Friday, July 22, 2016

Beautiful Delilah

I dreamed about an ex last night. Not just any old ex, you understand—she was probably the best girlfriend I ever had—her name was Uschi, short for Ursula, and I met her on rugby tour with my university to Texas in the mid-nineties. We didn't work out for whatever reason, but not until after a two-year relationship which saw us maintain a third of it transatlantically while I returned to Cardiff to finish my degree. We then spent a glorious summer together in the UK before moving to Canada so she could continue her Masters. We broke up when I moved down to Texas for work, but it was a break up that never sat well with me, until a tearful drunk phone conversation a few months later gave me the embarrassed impetus I needed to break contact.

When we did get back in touch a few years later, she'd married someone else, and I was eviscerated. Insanely jealous, I spent a few months feeling extremely sorry for myself. And this is my point: right then, fifteen years ago, I was living a 'normal' life of work, debt, car, house, and all the attendant material ambition. Nowadays, with a free, untethered, nomadic lifestyle, I couldn't be happier for her. She seems to be married to a great guy and they have a beautiful daughter together. My shockingly non-pornographic dream was strangely platonic: we were knocking around in a bright orange VW Beetle, for some reason, doing essentially what I do on the bike, travelling around and looking at stuff. There was no romance, we were just having fun hanging out. And that's when I joined the dots: I was finally letting go of childish things.

Jealousy accompanies the concept of property, this invention of agricultural society absent during the Paleolithic. When we covet things, rather than experiences, we get all bent out of shape if we fall behind in the rat race. And the jealous person sees their partner as their property, which is, of course, ludicrous, unless we're back doing the slavery lark.

Agricultural society reduces people to things: we see each other more as resources to exploit, rather than individuals with thoughts and emotions of their own. We've personally adopted the dehumanizing view of the military-industrial complex. So when someone else has a thing, we want it too.

So, interpersonal jealously is a product of thinking of people as property, but obviously, I no longer think this way. And it's difficult to describe the revelatory nature of this realization. I've finally grown up. And it's got nothing to do with equity or mortgages: it's to do with feeling equanimity, not just acting with it. I don't mean I've suddenly lost my irreverence.

Pursuant to this idea: a recent trip into the hinterland of Montenegro profoundly affected me. For the first time in my life I encountered people who were truly happy, and not because they had the latest BMW or iPhone, but because they were surrounded by friends and family, living with the kind of mountain views that peripheralize commercial entertainment. This small highland village, tucked high away at the head of a deep river valley, subsisted primarily on a barter economy, farming narrow terraced fields etched into the slopes and hunting for boar, deer, and rabbit in the woods. They shared their excellent homemade vranac wine and rakia, a booming right hook of local brandy. They didn't give a damn who was in charge in the capital Podgorica, because whomever was didn't matter. It didn't affect them, their lives didn't change.

I was there to write a brochure for a travel company, and I'd never heard of the country, primarily because Montenegro didn't exist until 2006, when it gained independence from Serbia. When the client first contacted me I thought it was probably a principality in the Italian Alps. It didn't occur to me it was in the Balkans, sandwiched between Croatia and Albania on the rugged Adriatic coast. The buzzword 'Balkans' brought to mind images of hunched figures in shawls shuffling through bombed rubble, but a quick Google image search eradicated this prejudice: Montenegro has to be one of the prettiest countries in the world, with people to match. I've never so much beauty so casually strewn about. Before I get too Elves, Mr. Frodo!, I have to say they certainly don't seem to age as gracefully as our pointy-eared brethren: perhaps it's the combination of Mediterranean sun, cheap booze, and cigarettes so incredibly inexpensive it's almost criminal not to buy any.

During the Montenegro project, I chose a tentative title for the sequel to Wanderer. Warrior. Chronicler. Twit. It was after a poignant encounter on a guided kayak trip down the river Crnojevića with two Americans: an adventure travel company entrepreneur from Oregon scoping out the competition and picking up tips, and a travel writer for the New York Times. I took the opportunity to paddle with the latter for a while, and pick his brain about writing technique. The British guide, who I'd befriended some weeks earlier, asked me how it went a few moments later. 'Now that's a proper writer,' I replied, in not a little awe, 'I'm just some twat with a laptop.'

It struck me immediately what a great book title Some Twat with a Laptop would make, but there is, of course, the problem of profanity. Apparently, some people are so weak they get offended by certain noises we make, and especially their scribbled representations. Of course, the word 'twat' is far more likely to cause offence in the US than in any other English-speaking nation, largely, I suspect, because we have a greater share of whining ninnies than anywhere else. While my more delicate American readers arm themselves with invective and prepare to hose down my Twitter account with their own venomous misery (Marc Maron, the American comedian, hilariously labelled negative internet commenters 'unfuckable hate nerds'): the USA is the easiest country in the world in which to live, and I did spend almost twenty years there. Nowhere else supports such healthy business competition, which services the population with matchless ease and proliferation (unless the service is medical or educational in nature, then we can go fuck ourselves). The problem is amenity is the anathema of toughness. One doesn't become hardened by cocooning oneself in convenience, so it might be an idea to stop pretending it does. I see right through all this swaggering John Wayne bullshit.

I've considered altering the title from 'twat' to 'twit' because, at the end of the day, book shops, online or off, aren't going to push a book with a title that offends people, no matter how ridiculous this seems to the worldlier perspective of a road monkey. Having said that, publishing is many months off, so times may change, and so might I.

'I have not often enjoyed a more serene possession of myself, nor felt more independent of material aids. The outer world, from which we cower into our houses, seemed after all a gentle and habitable place; and night after night a man’s bed, it seemed, was laid and waiting for him in the fields, where God keeps an open house...' - Robert Louis Stevenson

I rode into Market Rasen, had a quick look around the cobbled town centre market, and then spent the afternoon in the Aston Arms having an illuminating conversation with a retired welder, who'd spent the majority of his life in the Middle East working in the oil industry. He revealed a thoughtfully egalitarian attitude towards Islam which contrasted starkly with the biased rhetoric I'd heard from returning soldiers.

England were playing Italy that night in their opening game of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, so I decided to camp at the Market Rasen Racecourse Caravan Park so I could watch the game over their WiFi, or maybe leave my gear there to go and catch it in a pub. Kick off wasn't until 11pm, though, as the quadrennial tournament was being staged in Brazil, and the campsite manager told me all the local pubs would be closed. Fortunately, they were showing it in their campsite function room, and were putting on some gratis finger food and such for the event. What a nice man. He even lent me a caravan electricity hook-up cable so I could plug in.

I set up camp and rode trailer-free to the nearby Tesco, where I stocked up on beer, wine, cheese, pickled onions and ice, then spent the evening back at the campsite reading, writing, people-watching, and getting pleasantly drunk.

Midsummer days are tremendously long in the UK, stretching from first light at around 3.30am until twilight well after 10, so the sun had just set when I wandered over to the function room. It was packed with caravanners; I think I was the only tent person on the site. There was a weekend antiques fair being held at the racecourse next door, which meant many of the folks staying at the site were dealers.

My overriding archetype of an antiques dealer had been a quietly aloof tweed-suited gentleman, perhaps towing a prim wife. So I was quite taken aback to discover they are, by and large, rampant criminals. They may look all church fete and coffee morning, but neck tattoos simmer just below the surface; a lot more Bill Sikes than Mr. Brownlow. As such, the humour was suitably broad for my ribald tastes, and I had a grand old time, even winning the £17 sweepstake by picking the first goalscorer.

Discovering a living example of a stereotype actually surprises me more than its contrary. Our eagerness to pigeonhole people into manageable groups is a well-documented psychological phenomenon, as our brains didn't evolve to deal with more than a few interconnected Paleolithic families. In this crowded world of ours, whenever we meet new people, we immediately start to 'figure them out', by asking questions about their ancestry, habits, and family origin, so we can superimpose our learned latticework of stereotypes and enable predictors of likely behaviour. I find it immensely entertaining when people apply this process to me, so I can experiment with different reactions to what information I reveal. The monumental difference between announcing I'm a roofer, for example, rather than a writer, demonstrates the class system hasn't gone anywhere, it's just slightly buried.

I stayed at the campsite for a couple more days to eradicate my hangover and wait out some rain, then headed for the historic city of Lincoln. The Wolds flattened and a following breeze propelled me down attractive country lanes, dappled by patchy sunlight, bringing on that unencumbered joy unique to cycle touring.

To be honest, I was a little disappointed by Lincoln. The cathedral is truly a wonder--the central spire made it the tallest building in the world for 238 years until the thing blew over during a storm in 1549--and the castle, home to one of the four original copies of the Magna Carta, is castley enough. But the rest of the city, outside its small medieval centre, pales in comparison to that other powerhouse for the history whore, York.

I Stopped at a Morrisons to buy hot dogs for dinner, and a tin of curry for tomorrow, and camped in a field of another disused railway track bridleway. I watched a couple of episodes of the excellent new series of Cosmos, presented by Neil Degrasse Tyson, and realized they'd filmed one at Isaac Newton's home less than a day's ride away. Holy shit!

I had no real plans apart from a vague route to Snowdonia, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I could not pass up. I quickly calculated a route and sat back, trembling a little. Isaac fucking Newton. The father of modern science.

Now this was going to be something.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Bridge Over the Rhye

The problem with glimpsing genuine freedom, as I have these past three years of bicycle touring, is the winters working the corporate sphere to fund the extravagance drive me depressingly close to suicide. 

I find myself gazing at the countryside from commuter train windows, the book in my lap open but unread. The promise of heading out in the saddle again occupies every waking moment, the dangled novelty of daily adventure usurping this trivial subsistence of civilized men. I'm not the same as you people any more. My time is now more valuable than mere currency. It needs to be spent exploring as much as I can before I die.

This year should be different, though. To supplement my usual savings, I'll have a little income from the sales of Wanderer. Warrior. Chronicler. Twit. to fund me further. So I'll be able, should my marketing efforts bear sufficient fruit, to winter on the road.

I completely understand if readers find themselves growing resentful over this. Nobody should have to suffer the ignominies of waged slavery while some smug git buggers about on a bike all day. A possible redemption is I feel I've earned the respite. I've worked the dangerous jobs and laborious sixteen hour days* during my 25 years of construction, in temperatures ranging from -50 to +160 Fahrenheit, where simply getting out of bed took herculean will: I've shot nails through fingers and duct-taped gruesome cuts closed; I've broken ribs and fingers; had three teeth knocked out; endured half-a-dozen concussions; and never visited a doctor or hospital for any of it. I know who I am and what I can do. I've put in my time.

*And once a 32 hour day. I can't figure it out either.

Now, perhaps I wrote the previous paragraph as self-justification, because there is a certain amount of guilt accompanying these seasonal flirtations with liberty. While clock-punchers inhale their stale office farts I'm intoxicated with exhilaratory mountain ranges, wild forests, glittering cities and villages swaddled in bucolic farmland. I marvel at the morphing landscapes and local accents as I pedal, the brow of every hill promising fresh perspective.

But, importantly, I've come to realize none of this shit matters. What matters is compassion, positivity, meeting people, appreciating their stories, and educating oneself. And there's no better way on earth to do this than from the back of a bicycle.

So that's me, now, the dude that does that. 

I'm often asked how long I'll be travelling, what my end goal is, and what I'm running from. The answer to all these is I don't know, because I don't need to. The journey itself is the thing. We tend to think we need a destination, but we live on a globe. Whichever direction we take, we end up back where we started, much like our lives end back in the earth, reabsorbed by the universe, so the transition is the point, the experiencing of other places and other people. And at the risk of sounding arrogant: it's OK, I don't expect folks to understand, it took me a few years to figure out, myself.

I hit the cycle path with a slew of new gear, testament to the lessons learned during the inaugural Scottish leg, so meticulously documented in Wanderer. Warrior. Chronicler. Twit. Gone was the hiking backpack wedged into my trailer, now replaced by a 65-litre waterproof duffle bag (waterproof in principle if not practice, I later found, when the zip proved somewhat less than). Two capacious German panniers now adorned my rear rack, replacing the tiny affairs from Halfords, again waterproof, one for food and cooking gear, the other for clothing, while everything else resided in the trailer. Electronics sat in my sturdy new military-style molle backpack, bought to replace the frayed solar-panelled one which wasn't up to the trials of another touring experience. ('Molle' is a system of strapping whereby additional compatible pouches can be attached to the main bag.) Thus began my love affair with military gear. I found myself buying more and more of the stuff as it is far more suited to my purposes than the fancy fabrics of your North Faces and Patagonias. Not because I shunned pretension, you understand, though I actually tend to: it's simply a lot cheaper and doesn't typically come in the obnoxious colours antithetical to the subtleties of wild camping. 

I'd bought a new trailer too, as the old one was on its last legs. At 40 quid a pop, this wasn't a problem, but I did buy some five millimetre threaded steel bar and made replacements for the bits that either broke or had threatened to, specifically the trailer arm pivot pin and the quick release rear wheel skewer. With the screw-on hitch nuts salvaged from the non-business ends of the two skewers, I now had a sturdy system that did away with the poorly-made quick-release mechanisms. I flattened opposite sides of the barrel fittings with an angle grinder so they'd take a wrench, but still worried about the connecting skewer itself, so I made a few replacements for that, too.

Day 1
I planned to live on premade sandwiches for the first few days, because the first part of a tour is generally quite knackering as one's physique slithers from civilization's sluglike cocoon, so cooking or food shopping, usually activities I thoroughly enjoy in a wolfish man-the-hunter kind of way, become more of a chore. However, on the morning I was to leave I found mould on my bread. Plans screeched to a histrionic halt, and I weighed my options. I could've gone to the supermarket, of course, and bought another loaf, but I really couldn't be bothered to make a special trip while fully laden, and I was desperate to leave. I resolved, then, to rely on my backup foods for the first couple of days—dehydrated soups and the like—but this would require more fuel for my stove. I use an alcohol stove, which runs on methylated spirits (AKA denatured alcohol, or meths), so I stopped by a decorating store at the bottom of my street to buy some. They didn't have any, of course. More hand-waving. I now had to divert to another shop on the outskirts of town in the wrong direction, but the tranquility of being back in the saddle drowned this minor irritation. I was on the road again, and that's all that matters.

I always feel a little furtive buying meths, as if the shop assistant might suspect me of being some kind of secret meths drinker (methylated spirit is a mixture of ethanol (the alcohol that gets you drunk) and methanol (that makes you blind), allegedly guzzled by people who just don't give a shit any more) but I gutted out the imagined disapproval, mounted up, and the world unfolded before me.

I headed south into the Yorkshire Wolds, an arc of chalk hills sweeping down into Lincolnshire, bisected by the mighty River Humber and spectacularly rising from the North Sea at the white cliffs of Flamborough Head. Many people are unaware that chalk is calcium carbonate, which forms underwater from the accumulation of shells of dead phytoplankton called coccolithophores (though some species appear to shed these shells as they go). And some Bible-thumpers think the world is only 6,000 years old! If you know one of these people, point them at a chalk cliff and ask them to explain so much coc. 

I'd gone cheap with my new digital Kodak camera, and this proved a disastrous mistake. The first time I took it out to snap a picture of an impressive castle gate, it whirred gently and collapsed into an inert heap. Thereafter I was consigned to my camera phone. I know, First World peripatetic nomad problems and all that.

My first mobile phone camera target was the standing stone in Rudston churchyard, a small village maybe twelve miles as the crow flies from Scarborough. I'd never heard of the thing until a local pointed me towards it, the largest prehistoric standing stone in the UK, despite having grown up so close. 

This 25 foot, 40 ton monster was carved from Cayton bay around ten miles away, hauled here and erected some time in the Bronze Age, which is really quite vague. What archaeologists tend to do is dig down next to such things to hopefully find carbon-based material deposited during the erection process or ritual life of the site, which they can then carbon date to discover the approximate age. Apparently they couldn't be bothered with this one, even though human skulls, possibly sacrificial, were discovered during an excavation in the late 1700s.

What is interesting, though, is the adoption of obviously such an important pagan site by the Christian church, which lends credence to the idea that the early Christians coerced non-Christians over to their way of thinking by muddying the differences as much as possible. It's no secret, of course, that many Christian holidays fall curiously close to the dates of tradition pagan festivals, and a whole host of Bible stories replicate the legends of earlier religions.

While we're on the subject, I've actually been told by religious people that carbon-dating is horrifically inaccurate. They've never been able to explain why, apart from they'd been told by their pastor, and he could better explain it. Averse as I am to opinions on science from people who've never studied it, I looked online, figuring these loopy motherfuckers must get their ridiculous opinions from somewhere, and was startled by how lucid, nuanced, and detailed some of the arguments were. Of course, such nitpicking downright atomizes their own God of the Gaps, so it's ultimately self-defeating, but the assumption science itself doesn't weed out inconsistences demonstrates a deep misunderstanding of what science actually is. It's not another belief system to compete with a certain religion, it operates despite belief. It's simply the most accurate and unbiased methodology for discovering and describing the universe we inhabit. It's a tool, not emotional conjecture. 

Anyway, it was a warm day and I was getting thirsty with all this thinking, so I continued through the village looking for a shop. I didn't find one, so asked directions and got them to a village shop in Kilham, a couple of miles away, which turned out to be tiny and had, horror upon horrors, no cold beer. I bought a four pack of room temperature Carlsbergs anyway, water, and some savory pastries, and attempted, for the first and last time, to construct a redneck cooler, something I learned from that very demographic during my years in Texas. This involves wrapping whatever you want cooling in a wet towel, then subjecting it to a breeze. The water draws energy from the contents to facilitate evaporation, lowering the temperature. This does work on roofs in Texas during the summer, but sadly, not in the more amiable climate of East Yorkshire in the late spring. One simply ends up with less drinking water and a wet towel.

I camped in a church cemetery that was curiously lacking a church, a common phenomenon in the UK, likely due to the ever-dwindling churchgoing population. I imagine the churches were knocked down to reclaim the building materials. The small size of the cemetery got me thinking a little about the number of dead buried around me. Rudston has a history dating back to the fifth century, and the population currently stands at 390 (2001 census). If we take the number as steady throughout the village's life, and, for the ease of calculation let's assume everyone lived until they were 100, and the average rate of death is 1% per year, we'd have 3.9 people die per year, which is 4 in old money. 4 per year for 1,500 years is 6,000 dead, and there were maybe a couple of hundred gravestones in this cemetery. So each grave probably had around 300 bodies buried in it. Yikes. No wonder cremations took off.

Day 2
Such was my excitement at finally setting off I got very little sleep. I was itching to get going, though, so I rolled out of my pit around 7.30am, breakfasted on an impulse buy of Midget Gems and Jelly Babies, and headed for the coastal town of Skipsea. There I bumped into a couple of middle-aged Dutch tourists taking a break from the bike at a duck pond, and chatted with them for a few minutes. They were cycling the Way of the Roses, a coast-to-coast bike route that takes in the scenic areas of Lancashire and Yorkshire, and so named to denote the heraldic devices of their two royal houses: the white rose for Yorkshire, the red rose for Lancashire. Its 170 miles begins in Morecambe on the west coast, and finishes in Bridlington on the east. They were bed and breakfasting rather than camping, so had very little gear. I toyed with the idea of doing it myself, but dismissed it. I was heading to Wales!

I decided to follow the coastal road, but had to detour inland when I reached a section that had washed into the sea with the eroding shoreline. I established Rule #1 in Wanderer. Warrior. Chronicler. Twit.: Always live on a hill. Now I added Rule #2: But not near a cliff.

The temperatures got surprisingly warm and a headwind battled my progress into Hornsea, where, drenched in sweat, I rewarded myself with a one-litre tub of my favourite ice cream, Kelly's Cornish Clotted Cream and Honeycomb, on a half-price special at the Co-op. A whole tub? Oh yeah, baby.

I spent three or four hours on the beach, people-watching and enjoying my post-treat coma. Then I headed to the start of the Trans Pennine Trail, another coast-to-coaster from Hornsea to Southport via Sheffield and Manchester. I aimed to ride a 30km bridleway section down to Hull, where I'd veer off across the Humber Bridge into Lincolnshire. 

I got lost for a good twenty minutes at a large roundabout, unable to find any sign of the trail onward, until I happened upon it again by some community vegetable gardens known in the UK as 'allotments'. I got talking to a retired man walking his dog, and ended up dismounting and walking with him for half-a-mile or so while we chatted about life in general. He told me of a possible place to camp a few miles down the trail. I made a mental note and continued on, stopping for a dinner of spicey potato wedges and salad at The Railway Inn at New Ellerby, where the landlady confirmed what the dog-walker had told me. 

As the shadows stretched I dismounted, propped up the rig with my folding walking stick and searched some side trails for a spot. I always keep the bike in sight when I'm doing this: it's better to leave it on the main trail as turning around on narrow side paths is a royal pain if no sufficient clearing presents itself, and backing up is out of the question (though I was getting better at it: when reversing with a trailer, as any truck driver will tell you, one has to steer counter to the direction you want the trailer to go, and a single-wheel trailer is even more temperamental). A couple of older teenagers on BMXs turned up at my rig and started inspecting it, then looked around, obviously thinking of stealing it. I was probably 50 yards off in the woods and out of sight, so I headed back in a hurry, but they were full of friendly questions rather than ill intent, so I let them live.

Day 3
I woke, sweating, in a field of peas. The sun was already high and I'd camped in something of a sun trap, so the tent was baking me like a Bramley apple. It was so unseasonably hot I decided to try out the chamois cream my elder brother, Peter, with a smirk, had bought me for Christmas. Chamois cream is a lubricant for a cyclist's nether regions, to prevent chafing, blisters, and other such unpleasantness. In Scotland I'd simply worn underpants beneath my cycling shorts, with talcum powder to keep my boys happy, but proper cyclists had been telling me off over this, citing chamois cream and sans undies as the way to go. 

Well, I now officially disagree. If you don't use enough it doesn't seem to do anything, and if you use too much the action of cycling pushes it up places I don't think it's supposed to go without a prescription.

I got into Hull about midday, and the city looked about the same as I remembered it: rather nondescript, unglamorous, and functional. The city centre was surprisingly pleasant, however, with some elegant civic buildings and museums. The woefully underemployed staff member in the deserted tourist information centre gave me a thousand-yard stare through the window, so I dared not enter, despite my morbid fascination with the concept of tourism in, let's face it, Hull. The place even sounds like it looks. If I really wanted to discover the possibilities, I've always got Google, but I didn't. 

I did need to replenish my water, though, and Google told me of a public bathroom in the centre of the main square, which turned out to be a statue of Queen Victoria. People piss on the Queen? That's not very imperial, I thought, when a toothless face-tattooed Dole Enthusiast touched my arm, cackling something unintelligible. It took some careful listening, but I figured out he was offering to watch my rig while I visited the bathroom, which turned out to be a subterranean affair, under the statue, dating back to Victorian times. There was no way in the Seven Seas of Rhye was I trusting this fellow and his dented can of supermarket cider with my bike, so I made a show of 'how I lock it up' so that it was, well, locked up, and as usual every portable valuable came with me. 

I was surprised he was still there when I returned, probably waiting for a tip. I reminded him we were in Britain, where gratuities are almost an insult, by telling him to look into cooking sherry as a cheaper per unit alcohol purchase*, and headed for the bridge.

*Turns out it isn't. Times have changed since my university days.

I crossed the Humber Bridge for the first time in over 30 years, when it was newly built and, at the time, the longest single span suspension bridge in the world. Almost a mile-and-a-half long, it is still, however, the longest that may be crossed on foot or by bicycle. At the time of writing it has slid to seventh in the world rankings. The towers stand at 510 feet (155.5 metres), and though perfectly vertical, are actually 1.3 inches wider at the top because of the curvature of the earth. The truly boggling statistic, though, is over 71,000km (44,000 miles) of steel cable went into its construction, enough to circle the world almost twice.

I think bridges of such sheer massiveness are truly impressive feats of engineering, and strike me with the same awe as any mountain. I could sit and look at them for hours. With a sigh, I climbed away through Barton-upon-Humber, out of the river valley, made camp in a wheat field, and dreamed of the days when I built things, too.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Tim and Me

For me, meeting Tim Ferriss was a life changer.

Not because he's a particularly inspirational individual (he is), nor because he's wildly successful (he is), but because it was his lifestyle I eventually decided to pursue. Well, not his actual lifestyle; my perception of his lifestyle.

We met in 2010. I was hired to interview him for the blog of a freelance contracting platform called I used while starting out as a professional writer, and I had no idea who he was.
( is also the company, incidentally, who launched a $10,000 essay competition in 2009 about their tagline concept The New Way to Work. Here was my effort:

Let’s face it. I’m lazy. 
I have a job bookended by twenty foot commutes. I can execute my professional duties wearing a Snuggie™ and fluffy bunny bedroom slippers. I shave when the mood strikes me. Whim dictates my breaks. I vacation when I please. These freedoms fill me with the profound, emotional joy usually reserved for the birth of offspring or three-pointing a crumpled ball of paper on the first go. 
As I recline in my contoured office chair at my unnecessarily large desk, surrounded by bright computer screens, stocked bookshelves, and the detritus of errant free-throw attempts, I find it difficult to avoid aiming a glimmer of smugness at you poor buggers who actually have to work for a living. Because what I do is not work; at least not in the traditional sense. I get paid to play with words. People are actually quite prepared to give me money for this rubbish, which never ceases to boggle my noggin. 
Laziness, you see, is not necessarily a fault. Every device, every invention, every idea came into being because someone was looking for an easier way to get something done. Laziness prompts us to perform more quickly and efficiently, so we can increase our time in its pursuit. It is the cyclical human condition.
Now consider the rarefied word that describes what I do: freelance. To me, it conjures up the image of a laconic lone wolf, a similarly unshaven man with no name, if you will, slowly striding the dusty streets of commerce selling his deadly services to whomever will pay.
This iconic avatar is not, may I point out, shuffling along in a light blue onesie. And spurs don’t jingle quite so menacingly, I imagine, while buried deeply in soft bunny fluff. His slugs of rotgut whiskey and well-chewed cheroot have been usurped in reality by mugs of comforting cocoa and, if I’m feeling particularly dangerous, a chocolate cookie. 
My mouse is my gun, my prose ammunition. At the risk of overtaxing this metaphor’s tensile elasticity, I will forgo spuriously likening to Eli Wallach by inelegantly linking their first two letters. Instead, I will mention the days of frantically scouring trade publications and the like for potential clients are forever over. Now they come to me, delivered via Elance’s colossal online fish-barrel. It’s almost criminally easy. See, in the bad old days, freelance writing was an analogue profession. We had to roam the figurative tundra in search of paying work. We had to proactively make phone calls and traipse to libraries to conduct our research. Paper was occasionally used for projects more productive than wastebasketball. Effort was actually a requirement of the vocation. Then, some bright (but lazy) spark invented the internet. This begat, which begat a burgeoning industry of workers who clumsily slop milk-sodden Fruit Loops down their pajama fronts with the indifference of an untended infant. 
I’m not sure this is what Elance anticipated when they envisioned The New Way to Work. Personally, I don’t mind if clients erroneously believe I’m a facsimile of the blustery editor in a high-pressure broadsheet newsroom; all rolled-up shirt-sleeves and furiously masticated pencils, fingers gradually typing less madly as the caffeine-fuelled hustle is delicately redressed by Liquid Paper fumes. After all, who am I to derail their delusion? Obviously, Elance planned to accrue an exhaustive index of such hard-boiled archetypes. However, instead (and I’m sure to their everlasting horror) they got people like me
By rights, working from home should have exploded when the internet arrived. There’s no real reason for people to physically travel to an office building anymore. Email, instant messaging, cell phones, video conferencing, pervasive WiFi and online workrooms should have euthanized the archaic concept of the communal administrative workplace, but they haven’t yet. Why is this? 
Could it possibly be the people who own large businesses are oblivious to the motivational aspects of our quest for idleness? Do they firmly believe their lazy employees require robust, adjacent, slave galley-like supervision? A bleak observation, granted, but what other reason could there be? I’ve posed this question to colleagues who espouse this paradigm. They invariably answer: “Meetings are more effective in person.” That may be, but does one really require special premises (and all the expense they entail) for something so mundane? If you feel the need to get tangible when you talk about work, can you not sit down for a chinwag at your house? You know there are pubs, clubs, restaurants, hotels, malls, convention centers, churches, temples and coffee shops with meeting rooms, right? 
I’m willing to bet most people who advocate formal, nay, ceremonial meetings in office surroundings do so because it buffs their self-importance to walk into an engagement sporting a Savile Row pinstripe, an Underwood briefcase and a Scott Tracey haircut: the comical, outmoded trappings of modern “power”. Negotiate from a position of perceived strength is the applicable adage here, I believe, even if that strength is umbilically tied to the truncated fashions of a 1960s children’s puppet show. I think it taps the same conceit originally evolved by the caveman carrying the prettiest club into the forest: Me best hunter
As far as I can ascertain, a far more accurate contemporary summation would be; Me dunno how to work them internets. It’s time to rid the village of this hirsute knuckledragger, folks. Pompous, contentless, physical formality in business is dying, as well it should. We may as well drag it behind the shed and put it out of its misery. 
Writing this reminds me of something I said fifteen years ago. I was walking through Central Park with my girlfriend, marveling at the surrounding skyscrapers. The internet was first really starting to take off. “See these wonderful office buildings? They’ll all be fancy apartments in five years,” I predicted, “no business in its right mind will run things from such expensive central locations when there’s online offices. Everyone will be working from home. You watch. 
Yeah, so I was wrong. 
But that watch is ticking.

Not bad, right? I was quite proud of it as a piece of writing, but it didn't even place in the top ten! The winners won with, by comparison, enthusiastically sloppy bouts of corporate fellatio. 'They have no art!' I roared in my new career naivety.)

Tim and I were scheduled to meet at one of his book signings for the Four Hour Work Week, which obviously I hadn't read, as coming straight from a construction background and never having worked in an office environment, I'd had absolutely no exposure to the flimsy-wristed onanism of self-help literature. I got to the location and figured it might be an idea to read the thing before I talked to him, so I grabbed a copy and flicked through it for an hour. I read fast, so I got the gist.

The subsequent interview wasn't an interview at all, really, because I was a little drunk. It was party day at the SXSW Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas, (which is where this book signing was taking place), and all the stalls were manically pushing free booze. This means I'd had many beverages unceremoniously thrust at me as I meandered through the nerd maze, waiting for Tim to finish signing, and such was his popularity the event ran over by four hours. Thus the hall was swaying like a maritime mistake when we finally sat down to talk. We got along famously, of course, as when I'm pissed I'm tremendously gregarious, and we share a common interest in mixed martial arts, which we discussed at some length to the distress of my far more professional interview partner Brittany. Brittany dutifully punctuated the exuberant babble with proper questions and recorded the conversation on her iPhone, all the while staring in horror at my inappropriate familiarity with the great man.

Behind the boundless vulgarity and disorderly exuberance I tried to figure out who Tim was, because there wasn't a page for him in my mental archetype Rolodex. Was he really a nomadic worker, travelling the world working four hours a week online? Did he have any kind of static base to work from? Did he own a house, for example? Rent an apartment? It turned out Tim lived a lot more of a conventional life than the impression I got from his book, but it's the life I'd imagined I found compelling. (Sorry Tim. I'm pretty sure your real life is awesome, but not, apparently, as much as it could be). I decided right there and then, I wanted that. Not what Tim does, but what I thought he does; travelling and working on the road. Obviously, I had no idea it would take many years and cost tens of thousands of dollars to get myself into a position to do so, to extricate myself from the complex prison we call western life, and henceforth embark on an incremental change in my fundamental philosophies, but the seed had been planted, and planted deep.

Travelling solo, I find I begin to conform to my personal ideals, like I'm the protagonist of my own novel, probably because they're the most available benchmarks to go by. But on returning, if I spend any significant time reintegrating with family and friends, I begin to slowly conform to their expectations of the way I used to be: the walls of the familiar loom and creep closer. And this is undesirable, especially when you don't particularly like who, or perhaps more accurately where, you used to be. When people expect me to be a certain way, I seem to follow the path of least resistance, which is to gradually drift back to their point of view. This destroys any progress one's made, and, especially if one's aware of it, even subconsciously, can lead to a listless depression.

Everybody changes over time, otherwise they're wasting it. We learn and grow as we plod through life, but travelling accelerates this process to a sprint. A few short months can have a profound effect on the way we view the world and interact with people. The ability to broaden our perspective is an immensely valuable tool, directly proportional to the miles we cover, unavailable to those chained to a mortgage. The way we travel, too, is important. Some of my elderly relatives and friends spring to mind: they're as xenophobic as many of their generation, completely comfortable with racist rhetoric, oblivious to the global social revolution heralded by the internet, which they view as some kind of idiot novelty, like flared trousers or head boppers, but get dragged along on exotic retirement trips by their significant others. Do they appreciate the history and vibrant cultures of the far flung places they visit? Nope. They like how many desserts one can have in the all-U-can-eat cruise ship restaurant, or how far the US dollar and British pound stretch in third world countries, or the novelty of a British pub interior with a mediterranean patio. I believe this to be a result of the detachment encouraged by speedy transport. If they had to power themselves to these places they'd learn to appreciate the journey, and I'm sure they'd have trouble maintaining such prejudicial opinions about the people. It's difficult to maintain an exclusionary political stance when one's part of the reason drowned toddlers wash ashore.

Look, we're homogenizing anyway. Communication causes cultures to merge: it's what it's ultimately for, and with the internet, the cat is well and truly out of the bag. No amount of politicking is going to tease it back in, and damage control by the powers that be just delay things. Their day is over. We're heading for global government with online voting and far fewer professional politicians, so fuck countries. Let's get on with it. Countries were a stupid idea in the first place and are actually holding us back: whether they're a Mesolithic misstep that got away from us or a necessary middle act to a greater way of being, they're transitory. I say we head towards, or circumnavigate back to, who we actually evolved to be, if our evidence of an overwhelming number of Paleolithic cultures is anything to go by: reasonable, communicative, egalitarian, and happy.

I decided on a more direct route home (because my mate in Newcastle turned out to be in Spain, a sign I should prepare further ahead) via Haltwhistle (love that name, plus it's the geographic centre of Great Britain, according to the midpoint of compass lines) then on to Alston and across the Pennines. The roads were quiet with a lot of climbing, but I found a cadence to match the steady incline and musicked up to make it fun. The snow on the tops made me feel adventurous, and the temperatures were noticeably cooler, but the cycling kept me warm, and the clear views wholesome. I passed several snowbound farmhouses, so far from anywhere, which made me a little jealous, before the downhill that changed my life.

Most people in Britain are familiar with the beauty of the Yorkshire Dales, thanks largely to the books by James Herriot popularizing the place, but they have no idea the same landscape occurs a little to the north in Northumberland, and with far fewer people. It is exquisitely gorgeous. Especially with the snow dusting the tips, the sun greeted my downhill like an old mate, and the road, again, was freshly surfaced thanks to Northumberland's bid for the opening stage of the Tour de France that year. So there was no tyre noise, and no traffic, and no people. Just me and the world. Travelgasm #3.

About halfway down to Middleton-upon-Tees, I passed a proper cyclist taking on water after his daily climb. He'd hit his high point, turned around, caught me up, and we chatted all the way into the village. I told him all about what I was doing, exploring the UK to see how villages were faring, but he disagreed with my premise. He said technology is killing communication, whereas I think it enlivens it. It was interesting to hear a rural opinion, however, as he continued on to lambaste recent city immigrants to the country, the side effect of communication technology I was investigating, who apparently refuse to integrate with the local community as much as he'd like. 'They don't come in the pub', was his particular chagrin. And fair point, I think: if you live in a village and don't frequent the pub, you've got to be some kind of twat.

I camped on the other side of Middleton and cursed my plastic mug again for being too small: it was such a pain boiling eight fluid ounces of water when I prefer to drink coffee by the pint. That's when the brainwave hit: why not boil a litre at a time and make the coffee in my one litre food thermos? It had a handle, so could be used as a huge mug. Displeased this had only taken me two, often bitterly cold, months to figure out, I decided to enjoy the anticipation of copious coffee on my last two nights rather than bash myself over the head with it shouting 'Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!'

Turning over in a mummy sleeping bag requires significant forethought and logistical acumen. The detachable inner must be kept in concert with the bag or the occupant ends up in a litany of twisted WWII Japanese prison camp stress positions. Thus I woke with a strangled gurgle at 4.30 this morning. I strategically struggled free and grabbed the empty methylated spirits bottle reserved specifically for pissing purposes: it saves messing with shoes, tent flaps and cold air rushing into my snug cocoon. After relieving myself I unzipped the tent door to empty the bottle, and the sound in the still mountain air carried to the nearest farm, about a quarter of a mile distant. This woke the dog, if the sudden barking was anything to go by. Barking subsequently started at another farm about half a mile from there, and so on down the valley in a cacophonous relay, closely trailed by a procession of angrily illuminating windows, the Teesdale Canine Telegraph presaging a sight not unlike Gondor's desperate call to Rohan. It was devilishly impressive. Envisioning gnarled farming hands reaching for bedside shotguns, I quickly poured out the contents and retreated to the twisted seclusion of my sleeping bag, wondering if any relocated townies were now cursing their romantic notions of living in the outback.

The sunrise that morning was probably lost on the grim and bleary-eyed locals, but I enjoyed it immensely as it drenched the autumnal colours in reds and golds. It's difficult to believe just a few short miles down the valley this sublime sight would give way to the urban horror of Stockton-on-Tees.

I quickly shivered into my sweat-frozen cycling gear and set off for Barnard Castle by way of the Church of St Romald in Romaldkirk, a Norman affair known rather ambitiously as the 'Cathedral of the Dales', with sections dating back to Saxon times. The village was destroyed a couple of times by invading Scots in the 14th century, but the residents stoically rebuilt into the fine example of a prosperous 18th century village it remains today.

The town of Barnard Castle centres on a magnificent namesake ruin, and has to be one of the most pleasant-looking towns I visited. I dismounted to walk up a castleside path into the town proper, escorted by an elderly strolling ex-solider, who quizzed me about my journey, and as usual the conversation turned to security. What the hell is everyone so frightened of? Did they know something I didn't? Were there monsters out there? I was starting to feel like some lost, wandering soul in The Walking Dead.

I arrived at the library to discover no WiFi and no charging facilities. With waning batteries I booked one of their computers for half an hour, frantically Google mapped directions and wrote them down with a pen and paper. I left not a little annoyed with Barnard Castle Council customer service policies, and set off down the A66 for Scotch Corner. This proved to be a drastic and near fatal mistake. While the shoulder was a couple of feet wide for a few miles, it suddenly disappeared, leaving a very narrow two lane road dominated by massive HGV traffic thundering past at sixty miles per hour, sometimes literally within inches. It was fucking terrifying, I don't mind admitting. I only had to endure about half a mile to the next turn off, but that 800 yards left me shaking.

Some people wonder why I don't turn back in these situations. Often you can't tell how dangerous a stretch of road is going to be until you're already too far along to consider backtracking. In this particular situation, navigating by a single route on a piece of paper (thanks, Barnard Castle Council) I had no option other than get totally lost, and backtracking to the two foot shoulder would've been just as deadly once I was halfway to the turnoff, and turning around itself would've been even more dangerous.

Back in safety my trailer tyre blew again in the same place, the tear growing to an inch across. I repaired it with another section of inner tube as best I could. It held for another five or six miles until the dark forced me to camp on an old country estate behind a derelict house. I resolved to go for bust tomorrow and charge for Whitby, about 40 miles distant. I might even get the further twenty miles home with an early enough start and if the patch held.

I got 30 miles the next day, moving into the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, passing the hilltop Captain Cook Monument and iconic Roseberry Topping before two additional blowouts and continuous resultant punctures made further progress impossible past Kildale. Lesson learned: always have a spare tyre and tubes. I called in the cavalry 28 miles from home, and, rather embarrassingly, my dad came to pick me up. That embarrassment in itself, however, shows I have a long way to go with my ego management.

Aside from the tyre and inner situation, I discovered a number of other issues on this initial leg of my global tour:

1. I need spares for things that will break, specifically the trailer arm pivot pin, and also, intuitively, the rear wheel skewer which the trailer arms hook on to. It came with the trailer, and seemed outrageously flimsy. But as the trailer was cheap, around forty quid, I bought another one for spares, and also resolved to make additional skewers and pivot pins from galvanized or stainless steel threaded rod because it wouldn't cost much and could quite possibly save my life. Parts of the trailer had already started to rust, too.
2. I needn't bring my large rucksack rather than the trailer bag, because I never used it, and it's lack of waterproofing was a liability, even with its rain cover. I resolved to buy a waterproof duffel bag instead, which would allow similar if not greater volume and far easier access to the contents.
3. Larger, waterproof panniers, because you can never have too much space to put stuff.
4. A bigger, better tent with roomier vestibules for gear and cooking.
5. A larger handlebar bag.
6. A better, more robust camera.

Everything else worked great.

An astrophysicist once told me (and I listened closely because she had magnificent breasts), if you hold aloft a grain of sand at arm's length and close one eye, the area of sky covered by that grain of sand contains two thousand galaxies, each one consisting of hundreds of billions of stars. Think about that for a second. Thousands of trillions of stars, one grain of sand, great tits. I've thought a lot about those boobs while I've stared at the night sky from my tent, far from light pollution, pondering the small and the vast, the round and the heavy.

When one considers we're no more than microbes on a dust mote, hurtling through space at a couple of million miles an hour, as part of one of two hundred billion star systems in our galaxy alone (or one hundred billion, or three hundred billion, depending on who you listen to. Let's just say 'lots'). Which in turn, is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies, you'll find we're so insignificant, so bacterial, dividing ourselves into cultural groups is so meaningless it's beyond puerile. Creating arbitrary differences in an attempt to establish a social hierarchy (because that's what it is, let's be honest) is possibly the dumbest, most self-aggrandizing thing we can do. Yet we do it.

Which of course means cultures are a load of bollocks. They really are. They're indulgent artifice. Peripheral scrollwork. Which means I respect individual cultural mores because I'm being polite, not because they deserve respect. Your culture is something you deem important, when it clearly, objectively, is not. I can appreciate beauty and artistry, of course, I'm not a barbarian, but I draw the line way before the genital mutilation of children, for example.

And the irony is here I am travelling the world with the intent of experiencing these various cultures. Why? The real answer is it's the only thing we can do as individuals to meagerly expand our microcosmic experience. It's the ultimate earthbound odyssey, but in the broad perspective it's titchy and means little more than nothing.

So why bother doing anything, if we're so insignificant? That's a very good question. I say because we're here. I didn't choose to be alive, but I'm here now, and I need to do something, to entertain myself if nothing else. May as well, right? If the mumbling kiddie-fiddlers who don't pay taxes are correct, and consciousness is immortal (which is highly unlikely), then we're off somewhere else once we shuffle off the material, so I fully intend to enjoy this bit while I can. I can't imagine a worse thing in the world than dying with regret, and that's where I was heading.

So call it a mid-life crisis, or a descent into abject irresponsibility, or my favourite; detaching myself from the real world. A close friend of mine asked me what I was running from: I don't think I'm running from anything, I think I'm running towards something.

What that thing is, however, remains to be seen.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Kicking Down Walls in the North of England

For the first time in my life, I can truly say, without any nagging internal caveat, that I've never been happier.

And I think it's because I'm finally doing something to assuage my innate wanderlust; a natural consequence, I believe, of our overwhelmingly nomadic ancestry. I've mentioned before how the homo genus has only been static for the last 0.4% of our time on Earth: 99.6% of our 2.5 million years or so were spent as hunter-gatherers, so I think it's fairly logical to assume we're driven by our genes to ford the river and climb the mountain. Ignoring this deeply ingrained predisposition is one of the main causes of our everyday stress, I believe, and a supreme cosmic irresponsibility, if one ponders the pot brownie idea that consciousness could well be the universe's attempt to understand itself. I think the recreation we feel when we hit the beach, the woods, or the slopes is precisely that mechanism kicking into gear, emerging like a sharp sword from a timeworn scabbard, tattered by a decamillennium of neglect. Movement is truly what we're born to do; material acquisition is a recent invention, because stuff just weighs us down.

In the modern world, all this changes when you involve someone else, of course. Success attracts mates, and finery is the easiest way to show it off, so it becomes expected, and an end in itself. But finery is an empty goal. Life is about experience, because that's all we take with us. After all, what do we reminisce about? Jewelry? Cars? Big screen TVs? Of course not. It's the howls of laughter, the tender amity, and the shared adventure. Our real goal, once we learn to transcend the cultural bullshit, is to fill our lives with unique and meaningful moments, because these are the only things that really matter.

At least, that's the theory. When it comes to happiness in relationships, I've had girlfriends ask me to change many seemingly innocuous behaviours in order to facilitate theirs. Aside from the usual toothpaste and toilet seat battles, one particularly memorable one was to make sure all the light switches on the main multi-switch panel in our open plan apartment were always facing the same direction by daily traipsing around 1,400 square feet coordinating their ancillaries. I flatly refused, which, curiously and gratefully, catalyzed our breakup. I've been asked to change more overt behaviours, too, such as playing sports or socializing with friends. Now, perhaps they didn't realize these things make me happy, or simply didn't care? Or maybe I was being too selfish?

Either way, if one's partner's happiness correlates with the other's wretchedness, as it certainly seems to have with a significant number of my relationships, I think it may be prudent to ditch the partner rather than adopt their light switch neuroses. This lack of compromise may strike some people as petty, but I've always preferred my own company over the abject misery of throw pillows and ironed underwear.

Whenever I get into a relationship, the first three months are fantastic, but then I seem to gradually lose interest. I don't become bored, per se, but lacklustre, ready to move on, only sticking around because I'm expected to. Because of this, I've never had a relationship last beyond a couple of years, and they all typically followed the same pattern of three months of joy followed by twenty-odd months of loyalty (well, I am stubborn). I thought I was broken, so I looked for solutions to this anti-monogamy trend. It turns out I'm no more broken than anyone else; they're just willing to put up with it. (I've heard it theorized that men are naturally tuned to stray after about three to four months, because that's when a pregnancy begins to show - job done - but I've never seen, or even looked for, any empirical evidence to support the idea. This doesn't mean it might not be true, however.)

It took me a couple of decades bouncing from one girl to another to realize this: all compromise every got me was mediocrity; a halfway house of temporarily acceptable agreeableness in which neither party is truly happy, and, with my rapidly justifying fickleness firing on all cylinders, ultimately dooming the relationship. Most married couples (or 50-60% of them, anyway, depending on which divorce statistic you read) seem willing to struggle on through a lifetime, evinced by the bitter squabbles of the long-married, soured by missed opportunities and enlivened by the chance to twist the knife over a past transgression, simply to perpetuate, it seems to me, the convenience of a regular shag. Have you ever met an old married couple who didn't constantly run each other down? In my experience, they seem to be the exception rather than the rule.

I suggest we shouldn't compromise. We should do what we like, and if a partnership evolves from connections made organically, great. If it doesn't, great too: because one is still doing exactly what one wants to do. A relationship shouldn't take work, I now believe, despite the popular rhetoric to the contrary. Do you have to work at your relationship with your best friends? (I hope you said 'no', because if you all do, I'm either supremely easy to get along with or a complete sociopath).

This all stems, of course, from that monumental bugbear of modern humanity: monogamy. We're not naturally monogamous, as any objective anthropologist or psychologist will tell you (a good primer on this is Dr. Christopher Ryan's book Sex at Dawn). Monogamy came about (as far as I can tell, after sifting through the absolute mountains of evidence pointing to polyamory as our true nature) with the Neolithic concept of property and advent of organized religion, no doubt adopted to systemize human breeding for maximum yield to fill the fields, armies, and factories on which the hierarchy of this abrupt cultural aberration so vitally depends. Monogamy means food for the machine: drones, if you will, and plenty of them.

So we're naturally, happily, polyamorous, because we've spent almost our entire history being so. Our psychological architecture evolved this way, but we're now stuck in this mad monogamous game of sexual exclusivity because it serves the state. And somehow we've managed to convince ourselves, through subservience to puritanical religions, that there's morality involved; a lingering deception of such magnitude and pervasiveness one can but both marvel and despair.

To quote neuroscientist and author Sam Harris, who puts this far more competently than I:
The God that our neighbors [sic] believe in is essentially an invisible person. He’s a creator deity, who created the universe to have a relationship with one species of primates – lucky us. And he’s got galaxy upon galaxy to attend to, but he’s especially concerned with what we do, and he’s especially concerned with what we do while naked. He almost certainly disapproves of homosexuality. And he’s created this cosmos as a vast laboratory in which to test our powers of credulity, and the test is this: can you believe in this God on bad evidence, which is to say, on faith? And if you can, you will win an eternity of happiness after you die.
Men have told me at dinner parties, typically in front of a hawkish wife herself similarly sold on the social propaganda, about how rapturous they are in this exclusive monogamy; usually men who feel the need to champion the fairer gender so long held to be property by agrarian civilizations. I like to answer by asking the men if the only porn they watch when they masturbate is of their wife, and similarly, do their wives only read romance novels and watch soap operas (obstinately perpetuating these particularly entrenched stereotypes) about their relationship with their husband? This sometimes produces an uneasy silence, depending on how stuck up the company is, not just because it's an awkward situation to consider (masturbation is rarely a topic addressed in polite society, which is one of the many reasons polite society is so suicidally fucking tedious) but also because they're stumped, if you'll pardon the expression.

The response I enjoy the most, however, is the haughty 'we don't need to masturbate' routine, because everybody listening knows this to be the kind of colossal whopper usually reserved, for and by, priests, politicians and toddlers. The typical layperson doesn't know, of course, comparatively little research has been done on masturbation, simply because finding subjects who refrain from fiddling with themselves to fill control groups is so goddamned difficult. People wank. Those who say they don't are lying. And, as a hedono-anarcho-primito-apocaloptimist, I think denying oneself harmless, private, nurturant pleasure is child molester weird; the 'moral' objection to it is simply another social remnant of the state optimizing breeding turnover by doctrinal manipulation. If people think eternal damnation awaits those who masturbate, they're going to try harder to get laid. And I don't think I'm alone.

Well, I am, but you know what I mean.

I hope.

Day 60
Yeah, last night sucked. I managed to get a little sleep despite the cold, and woke to a sunny but frigid mountain world.

I quickly fixed the flat on my trailer, but noticed the tyre itself was blown through, a hole about an inch across as if made by a sharp rock, probably from riding the rubble road yesterday. I patched it with a piece of old inner tube specifically reserved for this purpose, and hoped it would hold me the hundred miles home.

A welcome tailwind powered me along: I was easily going to make Carlisle today, until I got another puncture on my front tyre, which turned out to be two thorns, each of them having made two holes, which took me all morning and about half a mile to figure out (this is when I suddenly remembered the importance of checking the tyre before reinserting the inner tube). With sunlight only available between about 9 am and 3.30 pm this far north so late in the autumn, I only had around four hours of riding a day, bookended by camp prep and break. So I only actually made around 25 miles when I was shooting for 40, and ended up camping at Lockerbie.

Day 61
I got a curious email from my mother asking if I want to be rescued from the rapidly approaching winter. Bless her cotton socks. I don't know if such naivete springs from my reluctance to share the particulars of my life with my parents (in order to avoid their unrelenting disapproval), or from her stunning lack of faith in her son's ability to deal with, what she seems to perceive as, hardship.

In this latter perception she's not alone. The sheer number of people who've expressed awe in what I'm doing is quite overwhelming, as if it's some great physical and spiritual trial. Let me tell you right now: it isn't. Every day on tour is an adventure, sure, packed with novelty, but in no way is it 'hard'. Hardship is monotonously doing the same thing every day, commuting from a cookie cutter house to a cookie cutter cubicle, or fighting in a war, or summer roofing in Texas, or concreting anytime anywhere, in order to chip away at some tectonic debt. It certainly isn't cycling from pub to pub looking at cool shit along the way. This is easy. The problem isn't physicality or loneliness; it's maintaining enough of a positive revenue stream to continue with equipment upkeep and food. Because shit breaks, a lot. When you consider the planned obsolescences of most camping and cycling products are for a few weekends a year, I'm asking rather more of my gear. So it's no wonder everything is fraying, creaking and snapping. I am noticing the most expensive stuff is more hardwearing, which sucks, because I don't particularly want to spend more money than I have to. However, it looks like I may have to plonk down some serious coin over the next few months for equipment I consider unnecessarily dear. I tend to be of the mindset of not carrying anything I'm not prepared to lose, and the more I spend, the more this mood diminishes.

A slow flat got worse on my front tyre and required pumping up three or four times today, as slow punctures are difficult to find without immersing the inner in water, and messing about with a collapsible bucket of water in freezing temperatures is firmly in 'fuck that' territory. I noticed my trailer tyre was slowly deflating too, but it got me to Carlisle where a slippery data connection meant I asked directions to the library, and was sent down the wrong street. Luckily, it was a crowded pedestrian precinct so I dismounted and pushed, allowing the rather overweight fellow who'd misdirected me to catch up once he'd realized the error, at a full, red-faced, lung-bursting sprint.

These altruistic demonstrations help confirm my suspicions that the majority of us are inherently nice. On bicycle tours we get exposed to so many people without the physical barriers of road traffic, or the psychological ones we erect on public transport or in travel hubs, so one experiences a much broader yet concentrated form of human interaction. Plus, the bike seems to strip the pretense from social conditioning: there's no way to judge the rider's affluence, so people are forced to dig for further cues, and most of us, I think, with the internet sounding the death knell of the class system, can no longer be bothered with such juvenile juxtapositioning.

The WiFi in the library wasn't working, so the librarian generously allowed me an hour on one of the public computers which normally require some kind of fee, and made it clear she didn't do this for just anyone, y'know. This simultaneously separated me from the imaginary hordes of riff raff who roam from library to library to con local councils out of free online time, and established her position as a middle class chauvinist, no doubt trusting that my cycling jersey, by now specifically worn to elicit this very response, superceded every other indicator of grubby proletarianism. Yeah, so I'm a social climber.

I worked until the library closed at 5.30 pm, and I made my way through the unfamiliar city in the dark, to Rickerby Park to camp, and pitched by head torch next to a footbridge over the River Eden, desperately hoping this wasn't where the drug addict, axe murderer, and cottaging communities held their weekly knees up.

Day 62
This was the best 'make camp in the dark' result yet. I woke sober, alive and unbuggered, and waited for the sky to grey before rising to a pretty parkland scene by the river.

It was -2 degrees Celsius, so I packed up quickly and hit the road to warm up. I headed east, riding mostly uphill into the Pennines, arriving in Brampton before lunch.

Brampton is a fetching little village with a tiny library and an accommodating librarian, who signed me into a computer on her account when we similarly couldn't get the WiFi to work. It was a Saturday, so when it closed at 1 pm I headed higher into the mountains, following the course of Hadrian's Wall, and spent the night in its shadow at Walltown Quarry picnic site, contemplating the brutal life of a Roman soldier at the edge of the ancient world.

(Overnighting here is probably especially illegal, but by this point I was so past caring about arbitrary camping laws invented by people who don't camp I was quite prepared to bury the violently strangled agent of any objectionable officialdom with my toilet trowel.)

To entertain myself over the usual episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I came up with the concept of the Limited Nutritional Value Pig Out Night. On the menu were two packets of Rich Tea biscuits, two packets of Digestives, a jar of smooth peanut butter, a jar of jam, a tub of cream cheese and unlimited cups of tea.

Which, let's be honest here, is what this bicycle touring malarkey is really all about.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Mist and Cobwebs

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. - Mark Twain

Day 56
I flailed through the morning cobwebs and headed south.

A couple of minutes later I arrived at the southern terminus of the Forth road bridge and exploited the chance to sit on a 'proper' toilet. I've got to say I wasn't impressed now I'd exorcised the absurdity of the U-bend.

There was an electrical socket by the door, though, so I took the opportunity to prune back my face thicket with my beard trimmer, following up with a good wash. I emerged a shadow of the wildman who'd entered, and bore south towards the bike path that would whisk me to Glasgow.

Over the first hill a low mist hunkered on the valley floor, scattering the morning sunlight pouring over the distant Pentland Hills into an effervescent spectrum of grays. It was insanely beautiful. I could've sat there for hours, but with no problems to ponder, nor passersby to privately ridicule, nor booze to ease the passage of time, being static becomes a little less desirable, and the sunrise would end soon anyway.

If being static is actually even desirable in the first place, as my perspectival iris clicks open to its more usual global setting. For example, I did experience an uneasy resistance to leaving the bulkier trappings of civilisation behind when I left on this tour, but that resistance existed only in the last week or so of preparation, and lifted, like fuckery bricks from an untended backpack, abruptly upon exiting the driveway. Sudden freedom is surprisingly elating, and seems to eradicate, or at the very least significantly diminish, the petty tribulations of everyday life. Social squabbles and familial friction seem so much less potent, and infinitely more pointless, when one has to procure food and find somewhere to sleep every night.

Therein, perhaps, lies our modern conundrum: we evolved to struggle, not languish in success. With clean water, farmed food, zero predators, permanent shelters, and now the interaction of social media, we can't seem to help but invent new obstacles to take up the emotional slack. Thus, perhaps; neuroses, psychosomatic health irregularities, veganism, melodramatic soap operas, business and exercise goal creation, YouTube comment vitriol, and most curious of them all: plumbing prejudice (some people actually refuse to piss and shit anywhere else but their own home, when even the most rudimentary sanitation protocol dictates the complete opposite). We campaign against animal captivity but seem oblivious to our own. Unfortunately, we've improved healthcare enough to prolong this nightmarish Faustian purgatory into our eighties, when we finally die, peacefully and unnaturally, stuck full of tubes, drugs, and regret, surrounded by sniffling relatives.

A natural death is, of course, being killed by something that wants to eat you. Death by old age in nature is a rare accident, and the bowel-loosening terror of mortal pursuit a regular occurrence. We don't have this any more, and we apparently miss its balancing element, because we attempt to fill the void with the facile simulacra of exciting entertainments and precipitous pastimes, and I think this also plays a large part in our indignance at pictorial representations of Mohammad, or the ashes of our national flags, or rape jokes taken out of context. Perhaps we seek the adrenal surf because we're culturally bored, like listless chimps in a concrete zoo? But worse, I reckon, because we blame other chimps rather than the zoo itself.

Maybe I've been hypnotised by the unfurling tarmac, but it seems to be a metaphor for our existence now; a smooth road from the Paleolithic, roughened by overpopulation, potholed by this novel Neolithic concept of property, jolting this old jalopy along to somewhere we never intended to go. Our one saving grace may be digital technology, which seems to be bending the road back to a smoother grade, one where we've predominantly evolved to be, and the village is a charming pitstop on the way. And this is the evidence I was seeing, with so many villages now thriving. Twenty years ago they were dying. Hell, maybe village life is as retro as we care to be, now we've sampled the conveniences of indoor plumbing and WiFi routers, and the safety and comfort of the houses we put them in. Hunter-gatherers stay put where food is plentiful, after all. It's the dehumanising anonymity of towns and cities that do us in.

Personally, I may be taking it a little too far with this modern peripatetic nomadism, but the lifestyle has incredible appeal to me, perhaps because my construction career ran its course, especially in its latter years, in such a physically demanding environment I devalued the common luxuries most of us now take for granted. Plus, as a writer I feel it necessary, if I'm going to write about the way the world is, was, and perhaps will be, to go and have a bloody good look at it.

* * *

I followed the old railway track bridleway for most of the day, pondering these hefty topics, and stopped at the Morrison's in Bathgate for a quick forage, coming away with an orgiastically priced 20p bag of toffees.

It started raining mid-afternoon. From the path, I spied a peaceful-looking spot by Hillend Loch, and decided my luck was in. However, traversing a muddy ditch to get to this Eden, I accidentally ripped the heads off my earbuds when one fell out and caught in the front wheel. I did have a backup pair (one of the great advantages of bicycle touring with a trailer: one has more space to build in redundancies), or it would've been tinny phone speaker night in the tent, spiritually destroying the tranquility of the waterside, watching a few more episodes of Riker boldly humping his way through a herd of dead eyed bimbos and Worf being ragdolled by a smurf.

Hillend Loch
Hillend Loch is a 345 acre lake dammed in 1797 and creating, a marvel at the time, the largest manmade reservoir in the world. It supplies water to the Forth & Clyde canal, which similarly splits Scotland as the Caledonian canal does, eliminating the need for sea-going vessels to navigate the dangerous waters to the north. The difference between the canals, however, is the Forth & Clyde actually saw a modicum of financial success before being superseded by the railway. Twenty years to build, many thousands of navvies, hundreds of millions of man hours, obsolete twenty years later. It must've been heartbreaking for those callused, determined men.

There's a satisfaction one feels with material work that exceeds any other, I think. I take pride in my writing, so I try to make it as entertaining and fulfilling to read as I possibly can, but the way I feel when I write something well pales in comparison to my satisfaction when I drive past a wall I built or a roof I put on, even twenty or thirty years later. The tangibility is definitely more palpable. So I can empathise with these men when such a monument to their work ethic falls into disuse.

Interestingly, pride is a strange thing, indelibly tied to egotism. I had this conversation recently with one of my best friends, who's an amazing chef, a profession notoriously filled with narcissists, and he took umbrage when I mentioned egotism as a precept for perfectionism. He immediately assumed the layman's interpretation, that ego is infantile, when, in psychological circles, egocentricity is simply a necessary constituent of consciousness. Without it, we lack drive and determination. Much of our motivation stems from this component. I have an ego, as does everyone, but I've learned, especially since beginning to write for a living, to manage it. I want it to drive me towards excellence, but I also require genuine humility when someone purposely disparages me or offers a critique. Then I want to listen and possibly learn by objectively determining the value of the information.

Thus the benefit of balance, so that's now what I strive for, a malleable trade off between pride in my work and the ability to take criticism. Ego is the seed of most strife, but often the solution when applied wisely. Of course, most ill-tempered critics are completely full of shit, but occasionally one may glean a helpful nugget from the avalanche of bile.

Day 57
The winter had apparently followed me down from the mountains, as the flysheet was frozen this morning, but the low sun quickly defrosted tent, bike tarp, and the long grass around me, creating a damp mist that ultimately drenched everything. It dissipated quickly enough, though, and dried things out before I packed up.

Petersburn library on the outskirts of Glasgow appeared to be a relic of Assault on Precinct 13; a concrete bunker with tiny barred windows, flanked by shuttered shops defaced by graffiti, on a tower block housing estate replete with the rooster-like strutting of pit bull advocates, manfully reining in their pet predators. The librarian eyed me nervously from behind his bulwark desk as I walked in. I tried the wandering writer rhetoric, and relief washed over the man like a papal benediction. So thankful I wasn't there to violently bugger him to death he offered me access to the internet via his own account when the guest system went down. The place was deserted, and no other customer came in the library for the two hours I was there, which somehow didn't surprise me, though another librarian did turn up and they discussed me in hushed, almost reverential tones which had the curious effect of not only buffing my ego but also worrying me about my rig locked outside. I finished my final draft, emailed it to the client, landed another little project, then left to skirt the periphery of Glasgow and head south for the border and Carlisle.

I camped by Strathclyde Loch between Hamilton and Motherwell, near Bothwellhaugh Roman ruins, which destroy the popular Scottish boast of the empire ending at Hadrian's Wall some eighty miles to the south, and next to a suspiciously sandy beach, and made the single most momentous discovery in the history of cycle touring: No Bake Camp Cheesecake. You take a digestive cookie, break it in half to make it bite-sized and surmount each with a generous dollop of cream cheese, then a slight smear of bramble jelly. With a succession of cups of tea, I was in heaven. Surely something this divinely simple had been invented before? Well, I'm taking credit for it even if it has, because by gum, the symphony of sweet, oaty crunch, smooth creamy cheese and sharp tang of berry is to die for, especially augmented by an eruptive lakeside sunset.

Day 58
After weeks of cycling spending more and more of my time not listening to anything and becoming something of a meditative hippie, I curiously found myself craving music upon discovering my backup earbuds had even less purchase in my ears than the previous pair. I spent morning tent defrosting time loading up a new rockin' playlist to my phone and hit the road with the rolled frozen flysheet strapped to the trailer because it didn't.

I rode to Larkhall to work and charge my phone in the library, and discovered I'd been paid promptly for the work I sent in yesterday. I completed today's assignment and headed for the Co-op for an indulgent shop of curry ingredients and a celebratory four pack, thinking to get a couple of more hours riding in and camp early for dinner and a movie. This plan evaporated, however, when an elderly 'I'm Scottish' American cornered me as I was unlocking my bike and subjected me to a litany of family migratory history, mistaking my Canadian cycling jersey for collusion.

Coming from Britain, as I do (though born in Canada), I've never understood the North American fascination with their European ancestry. The stereotyping underpinning such interest is often quite disturbing, and rather shocking to experience from the denizens of First World countries, who should, frankly, know better. European nobility have the same obsession, and normal people shouldn't trust those weird bastards either.

Perhaps it's a relic from when we thought lineage and geography were more important than the individual, and we didn't know enough about humanity to discard the proverbial book cover? After all, this was before the internet, and I suppose the quickest way to best guess someone's character and temperament was through the generous application of established stereotypes. We weren't to know such thinking was lazy horseshit. It shocks me to see how many people still harbour these views, expressed so easily within the anonymity of the web, even with the mountains of biological evidence stacked so heavily against them and freely available for all to see. But still, this guy was ancient, so the stratifications of prejudice were probably irrevocably ingrained.

Avoiding impoliteness I murmured platitudes and feigned interest at the appropriate points, whilst internally updating how far I'd be able to ride now before darkness hit. When he finally broke the monologue at the sixty minute mark to draw what I firmly believe was his first breath, I interrupted to say I had to get going, constructing some lie about having to be in Carlisle in two days, and it was 120K away. He dismissed my objections and grabbed my arm, offering me a bed for the night. An entire evening of subjective genealogy, accompanied, no doubt, by albums of pictorial evidence, bookcases of supporting literature, slide shows, laser-pointed Powerpoint presentations, and, quite possibly, surreptitious attempts at sado-masochistic sex. I thanked him but refused, and said I really had to leave.

I was probably a little brusque in declining, and hope I didn't hurt his feelings, as he was probably just a lonely old man looking for someone to talk to, but I'd already given him an hour and I was looking forward to my plans. Curry night!

I made a mad scramble out of town before the dark and cold hit, desperate to find a place to camp. I finally found a fair spot and discovered my flysheet was still frozen. I put the beer outside to chill and slow cooked the curry for a couple of hours, seriously denting my methylated spirits supply but man, was it worth it for both my sanity and the sanctity of my bottom.

Day 59
The old Carlisle road paralleling the M74 was virtually deserted. I saw two cars in twenty miles, and with a dedicated bike path and a healthy tailwind through hilly terrain, I did that twenty miles in about ninety minutes. With the sun out and great views, the euphoria rose to a point where I started singing along to the music I was listening to, especially when Big Joe Turner came on with his version of the classic Honey Hush. I particularly like the chorus, so was belting it out at the top of my lungs, 'I SAID A-HI HO, HI HO SILVER! HI HO SILVER AWAAAAYYY!' When I shot out from the forest track, on a black bike, no less, onto a footway in front of two startled backpackers.

I passed through the village of Abington, but neglected to turn off for Wanlockhead, the highest village in Scotland at 1,531' (467 m) above sea level and home to what is very probably an interesting lead mining museum, but it would be closed for the winter. I continued on and noticed, on a bare hillside to my left, a patch of pine forest, just outside Crawford, quite blatantly planted in the shape of a giant penis. Immensely amused, pictures immediately winged their way to my Twitter and Facebook accounts.

I rode on past the rapturously named villages of Elvanfoot and Watermeetings, tyres purring their approval in the silence, but this perfect day began to crumble with the simplicity of missing a turn. Not usually a big deal, but I didn't notice I had, and this turn was important: crossing the motorway to continue the trail on the other side of the valley, and sleet began to fall and blow sideways. The tarmac gave way to a dirt track, the track thence to mud, and there was nowhere to camp. I saw some woods up ahead, though, and slogged on into them, thinking I was still on the right route, to discover a gate blocking my path. It was some kind of quarrying or mining operation, so I checked my map and discovered where I'd gone wrong. Still there was nowhere to pitch, so I donned waterproofs and backtracked the couple of miles through the mud slurry, now washing away to expose rough stone aggregate necessitating a snail's pace lest my rig shudder apart, the headwind opposing smoother stretches, as I cursed the heavens and all they contain.

I made it back to the missed junction, the cold starting to bite, got on the right path, cranked up my cadence to warm up, and discovered my trailer tyre was flat. I couldn't help but chuckle at how not fun this was. I pumped the thing up and carried on: it lasted perhaps a hundred yards. My hands were too numb to fix the puncture and it was getting dark and colder, one side of the road was a bog, the other fenced off, which isn't particularly a problem for me, but the dense and steeply sloping forest beyond was. I pumped up again, repeating the routine three times until I came across a flatter area to the left, raised above the bog.

In the dark I pitched on mossy rubble over concrete, trying to find purchase with the pegs, as the winter wind whirled into a howl. My hands had no feeling anyway, so I degloved to defrost them in armpits or crotch for half a minute to open up a few seconds of fiddling with pegs, zips, and clasps. It was below freezing now, and the sky was clearing to reveal gimlet stars, the moon an indifferent chip of ice, so removed from civilisation's glow. It was going to get even colder. I spread my stuff inside, weighting the corners to augment the insecure pegs, and thankfully, finally, got out of the elements.

I discovered, to my dismay, that my sleeping bag was wet. This was going to be interesting, as it's a two season bag with a comfort rating of +2 degrees Celsius and an Extreme Rating of -3, and it was already about -5 C, I guestimated*. Extreme Rating means you'll probably survive that temperature, but you won't sleep. I did have a silk liner though, which makes a huge difference, and I could layer up my clothing, but I was out of candles for the heater. There are those that say one should sleep naked or only in very light clothing in order to extract the full benefit of their sleeping bag. I don't believe these people.

I still woke up shivering and unable to feel my bare feet (all my socks were also wet), the tent taking a serious beating from the wind. I went out several times to adjust the guys and pegs, and actually wrote in my notes, 'HOLY FUCKING JESUS IT'S COLD!!!' when I got back in, but all told I was pretty comfortable, considering. Especially when I used my headover and woolly hat as socks instead, and wore two pairs of spare underpants on my head, and spread my towel over the bottom of my bag as a blanket. The benefit of so many years working construction in Canadian winters and Texan summers is I'm intimately familiar with a hell of a lot worse than this.

*I'm pretty good at marking temperatures. I looked at the weather report the next morning, and it had reached -6 C, so I was pretty close.