Catching up with the grandfather of motorcycle travel 50 years after the start of his four-year around the world journey.
Few books match Ted Simon’s Jupiter’s Travels in vulnerability, wit, and fatalism. Its publication in 1979 placed it at the zenith of the late 20th-century travel writing boom, when “why not?” was still a good enough reason to go on a journey and write a book about it. “I wasn’t an expedition, or a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society,” Simon wrote of his four-year, round-the-world motorcycle journey. “I wasn’t proving a product, or making a movie, or breaking a record, or ‘doing it for England.’ I wasn’t even a fanatic of motorcycles, never having ridden one before.”
That the motorcycle was incidental to the trip (“Just the vehicle for the narrative,” Simon said), and that he considered himself a neophyte rather than cynic (he was, after all, 42, and had already travelled relatively widely both personally and as a journalist working on his 1970 book about the Grand-Prix racing, The Chequered Year) gave Jupiter’s Travels a youthful glow of optimism, and made it evergreen. The first pages capture so acutely the intense madness that characterizes setting out on a journey — the adrenaline and despair, the panic and hope. And we immediately see Simon in all his vulnerability when, to fight his fear of parting, he sings.
Meeting Simon, or Jupiter?
Travelling to his home in southern France, in the quiet town of Aspiran, I wondered who it was I’d meet — Ted Simon the writer, or Jupiter, the world-weary traveller. I’d always thought the title Jupiter’s Travels alluded to some separation between Simon as a writer and Simon as a character in his books. “Jupiter” as a person had become an entity beyond Simon himself: an emblem of the possible, of courage and of daring. Even Simon drew on him: in his book Dreaming of Jupiter (2007), about his retrospective motorcycle ride around the world, he wrote “There were thousands, I know, who dream of doing what Jupiter did. Why shouldn’t I?”
Upon entering his house, I had a distinct feeling it was Simon, and not Jupiter, at the door. The scents of baked bread and sawdust were in the air. They are remarkably similar smells, both the product of busy hands. And results: there was the bread on the kitchen counter, and wood shavings on Simon’s sweater front, his large hands, and the floor of his garage.
There, too, was his (Jupiter’s?) Piaggio MP3 500, the same make of bike he rode through Britain in 2010 — a trip that later became the book Rolling Through the Isles. It would have been easy to overlook the fact of that journey having been made over a decade before; he was full of the bemused calm one carries having just returned from a long trip. But Simon’s has been a life on the move, and such composed energy is his natural state.
His autobiography, Don’t Boil the Canary, was newly out, and he was busy transcribing the notebooks from…