It's the story of a journey made by two friends from New York to San Francisco, on Heinkel scooters, in 1963. Peter is travelling to be with his girlfriend; Phil, his buddy, comes along for the ride hoping to find inspiration for some paintings along the way.
That's nearly 3000 miles by the most direct route - and these guys make frequent detours, or just plain get lost - on 175cc machines laden with camping gear and art supplies. There are deserts and mountains, rainstorms and freezing April nights, mechanical failures and bitter rows. They travel through an America of beatniks, Happenings and motels, in an age when references to The Lord of the Rings have to be explained because only geeks have read it.
It's an epic journey. You can imagine Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman blubbering as they describe the hardships and the loneliness. But this is a very funny book, full of language and descriptions and snippets of dialogue that crease me up and occasionally sneaking in a philosophical or poetic gem that's all the more effective for its lighthearted surroundings.
Here's my favourite passage:
I had forgotten through the long winter how good it is to be driving a scooter on a warm day. You become painfully aware of how much there is in the world to be smelled, tasted, listened to, looked at, touched and comprehended before you die - a lifetime in every blink of the eye - and you find yourself twisting the throttle until she surges under you like a river, wanting to get to it all, all at once. You begin to fear death on the prettiest days.
My one complaint is that even though it's a book about scooters, Penguin saw fit to put a photo of a motorcycle on the cover...