Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
In my life, I come across so many people looking for meaning.
”Connection”, “reflection”, “mindfulness”, these are some of the pillars upon which we attempt to construct our wobbly lives upon. Where I come across it most is in relation to nature: Go to wild places to connect with nature. I often read about how people go on adventures and came back with their eyes opened to who they are and their place in the world.
At the end of my seventh and penultimate day, I came into Ullapool. I was gubbed. My stomach – which had put me into the back of an ambulance two weeks previously – had been bothering me for three days; my neck was stiff and sore; I was cold and fed up of being blown around and rained on. Really, most of which you could expect after 900km of cycling.
I crawled into my room in the Caledonia Hotel, managing to drift to sleep in the gaps between the thumping dance music coming from down the hall, and tried to recover for the final day.
It wasn’t to be.
I woke up in the middle of the night in a pool of sweat. I threw the sheets to the side, ran to the bathroom and – well, that’s enough of that.
I felt awful. My body was deciding enough was enough. I went back to bed and had an uneasy sleep, waking up at 8am to find rain leering at me from outside.
I shuffled along to breakfast, ate half a slice of toast, tweeted that I was heading out on my final day to Sandwood Bay and shuffled back to my room. As I pulled my cycling shorts up, I felt that “uh oh” sense that precedes a vomit, and dashed into the bathroom.
’Nope’, said the body. ‘You’re stopping here.’
When I got back home, people asked me about the trip. “It was good, yeah”, I’d say, my tone implying an uncertainty in my conviction. “That’s doesn’t sound enthusiastic”, they’d say.
I’d laugh and say I was still processing it. Three months later, I was still “processing it”. I wanted to say, “It was amazing! Wow. What an experience. I just loved being out in nature every day and getting away from it all and going solo and, and, and…”
I wanted to tell them how sleeping under the stars made me appreciate nature more, that I had grown as a person and that next I’d be cycling through Kazakstan.
But I didn’t. And I felt guilty about it. I was in the god-damned privileged position as a person living in a first-world country to take time off work to go off and ride my bike for eight days. I mean, come on!
’But maybe you didn’t go wild enough, or long enough’, I would say to myself. But I don’t think that was it.
So, instead I thought of it differently. Instead of starting off with the premise that it had been great, I turned it on its head: Actually, I don’t think I really enjoyed myself. It wasn’t particularly exhilarating, I didn’t have a transcendental experience with nature, I didn’t have a sudden realisation about life, the universe, everything. It was just a bit shit.
And then, the gears started turning. “Well, actually” might sound like the start of a mansplain, but it’s what a little voice in my head started to say once I decided to set my reflections at level zero.
If my journey was characterised by anything, it was in the joy of spending time with others. I had never wanted this ride to be about me and only me. Instead, I turned my camera towards those who joined me.
As I grimaced my way up Devil’s Beeftub in the Borders, all I could think of was the lonely hut in Glenlude waiting for me, and the prospect of a quiet night and a kiln-dried meal for company (I am a sociable being, after all).
When I wheeled my bike into the hut, I noticed a lamp on the table with cabled out the top. On the whiteboard opposite was a note saying: “Hi Ross. Welcome to Glenlude! I’m camping down the lane. Feel free to use the lamp to charge your phone and gadgets. I am heading to Innerleithen for a chippy if you want to join me. Say 6? Andy.”
It was brilliant. Andy came and we drove into Innerleithen, grabbed a chippy and sat watching the sun hang low in the sky as we ate scampi and chips. I was not allowed to pay.
Andy is a John Muir Trust volunteer at Glenlude, as is Tim. Tim emailed me a couple weeks previously asking if he could join me. We agreed to rendezvous in Innerleithen, so Andy and I (he on his DIY e-bike), rolled down to Innerleithen for breakfast to meet Tim. Again, I was denied paying.
Tim was another fascinating guy. He’d given up a career in the catering industry to retrain as a ranger, and we spent much of our time riding up the glen to Gorebridge talking about his growth in awareness of nature and a desire to do something about it, as we watched stonechats surf their way through the air in front of us.
He and Andy volunteered for different reasons. I asked Andy, “Why do you volunteer? Is it for the environment or…”
”Not really”, he said. “More of a company thing. Loneliness. There are a few of us like that”. I find it brilliant that these two guys were motivated by two different reasons, but both were coming together around being out in nature. Andy could be off playing darts or going to tea rooms, but instead he goes rambling and does conservation work.
As I made my way up the country, I picked up more friends. Lewis, one of my best mates, and Izzy, friend and colleague at the John Muir Trust, joined for a damp ride up the Sma’ Glen, with Izzy peeling off at Dunkeld to allow Lewis and I to ride to Pitlochry.
Andy, another close friend, then cycled from Pitlochry to Nevis with me, one of the more remote sections of the route through the Corrour Estate. We rode on gravel tracks through streaming rain, our legs pasted with dirt. We flopped down onto comfy sofas in the Ben Nevis Inn, watching as a fresh downpour thudded against the windows.
Later, we were sat in Glen Nevis, making camp, telling long stories and sharing our experiences in the outdoors.
And then, there was Peter. I’d called Peter a few weeks ago, asking for a boat ride from Kinloch Hourn to Knoydart so I could ‘touch’ the Trust’s property there, before ferrying me over to Arnisdale.
Our brain’s make an assumption about people as soon as we see them. When I saw Peter, he looked like a gruff, sea-bred man who’d probably see me in my cycling kit and think I was a bit of a looney.
”Tri bars, eh?” he said, looking my bike up and down. “You wearing flats or clipless?”
Turns out he had competed in triathlons for years, and had a grin and a laugh that would crack open his seemingly stony exterior.
”Ah! Been out fishing for mussels, then?” I said, indicating his pot of mussels.
”That’s nothing”, he said. “About five years ago, I’d’ve pulled five or six buckets out the water, easy. Those rocky outcrops”, he said, pointing to the rocks that border the land. “They were covered in mussels until about five year ago.”
He told me how the MOWI fish farm down the loch was polluting the water with chemicals to stop sea lice, which had an adverse effect on the molluscs in the loch.
We looked across at the deer enclosure on Ladhar Bheinn, and the difference in biodiversity inside it versus outside. He told me about his work with the Trust, helping with deer stalking to keep the numbers down, and his new fight as part of Friends of Loch Hourn against the MOWI farm.
In under an hour, we covered so many topics, and I learned so much about this complex landscape and its people.
As I swung my leg over the bike, I noticed I had no back brakes. I’d worn them down on the descent into Loch Hourn. Without spares (and, erm, the knowledge to replace them), I cycled on, in the vain hope they may just be stiff.
Before descending into Glenelg, I spotted a mountain biker on the hilltop. I crashed through the strewn debris of old forestry to ‘look at the view’ (read: plead for mechanical assistance), and asked if he had any spares.
He didn’t, but he did have the knowledge to see my brakes had a few days left in them and tightened the cabling. Praise be to that man! My mate Jordan, who lives on Skye, even came to meet me the next day with a new set of disc brakes. Such acts of kindness you cannot put a value on.
I had no one with me at that point and no cause to stop, so I carried on, catching one of the last ferries over to Skye and making my way over the enormous climb from Kylerhea.
I eventually set up camp at the foot of Bla Bheinn, with no midges to bother me and my third dinner of veggie orzo bolognese. I took stock for a moment: I was standing on the Isle of Skye. That’s, like, really far from Kendal.
If there’s any moment that stands out to me on the trip, it’s that one. Well, that and watching with mild terror at the dark wall of rain that would envelope me in Torridon.
Yet, in that moment, I think caught a glimpse of what it is to propel yourself on an adventure. That day, cycling from Nevis to Skye, stands out as one of those days you never forget.
And, on that final day when it went a bit pear-shaped, I had two friends join me with a van full of food to support me on the way to Ullapool. What more could you ask for? I even got asked to stop in Poolewe to tell the school kids about what I was doing. Something I will never forget.
For several months, I have been searching for that integral meaning that would somehow validate the whole experience: I didn’t necessarily learn anything about myself, or find a love for long-distance adventures, or develop a connection with the outdoors.
What I did find were experiences and people who have made an impression on me. I feel adventure – however big or small – should leave some mark on you.
So, in some ways I have done just what Socrates said in this post by examining the experience. Except, I made a fatal flaw at the start: I started by trying to project the meaning onto the event before examining it.
A truly objective observer would look at an experience and then derive the meaning. There’s no use in setting out on an adventure in search of something, because it is something you may not find. Instead, you may find something else.
Instead of examining an experience for what it might have been, consider if for what it was, and that can be as simple as it was cool to see how far you got, or how you are proud to have organised this whole thing yourself, or how great your pals are, or the fact you raised over £1000 for charity.
So, go out and seek experiences; what you get out of it is anyone’s guess. You may be enlightened, you may not, and that is OK, too.
Man, that was philosophical.