Peter Starr’s Motorcycle Cure For Cancer

Motorcycle Traveler is the culmination of a "purposeful life."

Buddha statues at the Wat Yai Chai Mongkol temple at Ayutthaya.
The Wat Yai Chai Mongkol temple at Ayutthaya, 50 miles north of Bangkok, has so many Buddha statues that visitors could be forgiven for thinking it was one statue and several mirrors. The gardens here are very well-maintained.Courtesy of Peter Starr

I know some people will jump all over me for using that title, but in so many respects I believe motorcycling played a significant role in my recovery from a cancer diagnosis. Namely, through following my decision to pursue a holistic approach to reversing the disease, I learned that living a “purposeful life” was an important and meaningful part of the program.

This is my 60th year of riding motorcycles, and I was determined that motorcycling needed to be part of my purposeful life. With that in mind, I created a bucket list of places I wanted to ride and adventures I felt I needed to experience. I set goals for myself, established a new course for my life, and went about realizing those goals.

After 14 years of study, practicing holistic treatment, producing a major documentary work, and writing a book on the subject, I have been called by some of my doctors a “world authority on prostate cancer.” This is in no small part based on living my life in a purposeful way through the sport that has been such a large part of my life.

What follows are four extracts from my new book, Motorcycle Traveler, which details my experiences in the 12 countries I visited in six years.

Diez días en el Ecuador

Manabí, Ecuador entrance gate with motorcycle.
Bienvenidos! Inland on the road to the second-largest city in Ecuador, Guayaquil—officially known as Santiago de Guayaquil—is the town of Manabí, which has this very unusual, brightly colored entrance gate.Courtesy of Peter Starr

I could already feel the end of the ride coming though we still had 400 miles of Andean mountain roads to get us back to Quito. The main road from Cuenca to Alausí and beyond is very well maintained but it is a mountain road where lots of indigenous peoples roam at their own pace and at their own will, so one has to be very alert and, if it is ever possible, expect the unexpected. There is not a lot of police presence up in these mountains. But one needs to ride with added caution, to wit.

I was following about 20 yards behind tour guide Court Rand at about 45–50 mph on a long straight road. We were approaching the small community of Tixan about five miles north of Alausí. Visibility was good and there was a small band of indigenous people standing at the side of the road, apparently waiting for a bus. Without any warning, a small woman dashed out to cross the road without looking for any traffic. Court locked up his brakes looking for a way to avoid a collision. Immediately before impact she stopped in his path and froze. Too late, and the otherwise quiet, dull thud of the collision was sickening as she was thrown up into the air much like a rag doll, landing in a tiny crumpled heap of brightly colored clothes. It all happened in a flash, yet Court had reduced his speed to about 10–15 mph before the contact.

Now, I had been told many times over the years that if such an accident, in an out-of-the-way place, was to happen to me, just get the hell out of there as fast as you can. The policing and the legal system in many so-called third-world countries is simply not what we might expect, no matter how innocent you might be. Court, on the other hand, and much to his credit as a human being (not to mention a tour guide), seeing that the woman was badly hurt and being Red Cross-trained in first aid, immediately stopped and came to her aid. The other members of her group telephoned the local national police, who came from the next town of Palmira about seven miles away in less than 15 minutes. As they arrived, Court, triage and first aid complete, was lifting the woman into a truck. He was about to drive her to the hospital in Alausí when one of the police said that he is going with him, which technically meant he was taking Court into custody. The other policeman stayed with me and we waited among a growing crowd of inquisitive locals for a couple of hours before Court and the policeman returned. Together we went to the national police station in Palmira, where Court was kept in custody for 10 hours without being arrested.

We expected them to release Court, and they would have if one of two things had occurred. Either the lady did not have a serious injury preventing her from working for less than three weeks or that Court make a $3,000 payment to the lady’s family, which he refused. Once it was determined that she had a serious injury, police were required to arrest Court, which they did very reluctantly, basically shrugging and telling him the system is a mess and they knew the accident was not his fault but Ecuadorian law requires this. Before taking Court to jail in Alausí, the police and Court all went out to dinner together and had a beer. They had become friends.

Tail of the Dragon on steroids…

300-foot-high statue of the Buddha at the Fo Guang Shan Monastery at Kaohsiung.
This 300-foot-high statue of the Buddha at the Fo Guang Shan Monastery at Kaohsiung lords over a remarkable retreat filled with exquisite bas-relief sculpture and other locally produced works of art. Forty percent of Taiwanese profess the Buddhist faith.Courtesy of Peter Starr

Day 4 of our ride was to be the longest and the most stunning for several reasons. A 6 a.m. start and a 30-minute ride north to Puli saw us being entertained by a theatrical dance troop of seniors performing some traditional and not-so-traditional group dances. One 82-year-old woman had spent the previous days hand-making beautiful charms, which she gave us to ensure our safe ride though the next leg of our journey, Taroko Gorge. All of us were teary-eyed as we donned helmets and headed east toward the 10,500-foot peaks that surround one of Taiwan’s truly beautiful natural wonders.

When I was here a year ago, this gorge was closed due to the ravages of a typhoon, so I was doubly insistent on taking this route to Hualien on the east coast. I was rewarded in spades. Think of Deals Gap’s Tail of the Dragon but on steroids, then add the climb to 10,500 feet and down to sea level, and you might begin to get the picture. To use an old Brit phrase, we were all “gobsmacked.” Vista after vista, castles built on hillsides like in Germany, terraced hills of tea plants and all the while speeding along a narrow, twisty two-lane string of asphalt that was the only connection of west to east within 100 miles. Not much time for contemplation here, awe and concentration punctuated by many stops to simply admire the view, or grab a coffee as you swap superlatives with your riding partners.

The name Taroko means “magnificent and beautiful” and the key here is to start early and stop frequently and for as much time as you wish to admire the scenery. As challenging as this road is for would-be racers, resist the urge. The gorge is spectacular and there are more bends per mile than most roads I have traveled on. But the drop off the edge of the road in many spots will be rewarded by instant karma for overexuberance.

At the top of the gorge, if the weather is good, you feel you can see forever. On the descent to the east coast town of Hualien, there was a lot of roadwork still repairing the parts of the gorge that were washed out by a typhoon. Rebuilding the road continued to be an arduous task. Nonetheless, the journey was well worth the occasional slow section. We stopped for lunch at the Leader Hotel, a native preserve serving locally grown food. You can wander around the park grounds and, if you are lucky, watch huge butterflies, flying squirrels, and Formosan rock monkeys.

But relaxing soon ends and the remainder of the ride through the deepest part of the canyon begins. The main part of the gorge is an impressive 12-mile-long canyon that leads directly to the east coast. The fast-flowing and murky green Liwu River cuts its way through this rock as it has done for millennia. In a few hours, you can travel from a maze of subtropical, forested canyons to high elevation subalpine coniferous forests to rugged coastal cliffs. Wherever we stopped, the locals and the bus tourists would gather round our motorcycles and scooters, envious of our open-air way of experiencing this environment and our apparent freedom.

Arriving at the Finnish line…

Teuvo “Tepi” Länsivuori poses with the two-stroke Suzuki.
Teuvo “Tepi” Länsivuori poses with the two-stroke Suzuki that took him to second place in the 1976 500cc world championship. A small museum display in the center of Länsivuori’s hometown of Iisalmi is dedicated to the former Grand Prix racer.Courtesy of Peter Starr

Back in Mikkeli, I was joined by another rider, Pekka Sorvali, for what turned out to be a sprint north to Iisalmi. This was not in my original plan but Iisalmi is the home of Teuvo “Tepi” Länsivuori, a Grand Prix roadracer I had met in the 1970s, and the only chance I would have to see him would be to ride the extra 150 miles, which we did with all due care being attentive for traffic cops and errant moose. Now moose is an interesting subject since there are around 120,000 of them in Finland, and there are warning signs along many roads where there are known moose crossings. I learned that, unlike deer, which will often run alongside the road before darting across it, a moose will just charge out of the brush or forest, right into the road, irrespective of traffic with often-deadly results for anyone colliding with it. Particularly motorcyclists.

Tepi was a works Yamaha rider when I first met him in Ontario, California, in 1974 while filming the Champion Spark Plug Classic. Iisalmi is not only his home but also the site of a museum in his honor. We kibitzed about the good old days and then walked down to the lake—yes, Finland is full of lakes—for a dinner in the world’s smallest restaurant, a treat reserved for visiting dignitaries. Being a friend of Tepi’s elevated my stature to be deserving of this honor. Great food washed down with liberal amounts of Koskenkorva and then the walk (stagger) to one of the local karaoke nightspots for the inevitable nightcap! The following morning, Tepi showed me one of his Grand Prix Suzukis and gave me a tour of the museum display in his honor in the town center.

I was now 300 miles as the crow flies north of Helsinki at the most northerly point on my planned ride. The next morning, Pekka and I headed south toward Jyväskylä and Hämeenlinna. This was to be the longest day’s ride of more than 250 miles along some spectacularly beautiful motorcycle-friendly roads. But unfortunately for us, morning had broken with horizon-to-horizon clouds and heavy rain had been forecast. The television meteorologist was not to be disappointed and the rain came, not in bucketfuls, but barrelfuls! It was so heavy at one point that we decided to proceed would be foolish.

As fortune would have it, the Finnish Air Force Museum at Tikkakoski was close by. About 180 miles north of Helsinki, it was a godsend of a place to outwait the rain. I got to learn more than I ever would have thought about Finnish history under the Russians and later the Germans. Having been a pilot for more than 30 years, I felt this was as good a place as it gets to pass the time. They had a credible collection of airplanes, even a Brewster F2A Buffalo, a rare American fighter that saw action in WWII. It had a terrible reputation among the American and British air forces, but the Finns annihilated huge segments of the Russian air force with essentially the same plane.

On the trail of Dracula…

Peter Starr poses with his BMW motorcycle at the Transfăgărășan Pass in the southern Carpathian Mountains.
Transfăgărășan Pass in the southern Carpathian Mountains is one of the greatest roads in the world. The second-highest pass in Romania, it climbs to an elevation of nearly 7,000 feet. Riding this single sweeping stretch of blacktop was almost worth the entire trip.Courtesy of Peter Starr

By now, the heat was having its effect and it felt much better to ride, so ride we did, south to Petroșani and then east along a very narrow, unbelievably twisty, mountainous road to join up with the northbound Transalpina Highway (DN67C) back toward Sibiu. At the junction of the road from Petroșani and 67C, we stumbled upon a very large summer encampment of gypsies or Romanis. They had set up camp on both sides of the road with their colorful caravans and their horses in a clearing in the forest that bordered the highway. I must admit I had heard many stories about gypsies, particularly from my childhood in England following WWII. None of it was romantic and most of it quite scary. With these images still in my mind, childhood indoctrination being quite powerful, we continued briskly on our way. No doubt, in retrospect, perhaps stopping and chatting might have eliminated some of those preconceived notions. We all have the wisdom of hindsight.

The altitude gave us a much cooler ride. Although the Transalpina Highway was declared open, it is far from finished. It is not so much of a problem for cars but the unpaved, crossroad culverts can come as a surprise to a motorcyclist, particularly if one is appreciating the wonderful scenery when you should be looking forward! Nonetheless, the Transalpina is considered to be the best-paved motorcycle road by the local motorcyclists and offering some superb motorcycle riding. Quite exhausted, we got back to Sibiu for our second night at the elegant Imparatul Romanilor hotel.

Our final day of riding was the one that I had anticipated ever since I had seen the episode on the BBC TV show Top Gear. Yes, the 56-mile Transfăgărășan Pass that links Transylvania to Wallachia. It was built in the 1970s by the Romania army at the direction of then-dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu as a way to transport tanks and troops across the southern Carpathian Mountains in case they were needed by his then-perceived Russian invasion. The road climbs to 7,000 feet before passing under the mountain peak through a half-mile tunnel and down the other side. Top Gear called it the best road in the world, and the part they featured on the north side of the pass is quite wonderful and exciting by any standard. I have no idea if Dracula ever made it over this pass, but I am glad to say that I did and I enjoyed every rising foot of it. This road would make for a very exciting hill-climb competition. Maybe one day someone will promote such an event. It certainly brought out the roadracer in me, even at my mature age!

The down side is longer and passes along the Argeș River and the 6.5-mile-long Lake Vidraru. Much of it is through forests and as such lacks the sheer vistas of the north slope. But to be sure it is a challenging road that will keep you amused and, depending on your skill level, challenged. Just as I was wishing for somewhere to stop, we arrived at a watering hole (interpret that in any way you wish) without which I might have ridden right past the last of Dracula’s castles and the one that firmly established him as eastern Europe’s most-feared leader. Poenari Castle, considered to be the authentic Dracula’s castle, sits on top of a peak that is impossible to see if you are traveling south. The parking lot at the base leads to a 1,480-step staircase to the castle itself. Not something we wanted to do in 100-degree heat and full riding gear, but something we might have done at the beginning of the ride.

Motorcycle Traveler by Peter Starr
Motorcycle Traveler | 282 pp. | $59.99 (includes DVD)Amazon