Full Tilt: Dervla Murphy’s Fierce and Poetic Account of Traversing the World on Two Wheels in the 1960s

A wonder-smitten reminder “that for all of the horrible chaos of the modern political scene this world is filled with kindness.”

Full Tilt: Dervla Murphy’s Fierce and Poetic Account of Traversing the World on Two Wheels in the 1960s

Within the early nineteenth century, the teenage Mary Godwin and her not-yet-husband Percy Bysshe Shelley left England for the Continent, touring by foot and by mule, on the wings of affection and youth. By their fixed poverty and starvation, via the frequent accidents and sicknesses, they slaked their souls on magnificence — on the shimmering grandeur of mountains and rivers, fiery sunsets and moonlit nights. It was on these dust roads, below these open skies, that they grew to become Romantics.

A century and a half later, one other indomitable spirit of unusual sensitivity to magnificence, in nature and in human nature, took these dust roads and wound them midway around the globe, discovering the romance of actuality alongside the way in which.

In January 1963, as Central Europe was getting into its harshest winter in eighty years, Dervla Murphy (November 28, 1931–Could 22, 2022) mounted her bicycle named Roz and left Eire for India, by means of France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Alongside the way in which, narrowly escaping demise by landslide and wolf pack, by Taliban and six-foot icicle, she encountered folks from wildly totally different cultures, whose boundless hospitality affirmed what she needed to have already identified in her bones to endeavor on so harmful a journey in any respect: “that for all of the horrible chaos of the modern political scene this world is filled with kindness.”

Dervla Murphy as a younger lady, Barcelona.

Her unassumingly titled account of the expertise, drawn from her itinerant diaries — Full Tilt: Eire to India with a Bicycle (public library) — is likely one of the most dazzlingly, unsummarizably fantastic books I’ve learn in a lifetime of passionate studying: the sort that rekindles your religion within the human spirit and reenchants you with the staggering great thing about this world.

A typical entry reads:

I slept very effectively final evening in my roadside tea-house, curled up in a nook of the one-roomed constructing, with moonlight streaming via the doorway that had no door.

To her, a ferocious storm is however a mirror for the poetry of actuality:

By now the thunder had ceased and when the wind dropped the overwhelming silence of the mountains jogged my memory of the hush felt in an awesome empty Gothic cathedral at nightfall — a silence which is gorgeous in itself.

She departs with solely a saddlebag of baggage, containing her passport and digital camera, a map, one spare pair of nylon pants and nylon shirt, toothbrush, comb, writing paper, two pens, and a duplicate of Blake’s poems.

The very outset of her journey is emblematic of the spirit of the entire: When her deliberate departure date arrives with temperatures far beneath any she has lived via, Murphy decides to attend every week, hoping the chilly would remit. When it doesn’t and every grocery outing turns into “a scaled-down Expedition to the Antarctic,” she presses forth and departs anyway — the primary bout of the touchingly cussed persistence that may mark her total endeavor.

Dervla Murphy

With an icicle firmly connected to her nostril, she makes her approach to a Yugoslavian youth hostel, will get blown off her saddle by probably the most ferocious wind she has ever skilled, tumbles down a fifteen-foot sloping ditch and right into a stream frozen so strong that her affect produces not even a crack on the ice, crawls again onto the bicycle, ultimately accepts a nightmarish journey in a rickety truck throughout “250 miles of frozen plain which stretched with relentless white anonymity,” and resumes on two wheels after the truck crashes right into a tree. All alongside, she slakes her soul on the austere great thing about the panorama:

On the valley’s finish my highway began to climb the mountains, sweeping up and up and once more up, in a sequence of hairpin bends that every revealed a view extra wild and splendid than the final.


On the morning of my third day in Belgrade, there got here an increase in temperature that not merely eased the physique however relaxed the nerves. By no means shall I overlook the enjoyment of standing bareheaded in my host’s entrance backyard, watching tenuous, milky clouds drifting throughout the blue sky.

Artwork by Leonard Wisegard from The Essential E-book by Margaret Smart Brown, revealed in Dervla Murphy’s childhood

Instantly after combating off a pack of wolves, considered one of which had connected itself by its tooth to the shoulder of her windbreaker, she once more orients to magnificence:

Throughout me the mountains, valleys and forests lay white and lifeless below a low, gray sky, within the profound stillness of a panorama the place no breeze stirred, there was neither home nor fowl to be seen and the streams have been silent below their overlaying of ice. I finished typically to go searching me, and savour the uncanny sensation of being the one dwelling, transferring factor within the midst of this hushed desolation, the place my very own respiration sounded loud.

Generally the enchantment of nature virtually blinds her to the menacing brutalities of its forces. In considered one of myriad passages that radiate each her felicitous spirit and her tender relationship along with her bicycle as an anthropomorphized companion — relatable relations for these of us who stay on two wheels — she writes:

From the close to distance got here a uninteresting, booming sound, as troopers blew up the big accumulations of rock-hard snow which, until artificially loosened, would have dammed the river and despatched its overflow speeding via the close by city of Cuprija. It was awe-inspiring to see the huge, offended Morava swiftly sweeping its large burden of ice and snow-chunks via the huge wilderness of sullen, brown flood-waters, and my awe was quickly justified when a large wave got here crashing throughout the highway, swept me off Roz and rolled me again and again, choking as I swallowed the muddy water and gasping as its iciness penetrated my garments. Subsequent a department of a little bit roadside tree appeared above me and pulling myself up by it I discovered that the water, although nonetheless flowing strongly, was now not more than three toes deep. I appeared for Roz and, throughout one appalling second, thought that she had disappeared. Then I noticed a yellow handlebar grip in a ditch, and hurried to rescue her.

By February, she has made her approach to the hardly discernible border of communist Bulgaria, on the opposite aspect of which lay my mom in her crib, about to show one. Murphy enters the “the insignificant little home which is Bulgaria’s Northern Frontier Fortress” and knocks on one of many doorways. When nobody solutions, she knocks once more. A pleasant scene ensues:

Once more my knock remained unanswered, however this time, after I opened a door main out of the corridor, I discovered a policeman fortunately dozing by the range, with a cat and two kittens on his lap. I instantly identified that he was a pleasant policeman, and after I had gently roused him, and he had recovered from the shock of being required to operate formally, I had my analysis confirmed.

In December, the Bulgarian Embassy in London had issued me with a visa legitimate for less than 4 days. Now this genial policeman, who spoke fluent English, took one have a look at the cardboard, stated that it was ridiculous, and issued me with a brand new visa entitling me to remain in Bulgaria so long as I needed! After which we sat by the range and amiably mentioned our two nations over glasses of brandy.

She proceeds to cycle virtually all the way in which to Istanbul, save a couple of quick lifts from busses and vans between blizzards within the Turkish highlands. On considered one of them, she barely escapes “being entombed in snow” when the bus tumbles right into a ditch on the aspect of the mountain highway and the snowplough dispatched to rescue it careens off the cliff, killing each males onboard. Even in such proximity to demise, her buoyant spirit and largehearted humanity shine via:

As we waited the snow piled increased and better round us, its silent softness contrasting eerily with the whine of the gale via the go. It’s on events reminiscent of these that I thank God for my sanguine temperament, which refuses to permit me to consider in catastrophe till it’s lastly manifest, and I observed that my comrades in misery have been equally effectively fortified towards panic by their fatalistic acceptance of Allah’s Will. But maybe we have been all extra apprehensive than we had allowed ourselves to recognise, for we cheered very loudly when the second snowplough ultimately appeared.

(You possibly can inform by now that I’ve fallen wholeheartedly in love with this bygone stranger.)

When she crosses over to Persia, presently the Islamic Republic of Iran, she shares a squalid mattress with “a number of energetic fleas” in a field of a room at a roadside dosshouse, the place she is woke up in the midst of the evening by “a six-foot, scantily-clad Kurd” who has peeled her bedding from her and is leaning over within the moonlight. With out hesitation she pulls the pistol from below her pillow, fires it on the ceiling, and closes the scene. The following factor she writes is one other exultation in magnificence:

On the next morning got here one of the vital wonderful experiences of the complete journey — a fifteen-mile cycle-run in good climate across the base of Mount Ararat. This extraordinary mountain, which conjures up probably the most advanced feelings within the least imaginative traveller, affected me so deeply that I’ve considered it ever since as a persona encountered, relatively than a panorama noticed… Biking day after day beneath a sky of intense blue, via wild mountains whose solitude and wonder surpassed something I had been capable of think about throughout my day-dreams about this journey.

“View of Nature in Ascending Areas” from Yaggi’s Geographical Portfolio, 1893. (Out there as a print and as stationery playing cards.)

In a sentiment that embodies the entwined historical past of sunshine and consciousness, she provides:

Notably I bear in mind the distinctive purity of the sunshine, which gave to each variation of each color a person vitality and which lucidly emphasised each line, curve and angle. Right here, for the primary time, I grew to become totally conscious of sunshine as one thing optimistic, relatively than as a taken-for-granted assist to perceiving objects.

Punctuating all this pure magnificence are probably the most unhandsome manifestations of human nature: beginner bandits seize Roz, however a pistol shot Murphy fires into the air makes the scatter “like rabbits”; a “gorgeously uniformed and braided” younger police officer summons her to his quarters within the police barracks on the pretext of some bureaucratic enterprise and makes an attempt to power himself on her, which she escapes by grabbing at his trousers and deploying “unprintable ways to cut back him to a state of momentary agony.” Elsewhere, turbaned youths stone her inside moments of her arrival of their village, additional maiming her already ailing proper arm, blistered with sunburn from all of the lengthy hours biking steadily eastward.

“At the moment a deep despair has moved over Dervla,” she writes with third-person take away in one of many handful of entries wherein she permits herself something aside from absolute buoyancy of spirit. Upon arrival in Teheran, she is informed on the embassy that “in no way no matter would they grant a visa to a lady who supposed biking alone via Afghanistan” — six years earlier, a Swedish lady motorist had been discovered chopped as much as items, prompting the federal government to ban all lone lady vacationers. Together with her typical wry rationalism, she factors out that “girls get murdered in Europe with monotonous regularity and that the hazards of travelling alone via [Afghanistan] have been in all probability no better than the hazards of doing likewise in Britain or France.” Her unassuming persistence grants her an viewers with “a sufficiently senior man,” to whom she declares herself solely chargeable for her destiny, waiving all governmental accountability. Her account of the alternate is likely one of the most multiply charming within the ebook:

Thankfully, the sufferer of my machinations was an upholder of Free Enterprise and the Liberty of the Particular person. He checked out me in silence for a second, then stated, “Nicely, I suppose if visas had been required in 1492, the New World wouldn’t have been found. All proper — I’ll play ball. However do not forget that all that is very unofficial and unbecoming to my place and I’m relying on you to return out alive on the different finish, for my sake – which I in some way suppose you’ll do.”

And off she goes, into the hinterland, her coronary heart heavy with the information that two girls have simply been killed within the Mullah-provoked riots towards girls’s emancipation. As soon as once more she turns to the nonhuman consolations of nature on this uncommonly stunning nook of the globe:

Each mile from Teheran was pure pleasure — as a lot the enjoyment of area and silence as of visible loveliness… These extravagantly sweeping strains of plain and mountain are intoxicating to an islander and the mixing of shades on the barren hillsides is a symphony of color.

Again and again, it looks as if Murphy’s brilliant spirit is her pure amulet towards misfortune. Stopping by to relaxation at a neighborhood village, she reaches throughout the barrier of language, tradition, and age to cut back the native kids to giggles by pretending to be a sheepdog, earlier than metamorphosing right into a donkey to crawl across the sand on all fours with three toddlers or her again.

Dervla Murphy and Roz in one of many villages she stopped to relaxation in.

She takes a detour to Omar Khayyám’s hometown, “to pay homage,” the place she is mobbed by keen native youths begging her assist — which she offers eagerly — with their English, waving their dictionaries and their copies of Jane Eyre, and bombarding her with advanced pronunciation issues as she relishes the city’s gorgeous gardens filled with “clean lawns, pale inexperienced cascades of weeping willow and good beds of carnations, roses, pansies and geraniums.”

In every single place she goes, she is a spectacle — some have by no means seen a bicycle, some have by no means seen a lone lady traveller, and none have by no means seen, nor might even conceive of, a lady touring the world alone on a bicycle. In her saggy hand-me-down shirt and boots donated by the U.S. Military within the Center East, she is usually taken for a person — as a result of, she speculates, “the concept of a lady travelling alone is so utterly exterior the expertise and past the creativeness of everybody.”

Artwork from Bicycling for Girls, 1896. (Out there as a print and as stationery playing cards.)

Murphy observes these cultural peculiarities with out the slightest bit of private offense or judgment, solely with largehearted curiosity, reserving her solely occasion of unconcealed contempt for an encounter with a member of a completely totally different tradition:

American: “What the hell are you doing on this goddam highway?”

Me: (having taken an prompt dislike to him) “Biking.”

American: “I can see that — however what the hell for?”

Me: “For enjoyable.”

American: “Are you a nut-case or what? Gimme that bike and I’ll stick it on behind and also you get in right here and we’ll get out of this goddam frying-pan as quick as we will. This monitor isn’t match for a camel!”

Me: “Whenever you’re on a cycle as a substitute of in a jeep it doesn’t really feel like a frying-pan. Furthermore, in case you go searching you you’ll discover that the panorama compensates for the admittedly deplorable state of the highway. The truth is I get pleasure from biking via this type of nation – however thanks for the sort supply. Goodbye.”

As I rode on he handed me and yelled: “You are a goddam nut-case!”

I regard this type of life, with simply Roz and me and the sky and the earth, as sheer bliss.

For all of the levity Murphy brings to her challenges, she can be transferring via the world — a world so very totally different from the one she is aware of — with the deep-thinking, deep-feeling particular person’s unassailable sensitivity to the underlying complexities of tradition. Typically, her pure generosity of spirit leads her to layers of nuance that evade even probably the most forward-thinking of individuals, even in the present day; all the time, she meets the unknown not with judgment however with curiosity — that hallmark of true grandeur of spirit. Discovering herself “fairly sorry to be leaving Persia,” she displays:

Beneath all of the bodily dust and ethical corruption there may be an magnificence and dignity about life right here which you’ll’t respect at first, whereas struggling below the affect of the extra apparent and unpleasant nationwide traits. The graciousness with which peasants greet one another and the easy artwork with which a couple of stunning rags and items of silver are made to furnish and embellish a complete home — in these and lots of different particulars Persia can nonetheless train the West. I suppose it’s all a query of seeing one of many oldest and richest civilisations on this planet gone its zenith.

Even via the sluggish and troublesome climb to Herat — a metropolis “as previous as historical past and as transferring as an awesome epic poem” — she drinks within the magnificence that is still her most steadfast gas alongside the grueling journey:

It took me 4 and a half hours to cowl the thirty miles… however I loved the huge silence of the desert within the cool of the morning. It is a metropolis of absolute enchantment within the literal sense of the phrase. It loosens all of the bonds binding the traveller to his personal age and units him free to stay in a previous that’s very important and crude however by no means ugly.

So begins her love affair with Afghanistan, which casts a lifelong enchantment on her with its aura of unremitting magnificence: the fantastic thing about its nature, the fantastic thing about its artwork, the fantastic thing about its folks — “by our requirements, the best-looking folks on this planet,” endowed with a comfortable kindliness she has by no means encountered earlier than:

I already love the nation and the folks and in some way language obstacles don’t matter when one feels such a level of sympathy with a race which responds so graciously and kindly to a smile or a gesture of friendship.

The nation would quickly emerge as her favourite leg of the journey by many orders of magnitude, beckoning her to return:

That is the a part of Afghanistan I used to be most desperate to see, however in my wildest imaginings I by no means thought any panorama might be so magnificent. If I’m murdered en route it’ll have been effectively price whereas!

In a splendid contribution to literature’s most beautiful meditations on the colour blue, she writes from Herat:

This morning I went to the outskirts of the city simply to wander among the many inexperienced woods and sit on inexperienced grass beside a little bit stream in a fantastically saved public park. Most of the streets are lined with monumental pine timber and an excellent backyard of lawns and lavishly blooming rose bushes stretches in entrance of the mosque… I sat on the shady aspect of the big courtyard for nearly an hour, having fun with the mosaics and the gold of the brickwork glowing towards the blue sky. It was very peaceable there with no sound or motion aside from a myriad twittering martins swooping out and in of the cool, dim passages between the a whole bunch of pillared archways.


The predominant color right here is blue of all shades, with yellow, black, pink, brown, inexperienced and orange tiles blended so skilfully that from a sure distance a façade or minaret appears to be like as if product of some magic valuable steel for the color of which there isn’t any identify.

Biking via probably the most stunning a part of the Hindu Kush, she gasps as soon as extra on the otherworldly mesmerism of this world:

The glory of these mountains makes one really feel that it should all be a dream. Each peak and slope and outcrop is totally different in form, texture and color, the rock and shale and clay shaded purple, rose, inexperienced, ochre, black, pale gray, darkish gray, brown, navy and off-white. Then, beneath these arid, hovering cliffs… swish with willows and poplars, and comfortable with new grass and stuffed with bird-song and the frenzy of the river.

However hers is not any rosy enchantment with nature — she is equally attuned to its neutral brutality that comes even-handed with the sweetness, prepared to cut back human lives to trifling minutia in a matter of moments:

For in regards to the first twenty of this afternoon’s forty miles we have been going via a slender gorge overhung by mountains eroded to many grotesquely stunning shapes — some have been just like the ruins of colossal Gothic cathedrals, others had crags worn by wind and water into parodies of sculptured human faces and all the time there was that unimaginable show of colors. Then the valley widened barely and we got here to a area of devastation, a shattered wilderness the place large rocks, the scale of cottages, lay strewn in all places, and huge fissures within the mountains warned that on the subsequent earth tremor — and they’re frequent right here — the entire look of the realm would change.

Illustration from Bicycling for Girls based mostly on Alice Austen’s images. (Out there as a print.)

And but, via the flat tires, the damaged rib, the “excessive starvation than excessive thirst, which just about drives one mad,” the meals poisoning, the ache of “psychological loneliness,” the storms of ice and dirt, the fingers burned on the steel handlebars whereas biking via insufferable warmth at 7,000 toes elevation, “the terrifying dehydration of mouth and nostrils and eyes till… a type of staring blindness got here on,” she by no means loses sight of why she has endeavored to do that within the first place — why she has obeyed the clarion name of wakefulness to life. In an entry emblematic of the spirit wherein she has undertaken her journey, she writes:

One other fabulous dust-storm is performing now and all electrical energy has gone off once more, so I’m writing by oil-lamp in a shower of sweat.

Repeatedly she orients to magnificence, writing from Pakistan:

Behind us, virtually overhanging the mess buildings, rose a 9,000-foot mountain wall of stark, gray rock which was repeated on the opposite aspect of the slender valley; it’s this confinement which retains the temperature so excessive regardless of an altitude of almost 5,000 toes. Down the valley snow-capped peaks of over 20,000 toes have been sharply stunning towards the mild night sky and because the setting solar caught the valley partitions they modified color in order that their pink and violet glow appeared to light up the entire scene.

Whereas we have been having dinner on the verandah a full moon rose and by the point the meal was over the valley appeared so very beautiful that I took myself off for a stroll — to the unstated disapproval of all these current! Having descended steeply for about half a mile my path turned west alongside the valley ground, leaving the shuttered stalls of the bazaar behind. Tall mulberry and apricot timber laid intricate shadows on the sandy path and the silence was damaged solely by the snow-enraged Gilgit River. The sky was an odd royal-blue with all however the brightest stars quenched, whereas on both aspect the mountains have been reworked into silver barricades, as their quartz surfaces mirrored the moonlight.

Two days later:

At the moment’s panorama was a sequence of dramatic contrasts. The valley ground round Gilgit City confirmed the aromatic abundance of early summer season – fields of trembling, silver-green wheat and richly golden barley, bushes of unfamiliar, beautiful blossoms and, most stunning of all, a rock-plant with tiny, golden-pink flowers, rising so lavishly within the crevices of the partitions that it was like a sundown cloud draped over the gray stones. Then the valley narrowed to exclude the early solar till there was room just for the river between the opposing precipices and we have been alone in a barren, tough, shadowy world, the place nothing moved however the brown flood-waters.

Two weeks laters, from amid the glaciers of Pakistan’s difficult Babusar mountain go:

I noticed two magnificent eagles and the air was crammed all day with lark-song… Scintillating snow-peaks and regal fir timber, good inexperienced meadows proper as much as the snowline and glistening glaciers within the gullies, waterfalls tumbling and glowing in all places and jewel-like wild flowers, rippling bird-songs and the faint, clear aroma of some unfamiliar herb.

The overtone of the ebook, of the journey, of this unusual consciousness transferring via the frequent world, finds its distillation in a single line from the identical entry:

What an exquisite place this world is!

I might go on — Full Tilt is a kind of uncommon books, a handful in a lifetime if one is fortunate, brimming with so many touching human moments and such astonishments of pure magnificence that one can not assist however have extra passages underlined than not. Learn it — your life will thanks for it — then revisit composer Paola Prestini’s choral masterwork celebrating the historical past of the bicycle as an instrument of emancipation and Maria Ward’s nineteenth-century manifesto for bicycling, that includes images by her visionary pal and lover Alice Austen, who paved the way in which for ladies like Dervla Murphy.

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