I am my Mother’s Son: Cycling Sicily with Her Camera
In January, Cían Byrne left his home in Ireland and pedaled the length of the Sicily Divide with his mom’s old Olympus Mju II film camera in tow, creating a link between past and present adventures and honoring the person who inspired him to take on such endeavors. You can read Cían’s heartfelt story, watch his 40-minute route guide video, and see a vibrant gallery of 35mm photos here…
Words, photos, and video by Cían Byrne
I remember standing on the main street in Drogheda on Ireland’s east coast with my dad and brother when I was about six years old. We were looking in the window of the TV shop to see the evening sports news: Ireland just lost again, and Austria were the winners this time. After the football results, clips of a peloton of cyclists whirring by came on. My mam was part of that blur of cyclists who called themselves ‘The Blazing Saddles’ as they rode across Europe for charity.
My memory is terrible. I forget things all the time. Important things. It’s something that’s caused me to be locked outside of my house more times than I’d care to admit. I’ve even forgotten my tent poles on a bikepacking trip and had to sleep in a shipping container among rotting wood and rusted tools as the rain blew in. But it also means that memories like this hold a lot of importance. I can’t remember her ever being a cyclist, and I don’t even remember her ever being on a bike. But there she was, on TV, somewhere in that blur of people, somewhere in Europe, somehow on the Irish news.
Around that same age, my mam would always ask me what I wanted to be when I grow up. I hadn’t a clue, and I still don’t. Back then, I’d throw out jobs like archaeologist or priest because I thought they just got to hang around all day and didn’t have to do too much work. Struggling to think of an answer one time, I turned the question back on her. “Rally driver,” she said as she ripped our wee Renault up the country road. I’ve no idea how I’ve managed to become a bit of a travel writer, but I can’t say I’m too surprised that it’s happened.
I think I’ve inherited a “sure, I’ll give it a crack” attitude from her. I’ve fought well above my weight on skis, in boats, on my feet, and most often, in the saddle. As I was gathering up my gear and desperately trying not to forget anything for a week-long trip of wheezing and cursing my way up and over the mountains of Sicily, I found her old film camera – an Olympus Mju II. And so there I was, again a little out of my depth, on a horrifically windy day in Trapani on Sicily’s shore facing seven days of climbs on my own. I’d need to give it a proper good crack to get through it. I put her camera and a few rolls of film in my handlebar bag and started pedalling the Sicily Divide’s 460 kilometres (285 miles) and 8,350 metres (27,395 feet) of climbing.
As the days of my ride ticked by, the land around me began to change. Wind-rattled salt flats on the northern coast changed to terraced farms in the central mountains. Earthquake-torn roads in the back of beyond changed to war-bombed villages in the shadow of Mt. Etna. All of Sicily is always changing. The changes that come with being somewhere new are what have me addicted to always being on the go. That first blast of warm air when I step off the plane, figuring out how to get from A to B, and memorising a few key phrases in whatever language I need to get a coffee, find a bed, and order one more beer.
These small drops of change start to flow into one another and gather more and more pace before they turn into a stream. That stream keeps flowing, and soon I’m in a torrent of change where everything is new and I feel oddly at home in places that I’ve never been. Changes start to settle after a while. The torrent slows to a stream and then a trickle before dropping me off and leaving me still again. Even though it’s calm and steady and safe, it’s not long before my feet begin to itch. My head turns, and my eyes dart around, searching for that torrent again.
The spark of the flash, the click of the shutter, and the winding of the roll when I’ve finished it all help me create a stronger connection with where I am. More thought needs to be put into the framing of mountains and the lighting of forests than when I’m using my digital camera. I can’t scatter shots across a valley and see what sticks, I need to slow down, be more thoughtful and more present with the whole photographic process and the places where I find myself.
Having a physical object that’s a practical tool and also a sentimental link to my mam also helps to ground me when things spiral out of control, as they tend to do on trips that I plan. Bikepacking rides like this allow me to fully remove myself from the world that I know and jump (sometimes crash) headfirst into a part of the planet that I’ve never been to, knowing that, if I ever need it, I’ve got a safety net on me.
This little Olympus will be coming everywhere with me.
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