Al needs little introduction as we’ve written about him plenty of times here over the years. He has also spoken – to great acclaim – at each of our big, annual shandangos. He kindly gave us permission to share his thoughts here about his big escape many moons ago over to him…
It is more than ten years since I took those first nervous, excited pedal strokes away from my front door. I am pausing briefly now to stop, turn around, and look back down the long road behind me. It is no exaggeration to say that setting off to cycle round the world has changed virtually every aspect of my life.
I am still surprised, proud and relieved that the 24-year-old version of myself had the temerity, chutzpah and guts to set off on that journey. It is surely an indication of how I was not destined to a life of adventure that I am, even now, continually amazed that I did it. I am proud of the young me. And I am also grateful to him, for it led me on to such an interesting decade.
I’ll pick up the story after the bike ride ended. Returning home was (still is) a cocktail of contradictions and mixed emotions. I was delighted to get home again, back to my friends and those I loved. I was happy to put the hobo lifestyle behind me, the endless road, the fleeting interactions and relationships, the cheap sandwiches munched in noisy gutters. But, after being home for a couple of months, I began to struggle. My years of searching had led me to paradise. They had led me right back to where I began in the first place. Yes, it had been a cracking adventure, but I hadn’t found the Meaning of Life or the elixir of happiness. And, after an extra-ordinary experience, I found an ordinary life increasingly stifling and frustrating. I had no urge (at first) to head off on more adventures. But I was less able than ever to contemplate a normal 9-to-5 lifestyle. I needed a new challenge. And so I began to write.
I poured my heart and soul into writing this first book, with all the highs and lows that entails. The second bookwas a smoother experience. Eventually, the books were written and published and I felt ready to put the trip behind me and make a concerted effort to grow up and settle down. Over the next year or so I went through two jobs. Both were good career paths: decent wages and a smart suit; no danger, pension and gold watch in case of eventual retirement.
But it was boring, easy and unfulfilling in comparison with those years on the road. So I quit real life and walked out into the glorious uncertainty of doing whatever the hell I wanted at 9 o’clock on a Monday morning. I would be my own boss, live by my own rules, be my own arbiter and judge. I was going to spend my days doing what I loved. I was confident (a confidence forged during those years on the road) that if I was willing to work very hard, with enthusiasm, persistence and imagination, that I might be able to make a living out of doing the things that I enjoy. My confidence was also boosted by knowing how serendipitous my life was compared to so many people I had met on my travels. If my planl failed I would not starve to death. I would always be able to find another normal job. The risk did not actually seem particularly large.
And so, little by little, I have spent the last few years earning a living as an adventurer, author and speaker. Combining adventure with sharing stories has been a lot of fun. It’s not all fun: I doubt there are many people who have written books who describe that anguished task as ‘fun’. And the expeditions that really appeal to me are rarely fun. Selective amnesia is one of my most useful characteristics.
I have never re-read any of my books after they are published. I am more interested in looking forwards to the next project. And I am sure there would be so much I’d like to change. Writing this Afterword I still have not felt the urge to re-read the book. For the words in this book are the best reflection of my journey seen fresh after the event, expressed to the best of my ability as a young, novice writer. I would write the tale differently now, without doubt. For, as the years have changed me, so too they have changed my perception of that journey. And, as the journey was mine and mine alone, a changed perception would change the actual journey. How long will it be before I have forgotten more about that journey than I remember? The words I wrote at the time that I wrote this book were true to me at the time. To change them would be to change the truth and that is wrong. History might be written by the victors, but I want my book to remain written by the young person who rode it and wrote it.
Has cycling round the world changed my life? One thing is sure: fulfilling an ambition and achieving something that feels personally momentous are not the keys to lifelong happiness. If being restless, questing, ambitious and unsettled was what pushed me to cycle round the world in the first place, completing the journey has only made it worse. Opening Pandora’s Box has meant that everything I now do, I compare to those salad days on the road. Seen through that dazzling prism my adventures, my current highs, my fitness, my prospects, my freedom and independence, my normal everyday level of contentment and satisfaction all struggle to live up to the glory days of my mid- to late-20s. It is not all doom and gloom, rather I just set myself higher standards now in terms of happiness, fulfilment and ambition.
Something that has changed tremendously since I decided to cycle round the world is the number of people undertaking long journeys by bike. There are many styles of bicycle travel and at least as many motivations behind them. Many people have discovered bike journeys as an interesting, challenging, cheaper improvement to backpacking. Some have picked long distance cycling for a physical sporting challenge, riding across continents -head down- as fast as they possibly can. And ever more people are undertaking epic adventures by bike. It is lovely to receive emails from people dreaming of far-flung places. I always urge them to commit to action – “Begin!” The hardest part of my journey was having the nerve to start. Everything else was relatively easy after that.
There are many reasons why I set off to try to cycle round the world. Three of the strongest factors were having no idea what “proper job” I wanted to do, craving a massive adventure and wanting to be a writer. Lacking the imagination to write fiction, I therefore set off to create a story I could write. I had little idea how one became an author. I was just going to ride and to write. My ambitions were limited: I hoped only that, one day, I might eventually sell sufficient books to cover the cost of cycling round the world (?£7000). I have done that now, and more. But I am very much still learning my craft and I harbour ambitions for future exciting journeys which I hope will lead to better books in the future.
The surprise and satisfaction of successfully completing my bike ride has had a profound impact on my outlook on life. It made me realise that I was capable of far more than I had ever imagined. The ride stretched, but did not exceed, my potential. It provided a much-needed boost to my self-confidence. I hold myself to higher standards now, in all that I do and dream of doing. And it fuelled my ambition to make the most of my life, in lots of different ways. One of those has been to head off on more journeys and adventures, though no longer by bicycle. After all, I was never a cyclist. I was just a young man, short on skills, talent and cash, looking for adventure and whatever came my way. And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore on a bike. For those were the best days of my life, and they have opened the way to a wonderful decade since.
It will be interesting to look back again in another decade’s time, to look back from the wrong side of 40 on this journey that began as a frightened, ambitious 24-year-old . One thing I suspect will remain true. That no experience in my life is likely to match up the privileged days I spent cycling round the world, living the story that you have just read.
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