lagging back. After agreeing on where they would meet on down the road or in the destination village, they were bold enough to travel by themselves part of the time.
For an entire month they traveled this way. They maintained a civil relationship, but did not bond with one another in an intense relationship as might have been expected.
Neil made the trip because he was fascinated with Africa. The previous year he had visited the East African savanna, where he could easily see animals but found it difficult to become acquainted with people. After the bike trip in Cameroon, he vowed never again to bike that way, but he soon changed his mind and the next year took another bicycle trip, this one through Togo, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast.
Neil’s tendency to use travel as the stimulus to think was augmented by the books he took with him on this trip: Aristotle’s Ethics and Dear Theo, Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother. Frequently he refers to passages in these books and also to other books about Africa that he read in connection with this Cameroonian adventure.
More important in understanding the book, however, are the many passages where the author comments about his companions and muses about his own attitudes and actions. The fact that that the book was published eight years after the trip may have given him the freedom to speak so candidly about the actions of the other members of the troupe.
Even more important than these features is one more: Neil’s reflections on human life, happiness, attitudes toward life’s experiences, and religion. These will be treated in part two of this review. Online booksellers indicate that Neil Peart’s The Masked Rider is available in hard and soft cover books, as an ebook, and as an audiobook. Even if you are not an adventure cyclist, this book is worth reading.