Back seat rider - Europe to Moscow as a pillion

Ruth and Paul back in Wales

Published on 8 June 2016 by Robert Drane


Filed under Category: Features

Ruth Brocklehurst sustained a brain injury after cheating death in a motorcycle accident. Did that stop her getting in the saddle? In fact, she fell in love and rode pillion through Europe to Russia. Here is her story.

John Plumb mimicks the pose of a statue

John and the MT. “Come to Russia with me,” he said. “…On my bike.”

In June 2008, I survived a horrific motorbike accident. I didn’t break a single bone in my body, but I shook my brain up good and proper. Needless to say, head on impact at 43mph means your neurons all shear apart, so life suddenly got a lot stranger...

In 2011, I met John [Plumb]. Our paths crossed due to a mutual interest in all things Russian. He had ridden to Moscow the year before on a charity dash across Europe on his Harley-Davidson MT350. We started going to Russian classes together and lo… fell in love. “Come to Russia with me,” he said. “…On my bike.”

I couldn’t resist the proposal. My compensation case was nearly over. I’d had enough of having my identity scrutinised insidiously and enough of managing weird symptoms. We discovered I could ride quite happily as pillion and actually found it quite pleasant; no speech, sitting still and flowing with the bike, watching the world go by. John was 100 per cent up for supporting me. The MT was comfortable doing 45mph with two of us on. I was eager to do something totally different and put the past behind me for good. Yes, it was the unknown, but what was the alternative? Sitting at home, imprisoned in domestic tasks with unpleasant sensations in my noggin? No thanks.

Our trip was christened ‘Go Slow to Moscow’. John planned a route that went up through Scandinavia and we reached the Arctic Circle just before mid-summer. I loved the ride through hundreds of miles of forest, every day bathed in green, an empty road stretching out before us, snuggled behind John, ogling the reindeer together.

The first 12 days of the ride had been the most difficult for me, symptoms-wise. The sheer amount of visual stimulus that flashes by on a motorbike put me into overload after the first day. I recalled my sessions with my OT (occupational therapist) and the attention exercises we did. I used my meditation skills too. I trained myself to completely let go and forget what I was seeing. Before that, my cognition would just make elaborate connections between everything, struggling to sort what I needed to focus on and what was peripheral. After 12 days, I cracked it! Crazily, this demand actually helped to train and heal some of my cognitive functioning.

Motorcycle riding into a long tunnel next to the sea

On our way to Nordkapp, which is reached by some very long tunnels that go under the sea. These are real feats of Norwegian engineering, dropping many metres with the longest at around seven kilometres.

Our encounter with Sami culture was unplanned and fascinating. These Northern European indigenous people maintain a way of life that has gone on for nearly 8,000 years. They had taken things they liked from modern technology and culture – things like skidoos, mobile phones and modern housing – but still had herded thousands of reindeer which they travelled with across ancient family-held territories, taking their hides and meat. The underlying rhythms of their lives carried on. I was full of admiration. Spending three weeks north of the Arctic Circle was a challenge for me. Being pillion, you don’t get a great deal of exercise and yet face the elements all day, every day. The pleasant experience of just sitting was becoming brutalised with cold wind blasting me. The force of it constantly pushed against my shoulders and upper body. So physical and yet I was immobile at this speed!

We rode on up to Nordkapp, entranced by the ‘white nights’; the quality of light was sublime and that day in particular really took our breath away with its radiance and clarity. We had some grim days too. Camping in northern Norway without sunshine and the day never ending, still cold with average temperatures of around eight degrees and swarms of mosquitoes was challenging. As a nature girl, the inhospitable summer boreal forest doubly dashed my expectations. Consequently I didn’t leave the safety of my protective biker clothing unless I was indoors.

Strange things happen at borders. We crossed a cultural line and our journey transfigured. Everything from the roads to the forest to the fences to the buildings to the people embraced this difference. This was Russia! It sounded in me like a depth charge. The Soviet might had blazed through the unending forest, with its white concrete tower blocks flanking the determined singular road, punctuated with gross towering war memorials decked out vivaciously with large gaudy wreaths and bridal bouquets. Every so often, this vast green, northern wilderness would be punctuated by an industrial town churning devastation and early graves. Prior to Stalin and the expansion through wartime necessity, the north was the province of fur traders who had apparently begun to settle in far-flung outposts from around the 16th century.

Ruth and John stand hugging infront of the Swedish artic circle marker sign

Here we are at the Arctic Circle marker in Sweden [66.33 degrees north] – our first major goal of the trip achieved! Generally, the roads are in excellent condition with the bliss of minimal traffic and miles of forest.

Nevertheless, we often encountered such amazing warmth from the Russian people. We were a novelty. Independent travellers are rare this far north. Tourism is a new and awkward concept and this meant that we were much more dependent upon the kindness of strangers which, after initial distrust, would be thoroughly forthcoming.

The last leg of our month in Russia saw the risk on the road increasing. Riding pillion between Saint Petersburg and Moscow was frightening and there was a sense of mounting pressure. The bike was struggling and there were several mornings when I had to push start it with luggage on. Undertaking on a dirt hard shoulder became a common practice, and I found I was regularly feeling ill with adrenaline and longing to get off and walk.

Our arrival in Moscow was a triumph. Cruising past the Kremlin seemed like a dream. I was flying at the pinnacle of achievement and neither of us was surprised or bothered when the MT would no longer start. What happened next and how we got home is another story…

Ruth’s injury explained

“I experienced a profound dislocation from reality. It was similar to that feeling of trying to put your hand on something in the dark; trying to connect to what you know must be there but missing the mark. This was across the board, so I struggled to concentrate on simple activities like getting dressed and making food. More complex things like talking and being around people were really tough. It caused a lot of pain in my brain to concentrate on doing these things.

Black and white portrait of Ruth Brocklehurst

Ruth Brocklehurst

“I also had serious problems concentrating, planning, sequencing tasks, remembering, chronic fatigue, hyperacuesis [extreme sensitivity to sound], disturbed visual processing and general slowness of processing information and making decisions. Certain aspects of my personality became exaggerated while others seemed to have gone. I was more impulsive and childlike. My body struggled to regulate itself, so I would fluctuate wildly between feeling overexcited and stimulated to exhausted and cold.

“Thankfully, after much healing and therapy, I am much improved.”

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