Adventure cycling demigod Alastair Humphreys has just launched a new short film of his recent bike & bothy adventure in the Scottish Highlands.
(A bothy, for the uninitiated, is a remote mountain shelter which is free for public use.)
It’s really good.
And if you’ve never come across bothies before, it’s a fantastic introduction to their unique subculture.
Watch it here:
It’s also created the perfect opportunity for me to write a follow-up piece. (Thanks, Al!)
Because ‘biking and bothying across the Scottish Highlands’ is a good description of the first bike trip I ever did, way back in 2006 – way before this blog came into existence and way before I knew that there was even a thing called ‘cycle touring’.
The plan was simple: to ride off-road from Inverness to Fort William. My two friends and I would carry minimal camping gear and keep things lightweight to make the mountain biking as much fun as possible. We’d sleep in as many bothies as we could find along the way.
We loved mountain biking. We loved the idea of a whole week of it even more. It was as simple as that. The trip couldn’t fail to be awesome.
The plan was also utterly ludicrous; a ferment of inexperience and idealism that guaranteed every kind of misadventure.
Inspired by a 1:25,000 Ordinance Survey map binge, we’d patched together hiking trails, jeep tracks and fire roads through the most rugged of mountains and the densest of forests. We’d bought 1‑man tents and waterproofs from Lidl in defence against the worst of the Scottish rains. And we’d stuffed everything into huge army-surplus backpacks, anticipating no foreseeable effects upon our ability to heroically tackle the terrain.
What followed was, at the time, easily the most miserable week of my life. There is nothing quite like launching yourself into a world with which you are entirely unfamiliar and from which there is no escape; one in which you’ll have the shit well and truly kicked out of you by the forces of nature, in which you’re forced to learn and to learn bloody fast, and from which you’ll emerge inestimably stronger for having survived it.
I do realise how hopelessly over-the-top it must sound to be speaking of a few days of mountain biking in the UK as if it were the conquering of an unclimbed Himalayan peak. But I was 21. I had never, at any point during my existence upon this Earth, been for a bike ride which hadn’t finished back at home, indoors and in warmth and comfort, at the end of the day.
I had never cycled with luggage. I had never wild-camped in the wilderness.
I had never ridden 40 miles in a day, never cycled up a hill that took more than a few minutes to climb, never been soaked to the skin without any shelter or dry clothes to look forward to, never run out of food a day’s ride from the nearest town, never forded a river, never fallen into a river, never woken up in a puddle in the middle of the night.
I had never suffered so much at the hands of the elements and of my own inexperience.
In short, I’d never been so far out of my comfort zone.
But slowly, surely and painfully, we figured out what we were doing. We had to. Necessity dictated it.
We ditched the crap tents and got resourceful with ponchos and bivvy bags. We strapped more of our gear to the bikes, inadvertently inventing ‘bikepacking’ in the process. We realised what routes would prove impossible and diverted along more sensible trails. We pooled our resources (some Croatian kroner, a handful of pocket lint and £21.17 in loose change) for a night in a remote hostel and the chance to dry out our belongings.
We embraced the sodden conditions and got the hell on with it.
We even began to enjoy ourselves.
I tell you: reaching Fort William backpackers’ hostel after that week of mountain biking induced no less surreal a sense of satisfaction than riding back into the village I grew up in after nearly four years away on a bike.
In many ways it was even more so. In that one short week I had been transformed from utter novice to someone who would now feel comfortable tackling such a thing again, and as it happened would indeed do so (with a few minor alterations, of course). Both my sense of what was possible and that of my place in the world had been quite comprehensively reconfigured.
To me, that is what life – at least, the inner life – is all about. I constantly seek experiences, whether physical, intellectual or spiritual, which will bring about some kind of transformation, growth, change of perspective; whatever you want to call it. Life is a fight against laziness, stagnation and complacency, which is not to say travel is the be-all and end-all, for there are other ways to stimulate yourself to push harder, to go further, to grow and to learn. But this bike trip represented perhaps the most intense and memorable of the many such experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to have.
All of this is a roundabout way of hammering home the point that leaving your comfort zone is not something to avoid. Quite the opposite: such opportunities are to be grasped, on the principle that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.
Ask yourself – what’s (really) the worst that could happen?
And constantly, constantly, remind yourself that (in Al’s words) ‘if I fail, I will not die’.