I received an email the other day from another long-term traveller about a project I’m currently working on. At the end of the email was the following:
“P.S. When you set out on that first trip, did you ever think that this would become your life?”
A damn good question with more scope than befits a private email exchange, I thought. (Thanks, Jamie!)
First, what is ‘this’, exactly? Well, this blog, I suppose, and all else that it directly supports, for that is all most people see. But I spend more time working on this blog and projects derived from it than anything else. So blogging is the closest thing I have to a full-time job, and it’s a fair enough representation of what occupies the majority of my time, and thus my ‘life’.
It wasn’t always so: my ‘full-time job’ used to be wandering the world’s back-roads on a bicycle, with the blog playing a distant second fiddle. If you dig back into the site archives to 2006, you’ll find articles posted when the site was known as Ride Earth, the name of a rather naive attempt to circumnavigate the world by mountain-bike, which quickly went off the rails and let to all else that has happened.
The site has been redesigned six times, moved domains twice, at one point was shared with someone else and thus had two writers, and for a long time did nothing more than serve as a trip blog on which I scribbled in internet cafes about my ongoing bike trip round the world, but it has gradually developed alongside my own changing ambitions (and route).
Now, the site brings in a steady stream of new readers, most often searching for help and advice with various aspects of bicycle travel. Although much of Ride Earth’s original readership has long since moved on, this reflects new priorities on my part, and over time it has created a solid base from which to soundboard ideas and get immediate feedback.
And, as well as providing hundreds of thousands of words of useful information, the website serves as a platform for letting people know about the paid-for projects such as Janapar that help to support the time I spend on it all. (On that note, there’s a new ebook coming very soon.)
Why a blog, exactly? Why did I not become a paid travel writer, or simply put my book out and go back to my previous line of work? Why bother continue writing long after the ‘big trip’ finished? Let’s face it: I did four days of actual cycle-touring in 2013, and only a two-month trip in 2012. Do I even still have the authority to maintain this blog?
There is sometimes — not always, but sometimes — an air of desperation around ‘post-trip’ blogs; a feeling that the writer continues to recycle the same old material, interspersed with “and for my next trip” announcements, out of an unwillingness to let go of a once-supportive readership and move on.
I don’t mean to say that every such trip blog is like this, but it does happen. It’s easy to become dependent upon the continuing affirmations of responsive readers, or to feel that by ending a blog you are doing your community a disservice or letting something valuable slide into decline. And my own blog, at times, could have gone that way.
But a large part of my motivation to stop travelling full-time was because I had more creative energy than life on the road permitted the opportunity to use. In part, that was because I didn’t travel with laptops, mobiles and the like. (Others in my shoes would have happily taken a laptop and integrated creativity into their days on the road that way. I was too stubborn and wanted no such distractions from the experience of travel.)
The point is that over several years of riding I gathered so much raw material that I am still drawing from it on a daily basis today, and the process of change I underwent during my time on the road somehow unlocked a creative vault in my head that had previously been shut. I still have an endless backlog of headlines on points of information and advice that I have not yet written into articles. Not writing something for more than a few days actually makes me feel uncomfortable.
In other words, I stopped travelling by bicycle full-time so that I could write about travelling by bicycle full-time — and in a more substantial form than blog posts alone.
There’s slightly more to it than this. Before Ride Earth I had made a brief attempt to become a professional website developer. These were skills learned partly through my Computer Science degree, partly through taking on the job of redesigning the university radio station’s website (oh, the glamour), and partly through — in typical geek fashion — spending too much time in rapport with computers because they seemed friendlier and more interesting than most of the people in the world outside. (Travelling cured that one, needless to say.)
And so it made complete sense to begin a website, because not only did I have the creative drive to publish regularly on a topic close to my heart, but I could look after the technical side of the site as well (HTML, CSS, JQuery, PHP, Apache & MySQL — you get the idea) — work that would otherwise over time have racked up thousands of pounds in professional fees. And both of these things are still true.
The motivation behind all of this is, of course, a rampant form of idealism. I believe that long, personal journeys by bicycle have a transformative effect upon the riders and their subsequent interactions, and that the effect is a net benefit to the world at large. (See this month’s earlier article on reciprocal hospitality.)
Even if only a very small nudge towards an ideal, it’s better than any number of more lucrative careers I might have chosen (there’s that idealism again). And so through storytelling (inspiration), the sharing of knowledge (information) and attempting to serve people’s needs (creating action), my aim has simply become to get more people out travelling by bike — and to have fun doing it.
(I’m getting there with this.)
So in respect to the original question, it’s a similar one to what people used to ask on the road: “What will you do when you get home?”
My answer for many years was that I had no idea, but that I hoped that whatever it was would emerge naturally out of the trip itself.
And, though the route to get here has often been unclear and with a few wrong turns along the way, this is a pretty accurate description of what’s happened.
Happy New Year!
How did you get to where you are right now? Is it where you envisaged yourself five or ten years ago? If not, how can you change things in 2014?