First a riddle: What is easy to get into, but hard to get out of?
Give up? … Trouble!
Now, how about the reverse: What is hard to get into, but easy to get out of?
A good answer to that question might be ‘the mental state of flow’.
Flow is usually thought of as the state of being completely and happily absorbed in an engaging, sufficiently challenging activity (see Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi, who popularised the term in his great book ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’). It also has a broader sense of finding satisfaction from sufficiently challenging elements in one’s life. The key is getting the balance right. Too easy and it will be boring. Too hard and it will be stressful. The sweet spot is somewhere between boredom and burn-out. On an extended bicycle tour, either scenario – too much ease, or too much difficulty – may cause you to doubt yourself and consider throwing the towel in.
What constitutes difficulty is a personal thing. Everyone’s preferences and abilities are different. What is challenging for one is routine for another. You just need to find the level of challenge that is sufficiently stimulating for you at any given time. This means stepping out of your comfort zone in one form or another, by pushing yourself (just a little) physically, socially, intellectually, linguistically, creatively … dare I even say spiritually or emotionally. The thing is to go beyond tasks that you can perform on autopilot. Satisfaction and growth occur in the ‘goldilocks zone’ between too easy and too hard, where you still have competence but it requires effort to succeed.
John Buchan beautifully expressed a similar idea.
What would you call the highest happiness, Lewie?” he asked. “The sense of competence,” was the answer, given without hesitation. “Right. And what do we mean by competence? Not success! God knows it is something very different from success! Any fool may be successful, if the gods wish to hurt him. Competence means that splendid joy in your own powers and the approval of your own heart, which great men feel always and lesser men now and again at favoured intervals.John Buchan, The Half-Hearted.
As I travel the world by bicycle, I am often asked, ‘but isn’t it hard?’. Other times this sentiment is phrased more dismissively: ‘there are easier ways to see the country!’. To which my answer is usually: and what does easy get you? A life focused on ease and luxury does not deliver happiness or satisfaction. In the words of James Clear, “As a general rule, the more immediate pleasure you get from an action, the more strongly you should question whether it aligns with your long-term goals”. The always-easy life is not the same as ‘the good life’. Unless your goals are to be unhealthy, bored and afraid (or as George Clinton would have it, ‘fat, horny and strung out’), you need some challenge in your day.
One of the main advantages of adventurous travel – especially solo travel – is that it enables you develop a stronger sense of your own capabilities. In unfamiliar environments you are constantly faced with new problems to solve, challenges to overcome and situations to navigate. Never mind that all of these riddles are self-selected, created only by a bloody-minded insistence on travelling in remote places by a relatively niche mode of travel. The important thing is that the challenge is accepted and that we rise to meet it, which brings a feeling of competence.
For me, this the point of adventure travel. Of course I could make my trip easier. I could ride less each day. I could ditch the bike altogether and take a bus, a plane, or a guided tour. I could stay in hostels and hotels so I don’t need to seek safe, free camping places. (In extremis, I could have stayed at home and tended my garden!). Aside from the financial downside to other modes of travel compared to cycling, the real reason I travel as I do is that easier modes of travel just don’t have enough difficulty to sink my teeth into.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no masochist. During my travels, I sometimes enjoy pottering along on easy-street, riding short daily distances, sightseeing, eating ice creams and taking afternoon naps. Usually this coincides with fine weather and company, but I have also been known to indulge alone. Be assured, I can dial it down, kick back and mosey with the best of them. But before long my mind inevitably turns to more ambitious escapades. It seems I just can’t help myself – and for that I am grateful. I am not an adrenaline junkie, far from it. But I am perhaps an ‘adventure junkie’, in that I am repeatedly compelled to make things just a little more challenging than they have to be.
On the flipside of the coin, I have also brushed with the consequence of too much challenge on tour. Overload can take the form of high physical effort sustained for a long period of time, or the strain of adapting to new local conditions – customs, language, food, weather, safety etc (and this is usually while simultaneously dealing with a physical challenge). The daily string of decisions and uncertainty can take a toll. For me, that is not sustainable indefinitely without respite. The result of prolonged exposure to these minor stresses from adaptation and decision making is a kind of weariness characterised as ‘burn-out’. The upshot is that one becomes jaded, numb to beauty, variety and novelty – defeating the whole point of travel in the first place.
This was exactly where I was after the Nepal to India leg of my trip – one of the most intense sections of my whole journey, after a year and a half on the move at that point. I had been pushed out of my physical and emotional comfort zones on a daily basis. Going up against the traffic of India was exhilarating and character-building stuff, but the cumulative cost was the loss of my ‘adventure mojo’ for a while. When this happens, I find myself turning inwards, being less available to people and less open to new experiences. It defeats the point of travelling altogether. It’s time to take a break and regroup.
I have heard other long term travellers describe the cumulative fatigue that builds up from ‘endless travel’. This is understandable. Periodic respite from novelty and adaption is essential to preserve one’s enthusiasm and openness. I would also suggest that perhaps thinking of a trip as ‘endless’ in the first place is unhelpful. When I embarked on this journey I never imagined I would travel indefinitely (where indefinitely means forever). To be honest, I have yet to meet anyone who did. I have heard of folk who wander the globe for decades. But even those rare birds tend to intersperse their peregrinations with returns to a home base, or longer stays on the route. A few eternal albatrosses aside, most long haulers, so far as I can tell, set off with some kind of plan – however vague, flexible and negotiable that might be. Either a notional route or a time/ money limit and the intention to see as much of the world as possible while it lasts.
My trip was always intended to be time-bounded. I know that this lifestyle is not tenable for me indefinitely. I set out to ride the length of the six inhabited continents. For want of any better ideas and as long as I still find it satisfying, I will keep doing it. But it has a definite end point. I am not a hostage to this plan – I make the rules and I’ll change or break them as I see fit. But I find it comforting to have an over-arching plan, a mission if you like. It makes sense of the project in a way that wandering aimlessly would lack. Of course, I am still at liberty to wander, meander, backtrack, as I please. But the guiding principle somehow makes the vague enormity of the challenge more manageable. If I ever doubt what I am doing, I have that to fall back on.
And while I am fully aware of how irrelevant it is whether I cycle one continent or six, I remain loyal to the plan because it frees me of having to repeatedly question and justify what I am doing. I already did the risk analysis, considered the opportunity costs, the trade-offs, and decided there was nothing I’d rather do. That continues to be the case, even on crappy days. On bad days I ask myself would I rather be having a crappy day in location X, or back home doing my regular job, living my old life with narrower horizons, and having an occasional bad day. And that’s the end of it – every time I’d rather be doing this. While I have come close to burn-out several times, I have yet to encounter any situation that seriously made me think of junking the whole project. I know that time off the bike and in company will restore me. Or not so much off the bike as engaging in other pursuits.
Okay … I lied. There have been a couple of times when I felt so wretched that I would have taken the bail out option in a flash, if one had been presented for immediate use. Maybe if I could have clicked my heels together three times I would have fled the central Asian desert in summer for the rain of Manchester. But since magic shoes and teleportation are not options open to the average cycle tourist, there is inevitably time enough to stop and consider things before undertaking the steps necessary to aborting the mission. And I have made it a rule never to make any decision when I’m in the grip of emotions – whether because I’m hungry, lonely, angry, tired, cold, scared, in the middle of the night etc. Eat something. Drink a cup of tea. Breathe through it, sleep on it. Let it pass. Perspective restored, I have yet to opt for the taking the path back to comfort and security.
So, is it hard to cycle the remote places of the world, the most densely populated places, the high places, unfamiliar places? The honest answer is ‘Not unless you want it to be’. And really, I do want it to be – just a little anyway. Just enough to keep it interesting. Because at the end of the day what does easy get me?