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Dreams vs Reality


I received a really interesting email this week titled “Dreams vs Reality”. It’s an important counter-point to the usual online messages of “follow your dreams! quit your boring job! head for the sunshine!”

I’mm guilty of those rather polarised, binary messages myself at times, so I asked Paul whether he would allow me to post it on my blog. He kindly agreed, and I really hope you take a moment to read it if you are dreaming of adventure but unsure whether or not to take the plunge.

Hello Alastair,

It was your first two books detailing your adventures cycling around the world that sparked my own dreams. I thought you may be interested in my own experience when things just don’t work out that way. I found my road in the end though.

I spent about 3 years planning a cycle touring trip around the world, I bought the kit (Thorn Nomad, Hilleberg tent etc.), handed in my notice, sold my possessions, gave the house to my ex-wife, car to my son etc. etc. and away I flew to Delhi where I’md begin by cycling up to Leh. It wasn’t strictly ‘around-the-world’ but about 2-3 years worth of linked expeditions in many parts ‘“ Alaska was a particular destination. This wasn’t an idle day-dream, but a thoroughly researched and invested plan.

However, after six weeks cycling up through the Himalayan foothills past Recong Peo, there was something not right. I was finding it hard going, feeling unbelievably lonely and isolated and wondering ‘what the hell am I doing here’. There was a nagging worry I couldn’t shake and the feeling didn’t go away, even after 6 weeks. I began to realise that London was an okay place, with its parks, people, coffee shops, museums and all capped by a comfy bed at night, hot showers and money in my pocket the next day.

Somehow the adventure, the sights, the sounds, the struggles and the “seeing the world” bit just wasn’t overcoming my homesickness and I began to resent it. Every day I longed to go home and so eventually I did. I quit. Booked a taxi back to Delhi and flew home.

For 9 months, I loved being home. I found a new relationship, a new flat and lots of freelance work. An enjoyable single, well-paid life. But then, I went and did it again ‘“ now, instead of being homesick, I was obsessed by wanderlust, more intense than before. So again, I planned the escape, closing my attachments and plans in London. I’mm a keen scuba diver and went to Mexico for a 2 month diving trip, followed by a flight to NZ for a volunteer berth aboard a pacific environmental research yacht touring the islands.

Again, however, I got the yips, the uncertainty, the lack of security or whatever you might call it. Again I found myself back at Heathrow 2 months after leaving, relieved and happy to be home once more.

I knew then, that it wasn’t for me. My dreams of travel and expedition on an epic scale just couldn’t work for me in reality. The worry and unpredictability was overcoming my ambition. I could see that, like many things in life, the anticipation and planning can be of greater enjoyment than the reality. When I returned home the 2nd time, I had a massive depressive episode which took me six months to get over.

Eventually, I came to realise that I loved adventure, travelling and some degree of wildness, but just not on a long-term basis. Today, I love to take time out cycling/camping ‘“ a couple of weeks ago, I jumped on the sleeper train to Penzance and cycled home through the January wind and rain (enjoyable but really not, sort of). Next month I fly to the Philippines for a month’s diving around four of the Visaya Islands (hotels and showers included).

I accepted a permanent job in London, but with 2 months leave each year so I can get away for extended trips when I get the urge ‘“ but I think I’mm happier with a return ticket in my pocket and keeping the lease option on my flat open. It’s my middle-way.

I was impressed by your championing of microadventures, and it’s a way of life I very much recommend to all who, like me, can’t manage round-the-world, sell-your-home adventures but who aren’t couch potatoes either and randomly day-dream about waking up in the middle of nowhere and firing up a camping stove.

Many might be jealous of your lifestyle, and aspire to it, but my lesson is that reality, for some folk, can bite ‘“ and a relatively mundane love of sitting outside a coffee shop with a good book on a sunny afternoon can can wreck the sturdiest and wildest resolve. So go with what you enjoy and have no regrets about what you can’t do. I can still dream about cycling around the world and smile, but it’s a thought that usually gets me planning another little excursion and then coming home – and that’s really okay.

I’md love to hear your thoughts on this post in the comments below.

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  1. Thanks for sharing this e-mail.

    It’s refreshing to hear people say that it’s okay not to want to cycle around the world or do something along those lines (which is also why I love microadventures). I love reading and watching about people living adventurous lives and making a living out of it. But I know it is not for me. I need a home, a community I can be a part of and a job within that community to be happy. But I also need to go out regularly and explore what’s around me on foot or with my bike.

    Hearing other people say they need that balance is great as sometimes, it can feel a bit alienating to read only about one option or the other and rarely hearing that the middle ground is fine and actually pretty good too 🙂

  2. Thank you for Alastair for sharing the email and thank you Paul for writing it. It is nice to hear from someone who enjoys adventure and is comfortable enough to say a life based on that is not for them.
    I used to read this and other blogs to plan ‘that’ big trip but now I read them as a catalyst or reminder to undertake a trip or activity I want to do or try.
    I see it as we need people like Alastair to tell us about their trips – since they live and breath it – to remind people what they could do. In a similar way ‘The Sky at Night’ reminds people to look at look at night sky and maybe view it in a different way.

    I don’t know if I’ll ever do a big year+ trip but I’ve enjoyed the smaller ones I’ve done so far.

  3. I get this. I travelled to India for work which had always been an ambition of mine. Loved it, every minute of it but deep down I learnt how much I valued my time at home and what that represented for me.Everyone else thinks its wonderful and glamorous to be paid to work abroad (it is wonderful for the experience but not glamorous) Micro adventures tick the box for all of us who are toe dippers into the waters of adventure and most importantly they give us all a chance to start on the journey of finding out what works for each individual.

  4. Great letter! Not everyone is cut out to sail alone around the world like Joshua Slocum. That’s what makes MicroAdventures so awesome!

  5. Alastair, this is the best article I’ve read on your site. And you didn’t even write it lol. Sorry about that 😉

    Seriously though. For those of us that have felt the awakening of needing to make more of our lives and have struggled with it because it’s so far from the type of person we’ve been all our lifes….. This is a great reminder of how a balance between work and adventure can be fulfilling and hit the right spot.

    I’m still trying to turn from a career obsessed person to something with this balance. But heading in the right direction!

    Thanks for everything you do. I love reading your articles and watching your videos.

  6. Yes very refreshing to hear the other side of things. I myself learn’t in my twenties that I can’t do ‘big’ stuff on my own simply because I get lonely. (I once planned a three week solo walk along the north south spine of Wales and cached food and maps at post offices along the way. Came home after three days). My wife and I are still trying to work things out in terms of long trips. Our longest so far was five months cycling round the coast of Britain but that proved to be too long for her (or us). What I take from that e-mail is that there is a way for everyone to enjoy adventures, you just have to find your way. That’s all part of the adventure after all isn’t it?

  7. I too dream of the big adventures, but I have ruled myself out. This is not a surrender. I have young kids and a gorgeous wife and I love them even more than the great outdoors. I do find inspiration in this blog though. I love the whole approach to adventure – the adventure is the most important part, not the kit, or the location, or the time.

    My wife is no adventurer, but she loves a tame camping trip, and doesn’t mind if I disappear for a day with or without the kids.

    I’m happy to have the best of both worlds for now. Anyway you all seem oblivious to the joys of hiking in Northern Ireland, so I have (some of) the hills to myself.

    Please never stop writing. I am enjoying reading Microadventures so much.

  8. Thanks to all for the comments, both here and on Alastair’s FB page. Perhaps what I didn’t express in my email was the enormous, deep-rooted need to travel across hills, rivers, valleys and oceans and thinking “why not?”, it was an irrepressible urge once it had set in. Adventurers like Alastair show that anyone who really wants to, can – just as far as they want and no further.

    “And but for the sky there are no fences facing”


  9. Great article, really resonates with people like me who after starting big travel adventures in the past have slowly come to the realisation (after alot of soul searching) that maybe they’re not as cut-out for certain adventures as much as they thought …and that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Alot of the time in Britain I’m happy just doing long day trips now – I enjoy being out in rough weather and taking freezing dips in rivers all the more when I know a nice warm bed at home awaits me. Thanks for publishing Al.

  10. Microadventuring is the way to go!

  11. Neil Robinson Posted

    What a great article, truly honest and insightful. I have always devoured endless adventure books and films, and planned numerous trips.

    Sometimes it has been difficult to know quite why I haven’t carried them through. Be it a feeling of lacking knowledge, fitness or skills. Or more the lack of confidence or the security that modern life gives us.

    This alternative look at big adventures, seems to add an extra mantra to the micro adventures ideas of no excuses (times, skills, money etc).

    “Do not punish yourself or feel guilty for dreaming and adventuring small” (in my case very small).

    Micro-adventures have kick started an expansion of my normal enjoyment of heading out walking with the pooch or out on my bike. The very reason that I often enjoyed a mountain bike ride was being out in the wild, rather than the riding itself. I now often commute off road by bike, to squeeze something into a normal working day.

    As with many people, re-organizing spare time is perhaps the greatest challenge. To begin this year I am almost perusing ‘mini’ micro-adventures, to make sure that I do something.
    Squeezing into January a train ride from my local station 45miles in to the dales to return off road by bike. This month entering my first proper cycle race, and come March it has to be a long overdue night in a bivvy to grapple with.

    These will hopefully build to a C2C and west highland way in summer, but quite possibly with just encourage a detour on the way home through the woods, or follow the dogs nose as he heads off into the heather or dunes.

    Thanks again Alistair

  12. nelson ewing Posted

    Brilliant. An excellent expansion on the microadventure. call it “mega” micro or some such thing. A fantastic middle way for those of us with mortgages, kids in school, etc.

  13. Isn’t it great when you find out you were able to inspire people doing what you love? Anyway, thanks for sharing this! I agree with Paul, there are some people who could live a life of outdoor adventures, while some are just fit to do this on a short-term, intermittent basis – not that it’s not an adventure itself. Just a different kind of adventure. 🙂

  14. The key point is Paul gave it a go. Sure, you won’t know until you try. Sometimes people take on too big an adventure and they get part of the way through and can’t handle it. So if you are tempted to take up a challenge, try somehow to be sure you will be able to handle it.

    Decades ago, I cycled solo across the Sahara and spent a year walking much of the length of the Himalayas. Another time I spent 3 months walking with a Tuareg camel caravan in the Tenere Desert. But these were “doable” adventures in my book.

    Only a very few do what people like Alastair, Roz Savage or Ranulph Fiennes have accomplished. You have to have the odd screw missing to achieve what they achieved … 🙂 . But there is a lot to be said for the more manageable adventures if you open yourself up to the experience. Even micro or medium level adventures can really change you for the better as a person and give you an experience that will remain precious to you for the rest of your life.

  15. Great article!! Super talented writer

  16. He gave it a go that’s a key point here.

    Alastair – what do you think differentiates those more suited to Micro versus Grand adventures? This is not a loaded question and is also not suggesting one is better than the other. For example, it sounds like Paul will continue to have excellent adventure stories but in the way that suits him….

  17. Alastair – what do you think differentiates those more suited to Micro versus Grand adventures? This is not a loaded question and is also not suggesting one is better than the other. For example, it sounds like Paul will continue to have excellent adventure stories but in the way that suits him….

  18. Two months leave each year? The writer must be the best and brightest in his field if an employer is that generous. Or the UK must be more generous than I once imagined. And I am envious your National Health Plan provides a great safety net to allow this kind of learning experience and flexibility. I won’t bore you with the details how that’s not the case on the other side of the Atlantic.

    I did enjoy the insights and they brought back many memories of hitting the wall and then responding to that. Planning can be as important to growing as doing.

  19. Loved this. Really great to see this view, rarely expressed, and articulated so well. It’s interesting how your mindset can change as well, over time and in different environments. I’m on a cycle tour right now, over 2 months in having crossed Europe and now in Turkey.. Needing to be back in the UK in December, I set my final destination last week and began to make plans to return; suddenly, I miss my family and friends more than ever and I’m trying to balance my enjoyment of the ride with my excitement to get home!
    Important for everyone to learn what works for them – but, however you do it, just do.



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