“For it is said that humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing and they want something more. And this is said in disparagement, whereas it is one of the greatest talents the species has and one that makes it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have.” – John Steinbeck
Head thumping heat shimmering sun beating. Loneliness in crowds of foreign tongues staring at one foreign face. Bruised feet dragging spirit bruised shoulders slumped. Can’t think. Can’t speak. Just walk. The monotony of the open road.
These are common complaints on a difficult journey. I often get them all in a single day, and know there will be more of the same tomorrow. Most days involve very little except for this carousel of discomfort. It doesn’t sound like much of an escape.
Yet escape is a key part of the appeal of the road. All my adult life I have felt the need to get away. Its intensity and frequency ebbs and flows but it has never gone altogether. Perhaps it is immaturity, perhaps a low tolerance threshold. But there is something about rush hour on the London underground, tax return forms and the spirit-sapping averageness of normal life that weighs on my soul like a damp, drizzly November. It makes me want to scream. Life is so much easier out on the road. And so I run away for a while. I’m not proud of that. But the rush of freedom I feel each time I escape keeps me coming back for more. Trading it all in for Simplicity, Adventure, Endurance, Curiosity and Perspective. For my complicated love affair with the open road.
Escaping to the open road is not a solution to life’s difficulties. It’s not going to win the beautiful girl or stop the debt letters piling up on the doormat. (It will probably do the opposite.) It’s just an escape. A pause button for real life. An escape portal to a life that feels real. Life is so much simpler out there.
But it is not only about running away. I am also escaping to attempt difficult things, to see what I am capable of. I don’t see it as opting out of life. I’m opting in.
On this walk my feet and shoulders are the vital parts of my body. My face, my looks and my hairstyle are irrelevant. Out here nobody knows who I am. Nobody knows what I have done well in my life. Nobody knows what I have failed at. I’m just a guy on a walk.
I take a photograph of myself resting in a bus shelter. Only since returning have I figured out why I like it. It’s a photo that captures my youth. The days and years alone on the road. The thousands of miles, defining my life. Thousands of brief rests in shaded bus shelters like this one. I know that I will never live days quite like those again. I am tired but smiling. My pack is by my side. I have had that pack for almost 20 years now. I’m wearing an old hat, a veteran of scores of countries, unrecognisable now as the cricket hat it began life as. I must be somewhere remote for it’s rare to take a photo without a curious Indian face peering into the frame. It’s a self-portrait: I am alone. Nobody else sees this moment. It’s just me and my thoughts out on the road, where every new horizon is filled with promise.