I See By My Outfit: From New York to San Francisco by Scooter

I See By My Outfit by Peter S. BeagleI See By My Outfit by Peter S. Beagle I See By My Outfit by Peter S. Beagle

Published in 1965, Peter S. Beagle’s I See By My Outfit is an American motorscooter travelogue. Beagle and his friend, Phil, ride from New York to St. Louis and then head west to San Francisco.

I was often struck by how different the world was in the 1960s. In many ways, the absence of mass media and the Internet makes America seem smaller, like you truly could find people who would wonder about the mysteries of New York City. Beagle more than once mentions that cops especially monitor them because they look like two bearded menaces. To be honest, I often wondered if he was exaggerating these claims, but perhaps my view of people who ride scooters cross country has been unduly influenced by the movie Dumb and Dumber, as they have never seemed threatening to me.

For many readers, Beagle is best known for his fantasy writing, especially his 1968 novel The Last Unicorn. This is obviously not a fantasy novel, but at times it is kind of geeky in an SFF way. As they begin to make progress on their journey, Beagle likens them to Tolkien’s hobbits approaching Bree, the edge of the wild world. At one point, while shopping for rings, Beagle notes that he would like to find the one ring, a unique and powerfully designed work. For the most part, however, this travelogue is probably better read as the adventure of a couple mellow dudes who cross the country playing guitars that they find in pawn shops.I See By My Outfit by Peter S. Beagle

It might be useful to locate this work within the genre. I enjoyed John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley (1960) more. Beagle’s mostly back roads route recalls William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways (1982). His friendship with Phil is just as warm as Bill Bryson’s friendship with Katz in A Walk in the Woods (1998), though it’s far less funny. I’ve never read a travelogue about scooters before, but this work is less adventurous than Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor’s Long Way Round (2004) and less meditative than Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). It seems safe to say it’s less moody than any of Theroux’s works, and it does not mention Naipaul even once.

All in all, this travelogue best approached by scooter enthusiasts and Beagle completists. The work is often charming, though rarely compelling. It documents the journey of two friends who have a good time on the road, meeting people and mostly staying out of trouble, the sort of travelogue that might motivate readers to start making plans for a summer road trip.

Published in 1965. In April 1963 Peter S. Beagle and Phil Sigunick, both in their early 20s and way too smart for their own good, got on a pair of Heinkel motor scooters nicknamed Jenny and Couchette and headed west from New York City to California. They had no idea what they were getting themselves into. I SEE BY MY OUTFIT is the story of that trip. Like ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYLE MAINTENANCE and ON THE ROAD (the two books it is most often compared to), I SEE BY MY OUTFIT is all about travel as revelation. Half diary, half portrait of a long-gone, more innocent America, OUTFIT doesn’t have a single fantastic element in sight but still manages to be among the most magical books ever written. Condé Nast Traveler named it one of the greatest travel books of all time, an accolade it richly deserves. With this Amazon exclusive ebook edition, Peter’s words are finally joined by Phil’s pictures, in the form of 14 exquisite pastel paintings that tell Phil’s own version of the journey.

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RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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One comment

  1. I liked this one for Beagle’s style, but for me it never reached the level of enjoyment Blue Highways gave me. Reading your review, I wonder if its lasting value (other than Beagle’s golden prose) is its depiction of a specific time period in the USA.

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