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Heart like a wheel: Allen Noren speaks Sept. 7 at Readers' Books.


'Storm' und Drang

A motorcycle trip turns into an endurance contest in local author's new book

By Yosha Bourgea

WHEN THE IRON CURTAIN fell in 1992, Sonoma County writer Allen Noren and his girlfriend of seven years, Suzanne, seized the new opportunity to travel through a part of the world previously closed to the West. A journey they had spent years planning and saving for was now possible: to ride by motorcycle clockwise around the Baltic Sea, starting and ending in Germany, passing through eight other countries along the way.

Noren recounts that eventful journey in Storm: A Motorcycle Journey of Love, Endurance, and Transformation (Travelers' Tales; $24), a vividly written book that is recommended reading for any intimate couple considering an extended trip together.

Allen and Suzanne, both seasoned world travelers, start off expecting another high-spirited adventure. But from their first foray onto Germany's infamous autobahn, where reckless drivers, high winds, and pouring rain bring them to the edge of death, their journey begins to transform into a test of commitment. What ends up being the coldest, wettest summer in recorded history sets the tone for a trip that is decidedly unexpected--and anything but easy.

Like Robert Pirsig's classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, this is a travelogue interwoven with scenes from a disintegrating relationship. But while Pirsig's physical journey is peripheral to the philosophical quest that forms the heart of his book, Storm is as much about the Baltic states as it is about the American couple riding through them.

Noren writes with a lifelong traveler's enthusiasm for detail. Of course, a travelogue showcasing the cultures along a 6,000-mile path could become didactic after a while. But Noren, who travels without a guidebook, also avoids sounding like one. His delivery is so direct and so assured that it's easy to forget this is his first book.

"To ride a bike is to be part of the machine," he writes. "You're essentially sitting on top of an engine and a raw steering mechanism, and your arms and legs are the linkages that make it all work. To ride well, every part of my body had to work together in minute ways."

But it's not just the readiness of his body, or the motorcycle itself, that affects the quality of the journey. While Allen is stimulated by the challenges of the road, Suzanne struggles with her need for comfort and safety in the face of the seemingly endless storms.

At a wild motorcycle rally on the island of Gotland that's the subject of one of the book's best passages, the couple watches a crowd of Scandinavian bikers behaving with drunken abandon. Suzanne is appalled, but Allen views it as a fascinating neo-pagan ritual.

"If this trip was a story you were reading about, wouldn't this be a part you'd stop at and want me to read?" he asks her.

The trip is a story, of course, and what's fascinating to read about may be unpleasant to experience directly. In that light, Suzanne's complaints are easy to understand. But Storm is Allen's story, and we're sympathetic to his frustration as the one who is expected to shoulder all the responsibility. Allen describes his reaction to Suzanne's final breakdown in Gdansk, Poland, where her outburst of emotion leaves him feeling helpless and unable to express emotion himself.

"I had to do something, so I decided to wash the bike," he writes. "I would wash it gently, as if it was wounded. I would go about it the way some people pray."

As the book comes to a close, so does the trip, with Allen and Suzanne riding back into Bremen, Germany, some three months after leaving it. The story ends there, on a deliberately ambiguous note, with the future of the relationship still troubled and uncertain. Readers may draw their own conclusions, but as the author quietly reminds us, the ending--happy or otherwise--is not what makes a journey. It's travel itself that matters.


Allen Noren reads from Storm on Thursday, Sept. 7, at 7:30 p.m. at Readers' Books, 130 E. Napa St., Sonoma. For details, call 939-1779.

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From the September 7-13, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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