If you like motorcycles, Harley Tracks: Across Vietnam to the Wall (Tracks Press, 263 pp., $29.95) has to be your next book. True to his subtitle, author Mike Rinowski describes practically every mile of an amazing journey he took on a Harley Fat Boy.
Over four years beginning in 2008, Rinowski traveled 41,000 miles on a solo pilgrimage to honor those who fought in the Vietnam War—or, depending on your viewpoint, the American War in Vietnam. He visited most of the battle sites, including those from the French War, including Dien Bien Phu.
Despite the author’s intent to honor warriors from the past, Fat Boy steals many of the scenes. The Harley “added a new tune to the atmosphere” and attracted attention everywhere, which helped Rinowski meet many people, including veterans from both sides. Hotels frequently gave Fat Boy privileged parking—inside their lobbies.
Fat Boy and Rinowski conquered all: close calls, treacherous roads, monsoons, overzealous police, mechanical difficulties, collisions and spills, along with other unpredictable problems. Every day was an adventure.
The writing is crisp, detailed, and flawlessly edited. Rinowski can turn a phrase for the rare sight, such as: “I passed a flea-sized girl about five years old who carried a swoosh stick to command a giant ox and its calf along the trail.” For grandeur: “Dark rock towered to snow and glaciers that disappeared in a blanket of clouds. Avalanche remnants stuck in crevices, and fallen sheets of snow froze, as if to reach and claw back to the top.”
And for danger: “I leaned harder into the turn, and before the front tire hit sand, I cranked on the throttle. In a blink of time, the rear tire slung sand and spun the back of the bike through the turn. My right foot shot down for a quick step and push, while my hands pulled for a bit of lift.”
Forty pages of colored photographs are flawless. They show people, cities, and landscapes with vividness and clarity seldom found in a memoirist’s photography.
Rinowski also rode across Kashmir and through the Himalaya Mountains on a rented machine. As he traveled, Rinowski occasionally updated the status of his business ventures as a golf course builder and superintendent.
Rinowski presents pro and con history lessons about the war. He offers his opinion of the war’s necessity and discourses on the casualties still caused in Vietnam today by unexploded ordinance, as well as birth defects from American defoliation tactics. His brief analyses tend toward broad conclusions. He excuses these shortcomings by saying, “The nature of combat lay beyond my imagination.”
Born in 1953, Rinowski entered the Army and ended up serving in Germany as the fighting in Vietnam wound down.
Rinowski fulfilled the promise of the book’s title after returning to the United States. In 2013, Fat Boy and he joined the Memorial Day rally that ended at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
When a stranger asked where the essence of Rinowski’s travels originated, he said, “It comes from my free-spirited nature.”
Mike Rinowski’s preference to travel alone—the most dangerous way to ride—distinctly confirms that essence.
The author’s web site is http://harleytracks.com