Riding through endless valleys and alpine towns, leaping into lakes of crystal clarity, grinding up smoothly paved bicycle trails and swooping down from forested passes – crossing Switzerland was the very dream of bicycle travel, and with our well-oiled feeding-and-navigating machine in motion there was plenty of time for a mind to wander. In fact, there was more than mine knew what to do with.
My inner-monologue chattered incessantly, like a radio that wouldn’t switch off. It began seconds after I opened my eyes, continued throughout the day, and invaded my fevered dreams. I dearly wished to pedal carefree, lapping up these sumptuous days in lands of green and plenty. But thoughts had been gathering, like dust in the attic.
The life I’d lived before had seduced my waking hours with as much stuff as possible, as much value-for-life as I could gather. Squeezing the last drop out of each and every minute had become my reason for living – the cause of those overly complicated route plans and obsessive attention to detail. But the result was a brain that could not sit still; a backlog of competing questions that had never had the time to duke it out. And now the fighting had begun. It was as if, by choosing to live life in a bicycle saddle, I’d been awakened from a kind of hypnosis, and the task of mentoring myself back into consciousness had been forced upon me. But I didn’t want to hear these new things that I had to say.
‘Would you please very kindly shut up?’ I begged the voice in my head.
‘Just getting started,’ came the reply. Then it yammered on about political questions I couldn’t answer, foreign languages I’d failed to learn, philosophical conundrums I couldn’t untie, past relationships I’d forgotten to nurture, the absurd and inconsequential brevity of my life thus far, the billion things I could be doing other than riding a bicycle; each topic chewed into mush before being spat back out into my skull. I wanted nothing more than to watch the flash and dazzle of sunlight on a waterway. Instead, the spectacle became no more than a backdrop for an internal shouting match.
‘Please, for the love of god – just shut up!!!’
Out of the clamour rose a single realisation. I’d been half-asleep for twenty-four years, stumbling frantically forward, never stopping to look back. My world had been extrapolated from what I’d seen on flashing screens and newsprint – views of other people’s creation, chosen for me by merit of their grabbing my attention first.
Mirella had been anything but an evangelist, but she’d told her tale with enough skill to keep me thinking for long after our encounter, prompting some uncomfortable questions. If reaching Istanbul, for example, was our primary goal, there was clearly a number of much faster, easier, and better ways to get there. That was why cars, trains, buses and planes had been invented – to get people places faster, easier, better. Since we’d chosen not to reach Istanbul by car, train, bus, plane or any other sensible mode of transport, then our main objective must be something other than getting to our destination. And that ‘something’ was obviously worth investigating. Except that I didn’t quite know what it was.
As we cleared the Central European Alps and followed the mighty River Danube east into Austria, two possibilities seemed to appear. The first was that I was taking on an epic challenge in order to prove something outwardly to the world. The second was that I was doing this for altogether more self-absorbed reasons – reasons which lurked in deeper shadows that I had not yet penetrated.
Panoramic thoughts drifted across the scenery. Was destination-focused travel a symptom of some deeper trait? Why did we value quantifiable achievements over unmeasurable personal growth? Was I born to forever chase after distant goals?
These thoughts made me uncomfortable. So I did what my stubbornness had always allowed me to do, alternately bludgeoning and ignoring them until they fell quiet.
Central Europe in August was green and lush and with harvest on the breeze. Refreshed by a break in Vienna, we were soon passing out of Austria and through a small corner of Slovakia, where we paused in a downtown Bratislava park for an enjoyable afternoon of watching girls go by. Balmy weather was set in, and we were more concerned with mosquitoes and heat rash than heavy rain or mountains. And the girls were stupendous. So stupendous, in fact, that they were too distracted by each other’s stupendousness to notice us at all.
Into Hungary we rode. Gentle rivers meandered through bustling little towns, hot springs on their fringes, full of bathers enjoying nature’s brand of health spa. We had never made such excellent progress. At this rate, we would be in Istanbul well in time for the last days of summer.
As I sat contentedly on a bench in the shade with a hunk of bread and cheese, looking out across the River Danube, my friend Mark stumbled out of a nearby bush.
‘Mate, I need to get to the nearest airport.’
‘I’ve got to get to an airport.’
‘Yes. Right now.’
‘There’s probably a toilet nearby if you just ask someone . . . ?’
I looked at him, confused. But then I saw it in his face: a whole train of thoughts condensed into a single, decisive expression. Mark was leaving Ride Earth.
He turned and trudged back to his lunchtime resting spot under a tree, river-bank shingle crunching beneath heavy footfalls, dappled sunlight stroking his new mop of hair. A mobile phone rested loosely in his hand.
Alone on the bench with my half-eaten bread and cheese, I fumed. The girlfriend. We’d been on this mission together for only ten weeks! What the hell had happened to the Istanbul idea?
Mark shuffled dejectedly around under the tree, fiddling with the phone with one hand, rubbing his head with the other, producing a series of dramatic-sounding sighs. There would be no convincing him to stay. On the odd occasion that did he make a big decision, it was invariably final – even if it made no bloody sense at all.
We packed up and found our way to the town’s little railway station. Not only was Mark about to jet off back to flipping England, but we were about to skip a hundred miles of riding on a train to help him do it! I forced myself to keep my mouth firmly shut. And the following day, Mark loaded his bike and bags into the back of a taxi, and with a goodbye and a handshake he disappeared. I watched the cloud of dust evaporate between the gardens and cottages of the suburb where we were supposed to be staying. Staying as a team.
Mark had dropped everything and flown home to patch up his increasingly strained relationship. I spent the rest of the day raging to Andy about the manner of his departure and the decision he had made. I’d been extremely pleased with the way the project was going: even though a few superficial details had changed – our route had evolved, our progress had been more halting, and we’d done a lot less off-road riding than we’d imagined – there were good reasons for this. The dirt roads weren’t far off now: Hungary was the bridge to Eastern Europe and the developing world. We’d soon be back on track.
And none of these minor digressions undermined the public messages we were trying to put across through our website and media coverage. We were still on target for an impressive bicycle-powered circumnavigation of the world. Part of this was our ongoing commitment to undertaking the entire trip without flying, to promote the idea of world travel with an environmental conscience. We’d even hooked up with a big environmental organisation to collect anecdotal evidence for the effects of climate change.
Later that night, I scribbled an entry in my diary.
‘I have lost a significant amount of respect for Mark over his decision to fly home. Everyone has a better reason than the environment to take a plane, and his was no different. Irrational forces dominate once again.’
Andy was never going to quit. He was as stubborn as I was, and while this was often a source of friction, it also inspired a kind of silent competition when the going got tough. And that, I knew, would pull us through times which might otherwise defeat us.
But that Mark – free-riding, noncommittal Mark – had waltzed onto a short-haul flight at the drop of a hat, undermining the important anti-airline message we’d worked so hard to promote for the sake of a girl?
I sat down the next day and sent him a blunt email expressing my disgust. His reply merely stoked the fire.
‘I was following my heart, something you are doing, and I don’t blame you for it. You don’t exactly have the best track record for understanding other people’s thoughts, wishes and emotions, Tom, so your reactions have not surprised me. What has surprised me is your incredible lack of empathy regarding my decision under emotional circumstances, plus the extreme lashing I am receiving for apparently breaking one of the “Ride Earth Commandments”.’
I haven’t seen or heard from Mark since then. And it occurs to me that I never truly took my old friend seriously. Time off the bike to recover my strength in Sudan gives me plenty of room for retrospection, and it comes flavoured equally with nostalgia and regret.
I remember the way Mark began his email. ‘Dear Ride Earth Dictator,’ he’d said. Now I admire his self-restraint. ‘Dear obnoxious, self-important prick’ would have been far more appropriate.