Friday, August 13, 2004
New summer reading: Karen Larsen's Breaking the Limit
Former Carlisle resident Karen Larsen, daughter of Nils and Doris Larsen of Concord Street, has written a new and extraordinary account of adventure and self-discovery called Breaking the Limit: One Woman's Motorcycle Journey through North America. The book chronicles Karen Larsen's own "ride of a lifetime": her solo journey from Princeton, New Jersey to Alaska and back on her motorcycle, Lucy, in the year 2000.
With a summer interval stretching before her between receiving her master's degree from Princeton and the start of a new job, Larsen headed out to explore and experience the vastness of a 15,000-mile journey across North America, to meet its people, and to search for her own biological roots.
Adopted by the Larsens when she was four months old, it became necessary to contact her birth parents when a medical problem demanded that she provide her doctors with family medical history. During the course of her cross-country journey, she visited both of her birth parents and their families. She writes richly of her time with them, of the process of expanding her family circle conceptually and literally, and of the imprint made upon her sense of self by her genetic and adoptive families.
On the back roads
Larsen takes the reader along with her, almost on the back of her motorcycle, as she journeys through searing heat and numbing cold, storm and sunshine, smooth roads and rough, countryside redolent with wildflowers, thick with forest, or sere with drought and erosion. For the most part, she shuns large cities and concentrates on the back roads and small towns of America and Canada, calculating the miles between gas stations and campgrounds. Larsen is a gifted writer with superlative powers of description, and gives the reader a complete sensory readout of each turn of the road and of the people she encounters along the way. This is a wonderful book to read in the summer, when we all dream of spaces of time and roads to travel. The pace is slow enough to capture the feeling of riding the bike: open to weather and the vicissitudes of traveling alone over long stretches of bad road, along with careless drivers, or even the experience of traveling some distances with other bikers. The pace is also fast enough to keep the reader in mind of the fact that this is travel on a motorcycle, and not on a bicycle; Larsen occasionally has to stop and get off the bike to rest in a meadow or take a tour of a scene of particular grandeur.
It is impossible not to conjure comparisons between this book, Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and perhaps more accurately, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Like Kerouac, Larsen sets out to experience the moments of a journey, savoring each experience for its own sake, and to my mind, she does a better job of that than Kerouac does. But like Huck Finn, she is the quintessential American hero: young, alone, and on a long metaphorical and actual road to self-discovery. If the comparison with Huckleberry Finn pales, it is perhaps only because Twain had control over a fictional character and could manipulate his development artistically; Larsen here is recounting real experiences in her own "first person" and lacks the objectivity of an omniscient author writing in the first person of his own creation.
The telling of Larsen's adventure is stylistically rougher: the character she reveals to the reader is often repetitive, pedantic, and prone to polemic. She rides along bemoaning the "yuppie" SUV drivers, "reckless" RV drivers, and almost anyone with new or shiny equipment and gear, or anyone who enjoys driving in an "enclosed vehicle" or sheltering in a hotel with amenities. It is perhaps unnecessary to report to the reader as many times as she does her frustration with people who find it inappropriate for a woman to drive a motorcycle alone. However, if her harangues do not allow the reader to interpret her experiences, and if she repeats herself, she is as hard upon herself as she is on the reader, and she redeems herself in the revelation of the character she is: intensely human, and as complex as they come.
The book leaves us with questions, too. Despite her assertion at the end of the book that "there are few things which cannot be found if searched for," it is clear that the search goes on, and must. Despite all her profundity and all her discoveries, the end of the book still leaves us with more open road, and an inherent restlessness of character. Like Huckleberry Finn, this is a woman who won't put up with too much civilization: she'll take off, as Huck will, for "the territory ahead." Perhaps there will be another book there, and she can take us along with her.
© 2004 The Carlisle Mosquito