Thursday, June 23, 2011

Can adventure writing encourage passivity ?

This blog is prompted by a recent tweet by @bikeaboutuk. They are part of the way across the Gobi desert. It’s tough, and they were openly describing how they felt. How they were struggling. That there had been “one too many days in the desert”. I liked their post, because it shows we all struggle at some stage. We have all had those days where the headwind just seems relentless. That the energy tank is just totally empty. At 11 o’clock in the morning, having only been on the road for 3 hours, you stop. Pitch the tent and lie in it, and go to sleep. I’ve done it.

There is a school of writing about adventure that is of the “macho” variety for want of a better name. It’s not exclusively written by men. But it emphasises achievement, and is in the vein of overcoming any obstacle. I don't want to single anyone out as being unworthy - it's a style of writing. But I wonder how it leaves most of the population thinking about adventure? Every time I pull up to a caravan park I get the same questions "How far have you ridden?" "That's a long way." "I couldn't do that" "Yes you could, it just takes a bit of practice." It's natural to portray things in a dramatic way, but is it actually accurate?

For a person who is maybe not in a great place to start with, and hits their first obstacle - a big hill, a rainstorm, or something serious fails, it can be a moment where you actually give up. Maybe you ring a friend, or your partner, and they come and pick you up. Giving up is sometimes the best choice. But it can leave you back on the couch, even lower in confidence. I'm the sort of person who will rebound from that failure and go back to the exact place I failed, and try again. But not everyone thinks like that.

There is always the argument that it’s about entertainment. Who wants to see somebody sitting at the side of the road, in tears? That’s not very entertaining. To which I would say there is all sorts of entertainment. I like to know why people undertake a journey. What does it mean to them? Is it, or can it, be more than just a body moving across a landscape? Does it have to be about the fastest, the longest? Or can it mean more?

Why do I do it? This year, for me, has become the year of sitting. Not doing long rides, just small weekend tours mostly. I’ve tried to take on slow rides. To take it slowly. But when I read about crossing the Gobi desert, it calls to me. I honestly don’t understand myself what the attraction is. But it definitely is attractive to me.

I think it’s great that people write honestly about the struggle. Maybe there is a struggle to find meaning in a lot of things we do. You just walk that kilometre. You just teach that class. There can’t be a meaning in it, can there? It’s just doing stuff.

It’s hard to be selective, and there is a lot of really good writing in the vein that I like. But let me just mention two authors, and two blogs.

Alistair Humphreys

Alistair rode around the world. For four years. His writing is very much about the struggle. The self-doubt. The wondering: what the hell am I doing here? Extract just prior to entering Africa:

“How did I have the audacity and arrogance to think that I could
pedal through Africa?” I asked myself over and over, clutching for
answers. “How could I  have  committed myself  to years of  this
madness, of  being the odd one  out, of  knowing no-one  or

Looking back from the end of Alistair’s journey, it is important to reflect on this start. That everybody struggles. That everybody is nagged by self-doubt. But somehow we find the strength to go on.

Lisa Dempster “Neon Pilgrim”

Lisa walked the Henro Michi. A 1200 kilometre pilgrimage around Shikoku island. It’s very tough at any time, but even tougher in the summer. An extract:

"Then I got in the bath and howled.
Was I really all that miserable or was I just having a bad day? Yesterday was radiant and awesome, wasn't it? So why did I feel like shit today? I had to stop imagining that my pilgrimage would be a certain way. I had to stop comparing my experiences to other people's, how fast or slow I was walking, or how I should feel. I just had to accept it."

Dave Conroy @tiredofitdotca

He set off in 2009. To ride, and keep riding. His descriptor (tired of i.t. @tiredofitdotca ) tells a bit about what he’s fleeing from.

Here’s a recent post:

“I’m not sure if I’m being tricked by my GPS lately, but it
seems to be sending me on the most hilliest routes possible
and not following anything that I have planned on its complimentary
computer based mapping program called BaseCamp. It’s starting to
frustrate me, and while I’m getting some awesome views of valleys
below, it is sapping the energy from me. “

Loretta Henderson @skalatitude
A solo female round the world cyclist. Her blog is sparse, but full of sardonic humour. I especially like her conversations with her bicycle. You've never had a conversation with a bicycle ?

Extract from a recent post on the blog:
“A sand storm fit for the ‘National Geographic Edition of Morons On Bicycles Crossing The Words Biggest Deserts’ is chasing me, am I in some Jack Nicholson REDRUM remake of the Wizard of OZ? No, but I have been discovered in my stealth under the street not so clever hideout. Extreme paragliding combat desert vampire bugs hover all around me forming a thunder buzz of sorts.”

I think it's true that for everyone, no matter how fit you are, how prepared you are there will be moments like these. Writing honestly about them will encourage people. Being macho about it will just send them back to the couch.


Haiko said...

Looks like writing really reveals people's insides....
are they of the "I'm so tough" variety, or the "let's connect in our humanity" variety or 100's of other varieties.

Liz Wilton said...

Hey Andy, thanks for mentioning us and writing a post about all this. Alistair Humphreys' book was the first I read about cycle touring!

I reckon it's helpful to be honest about how hard or easy you find things, although i do wonder if I sound like a complete drama queen at times! My aim when writing is to try and share the pain and joy with everyone following us, so that they see us just as normal every day people, rather than athletes or adventurers or some other label. So that they can imagine doing it themselves and how they might find it.

I also hope to inspire people to do the things they think they can't. If you'd have told me a few years ago that I would have cycled almost 12,000km on a push bike, I don't think i would have believed you! I'm amazed at what my body can do, but also how you can fight the mental battles and overcome challenges (big and small)with will and well, down right stubborn-ness!

Thanks again for the mention Andy!