Fifty Shades of the USA: A Book Review

Each day, I heave myself up two or three small mountain climbs. My knees ache, my legs are tired. My body is weightless but my bike is heavy, its bags laden with the memories of the person I was before starting this journey, and the one I will be when it is all over (Anna McNuff: “Fifty Shades of the USA”).

Anna McNuff is disenchanted with her corporate London desk job. She also shoulders a belief that she has so much more to share with the world than delivering perfect powerpoint presentations. So, she decides to listen to her adventure-seeking soul and embarks upon a six-month (mostly solo) cycle through all fifty states of the USA. Atop her best buddy Boudica (a pink aluminium bike) she wiggles her way through the fifty states commencing in the Alaskan wilderness spotting grizzly bears and culminating with cycling up a volcano in Hawaii.

50 Shades of the USA is an honest and compelling read, flooded with vivid impressions of the land and urban scapes that Anna rides through: from the endless Wyoming sky with clouds “smeared across it, like paint smudges left from the work of a hasty artist on a canvas of blue” to the Chicago skyscrapers which “cut black silhouettes against a golden sky”. Battling injuries and “Dream Dumpers”, navigating city streets, dodging trucks that come within a hair of her and getting bombarded by a full suite of horrendous weather conditions – wind, sleet, snow, torrential rain (and consequent flooding), lightning and extremes of hot and cold temperatures – Anna methodically keeps her wheels turning, displaying a tenacity to overcome whatever physical, emotional and logistical challenges are thrown her way.

Any way you look at it, Anna’s journey is inspirational, but not just for adventure-seekers. While I consider myself to be a fairly adventurous woman (my cycling trips are albeit usually six DAYS rather than six MONTHS), this book is not just for fellow adventurers. Anna didn’t inspire me to cycle through the USA, but reading this has contributed to my continuing pursuit of living an adventurous life. Moreover, this book is so much more than just about adventure: it is about overcoming fears, living life differently, pushing boundaries and seeing the goodness in a great diversity of people. My favourite inspirational quote is actually on the last page, so rather than spoil it, you’ll just have to read the book!

Adventure awaits (Lake Pukaki, New Zealand (not the USA!))

Throughout her 11,000 mile escapade Anna not only cycles, sees amazing scenery, meets friendly locals, eats copious blueberry pancakes and deep-dish pizzas and sleeps on cliff edges, she also finds time to talk with local school children about her journey and provides encouragement to children for their own adventures. This is commendable for two reasons:

  • She directly interacts with locals, getting a sense of the ‘real’ people and culture of America; and
  • She exchanges a bit of herself, her journey and her British culture.

It is this type of transaction that I believe is essential to make travel ethical: both travelers and locals have the opportunity to benefit and learn from each other. So, as an ethically-minded person, do I consider Anna McNuff to be an ethical traveler? Most definitely!

An easy and enjoyable read, 50 Shades of the USA is packed with humorous anecdotes and thought provoking reflections. I recommend this un-put-downable book not only for the adventurous at heart, but especially for those who want to be inspired to take a fresh approach to life or reach seemingly insurmountable goals. Oh, and if book reading is not your thing, but you are keen to hear from Anna herself, check out her extremely worthwhile TED talk:

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