You may have sometimes heard it said, ‘if I’d known then what I know now, I’d have done things differently.’ But of course that’s rubbish. I’d do it all again just the same way. You’d have to if you want to know what you know now. That’s how causality works. You don’t get the knowledge without the experience. There are no cheeky shortcuts in life. No skipping ahead a few pages to find out where the rabbit-hole leads. You have to drink the potion to find out. Especially if you’re like me and wouldn’t take anyone else’s word for it. Here goes, then. Glug, glug…
Twenty-four bum-numbing hours after leaving La Paz, I staggered off the bus and retrieved my bike and bags from the hold. Good old Ensenada, with its fresh wind off the Pacific, almost too chilly for shorts while La Paz had been too hot to move in the afternoon. Back at the ranch I found Chema playing host to my amigo, Caspar, last seen in Crescent City, California. He was taking a week’s recovery break from his epic run from Vancouver to Patagonia. Søren and Kamilla, the Danes I’d met on the road near La Paz, joined us. It was a companionable time, cooking together, playing games and telling stories.
And then quiet. A room and bed of my own at last (I’d been on the couch before). I made inroads into my writing projects and resumed daily Spanish studies. With former housemate Nacho, now living nearby, I went to a choral music recital and the Avengers finale. All was taking shape as I had foreseen. A couple of months of writing and studying, then back to USA for the Great Divide route along the Rockies.
I made a point to catch up with friends and family by phone, something I haven’t been good at for most of my travels. During chats with my mum I realised how out of touch I’d become with the day to day, week to week life of my family. My sister, Sarah, had just finished another round of chemotherapy. It hadn’t had the desired effect and had left her feeling very low. It suddenly seemed crazy that I was marking time on the other side of the world when I could be with them.
I’d come close to returning to UK for a visit at the end of my year working in South Korea. During the brief period when I considered staying another year in Korea, I’d looked into taking the Trans-Siberian Railway from Vladivostok. I had discussed the half-formed plan with my mum back then. As things turned out, I had a tough year in Korea and needed urgently to reboot my trip. Back then it seemed like a return to UK would sap my momentum even further, at a time when it was already dangerously low. So I reneged on the visit, and it has weighed on my conscience ever since.
My trip was orgininally supposed to be a five-year journey, based on one year per continent, excluding Europe, which was close and expensive. The job in Korea added a year to that span and I’d underestimated the time it would take to satisfactorily explore Central and South America. By the time the events I’m describing here took place, I’d been away four-and-a-half years, with around another two to three years ahead to complete the project.
When I realised that the downtime I planned to spend in Ensenada could just as easily be spent with my family, it felt selfish not to visit. The plan to consolidate on my Spanish studies and travel writing seemed far less important. Going back to UK was a ‘heart’ rather than a ‘head’ decision. There was no weighted-choice decision matrix this time. I checked to make sure everyone I wanted to see was available and bought a ticket for the end of the week.
I was thrilled to be going back, but also anxious of the feelings and memories that would no doubt be stirred up. I knew it would be hard to leave everyone again and continue my travels. As insurance, my bike and equipment were staying with Chema and I made it clear that I was visiting, not returning. Somehow, I knew it would feel weird, wrong even, to be back on British soil with my bike before I finished what I’d set out to do.
A year and a half in France moved George Orwell to reflect, “There are, indeed, many things in England that make you glad to get home; bathrooms, armchairs … new potatoes properly cooked, brown bread, marmalade, beer made with veritable hops — they are all splendid, if you can pay for them. England is a very good country when you are not poor”.
Orwell was right on every count. But more than those familiar comforts, I’d forgotten how green England is. A landscape bursting with chlorophyll. And how quiet! The Cheshire countryside around the airport felt like the Garden of Eden. Over coming weeks I spent time in Manchester and London and it always seemed more tranquil than I would ever have believed possible in a city. Perhaps my English ears are accustomed to the frequencies of sounds there. Well-known noises are not so salient.
I indulged in all the things Orwell listed and more. We had the biggest family reunion party in decades. With friends I returned to my old haunts on the hills of Northern England and Wales, doing the things we used to do. Glossop, my adopted hometown of fifteen years on the edge of the Peak District National Park, seemed utterly idyllic in late spring.
It was a necessary and timely visit. I spent quality time with close family, probably more than we would have had in four and a half years had I never left the UK. Some things can only be communicated in person, one-to-one. We had conversations both nourishing and healing. Ghosts were laid to rest. I wouldn’t trade the memories made during that visit for anything.
Seven weeks went by all too quickly. A heartfelt thank you to everyone who made time to meet up with me, gave me a place to sleep, fed me, watered me, came out for runs, bike rides or a chat. A heartfelt apology to those whom I didn’t get to see.
And yet, for all the joy, the visit was difficult in ways that I hadn’t predicted. The busy schedule of company and catch ups was draining. During the first ten days, still with a heavy dose of jet-lag, I slept in seven different places. Being a guest time after time was exhausting. And then I was almost tripped up by the inevitable realisation of what I was missing out on by continuing to travel. There was a serious wobble when I considered staying in the UK and not continuing my trip.
It was a momentary weakness. I knew I’d spend the rest of my life regretting it if I didn’t go back to Mexico to finish what I’d started. But doing so was no easy task. Steinbeck said of resuming his round USA solo journey after a sojourn with his wife: “When that time was over and the good-bys said, I had to go through the same lost loneliness all over again, and it was no less painful than at first.”
Steinbeck got off lightly if you ask me. Starting again was considerably more painful than first time round. The first time I left, I did so on my bicycle. Back then, everything was new and required my full attention. This time I had twenty hours of air travel and transit to stew and cogitate. I arrived in Tijuana around midnight, dejected and dishevelled. I took a taxi to a hotel. In the morning a two hour bus ride back to Ensenada.
Perhaps if I’d jumped straight back on the bike then, I might have pedalled the glums out of my system. But the bike was in bad need of a service. And if anything I was in even worse shape. Fixing the bike was the easy bit. “How goes the umpteenth uprooting?” asked Chema the morning after I got back (a beautiful question if ever there was one). “Have you any idea what you’re doing to your brain with all this relocation?” I was starting to get the idea.
While everything was apparently unchanged at Chema’s, I felt very differently about being there. Actually, there was one significant physical difference, which should not have pained me so much as it did. But it did, and sharply. To explain why I must confess that I have not been entirely candid in telling this story so far.
Seven weeks before, the last time I’d seen Chema’s house and neighbourhood was from Tamra’s bus. Tamra, as in, bus-dwelling siren of ‘Baja beach of the lotus eaters’ fame. She’d broken up with her fella on the drive back to USA. We’d stayed in touch and decided to meet up again. A couple of days before my return to UK, she drove down to Ensenada for a visit. We’d spent two days talking, walking on the beach, cooking, but mostly talking.
The night before my departure, Tam gave me a lift in her bus up to San Diego. She talked about her past and her concerns about the future. By the time we sang along to Simon and Garfunkel’s Only Living Boy in New York at the top of our lungs, I was irretrievably smitten. At the border close to midnight, I had to convince immigration I was on the level, because I’d lost my ESTA travel clearance. We found a place to park the van to catch some sleep before my morning flight. Waking up on the floor of a converted school bus in the car park of the Mormon temple was the strange start of a very long day. I repacked hurriedly. At the airport we kissed goodbye. I walked into departures. And that was that.
While I was in UK Tamra got cold feet, still processing the experience of a stormy year-and-a-half relationship just ended. And of course we were hopelessly mismatched. She’s still a card-carrying Mormon, for one thing. All fair enough. We tried. It was a risky, ridiculous, improbable fantasy. But if nothing is ventured nothing can be gained. There are no hard feelings and no regrets.
Back in Ensenada for the third time, the memory of how giddy I’d been when I left there seven weeks before made me wince. I felt embarrassed at my naivete and sad for the loss of my sense of purpose. When I’d left, I’d been revved up for a few days beforehand, both for seeing Tam and the anticipation of visiting my family and friends. Now all that remained was the familiar, bittersweet hangover of an intensely happy memory.
The vagabond life brings such higher highs and lower lows on a regular basis. They all pass. I knew that. But what really baked my noodle was having seen first-hand during my visit the opportunity costs of being away for so long. Being apart from my family and unable to support them during their troubles pained me, of course, but I had more or less braced myself for that. What caught me off guard was spending time with friends who now had young families and seeing, sharing, the love and solidarity in their lives. (Despite my friend Finn’s sincere advice, ‘Don’t do it!‘, I know he wouldn’t swap places for anything).
This unexpected side-effect of my visit compounded with the fiasco with the pretty Mormon. Before Tamra’s visit, I’d had to consider if I would follow a new relationship wherever it went. Would I give up my wanderings if that’s what it took? On so flimsy and speculative a prospect, it had been rash and risky to admit – even to myself – that yes I would. Then it had all blown up in my face and I was left high and dry, my motivation severely undermined.
Such was my mindset when I arrived back in Mexico. Those first weeks were brutal. The feeling of dislocation, of being marooned on an island of my own making, far from the people that I loved, was bitter. Wondering if I was wasting my life when I could be settling down back home. Steinbeck again: ‘There seemed to be no cure for loneliness, save only being alone’.
The Americas stretched out to the north and to the south, ripe with adventure. Yet I had not the slightest interest in going in either direction. I was rudderless and despondent. By chance I alighted on a passage from Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan.
“Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself, and yourself alone, one question. This question is one that only a very old man asks. My benefactor told me about it once when I was young, and my blood was too vigorous for me to understand it. Now I do understand it. I will tell you what it is: Does this path have a heart? All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long, long paths, but I am not anywhere. My benefactor’s question has meaning now. Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use.
Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn’t.
One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.”
The words struck home (we’ll ignore that Castaneda was probably referring to certain plants and drugs when he spoke about ‘paths’). Does this path have a heart? Up until two months before, I’d never doubted it. I knew what I was doing and why. I needed to get that feeling back, or I risked pouring myself into something that would become an ordeal rather than a blessing.
I ran hundreds of kilometres on the beach. I journalled endlessly and I sought inspiration and solace in reading. I witnessed epic sunsets over the Pacific while dolphins cavorted in the surf. I quit booze for good and never looked back. Going back into the USA, as I had originally intended, no longer held any appeal. It seemed like a retrograde step. Try as I might I just couldn’t summon any enthusiasm for making the trek back north just to come south again.
By and by I researched routes through Mexico. At the mention of the Sierra Tarahumara and Copper Canyons of Chihuahua, my imagination sparked back into life. A plan began to coalesce. I would cycle the desert and highlands of Sonora into Chihuahua. In the heart of Mexico’s biggest most rugged state I would attempt to traverse the deep barrancas on my loaded bicycle. I couldn’t find much evidence that it was doable, but I couldn’t find evidence that it wasn’t either. It was a plan daft enough that I could pour my heart into it. Doing so restored my enthusiasm for adventure.
Throughout August, I wrote and ran and watched the weather forecast daily. I waited out the intense summer in northern Baja and Sonora (Mexicali hit 48C), and gave the rains a head start in the mountains.
By September, the forecast and the omens were good. It was time to leave Ensenada for the third and final time. Chihuahua beckoned. But first, a little business north of the border.