Monday, February 5, 2018

Finding adventure: Why I ride

The hardest part of undertaking an adventure is deciding to go. Uncertainty about the unknown, concern about risk, and anxiety about whether it’ll be the “right” use of precious time and resources—all can defeat taking action. When “analysis paralysis” and agonizing over all the “what-ifs” take over, they often shut doors to enriching new experiences and insights.

Even for seasoned adventurers, making the decision to go may paradoxically become both harder and easier with age. This is certainly the case for me now as I ponder my 50th year and plan a new trip.

On the one hand, I’ve had the good fortune to be able to live in or extensively visit some 35 countries since an early age. Growing up as an only child to young parents who were also students, we lived in nomadic poverty. Leaving Canada for Sweden, we wound our way through Eastern Europe to Greece and then Italy, and on to South Africa, LeSotho and Swaziland before emigrating to a small backwater town in Queensland, Australia.

Soon after, a family break-up led to the next chapter of my life and the addition of two new people who would eventually become my wonderful step-parents. It was also the start of my dual life, splitting my time between my father’s adventurous  lifestyle around the world and my more mundane routine in Canada. These adventures included sailing around the south Pacific, hitchhiking through Europe, and spending time in Switzerland and southern France with a remarkable collection of musicians, artists, and business people in my father’s (and stepmother’s) circle of family and friends. It was all bare-bones budget, often risky by the standards of the day, and certainly not what was then seen as an appropriate way to raise a teenager. It was fantastic.

This upbringing naturally drove me towards being independent and self-reliant. In that respect, a major epiphany for me was learning to ride my second-hand bicycle on our dirt road in Australia. This, and some old books on bicycle repair, kindled a life-long passion for independent, two-wheeled travel. At 16 I completed my first bike tour, a solo four-day tour through a corner of France and Switzerland. I could hardly wait until the end of high school, when a friend and I spent three months cycling across Europe and I worked as a bicycle tour guide in France.

In university I started to race bicycles, and took up running--against the advice of a doctor who was horrified by my gait. Despite being relatively late to the sport, soon I was competing internationally in duathlons and was fortunate to represent Canada at two world championships. Racing led to rock-climbing and mountaineering, and many trips to stunning locations to enjoy new challenging experiences and guide others.

Twenty years ago today, in 1998, my wife and I took our biggest risk together (besides getting married—that’s a whole other story!). We scrounged every penny, left our careers, and took half a year to travel as locals would through West Africa and the Middle East. In retrospect, it was an unusually perfect time for such a trip. The regions we visited were mostly stable and conflict free at the time, yet tourism was rare. We met many wonderful people in Gambia, Morocco, Mali, Ghana, Syria, and other places where it would be difficult at best, or outright suicidal today. We took chances and had an adventure of a lifetime.

Now—and with the accumulated responsibilities of teenagers of my own, extended family, entrenched careers, and the usual burdens of simply getting older—finding adventure becomes more challenging. It must emerge in more compact, refined forms to remain feasible. In that respect, the addition of a motorcycle license a decade ago enables adventures further afield while retaining many of the characteristics of bicycle travel. 

All this wealth of experience, while contributing to useful know-how in finding and having great adventures, also gives rise to the paradox I mentioned at the start: it stimulates the “what-ifs”. If unchecked, these what-ifs can defeat the goal of finding or enjoying new adventures. I think the key is to find an appropriate balance between experience (often gained through failure) and openness to risk (optimism that you can find a way to succeed) that is right for you. This is tricky. First you need to be aware of the issues, then you need to identify the right balance, then you need to act on it. Many people never figure it out. 

For myself, I think I’ve found a reasonable balance. My fears are tempered by having been in some situations that could have easily and irrevocably led to a spectacular death or at least injury. We all gotta go, someday. I just don’t think my time’s up yet. And when it is, I hope it’s while going full-throttle doing something I love.

Nevertheless, and speaking as a motorcyclist, for the benefit of my family I try to be a conservative rider who assiduously avoids traffic, main roads, and populations in general. Those are risks I can control somewhat by simply minimizing my exposure to them. The tradeoff is allowing myself the luxury of enjoying perhaps a little more risk riding on the path that’s less-traveled and definitely more rutted, rocky and remote: Pick your battles.

Probably like most of you reading this site, I ride because the combination of acceleration, fresh air, and physical exertion is intoxicating and exhilarating. Whether it’s on a bicycle or motorcycle, those two wheels become extensions of my body, allowing me to go places and find adventures that most people can’t or won’t try. The journey—not the destination—is the basis of adventure. Every ride can become an adventure if you approach it the right way. The amazing thing is, once you make that decision to go, the rest just falls into place.

1 comment:

  1. That was an excellent, exquisitely well phrased and thoroughly enjoyable post to read. Thank you.