It's about what's over the hill

 I finally realized most people view cycle tourists as a little odd when a small town Scottish librarian, while describing the location of a book to a small child, inadvertently whispered just a little too loudly, 'It's on the shelf next to the strange gentleman.'

I suppose I did cut an unusual figure, wearing beige combat shorts over black winter cycling tights, grubby hiking boots, and a startling affront to the cycling jersey industry. A month's growth of beard added an element of destitution, and an unwashed fug established my own political exclusion zone, diplomatically sweetened by deodorant and talcum powder.


This did contrast strongly to a Glaswegian librarian several weeks later, after a tactical shave and wearing more conservative clothing, whom I overheard discussing me with his workmate in conspirational tones: 'Oh, he's a writer, you know. Travelling the country on that bike outside after spending 20 years in America!' made me feel far more professional than I looked, felt, and indeed, smelled.


It's like being cast happily adrift. One ebbs and flows with the day, defined by the bookends of camp and the stricture of sunlight, and the routines of procuring food and water rather than indulging corporate rhetoric. In this sense, I became a nomad, shedding stress and desk pounds as I went. These chores of survival became familiar and comforting rituals. Organization is key, but adaptability is essential, and awkward decisions become less so. Planning is short term at best, and can change on a dime.


Becoming nomadic
We're born to move, nomads by nature. Evolution programmed us to wander. Which probably explains why we travel for recreation. What we usually refer to as travelling, however, isn't really. If you think about it, how much of a culture do we really experience rushing around in planes, trains and automobiles and staying in resorts and hotels?

Of course, it would be a little naive of me to think roaming the world on a bicycle could possibly replicate the stresses and strains, or lack thereof, of our nomadic ancestors, but the daily quests into the unknown for food, water and a place to sleep are certainly a lot more in tune with our primary genetic motivators than commuting to cubicles to electronically shuffle virtual paper. The recreation of novelty is built in, so I don't have to tack on artificial pastimes to relieve the stress such sedation accumulates.


And what do we travel for? Surely the personal growth that comes from broadening one's perspective?


Experiencing other cultures through the window of a hurtling vehicle or cocooned in a lavish resort is never going to delve into the heart of a place, and therefore never really accesses that accompanying personal improvement we're striving for. I strongly suspect those who travel so softly don't do it to intellectually and emotionally experience diversity, they do it for pleasant surroundings, a change of scenery, and a chance to swagger in front of their friends when they get back home. Enlightenment comes more readily, I'm sure, with empathy, understanding and appreciation than a bowl of poo pourri and a pillow mint. We're faking the path to a broader perspective. Building a straw house on a swamp, if you will.


Now this may be a conceit of my own, too. A reverse snobbery of which I've been guilty in the past. In friendly banter, it's relatively easy to verbally and logically destroy an office stiff when one works with one's hands, as I have for 25 years. After all, they're immediately at a disadvantage because their skills are ultimately trivial. They don't physically make anything, so it's a simple transition to suggest they can't. In the broader perspective, they're what people who can describe as 'useless cunts'. Parasites who piggyback the working man. And the first ones we'll eat when all this comes crashing down.

See what I mean? I look forward to your comments.


 
Returning to the village
It was almost 20 years ago when the idea hit me.

Stumbling drunkenly through New York City's Central Park on a Christmas break from university, attired in the student uniform of open fly, coat at half mast and left trouser knee skidded with dogshit, I squinted up at the towering border of office skyscrapers and, surprisingly lucidly given my pronounced irrigation, surmised they would stand empty once this new-fangled internet thing took hold. Virtual offices would come into vogue, and people would work from home. The very idea of commuting, unless one's job had a physical component, would be ludicrous. Office workers would migrate from the towns and cities to live in more amiable village surroundings, with neighbours they could talk to, streets they could walk down and an altogether more pleasing living arrangement. Those remaining urban would re-realize the benefits of neighbourhoods, which would return to mirroring a village's autonomy. Locally owned artisanal outlets and services would re-emerge and flourish, buttressing the sense of community. The importance of friends and family would inch from industrial hibernation.

I proposed, stifling a belch and tripping over a trash can, that we secretly longed for the village: smaller, more cohesive communities typifying our nomadic and early agrarian ancestry. We've spent hundreds of thousands of years in these small groups, and only the last ten thousand or so shifting towards conurbations. So it was obvious to my sottish state, and accurate, later sobriety agreed, that this is where our more evolutionarily entrenched needs and wants could be more comprehensively fulfilled.




Small community friction
However, I recently read 'The Cook's Tale' by Nancy Jackman and Tom Quinn, the latest confirmation of something I'd long witnessed: small, close communities, even artificial ones such as sports teams and social groups, are often plagued by intense personal rivalries and infighting (despite a population of ordinarily calm, educated, intelligent people). Show me any social club and I'll show you a Shakespearian intrigue of imagined insults and simmering mistrust. I think this has to do with perspective: when we can't see the forest for the trees, as it were, it's a lot harder to navigate.


The advantage we would have now is our almost tectonic change in attitude: pervasive access to information has made us much more globally minded and philosophical. Maybe this technology is precisely the evolution we required to separate ourselves from the destructive myopia, or even amblyopia, of extended family communities? Maybe we needed this expansion in awareness to facilitate greater cohesion? Village life with a worldwide perspective. It might just work.

Yeah, so I was wrong about the timeline. Who knew the baby boomer business generation would be so suspicious of change? To this day many refuse to relax their grip on slave galley-like supervision, lording over rows of cubicles like a Roman whipmaster barking orders to the fat drum gimp. And the flood to the village is but a trickle. Sure, maybe the tech isn't quite there yet -- we've yet to invent a satisfactory virtual alternative to a face-to-face business meeting, for example -- but surely Skype suffices for most interactions?


I decided to go and have a look. I'd visit hundreds upon hundreds of villages, and see for myself how the populations were changing. I'd talk to the residents and attempt to gauge whether my hypothesis had merit. It was hardly a scientific study, I hasten to add. Far from it, much more of a good nose around.


This isn't the sole purpose of the UK leg of my journey, however: I'd been away from the old country for a long time, and wanted to refamiliarise myself with the land I really didn't know before I left, if that makes sense. Plus I needed some exercise: I'd become a full time writer four years ago after a lifetime in construction, so a body used to burning 4,000+ calories a day naturally started to get thicker around the middle. I require a more substantial reason than vanity to work out, hence I brilliantly conceived of this project.


Cycling every day is a joyful exercise, far superior to walking and driving in every way. And I'm not circuitously commuting: every day is a novel journey, where I can stop and write when whimsy strikes, and every night I fall asleep to a different, often spectacular view with a belly bubbling happily over a choice local morsel. Technology allows me to stay off the grid for up to a week, with long life battery packs to replenish my smartphone, tablet and laptop.


 

The transition to cyclist
Before I left, and on the early part of the tour, I trilled adamantly to anyone who'd listen that I'm no cyclist and this wasn't about the bike. I fought the pigeonholing like some exotic deviancy, but slowly relented over time as I grew to long for the daily ride. Not because it quelled some carnal urge, you understand, but because I became addicted to moving. I became a cyclist, despite my protestations. I still refused to fastidiously record mileages and equipment lists because these were the preserves of the blogging cycle tourist, not the professional writer roaming the landscape searching for meaning. I was being arrogant, essentially.


Anyway, I'll leave you with the words of noted cycle tourist and writer, John Stuart Clark, who puts things so much better than I:
"In shedding the shackles, we are released to be who we are. For some, that can be frightening. The deeper you ride into the back of beyond, the deeper you travel into yourself, gradually experiencing the change of consciousness that ultimately reveals things spiritual. Why else did prophets, hermits and the leaders of the world's great religions enter the wilderness? Ironically, in modern times we enter to escape the inescapable -- ourselves. Yep, it's a zen trip." John Stuart Clark


In more ways than one, it's about what's over the hill.

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