Peace Corps Writers

Breaking the Limit

Breaking the Limit
One Woman's Motorcycle Journey Through North America
by Karen Larsen (Bulgaria 1996–98)
July 2004
383 pages

Reviewed by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965–67)

SO THIS SLIP OF A GIRL gets on her bottom-of-the-line Harley — christened Lucy — andPrinter friendly version plows her way from Princeton, New Jersey, to the lip of the Arctic Circle somewhere in Alaska. (When she says she’s going to ride to Alaska, she’s not talking Anchorage.) She has two goals: to make it, and to meet her biological father for the first time and her biological mother’s family including half-brothers and sisters she’s never known. When she meets the first of these goals, reaches the Alaskan wilderness, does she then ship her bike home and fly back? No, she takes a different return route heading directly toward Lake Louise, Canada, because she saw a photograph when she was a child of the Lake Louise Chateau (a Grande Dame of a hotel right up there with the Savoy, Raffles and the Royal Hawaiian), and is determined to have tea in the conservatory before she dies. Such is the essence of the phenomenon known as wanderlust. (Epilogue: naturally, it’s a disappointment.)
     The slip of a girl is Karen Larsen who I characterize as such because she tells us that she is pretty and petite. She has traveled the world including two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bulgaria and Macedonia, and she is one tough cookie. As my late father would have put it if he’d met her: A pistol. At the same time, she’s as sweet and cuddly as a golden retriever puppy mostly because of her idealized vision of what life should be like and how everyone should act based solely on her fantasies. I like people like that, so sure of themselves that they just steam roll along, shrugging off what doesn’t measure up. Alas, the flip side of that characteristic is that just before the shrug, they make judgments and force-feed them to innocent bystanders — in this case, the book’s readers. When someone is rude to Larsen in Aspen, she trashes everyone who lives there, managing to throw in the inhabitants of Princeton as well:

How could it be that people who had every material thing, and who lived in such a spectacularly beautiful place, should be so poor in spirit and human kindness? Aspen felt a lot like Princeton shifted west; the same aggressively wealthy, rather unfriendly atmosphere permeated the street. God help you if you weren’t white enough, rich enough, or well dressed enough to match their standards.

I could have done without the lectures. So much more refreshing when our author just flips someone a bird and peels out.
     Larsen gives a running commentary of the vistas she and Lucy traverse and the characters they run into (sometimes, literally). As with anyone who views the world with rose-colored glasses, her physical depictions are right up there with the very best romance writers:

The lightening came in disconcerting and irregular combinations of huge, jagged white bolts and flashing incandescent sheets as the wind began to howl and fat raindrops exploded off my faceshield.

My favorite:

Four Canada geese flew by in a low and abbreviated V-formation, the sound of their feathers brushing through the wind in gentle counterpoint to the alto of their honks.

     And her portrayals of the various types she meets are appropriate for those romance covers: His thick black hair, cropped short and swept back from high cheekbones, crowned the gold skin and almond-shaped eyes of his Eurasian face. And: He had the greenish gold eyes of a predator, hair a little long and curling where it brushed his collar, and curling where it . . .. Never mind the rest, you get it. If Ms. Larsen needs a hack job while she writes another book, she could easily crank out romance novels with one hand tied behind her back. (Take it from one who put food on the table producing true confessions while trying to write my first couple of novels.)
     Larsen not only describes the open road and its denizens, she narrates the many trials she faced — surviving violent thunderstorms, fingers so chilled to the bone she can’t move them, a state of incessant grunge sufficiently disgusting for the reader to enjoy a hot shower as much as she does, and possible rapists (she gives us a formula for recognizing these fellows). In addition, she takes breaks for a series of phone calls which, collectively, encompass her break-up with her boyfriend who is an asshole. Way to go girl, one wants to shout.
     At long last the second goal: the two meetings with her mother, and then her father. Both are heart-breaking yet heart-warming, but it is a place Larsen isn’t quite ready to go to yet; the book is 388 pages and her parents get only seven apiece. Going along with the update on these folks, she gives a little history of life with her adopted family and there lies a gold mine waiting for her pick-axe, and if she wields it with same the command she wields that little Harley, stand back.
     If purple prose is your own personal idea of a feast, you will devour this book. If it’s not, when you come up for air you will find yourself admiring the writer’s positive attitude despite adversity, as well as her courage and charm. And you’ll wish she were your friend so the two of you could go out and crack a few beers — get to listen to more tales of Larsen’s life on the road with Lucy.

Mary-Ann Tirone Smith has written eight novels, including the Poppy Rice mystery series. Her memoir, Girls of Tender Age, will be published in December.
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