What Exactly Does ‘Freedom’ Mean When Travelling?

Freedom — or the sense of it, at least — is the one thing that keeps bringing me back to cycle touring. I have all practicalities whittled down to a slender routine; there is nothing more to learn from the act itself of travelling by bicycle itself. Yet back to it I come, year after year, because of the sense of boundless liberation that comes from simply being on the road.

At least, I thought it was freedom. Then someone pointed out that my adventures had all involved using money to get where I was going — just another tourist with slightly different priorities. I’d still had to earn that money beforehand. That’s not real freedom. I’d escaped, yes, but sooner or later I’d been recaptured and bound by the same old shackles.

So this year I decided to pedal the length of my home country without any money. I pronounced my plans with swagger. All that experience must’ve toughened me up by now. But I was sweating, boarding that one-way train to Penzance with not a coin, note or bank card on my person. What had I let myself in for?

On balance, I was fairly confident that I wouldn’t die (a consideration I’ve long used to weigh up new trip ideas); ergo I would find ways to survive. Still, I sweated. I sweated through Cornwall and Devon and Somerset, and each night some friend or family member would call to say they’d found someone nearby who’d shelter me for another night.

In the West Midlands, my contacts dried up. I reprised an old routine of sleeping behind hedges. I got hungry. Really hungry. Then I discovered bin diving, and that carrots alone can sustain a man for days. I’m not much of a freegan, but hunger, apparently, turns you into one.

I set to work on infiltrating communities — something cash would have allowed me to bypass, now a necessity. Down-to-earth farmers laughed at my pleas to work for food, invited me in and fed me anyway. Campsites dished out chores for leftover croissants. Rural pubs providing on-the-spot pot-washing work for meals. Cyclists bequeathed new innertubes and good wishes, with one or two raised eyebrows thrown in for good measure. And in this way the exuberant North embraced my itinerant quest, my fears a distant memory.

When I arrived in Scotland, it’d been weeks since I’d even touched a coin. And writing this now — cappuccino beside laptop — my urban lifestyle seems shallow. Every handover of coinage represents a missed opportunity to befriend a stranger, and every paid writing gig will only facilitate more such lazy, anonymous transactions.

It’s the way things are, of course. This penniless ride through the values of a nation will change nothing. My tours will continue as they always did. But I’ve seen another way, now. Counterintuitive though it may seem, perhaps true freedom in travel (and in life) really does only come when you take money out of the equation altogether.

An edited version of this piece originally appeared in the Cycle Guy column of the Sunday Times. Read the full story of the #freeLEJOG project here.

10 Responses to “What Exactly Does ‘Freedom’ Mean When Travelling?”

  1. Nick cooke

    But isn’t the real point that your freedom has come on the backs ( and pockets, and labour) of others? Even when that kind farmer gives you a meal she does so out of her own pocket? When you find those carrots in the bin they are there because they are built into the profit margin that the family with three children were expected to pay for theirs? For me, freedom is not about receiving but rather choosing to give.

    • Andrew Norris

      “If other people do not understand our behavior—so what? Their request that we must only do what they understand is an attempt to dictate to us. If this is being “asocial” or “irrational” in their eyes, so be it. Mostly they resent our freedom and our courage to be ourselves. We owe nobody an explanation or an accounting, as long as our acts do not hurt or infringe on them. How many lives have been ruined by this need to “explain,” which usually implies that the explanation be “understood,” i.e. approved. Let your deeds be judged, and from your deeds, your real intentions, but know that a free person owes an explanation only to himself—to his reason and his conscience—and to the few who may have a justified claim for explanation.”

    • Andrew Norris

      Carrot from a bin, so it infringes on nobody. In fact it saves things that would have been wasted 🙂

      The farmer that decides to feed him did it by choice. He did not ask to be fed for nothing nor did he expect it. He asked to work for it and was fully prepared and happy to do so.

      The farmer knew he would get something from it. The simple act of giving is a pleasure in itself, and some good company during the meal. Most farmers I know are nice people, not materialistic, not thinking they are better than others.

  2. Lizzie

    Not really on your topic here of freedom, but have you read (you probably have…) The Moneyless Man by Mark Boyle? If I remember rightly he lived without money for a year. By the end of it he realized he couldn’t live this way permanently in society now, but the mere fact of having tried it was an eye opener, and an experience to learn from. I like your phrase “infiltrating communities” – I find that whenever I walk or cycle somewhere I am likely to do this in a small way, by meeting people I wouldn’t otherwise meet (and who one would never meet if travelling by car) e.g. a fellow forager, a lady from a local village that I just found I had a lot in common with when I stopped to chat before cycling on, and thirdly even the man in the cafe where I went and paid for my coffee the day after accidentally forgetting to!

  3. Shaun

    All you did in ‘freeing’ yourself of money was create a situation where you had to find time on your trip to ‘earn’ the things needed during the trip; food, inner tubes, accommodation.

    I would argue your time is better spent earning before the trip doing higher paid jobs than on it to free up your time to experience wherever your pedals take you. As an exercise showing you don’t need to do that, it was successful, but there was a trade of.

    The counter argument might be that ‘spending’ time doing those things was indeed a core part of the trip but you were of course free to work on a farm, eat freegan carrots and wash dishes in a pub regardless of the contents of your wallet so it wasn’t money holding you back from doing that but your inhibitions to do so when you had the shortcut of available money.

    Somewhat counter intuitively, whenever I go on a trip my spending habits are massively cheaper (except for cake obviously) than if I was at home and since my job relies almost entirely on just having an internet connection, is mostly handled by robots and scripts with little intervention and I can work from almost anywhere, my net income usually increases. That is liberating though because of the internet it’s rarely freedom. I can be emailed, tweeted and phoned from anywhere too. 🙁

    • Tom Allen

      Interesting how two perspectives can differ so much. The situation you describe was exactly what I wanted to create, and the whole point of the experiment! It’s been a very long time since the act of cycling held any intrinsic appeal for me (unsurprising, perhaps, given how much I’ve done), so the initiative required and the social interactions made necessary by having no money were exactly what give the ride its value and meaning – no trade-off required.

      Of course, the exact opposite might be true for you. But that’s why I put so much emphasis on the idea of personal, meaningful journeys. No two sets of motivations are ever quite the same, and so I would suggest that arguments as to what constitutes ‘time better spent’ are somewhat moot in such a context…

  4. Katja

    Thank you, Tom. That was a really interesting read. Have you ever cycled in Southern Africa? I’m hoping to spend about a month cycling here, and I have no experience (thus why I read your blog). I am concerned about the danger element of cashless travel however, as I think it may be a little different to cycling in Europe. But if you’ve done it, maybe I can manage too!


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