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 Elance.com I used while starting out as a professional writer, and I had no idea who he was.
(Elance.com 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 Elance.com 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 Elance.com, 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.