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alastair humphreys

The Doorstep Mile

At talks I give I am often asked, “what is the hardest thing you have ever done?”

Generally they want to hear me tell of hauling a 300kg cart through the Empty Quarter desert, sweating in the footsteps of Thesiger. Or battling to put up a tent in freezing temperatures and howling winds in some godforsaken Arctic wasteland. Or putting to sea in a tiny rowing boat with three virtual strangers in an attempt to row 3000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. These things were difficult. Uncomfortable, too. But not particularly difficult. At least not in comparison to how hard it was, one warm summer morning, after a long sleep in my nice, soft bed and a large cooked breakfast, to climb onto my bicycle and pedal away from my front door.

And I often detect a look of mild disappointment on the questioner’s face. This is not the answer they wanted.

But riding away from my front door to try to cycle around the world was the hardest part of any adventure I have ever had. Leaving behind my nice, normal, easy life and pedalling away in search of uncertainty and the great unknown was incredibly difficult.

However, it is a lesson that has served me well. For I now know that the hardest part of most adventures is summoning the nerve to begin, to just make it happen. The rest usually takes care of itself. The Scandinavians have a phrase the “doorstep mile”, meaning that the first mile away from your front door is the hardest of all.

When I was a novice canoeist I set out to paddle 500 miles down the River Yukon. Locals told tall tales of how the Five Finger Rapids would swallow me up. I almost chickened out of the trip. I am glad I didn’t: it remains one of my favourite wilderness experiences.

Cycling one winter through the bitterly cold Siberian taiga, my friend and I were so concerned about getting on the wrong side of fierce Russian officialdom by overstaying our visa that we considered giving up cycling and hitching a ride instead. When we came to leave the country we accidentally did so using each others’ passports. Nobody even noticed.

The point is that “present fears are less than horrible imaginings”. Get going! You’ll be fine!

Of course, some expeditions required detailed planning. You would be a fool to put out to sea, venture into a desert, or march into the polar regions without knowing what you are doing. And the planning can be an enjoyable and rewarding aspect of the project. I love having maps strewn across the floor, poring over Google Maps’ satellite view and calculating times and distances. It all helps build excitement and anticipation for the adventure that lies ahead.

The simplistic approach, however, works well for some types of journey: walking across a country, or cycling down a continent are trips that require negligible planning. Adventurer Andy Ward decided he wanted to walk from London to Istanbul. Two days later, he began. Six months later, he crossed the Bosporus into Asia. If you are short of time, money or expensive equipment, why not cycle away from your front door with a tent, sleeping bag and puncture repair kit? Ride until you run out of time or money then take the train back home. Adventure can be as simple as that.

– This post originally featured on Red Bull

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  1. I’ve done nothing of adventure in comparison to yourself but in my mini world I think you are right that sometimes the trepidation of wondering if you are doing the right thing is nearly the hardest. Recently I drove the length of India in a rickshaw and had no problem doing all the planning and thought it was great but getting on the flight I really wondered was this crazy and would I come back!

  2. Allianz Employee Posted

    Thank you for your talk at Allianz today. I loved hearing about your adventures and your doorstep mile. You have been a great inspiration to all of us here at Allianz.



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