One Foot In Front of The Other Endlessly

Nothing more important has ever happened to me than the first lick of beer I drank one afternoon at the end of September in the garden of a pub on the shores of Loch Lomond. As the cool liquid washed down into me I remember thinking I was living the defining moment of my life.

A twenty one mile walk can do that to a man.

Descending into the village of Balmaha as the Loch stretched out before us, we limped our way to the bar and raised our bounties to one another. We toasted the great outdoors and the pain in our calves and a day so well lived it felt like four, and asides from the cold gold flooding our souls and the beating drums of our happiness nothing existed.


Having a mate addicted to walking long distances in strange corners of the world means you’re never far from something remarkable. When Jules suggested a five day trek through the Highlands he had spent weeks researching weather systems and trains and hostels for, all I had to do was tell him to calm down and say I was in.


The West Highland Way runs 96 miles from the outskirts of Glasgow to the foot of Ben Nevis, and Jules’ idea was to walk it before the weather turned. In years past when summer left the building sometimes my mood would follow suit, so this felt like the right time of year for an adventure. Five days in the sticks with a friend shooting the breeze, breathing the air of the hillsides and the creaking pines, can fill up that part of a soul that longs for something and has forgotten where to look.

With backpacks, walking trousers, hiking boots, maps and a stash of slow release energy bars, we set about the trail. Twenty miles a day broke down to something like seven hours of good walking pace. We were headed north, away from civilisation into the bowels of the Highlands. On our first morning as distant peaks loomed up darkly on the horizon we looked at each other uneasily, knowing that was where our route was winding.


You tap into something primal when you walk long distances, one foot in front of the other, in front of the other, endlessly. You are in a process you can’t imagine any end to because the landscapes are simply too big, but there is a softly beating satisfaction in moving through them, inching your way ever so slowly along the trail. Your legs pump and arms swing and your engine hums, there is sweat and mild aching and pumping blood and purpose.

Even the clouds look excited to see you.

I don’t know if Liv loves the walking, or if she just loves coming with me when I do these things, says Jules. Nobody could love the walking as much as you, I think. He is a like a child exploring an unknown part of a garden, he whoops out across the valley, laughing to himself. In the new year Jules will become a father for the first time, and then it won’t be long before the three of them go explore the hills.

Each morning we would rise, eat a good breakfast, sling our packs over our shoulders and hit the trail once more, the night would reveal a new ache in a new body part, the dawn would bring with it some new thought, the familiar crunch of gravel under foot, while ahead of us stretched another twenty miles and space to breathe and talk and think of anything whatsoever.


In 1699 Joseph Addison, returning from a Grand Tour of Europe, wrote ‘the Alps fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror’. It was the beginning of the idea of the sublime, an appreciation of a fear-instilling nature that dwarfed men with a greatness beyond calculation or measure. As we moved farther and deeper into the belly of the Highlands, an agreeable kind of horror began to rise up inside me.

In this unending land of bogs and whisperings one is small and insignificant and the weather changes in the blinking of an uneasy eye. There are valleys off into the distance, and valleys leading off those valleys, and you wonder what goes on there. This is a land of secrets. The wind blows hot and cold, the heather and the highland grass are beautiful and harsh. And everything is wet. This is a realm that lets you in for a brief moment and tells you to hurry along and mind your back, a glance to the side or behind and you can feel its eyes on you, watching.

Of Rannoch Moor, T S Eliot wrote:

Here the crow starves, here the patient stag
Breeds for the rifle. Between the soft moor
And the soft sky, scarcely room
To leap or soar. Substance crumbles, in the thin air
Moon cold or moon hot.

Sometimes the going was hard and nasty. There were times when a mile felt like five and an hour lasted all morning. The aches would spread and multiply and begin to wear you down, or unkind thoughts would worm their way inside your brain and not leave. Sometimes the majesty of the surroundings wouldn’t speak at all and I would stare down at my boots. And the whole thing would feel pointless and I would ask myself what the fuck I was doing out there in the middle of this barren nowhere.


But the walking would still uneasy voices. Always the same, one foot in front of the other, in front of the other, endlessly. Somehow the continuous motion would walk you through an invisible door into a different place and the clouds would clear and things would become easier. All you had to do really, was keep moving.

Just before Kirkton, where the Herive Burn winds its way down towards the river Fillan, the West Highland Way passes through a forest of otherworldly beauty. It is a fairytale thing, existing firmly in the realm of fantasy. In the cool air of the morning as the forest dripped wet and the sun reached through the trees lighting the edges of all it touched, I felt supremely happy. And creeping softly through the air came voices. It was our third day, where we met Dustin and Fraser.


Fraser was a Scot from Kilmaurs, he had been planning this walk for weeks from a desk he couldn’t wait to get away from. Dustin was over from the US, sinuous black lines tattooed on his body showed trails he had walked around the world, bringing with him always the ashes of beloved family he would scatter on the hillside. How do you know each other, Jules asked. We don’t, they replied.


We walked the next two and a half days with them, and became four. We shared jokes, told long-winded stories, drank triumphant beers together, all sharing in the grand adventure. You forge strong bonds with people you walk fifty miles alongside. Maybe walking these things takes a certain type of person that recognises themself in the other. It was a strange process of half chance that brought us together, and strange too how emotional a goodbye can be with people that two days before you had no idea existed.

As the train teetered along the track out of Fort William and back to the land of the living, I looked across the moors and thought it would be cathartic to catch a last glimpse of the land we’d spent five days traversing. But what would I know. I could hardly see straight. The exhilaration of the finish had been too much for us, Jules and I had got absolutely totalled in Fort William, we had strangled the night and died with the dawn, and were blurry-eyed ghosts of men.


*

A month has passed now, and we are back in our respective places.

London is darkening in the mid-afternoon. Autumn is coating the pavements and the street sweepers are working overtime. Fraser is back up north planning a long overdue wedding. Dustin is back across the ocean half-interestedly going on dates. Jules is keeping Liv company while her tummy grows, and I am writing this. Right this second, out by the Loch we passed on our second day, the wind is tugging at the branches of the little tree by the water’s edge, as tiny little waves lap over the pebbles below.

It’s funny to think this is happening right now.


As if it is always there, waiting.

*

Cities can be gnarled and crooked unkind places, full of the sadness of life and the hardship written on the faces of people walking by. But there are places that exist that make your soul soar. That are terrifying in scale and have a majesty you feel privileged just to be in the midst of. You mean nothing out there, but you don’t need to, you just move through it open-mouthed.


The older I get the more I realise that shittiness is a matter of time. We don’t know when the things we take for granted will get taken from us. So maybe any time not spent in pain or anxiety or emotional turmoil is a heaven on earth.


Somewhere in the cracks of the everyday are the spaces where the earth exists in all its force and magnificence. It changes everything. Strange corners of the world that simply take your breath away. That are only a good idea and a train ride away. And are always there, waiting.

The Mind-Bending Majesty of a Dawn Run

6.24am

I reach the oak tree at the promontory overlooking the West Reservoir. A celestial hand is gently turning the dimmer up on dawn, the ducks are deep in conversation. Eight years ago I stopped going to church and decided to write my own prayer to my own version of God. Stood under the oak tree I recite it looking out across the water and the rooftops of Stoke Newington. Half way through every run and always next to water. For a few minutes I talk to myself about what’s good and what’s bad and what could be better. I take a breath. I pick up my sword and shield and start running, skirting the water’s edge, slowly pinkening.

Summer evenings are so tawdry. I race the double sculls down the river, out over the marshes thick with pollen from the high grass where the picnics are heard and not seen. A summer evening is the girl you wish was harder to get. But not the early morning. At 6am everything is a mystery, all things are stretching out into shape and finding their form. There is no nostalgia for there is no memory, it is simply a beginning.

I leave the front door of my building, hook a left past the Dixy chicken that burnt down in March and cross the five corners. Five roads where three east London districts meet and where every three months a car crashes. I run up the hill to the Downs and along the path where that winter’s night the couple on the bench sat wrapped in thick coats and passed the spliff under the trees planted for the 13 kids who died in the New Cross fire.

At the turn of the millennium eight people were shot dead in two years and Lower Clapton Rd became Murder Mile. Twelve years later people like me thought it would be cool to move here. I love Hackney but I am an impostor. Lower Clapton, Upper Clapton, the pavement heads north and rises subtly, past the Crooked Billet and the sourdough pizza place and the World Foods with the Sainsbury’s colour scheme. 21 years before the shots that rang outside Vox Pop were heard up here.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

Inside World Foods a group is laughing and incoherent. It is June 2015, 5am and already light, and I focus in and spy myself among them. I look younger and have more hair and our eyes meet. From inside the shop I look back at me vacantly, sheepish and happy. We are on our way to a house party, none of us fans of sleep, we are preparing to see in the day. Keeping the wolves from the door for as long as we can. But come they will. Be gentle on yourself, I whisper to him with my eyes. He looks at me and smiles sadly.

If all time is eternally present,
Then all time is unredeemable.

I run on. It is winter now. Clapton Common is Hasidic Jew territory. Here they roam in their hundreds, even this early, walking quickly and concentratedly, wearing different hats for different days. For years I’ve tried to clock them and smile and make some connection but it’s not their thing. Saying hello to people when I run makes me feel part of something. I touch certain lampposts for luck. My first pitstop is a doorway on Clapton Terrace. I stop for a second and feel the layered paint of the big black door, still awed like the first time I found it, that such fine Georgian buildings could exist all the way up here.

I cross Stamford Hill and to my right the road dips down towards Tottenham. Just past the bins on the railing is the little clay memorial to Godwin Lawson who died here when he was 17. I touch it and kiss the crucifix around my neck, any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. A hundred metres on a white bike marks the spot where an HGV turned left too suddenly, fresh roses tied to the top tube drip the dew of the early morning.

And now I am back at the reservoir under the oak. My watch says 25:42:11. I am getting slower. I used to care about getting slower but not anymore. I am so happy to be out on my own in the early light in the cool air of the morning with the ducks and the coots and the swan with the submerged neck that makes her look like a floating pillow. This is an undiscovered realm and I am a visitor. The show is all for me.

The bird-watchers ignore me, I don’t have wings and I am not free. The man who has woken up on the bench smiles at me with sad eyes, I wonder how far from home he is and from his people, I wonder if these strange birds bring him any peace. I smile back, as warm as I can make it. Life is difficult enough without missing a dawn run I think to myself.

Now I am on my way back. The return leg holds many treasures but I see less of them because I am tired. The endorphins are sweeping through my body and my mind is clear and at peace, there are a few other runners in the park, whole worlds inside their heads, things being straightened out I’m sure, that’s what running does. Standing alone and proud in a corner of the park are a pair of oak trees, half-cut, ivory-white, mottled and pockmarked. I make for them, I feel the bone dry dead wood with my hands.

A day I don’t run is a different animal to a day I do. But some days if I miss the dawn window I’d rather not run at all. Two hours from now the city is a different place. The horns and the screens and the bowed heads and the busy lives, it’s not the same at all. The day itself feels unfamiliar and confusing like walking into a film half way in.

I take the New river path, hang a left along Ferntower Rd to Newington Green. I touch the stencil of Mary Wollstonecraft on the side of the deconsecrated church. I cross over the high road, and commence my victory lap, back up over the Downs. A little different to how I last saw it, fifty minutes before. A little sadder. Something has left, something has gone.

But I caught it and it stays with me all day.

*

My depression came back pretty hard in December. A silent imperceptible bubble formed around me, a wall between the world and me slowly thickened. I had eleven months off, which felt like a record. But for the last month I haven’t been able to wake up before 9am. Going outside is scary, my skin feels the thickness of a fly’s wing. And I’m not running, which I mean, well. I try to tell myself nothing outside has changed but I don’t care, that’s now what I see, not from where I’m standing.

These mornings are happening all around me, the show is going on. Outside my window. The oak tree, the reservoir, the ducks are deep in conversation. All time is eternally present. I am out there because I have been out there. The blood is pumping through my body, my heaving lungs, my happy head. The bird-watchers are still ignoring me. World Foods, Clapton terrace, Godwin Lawson is walking home from school. The sky is pink. The air is clear.

*

This morning I went running again.

If It Was in Doubt He Was Sure of An Adventure

The darling buds of May dangle forlornly with ice. For three days my socks are soaked through, my feet ache from the cold and I move eastwards through falling snow into a headwind, cursing my idea that France meant Mediterranean sun. On a nasty winding climb my gears lock up and I scream out in rage. My only company are the creaking pines and my rage is a fart in the wind. A well of happiness that has lain empty for months is filling up inside me. Whatever befalls me now won’t make a shot of difference, I think I have been saved.

*

A few hours into the first day of January of 2019, someone posted this.

My year has felt a little like that. Imagine sleeping through a whole weekend, going out alone on a Monday and getting totalled, waking up and feeling like shit all of Tuesday, with nobody to text about what a strange impromptu night it was. 2019 has felt like that kind of hangover, close to every day. When it threatened to get good, I would wake up on that same Tuesday all over again. Lapping against my shores was a lake of unease, joy was a stone skimming across its surface.

Ratcheting up the pressure and relieving it at will, a mild depression had had me by the balls since November. Too mild to knock me out, but still the mental health equivalent of a small annoying dog humping my lower leg. Every day I watched the warfare of a city fighting harder than I was to stay alive, the siren wailing and check-out lines and sad eyes staring from the top of night buses, folk surrounded from all sides but achingly alone. Joy was there somewhere around the next corner, and I was moving down the wrong side of the wrong street.

*

The Bordeaux airport Ibis Budget hotel is a strange environment to find a new lease of life.

In the past, when things got top-heavy I’d often look to the bike for an out. To go away into a new environment, to raise your heart-rate, to breathe clean air and be enveloped by green, the experience is rich because it is all new. Cycling across a country albeit with maps, is raw unmapped territory for your mind, it is taking five big gulps from an ice cold pint of adventure. We all need some adventure in our lives once in a while.

And so I found myself in the Ibis Budget Airport hotel just west of Bordeaux with my touring bike propped against the wall, lying starfished in the dark as the hum of jet engines sang me to sleep, feeling an emotion I hadn’t been able to muster all year. The kind of excitement only a free man can feel, a man at the start of a long journey, whose conclusion is uncertain. Lyon was my destination, 700km directly eastwards across the rolling terrain of the under belly of France, with a date to keep six days from then on the steps of Marylebone Town Hall, to watch my brother getting married.

This mood of mine had lingered inside me since early November, at times subsiding but never leaving altogether. It occurred to me that sensitive people have these pores that are open all the time to emotional information, good and bad. When depression rears its head it makes the information coming in always the worst kind, and switches off the ability to ignore it. The night ushered in the foreboding morning. Spilt milk was worth crying over. I would step out of my front door over the top into No Man’s Land and face a barrage of information, incoming from all angles, from a wild unforgiving city that didn’t give a fuck about me and my pores.

So like the rich Victorians taking in the healing waters of Swiss spa towns, changing the nature of that information seemed like a good idea. I traded in carbon monoxide and horns for the smell of pine needles in the afternoon. A slanging match between a Turk and a crackhead became the quiet of a sleepy village waiting for its boulangerie to open. For six days the light hitting my face was no longer the pale glow from a screen.

And it went to work on me.


*

The gently rolling fields around Bordeaux are busy with backs bent-double over vines, tending to grapes like newborns. Warmed by the May sun, I move through them slowly, tasting the salt from my sweat and the creeping excitement of the unknown. Bastide towns and hillocks, copses and farm yards, pine trees and butterflies, the tarmac moves slowly backwards beneath my wheel and I breathe and whoop and feel it all deeply, the kind of attention I haven’t paid the earth in a long time.

I feel anonymous in a way I wouldn’t feel in England, there are no rules for me here, and this adds to my sense of freedom. I stop in Castillonnès and eat a simple lunch on the step of a deserted high street, a couple of locals pass by and commiserate about the weight of my panniers. In a shop window I see an old photo of the same high street, and imagine the day the man set up his strange contraption in the road and the shop sellers came out and the village stopped to pose, and think of the children that have lived whole lives since that day and grown old and been mourned.

I move eastwards into the Dordogne, the landscape ramps up, hillier and thick with forest. It is the oldest inhabited area of Europe and feels wilder than the vineyards and the roads are quiet. In 1940 while rescuing a dog who had fallen down a hole, a boy lit a match and illuminated the prehistoric paintings of Lascaux cave, releasing them from a darkness where they had lain undiscovered for 17,000 years. Casting his eyes on the paintings of bull and lion and rhinoceros for the first time, Picasso exited the cave and exclaimed in wonder we have invented nothing!

That afternoon a winding climb takes me up into the hills and I stop a while to rest. There are no cars, and all is still but for the breeze through the trees and the hum of insects. Lions stopped prowling these hills millennia ago but the landscape must look the same, I think. I am a fleeting visitor in an ancient land, I feel small and insignificant. More than that I feel lucky, to be where I am up on this hill, peering into this timeless kingdom for an eternal minute. I look at my bicycle lying in the ferns and nod respectfully. You and me mate. What else could have got me to this spot, shown me all this, made me feel so deeply.

I cycle on.

The Dordogne becomes the Auvergne. Harsh volcanic landscapes, sinister slate grey villages, even the weather changes to suit the mood. A cold front sweeps across France and I take shelter in cafés and massage my toes to get the blood back into them. There is sleet and snow and cold hard rain that chills me to the core. A techno festival 30km north turns into a Red Cross disaster zone. Some men in a bar convince me to fill my water bottles with red wine. One of them warns the others mais un litre de vin rouge… après on ne bouge…. They roar with laughter. It is not yet lunch time.

In September I stopped taking antidepressants for the first time in nine years. I was doing fine and wasn’t sure how much they were really working. Being med-free felt like a badge of honour and when I started feeling not so good towards Christmas I imagined it would last a month or so and then I would come out of it. But I never really did. I’d have spells of upbeatness, and show my face here and there, and then be back to normal. The trouble was my normal was a good few floors under ground.


*

On my way out of the Auvergne one afternoon, sat on a bench eating lunch, I heard a faint thud on the glass behind me, and saw a tiny man lying in a chair by the window beckoning me over. Perhaps the oldest person I have ever laid eyes on, his nose knotted like a 600year old oak, as he spoke his dentures fell from the top of his mouth and were caught by the bottom. He was very deaf, and after a few stilted sentences he fell silent, and grabbed my hand and held it.

As I cycled off down the road, a strange emotion surged up inside me, the kind of sadness that makes your tummy ache, that makes you feel so alive it’s hard to bear. When I was out of sight I stopped again and something dawned on me. Fuck, I thought, how is it that I can feel all at once so happy and so lonely. I realised I was coming back to life. All year my mood had isolated me, made me see so few people, I’d forgotten how to be in the world. And it had taken me 650km of French countryside to get to a point where I was happy enough to want to be in the world again, and a meeting with an old man to realise I had to start immediately.

Depression is the most narcissistic thing around, because it places you at the centre of everything. The world outside is beckoning you with open arms, and you can’t see beyond the four walls of your addled mind. Everything affects you, concerns you, hurts you. All information that comes in passes through the toll-booth of your depressed brain, which is too sensitive and defensive and afraid. The narcissistic part is the unending self-obsession.

Being in an environment so vast and ancient and eternal made me feel tiny and fleeting and insignificant. To be amongst those ancient hills and valleys and endless woods made me feel a tiny part of something bigger. My father complains that when I cycle I blitz through countries and have no time for cathedrals or museums. But the woods are my cathedrals, the trees are my spires, the cattle bells ringing out over the hillside are my evensong. Psithurism is a word for the sound of the wind running through the trees


*

On a rainy joyous day in early April interspersed with blasts of brilliant sun my brother got married to Victoria, and not long after my mood returned. My therapist did some rough calculations and we decided to go back on the meds. I was happy to in the end, I was fed up. It was taking the best of me. The roots of some trees run deeper than others. It takes something bigger to unearth them.


*

Looking down from the plane as it flew up and out of Lyon airport, I saw the small details of the French countryside I was leaving behind. Lines of roads, little hamlets, reservoirs, copses, all the signs of a country that feels alien to you because you will never know it. But I had known it. The chatter of the men in bars, the cool silence of empty churches, the town squares and looping mountain roads, the cattle bells and stillness of the mid-afternoon. I had known it all, and it had brought me back. Perhaps not altogether but enough. Maybe never in my life have I understood the wonder of a bicycle more profoundly, and its ability to show you the world in a way no other thing can.

As we approached the first band of clouds, I took out my little pad to make a note, and flicking through the pages I landed on something I had written long enough ago to have no memory of it. I looked down at the scribbled words, read them slowly, read them again, and laughed.

He didn’t want to do anything that was mapped out.


If it was in doubt, then he was sure of an adventure.

A Dawning Realisation About War

In the summer of 2017 I took a trip to see all the battlefields of the Somme and Verdun and the area of northern France known as the Front Line, where German and Allied guns rained fire down on one another for four years during the Great War. On my bike I slowly traced my way past Memorial after Memorial and graveyard after graveyard commemorating the fallen of 1914-1918. 

It was very ghostly and moving and very hard to understand.

One morning I wheeled my bike down a track into a wood at the base of a hill, leant it up against a gate and sat on the grass to eat lunch. It was very still and peaceful and afterwards I slept for half an hour. The hill was Thiepval ridge, I later learned that for three months in 1916 my resting place was the exact spot the Allies and the Germans had fought out one of the fiercest battles of the Somme at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.

That wood where I stopped a while, the earth where I laid my head, the stillness of that afternoon, had witnessed another story. One that even with all my concentration I found difficult to comprehend. And it recalled a realisation I’d had, this time in a field in Germany, that made my own understanding of War a little clearer.


*

Flat-lining on the sofa one sunday afternoon in the grip of a cheese coma, tap-tapping through the buttons on the Sky remote I arrived at the History Channel and a documentary about the rise of Nazi Germany. I looked over at my old man with a raised eye-brow to see if he was in. Staring back at the screen with a glazed look that said he was faring little better himself from a reblochon overdose, he grunted a noise my way which i took as clear encouragement to change the channel.

I think it’s important to watch this though, I asserted self-importantly.

What happened next stayed with me. He snapped out of his cheese coma with a seamlessness only a man with half a century of sunday lunches under his belt could possible have had the opportunity to master, and sat up. He then looked me in the eye very seriously and said:

I think it’s the most important thing people of your generation need to know about, and make sure they remember. The most. Without doubt. I just don’t feel like watching it right now.

Perhaps this has more resonance given that my father is Argentine, and in 1945 when the second world war ended he was three years old and living in Buenos Aires, 8,000 miles away from the dust-cloud settling across Europe. None of his family were involved in the war. He came over here in the 70s and finds the patriotism of his adopted country often blind and difficult to stomach. So for him to tell me the war is something our generation has an absolute duty to be aware of and to remember hit home.

*

The Japanese have a word  被爆者 Hibakusha which is the name given to the survivors of the A-bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. It literally means radiation-affected people. Recently in Hiroshima there has been a collective sadness that with time fewer and fewer Hibakusha remain alive, and with that the last direct living tie with what happened will disappear. As the new generation comes up, there is a fear that people will begin to forget.


*

The ceremony of Armistice Day is handsdown one of the coolest things about the British. When the whole of Whitehall falls silent and the guy gets out the bugle and plays the Last Post, it’s pretty hardcore. In light of this making sure to remember, and the difficulty our generation has in getting our heads around the horror of war, something we have been blessed to avoid and yet also cursed by our ignorance of, something happened to me last year that gave me a new understanding of the whole thing.

On a cycle ride up through the middle of Germany on my way to Berlin, one summer’s afternoon I came into a town in the north of Bavaria called Brunn. It was tiny. I free-wheeled through it, and on my way out I passed a war memorial, recognising it at half-glance as one does with the familiar. A minute or so later as the town was disappearing over my right shoulder, I semi-froze. And cycled back.

It was exactly like so many of the war memorials that stand on village greens throughout England, even in rural Scottish villages they are there, tributes to the Glorious Dead. My cycle ride had taken me through the whole of France, where every single town or hamlet has a memorial to soldiers killed in the wars. So when I saw this one I didn’t think twice.

But what cracked me clean across the temple was the realisation that this was the other side’s.

As self-evident as that sounds, what confounded me was that it was the first time I’d understood the other side’s perspective. Here was a tiny town with name upon name of soldiers, from that town, that had died in the First World War, mourned by surviving relatives of that town, suffering the confusion and tragedy brought on them by the Powers That Be embarking on a war of such aggression, that our generation is incapable of imagining it.

The inhabitants of Brunn, up on that hill in northern Bavaria, what possible say could they have had in a war that announced itself one morning, and went on to steal their sons and daughters and change their lives forever. How helpless must they have felt.

It was the first time that what we learnt in school to call the enemy now existed in my head as real people. Soldiers just as young and innocent as the names inscribed on the walls of memorials all over Britain. And how the mothers and daughters of Brunn must have thought about the Allies just as we thought of the Bosch, just as much the enemy, figures of hatred responsible for all the death and destruction and pain they were feeling. For that afternoon I was on the German side, and it all made more sense and became even more confusing.

For us it is history. For our great-grandparents it was a worst nightmare that begun one day, and from that moment on this nightmare morphed day by day into a horrifying reality. It was waking up one morning to a radio broadcast, that turned into a month, that turned into six years, that turned into a dark shadow over their minds that lived with them for the rest of their lives.

The Hard-Earned Wisdom of The Bicycle

It’s a depressing feeling when you realise you’re full of shit.

At the end of July, on the eve of a ten day jaunt through France, I wrote something about the joys of going away on a cycle tour. I’d droned on about how discovering the world from the seat of a bicycle was the most illuminating thing on God’s earth, and three days later I found myself at the top of a hill just south of the Loire valley wanting to cry.

The sun had beaten a migraine into my head, my sweat had dried into a film of salt that caked my jersey and was beginning to chafe, I had run out of water, I felt a shadow of my physical prime, and I wanted to be anywhere but in a nest of roundabouts on the outskirts of the town of Thouars anchored to a fucking bicycle, that I now resented because it had got me here. As if to goad me, as punishment for the lowness of my thought processes, Nature sent an emissary from the skies to plant a kiss on my lower lip.

And something dawned on me.

You see, historically I’d always taken off on these bike trips as a means of escape. I’d be in the grips of a depression and in need of any change whatsoever, of a reset button. And my reset button would be cycling. As a means of falling back in love with the world, and with life in that world, it was an unfailing tonic. I’d go away lost and come back found. I’d go away pasty and numb and drowning in monotony and return fit and brown and full of experience. For me cycle touring was a symbol of coming back from the dead, of crawling out of hell back to the land of the living.

But now I was happy.

I wasn’t looking for a magic bean. I wasn’t lost, things in my life had meaning. And as I approached the same roundabout for the third time in the 35 degree heat of a French afternoon, feeling my bottom lip slowly inflate like a bicycle tube, all I could think was…

what the fuck am I doing

The rocket-fuel of finding meaning in life wasn’t in me, the road ahead felt twice as long and twice as steep and wasn’t leading to any kind of redemption. I’d waxed on about falling in love with nature and feeling the wind on my back, about forests and streams and silence. But I was full of shit. I was metronomically pedalling along A-roads and stopping at French Morrison’s to down Perrier and eat emmental and jambon brioche buns out of a packet. Nothing was as it had been. I was seeing through it all, and I wanted to be back in London.

I’m back now, and I think I get it.

Some things are best understood not in the moment but in their aftermath. In the ten days it took me to cycle from Saint Malo in Brittany to Toulouse near the Pyrenees and the border with Spain, I was running from nothing. In that way, it was my most instructive cycling trip. I saw the world not radiating the glow of my own salvation, but as it was. It taught me that running away might take you out of hell for a little bit, but hell will keep coming for you. Running out of hell is a trip, but nothing feels that good if it’s not directly pushing away something bad. You’d be better off addressing the reasons that are making you run in the first place.

The cycling itself was less of a drug, the motivations for being on a bike were more opaque. I had to look harder for them. But find them I eventually did. And i was left with the same conclusion as always:

Touring by bicycle is The Great Teacher.

It is more than just cycling through a country. The bike is a confusingly wise thing, with a living beating heart. If you put your ear to the cold, scratched surface of the metal and concentrate, you’ll hear a whistling through the hollow tubes, and if you learn to listen carefully this whistling will whisper the wisdom of life back to you. Below are some of the lessons that hunk of steel has imparted to me over the last ten years.

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EXTENUATING CIRCUMSTANCES

Cycling through a nine day heat wave in early August can take its toll on your head and affect your mindset to the point where something that should be enjoyable can become really quite un-enjoyable because you’re so fucking hot all the time. But you think it’s your fault, and you’re getting old, and falling out of love with something that is precious to you, and you start to worry what that says about you and how you’re losing your wonder for the world, and for adventure, all these things, and it’s really just the fucking heat. More often than you’d think, the reasons your life is a disaster have their roots in something incredibly superficial.

SIMPLE THINGS

I stopped by the side of a road in New Zealand once and opened my water bottle to look down into it. Baked all morning by the sun, it was tepid, stagnant looking, and had bits of dirt floating around in it. I put it to my lips and sucked it up and in that moment it was the most delicious sweet thing to ever pass through them, more than smooches. The same thing I’d spit out on any normal day tasted like the water Indiana Jones downed in one from the Holy Grail. For that to happen I thought, I’m either very thirsty, or the bike is whispering to me.

On a cycle tour tepid water and a hunk of bread is a feast. A shitty campsite shower, clean socks, and a packet of Haribo and I feel like praying to a divine power to give thanks. Seneca told of the importance of depriving yourself of the things you think you need, and realising you’re completely fine. Of realising how happy you can be with very little. Not just happy, maybe happier. Which doesn’t just mean we should nurture an ability to go all Robinson Crusoe from time to time. It also means we spend our lives shackled to things we simply don’t need.

CONNECTION

One of the things I claimed before about the importance of getting back into nature, wasn’t so much the idea of becoming a tree. It was also about the places nature could take you away from. I try not to go on my computer that much when I cycle, which leaves me with sending and receiving texts on my beat-up nokia. One afternoon I found myself deep in a wood in Aquitaine looking down at my phone showing zero bars of reception, and some weird deep instinct rose up in me and a smile broke across my face.

A weight lifted, and I realised then my anxiety was one of being connected, not the other way around. After all I had everything I needed, I wasn’t lonely. And the liberation from this little plastic thing with this immense power to claw me away from being present in my surroundings was winged anxiety soaring off into the trees. Freeing me to enter into a connection with things directly in front of me, the ones living and breathing in the real world in front of my face. I’d foregone one type of connection to enter into another, one I could share with me, myself and my own memory, and it was making me a damn sight happier.

HISSY FITS

Below is my bike wheel sunk half way through the floor of La Puna, a plateau sitting 3,500 metres above sea level in the Andes. I was 80km from the nearest town when I was hit with a 6km stretch of this thick sand which made cycling impossible. The winter sun was beating down on me, I felt helpless and scared, and falling over for the fifth time in as many minutes I lay by the side of the trail with my head in my hands and screamed at the top of my voice as loud as I could. Expecting it to echo out over the vast valley like some strangulated death rattle, strangely enough to my surprise, after half a second my scream cut out abruptly, as if someone had ripped a plug out of a socket.

Something older and wiser inside me was telling me to get on with it. No-one could hear me scream. It was somewhat PG13, but I was in a survival situation and I was wasting energy i needed. Something inside me far smarter than I was, was making me go from problem to solution without the interval of a hissy fit. The seriousness of the situation required me to get straight on with solving it, leapfrogging my frustration completely. Which is kind of remarkable. If there’s one lesson the bike has imparted to me over the years, the wisdom of which I find it hard to fathom the extent of, it’s this one.

KEEP ON MOVING

When you’re cycling for seven to eight hours a day, you go through every single emotion possible every single day on a bicycle. If you spend over a week doing this, accumulated fatigue ups its ante, and odds on at some point you’re going to find yourself at a massive intersection during a rainstorm with a flat tire wishing you’d never been born. Or you’re out of water with the mercury pushing 38, and a resolve firmly mounting in your head to roll over and die by the roadside flash-fried by UV.

This is when you move. Take one more step, and you will find that doors will appear in walls you didn’t know existed, and you can walk through them. A bend in the road will become a small hamlet, a tap will reveal itself half-hidden around the side of a church, you will throw yourself under it, and it will feel like a thousand power showers pumping limited edition Evian all over the furnace of your charred melon. See Simple Things above.

NATURE

You get pretty tanned on a bicycle. You’re in the sun almost every hour of the day. It might not feel that way because you’re always moving, in and out of shadow, up and over hill and dale, the wind hitting your face, making your eyes stream, but the sun’s effect is the same on your skin as if you were lying all day on a beach towel. It gets you whether you like it or not. Go cycle touring for even a short amount of time, and the effect the sun has on your skin is the same one Nature will have on your mind. By just being in it, immersed in it, it will go to work on you without you even realising.

And Mother Nature will begin to speak to you in her ancient language, and She will call you into her arms.

What She has to say, you have to find out for yourself.


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Stuff that didn’t make the cut.

If you can bear your own company, travel alone. Your experience will be richer for it. Wave at old people when you pass them by. They dig it. Don’t torture yourself, but don’t make things too easy for yourself either. You don’t need a Garmin super-computer or booking.com to cycle round a country, you can get by with paper maps and sign language and you’ll have a much more memorable adventure. The combination of a mind free to wander and an optimum heart-rate is breeding ground for some really decent thought processes. Write them down or you’ll forget them. Cycling is the only drug I know where coming down might be even better than getting high.

Lastly, be sure to accidentally make a beeline for a friend’s palatial holiday home, even one that might be empty, a friend whose family have placed enough confidence in you to tell you where the keys are hidden, also encouraging access to their fridge, from which you could extract an ice cold beer, or two, or three, to accompany you as you while away an afternoon by the pool, staring out over the vast forests of the Lot valley, and fall into a deep peaceful slumber…

… transporting you to other worlds.

A Guide To Continental Iced Coffee

Travel broadens the mind.

More importantly bike travel through Europe precipitates many a petrol station pitstop, and with this an unrivalled opportunity to sample a crapload of variations on the world’s most accomplished libation, iced coffee. I’ll run you through some contenders.

Cafè Royal – Extra Strong

These Café Royal cats have their iced coffee shit on lockdown. You’re looking at the Extra Strong line. But they have a whole host of flavours, my original intention was a blogpost dedicated solely to this one brand. And yet life passes most people by while they’re making grand plans for it.


So it came to pass that after this first memorable encounter I never saw Café Royal again, running out of petrol stations before I’d crossed the Swiss border into Austria. A sad allegory for the fleeting nature of life, a lesson in grabbing opportunity while you can. I’m left instead with the memory of that delicate nectar as it slipped down my throat, the kick of the added caffeine only the Extra Strong line could provide, and the loving wash of the artificial sweeteners on my brain. A moment made more beautiful by its precious transience, it will be in my heart always.


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Emmi – Caffè Latte Macchiato ‘I’m sooo creamy’

These days you can find the Emmi line in any Tesco extra, but the acid test is drinking it in situ. In the same way prosciutto di Parma tastes better on the terrace of a hilltop village in Piemonte, or a devilish fromage de chèvre hits the palate with more resonance whilst sitting in the shade of an umbrella pine overlooking the valley of the Luberon, I figured drinking a german iced coffee in Germany would take on greater meaning. But Emmi is made in Switzerland, so my logic didn’t fly. Like all other iced coffees it was sweet, and pretty sickly. It was creamy though. So creamy.


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Mr Brown – Coffee Drink

I blame the craft beer revolution for turning me into one of those guys whose heart genuinely falls when looking right then left then right again at the bar and failing to see a tap with that cool lick of condensation itching to pump out a pint of obscure pale ale. There are still pubs aplenty you don’t even need to walk into to know their beer of the week will be a toss up  between numbers and not remotely cold Carling extra cold. The pub equivalent of Ronsil Quick Drying Woodstain, doing exactly what it says on the tin.


In loosely the same way Mr Brown Coffee Drink is only stocked in Germany’s most godforsaken petrol stations. But when in the baking sun in the outskirts of some shit town in North Rhine-Westphalia, it hits the spot. It looks, tastes, and is cheap. But comes in a can. Which none of the others do. A lovely little USP.


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Nescafe Xpress

Gggnnnhhyuuuggh under no circumstances go near one of these. It’s admirable the way they’ve managed to condense 18 tonnes of refined sugar into a bottle that size, but it is fucking disgusting. I think I got stopped for speeding that morning. Three weeks later I’m still gagging from the memory.


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Movenpick – Espresso

I have absolutely no memory and made no mental note of anything to do with this iced coffee. I don’t even have any opinions about its packaging. In a blind tasting Sam Allardyce would pick Movenpick.


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Caffè Lattesso – Cappuccino

If iced coffee was a character from a film then Caffè Lattesso Cappuccino would be Johhny Depp walking through Miami International airport in Blow.

Or Dufresne crawling out of the shit-pipe to freedom.

Or Larusso post crane-kick manoeuvre.

This is more than iced coffee. It’s the moment of all our lives. If I ever have a child, I want an ice cold Caffè Lattesso to reach for at the moment of truth in the maternity ward. If Harry Kane ever scores the winner in the Champions League final I’ll be pouring Caffè Lattesso Cappuccino all over the fools next to me on my L-shaped sofa, hoping it’ll stain, because it will be a Caffè Lattesso stain. Before coolly reaching for another from a fridge full of them, chilling to perfection.


I remember the moment like it was yesterday. A petrol station in northern Bavaria. A muggy afternoon. A smiling petrol station attendant, blonde, eyes like emeralds in a glassy sea, the first pair of eyes I saw once I’d come to on the petrol station forecourt after passing the fuck out. I asked her to marry me, she laughed and kissed me on the cheek, and pulled out a glossy of some bearded german brey. At any rate, the elevation of an artificially coloured sweetened caffeine drink from exactly that to one of the defining moments of my life was a profoundly humbling experience, and one that left me deeply moved.


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It tastes much like all the others, but comes with a little amaretti-type biscuit hidden in the top. Check it out.


Kapow.

I wasn’t taking any chances on more Movenpick non-moments and loaded up.

As I cycled off into the greyness of that September afternoon, I glanced back and saw Helda’s hand pressed up against the glass, as her eyes locked onto mine in a retinal embrace, an imperceptible longing etched onto her silken face. All at once my life unravelled before my eyes, and as my soul soared skyward my heart threw itself against my chest, imploring my head to turn my bike around, to be within a heartbeat of her once more.

They say that what you love you must set free, and gazing back in her direction, still in my head were all the promises I had to keep, and in my legs the miles before I’d sleep. I turned away, and moved blindly onwards into the arms of some alternate destiny. Can I hand on aching heart say that Caffè Lattesso had no part to play in any of this? I can’t

What kind of iced coffee does that.

A Yo! to Nature on The Eve of A Bike Trip

I had been pounding my mountain bike through dense forest for over an hour.

The sinuous track finally straightened and I crested the pine-coated hill. I looked over at Wilma and grimaced, then stared out across the vast unending lands stretching out ahead of us and channeled the last of the Mahican in me. These were the territories of the Native American tribes who had roamed freely over these hills and prairies for tens of thousands of years, existing in a deep spiritual communion with a sacred earth they called a mothering power.

I was born in Nature’s wide domain! The trees were all that sheltered my infant limbs, the blue heavens all that covered me. I am one of Nature’s children. She shall be my glory: her features, her robes, and the wreath of her brow, the seasons, her stately oaks, and the evergreen.

George Copway Kahgegagahbowh, The Ojibwe People (1848)

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That was in 2016, near the beginning of a 2,800 mile bike race that ran the length of the Rocky mountains from Alberta in Canada to the US border with Mexico. That trip was about as far from normal as a bike trip can get, but is an example of the fact that for the last decade of my life, it’s become clear that I can’t really do any travelling anywhere if I don’t have my bicycle with me. I wouldn’t really know how.

In 2007 when i was 24, my mate Guy and I took some bikes to Japan on a journey into the unknown, and thenceforth spent the next few years chasing the two-wheeled dragon wherever we could. We braved the southern spaces of the Arctic circle and unending daylight in Norway, and traversed Eastern Europe from Poland through Slovenia, Hungary and the Ukraine, crossing the Carpathian mountains into Bucharest.

In 2012 I took up the reigns alone, and went to the Andes for six weeks. That was the first trip that really scared me. 43 days at 3,500 metres above sea level, nights so cold water would freeze inside my tent, migraine-inducing altitude, you can read an account of it here. Closer to home my bike took me through Italy, the Alps of Austria and Switzerland, it showed me the length of Germany, there were forays through Holland and Belgium, and France many times over. And a month exploring New Zealand.

I’ve been eaten alive by sand-flies in a river near Dunedin, suffered third degree sunburn in the shadow of Mount Cook, had 3am hallucinations in the deserts of New Mexico, slept in a village on Japan’s east coast that has since been destroyed by a wave, was run off a mountain road by the Romanian mafia, and bought apricots off a 60yr old Ukranian woman with a handlebar moustache. I’ve looked down roads I can’t see the end of, camped out in the middle of them, got more lost than you can ever fathom, I’ve felt the most sad, tired, confused, and by turns the most at peace, elated, and alive I’ve ever felt in my life.

All from the saddle of a touring bike.

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Discovering the world by bicycle has become my favourite thing in life. It is something I crave when I feel distant from it. It is something I feel a physical pull towards. And is something that fuels me for months once I have returned from it. Until the point where that flame has weakened and splutters and I look for the next chance to go again.

I thought long and hard as to why I felt this so strongly, and I came to a realisation. This physical pull, this joy, this peace of mind, this aliveness, this residual contentment in its aftermath, none of it is actually about the bicycle. Not really. It’s about where the bicycle deposits you. I realised that it was about something far bigger than just the bike. It was about getting the hell away from cities, and getting back into nature. It was something wise and ancient inside me, calling me back to the mountains and the rivers and the birdsong and the silence.

In 1845 the American writer Henry David Thoreau, in his late 20s, built himself a small cabin among the pine trees on the shores of Walden Pond in Massachusetts, wanting to see what it would be like to live cut off from other people, in communion with nature. He summed up his experiences in the book Walden.

He went for long walks, read, mended his clothes, gathered fruit, went fishing and mused on what holds us all back from living in this way. Amid the trees with only birds and badgers for company, he ate and lived simply, but felt like a king. At the end of his time in the woods, Thoreau returned to the modern city sceptical of its so-called achievements and determined to live according to the wisdom and modesty that is the gift of the natural world.

Thoreau was tapping into something innate. This need to be in nature, I have come to believe is deeply nested in every single one of us, thanks to the seven million years of human evolution, and the hundreds of millions of years before that, when we lived in the world and all of the world was just trees. What Thoreau was saying was the same wisdom the Native American tribes had passed down between them since time immemorial.

Nature’s features, her robes, the wreath of her brow, shall be our glory.

I remember one morning lying against the trunk of a giant Eucalyptus in the South Island of New Zealand, looking up and watching its branches and leaves silhouetted against the sky dance in an almighty summer wind. And an intuition came to me that I’ve never forgotten. Straight out of left field. Nothing is wiser or cleverer than nature. I remember thinking it clearly and indelibly. Nothing has been here longer or is more perfectly designed or knows more. It was here before us and will be here after us, and we should pay attention to what it has to say.

Getting into one environment can also get you out of another. And the world of screens and status updates and vibrating alerts and inadequacy, the world of rush hour commutes and screw faces and carbon monoxide and fear,I think we could all use getting the hell away from for a minute or more. It’s not just what nature can give you, but also what it can take you away from.

I wanted to write this because I’m off on my bicycle tomorrow evening at dusk, my ferry lands in Saint–Malo on the north coast of Brittany at eight in the morning, and for the next ten daysI will trace a path as far down the belly of France as I can get. I have my tent, some reading material, a notebook, some clothes to mend, some fruit to gather, the company of birds and badgers, and some fishing to do.

I was going to make this a detailed account of the tiny things that make cycle touring so majestic, but I thought i’d use the next two weeks for research. So here’s Wild Geese by the poet Mary Oliver, if you want you can find her propping up the bar with Thoreau and Kahgegagahbowh, the fellow with the feather peaking out above his head at the start.

They’re all singing from the same hymn sheet.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees 
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and i will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

3000 kilometres at 4000 metres

When I’m old and sedated by my years perhaps I’ll dine out on the memory of an English summer many years ago when I spent six weeks at 4,000 metres above seal level cycling through an endless Argentine winter.

A detailed account of exactly what one person gets up to on his own in a tent for 45 days is for another day and perhaps a different audience, so here’s a foreshortened version of events for you to draw your own conclusions as to what brought about the terror which that barren wilderness unleashed inside me, enslaving me to demons which now deprive me of sleep and have me bound to a hospital bed, sweating rabidly between convulsions and speaking in tongues.


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First off I want to clarify that Argentina is more than just a combination of the world’s greatest footballers and the world’s most beautiful women.

The first thing that slaps you clean across the face is its size.


s h i t  i s  m a s s i v e

In terms of cycle touring I pretty much experienced the most radical stuff I ever have on a bike.


A savage untamed wilderness haunted me at every turn.

Unending stretches of sand sank my bike wheels halfway through the floor and made any semblance of progress a joke.

And a 7 hour 53km ascent up to a pass at 4,300m almost did for me.

But coasting down the other side was fresh.


75km of nonstop free-wheel

There was also the bonus of cycling the same road drug-traffickers use to run their contraband down from the Bolivian border to Buenos Aires where they ship it out to Europe. With the sheer units involved and the pigs constantly on their tail, spillages are inevitable.

Bolivian uncut, pure as the driven snow. That afternoon I chewed up the kilometres like they were Bubbaloo, relentlessly chatting shit into my ear about absolutely nothing, of which I remember nothing, since I wasn’t listening to a word I was saying.


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Nowhere I have been comes close to the remoteness I experienced on the roads out there, the feeling of existing in places where humans don’t very often tread. Every day I saw nothing but empty roads stretching out endlessly away from me towards the horizon; at times so relentless that calculating the distance ahead of me was counter productive in that it made me not want to start cycling at all.

It got so desolate sometimes that for want of a smoother surface I made that shit count and camped out in style.

The hugeness of the landscape obliged me to switch up the focus from a far too distant destination back to the simple process of pedalling; the bicycle equivalent of taking very small baby steps, one foot in front of the other. In this manner I inched my way for 3,200km down the spine of the country from the Bolivian border to the province of Mendoza.

Meeting legends along the way, making memories by the bucketload, leaving pieces of my heart strewn here and there, and more importantly taking time out to grow an absolutely gangsta handlebar moustache.

I also saw some heavy sunsets.

Cactuses bigger than houses.

Villages dedicated solely to the production of condiments.

Some state of the art petrol stations.

Some of the world’s most informative road signs.

And Argentina’s answer to Bradley Wiggins.

Six weeks alone on the road, heat from the locals was an inevitability I had to live with.

So I upped my security with a tight support vehicle.


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When it comes to the cycling, I think Hemingway said it best:


It is only by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of a country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.

I definitely think the physical memories of places are intensified by the exertion it takes to haul your tired behind through them, and if I put my mind to it I can remember details of every single day of the 45 I spent in the saddle. The sun on my back, always the smell of the tarmac, the dirt coating my skin, the dryness at the back of my throat that no amount of water could assuage. You forge strong bonds with particular roads you graft through and villages you collapse in. I don’t exaggerate when I say at times I felt even the walls were speaking to me.

The relentless rhythm of cycle touring means that after killing yourself one day, beating your legs into submission, and face planting onto the floor of your tent drooling dust out the corner of your mouth, somehow you get up the next morning and do it all over again. It is symbolic of a bigger thing. You go through every single emotion possible, every single day travelling by bike in this way.


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I think touring by bicycle is an allegory for life itself.


And the one constant, the thing that keeps you going, on and on, face down through gritted teeth into the unrelenting headwind…

– asides from some expertly brewed early morning caffeine injection –

Is the thought of what might be round the next bend in the road, down into the next valley, or over the next hill.

When that stops mattering you might as well sack it all in and hit up Cafe Jack.

Yup. Cafe Nero in Argentina is actually called Cafe Jack.

Prepping for The Most Terrifying Journey Of All

Not a whole lot goes on in Calgary.

There I was having an early morning pootle a couple of weeks back, assessing the situation, and decided to cop myself an iced coffee and a sparkling mineral water, a combination fond to me and conducive I thought to an early morning frame of mind that played into the hands of further assessment of the situation. What struck me soon upon entering the Drugstore and assessing the situation of the drinks fridge was that it was absolutely impossible for me to buy either component of this favoured combination without procuring my bodyweight in liquid.

The sizing in North America is a joke. The photo’s perspective is not the best, but that’s literally a pint of iced coffee and that’s a litre of fizzy water. And no this isn’t some family pack thing, there was literally nothing smaller. Which got me thinking that capitalism and greed and not biting the hand that feeds to one side, maybe the reason everything is Supersized over there is more of an art imitating life thing. North America is vast. The products are simply mimicking their surroundings.

Which ties somehow into my next point. About four months ago a seriously questionable individual with a hazy sexual orientation sat down by the side of my bed loined in a pink towel and asked me a question.

Four months later, me and him fly back to Calgary this lunchtime with two of his prototype Big Bro Brother Cycles Mountain Bikes stashed safely in cargo, to undertake the mother of all cycle tours.

We are racing from Banff in Canada to the US border with Mexico at Antelope Wells, along off-road trails the length of the North American Continental Divide, the tectonic plate meeting point that formed the Rocky Mountains.

In terms of tapping into my survival instincts I think it shits and will shit all over anything I ever do in my entire life, and that includes going to the Cineworld in West India Quay to watch Dark Skies.

The more I think about what lies in store over the next few weeks the queazier I become. It’s 2,800 miles, 60,000 vertical metres of climbing, which we plan to finish in 25 days, which boils down to 12 hours of pedalling and 106 miles of movement each day. On shitty, muddy, unrelenting, godforsaken, long-forgotten, backwater trails. The drop-out rate is over 50%.

We have grizzly bear spray for the north, and fuck knows what for the tarantulas of New Mexico. We face sub-zero temperatures at the start and baking hot unending deserts in the south. We’ll hopefully high five some indelible memories, and tap into reserves of pain and stubbornness and fear and likewise elation and hysteria we didn’t know were there, enough to break the memory-bank, proper Werther’s Original stuff.

Most of all I look forward to the company of silence, of pine forests and river torrents and mountain tops and nature at its most raw and untamed, not to mention the peculiar folk who inhabit such remote parts of the world, that no doubt will find us just as peculiar as we roll through on our fat tyres like the muddied living dead. And hey yo, we’ve got each other. Whether we like it or not.

Nothing much left to say other than writing this thing out has made me feel even queasier. But at the same time I find myself so excited I can barely sit still or hold a single thought in my head. That must be the excitement only a free man can feel. A man at the start of a long journey. Whose conclusion is uncertain. I’ll leave you now, feeling more than a little timorous, with one of my great pal Jonty’s favourite lines in the english language, the words of Seamus Heaney.

The way we are living, timorous or bold, will have been our life.

A Bunch of Stuff Your Uncle Can Teach You

We all wonder Who is God? What’s going to happen when we die. I don’t think it’s ever… nothing. I’m very fond of Lucretius. And Lucretius says that everything is a little energy. You go back and you’re these little bits of energy and pretty soon you’re something else. Now that’s a continuance. It’s not the one we think of when we’re talking about the golden streets and the hierarchy of angels. Even angels have a hierarchy. But it’s something quite wonderful. Everything is mortal. It dies. But its parts don’t die. Its parts become something else. And we know that when we bury a dog in the garden with a rose bush on top of it, there is replenishment.

And that is pretty amazing.

 That was an excerpt from an interview with the poet Mary Oliver.

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The Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park in the South Island of New Zealand is famous for it’s lack of light pollution. Like the Atacama in Chile people travel from far and wide to come and see the starscapes. On my recent trip there, an English guy called Sean drew me a map by hand and said to me if you’re ever venturing that way or passing along that particular road, take this map with you and go and find the X that marks the spot. A couple of weeks later I took him up on it. I hooked a right off the main road onto a dirt track and cycled for an hour along a slight incline, following the road along a river valley surrounded on either side by vast looming mountains.

The map told me to bridge two streams, and just before the third to cut right and pass through a gate onto a cattle track. Hide your bike somewhere and pack what you need for one night in a dry bag, food, clothes etc. Make sure it’s a dry bag because you’re going to have to ford a waist-high river. I packed what I thought I might need, hid my bike in a thicket, waded across the river, and climbed up into the hills following an ever-disappearing and reappearing track, all the time clutching at this piece of paper where Sean had marked out in biro the contours of the hills from memory. For three hours I walked, moving what I hoped was closer to the X, the subject of his map.

I moved into a whole new valley, a plateau I had no idea existed since it was invisible from the spot where I’d left my bike. As I walked the sense of isolation became like an adrenalin inside me, purely by dint of how alarming it felt to feel so alone and so small, wandering amidst a landscape made for giants. Tracing my way along a rocky outcrop to my left handside I heard the sound of cascading water from a stream, and finally laid eyes on Sean’s fabled X.

It was an old mustering hut from the 1870s, a place of refuge for the cattle and sheep farmers during the long winters spent moving their animals around in search of greener pastures. Inside were three bunks, a table with two stools, and a map on the wall, and the names of previous travellers scribbled into the wooden beams and the walls of corrugated iron. I dumped my stuff, went on a walk up to the highest point I could see, washed in the stream, ran around buttnaked for a little while for good measure, ate a couple of sandwiches I’d picked up at a petrol station that morning, and got into my sleeping bag.

At 2am my phone alarm went off. I woke up, put my jacket and shorts and beanie on and walked outside. Squinting my eyes half-shut, I laid down by the stream, put my head back on the grass and, stretching my arms and legs out into a starshape, opened my eyes. I’ve never seen so many stars in my life.

The constellations I was semi-familiar with were completely invisible, indistinguishable from the gazillions of their new neighbours that had apparently been there all along, but yet had only just now magically appeared to me. It was as if God himself had picked up a huge fistful of sherbert and summoning his best curve-ball had launched it at the night sky. I felt the surge of a strong instinct to concentrate, because I’d never again see a sky quite like the one i was gazing up at.

*

My uncle Adrian was obsessed with the stars, and all things space-related. He owned many telescopes. He was at Nasa HQ during Armstrong’s first small step for man, covering the moon-landings for the front page of The Telegraph. He wrote many books outlining the future of mankind, which were translated into many languages including for the Japanese, who were crazy for them.

Adrian breathed to walk, and showed my brother and I the joys he took from placing one foot in front of the other for hours on-end during a weeklong trip to Zermatt when we were twelve. I drank my first ever beer in his company on the terrace of a mountain hut, under the watchful eye of the Matterhorn.

I remember walking with him and his two dogs Basil and Otto through Richmond Park on a rainy Saturday morning when I was ten, furiously scribbling notes for some homework essay I had to write about the future, while Adrian waxed about the millions of different directions the earth might go in, and the myriad of paths upon it mankind might take. I remember my teachers being so surprised at the detail of the essay and incredulous as to the source of my pre-wikipedia research that it was published in the school review.

I remember Adrian used to put cherry tomatoes in his cereal for breakfast. He had the coolest sci-fi VHS collection in the world. He was the first grown-man I ever saw cry, when Basil drowned in the swimming pool one Sunday and we buried him in the dog-graveyard. He taught me all about chess and Kasparov and Deep Blue and how we were witnessing the rise of machine over man. He had an incredible warmth, and was tactile in a way that was not common on the English side of my family. He would bound up to me when he saw me and bellow ‘what‘s the news?!’ with an almighty grin on his face.

*

Staring into unending space outside that mustering hut at two in the morning, looking up at the stars after my four hour walk, I thought of Adrian back at home in London, fighting cancer, and it became clear to me in that moment how obvious were the reasons why he loved the things he loved so much. And I felt glad and thankful that he’d shown me those things when I was young, and it was largely because of him that I’d gotten myself into the situation I was now in, lying on my back in the dark after my walk into the hills, staring up at the Milky Way.

Adrian was my mother’s eldest brother. He died this morning.