It was the end of spring, and it was another day at the office. A drag. A chore. A career path that I didn’t believe in. Later, I’d realise that this was the day that shifted my direction. It was the light-bulb moment, when I decided to quit, fly to New York and set off on a year long, 12,000 mile cycle touring adventure.
There were too many questions going on in my mind to stay, and my eyes would drift to the window with every spare moment. Why am I here when there are so many adventures to be had out there? I looked out, imagining travelling a long way by bike, using the imaginary ride to break the monotony.
It typically goes: newly independent men and women step into ‘the real world’, climb onto a career ladder and make upward steps, hoping to make their mark. They find partners, buy a home, have children and earn enough money to be comfortable. Fine, but why? Are those really the milestones that life should be based around? If they are, then awesome. But these don’t strike me as unreasonable questions to ask, considering our lives get shorter every day. Don’t we owe it to ourselves to explore the answers?
What I’d been seeing every day recently were the glazed-over eyes of people walking down the street who had either learnt that this model was the right one, or had just accepted it without question. I’m not convinced, even though part of me wishes I was. To me, they were drones, robots, automated captured-lives dedicated to a fantasy of contentment and a wish for fullness that might never come. My fear is waking up as an elderly man and having a moment of realisation: as pleasant as life may have been, I’d lived a life that someone else had prescribed. It didn’t belong to me because I didn’t choose it, or even question it. I was just another old dude who’d taken part in a lifetime performance because that’s what we do. If I didn’t take action, I was on track to nonachieve the same fate. Suddenly a year living on a bicycle seemed like the most sensible thing to do.
I was in my early twenties, and as overly dramatic as it may sound, there’s something about hitting that age. It’s really the first time you realise that mortality is waiting for us all on (hopefully) a distant horizon. It’s oddly quantifiable – with good fortune we probably have around two-thirds of our lives left. But where did the first third even go? Wherever it went, it went fast. This isn’t a dilemma about death, it’s a dilemma about life and what to do with the single chance we’ve got.
Two months later, I packed up the used Trek that I’d found for a bargain price on eBay and set off with no idea what to expect. My panniers were full of unknown. No prior experience. No training. It was probably a bit foolish really. It was November 2012 when I landed in New York City from England, and it was the start of an unusual year. It was the learning that happened throughout the journey that surprised me the most. Learning about this type of lifestyle, about cycling, about the perils and the kindness that frequent being on the road, about people from all walks of life, about myself. The first few weeks on the road were a bizarre mix of hard and easy.
Physically it was hard, but I’d been expecting that. My view up until the first American pedal strokes had been that the journey in itself would act as training. It was going to be so long anyway, that prior training may have just put me off the idea completely. Prior to day one, I’d never cycled more than ten miles, and suddenly here I was riding all day. 58 miles. 81 miles. 63 miles. 47 miles. I couldn’t remember being more sore and in pain than those first weeks. The mental game during that time, though, was easy; constantly upbeat, happy about such a change, excited to be out putting in long hours in the fresh air day after day.
Gradually, the mental and physical parts shifted. Physically, my body adapted. The once horrendously uncomfortable leather saddle became pleasant. Legs grew stronger, muscles became less sore, and it quickly became easy to cover long distances. Mentally though, there was a reverse. It became a roller-coaster ride of emotion: happiness, depression, anxiety, confidence, disbelief, excitement, joy. The entire emotion-portfolio, but lacking any kind of consistency.
It was around eight weeks into the trip when the first wave of negativity hit. Intense lightning storms meant that I was sitting it out, just waiting, relegated to a small tent on a plot of wet grass next to a train station in rural Louisiana. It’s the isolation that does it, that really gets to you. I began to severely miss family, friends, non-temporary human connection, a fixed base. I sat out the three-day storm away from any other people, without a phone signal or internet. Just the intense noise of rain on canvas, the knowledge that my bike was probably getting soaked, and a pot of bland pasta. It might not sound like much, in fact to some people maybe it sounds quite idyllic, but 72 hours without any form of communication with anybody else was enough time for the dark questions to emerge. Was it fair to leave for so long? To just up sticks and leave for a bike ride?
After a while, this negativity turned back to the reason I was here. For positivity and change; for growth; because I wasn’t happy. The roller-coaster went from low to high, just like a decent one should. Enough time went by to adjust to the lifestyle shock, develop efficient methods of getting by and keeping things dry, and to master the temperamental ride that is bicycle travel.
The journey took me up hills that made me curse in Texas, and down the same hills that made me scream with joy, across green chilli farmland in New Mexico and through rare snow storms in the Arizona desert. Frozen water bottles one day, sweaty t-shirt the next. No new day was the same as the one before. Each had new people, new places, new experiences.
The great days on the bike were truly that. I’d wake up to a sunrise by a lake or next to a mountain, take it all in and then set off for somewhere unfamiliar. Big long days that just click. There’s a rhythm that’s created by pedalling and a flow that happens whilst seeing the world pass by under your own steam. I switched off and the hours flew by, a meditative state like I’d never felt before, all because of cycle touring. It was like an inner switch that took a few hours to reach, but once turned on, an intense clarity would come over me. I was more relaxed, and more present, than I’d ever felt before. This felt like living.
Following five months of pedalling down, across and up the United States, I’d arrived in Stinson Beach, Northern California. The previous night, after cycling by bike-light, I’d rolled into the town and in the darkness had stumbled around to find a stealth-camp spot in a State Park by the beach. A remote sandy beach overlooking the Pacific. This was one of the best parts to living on a bike – realising the beauty of our planet.
“Get Up! Get Up! You’ve got 5 minutes! You’d better be out of here when I get back!” Maybe it wasn’t such a beautiful moment after all. It was 5:45 am and a blurry figure was kicking the canvas a few inches away from my face. Alright, OK! The blur turned out to be a park ranger on his morning duties. Oops. In all honesty, this kind of situation wasn’t that uncommon. Stumbling out of the tent, and exhaling the daily sigh of relief when I saw that the bike was still there, I began to pack up and realised that someone else was experiencing a similar morning. Yawning and rubbing his eyes from a lack of quality sleep, Brad had been sleeping on the beach.
Months before setting off, I’d made a decision to split the journey into two. Just going for a big ride wasn’t enough. I wanted to also use the journey to explore contentment and doubt with others. Along the way, I’d been meeting up with a variety of people to talk about whether they’d experienced the same questions, and to record their answers through film. Did they enjoy their path in life? What would they change and do the same? Some of those encounters were pre-organized, and others happened by chance, but out of all of those meetings, from singing cowgirls to Hollywood directors to hunters, it was meeting Brad that was the most memorable.
We both grabbed our stuff and walked to a nearby basketball court as the sun was rising over the Golden State. He recalled growing up in Boston, where as a teen he was caught dealing drugs and ended up being sentenced to two years in jail. Eighteen months into his sentence, Brad had a bad day, got frustrated by the guards and ended up punching two of them. Because of the fight, he was given another eight years inside. Bringing his total sentence to ten years. A decade.
That’s enough to shock most people, but it was a fraction of the story. As Brad successfully shot hoop after hoop, three pointer after three pointer in the California morning glow, and I constantly missed the basket, he told me about what happened after prison. On his release, he was dropped off in downtown Boston with a $60 cheque. For a moment he looked around, and the best thing he could think of was to go back to prison where his needs were met. The tempting option was to punch a crossing guard and return to what he knew best. Instead, he walked for 15 minutes to clear his head and weigh up his options. And it was in those 15 minutes, whilst walking, that a new plan formed. He’d leave Boston, and walk. He’s walked for 13 years, taking in 38 states and thousands upon thousands of miles.
It was completely by chance that I met Brad and learnt his story, and it made me question fate. Was meeting him an always-meant-to-happen moment? Suddenly, the concerns and questions I’d been wrestling felt valid. Brad had changed his life by setting off. He’d turned his life around. That word, life. So grand, so vague, so many variables. But here was a guy living life, embracing every day. He didn’t have it easy, but he seemed truly happy, and that positivity was contagious. For weeks after that, during the tough times, the times when the hills never ended, or illness kicked in, or the homesickness seemed unbearable, I tried to remember Brad, and I appreciated the days much more then.
But when I arrived in British Columbia a couple of months later, after weeks of cycling into a headwind, another dark part of touring reared its head. Mechanicals. My load was heavy. Clothes, sleeping equipment, stove, food, camera, laptop for editing and writing. So what on earth was I doing with a flimsy 32-hole rear rim? Any experienced touring cyclist would’ve called me an idiot. A few actually did. Every day I woke up, cycled for a few hours, and snapped a spoke. Sometimes three.
It’s an easy fix of course – simply a case of getting a decent wheel with a lot of spokes. I should’ve known, it should’ve come up in research, but remember I was inexperienced and foolish going into this.
I was operating on a minimal budget because of the duration of the journey, so the thought of shelling out a month or more’s food money on a new wheel was something I was pretty keen to avoid. It was a daily disaster that took its toll – I just hoped that the spokes that snapped would be non-drive side so I could replace them on the fly. Eventually it became such an annoyance that I did purchase a new wheel, but not before my rim was an egg-shape and riding became a truly wobbly experience. There were many times that things went wrong on the road. And it took me a long time to realise the benefits when everything goes awry. Often I’d get angry and frustrated and scream to the sky, but then I realised that it’s these moments that count.
When I was on my knees at the side of the road with the bike in pieces, somebody would drive past, stop, and ask what was going on. They’d offer expertise, a hot meal or a place to sleep. It did wonders to restore my previously cynical faith in humanity. Those moments lead to great memories and even greater friendships. Invites into a cabin overlooking a lake with Buddhists, or into the spare room of a Canadian police officer’s home. Nights spent around delicious home-cooked meals which were so refreshing after periods of sustained tent life and a granola diet. Steak! It took mechanicals to help me see that whether it’s a snapped spoke, a broken chain or a run of bad luck in general life, the only thing to do is deal with it, work it out and accept help when offered, because doing so can lead to great, unexpected things.
It’s easy to look back and realise, in hindsight, that the hard times were valuable. In the moment it’s much harder. You’re in it, and hard is hard. The final few months did feel like hard work, sleeping rough, scary roads and insane truck drivers, the ever-approaching winter. Nights spent searching for warmth in abandoned barns to avoid getting snowed on and the slow, frosty mornings that followed.
As New York filled my sights from the final Canadian city of Niagara Falls, I felt hesitant. But not because of any of that; that was bearable. It might not’ve been fun but it was just the way it was. Instead I was hesitant because it was coming to an end. Life on the move had turned into something I’d learned to cope with. A comfortably uncomfortable lifestyle. The thought of stopping and returning to a life based in one place had grown scary, far more than a thin road shoulder and a logging truck.
The final day, day 368, was an easy one. Miles had long become irrelevant and that afternoon my mind couldn’t have been further away from the act of cycling. It felt bigger than that. All the people, the experiences, the memories. The good and the bad. Internally I was focused on the previous 367 days and what they symbolized. Then, and without really realising it, I pedalled over the George Washington Bridge cycle path and arrived quietly in New York.
The Big Apple, the biggest city in America, was like a metaphorical sledgehammer to the face. My days had been mostly in between towns, quiet and secluded, and here I was where everyone was getting on with it, going about their lives, taking the subway home from the hustle and bustle of the daily grind. It was a shock because it marked the end. The ride was done. A year of cycling and an overly ambitious goal had come full circle. Initially, because of the culture shock, I felt intensely sad that it was over. But after a few hours of taking it all in, that turned to optimism and a realisation about what the previous year had meant.
Sometimes we have to invest in ourselves and the simple act of pedalling and meeting people was my way of doing that. It brought with it so much learning, the kind that only comes from getting out there and chasing new experiences. I learnt to stop being intimidated and anxious, to turn dreams and ambition to action, to roll with the punches that are given to us, that grit and determination beat skill and experience, and that humans are kind. They’re priceless lessons learnt from the road that I’ll hold onto forever. Riding a bicycle for a year altered my outlook, shifted my priorities and truly changed my life.
Words & pictures by Dave Gill (vaguedirection.com)