Sarah: The hardest part

It’s been two years now since you left on a Big Adventure. You were gone for twenty months, have been back four and already it’s beginning to feel as if you never left.

You don’t actually talk about it or even think about it that much. For a while there you were exactly where you wanted to be; now, not so much so, but this too is something you have chosen and you believe it important to give it your best shot and fully “be” in the present moment.

The person you thought you’d become when you first arrived back is already fading from memory, the taut hard lines of your body softening, your skin paling. You are conscious of a deeper truth: you are still you. Does travel change you? Yes. Of course. No. Of course not.

Work is a shock, the walls, the technology, the too many people. Being trapped inside for the entire duration of a sunny day is a pain you find unbearable. Your tea room looks out over the sea; you can’t decide if this makes things better, or worse. You become a clock watcher, counting down the hours, the minutes, til you can leave this stifling building. You’re shocked by the level of responsibility your job entails, shocked by the comfort and ease with which many of your colleagues appear to wear this. People who were your juniors when you left are now proper grown-ups, usefully contributing to a department they are firmly imbedded in. They have bought houses, had babies. They are here.

And you. You’re again wearing an ill-fitting mask, pretending you too can do this, trying to hammer the square peg of yourself into a round hole.

Your colleagues refer to your trip now and then but you don’t really give much, say much – it’s too far removed – to talk about it somehow seals it irretrievably into “Past Experiences I Have Had”. You don’t want to lock it away, something that was good but now is over. You don’t fit but it’s your fault; you’re not even trying to.

Even the money is a shock, the first you’ve earned in two years and you could cycle for another year on what you bring home in a fortnight but life is so different here and for many even this is not enough. You’re deeply disturbed by the consumerist society you live in, always have been but even moreso now after twenty months of living out of two tiny pannier bags and staying with people for whom even that was a lot of stuff. You want to rebel against it all, continue to live as simply and frugally as you did on the road even though it is no longer strictly necessary. You’re discomfited and embarrassed by your own wealth, which you feel completely under-equipped to deal with.

At first you cycle every day, because it’s normal, because that’s what you do. As the months pass it becomes more and more difficult to motivate yourself to do so, riding yet another loop on pavement, the same old ride on the same heavy bike-that-is-not-a-road-bike. Your road biking colleagues assure you that your standard round-the-river is probably one of the most beautiful urban road rides in the world. They are probably right: there’s the river, the trees, the boats, the birds, sometimes even dolphins. But for you, it’s just a sealed road going nowhere, and endless repetition.

You escape to the bush now and then, but less often than you’d like because it generally involves getting in a car – something you now find unnatural, disturbing and guilt-provoking. There you ride the trails, fall back in love with the speed and technical challenge of single-track, the wonderful control and responsiveness of an unloaded bike and the forgiving squish of full suspension. You had almost forgotten how much you love “proper” mountain biking. You had certainly forgotten how to walk; your body aches in protest at the unfamiliarity when you try it. You love these trees, the gentle companionship of kangaroos……
But it’s all too easy: the flat landscape, the mild, predictable climate; you’ve upped the ante these days in terms of what it takes for you to feel adequately challenged.

You throw yourself into the many activities you weren’t able to do on the trip, several of them inspired by it: you take pottery classes, try your hand at tile mosaics, begin playing the double bass, learn to bake bread, plant a vegetable garden, paint the house, go kayaking, start ballroom dancing and remind yourself how to knit. These activities are all good fun and pass the time but you’ve no overall sense of purpose and you can’t kid yourself for a single second that they excite and inspire you the way an unexplored line on a map does.

It’s supposed to get easier as time passes, isn’t it? It doesn’t. Those first few days, you struggled to say “thank you” in English and you couldn’t flush paper down the toilet, but at least the reflexive, ingrained nature of these habits kept it alive and present. They are too rapidly replaced.

You don’t really even look at the photos. You’re looking forward to the next adventure, not back to the last one. Most of all, you’re looking at how to fall in love with, appreciate and live the adventure that is right here right now.

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23 comments

  1. Sarah, I’m excited that your tea room looks out over the sea. I think a round peg and a round hole would suit you much better. The road misses you and will be happy to have you back.

    nicholas

  2. Sarah…. in this very moment you are an amazing writer – thank you for this thoughtful, lovely post that I’m sure has spoken the heart of many.

    Patti

  3. Hi Sarah, nice post, cheers! I was away in Asia and the Middle East for 6 years, cycling for 3, so I can certainly relate. I came home to Melbourne in 2010, and the city and my life within it had turned hollow. I think, as you say, the key is we’re ‘looking at how to fall in love’ again. We crave that inner connection, and the expanse and possibility of the mystery road… within something. Somehow, and no matter how much we try, ‘pottery classes and dolphins in the river’ just don’t cut it. For me, it took six months of ‘kicking against the pricks’ – a rat in a maze, until I finally gave up, and figured death probably wouldn’t be a bad option (I was also unemployed). So there you sit, and you know that no outward movement is gonna make a whit of difference. You are alone, and f__ked. It’s only at these points, I think, that we begin to understand the truism of ‘the answers lie within’. So with nothing to lose, you go downward into yourself, and what a painful road it is. Angry men in strange dress hide behind trees throwing rocks, black dogs snap at your wheels, and snarling monkeys threaten and stalk as you slog slowly uphill (I hate monkeys). Oh, the pain! The anger! But you keep going and going – where else can you go?, until finally, one bad day, unable to turn another pedal over, you just slide off your bike, lay on the ground and weep. You are well and truly lost this time! Looking up at the sky and feeling unbelievably sorry for yourself, you figure you might as well just give up on any idea of destination, and surrender to this black road you follow. Wherever it may lead, it’s the truth, and you know it. You give in, and fall down, down inside this despair that wraps itself like a shroud around your spirit. You feel something crack and break. It’s like the rumble of thunder and a first flash of lightening stringing across a leaden sky, and you think, “Maybe I’m dying?”. A voice, not your own, but as strong as the wind and as gentle a breeze, says, “Get up and walk!” Puzzled, you pick yourself up, breathe out, and looking around realise that this whole magnificent 360 degree panorama within which you stand is full of possibility. With a laugh, you climb back on your bike (Is it ok if I cycle, Sir?, you ask.), and begin heading homewards. Well, that’s my story, Sarah, and I’m sticking to it. Via con Dios, cycling amiga! :)

  4. Gary and Patti, I wonder who I am writing for and the answer is that if you guys like it then that is enough for me. Really. Felix, thank you for sharing your powerful and moving story. It has been my experience too that it is when I truly come to the end of myself that I am most likely to hear a “strong and gentle voice, not my own”. Dan, I have just taken a look at what you are planning…. :-) :-) :-) Sarah

  5. Hi Sarah… Same same. I was actually thinking about writting something similar to this post for my own blog but I just can’t think I can capture the feeling any better. I hope Felix is right, and things fall into place at some point. I’ve been home for a year now and it certainly didn’t happend yet. Cheers

  6. I think if your trip is long enough, by the time you reach the place you left (hard to call it home) your mind is already set up for the new challenge. Travelling slowly, on a bike, the mind should get time to adjust for what is coming: the society. At least I hope it will happen by the time I will reach Spain after a 13 years (More or Less) World tour.
    Otherwise I will quite quickly for another adventure that connects my mind and my soul as well as this world tour is doing.
    Courage alvaro the biciclown from Salt Lake City, 112653 kms in almost 8 years

  7. Very well written! I often feel the pangs of longing for the road, as do my husband and children. We spent a total of four years exploring the Americas on our bikes and, as you wrote so beautifully, we felt like foreigners when we came home.

    We’ve now been back nearly 1.5 years and we often talk about the possibility of heading back out. The difference for us now is that we have the luxury of designing a life we choose so we’re not back in the same ol’ grind of the same ol’ job.

    I was just talking with my son last week and asked him if he’d like to head back out on the bikes or if he wants to stay here in Boise. “I like it here, Mom,” he said, although I know there was a bit of wishing he could be in two places going on.

    I guess it’s all about choices. When we choose to do one thing, we choose NOT TO DO something else. For us, right now, we choose to put down roots in Idaho, which means we cannot choose to be on the road. That could change tomorrow…

  8. I can’t even begin to describe how much this post mirrors my own experience.

    Sarah, our trips were very similar and I used your and Tom’s route for parts of Guatemala and Central America, a few months behind you.

    Being back in the UK for a few months now, working with the same people in an office is such a massive life shift given the freedom I experienced last year.

    Travelling does change you, I see people in the office saving up for one car, only to start saving for the next upgrade, and I know that isn’t and never will be me. the lessons I learnt from last year still apply to this live.

    Learning how to live in and enjoy the moment is transferable to any stage of your life, whether you are flying down singletrack or just learning how to handle the challenges of modern civilization.

    Your writing is very enjoyable to read and makes me seriously reflect on my own experiences.

    Thank you,
    Nico

  9. Thank you everyone for your thoughtful comments. I agree with so many of the remarks made – yes everything is a choice and yes living in the moment always applies. I am a bit stunned by how much this post seems to have resonated with so many. Thank you for letting me know you understand and identify.

  10. “These activities are all good fun and pass the time but you’ve no overall sense of purpose and you can’t kid yourself for a single second that they excite and inspire you the way an unexplored line on a map does”.
    Oh God I never thought ending a long tour would leave me as it has, its been some years now, but the unexplored line on a map really hit a cord with me. I always seem to be gearing up for the next trip that seems so hard to reach.
    Thank you for sharing lovely words
    Richard

  11. This was a wonderfully written and moving essay that reaffirms my greatest fear. My wife and I will be heading out for our own extended tour of the world before long and when people ask about fear, I silently think to myself that what I’m most afraid of is coming home. I often wonder if this thought, this fear of coming home, is just my ignorance shining through in melodrama, but apparently not. I see it in this story and in the replies from others who’ve already made this trip. It worries me for I truly love my little town, the mountain biking trails out my driveway, and my carefree existence. Not to mention my friends and family. But the road calls. Who am I to deny it?

    Thanks for sharing your story so the rest of us can no these fears and doubts aren’t abnormal.

  12. ‘After the ecstasy, the Laundry’ – not mine, Jack Kornfield’s book title. You CAN find the extraordinary in the everyday & routine (…and you still take your own head and its stuff with you everywhere you go, no matter how exotic).

    On the other hand it’s life-enhancing to have those great and vivid memories, and the breadth of context it gives you. A lovely post, thanks!

  13. And a lovely comment, Nick – thank YOU! “the extraordinary in the everyday” – I love this line – and too, too true that you take yourself with you everywhere :-) I will look up the book.

  14. Hi Sarah,
    What a fantastic post. It sums up perfectly how I feel, yet I could not find all the words to explain it. I returned xmas eve from a 9month trip in Nepal India Sri Lanka & Hawaii and returned to Perth with itchy feet. My partner & I committed to 3 full months of working, so we can travel around Australia, which we will be leaving 7 April (guess who’s counting). Today, I just bought a bike so I can ride from Perth to Kalbarri with my friend, and then I will be doing lots of exploring with my partner on our bikes too. Thank you again for an inspiring post,
    Jill

  15. Not only is this article extremely well written, but it also sums up everything I’m feeling right now as I too just returned (last month) from a 25 month tour. Literally every line you wrote is what I’m experiencing now and though I know others go through this reverse integration back into society it’s nice to read about other people’s experiences because obviously the people here who haven’t cycled don’t get it. Anyways, thanks for such a wonderful article!

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