That is the question everyone is asking me. The question that, eventually, enters every conversation with friends. But seriously, Chris. When are you actually going to GO? When?
A year or two ago I decided that I was going to take a break from work, rent out my flat and head off on some kind of long bike ride. The urge to do it has been building over the past few years, ever since I started to come across people like Tom, Alastair and, more recently, Cass. In fact, pretty much everyone in that “Some Inspiration” column over to the left.
There is a common theme running through the accounts of many people breaking out of a ‘normal’ life to go and do something different for a while, and that is that it is the leaving that is the hardest thing. Extracting ourselves from all the things that entwine us in daily life can be tricky. And so it is proving. The often repeated advice on overcoming this inertia is to quit your job, and to tell everyone that you’re going. Commit to it and then the resulting external pressure will push you through those obstacles.
For a large part of the past year or so, I’ve been telling everyone that I might be heading away. Over months it slowly turned from an idea into something I knew I needed to do. It became all I thought about, carrying me through uninspiring weeks at work. Slowly I started to put things together. Building a bike in my mind. Trying to find lighter, smaller versions of camping gear I already had. Continuously gorging myself on the content of a few beautiful blogs documenting long term bikepacking journeys (those of Cass, Logon, Alex, Nicholas, Mike, Joe).
After a work contract finished at the end of last year, I decided not to follow up on new long term contracts, and slowly moved from the daily grind in the office, to a daily grind at home. The fun stuff is done. The bike is built, the gear purchased. What has been left is the sorting. For the past year my spare room has been full of the remaining contents of Mum’s house. After she died we pretty much dealt with most of her belongings, boxing up what we thought we should keep. But we didn’t touch anything in the loft until we actually sold the house, as it looked fairly well organised. It turns out that in the boxes up in the roof was a treasure trove of things from Mum and Dad’s life, their parent’s lives and our early childhood, that neither I nor my brother have ever really seen.
Mum’s father died when I was just 2, Dad’s father when I was 5, his mother when I was 11. Mum’s Mum is thankfully still going strong at a healthy 90. But there’s a whole family that we didn’t really know. I could have just kept this collection as it was and put it straight into storage, but if I’m not going to look at it now, then when?
So whilst putting off jobs to do with renting the flat, sorting of my own stuff, selling old gear, trying to extend the lease on my leasehold flat, replacing a boiler, drying out a flooded bathroom and attempting to maintain a physio routine to help resolve a back niggle that I haven’t quite managed to shake over the past year, I’ve been sifting.
It’s been a slow process. In every box or suitcase was a concentrated snapshot of life in the mid 20th century. Both Mum and Dad’s work appraisals from the New Zealand High Commission in the 1960s. Letters to travel agents booking holidays and from wine merchants about their latest offers. Letters between Mum and an Algerian boyfriend when she was in her twenties. Letters from Dad to Mum after a particularly traumatic time in their relationship. Photographs of our grandparents and their families when they were younger. Ticket stubs, souvenirs and letters between Mum and Dad from a business trip Dad took to New Zealand when I was just one or so. Poems and stories written by Mum when she was in her twenties, and more written during Dad’s illness and after his death. Photographs of people we can’t identify. Driving licences, birth and death certificates, medals, work references, identity papers, and words written in memory by friends.
At one point I found myself sorting through the things that Dad had kept when he had had to sort through his parents possessions himself, after their deaths. Just as we have done with Mum and Dad’s belongings, he’d applied a filter to their things when deciding what to hold onto. And now, 30 years later, I’m repeating the process, applying a stricter filter of my own to those possessions he once decided to keep. A strange angle on the cycle of life. Many of these things can now be let go of. But amidst the gas bills for Grandma’s bungalow, and tucked inside Christmas cards from 1984, are letters from family friends which reveal previously unknown details about our grandparents, photographs of Dad as a child that we’ve never seen, and of us as children in happy times as a young family that we had forgotten. I can’t risk missing any of this, so I’ve been slowly working through the piles, letter by letter, card by card. It’s been not a little emotional, and fairly draining. But amazing, interesting, revealing and I suppose, cathartic.
Just as I reach the end of this, and finally feel like I might be making some progress, I’m hit out of the blue. When I first decided that I was definitely embarking on a long trip, that there was no reason for me not to do this, and that if I wasn’t going to do it now then I never would, I told myself above all things not to meet a girl and get distracted. Of all the things that prevent people from taking time out (work, relationships, money), this seemed to be the one that could change unintentionally and give me an excuse not to follow through. A month ago I remember mentally congratulating myself on what has been a pretty dull, somewhat depressing but ultimately successful year on that front. It’s been a year of few sparks, of little real connection. Well done, I thought, somewhat wryly. Oh, how foolish of me.
Three weeks ago, as I’m lounging on a friend’s sofa on a Monday night before dinner, their housemate walks into the room. She has lived with them for six months, but we’ve never met.
Oh, err. Hi. Umm.
Now? Really, now? Just as I’m getting up some momentum and starting to feel the pressure to go, just a few weeks away from leaving the country, now I meet a girl with whom I have that spark, that connection? Really?
Wow. Timing sucks. Just enough time to decide that this could be something, but not enough time to work out how much more than just something, it is? Somewhere, one of those unknown relatives is laughing mischievously at me, surely. I don’t know whether I should be laughing or crying myself.
And so, as the days have turned into weeks and now months, each step forward has been met with an obstacle to be overcome, or side stepped, or somehow incorporated into my plans. And at each step I question what I’m doing. Whether I really want to get rid of the vast majority of my belongings. Whether I really want to leave friends behind and head off on my own. How I’m meant to change my plans for the imminent future to try to incorporate things that are happening right now. Whether I really know what the fuck it is that I think I’m trying to do at all.
I leaf through the opening pages of Alastair Humphreys’ first book about his round the world bike journey and find these comforting words…
“The bags are packed, my head is shaved (a ‘new beginning’ type of thing) and I can think of no convincing excuse to back out. I am trapped on a runaway train that I set in motion myself but now am powerless to stop. I don’t want to do this. I wake up feeling physically sick with fear. I can’t do this…
…Finally I round the corner, my home is gone and it all hits me. The mounting pressure and months of denial all explode inside me, and I burst into tears. I have just left from my front door to try to cycle around the planet. I have left behind everyone that I love. If I was a brave man I would turn around right now. Go home. Go home, and admit that it was all too frightening. Instead I keep pedalling.
What on earth are you doing, Al? You bloody idiot.
This is one of the worst moments of my life.”
It’s good to know that I’m not the only one suffering some inner turmoil. One thing I do know is that, despite any doubts, I can’t just turn back. I can’t undo the steps I’ve made over the past year, or slide to a whimpering halt. It’s too late for that. The relative ‘comfort’ of being at home in limbo whilst sorting out these threads of my current life cannot last forever, if only because London is expensive and I’m slowly spending my savings. I have to move forward, in some way, as best as I can. After all, there is a new bike waiting (!).
I just have to work out how to bring these threads all together. And I have to do that pretty quickly. I guess that external pressure that I set in motion is now serving its purpose.
And I suppose that my answer to the question “When are you actually going to GO, Chris?” when it comes, should just be “Soon. Soon enough.”