It was a summer’s day in 2006 — was it really eight years ago? — and I was driving my dad’s Vauxhall Astra to my very first job interview. The position in question was for a database designer in a software house in Barnstaple, Devon. I was 22 years old with a good degree in Computer Science. Getting a proper job was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
It was a summer’s day in 2007 — was it really seven years ago? — and I was about to ride my new bicycle for the very first time. My best mate Andy and I had finished building it that morning, still hung-over from the previous night’s leaving party. I was 23 years old, and job applications had long been shelved. Cycling round the world (starting today) was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
It was a summer’s day in 2008 — was it really six years ago? — and I was sat on a bench beside a crumbling walkway in a park. Tenny was supposed to be on her way, but sneaking out without raising her parents’ suspicions had never been easy. I was 24 years old, and I’d pedalled across 13 countries to meet her. Living in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
It was a summer’s day in 2009 — was it really five years ago? — and each breath was like inhaling fire. The first cool hours of the morning had been luxuriant, but the infernal headwind was back and the mercury was approaching 60°C. I was 25 years old, and I had no idea when I’d see her again. Cycling alone across the Arabian desert was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
It was a summer’s day in 2010 — was it really four years ago? — and my feet were throbbing with cold-aches as I stood dripping by the fire. The lake was still frozen over, and finding a decent swimming spot had been tough. I was 26 years old, and I was sharing the road with my best mate Andy for the first time in 3 years. Riding across Mongolia together, just like old times, was exactly what we were supposed to be doing.
It was a summer’s day in 2011 — was it really three years ago? — and I was sitting in the window of a coffee shop on Komitas Avenue. The park opposite was where we’d used to meet, back when Tenny still had to sneak out without arousing her parents’ suspicions. I was 27 years old, and I was sat at my laptop once again. Writing my first book was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
It was a summer’s day in 2012 — was it really two years ago? — and I was perched, shivering, on that same saddle I’d set out on a half-decade previously. The deep red columns of the Golden Gate Bridge reached up into the insidious fog like giants’ fingers. I was 28 years old, and my wanderlust showed no sign of abating. Riding the Pacific Coast with my younger brother was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
It was a summer’s day in 2013 — was it really a year ago? — and I was cowering in an eddy, having come within a hair’s breadth of being swept away down a swollen river in full flow. I’d never felt more afraid; never more alive. I was 29 years old, and I was alone in a packraft in rural Iran on the most difficult journey of my life. Two months of total immersion in a foreign language and culture was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
* * *
When you duck out of the midstream and begin to pick your own line through life, you quickly find alternative currents too numerous to count.
The best direction to choose is rarely obvious and never easy. Life becomes a strange, shapeshifting journey. Boundaries change constantly, drifting in and out of sight. Sometimes you’re hemmed in, hanging on for dear life. And sometimes you’re becalmed, motionless, and every direction looks the same.
One thing never changes, though: You’re the only one at the helm.
(River metaphors for life are as clichéd as it gets. But I struggle to think up alternatives – particularly this soon after the end of a long river journey.)
Rarely a day goes by during which I don’t question whether or not this life I’ve forged for myself is the ‘right’ one; whether the choices I’ve made have been the ‘right’ ones.
I have, however, settled on a handful of principles by which I can evaluate every decision I do make. When your direction is unclear, I’ve found that it’s useful to review these principles, as they’re usually resilient and independent of circumstance, mood, bank balance, or any number of other influences. What follows is an attempt to articulate a few of them, for no particular reason other than to remind myself of what they are and why I’ve come to follow them.
The most important guiding principle to me has become the proactive working-towards of a change in the world that I believe will bring about a greater good, which sounds utterly preposterous when I read it back but is a principle embodied in any number of well-worn quotes, none of which I’ll reproduce here for fear it may appear I’m attempting to draw parallels between myself and their originators.
The change I want to see, of course, is an increase in cross-cultural understanding and therefore of mutual respect and trust and ultimately love between people. The means of accomplishing this change that I devote my energies to promoting is open-minded (some might say ‘adventurous’) travel – particularly by bicycle for the way in which it naturally encourages this. Hence the existence of this blog.
It’s wildly idealistic, of course. Many will continue to tell me I’m wasting my time. No — I’m under no illusions that my contribution is anything more than a drop in the ocean. But it definitely beats sitting on my arse playing Angry Birds.
Tied up with this is the practice of being helpful in a regular and meaningful way – or in other words, taking an abstract belief and turning it into concrete action. With each article I write for this blog, with each reader email or comment I respond to, with the guide I’ve just published (an admittedly tedious and time-consuming thing to write), and with everyone I speak to at real-world events, I try to make whatever I have to offer of maximum usefulness and helpfulness to the people on the receiving end.
Being helpful feeds naturally into the goal of advocating bicycle travel and breaking down barriers to doing it, because it changes behaviours by opening doors which were previously closed. The knowledge that my work is helping people is motivation enough to do what I do.
I don’t expect it, but the positive feedback I do get is a bonus and an encouraging reminder that my primarily internet-based work has a real effect in the real world (incidentally a place I’m looking forward to doing more work this year).
The third big principle I try to keep in place is the setting aside of time and space to re-evaluate everything. I usually do this during what’s become my ‘annual’ adventure or expedition, when I hugely prefer to let myself drift than set a clear course and power towards some distant goal. By doing things this way, I find these journeys give me the opportunity to stop; to find a vantage point or two and take a good look and where I’ve come from and where I’m going.
People close to me think of my journeys as extended holidays or ‘jollies’. They’re actually an integral part of my well-being that I cannot do without. (I might also add that re-evaluating everything does not necessarily imply that I like the conclusions I come to.)
The final key concept around which I try to arrange my time on this planet is to allow myself space to express myself creatively and to play with the form and process of these creative things. This article is a prime example. By deliberately scheduling nothing at all for the days that follow the launch of a big project, I’ve found myself writing about a collection of ideas I hadn’t even realised had been sitting there in the background all along.
I explore all of this today in a shamelessly self-indulgent way because I have an eye on the perpetual question of “what’s next?”. My goal this spring was to revise and expand the resources section of this website to be more useful, and to create a genuinely useful and timeless resource on a specific topic. I also hoped that putting a fair price on the new resource would give me some financial breathing space in which I could make headway with a new film project. (It’s early days yet, but it looks like things stand to be successful on both of these fronts.)
Principles are only useful if you act on them. And even if you’re not sure what the ‘right’ decision is, you’re usually better off doing something than doing nothing. So while whatever comes next may not yet be clear, I’ve got a decent bit of dry land to set out from.
Better start paddling…