Following Dervla

Jun 30th, 2022

This article originally appeared in a 1998 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine. 

In 1963, Dervla Murphy hopped on her bike in Ireland and pedaled all the way to India … alone. I was two years old. She wrote of her adventures in the highly acclaimed book Full-Tilt: Ireland to India on a Bicycle. Dervla continued to travel. While I was having fights with my brother over which Saturday morning cartoons to watch, she was exploring Ethiopia … on a mule. By the time I attempted my first long-distance bicycle trip on well-paved roads, she was Muddling Through in Madagascar, cycling nearly impossible roads without the aid of shocks, clipless pedals, or grip shifts. Little did I know that years down the road our paths would cross.

On July 2, 1981, I left on a cross-country bicycle journey with my best buddy, Thomas. This was the trip of a lifetime. Neither of us was a seasoned cyclist; our brand-new, blue Univega Gran Tourismo touring bikes with miraculous triple cranks had fewer than 100 miles on them. We had purchased the cheapest panniers we could find and splurged on maps and guidebooks from this organization called Bikecentennial. My budget was so tight I allotted myself only six rolls of film for the entire journey.

After carrying our bikes what seemed like miles across the sand at low tide to dip our back wheels in the Pacific, we were off and pedaling. Two magical months later, we pedaled down Second Avenue in Manhattan, basking in a glow of accomplishment that so many thousands of other cyclists have since enjoyed.

I had no other journeys planned. It was time to go back to college and try and figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I pictured myself in my 70s outside my custom motor home parked in a prime campsite at a national park, regaling my grandchildren with the story, “Back when I was 19 years old, I pedaled my bicycle across this here country. Never did get back on that thing, but it sure was a grand trip.”

I graduated from CSU Sacramento in theatre arts and moved up to Seattle, Washington, to pursue a career as an actor. After six years of stage, film, and radio, I was bitten by the travel bug again. I considered traveling by bus, by train, by foot, but my mind always wandered back to my trip with Thomas. The more I thought about it, the more I realized our journey had been magical, not simply because we were traveling, but because we were traveling by bicycle.

I took the summer off in 1988 and pedaled 6,400 miles across Canada. I was hooked. I got a job as a bicycle tour guide and led trips in the Northwest. I lived in a garage and walked a block and a half to the nearest bathroom in order to save money to travel. The tour guide position was for five to six months each year, which allowed me to travel on my own for the remaining months.

In 1990, I cycled 4,000 miles throughout Mexico and learned that it wasn’t nearly as frightening as I’d imagined touring in a country whose language and customs differed from mine. Rather than frightening, it was exhilarating. The next year, I spent three months pedaling through all the countries of Central America. The following year, it was over 4,000 miles pedaling around New Zealand.

But it wasn’t until 1993, when I began to plan my own bicycle trip throughout India, that I was introduced to her writings. Whenever I spoke of cycling in India, Dervla’s name came up. I discovered while reading her books that this daring lady was not only a wonderful writer but the stuff of legend.

She never used the latest gear, usually buying a singlespeed bike (or a singlespeed mule) in the country she was going to explore. She carried little food and often slept outside with a blanket as her only cover. Her simple way of traveling made my gear-laden, 21-speed mountain bike feel like a lumbering custom RV. And like many admiring readers, I wondered if one day I would meet her.

In 1995, during my five-month bicycle journey of South Africa, I was invited into the home of a family in the town of Melmoth, in KwaZulu-Natal. I needed the rest. The day before, the bolt on my seatpost had snapped, and when I went to locate my tools, they were missing. For the next 25 insanely hilly kilometers, I stood and pedaled through tribal Zulu country.

As I sat with my host family around the kitchen table sipping rooibos tea, they all began to tell me how much I reminded them of a dear friend of theirs. “She was a tall Irish woman … ” I choked on my tea, “You are talking of Dervla Murphy!”

Turns out that Dervla (then in her 60s) had cycled South Africa the year before during the first free elections, and they had invited her to stay. “What were the odds?” I thought to myself.

A year later, while planning my trip through the Balkans, I read Dervla’s book Transylvania and Beyond. In it, she described an accident she had while in Romania. She slipped on a patch of vomit outside her hotel room on a cold winter’s night and broke her leg. She stayed with a Romanian family for over a month while she recuperated.

My own journey in the Balkans began with a solo swing through Hungary, Slovenia, and war-torn Croatia and Bosnia. My girlfriend, Kat, then joined me back in Budapest, and I proposed to her before we pedaled off to see Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Albania.

We both fell in love with Romania — its beautiful countryside, friendly people, and slow pace — a cyclist’s dream world. On the northern backroads, we were often the fastest vehicles on the roads as most of the locals got around on horse-drawn carts.

In a tiny village south of Sighisoara, we met a couple whom we would later refer to as Grandma and Grandpa. Mr. Bunea was seated on a bench with his back up against the stone wall of his property. He was a strong, handsome-looking man with shocking white hair, dressed in wool pants, a white shirt worn beneath a gray vest, and sporting a matching gray cap. He invited us into his home for a drink of water and we stayed for two days. His wife, Maria, although 70 years old and permanently hunched over from osteoporosis, was a compact bundle of energy. Her appearance reminded me of a cute apple doll you buy at the fair. But we soon learned, an apple doll who could knock back a shot of plum brandy like a sailor. The Buneas instantly found their way into our hearts.

On our first evening at their home, they invited over some friends, a husband and wife, who spoke English. As we sat around the kitchen table sipping plum brandy, they said, “You remind us so much of a dear friend of ours. She is from Ireland”.

I couldn’t believe my ears. “Dervla Murphy!” I replied. We all screamed with delight. Come to find out, this was the very couple who had housed Dervla while her leg mended.

Again. What were the odds? It boggles my mind.

I have never met this amazing woman, but I still hope I will someday. But until that time, I am honored to be following in her tire tracks.

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