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The open road. Home for a while

I have a strong personal belief that leaving isn’t the toughest part of a long journey. That award goes to returning home. There are many articles about the pains and pitfalls of arriving back in reality and many of those describe something close to the stages you might experience when you’re grieving.  So, what happens? Why is getting back to the home that you most likely love, and have at times yearned for, so difficult? Perhaps the fact that we give coming home no, or little, thought before leaving may contribute to its impact when we return.

We often hear the expression, ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. It sounds trite but isn’t too far removed from the truth in some respects. When you left, you banished not only irrational fears, but some rational ones too. You did this to aid your escape. I believe that what happens is that you create a bubble in which to live. In this bubble, you control negative thoughts and feelings, allowing you to move away from the things you know. The simplicity of life on the road takes over and the bubble expands to include all the things you now have cognitive space to acknowledge. You may become incredibly mindful at noticing this new world that can appear faultless. The last thing on your mind, once you’ve settled in, is home, work and your previous life.

The freedom you feel has you believing that you are living a Utopian lifestyle with all the negative parts of life having been temporarily banished. Having experienced this state, home can become seen as a prison, somewhere that you need to escape from in order to live fully and not the stable base that allowed you to dream up this adventure and to escape for a while in the first place.

When I travelled home after my first four-month trip, my bubble burst straight away. I was welcomed by an arrival party at a cafe some 20 kilometres from home. Getting there, I felt confused beyond words. Why were people making such a fuss? I had been riding for so long that I had forgotten the big picture and was simply riding from day-to-day. Faced with this sudden and absolute conclusion to my journey, I didn’t know what to do. By the time people left and I rode home I already felt lost. That twenty-kilometre journey home was the toughest ride in over four thousand miles and one of the hardest I have ever made.

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It’s easy to feel you have reached some kind of Utopian dreamworld at times.

The relief at finishing came out as tears. I missed my bike and grieved the journey’s end but at the same time knew I needed to stop and rest. It was as if my life had been sliced in half with a knife.  I had used up all my resources keeping my bubble going and living in a false world, one where I was the centre of everybody’s attention and one where all I did was to sleep, cycle, socialise and eat. This combination, along with the constant physical and mental effort now left me in limbo. My body and mind, though tired, had grown used to pedalling every day. I was doing the cycling equivalent of cold turkey. Not only was I not getting the chemical benefit of physical exercise, but I had the mental dip from having suddenly finished something that had come to dominate my life for several years.

For me, everything was in conflict. I questioned who I was, what I was, the point of the journey and whether it made any difference to my life away from it. I don’t know what I expected, I had been away on plenty of climbing trips and the like but the length of this one added to the difficulty of readjusting. Bubbles don’t burst gently. What seemed like an ideal world felt as though it had slipped inexorably through my fingers and down the drain to an unattainable place.

For some time, I fell into a deeply depressive state as I made the necessary adjustments to life at home. I was initially pleased to be back and remember smiling as I rode up the close and opened my front door. To have so many things around me felt odd after living out of my trailer box between two thin sheets of polyester for several months. Hot water was on demand and I could boil a kettle without thinking about fuel. I had pots and pans big enough to not have to think about what I cooked and whether it would fit in them. There was a fridge and freezer and shops just down the road. There was very little that required thought at all. Because of this, time seemed to drag its heals, adding to my initial woes.

But it wasn’t just the possessions that made me uneasy. Being enclosed within my house felt odd. I couldn’t hear and feel the changes in temperature, the birds and weather as I did during those four months spent outside. I could no longer be in tune with this outside world in the same way, now separated, as I was, by a double brick wall. It felt airless and almost claustrophobic living in the house and more than anything else I felt isolated, shut away from human contact within the walls of what now appeared to be my prison.

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A few possessions, some space to pitch up and food: Perfect.

The initial interest in my adventure from outside died away quickly. People moved on to the next thing they could get vicarious experience from. I already knew this would happen from the many climbing trips I made in the past. On returning, everybody else has been busily following their own work, dreams and paths. They cannot imagine the things you have seen and felt because they weren’t there with you to experience them. You soon reach a point where those around you have heard enough of your adventures and you can be left with many thoughts and feelings that are impossible to share or even explore with your support network. This process can make you feel even more isolated and alone. I found that writing my thoughts down helped me not only to own and revisit the journey, but to see its value to me, and that is all that matters in the scheme of things.

Slowly but surely I began to reconstruct my routines and life. I started cooking good food, taking long baths, walking and getting out of my house to say hello to local people and reconnect with that world. I let myself sleep as and when I felt I needed it and didn’t force the issue at all. In re-engaging I saw that this life had its good points as well and that without my home life I would possibly have never gone away. While the two lifestyles were different, they were still both important parts of both me and my life journey and that was what mattered.

Over a period of weeks and months, once all the initial clamour of your arrival dies down, you will begin to look at photographs and maps which in turn will hopefully trigger fond memories. You will have questioned whether it was you that did something that now feels so remote, or whether it was all a dream? But try to bare it, it is all part of the process of landing. Gradually, your body will recover its energies and the less positive aspects of getting home will be replaced by pride at your achievement and a plethora of joyful memories. Eventually, a small shaft of light penetrates through the blackness of your seemingly ordinary and boring life. You will begin to plot and scheme all over again for another journey. It probably won’t match your first time away, but it will be easier and more rewarding in other ways with less effort needed to achieve it.

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Home sweet home, October 2009. Contemplating my first tour.

There are those of us who want to travel continuously. Those who never return home avoid all these issues. They are nomads, cycling gypsies and that can appear an attractive proposition to some. But for most of us, we just aren’t built that way. We love our homes and what they represent and we need to find a balance between being away and living at home in a way that works for us. Returning home, and the difficulties it initially creates, doesn’t diminish our sense of adventure and doesn’t make us less likely to go away on another journey. It is the yin to cycling’s yang. It is just an occupational hazard and one that, given some forthought and a little care, won’t get in the way too much.

Congratulations again. You have become an adventure cyclist. You have travelled and landed back home without too much disruption. In my experience, one adventure leads to another so when things are tough, try to remember that fact.

Until next time…………………