Since the little spark of realisation that it was apparently possible for vaguely normal people to travel long distances by bike – to cross continents, even! – appeared in my mind a few years ago, I’ve come across stories of many adventure cyclists that have slowly built the urge to go and do something similar. Many of these people are now well known in cycling and adventure circles, publishing books, making films (to go with their books) and generally getting out there, doing cool stuff, and then talking about it to people (and writing lots of books; books seem to be a theme here). These people are all extremely inspiring in different ways but I find them slightly intimidating at the same time. Somehow the act of reading about their epic adventures and seeing how good they are at public speaking adds an element of celebrity to their persona, in my mind at least, despite the fact that they are generally all very down to earth individuals and that there was a clearly time when they didn’t have such a catalogue of cool stuff behind them.
What is particularly motivating, however, is coming across people who are just starting their first big adventure, and following their trip as it unfolds. People who feel closer to myself; who feel more…normal. Around the time I left for my short ride to Switzerland, Rob Lutter was also pedalling out of London and heading for Europe. But unlike me, he wasn’t planning on returning after a few weeks. I came across his blog, The Lifecycle, some time after the Swiss trip and loved its minimalist nature, and his muted, haunting, but warm photography and very personal story. I started reading from the beginning, slowly catching him up as I chased him on his journey across Europe.
Rob’s writing focuses on both the philosophical and the minutiae. He talks of being dissatisfied with life in London: the pace, the cost, the daily treadmill, the lack of creativity and the realisation that even after some years working in the film industry, he was at the bottom of a career ladder that he no longer wanted to climb. He talks of the loss of the wonder with the world that we all had inside us as children, and the acknowledgement that the years were blurring into one big, grey working day that might last for the next ten years. I know that feeling.
“We are born into a complex world. Its nature. Its history. Its cultures. Ours to absorb. We are small, but we are fearless. We explore, we question, we test the world. Young & unburdened, we are not afraid of the answers we might find. We are yet to experience the disappointment the answers may bring. The more knowledge we gain about our world, the more restricted our minds become. We become focused on the small things, the specifics, the politics & bickerings of daily life. We forget the important questions – about what it means to exist, to be happy, to explore our world & universe. Living out our lives in the same job, in the same villages and comforting societal structures.”
He talks of a disconnect with family, of not feeling that he is in the right place, and of the need to create, to go and do something, to live. He talks of recalling the times when he was happy were when travelling, exploring, discovering.
A book on a desk at work catches his eye – The Man Who Cycled The World – and an idea is born. A year later and he was cycling through Europe, headed east, documenting his trip through words and pictures.
“To begin this journal I feel like I should tell you who I am, where I’ve been, tell you all my past experiences, every high and low that came before this adventure. But, as I sit here now, after a month on the road, writing this first entry at the summit of a windswept, frosty mountain overlooking the Italian border, light fading, snowy peaks glowing in the dusk, I find myself struggling to put it all into words. It just doesn’t matter anymore. This is about the present now and the story of one man’s attempt to travel the world by bicycle. A human being, an existence, on a planet of seven billion others and a quest to realign with the world and with that sense of wonder.“
Rob’s journey took him through France, Switzerland, Italy, over the Alps as the first snow fell, into Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey, eventually pedalling into Istanbul on Christmas Day.
As well as the places he passes through, he writes about his thoughts and motivations, about the people he meets and the relationships he forms with them. Ultimately he is writing about a search for a place in the world, for an understanding of what happiness and contentedness looks like to some people and, perhaps, what it might look like to himself.
A recurring theme is the tension between the need to pause in places along the way, the joy in forming relationships during these times, but the accompanying restlessness and regression into old ways that comes with these breaks in the journey. You sense that Rob is still doing battle with the ways of his old life and his new one.
All of this is brought to life with moody, atmospheric photography with an ethereal quality, which accompanies each journal entry and forms some standalone creative projects. All photos in this post are Rob’s. In addition to the photography on his website, he has a whole collection of beautiful shots on Instagram, taken with an iPhone. After some unexpected publicity, he now has nearly 54,000 Instagram followers!
After staying in Istanbul over the winter, Rob set off eastwards across Asia in the spring, but journal updates didn’t follow with this part of the trip. He would post short updates and photos via Twitter and Instagram, but it wasn’t really clear why there was no continuation of the written story. Until this journal update, written from the Himalayas. I started to read this excitedly on the tube home from work but was left with tears in my eyes.
“Imagine. You wake in a tent, beside a river, in a forest. Beyond the forest is a road that runs on through the mountains for hundreds of miles. The sun shines. The world is bright. Nature is singing and a day of cycling through all this wonder lies ahead. But, you can not enjoy it. You can not even get out of your tent because the sound of a tree cracking or bird singing coincides with the pull of your zip. Or the sound of a car in the distance passes at the moment you place your first foot on the grass outside and your mental world is thrown off balance. You rezip, restep, retouch, retrace over and over until the balance is restored. Worse still, you are aware of the illogicality of it all, but the urges are too great and within minutes of waking you are angered and already tired, frustrated at the irrationality of your actions. A day in a trip of a lifetime should not have to begin like this.”
Rob had hit a turning point in Istanbul, admitting to someone, for the first time I think, that he has suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) since childhood. During times of travel, times when he felt momentum and change in his life, the issue would disappear into the background, but would return with the pressures of routine, deadline and uncertainty. OCD was at the route of his dissatisfaction with life in London, of the disconnect with family, and of difficulties maintaining long term friendships. And the winter of work in a hostel in Istanbul had brought the issue crashing back to dominate every day.
“The argument inevitably… led to fifteen minutes of Ali shouting at me… and of him describing all the strange things I had been doing. I could only stand and listen. Unable to respond, for shame, for knowing inside that I could not explain the truth to him and that he was right, it was strange. But, it was something I was used to, throughout my life all relationships seemed to end this way. It was only a matter of time until people got angry with me. The usual sadness drifted in my mind as I listened to his complaints and, like always, it was time to get up and move on.”
“After the argument with Ali I faced a decision; to pack up and run or, a new thought, one I’d never considered before… just tell him the truth. Accept it. And so, for the first time in my life, I said the words ‘I have a OCD…’ to another person. I felt so much shame in telling him, I felt sick to the stomach, but the weight that lifted from my mind afterwards was incredible. I still prepared to leave Istanbul, I hoped that Ali would be the last person I would have to tell all this to. You are reading this now. He was not.”
Rob is now in Hong Kong. From Istanbul, he pedalled his way through central Asia, the Himalayas and across the cold deserts of China, reaching Hong Kong in January 2013, after cycling 15,000km from London.
He has slept in fields, dark forests, deserts, snow covered mountain passes, next to a circus, behind petrol stations, in disused buildings, on people’s sofas.
He has suffered injuries, broken bike parts, extreme heat, dehydration, the freezing cold, and days of headwinds. In Hong Kong, his journey has paused for a number of reasons, including a lack of funds. He now has the story from Istanbul to Hong Kong ready to tell, which will start appearing in the journal shortly, although there are many photos of these months already on Instagram. He is determined to complete the remaining 25,000 km through SE Asia, across Oz and the USA, and back to London, and wants to use his trip to raise money for two mental health charities: Mind and OCD-UK. But he is stuck in Hong Kong, virtually homeless and without money to pay for the visa he needs to leave as well as some essential kit to complete and document the journey.
So, he has set up a Kickstarter campaign to try to gather the funds he needs to continue his journey. It’s pretty hard coming up with a Kickstarter campaign for a journey like this (because good campaigns are based on some kind of ‘product’ or ‘deliverable’) but he’s using his photography, writing and film making skills to come up with some interesting photographic products. Kickstarter is amazing, not only for those trying to fund a project, but also for those who contribute. For a tiny amount of money (pledges start at just £1) you can become part of a worldwide community supporting somebody to do something unique, perhaps because you want what they will produce at the end of it, or because you feel strongly about the cause that they are contributing to or the issue that they are trying to address, or just because you think that what they’re doing is damn cool and you want to help them. You get to become part of a unique community, part of the project, and make something possible, which feels pretty special.
As I write this, the campaign has been running for 7 days and 126 backers have pledged £3,583, which is amazing. He is 62% of the way to his target. But, as is the case with these things, the initial flood of backers has slowed. For a Kickstarter to be successful, the full funding target has to be raised by the deadline. If the target isn’t reached, no-one pays anything, and the project doesn’t go ahead. Rob has 11 days to find people to pledge the remaining £2,397 he needs, to keep The Lifecycle alive.
I’ve never met Rob, but I really want him to succeed with his funding campaign. I want him to succeed because I want to carry on reading his journal, be inspired by his photography and to accompany him (virtually, at least!) on his adventure. I want him to succeed because he has taken a difficult step to break free of a life that did not make him happy and I think that he needs to continue. I want Rob to succeed because I see elements of myself in him. I want him to succeed because he has put himself out there, followed a dream, asked the world for help, and I think that this boldness deserves some reward. I want him to succeed because one day I hope to be on a journey not dissimilar to his, and it would be lovely to think that in a time of need, there might be a community out there who would help. But mostly I want him to succeed because his journey gives me inspiration and motivation to follow my dreams, and we all need that. I want Rob to succeed for his sake, and for mine.
Let’s help Rob continue his journey.
You can help Rob, and receive some unique photographic souvenirs of his trip in return, by contributing to his Kickstarter campaign. If that isn’t for you, then you can donate to the mental health charities he is supporting, or you can just delve into his story and be inspired.
All photographs and video in this post are courtesy of Rob Lutter (http://roblutter.com/).