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BOOK, LINE & THINKER Review of Amber, Furs and Cockleshells

Updated on September 24, 2012
Amber, Furs and Cockleshells by Anne Mustoe
Amber, Furs and Cockleshells by Anne Mustoe

Amber, Furs and Cockleshells

BOOK: Amber, Furs and Cockleshells (Bike Rides With Pilgrims And Merchants)

AUTHOR: Anne Mustoe

PUBLISHER: Virgin Books, 2005

“My conventional youth has earned me a reckless maturity.” – Anne Mustoe, pg. 95

I found this book on the bargain table at my local Books A Million. Like so many times before, I was perusing said table when the cover of this book caught my eye. It was a photograph of an azure sky, a cobalt sea and what appeared to be the prow of an ancient Viking ship. The title sealed the deal as I scooped it up and journeyed to the check out counter. $2 later, I was on my way home to make some jasmine tea.

It wasn’t until that evening that I saw the words “Bike Rides With Pilgrims and Merchants” beneath the title. Hmmm. Bike rides? This is different…a journal? I cracked the spine and started to read.

I am a sucker for a quote. Anne opens every chapter with a quote – all of them relevant to her journey/adventure. While the first chapter unfurled with a slow and dreamy cadence I foolishly believed I might find myself derailed by journal entries about cycling. I lost control during chapter two when Anne seduced me with history, trivia and personal encounters at every stop. Quotes, history, and adventure. The bike seemed like an extra bonus.

Anne Mustoe is (was) an accidental cyclist. After years of teaching in England, she mustered the courage to hoist herself on a bike and simply go… Go wherever she wished. Anne is in her 60’s during this book’s adventures – and her fascinating grace and delightfully straightforward story-telling make this book an excellent read for any age. Carefully plotting her routes, Anne discusses/describes three separate journeys.

The first journey is the ancient Amber Trade Route. (Her opening quotes from Marcus Aurelius made me giddy). I learned more from Anne than I ever did in my college history courses. As she delved deeper into her journey, I found myself googling the places she visited just to see what she must have seen. It became very clear that this was not a book about a bicycle….this was a book about a warm, intelligent woman who defied the odds by inventing – over and over – her own adventures by traveling the world and testing herself with every challenge. Even now, as I write this, I am dying of curiosity as I wonder what on earth happened to the magnificent Amber Room?

The second journey takes place in the United States – the Santa Fe Trail. On this journey Anne overtakes the Santa Fe Trail with a zeal for our nation’s history. Riding from town to town, Anne does a superb job of communicating her personal encounters with so many Americans in the Midwest. As an American, I found myself appreciating her knowledge as well as fretting over why we haven’t done a better job of preserving some of our historical sites. Although I learned about the Santa Fe Trail in school, I did not learn so many of the details included in Anne’s careful account. I love it.

The final journey is Anne’s long-awaited walk (ride) to Santiago. This was the most romantic journey of the book. Anne has her very own personal reasons for making the ride to Santiago, but it is a pilgrimage nonetheless. Anne steeps us in the history of the pilgrimage and then some. As she pedals through each village, town and over every medieval bridge, I feel this ancient pilgrimage come to life. Googling magnificent imagery along the way, I follow her through Europe and contemplate my own pilgrimages. Anne savors local foods, tours historic sites and meets the everyday individuals who prove that humanity is, at its heart, filled with kindness and hospitality.

It broke my heart to learn that Anne passed away in Syria a few years ago – she was on one of her famous bike rides. I had one of those rare reads where you feel like you can go to Anne’s house and have a cup of tea with her. Her writing style and her personality proved a delightful recipe for a great book. Anne proved so many things in this book alone (she has other books out there). She proved that age is not an obstacle when it comes to change and making things happen in our lives. Anne also proved that one does not have be an expert before trying something new. After all, Anne had barely ridden a bike at all before she made her first journey! She also did something truly remarkable – she accomplished each ride with an enormous amount of faith and trust. Anne did not have a cell phone and when she finished a days’ trip, she relied on the hospitality of stranger’s to see her through the night. How many folks today would dare to ride a bike (or even in a car!) to unknown destinations and hope for the best every time? Anne did exactly that, and touched many lives along the way.

I swallowed this book in four days. I love it enough to anticipate buying and reading Anne’s other books. I just wish I had found her sooner!

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