Erin and Nick instantly reminded me of my younger self and Andy; two good friends, fresh-faced and idealistic, intoxicated with the new-found freedom of life on the road in a wealthy and developed corner of the world. The summer of 2007 and that timeless four-month adventure across Europe remains one of the most enjoyable, chaotic and memorable times of my life.
British readers may have heard the sad news of Claire Squires, who collapsed and died on the final bend of last weekend’s London Marathon. She was running for two reasons — publicly, to raise money for the Samaritans, her favourite charity; and personally, in memory of her brother, who died 10 years ago under tragic circumstances.
While I will not cast myself as a very close relative, Claire was still my cousin, and it is impossible to put into words the kind of pain that this side of my family has gone through.
These events, now a headline story in the national British media, have led to something unexpected and positive. Claire’s charity fundraising attempts have multiplied, and her JustGiving page total (at the time of writing) sits at just over £750,000.
But Claire will be remembered for the inspiration that she has now become to a huge number of people. She was an individual, someone just like you and me, acting with selflessness and dedication in the hope of changing a few lives for the better.
She has reminded us that we all, in whatever small way, have the chance to make our own such contribution to the world. And — more poignantly — that none of us knows when the chance might pass.
The family hopes that Claire’s fundraising total will reach £1 million. Please make a donation here, no matter how small.
I lay on my back, staring upwards into blackness. Water dripped steadily from the heavy branches above, pounding repetitively on the fly sheet of my new 1‑man tent, invisible and paper-thin. The shelter felt small. Inadequate.
A brief pause. Some muffled movement from his pitch a few metres behind my head. Then, groggily:
“There’s a bear outside.”
Down at the Serpentine Swimming Club one January morning, as the last handful of bright pink bodies struggled back into their thermals and began the post-swim ritual of uncontrollable shivering, a chap named Roger made a memorable observation:
“Once you’ve s‑s-swum the winter season at the S‑s-serpentine, you’re s‑s-suddenly immensely liberated! B‑b-because you know that whenever you encounter water, as long as it’s still liquid… you can go for a s‑s-s-s-swim!”
For someone with a stubborn hatred of cities, I was surprised to find myself liking Vancouver.
The city is well-known as being one of the most desirable places in the world to live, but what I hadn’t quite appreciated before arriving were the reasons for the accolade. I previously supposed that many of the reasons must be subjective — a dense and varied culture, plenty of material wealth, relative isolation, boundless potential for one’s leisure time — few of which I’d deem a necessity for a meaningful and contented existence.
But few of us would fail to be seduced and subdued by Vancouver’s intimacy with nature; unimposing and mellow urban landscapes set amongst — rather than dominating — the surrounding encroachment of ocean, mountain and virgin forest, each a short walk from any front door out of which you might step out.
And fewer still would be loathe to live in a place without a segregating hangover of class divides; where people of all background and origin live together, truly integrated, with not a whiff of the strained and confused attempt at multiculturalism with which Europe still struggles; where striking up conversation with a stranger on a bus or in the street is a pleasant, expected part of daily life; and where one feels that all that makes Vancouver great is acknowledged and appreciated by those who live here, whether Vancouver born and raised, immigrant citizens of several years, or fresh new arrivals. This seems to be a place of gentle contentment, of free expression without pretension — and of good old-fashioned fun.
My brother Ben and I were staying with some friends of his who had invited us to make use of the two spare rooms in their house. Set very handily in the central district of Kitsilano, we used this spacious family home as the base for a variety of forays, including several epic inner-city hikes, a social visit to a coffee shop in which Ben worked for 2 years while earning his permanent Canadian residency, a day of spring skiing at nearby Whistler-Blackcomb — and, of course, Vancouver’s annual pillow fight, which took place by the steps of the art gallery and lasted a full half-hour.
This all-too-brief glimpse of life in Vancouver was rounded off with my obligatory swim in the chilly waters of the North Pacific, followed by an important trip downtown to the headquarters of Kona Bikes to collect a pair of gleaming. Because the visit, unfortunately, was not intended as a city break. No — I came to Vancouver to prepare for a new kind of journey; one which will in many ways be unlike any that have come before. Motivations change with time and experience, and there’ll be more on that in a future piece.
By the way, if you’re a regular reader and you’re wondering what became of the Great Camera Debate a couple of weeks ago, here’s the answer. I ended up keeping my old digital SLR body (thanks more to Gumtree’s total and utter ineptitude than personal choice). I flogged all my lenses and accessories, however, and bought a fixed-length 28mm prime lens made in the 70’s. The camera will spend the next two months in full manual mode.
I hope that this will put in the constraints I was looking for, without the maybe-a-little-extreme measure of carrying film canisters around. As with so many of the choices we face, the best answer turned out to be a compromise.
My U.S. Pacific Coast ride is kindly supported by Kona Bikes, Cascade Designs and Schwalbe..