Clement "Clem" Salvadori and Ode to Joy
Happiess is overrated. It’s joy you really want in your life. Happiness is fleeting. Like ice cream on a summer day that leaves a drop on the sidewalk and a queasy feeling in your stomach if you’re lactose intolerant. Joy has a longer shelf life, sometimes forever. Clement “Clem” Salvadori has joy…and probably more than a modicum of happiness.
How would I know?
Several weeks ago, I found myself sharing a small book signing table with the famed, beret-wearing, moto journalist. We’d been invited by Jeff Hesseltine, owner of the Black Lightning Motorcycle Café in Eureka, California, to sign our respective books and talk about them at his fourth annual Moto Envy show.
Clem had reached out to me via email a few weeks earlier to let me know we were going to be sharing the spotlight. He didn’t need to do that. Some wouldn’t. I was a guy who liked to write about people who rode, built and raced bikes. His background was far more interesting and well-known; witnessed by the many people who came up to our table to say hello. The truth is his notoriety probably helped me sell a few more copies of my book than I might have had I been sitting at that table by myself.
He’d sent me a copy of his book (No Thru Road) ahead of time. I’d sent him mine (Asphalt & Dirt – Life on Two Wheels). Glancing through his sparked my curiosity, and as we talked in between people trying to catch his attention, I realized I needed to tell Clem’s story.
There’s a bit of “most interesting man in the world” to it. Google him and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Harvard grad, served with the Green Berets. Went to Vietnam to work for the State Department during the height of the war. Then mostly rode a variety of bikes in different places around the world, and eventually got paid to do that and write about it.
That’s a rudimentary summary that barely scratches the surface of not only one of the most interesting people I’ve met, but also one of the nicest. And it all started when Clem was in his teens.
“A friend and neighbor bought a Harley 125, and I spent my 15th year riding around the woods near where we lived in Massachusetts. That developed a passion in me for motorcycles. Next year, my professor father took a sabbatical year in Rome, where I bought my first bike, a used NSU 250. My Harley-owning friend sent me a check to buy him a motorcycle, which I did, a BMW R26, and we spent our 17th summer riding all over western Europe. When done we and our bikes got on a ship and headed back to the US so we could finish high school.”
Clem with his NSU 250.
So before Clem was out of high school and with one more year to go, he’d already pulled off a trip to Europe. It would come back to benefit him a year later.
“I’d gone to a small prep school, but decided to try to get into Harvard. I didn’t think I had much of a chance, so when I had my interview, instead of just sitting there I told the interviewer about my European trip. It worked.”
With a future at Harvard ahead of him, Clem decided he needed a different ride for college. So he bought an older Indian. He said it was one of the worst mistakes he ever made. It was a piece of junk, blew smoke everywhere, and he ruined an engine trying to race a car.
But the bike did give him an initial brush with the rich and famous.
“I met Joan Baez at Harvard while she was on her scooter. She wasn’t that impressed with my big yellow Indian, but she was pleasant about it.”
Clem eventually got rid of the Indian and his mother bought him a car. Meanwhile, Clem was saving money to buy a Triumph Bonneville. So in the spring of 1960, after his sophomore year in college, Clem made good on that desire and flew to England, bought a Bonnie at the factory, and proceeded to ride it 14,000 miles around Europe. There were obviously places he hadn’t seen a few years earlier.
Clem and his Triumph.
He did settle into class long enough to graduate from college, but he eventually ran out of money and motorcycles. Clem decided he would do his military service and become a paratrooper for the extra $55 a month. He ended up in the Army’s Special Forces where they trained him as a demolitions expert.
“At the end of the basic training, various aspects of the service try to convince you to join their element. So this swarthy guy came up to our group and told us about Special Forces. Prior to that time, you had to have been in the Army for a while before you could join Special Forces. But because (President) Kennedy had been promoting the outfit, due to our growing involvement in Vietnam, they decided to allow recruits in. I thought that guy’s fucking beret looked pretty great, so I joined the Green Berets.”
And Clem has worn some type of beret ever since.
He was initially stationed in Germany with a unit whose mission was to jump behind Soviet lines if they invaded Europe. Most of the guys in Clem’s unit had already served in Vietnam and around Southeast Asia. After Clem got out of the service, he hitched his way to Vietnam and got the best-paying job he has ever had in his life, but “quickly realized we were fucked.” He quit after two months.
After leaving Vietnam with his ill-gotten gains, he bought another Triumph and decided to go to the Monterey Institute of International Relations. He graduated with a master’s in Southeast Asian Studies, and took the exam to join the State Department. Thousands took that test, but only 88 at the time got accepted that year. Clem was one of the 88.
Since Nixon was demanding that a certain percentage of State Department employees work in Vietnam, Clem’s former experience as a Green Beret in that area stood out. He was asked to spend his 18-month assignment there. He could have said no, but he agreed to go.
“The Americans were actually my basic enemy there. They just wanted to do the job and get it over with. They were lying through their teeth about how good things were. I was telling the truth, and pissing people off. I was first assigned to work in the highlands, and coming back from a short vacation I knew one of the villages had been relocated. I drove out there with one of my interpreters and the villagers showed me napalmed rice. That was all that was left to eat. When I got back to our Sunday lunch, I tossed the piece of burned rice on to the head civilian guy’s plate and said, ‘that’s what they’re eating.’”
That ended his time in the highlands, and he was reassigned to Saigon to advise the Ministry of Land Reform. Clem kept up his proclivity for two wheels by choosing a Vespa from the car pool, which he rode the entire year he spent in Saigon.
After his year-and-a-half in Vietnam was over, Clem got reassigned to Italy as aide to the ambassador, who was a career diplomat. And he bought a BMW R75/5.
But when the career fellow was reassigned and a Nixon toady took the job, Clem felt it was time to leave the diplomatic career. “State had a lot of good people in it. But I realized that I wasn’t good at taking orders, and I didn’t want to work for a political appointee.”
So Clem rode his motorcycle around the world -- Asia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and then north from Panama.
Clem somewhere in the Sahara Desert.
“At first, it wasn’t about riding around the world. I started hearing about how wonderful Afghanistan was. This was 1973 and half the country was modern then. So I rode to Afghanistan. Two years later I found myself in Mexico.”
While in Mexico, Clem decided to study for an MFA degree at the Instituto Allende in the old colonial town of San Miguel de Allende in the state of Guanajuato.
“It was a very fine year. They were nice enough to hire me to teach 'dumb fucks' how to write.” But he never did write his thesis, so the caption is MFA/ABT – All But Thesis.
Maybe it was a need to see how he’d fare during a New England winter or he missed baseball, but Clem headed home to Boston where he began writing in hopes of creating The Next Great American Novel. But mostly he was free-lancing travel stories to motorcycle magazines and driving a taxi to pay the rent.
Then Clem’s life began to fall into place. In 1980, a motorcycle magazine based in Laguna Beach, California, offered him a job. They admitted they didn’t pay much, but he could “have all the motorcycles you want to ride."
Another one of Clem's motorcycle adventure travel books.
Clem spent seven years with that magazine, and while the pay may not have been much, he had health insurance and all the other benefits a full-time job provided. But the freedom of being a free-lancer eventually seemed more appealing, so he quit his ‘day job’, started writing for whomever would pay him, and became a monthly contributor to Rider magazine (ridermagazine.com) where he’s been since 1988.
Today, Clem lives in Central California with his wife Sue and a bevy of motorcycles. It puts him close to all the major motorcycle magazines in the LA area, but far enough away to avoid the heavy traffic.
Prior to talking with Clem for this interview, I read different chapters of his book and it struck me that there had to be some places he liked more than others, and some he’d never go back to.
“India is the most fascinating country I’ve ever been in. I like the history. My problem is that there are too many Indians there today. Traveling there in the 70s…that wasn’t the case.”
Clem looking...and feeling...tired in Tibet.
It turns out he doesn’t have a list of least favorite countries. He explained that there is something good about everywhere he’s been. But Siberia is one place he said he has no desire to go to.
“Too many mosquitos.”
But what about a situation that might have made him want to pack it in and go home?
“I’m on a dirt road in Zambia going about 150 miles to Lake Malawi. I’m going too fast, I hit a rough spot, and the load on the back seat and luggage rack, including a spare tire, pushes me into the tank. I’m knocked out for a short time, but I get up and realize I’m okay. But the kickstarter doesn’t work. I’m in the middle of fuckin’ nowhere! A guy in broken English comes by and asks if I’m going to stay the night. He wants to know because there are lions there. At that point, if a helicopter had come out of nowhere and offered to take me out of there, I would have taken it.”
But a helicopter never came and Clem kept going. And like the Energizer bunny, he keeps going and going and…
...of all the people he’s met, one stood out.
“There’s this guy named Dave Barr – he was a soldier of fortune of sorts. He’d gotten both legs blown off in Angola, but he’s been riding around the world on motorcycles. He camped in the winter in Siberia and told me he didn’t have a problem with it. Since he had no legs, he never had to worry about losing his toes or feet to frost bite!”
That is one way to look at it. Perhaps a joyful one.
Considering all the motorcycles Clem’s owned or been loaned to ride and review, I was curious to find out if he had any favorites.
“I’ve liked them all. My most illuminating bike was the early Bonneville, then later the Ninja 900, but that bike was faster than me. I’ve got $15,000 in my bike fund right now, but I’ve yet to see anything I want to spend the money on.”
Which brings us back to joy.
Some people who’ve seen the world the way Clem has and as much of it as he’s decided to explore, might come away baked in cynicism. In the short afternoon I spent with him in Eureka, and the time we spent talking on the phone after, I didn’t get a sense of that from Clem at all.
But the real proof? The picture below. Clem’s all smiles, and I’m…well, I don’t know what that look is. I’m generally happy, but I clearly need some of Clem’s joy. I’m thinking a new bike and a long trip might do the trick.
Clem and me at the Moto Envy Show at the Black Lightning Motorcycle Cafe in September 2017.