Sunday, June 25, 2017

Somewhere on the Irish Sea: Where the Kyle Things Are

I get a lot of positive comments on my blog, for which I am most grateful. I worry, however, that I give off the impression cycle touring is all eating rainbows and pooping butterflies, which of course it isn't (I eat mostly peanut butter). There are wonderful things that happen, and I think the wonderful things are often a greater magnitude than they were when I worked a desk job 40 hours a week, but there are also things that aren't so wonderful, and it's distinctly possible those things are a greater magnitude as well.

If your cup of tea is eating rainbows and pooping butterflies, and you have no desire to read a post that doesn't make you feel warm and bubbly inside, then turn back now, dear reader. If, on the other hand, you want the full scoop on cycle touring, the bad as well as the good, then read on. My goal isn't to depress you, it's just that when I sit down to blog I share largely the “good” things that have happened. If I am to do justice to the truth, then you must know that there are “bad” things, too.

I've written before about my anxiety, but that post had a happy ending – in the end I was able to extract optimism out of a crappy, rainy, cold, headwindy day (my wonderful Warmshowers hosts Mark and Katz definitely helped). Unfortunately, that's not always possible – not for me, anyways. Perhaps it's a personality flaw, but at the end of a 60-mile day of pedaling all alone by yourself, it sometimes just takes too much energy to do anything but despair about setting up the tent and doing it again tomorrow.

I don't mean to complain – I know I'm currently leading a very privileged life. I get to see much more of places that that vast majority of the rest of the world might not see at all. For the most part, I can go where I want, when I want. Strangers invite me into their houses and feed me and give me a shower and a place to sleep. I haven't forgotten that, and I am incredibly grateful for it. If it wasn't for the kind strangers, in fact, I'm not sure I would do this at all.

But... as much as I questioned the purpose of my life when I was sitting behind a desk (“Am I really doing something good for the world? Couldn't someone else do it just as well?”), imagine how much of a question there is when all I do is... pedal. I've recited it so often I've memorized it: the purpose of life according to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty:
To see the world,
things dangerous to come to,
to see behind walls,
to draw closer,
to find each other,
and to feel,
that is the purpose of life.

This is, for the most part, what I do. It just doesn't always feel that way. Sometimes it feels like what I do is... be subject to the weather and the whims of fate. Hope to find someone kind enough to give me a shower. Worry I'll spend my entire budget on hostels and hotels before even making it halfway around. Fix flat tires. Exhaust myself.

One of my favorite psychologists, Brene Brown, has the tenet, “vulnerability is the birthplace of joy.” I believe that. I believe the more of yourself you reveal to the world, the more likely you are to get where you're meant to go. I don't think we meet people who love us and have experiences we enjoy by hiding who we are and what we want. But being vulnerable is terrifying. What I say to people is generally something like, “Do you know a place where I could put my tent tonight?”; what I'm thinking is, “and if you don't then I have no idea what I'll do please help please.” I don't expect people to take care of me. I don't expect things to work out. And I'm sure it's a matter of time until they don't (weather forecast for Ireland? Rain. Every. Day).

So while there are moments of joy – meeting a new friend in a place I've never been, sitting on their back porch playing uke, being greeted by a stranger who wants to talk about being zen, eating a whole pint (excuse me, 500 mL) of Ben & Jerry's in one sitting, diving into a clean river after a day of being drenched in sweat – there are also moments of terrifying, overwhelming fear, anxiety, and loneliness. Where will I sleep tonight? Tomorrow? The day after? Which country will I be in one week from today? Will I make my ferry or will I get a flat tire? Will it rain tonight? Tomorrow? When will I talk to my mom again? When will I get to kiss a girl again, or just spend more than 12 hours with someone I trust?

I don't know if I believe in fate or not. Sometimes, things seem too coincidental to have “just happened” on their own. Thinking of one night in particular, here's a sampling of things that had to go right for it to happen the way it did:
- I decided on that route (I could have been in a different country or city, I could have taken longer to get there...)
- I decided not to try and make the ferry that day and instead bike around the estuary
- I ran into x number of people who delayed me x amount
- I was offered a yard to camp in along a particular route
- Because I knew I had a place to stay, I stopped for food along that route
- Two strangers redirected me from where I was going to go for food to somewhere else
- I arrived just in time to order food
- (etc)

It is humbling to think that all those things went “right” (at the time, deciding not to try and make the ferry felt “wrong” because it meant an extra 20 miles) but also frightening to think that it can take that many things going “right” for me to end up where I ended up.

Vagabonding is often portrayed as a romantic lifestyle. And in many ways, it is. I get to sleep in a new place every night. I get to see hundreds of places I've never been before and meet hundreds of strangers. I get to sleep in the woods and bathe in rivers and play ukulele to sheep under the sun in a field in rural Europe. Yesterday I got to drive a 1965 Massey Ferguson (old fashioned, but high-quality tractor). I can stay where I want as long as I have a visa and someone to house me, or I can go where I want as long as there's a road or a bike trail.

But I also worry I won't have a place to sleep. I worry I'll get rained on all day and my sleeping bag will get wet inside my tent and I'll freeze. I worry I won't meet anyone I get along with, I won't be able to speak the language and thus I'll be unable to buy food or even find the bathroom. I worry I'll get woken up at 2 AM by the police and asked to come with them, and my bike and everything I own will get confiscated and I'll never get it back. I worry my passport and my credit card will get stolen. I worry my frame will break and I'll be stuck in the wilderness for days.

I'm not asking for sympathy. I know I've put myself in this situation and I am the only one responsible for getting myself out. I could quit, fly home, get my old job back, and resume the 8-5 lifestyle. Physically, I'd be safe. I'd have a place to sleep every night, friends that care about me, and I could call my mom anytime I wanted. But I don't think I'd be satisfied with that. I think I'd always wonder, what if I'd kept going...?

...and that's the scariest thing of all. The feeling in my stomach, the physical pull to go, go, go!, knowing that what engages me is being unsafe, that if I don't see the world, things dangerous to come to, I'll be untrue to myself... that is absolutely terrifying.

So no. Cycle touring is not all butterflies and roses and meeting strangers who turn out to be your new best friends. It's not all people being kind to you and letting you sleep in their guest bedroom and feeding you. I write about that because writing about it helps me let go of the anxiety and fear and because those are the parts that I want to remember. I am so, so grateful for those things, and privileged to get to experience them. But cycle touring is also wondering if you'll have a place to sleep. It's wondering if you'll meet people who will be kind to you, people you can even communicate with, or if you're breaking foreign laws or folkways. It's being vulnerable to the world (“I don't have a place to sleep tonight. Can you help? ...and maybe not kill me and take all my stuff?”), and wondering if this is really what you should be doing with your life. It's wondering if you're doing it right – if there even is a “right” way to vagabond.

It's being utterly vulnerable to and completely honest with yourself.

And that is the most terrifying thing of all.


  1. I can't imagine the despair of setting up camp at the end of an exhausting day, day after day, alone. To me, that seems to be the greatest challenge of attempting something like what you are doing. I hope that, despite the loneliness, you find what you are looking for. Are you familiar with the quote, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." (Henry David Thoreau) That quote inspired me greatly at your age and it reminds me of your journey. I thought it was about not leading a "normal," materialistic life, but it's about more than that. It presumes that there is some transcendental purpose to life, beyond materialism.
    But the "alone" part also presumes that there is something to life beyond relationships. I'm not so sure about that. The saddest part for me of what you wrote is "When will I get to spend more than 12 hours with someone I trust?" Know that I am always here for you. You are on my mind constantly and always, always in my heart. I am journeying with you. Be safe and come home whenever you are ready. Love you, Mom

    1. I have heard of that quote. Everybody says they hope I find what I'm looking for. I don't know that I'm looking for anything. I'm just trying to do something I find meaningful. Even though it's hard.

  2. Yes, very hard. I love it when you write about that. Reading you blog, the experiences you are having and the memories you are making (that heavens for your recorder and blog), are all amazing. I truly hope that you are not so tired and stressed at times that you can enjoy every moment for it is remarkable what you are experiencing. Love you, Mom