Full Tilt: Dervla Murphy’s Fierce and Poetic Account of Traversing the World on Two Wheels in the 1960s
By Maria Popova
In the early nineteenth century, the teenage Mary Godwin and her not-yet-husband Percy Bysshe Shelley left England for the Continent, traveling by foot and by mule, on the wings of love and youth. Through their constant poverty and hunger, through the frequent accidents and illnesses, they slaked their souls on beauty — on the shimmering grandeur of mountains and rivers, fiery sunsets and moonlit nights. It was on those dirt roads, under those open skies, that they became Romantics.
A century and a half later, another indomitable spirit of uncommon sensitivity to beauty, in nature and in human nature, took those dirt roads and wound them halfway around the world, discovering the romance of reality along the way.
In January 1963, as Central Europe was entering its harshest winter in eighty years, Dervla Murphy (November 28, 1931–May 22, 2022) mounted her bicycle named Roz and left Ireland for India, by way of France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Along the way, narrowly escaping death by landslide and wolf pack, by Taliban and six-foot icicle, she encountered people from wildly different cultures, whose boundless hospitality affirmed what she had to have already known in her bones to endeavor on so dangerous a journey at all: “that for all the horrible chaos of the contemporary political scene this world is full of kindness.”
Her unassumingly titled account of the experience, drawn from her itinerant diaries — Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle (public library) — is one of the most dazzlingly, unsummarizably wonderful books I have read in a lifetime of passionate reading: the kind that rekindles your faith in the human spirit and reenchants you with the staggering beauty of this world.
A typical entry reads:
I slept very well last night in my roadside tea-house, curled up in a corner of the one-roomed building, with moonlight streaming through the doorway that had no door.
To her, a ferocious storm is but a mirror for the poetry of reality:
By now the thunder had ceased and when the wind dropped the overwhelming silence of the mountains reminded me of the hush felt in a great empty Gothic cathedral at dusk — a silence which is beautiful in itself.
She departs with only a saddlebag of luggage, containing her passport and camera, a map, one spare pair of nylon pants and nylon shirt, toothbrush, comb, writing paper, two pens, and a copy of Blake’s poems.
The very outset of her journey is emblematic of the spirit of the whole: When her planned departure date arrives with temperatures far below any she has lived through, Murphy decides to wait a week, hoping the cold would remit. When it does not and each grocery outing becomes “a scaled-down Expedition to the Antarctic,” she presses forth and departs anyway — the first bout of the touchingly stubborn persistence that would mark her entire endeavor.
With an icicle firmly attached to her nose, she makes her way to a Yugoslavian youth hostel, gets blown off her saddle by the most ferocious wind she has ever experienced, tumbles down a fifteen-foot sloping ditch and into a stream frozen so solid that her impact produces not even a crack on the ice, crawls back onto the bicycle, eventually accepts a nightmarish ride in a rickety truck across “250 miles of frozen plain which stretched with relentless white anonymity,” and resumes on two wheels after the truck crashes into a tree. All along, she slakes her soul on the austere beauty of the landscape:
At the valley’s end my road started to climb the mountains, sweeping up and up and again up, in a series of hairpin bends that each revealed a view more wild and splendid than the last.
On the morning of my third day in Belgrade, there came a rise in temperature that not merely eased the body but relaxed the nerves. Never shall I forget the joy of standing bareheaded in my host’s front garden, watching tenuous, milky clouds drifting across the blue sky.
Immediately after fighting off a pack of wolves, one of which had attached itself by its teeth to the shoulder of her windbreaker, she again orients to beauty:
All around me the mountains, valleys and forests lay white and lifeless under a low, grey sky, in the profound stillness of a landscape where no breeze stirred, there was neither house nor bird to be seen and the streams were silent under their covering of ice. I stopped often to look around me, and savour the uncanny sensation of being the only living, moving thing in the midst of this hushed desolation, where my own breathing sounded loud.
Sometimes the enchantment of nature almost blinds her to the menacing brutalities of its forces. In one of myriad passages that radiate both her felicitous spirit and her tender relationship with her bicycle as an anthropomorphized companion — relatable relations for those of us who live on two wheels — she writes:
From the near distance came a dull, booming sound, as soldiers blew up the gigantic accumulations of rock-hard snow which, unless artificially loosened, would have dammed the river and sent its overflow rushing through the nearby town of Cuprija. It was awe-inspiring to see the wide, angry Morava swiftly sweeping its tremendous burden of ice and snow-chunks through the vast wilderness of sullen, brown flood-waters, and my awe was soon justified when a massive wave came crashing across the road, swept me off Roz and rolled me over and over, choking as I swallowed the muddy water and gasping as its iciness penetrated my clothes. Next a branch of a little roadside tree appeared above me and pulling myself up by it I found that the water, though still flowing strongly, was now no more than three feet deep. I looked for Roz and, during one appalling moment, thought that she had disappeared. Then I saw a yellow handlebar grip in a ditch, and hurried to rescue her.
By February, she has made her way to the barely discernible border of communist Bulgaria, on the other side of which lay my mother in her crib, about to turn one. Murphy enters the “the insignificant little house which is Bulgaria’s Northern Frontier Fortress” and knocks on one of the doors. When no one answers, she knocks again. A delightful scene ensues:
Again my knock remained unanswered, but this time, when I opened a door leading out of the hall, I found a policeman happily dozing by the stove, with a cat and two kittens on his lap. I immediately diagnosed that he was a nice policeman, and when I had gently roused him, and he had recovered from the shock of being required to function officially, I had my diagnosis confirmed.
In December, the Bulgarian Embassy in London had issued me with a visa valid for only four days. Now this genial policeman, who spoke fluent English, took one look at the card, said that it was ridiculous, and issued me with a new visa entitling me to stay in Bulgaria as long as I wished! After which we sat by the stove and amiably discussed our two countries over glasses of brandy.
She proceeds to cycle almost all the way to Istanbul, save a few short lifts from busses and trucks between blizzards in the Turkish highlands. On one of them, she barely escapes “being entombed in snow” when the bus tumbles into a ditch on the side of the mountain road and the snowplough dispatched to rescue it careens off the cliff, killing both men onboard. Even in such proximity to death, her buoyant spirit and largehearted humanity shine through:
As we waited the snow piled higher and higher around us, its silent softness contrasting eerily with the whine of the gale through the pass. It is on occasions such as these that I thank God for my sanguine temperament, which refuses to allow me to believe in disaster until it is finally manifest, and I noticed that my comrades in distress were equally well fortified against panic by their fatalistic acceptance of Allah’s Will. Yet perhaps we were all more apprehensive than we had allowed ourselves to recognise, for we cheered very loudly when the second snowplough eventually appeared.
(You can tell by now that I have fallen wholeheartedly in love with this bygone stranger.)
When she crosses over to Persia, presently the Islamic Republic of Iran, she shares a squalid bed with “a host of energetic fleas” in a box of a room at a roadside dosshouse, where she is awakened in the middle of the night by “a six-foot, scantily-clad Kurd” who has peeled her bedding from her and is leaning over in the moonlight. Without hesitation she pulls the pistol from under her pillow, fires it at the ceiling, and closes the scene. The next thing she writes is another exultation in beauty:
On the following morning came one of the most glorious experiences of the entire journey — a fifteen-mile cycle-run in perfect weather around the base of Mount Ararat. This extraordinary mountain, which inspires the most complex emotions in the least imaginative traveller, affected me so deeply that I have thought of it ever since as a personality encountered, rather than a landscape observed… Cycling day after day beneath a sky of intense blue, through wild mountains whose solitude and beauty surpassed anything I had been able to imagine during my day-dreams about this journey.
In a sentiment that embodies the entwined history of light and consciousness, she adds:
Particularly I remember the unique purity of the light, which gave to every variation of every colour an individual vitality and which lucidly emphasised every line, curve and angle. Here, for the first time, I became fully aware of light as something positive, rather than as a taken-for-granted aid to perceiving objects.
Punctuating all this natural beauty are the most unhandsome manifestations of human nature: amateur bandits seize Roz, but a pistol shot Murphy fires into the air makes the scatter “like rabbits”; a “gorgeously uniformed and braided” young police officer summons her to his quarters in the police barracks on the pretext of some bureaucratic business and attempts to force himself on her, which she escapes by grabbing at his trousers and deploying “unprintable tactics to reduce him to a state of temporary agony.” Elsewhere, turbaned youths stone her within moments of her arrival in their village, further maiming her already ailing right arm, blistered with sunburn from all the long hours cycling steadily eastward.
“Today a deep depression has moved over Dervla,” she writes with third-person remove in one of the handful of entries in which she allows herself anything other than absolute buoyancy of spirit. Upon arrival in Teheran, she is told at the embassy that “under no circumstances whatever would they grant a visa to a woman who intended cycling alone through Afghanistan” — six years earlier, a Swedish woman motorist had been found chopped up to pieces, prompting the government to ban all lone woman travelers. With her usual wry rationalism, she points out that “women get murdered in Europe with monotonous regularity and that the hazards of travelling alone through [Afghanistan] were probably no greater than the hazards of doing likewise in Britain or France.” Her unassuming persistence grants her an audience with “a sufficiently senior man,” to whom she declares herself solely responsible for her fate, waiving all governmental responsibility. Her account of the exchange is one of the most multiply charming in the book:
Fortunately, the victim of my machinations was an upholder of Free Enterprise and the Liberty of the Individual. He looked at me in silence for a moment, then said, “Well, I suppose if visas had been required in 1492, the New World would not have been discovered. All right — I’ll play ball. But remember that all this is very unofficial and unbecoming to my position and I’m depending on you to come out alive at the other end, for my sake – which I somehow think you will do.”
And off she goes, into the hinterland, her heart heavy with the news that two women have just been killed in the Mullah-provoked riots against women’s emancipation. Once again she turns to the nonhuman consolations of nature in this uncommonly beautiful corner of the globe:
Every mile from Teheran was pure joy — as much the joy of space and silence as of visual loveliness… These extravagantly sweeping lines of plain and mountain are intoxicating to an islander and the blending of shades on the barren hillsides is a symphony of colour.
Over and over, it seems like Murphy’s bright spirit is her natural amulet against misfortune. Stopping by to rest at a local village, she reaches across the barrier of language, culture, and age to reduce the local children to giggles by pretending to be a sheepdog, before metamorphosing into a donkey to crawl around the sand on all fours with three toddlers or her back.
She takes a detour to Omar Khayyám’s hometown, “to pay homage,” where she is mobbed by eager local youths begging her help — which she gives eagerly — with their English, waving their dictionaries and their copies of Jane Eyre, and bombarding her with complex pronunciation problems as she relishes the town’s stunning gardens full of “smooth lawns, pale green cascades of weeping willow and brilliant beds of carnations, roses, pansies and geraniums.”
Everywhere she goes, she is a spectacle — some have never seen a bicycle, some have never seen a lone woman traveller, and none have never seen, nor could even conceive of, a woman traveling the world alone on a bicycle. In her baggy hand-me-down shirt and boots donated by the U.S. Army in the Middle East, she is often taken for a man — because, she speculates, “the idea of a woman travelling alone is so completely outside the experience and beyond the imagination of everyone.”
Murphy observes these cultural peculiarities without the slightest bit of personal offense or judgment, only with largehearted curiosity, reserving her only instance of unconcealed contempt for an encounter with a member of a wholly different culture:
American: “What the hell are you doing on this goddam road?”
Me: (having taken an instant dislike to him) “Cycling.”
American: “I can see that — but what the hell for?”
Me: “For fun.”
American: “Are you a nut-case or what? Gimme that bike and I’ll stick it on behind and you get in here and we’ll get out of this goddam frying-pan as fast as we can. This track isn’t fit for a camel!”
Me: “When you’re on a cycle instead of in a jeep it doesn’t feel like a frying-pan. Moreover, if you look around you you’ll notice that the landscape compensates for the admittedly deplorable state of the road. In fact I enjoy cycling through this sort of country – but thank you for the kind offer. Goodbye.”
As I rode on he passed me and yelled: “You are a goddam nut-case!”
I regard this sort of life, with just Roz and me and the sky and the earth, as sheer bliss.
For all the levity Murphy brings to her challenges, she is also moving through the world — a world so very different from the one she knows — with the deep-thinking, deep-feeling person’s unassailable sensitivity to the underlying complexities of culture. Often, her natural generosity of spirit leads her to layers of nuance that evade even the most forward-thinking of persons, even today; always, she meets the unknown not with judgment but with curiosity — that hallmark of true grandeur of spirit. Finding herself “quite sorry to be leaving Persia,” she reflects:
Beneath all the physical dirt and moral corruption there is an elegance and dignity about life here which you can’t appreciate at first, while suffering under the impact of the more obvious and disagreeable national characteristics. The graciousness with which peasants greet each other and the effortless art with which a few beautiful rags and pieces of silver are made to furnish and decorate a whole house — in these and many other details Persia can still teach the West. I suppose it’s all a question of seeing one of the oldest and richest civilisations in the world long past its zenith.
Even through the slow and difficult climb to Herat — a city “as old as history and as moving as a great epic poem” — she drinks in the beauty that remains her most steadfast fuel along the grueling journey:
It took me four and a half hours to cover the thirty miles… but I enjoyed the wide silence of the desert in the cool of the morning. This is a city of absolute enchantment in the literal sense of the word. It loosens all the bonds binding the traveller to his own age and sets him free to live in a past that is vital and crude but never ugly.
So begins her love affair with Afghanistan, which casts a lifelong enchantment on her with its aura of unremitting beauty: the beauty of its nature, the beauty of its art, the beauty of its people — “by our standards, the best-looking people in the world,” endowed with a soft kindliness she has never encountered before:
I already love the country and the people and somehow language barriers don’t matter when one feels such a degree of sympathy with a race which responds so graciously and kindly to a smile or a gesture of friendship.
The country would soon emerge as her favorite leg of the journey by many orders of magnitude, beckoning her to return:
This is the part of Afghanistan I was most eager to see, but in my wildest imaginings I never thought any landscape could be so magnificent. If I am murdered en route it will have been well worth while!
In a splendid contribution to literature’s most exquisite meditations on the color blue, she writes from Herat:
This morning I went to the outskirts of the town just to wander among the green woods and sit on green grass beside a little stream in a beautifully kept public park. Many of the streets are lined with enormous pine trees and a glorious garden of lawns and lavishly blooming rose bushes stretches in front of the mosque… I sat on the shady side of the enormous courtyard for almost an hour, enjoying the mosaics and the gold of the brickwork glowing against the blue sky. It was very peaceful there with no sound or movement except for a myriad twittering martins swooping in and out of the cool, dim passages between the hundreds of pillared archways.
The predominant colour here is blue of all shades, with yellow, black, pink, brown, green and orange tiles blended so skilfully that from a certain distance a façade or minaret looks as though made of some magic precious metal for the colour of which there is no name.
Cycling through the most beautiful part of the Hindu Kush, she gasps once more at the otherworldly mesmerism of this world:
The glory of those mountains makes one feel that it must all be a dream. Every peak and slope and outcrop is different in shape, texture and colour, the rock and shale and clay shaded purple, rose, green, ochre, black, pale grey, dark grey, brown, navy and off-white. Then, below those arid, soaring cliffs… graceful with willows and poplars, and soft with new grass and filled with bird-song and the rush of the river.
But hers is no rosy enchantment with nature — she is equally attuned to its impartial brutality that comes even-handed with the beauty, ready to reduce human lives to trifling minutia in a matter of moments:
For about the first twenty of this afternoon’s forty miles we were going through a narrow gorge overhung by mountains eroded to many grotesquely beautiful shapes — some were like the ruins of colossal Gothic cathedrals, others had crags worn by wind and water into parodies of sculptured human faces and always there was that incredible display of colours. Then the valley widened slightly and we came to a region of devastation, a shattered wilderness where giant rocks, the size of cottages, lay strewn everywhere, and wide fissures in the mountains warned that at the next earth tremor — and they are frequent here — the whole appearance of the area would change.
And yet, through the flat tires, the broken rib, the “extreme hunger than extreme thirst, which almost drives one mad,” the food poisoning, the pain of “mental loneliness,” the storms of ice and dust, the fingers burned on the metal handlebars while cycling through unbearable heat at 7,000 feet elevation, “the terrifying dehydration of mouth and nostrils and eyes until… a sort of staring blindness came on,” she never loses sight of why she has endeavored to do this in the first place — why she has obeyed the clarion call of wakefulness to life. In an entry emblematic of the spirit in which she has undertaken her journey, she writes:
Another fabulous dust-storm is performing now and all electricity has gone off again, so I’m writing by oil-lamp in a bath of sweat.
Again and again she orients to beauty, writing from Pakistan:
Behind us, almost overhanging the mess buildings, rose a 9,000-foot mountain wall of stark, grey rock which was repeated on the other side of the narrow valley; it’s this confinement which keeps the temperature so high despite an altitude of nearly 5,000 feet. Down the valley snow-capped peaks of over 20,000 feet were sharply beautiful against the gentle evening sky and as the setting sun caught the valley walls they changed colour so that their pink and violet glow seemed to illuminate the whole scene.
While we were having dinner on the verandah a full moon rose and by the time the meal was over the valley looked so very lovely that I took myself off for a walk — to the unspoken disapproval of all those present! Having descended steeply for about half a mile my path turned west along the valley floor, leaving the shuttered stalls of the bazaar behind. Tall mulberry and apricot trees laid intricate shadows on the sandy path and the silence was broken only by the snow-enraged Gilgit River. The sky was a strange royal-blue with all but the brightest stars quenched, while on either side the mountains were transformed into silver barricades, as their quartz surfaces reflected the moonlight.
Two days later:
Today’s landscape was a series of dramatic contrasts. The valley floor around Gilgit Town showed the fragrant abundance of early summer – fields of trembling, silver-green wheat and richly golden barley, bushes of unfamiliar, lovely blossoms and, most beautiful of all, a rock-plant with tiny, golden-pink flowers, growing so lavishly in the crevices of the walls that it was like a sunset cloud draped over the grey stones. Then the valley narrowed to exclude the early sun until there was room only for the river between the opposing precipices and we were alone in a barren, rough, shadowy world, where nothing moved but the brown flood-waters.
Two weeks laters, from amid the glaciers of Pakistan’s challenging Babusar mountain pass:
I saw two magnificent eagles and the air was filled all day with lark-song… Scintillating snow-peaks and regal fir trees, brilliant green meadows right up to the snowline and glistening glaciers in the gullies, waterfalls tumbling and sparkling everywhere and jewel-like wild flowers, rippling bird-songs and the faint, clean aroma of some unfamiliar herb.
The overtone of the book, of the journey, of this uncommon consciousness moving through the common world, finds its distillation in a single line from the same entry:
What a wonderful place this world is!
I could go on — Full Tilt is one of those rare books, a handful in a lifetime if one is lucky, brimming with so many touching human moments and such astonishments of natural beauty that one cannot help but have more passages underlined than not. Read it — your life will thank you for it — then revisit composer Paola Prestini’s choral masterwork celebrating the history of the bicycle as an instrument of emancipation and Maria Ward’s nineteenth-century manifesto for bicycling, featuring photographs by her visionary friend and lover Alice Austen, who paved the way for women like Dervla Murphy.
Published September 25, 2022