July 10, 2013
Take a listen to the latest podcast from Neil Briscoe, Irish Times Motors interviewing Geoff Hill upon his triumphant return! Please click the link below which takes you to the page with the interview. Note that this interview commences 14 minutes into Neil’s podcast.
Listen to Podcast
July 6, 2013
After saying farewell to his parents, Clancy rode into New York State and rolled in splendid happiness along the finest roads of the entire trip, and on the morning of August 27, 1913, a moving picture camera captured his triumphant return into Manhattan at the end of an 11-month, 18,000-mile odyssey which had tested him countless times to the limit and taught him lessons he would learn for the rest of his long life.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed my trip and profited by every mile of it,” he told the Bicycling World and Motorcycling Review afterwards.
“I was accompanied throughout much of the journey…but I was also called upon to make some long and trying jumps alone.
“There is so much to be seen and discussed along even the most ordinary foreign route that the rider who travels alone soon finds that he is missing something. He needs a congenial partner.
“I do not know if I will ever make another round the world trip, but if I do it may be depended on that I will travel by motorcycle.”
Sadly, he never did, and when he took his boots off and hung them up, there is no evidence that he ever wore them again until his death in 1971, when his housekeeper gave them to young Liam O’Connor, who then passed them on to me.
And so, having left Belfast on the coldest day of the year and carried them around the world a second time, we rode with them into New York City on the hottest day of the year, pulling up at Penn Station to see Lynda Clancy, Carl’s great-niece, standing there with a broad smile on her face.
“I am so proud of you all,” she said as I handed her the replica Around the World pennant which we had carried from Dublin. “Our family has all been ministers, professors and the like, and Uncle Carl broke the mould by becoming an adventurer.
“You and Dr Frazier are not only men in the same mould, but probably know more about Uncle Carl than any of us, and you have honoured him by recreating his incredible journey with one just as incredible. Thank you.”
And so, at last, having carried the boots of Carl Stearns Clancy around the world, armed with his twin mottos that you should never believe what you hear, or take anything for granted, we handed them over at last to Dr Gregory Frazier with respect and pride at having followed in the tyre tracks of such a fine man.
I hoped, as I handed them to Dr G with not a little sadness, that they had had the time of their lives for the second time.
If boots could talk, I think they’d be very pleased indeed, and I hoped that we had made a pair of old boots very happy.
July 4, 2013
Naturally, now that we were handing back the bikes in a couple of days, I had become almost proficient at riding mine. I could do tight circles at walking pace, and come to a dead stop at junctions, look around me, read War and Peace and then move off again, all without putting my feet down. Another million years of this, and I might even be able to go around bends half as fast as Gary did while he was standing on the pegs and taking a photo.
“You are getting better,” he said when I mentioned it. “I actually saw you leaning into a corner the other day.”
Even better, since the BMWs had been so reliable that his duties as Head of Maintenance had involved nothing more than topping up the oil, he actually got a chance to use his mechanical skills later when Richard’s clutch cable snapped and he had it replaced in about four minutes flat.
Clancy had one last mission before his triumphant return to New York, and that was a surprise visit to his parents in their large, rambling home in the wooded Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, and thanks to Richard tracking down the location with some diligent research, the next day we rode out in search of it.
And as we rode these last few miles to the home of Clancy’s parents, I imagined how he must have felt as he too rode this old familiar road through the trees along the river and the railroad tracks.
How his senses must have been filled to the brim, with the same warm sun on his face and the smell of pine in his nose, as he waved to the astonished neighbours at the green mansion, then rode down the hill and turned right into his parents’ drive past the leaning pine and the ancient oak.
How his heart must have swelled with pride and love as he pulled up on the Henderson, with his collar stiff and his tie knotted just so, to see his mother look out from the kitchen where she was preparing lunch, and his father come to the front door from the study where he had been working on a sermon, and to see the same pride and love reflected in their faces at the return of their prodigal son after his incredible adventure.
To see Carl Stearns Clancy, at just that moment a young man with his whole life in front of him, filled with boundless hope and optimism for a future in which, having conquered the world, he could do anything.
We stopped near the same green mansion to check our way, only for a neighbour to tell us that the old Clancy house had become a boys’ home, then burned down mysteriously 10 years ago.
And when we got there, and turned right into the drive past the leaning pine and the ancient oak, all that we found were the stone foundations of the old place in a grassy glade bright with wild poppies and buttercups.
As I stood at the end of the drive, where I imagined Clancy had climbed off his Henderson for a hug from his mother and a firm handshake from the old man, a small white butterfly rested briefly on my boot, then fluttered off into the woods, leaving only the whisper of the breeze in the leaves of the ancient oak and the call of a bluebird hoping for love.
July 2, 2013
By now, Clancy was on the scent of home: visiting his brother in Beloit, he made the front page lead in the local paper, then was brought down to earth yet again by a crash 20 miles from Chicago which bent his rear wheel.
Riding on carefully, he came on two bikers repairing a puncture who regaled him with thrilling tales from their 200-mile adventure, then guided him to the Henderson branch factory on Michigan Avenue.
We were now in the last few days of our own grand adventure, and when I looked back through the pages of our daily schedule, it felt like we had gone through an entire lifetime in just three short months, with events like leaving Belfast in the snow, sitting on the boat to Tunisia, riding through Sri Lanka in monsoon rain and marvelling at our first sight of Hong Kong bay or the skyscrapers of Shanghai like something we had done years ago, when we were young.
The next morning, I tore a page of my research notes out of the ring binder in which I kept all the trip paperwork, and realised I was down to the last page out of the 89 I had started with.
When Clancy rolled up at the gates of the Henderson factory in Chicago, he was given a hero’s welcome: they placed his battered Henderson in the front window and entertained him royally for two days solid.
As for us, we were entertained royally for two hours solid at the Adventurers’ Club of Chicago, founded in 1911 and the oldest in the USA. There was an older one in New York, but it closed, presumably because all the members had been eaten by tigers.
Inside, it was exactly as you imagined an adventurers’ club should be. Either that, or they’d been really busy on eBay, for a stuffed polar bear and grizzly guarded the entrance, the heads of various other dead things stuck out of the walls with no obvious indication of where their nether regions had got to, various saddles, Zulu spears and shields leaned against the wainscoting, several shrunken heads gazed out blankly from glass cases, photographs and paintings of chaps in pith helmets peered sternly down from the few spaces in between mounted dead things, and the bookshelves were lined with volumes such as How I Hopped on One Leg to the North Pole (And Back!) by Hyram D Rickenbacker III.
At the main Henderson factory in Detroit, Clancy was feted even more than in Chicago, while the brand new machines rolling off the production line looked at what he fondly imagined was mute admiration of their older and wiser brother.
The factory, an imposing building on Jefferson Street looking over the river towards Ontario on the far bank, closed in 1931 and was subsequently demolished.
Today, the site is a grassy park watched over by the grey stone Mariners’ Church, although it wasn’t there in Clancy’s day.
Built in 1842 , in 1955 it was moved on rails 880ft to its present location to make way for the Civic Centre Plaza, since then joined by the towering Renaissance Centre which was supposed to herald the rebirth of the city.
From the number of homeless people sleeping in the park, it has not entirely succeeded, and the large sign at the end of the street saying Tunnel to Canada may well be, not traffic information, but a recommendation.
June 30, 2013
Anamosa in Iowa is the home of former racer John Parham, who in 1975 with his wife Jill opened a small shop which went on to become J&P Cycles, the USA’s biggest motorcycle parts and accessories mail order business.
In 2010, to accommodate his growing collection of motorbikes, he’d bought a disused Walmart down the road in 2010 and turned it into the National Motorcycle Museum of America.
And that, at the end of this trip, would be the last resting place of Clancy’s boots, pith helmet, original diaries and photographs, and Irish and French driving licences.
Inside the faded red lining of the pith helmet in clear black letters were the words Real Sola Pith, specially made for Selecta, Port-Said. Made in India.
Inside the museum is an astonishing private collection of 400 motorcycles, not to mention a fulsome tribute to the lunacy of Evel Knievel. I defy anyone to watch the videos of him jumping 200ft over a row of buses then trying to land on a Harley with only a few inches of suspension travel and not wince.
In the British section are some fine examples of the Rudges my dear old dad raced in the Fifties, the Norton International and Manx Norton he would have raced if he’d had the money, and Brough Superiors and Vincent Black Shadows we’d all own if we had the money.
One Brough, the SS100 Pendine, was named after the long, flat beach in South Wales where every model was tested to 110mph before being handed over to customers, and on which George Brough set a world record of 130.6mph in 1928.
More within my means was an NSU Quickly which was the first motorbike I ever rode, racing up and down the avenues of Termon in my teens.
In the US section, there was Peter Fonda’s Captain America chopper and helmet from Easy Rider, and past all the Harleys and Indians, exquisite machines from companies such as Reading-Standard, Racycle, Emblem, Thor, Pierce, Royal Pioneer and Flying Merkel which failed to make it past the Twenties and Thirties.
And then, at last, the holy grail: the only original 1912 Henderson in the world.
Of the 15 or so Hendersons made that year, John Parham knew of only three in existence today, and the other two had been restored with later parts, making this the only unrestored one, down to the original paint and tyres..
And while Paddy Guerin’s Henderson we saw in Dublin at the start of our trip had been a 1922 three-speed model, this was the real deal, with 7hp, one gear, a hand-crank starter and no front brakes.
I stood there looking at the motorcycle which would soon be joined by the effects of the man who had ridden one of them around the world a century ago, and as much as I had marvelled at Clancy’s courage in making the journey we had followed, I now marvelled even more to see what he had done it on. To contemplate it was the act of a madman, and to complete it the act of a hero.
June 28, 2013
After taking a photo at the entrance to Yellowstone National Park where Clancy and Allen were turned back with their bikes, we went in search of Corwin Hot Springs.
The sumptuous hotel they were so glad to find after 16 hours in the saddle that day was a magnificent Gothic creation with a red-tiled roof with the mountains on one side and the Yellowstone River on the other, according to contemporary photographs.
It was destroyed by a fire in 1916, and an adobe construction looking somewhat like the Alamo, except without the dead Texas heroes, was built nearby in 1929 by Walter Hill, who added a tepee petrol station. That building became a game farm before it was bought by the Church Universal Triumphant, who had then failed to live up to their name and abandoned it.
Today, according to my research, all that was left on the site was that building, a restaurant, a post office, and a smattering of mobile homes and log cabins, but all that remained of the original clubhouse was the great stone fireplace.
Outside the deserted restaurant, the only sign of life we found was a truck with its engine running, guarded by a black Labrador, but at the mobile homes, log cabins and the Alamo, not a human was to be seen.
We had given up searching for the fireplace and were riding away when Richard, whose GPS had broken several days back and been replaced by a new one, but who had given up on technology and was using his instinct to much better effect, suddenly swerved off the road, down a rutted path and into a grassy meadow by the river.
And there we found the great fireplace.
As Richard and Gary wandered off to take some photos, I lay down in the warm grass at the spot where I imagined Clancy and Allen lounging in a leather club sofa and toasting their toes by a roaring fire.
All around were the faintest of sounds: the comings and goings of honey bees, the whisper of the river, the distant, haunting cry of a loon, and the luting warbles and clicks of jays in the riverbank cottonwoods and quaking aspen, so called because its delicate leaves shiver in the slightest breeze.
I closed my eyes, all the better to see the image of Clancy gazing into the firelight and looking back on an entire lifetime of hopes and dreams which had been condensed into his past few months, so that I imagined he felt as if Dublin trams, Paris traffic, Spanish brigands, German shipping companies, the burning sands of Africa, the exotic souks of Tunis, the topless damsels of Sigirya, the aromatic clamour of old Shanghai and even the trials of Oregon’s trails, already seemed like something he had experienced as a young man a long time ago.
And in that moment I felt at one with him, and strangely content.
June 26, 2013
After leaving Butte in Montana, Clancy and Allen had crossed the Continental Divide at 6,230ft that afternoon, and camped that night east of Whitehall, only to spend the entire sleepless night being tortured by the biggest and most voracious mosquitoes yet.
After a bleak breakfast of apricots and unripe bananas in the barren crossroads town of Warren Creek, they met a fellow biker who was on his way to Chicago.
A keen reader of the Bicycling World and Motorcycling Review, he asked Clancy if he’d read about the bold youth riding around the world on a Henderson, then proceeded to regale Clancy with his own adventures until Bob spoiled the surprise by revealing the truth.
After getting separated from Bob in the dark, Clancy finally spotted a light and was glad to find his companion waiting on the steps of the Corwin Hot Springs Hotel, where after 16 hours in the saddle they were glad of the eponymous springs around which the hotel had been built in 1909, boasting 72 rooms, a large swimming pool and hot showers fed from the springs.
Barred from riding into Yellowstone National Park the next morning, Clancy and Allen joined a coach party tour, then set off on a road so bad that they were forced to ride on the railroad sleepers, at which point Clancy’s saddle broke, treating his nether regions to miles of painful bumping along so slowly that it was dark by the time they got back on the road.
With his light broken after ramming a cliff, he then hit a stone wall head on and went sailing over it, and by the time they finally got to Livingston at midnight, they were amazed to be alive, and even more amazed to find a restaurant open.
Starving, they ordered the 70 cent special, fell to it with relish, and fell into bed.
Remarkably, none of his travails had sapped Clancy’s boyish enthusiasm, for the next day he begged a ride on a locomotive, then almost regretted it when it sped into a tunnel and he almost suffocated on the sulphurous fumes while the fireman cheerily related how his predecessor had been asphyxiated in that very same tunnel the previous summer.
At Bozeman Pass, we stood right over the railway tunnel where Clancy had almost been asphyxiated, while beside us a wooden sign related the history of John Bozeman, the adventurous Georgian who led a wagon train through hostile Indian territory and across this pass in 1863.
At Livingston, where Robert Redford returned to film his 1992 movie A River Runs Through It, we found part of the railroad line that Clancy had ridden along because the road was so bad, and since there were no trains in sight, we had to follow suit and ride the tracks.
I wouldn’t recommend it, and for Clancy to have chosen that option on a machine with no suspension other than the springs in his saddle, the road must have been bad indeed.
June 24, 2013
To their joy, Clancy and Allen found the road to Spokane so good that they did a glorious 156 miles in a day to be greeted by skyscrapers rather than the log cabins they had expected.
Even better, when they got there, the manager of the city Henderson agency treated them to 12 days of parties, dinners and rideouts with local bikers.
However, they paid the price: on their first night after leaving there, they had a supper of stale bread, syrup and water, and fell asleep wrapped in their blankets with only mosquitoes and rats for company.
In the mining town of Kellogg the next day, they were interviewed in depth by the sole reporter on the sole newspaper, and after riding through the devastation caused by a recent forest fire to be greeted by the paved streets, electric lights and tuxedo-clad waiters of Wallace, Idaho, decided that the Wild West only existed any more in movies.
Only to have their certainty overturned the very next night when they arrived in Missoula, Montana, to find a posse in hot pursuit for a gang of desperadoes who had shot at their landlady, stolen the sheriff’s six-shooter and terrorised the town before heading for the hills.
Wincing at the outrageous bill the next morning, they rode off into a thunderstorm so bad that by dark they had only covered 20 miles and were forced to spend the night in the shack of prospector Isam Cox, who rustled up a feast of bacon, beans and coffee for the exhausted but grateful duo.
It seemed like paradise, particularly when the next night, after riding through Clark’s Fork, Missoula, Horse Plains and Palermo, they camped by a river and were eaten alive by mosquitoes all night long.
The next day, they found the land around Butte ravaged by copper mining, and in the town itself hardly a soul who could speak English, every third man drunk, not a policeman in sight and the prices on a par with New York.
The reason, they soon discovered, was that the labour unions were so strong that plumbers wouldn’t fix a leak for less than half a day’s pay. Of course, the shopkeepers took advantage by hiking up their prices so much that everybody lost, particularly visitors like Clancy and Bob.
They had personal experience of it the next day when Bob tried to fix a leak in his fuel tank, only to be told by a mechanic that he couldn’t fix his own tank without a union card.
When he remonstrated, the mechanic told him that a plumber had been fined $50 for fixing a leak in his own house one night rather than calling another plumber; who wouldn’t have come anyway because union rules forbade working after hours.
We set off from Spokane in glorious sunshine, and before long were rolling up the main street of Kellogg, where Clancy was interviewed by the local newspaper.
I wandered into Bitterroot Mercantile, the first shop we came to, and the owner, a pleasant grey-haired man, came out from the back and introduced himself as Gary Corbeil.
“You wouldn’t happen to know what the local paper here was called back in 1913?” I said.
“Sure do. It was the Kellogg Wardner News, covering both towns. It finally closed in 1985 when the mine shut, taking a million-dollar payroll out of the local economy every month. Can’t really survive after that sort of blow.”
“For sure. How do you know all this, by the way?”
“I was the publisher,” he said.
In Wallace, the electric lights were still working and the streets still paved, but the waiters in Albi’s Bar, Sweet’s Café and the Jameson Inn had cast off their tuxedos, as a result of which all three were now closed and up for sale.
Quite right, too. You can’t let your standards slip without paying the price.
Even worse, the brothel had closed in 1988 and was now in a museum. The girls had left in such a hurry that they’d left their clothes behind, and by the looks of it they didn’t have much to wear but a few skimpy underthings, poor dears.
June 22, 2013
When Clancy and Allen finally rolled into Portland at 11.30 at night after days on roads which were no better than mule tracks, their misery was compounded by the sight of the crowds going home from the last night of the annual Rose Festival, which they had been looking forward to all the way from San Francisco.
As we checked out of our hotel in Medford next morning, a man called Dave Bosworth, who was 75 but looked about 50, came over to ask where we were from.
“That’s a great adventure you guys are having,” he said. “In 1959 a buddy and I drove a VW Bug all the way down to Panama. We floated it across rivers and tossed a coin to see who’d drive it over the rickety bridges, and then after all that got to Panama to find we couldn’t get through the Darien Gap to Colombia.
“Tell me about it,” I laughed. “I had the same problem coming the other way.”
Outside, I found Dr G arriving back from a meeting at the nearby offices of Motorcycle USA with one of the magazine’s writers, Bart Madson, who was riding with us for the morning.
“Geoff!” said Bart. “Haven’t seen you since the GS launch in South Africa,” said Bart.
As we were riding away, the conversation with Dave reminded me that I hadn’t seen a single VW the day before, since the vehicles had changed from the Beetle convertibles, classic Porsches and hot rods of California to monstrous pick-ups with sweet, romantic names like Dodge Ram and Ford Asskicker, which trundled past with a subterranean growl from V8 engines doing about a mile to the gallon.
The houses had changed too, from beach villas and cool duplex condos to log cabins peeking out from the woods, some of them looking as if they had been put up yesterday and others looking as if they had been falling down since Clancy was here.
Even the air had changed: rather than the salt smack of the ocean, here it was sharp and sweet with the tang of resin from countless lumber yards.
As for Cow Creek Canyon, which Clancy had described as an endless frozen pig pen, it was now a perfect motorcycling road, twisting and turning under the dappled trees, over the railroad tracks and past a river sparkling in the sun.
Gary raced ahead as usual, and Dr G showed he still had it to go in spite of his claim to be an old fart who was now the slowest biker on the planet – a title I’ve proudly held for years – but all of us gloried in every curve, then said farewell to Bart and rode on through a state which is still the sylvan idyll it was in Clancy’s day.
On wooded hills and dales here and there, little communities of pastel wooden houses gathered, close enough for company but far enough apart for breathing space, with more often than not, a handsome horse grazing in a meadow behind each home.
In Roseburg, where Clancy had had his gloves stolen, we locked ours in the panniers just in case, but the locals couldn’t have been more friendly.
“Don’t cost a dime to be pleasant to folks,” said the man who filled our tanks at the gas station before, like Clancy, we decamped to the nearest inn, the appropriately Irish McMenamin’s housed in the 1907 railway station with a faded sign of the same vintage on the wall warning cyclists not to practise their dark arts on the platform.
June 20, 2013
We were now riding through the rolling grassland of cattle country, with the foothills of the Sierras slowly appearing through the haze, and beyond Mount Shasta, covered in snow even in June.
The sun was so bright that I had to check that my dark visor was actually flipped down, and my nether regions were beginning to wonder if Richard and Dr G would ever stop for a break.
At last, we pulled up outside a café in Redding for no other reason than the owner’s impressive collection of model aeroplanes hanging from the ceiling, and tucked into sandwiches the size of Belgium, but a lot more interesting.
Before long, we were riding through the foothills of the Sierras, with Mount Shasta in the distance covered in snow even in June.
Which is where it all started to go horribly wrong for Clancy and Allen.
With the mountains looming, they stopped at the express office in Redding and shipped their 50lb panniers on to Portland, bought cheap blankets in the General Merchandise store for camping, and got the owner of the harness shop to sew some canvas saddlebags for what kit they needed to get them over the mountains.
That sorted, they tanked up with more ice cream, fuel and oil, and set off late in the afternoon for the dreaded road that lay ahead.
They didn’t have long to wait: within a few miles out of Redding, they were climbing an endless succession of rocky grades with hairpin bends, then sliding down the other side to be greeted by small but lethal lakes full of boulders.
Often the road got so steep that they had to dismount and run beside the machines, and as they were sliding down one hair-raising slope with their back wheels locked, they came upon a young couple in a Cadillac stuck fast on a tree stump.
They got it free, but the hill was so steep the fuel couldn’t make it up to the carburettor, but not to be beaten, the resourceful Bob blew into the top of the fuel tank, his face slowly turning the colour of a beetroot, while the driver cranked the starter handle until the engine spluttered then fired into life and settled down into a steady rhythm.
The grateful couple gave the riders six eggs, a small can of baked beans, an even smaller can of condensed cream, a little bread, sugar and coffee, and a pail to cook it in, and since by now it was growing dark and they were still in the heart of the mountains, they found a grassy spot near a crystal stream, and while Clancy cooked up a feast in the pail, Bob made a bed of weeds and leaves between the Hendersons, they wrapped themselves in their blankets and, with strange sounds from the woods all around and lightning crackling overhead, finally fell asleep just before the grey light of dawn woke them again.
At 5am, tired and hungry, they fired up the Hendersons and set off on roads which, impossibly, were even worse than the day before.
A ferry carried them across the raging Pitt River, and halfway up the next mountain, Clancy’s Henderson ground to a halt with a dry and slipping clutch.
He greased it with oil from his tank, but the clutch was so worn and the track so steep that he could only push the Henderson up it in the fierce sun, stopping when he was so exhausted he couldn’t hold the bike upright and resting until he could try again.
It took him 20 attempts and two exhausting hours to get up that one hill, and there were a dozen more beyond.
“If ever a man was bitter against motorcycling, it was I and then,” he wept, so worn out with heat and exhaustion that he was close to flinging himself in despair onto the rocks below when a Good Samaritan with a two-horse team towed him up the last slope to find Bob, who had stormed ahead with his new 8hp machine, sitting cool and collected and full of wild strawberries.
Clancy, presumably too exhausted to strangle him, collapsed beside him and, when he had the strength to lift his head, realised for the first time the extraordinary beauty around them.
Silver waterfalls tinkled to the ravines far below, piney summits strode to the horizon, and in between, the so-called Pacific Highway threaded its way through the virgin wood.
They were further cheered by six miles of fairly good road, but it was only playing with them, for it soon returned to water, rocks, mud and hairpins, and they were exhausted as they staggered into the lumber town and summer resort of Dunsmuir.
A busy railroad hub back then, today it is a village of sleepy clapboard houses whose residents are slowly getting older and popping their clogs, and a solitary café where we tucked into ice cream on the verandah.
“Bought this place on a whim years ago,” said the owner. “Best way to get a minimum wage from maximum work.”