“If one more fat cigar smoker blows smoke in my face and yells at me, “What was it really like up there?” I think I may bury my fist in his flabby gut; I have *had it* with the same question over and over again.” – Astronaut Michael Collins
I quite frequently do interviews for blogs or magazines – the oxygen of publicity is an essential element of trying to make a living out of your hobby. Sometimes I really enjoy being interviewed. Sometimes I hate it. The difference depends on the questions I am asked, and whether they make me think or not.
The best questions are those that aren’t trotted out regularly (“what’s next?” “what’s your scariest moment?”) and which make me think hard about the answers. And this one succeeded at that…
Interviewer: Hello, Alastair. How are you?
Alastair: I’m fine, thanks. How are you?
Interviewer: I’m fine, thanks. There are several ways it’s possible to make a living from doing stuff to a very high skill level that people enjoy vicariously (such as music or sport), but you frequently say that the adventures you have done could be done by anyone. Why then would anyone want to listen to you speak or read your books if they could just do the adventure themselves?
Alastair: Because they won’t do it themselves. Some will, of course, and that’s brilliant. But a lot of people who like the idea of, say, walking across the Empty Quarter desert, won’t ever actually do it because they imagine they can’t. They think it would be too hard for them. I consider myself massively fortunate that I started doing adventures before I got too old, too cautious, and too set in my ways about what sort of person I am. Little kids never pigeon-hole themselves with stuff like “I’m not athletic”, “I’m not creative” — but adults do this all the time. I’m thankful that I jumped onto the adventure conveyor belt early enough not to be too scared by taking that jump. And once you try an expedition, succeed at it, and surprise yourself, then you’ve got the momentum to try something new and more difficult the next time. But I think most people who aren’t in that cycle don’t yet realise quite what they are capable of.
And another element, I suppose, is that many of the expeditions I have done take a significant commitment. To do something contrary to the normal flow of normal people’s busy lives is not easy. It takes time to row an ocean, it costs money to cross a continent. So it is really hard for people – especially those with financial or family commitments – to up sticks and cycle to Siberia. It’s far harder than the trip itself. In which case enjoying someone else’s stories may be the only option available, and adventure then becomes a vicarious enjoyment like watching Match of the Day.
Interviewer: What are the most important skills and personality traits for what you do?
Alastair: I feel that what I “do” is actually several different, but connected, things. The adventure-travel-wilderness side of who I am depends upon stubbornness, enthusiasm, restlessness, curiosity, a willingness to endure, an appetite for hardship and simplicity, and the old notions of wanderlust (the excited craving for travel) and fernweh (the almost sad yearning for distant places).
The creative side of my life – writing, film, speaking – is fuelled by self-discipline, a love of quality products and things that look nice, an enjoyment of learning and reading, and obsession with detail. I’m a control freak. I relish making or doing things that other people value. In that sense, I guess, the journeys are privately fulfilling, the other stuff helps me seek affirmation of my worth! I’m not sure I like looking at it like that though!
Interviewer: If the journeys are for you, but the stories are for sharing, do you notice a difference between the journeys you value the highest versus what an audience at one of your talks appreciates?
Alastair: Absolutely! Crossing Iceland by foot and packraft was one of the most satisfying expeditions I have done. It had it all: a neat concept (coast-to-coast unsupported), it was novel and unusual (packrafts were new back then), the wilderness was awesome, I had a great time with my partner and the trip was seriously hard (40kg packs, starvation rations, long days, cold and difficult rivers). But I stopped referring to that trip in my talks almost immediately after returning home: I could just sense audiences glazing over when I talked about the trip.
Interviewer: How does it make you feel that you have done nothing in the past decade that comes close to being as big, difficult or exciting as cycling round the world?
Alastair: Ouch! I was very aware, as I approached the end of my four-year journey cycling round the world that I would never do anything as epic, long or life-defining ever again. I knew then, in some ways, that my life had peaked aged 28. That made me sad then, and it’s still something I find hard today.
It’s the same issue that sportsmen and women face when they’ve won an Olympic medal that will define them forever. Bradley Wiggins talked on Desert Island Discs about waking up the day after winning the Tour de France and realising he was the same bloke as yesterday. He wasn’t instantly and magically happy for ever. I know this feeling is common amongst adventurers as well.
I loved Michael Collins’ book about his journey to the moon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. He said that after returning from the moon he was going to “spend the rest of my days catching fish, and raising dogs and children, and sitting around on a patio drinking gin and talking to my wife.” I’m aspiring to some Collins-esque serenity, though I haven’t got there yet!
The restless need to endlessly better one’s last achievement is a mug’s game that you cannot win! And it is partly why my focus has slowly shifted from trying to do ever-better expeditions to trying to become more creative and learn new crafts.
Interviewer: What are you too mock-humble to tell people you meet but secretly enjoy when it comes up in conversation?
Alastair: That I was one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year in 2012 for coming up with the idea of microadventures and encouraging more people to get out and have adventures of their own. I’m really proud of that.
Interviewer: How would your life be different if you were filthy rich?
Alastair: It wouldn’t be enormously different, and I am grateful for that. To not have my dreams shackled by stupid money is a massive privilege. I earn enough money to live the way I want to live and do the things that feel important to me. And I enjoy almost every day when I’m working to earn. It would be great to be a philanthropist who could help people with that frustrating conundrum. I guess I would like to hire someone to do all the boring things in life for me – admin, emails, driving in traffic jams, stuff like that. I’d eat more posh deli food and order steak. And I’d go on more long bike rides.
Interviewer: What blogs do you regularly visit, other than those in the world of travel and adventure?
Interviewer: Which adventurers do you most admire?
Alastair: I don’t particularly admire specific adventurers. I admire specific types of trip. I love hearing about journeys that clearly come from the heart and that the person doing it would be fully engrossed in even if nobody ever heard about it. For that reason I’m turned off by trips that seem to be primarily about getting a world record. Doing something you have never done, to the best of your ability is what matters to me. If that is a world record also, then congratulations. But picking a trip just so that it can lead to something to show off about leaves me cold.
I admire people who strive for absolute excellence in one tiny niche of adventure. I’ve never had the drive or sticking power to chase those marginal gains, so I respect seeing accomplishments that are far beyond my mental resolve (plus my physical capabilities).
I admire people who fail at expeditions, who turn around and concede defeat and are brave enough to admit that they failed, that the challenge was beyond them. I don’t believe that any expedition is worth dying for. I accept that there’s a risk of death, of course. But how much am I willing to risk death to get my kicks in the wilderness? Not enough to do something like climbing K2 in winter for example!
And whilst I admire adventurers who never tell a soul about their feats, I also really love those who can craft a beautiful story out of their endeavours, in whatever medium they choose. An example would be the team from Camp 4 Collective who push the bar very high for the rest of us to pursue.
Interviewer: Who would you like to collaborate with on an adventure project?
Alastair: I’d love to do a photography expedition with Martin Hartley, start a business with David Hieatt, have an adventure partnership with Patagonia, make a film with Temujin Doran, a radio show with Duct Tape then Beer, and go camping with Barack Obama…
Thank you to the many people who have kindly “bought me a coffee” for just £2.50 as encouragement to keep this blog going.
“Yes, I too would like to donate a couple of pounds to this site..!”