a long way

there are no overt plot spoilers for long way up or any of the earlier programs in this post.

in 2008, my kids were ten years old. we lived with limited internet and no television set; all media was consumed on the family desktop computer, on dvds shipped through the USPS from netflix.

the kids were mad for the star wars prequels. looking for a fun, possibly educational tie-in, i searched netflix for the documentary that ewan mcgregor made about polar bears. instead, i found long way round, already several years old then and well outside our family’s normal viewing. it was 10 episodes of ewan mcgregor and his lesser-known pal, charley boorman, riding motorcycles from london to new york through europe, asia, and north america. i bunged it onto the queue on a whim, why not? and that began a multi-decade family obsession.

after long way round, we watched long way down and couldn’t get enough. three generations in our household were absolutely mesmerized by the adventures of ewan and charley. the series’ were a little bit of everything: documentary, buddy comedy, adventure, a love letter to the motorcycle, a celebration of family, an exploration of cultures, an earnest paean to brotherhood and shared humanity… with fart jokes, swearing, and masturbation references. we watched and rewatched, eventually buying the boxed set that included charley boorman’s race to dakar, and we gathered together as a family to watch them all at least once a year. the book that accompanied the first series is in my bookshelf now, carefully leafed through often by kids who, in general, do not love a book that wasn’t written by bill watterson. a pair of kitten brothers that we adopted from a neighbor’s farm were named charley and ewan. we just loved it. and i think it shaped my kids in some good ways. they started donating to UNICEF when they were 11 and i think they still give to that worthy organization, which is highlighted in every series. i firmly believe their independence and willingness to take interesting risks came from the long ways. my eldest child drove cross-country last year, on her own in an ancient toyota pickup truck and camped all along the way. it’s the kind of thing that makes a parent’s hair stand on end while it’s happening and their heart burst with pride once it’s over and everyone is safe. and, you know, there’s a motorcycle in my basement right now that belongs to my youngest child and i don’t think it would be there if it wasn’t for “the boys”.

my kids are now grown, independent, and have lived away from home for many years. my mom and i, therefore, watched the latest series, long way up, without them.

it was a surprisingly emotional event, revisiting this world that had meant to much to all of us together. our lives, our interests, have changed irrevocably. i suspect that my kids don’t have much use anymore for the rich guy adventures of mediocre or publicly flawed white guys on expensive motorcycles with a full production crew ready to bail them out of a bind, even if they are all using electric vehicles for the journey. but i felt real sadness experiencing the latest, likely last, filmed adventures of ewan and charley and russ and dave and claudio and jimmy all together without my kids there to share it.

my sadness deepened as we watched, seeing the rift that had grown between our good teevee friends in the intervening years, missing the purity of the loving marriage between ewan and eve, which had since dissolved. ewan and charley were older, less strong, less daring, less boyish in their humor. charley’s body had been battered by two serious motorcycle accidents in the fairly recent past. i felt the overall theme of loss deeply. how could two people who loved each other like brothers, who shared two really radically intense adventures together lose touch so completely? how could ewan’s mad love for his now-ex-wife have faded? i thought of claudio saying in the first series “there’s no true love!” as ewan explains to the camera why he and charley decided to have separate tents. “no true love?!?” ewan exclaims with an incredulous laugh. but, alas. in the end, it turns out that claudio was right.

as the series went on and the relationship between charley and ewan seemed to mend, i enjoyed the journey more. but i still feel unaccountably melancholy, as much by the changes in my own life, in the loss of my own youth, in the end of my role as a functional parent, as by the changes in their lives and thoughts and loves. i definitely welled up with tears at weird moments. it felt like closure for something, but i haven’t quite figured out what.

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