Rolling the day away

It’s been a bad day at work. A vision-squeezing stressful kind of day. When the headache persists after a cup of tea, comfort food and some venting, one of us somehow summons the motivation to get out. And then, faster than second thoughts, we are out the door with our bikes. Out to the fields, out to the forest.

When the wheels hit the trail we are pedalling fast out the gate, racing our demons, chased by them. It is already late and the light is dusky and heavy with humidity. Parched by days without rain, the forest colours are muted, and here and there I notice the trees looking somewhat crumpled. Even the trail is a dull brown ribbon snaking through the undergrowth, a smudged canvas on which we roll out our frustrations.

We attack the first hill and I wrestle my bike and my brain to keep both glued to the trail, but there is not much time to savour the satisfaction that I’m making it before the sourness and burning starts. That taste in my throat – I don’t know what to call it, it is a mile-run-time-trial-in-the-6th-grade taste – but it goes with that lung-bursting feeling that goes with that leg-burning feeling and it is awful but it feels so good. So good to have something real to rage at: the pain, the hill, the bike, the burning.

At the top of each hill, we collapse onto our handlebars, rip off backpacks, helmets, gloves – everything is so oppressive – I feel like I won’t be able to breathe if I don’t get it all off of me. The weight of not just the things on our backs but the weight of the storm-laden air, of my heavy breathing, of the world: I can’t tell if they are adding up or canceling out tonight. And so we push swiftly on into the next climb, knowing the leg-exploding is around the bend and plunging into that place anyway. At the next break we are nauseous, gasping, speechless.

A third climb, and finally the frustration has been squeezed out, or maybe we just know the worst is over, and we are coasting, rolling, loving this upper section of open forest. The deepest part of the woods is ahead, and up there lies a rough stretch of rocks, but the darkness takes the edge off and reminds me to lift my head and look further out, and then I’m flying down the last open curves, leaning into them, gently pulling, firmly pushing, simply riding. Relaxed now, I let up on the brakes, roll over rock and root, faster and faster, the speed smoothing the trail under my wheels. Feeling the flow, finally. Finally feeling everything good there is to feel about this, about everything in this moment.

Fulfilled, I can go home and rest now.

On traveling and writing

I’ve now been traveling for nearly five months and yet I still haven’t figured out how to convey what I’m experiencing in words or pictures on this blog. But now I’m sitting by the lazy green Mekong river in Laos with a nutella sandwich, cold passionfruit juice and an afternoon’s break from my bike so there’s no good excuse not to just write. So here goes…

Since there are several reasons why I’m out traveling there are several ways I might write about it. This blog started as a way for me to write freely about conservation so I’m trying to find a meaningful (and practical considering poor internet connections) way of writing about this adventure in a way that keeps it connected to conservation.

“All adventure is a vessel for getting to the more important things in life.” – Alastair Humphreys, 2011

What are the important things in life to me at this moment? The environmental lessons that don’t make their way to my desk in Europe. The human connections that happen only when you are miles and miles from ‘civilisation’, sanity and the safety of the known. The nature of your own edge. The nature of nature’s edge – and society’s. The serenity and satisfaction of reaching an ‘ah-HA!’ moment at the most unexpected points in your life.

Even if I’m not working in conservation right now I’m living slowly and sustainably, and I’m getting closer to discovering a way to lead a life that brings conservation and outdoor adventures together.

Bike touring
Bike touring

Two inspirational women who recently cycled for ten months visiting transboundary protected areas (national parks that straddle national boundaries) summed up what I’m trying to say just perfectly:

“There are places you can get to by road, and there are places you can only get to by being on the road, a state of mind you can carry, with concerted effort, to almost any context.” – Cycling Silk, 2011

The seed for my own expedition or adventure was planted about a year ago in the second half of my masters when I got to attend a few talks by expedition leaders (including Sir Ranulph Fiennes). The craving was only further fuelled by the extreme sports videos I would watch online while putting off the essays I should have been writing. I wasn’t interested in being a backpacker or in moving ‘to the field’ for a gritty but noble conservation job. I wanted to do something physically demanding outdoors. I wanted to learn about the world and myself through the total sensory experience of life outdoors every day. I didn’t know it then, but I do now: I needed to be on the road in every possible sense.

Being on the road is both a lifestyle and a state of mind. The route we are drawing on the map with our bikes is a transect through time, through my life and others’, and through social and environmental landscapes. It’s just one of many possibilities, but whatever path I’m on is the way it is and a chance for me to learn something along the way.

To give you a taste of Laos, here are a few observations in the time I’ve been sitting here writing:

{A woman in a typical conical woven hat guides a small canoe over the river carving a rippling V into its smooth surface.}
{A man fires up a longtail boat below the deck I’m sitting on and the whap-whap-whap cuts through the thick, hot air, disrupting the near silence.}
{A monkey in a cage at the hotel across the sandy lane starts whooping out a high pitched warning cry as tourists walk by laughing.}