I can barely believe it, but it’s been over three years since I finished my bike ride. Long enough for my life to have taken many twists and turns and for it to be becoming increasingly difficult to remember those loose-footed days on the road. All the while this blog has been neglected, but as I’ve got a bit more time on my hands at the moment I’d like to conclude things properly. So I’m pressing the pause button, throwing the dust sheets off the blog and taking a bit of time to reflect on the journey and look back at what it means for me now.
As well as writing a few posts I’m also happy to announce that I’m fulfilling a long held ambition by self-publishing a (very) limited edition hand-bound book of photography. More about that coming soon.
I’ve also put some thoughts to paper in the latest issue of Bunyan Velo Magazine – a beautifully curated journal of bicycle travel stories which you can peruse at your leisure here. If you like the stories do think about making a donation.
I’ll start where I left off…
After 15 months cycling across Asia I was ready for something new. I felt as though I had reached the point of diminishing returns. I had grown comfortable sleeping rough, eating whatever was available, not knowing who or what was waiting for me up ahead and being constantly filthy and exhausted. I was happy with what I had achieved and I felt ready for change.
Yet arriving home was a maelstrom of emotions. I was thrilled to be back in the company of family and friends, but sad about all I was leaving behind.
The ride was in all likelihood one of the most ballsy, fearless and downright audacious things I will ever do. It was the culmination of two years of planning and saving, and many more dreaming and wanting. In terms of life-changing experiences I’m confident it will rank alongside having kids, changing career, moving abroad and growing old.
The journey had given me some of my most treasured experiences. I had experienced euphoric happiness in the most adverse circumstances. Seen the most beautiful, ugly, bizarre and banal places and met just as an eclectic mix of characters. I had pushed through the limits of my endurance and motivation, and in the process learned things about myself and the world that life at home could never teach me.
The journey allowed me to experience boundless freedom, away from the shackles of society and that invisible pressure we all feel to be a certain person. Life on the road allowed me the freedom to be whoever I wanted to be.
The journey brought me in touch with some fantastically inquisitive, caring and outgoing people who offered up their homes for me to sleep in, gave me food and water and kept me company. To this day I find them an inspiration and they have each contributed to my general trust in people’s kindness.
Upon arriving home it was clear my journey was a unique and liberating experience, I would sorely miss it and felt truly privileged to have been able to experience it. However, there were always the darker sides of the vagabond lifestyle which I was happy to leave behind.
The transient encounters never given the chance to develop. Losing contact with friends and family. The inherent selfishness of the trip which always left me feeling like I could do more for the people and communities I visited and that I wasn’t contributing what I could. And deep down there was the understanding that seeing beautiful places, having amazing experiences and meeting inspiring people was not going to make me the person I wanted to be on its own and at some point I would need to move on.
So move on I did and it wasn’t long after arriving back that I found myself a new job and a new start in a new country. Whereupon some of the psychological after-effects of the trip revealed themselves. Spending such a long time alone without deadlines or obligations seemed to warp my perception of time and sap me of my immediacy. Re-adjusting to the pressures of work, deadlines, admin and people, was a struggle and I was ill-equipped to deal with a demanding job with cultural challenges. Looking back I had become very happy with my own company, but introverted. I would be easily exhausted by extended conversation and an intense work environment which came as a shock for someone who was normally very comfortable with their ability to adapt and thrive in adversity. A combination of these and other factors led to my first struggles with anxiety. It took time to settle again and overcoming the journey’s more abstract effects has been challenging, but nevertheless a rewarding journey in itself and one that has left me feeling more resilient and well-rounded.
The beauty of the journey was that it was nothing like normal life. The trouble with the journey was that it was nothing like normal life.
In the three years since arriving home I’ve spent a year working abroad, settled back in the UK, got a girlfriend and discovered a new passion for surfing. This has all left little room in my life for cycle touring. So much so that until recently my bicycle remained untouched and sat dusty and dismantled in a box in the garage at my family home.
When visiting home I often peeked beneath the cardboard flaps and found myself being mentally jettisoned back to places and experiences I was almost resigned to forgetting. Each time I glanced at the dusty frame a wave of homesickness passed over me as odd memories from the journey briefly came back into clear focus: watching the setting sun from a mountain pass, struggling through a winter blizzard, being woken in the night by a dazzling starry night sky. Often it’s the fleeting moments of serendipitous happiness which followed periods of struggle that I remember most fondly.
I find myself helpless to resist wondering what would have happened if I had kept on going. Where would I be now? Patagonia? The Himalayas? Africa? Iceland? I imagine myself as a bedraggled, mysterious and lonesome character, shaped by the weather and compelled to spend my days living for whatever I find around the next corner. I am happy with my life now, but can’t help but be drawn back to the adventure.
It was my girlfriend’s suggestion of a summer cycle tour in south France which finally got me in the mood for rebuilding my touring bike. It didn’t take long to get hold of replacement parts and assemble the bike again. I still know it like the back of my hand. Getting back in the saddle felt like returning home. I’ve ridden other bikes since, but my tourer fits like no other. Riding it brings a warm satisfaction. Everything feels exactly as it should, like a well-worn shoe or a favourite sofa and on its first outing it made me beam from ear to ear. Instead of remembering what it felt like to be out cycle touring it felt good just to be out doing it.
And so maybe the most valuable lesson the trip taught me was the value of getting up off my arse and doing something. It’s easy to spend time thinking about doing things or talking about doing things or reading about other people doing things, but there’s really nothing like just bloody well getting on with whatever it is you want to do and figuring things out as you go.
With that in mind and our saunter around the south of France firmly under our belts, there’s now talk of bigger challenges on the horizon and Iceland seems top of the list.