Personal Perspectives On Expedition Evolution: An Essay

When Justin and I were on our first day out of Jasper riding the Icefields Parkway we met a couple of youngish lads who told us about an expedition they’re planning for two years time. Their proposal and the manner in which they are planning it really stuck in both our heads. They served to remind us of our differing approaches to the tour and set me thinking about expedition planning and how the actual event can turn out very different from your original expectations. As Justin and I come to the end of our time together I’m free to reflect upon what our partnership meant for my tour and how I’m deviating from my original expectations.

These two fellas we met on the Icefields Parkway had decided that they would undertake an unsupported multi-month hike through the wilderness of British Columbia and Alberta. In the supposed name of conservation and sustainability they had decided to be self-sufficient in food and water. This sounds all very plausible and great fun until you realise that they’re not going to hunt, instead surviving off of food they can forage from the forest. On account of one of them being allergic to nuts this essentially boils down to pine needles and fungi. Justin and I would discuss these two characters ambition numerous times over the following days and in doing so reflect on our own attitudes and priorities.

My first thought regarding this proposed trip is that it is needlessly impossible. The nutritional content of their potential food source is inadequate to propel them the hundreds of miles they plan to walk over difficult terrain carrying heavy packs. Although admittedly they have two years to physically prepare, neither of them looked like natural athletes, instead they projected a physical feebleness that had me doubting their ability to even carry the heavy packs they intended. The questions that this bought to us were: Why are they ruling out the wholly natural, sustainable and necessary food to be gained from subsistence hunting? What is to be gained from precluding an invaluable food source that natural man in their situation would undoubtedly exploit? From these stem other queries regarding their inspirations and justifications.

Neither Justin nor myself could work out why anyone would want to deliberately starve themselves for no apparent reason. Where as our tours will bring us into contact with numerous cultures and societies, meeting exciting new people while gently challenging our own physicality, their dream will be lonely and if successful merely prove that its possible to survive and travel by foraging in one small part of the Canadian wilderness. And even this success would be hollow on account of their unnatural parameters and restrictions. The base of our conclusions was that their expedition will evolve over the next two years from the idealistic torture they currently have in mind to something that will be both realistically achievable and enjoyable. This is the natural course of planning such events: An uninitiated cyclist could go into an End-to-End Americas tour intending to cycle the full length, then would come the research, the realisation of the impenetrable Darien Gap and the evolution of the plan accordingly. This is of course a rudimentary example, but in actuality I have found over the last five months and 4,000 miles that pragmatism and the willingness to let my tour take turns beyond my control has been integral to the satisfaction and beauty of the experience.

My tour has taken on a slightly different character than I had planned in three key departments: time, technology and team. The unexpected changes in each of these themes are intrinsically interlinked and have moved in directions that go against the original premise of the expedition as well as evolving in directions I perhaps secretly longed for.

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The Two Man Wolf Pack aka Steel Thigh Crew aka Justin & Nathan

The first and most obvious deviation from the original tentative plan is the time scale I’ve set for the trip. In line with my ‘freedom’ ethos I never really had a definitive amount of time set aside for the tour although the opposing seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres dictate the necessity of a six month stagger. It is common for people attempting to cycle from Prudhoe Bay to Ushuaia (or vice versa) to put aside either eighteen months or two and half years.  Most commonly people will easily cycle the route over a relaxed eighteen month period. This is what I had loosely told myself I would do.

Touching down in Alaska mid May and at the start of the touring season I knew I’d be giving myself the best possible chance of following the warmer seasons down the route. Then I got my injury, had two months recovering in Fairbanks and ended up leaving Prudhoe Bay right at the end of the season, probably one of the last of 2010 to be heading down to Tierra del Fuego. With this delay an eighteen month trip had immediately become at least a twenty month trip. But this didn’t bother me, in fact I’d say that the two month recuperation gave me valuable time to assess what I am hoping to gain from the tour and in doing so bought down many of the restrictions I had originally constructed. In respect to time, the enforced hiatus from the bike bought forward the realisation that I’ve no need to rush and that I can gain just as positive an experience from remaining stationary as I can from steaming through places. I had always imagined stopping in south American towns and villages for a few weeks but I was never really sure if and how it was going to happen, fearing a loss of traveling momentum.

Breaking in Fairbanks taught me how to put a positive spin on misfortune and bought home the fact that this is a long expedition unlike any I’ve attempted before. It is hard to get acclimatised to the magnitude of cycling over 20,000 miles from near the top of the globe to the bottom. You get it in your mind that it’s a long way that can only be achieved by pushing; pushing yourself, your distances and your time. In Fairbanks I was able to mentally prepare myself for riding the Dalton Highway in such a way that time and effort became secondary to the essence of the tour, that essence being a thirst for freedom. Suddenly time did not matter to me. The unbridled inertia that had injured me cycling out of Anchorage was gone, I had nothing to prove to myself or others, the cycling merely became about the experience. This was of course aided by the fact that I didn’t seriously believe that my body would be able to propel me to the end of the haul road and to the start of the rest of the tour.

Consequently the two month layup eroded the idea of a defined eighteen month tour, replacing it instead with an undefined experience that will eventually take me to the bottom of Argentina. Further gloss was added to this indeterminate time scale when I teamed up with Justin and the best days of my life so far were deemed to occur not alone with my thoughts as I had always imagined, but in the company of another. It was my involuntary pause in Fairbanks that held me back to a time when coincidence could kick in and I’d be able to meet a fellow End-to-Ender on the Dalton. Not only am I blessed that Justin was going my way, but also that although different characters, we are the same age and coming from very similar places with our motivations and aspirations for touring. Although the way we approached our expeditions may have wrapped these aspirations up slightly differently, the essence of our callings to cycle the Americas is almost identical.

Before I even knew that Justin existed, my recuperation period started another very significant ball rolling in respect to remoulding my tour. With time on my hands I started this blog and in doing so set a snowball rolling that would engulf much of my idealism about freedom. When planning the tour I wanted to keep everything as simple and ‘pure’ as possible. I didn’t seek any sponsorship or even consider a charitable cause as I didn’t want any responsibility to anyone or be accountable to anything. In fact when I first dreamt up the idea my mindset was very much on the side of not even being bothered if I made it to Tierra del Fuego; I was travelling on a bike, unconstrained by ambition and purpose. The expedition evolved out of this mindset pretty quickly as knee injuries introduced a determination to succeed, with success defined as satisfying the tangible goal of reaching Tierra del Fuego. The wish to escape responsibility allied with a misapprehension as to who would actually gain from me writing a blog had meant that this idea had also been completely blown out of the water prior to leaving the UK.

The concepts of responsibility and accountability bring me back to our hopeful foragers on the Icefields Parkway. These guys were not only setting their store out for (in my opinion) failure, they were also investing a lot of time and money into trying to harvest publicity for the expedition. The supposed motivation for publicity in such cases is to further the cause they are supporting, a cause that  apparently motivates the entire idea. They had grand plans of a Discovery channel series charting their heroic fight against the odds to achieve something special. What they didn’t realise is that no one wants to watch two uninspiring characters slog through monotonous forest constantly hungry and searching for food for no particularly justifiable reason. They didn’t have answers when I asked them why I would want to watch them nor did they have much concept of narrative or jeopardy. Beneath their misguided television aspirations sits an incomprehensible desire to be recognised that runs counter to the idea of adventuring for adventurings sake. You will always get respect in the outdoors world if you are capable and quietly go about pushing boundaries without encouraging fanfare. You will get little respect if people start thinking that your motivations are geared around the twin evils of fame and fortune. If you’re focused and able then your achievements will eventually be recognised without seeking out that initial distraction. There is little room for egotistical displays in this world and subculture.

I shouldn’t judge those who work differently from me. Where as I shy away from being accountable to anyone, others may need the spur of responsibility to push them on to their set goal. We all work in different ways. This is apparent when considering that my esteemed cycling partner of the last few months, Justin, has various levels of kit sponsorship and came into the tour with grand plans of magazine article and book deals. He was seeking out ways to make his tour profitable and worthwhile, a feeling that I think he is moving away from as much as I am moving towards it. In this sense the evolution of our tours will likely bring us to meet in the middle ground. This is easier for us both to understand now we know that we are both physically and mentally capable of the task we have set ourselves. Not only have we covered enough ground for others to start taking our aspirations seriously, we have also had enough experiences to build our own belief and confidence. The fear of failure has gone but although there is still a tangible goal, in cycling to Tierra del Fuego, the right kind of failure could actually be classed a success. I could find paradise, I may fall in love or even find a cause that inspires me to action; all noble reasons to end my selfish pursuit of happiness and abandon the essentially materialistic ambition to cycle the full length. And by putting a responsibility on myself to write this blog I will have something other than my journal with which to chart the organic evolution of any incredible or potentially life changing episode.

The introduction of a blog to my tour not only added a certain level of responsibility, it has also drawn me away from my original anti-technology mantra. I am a Luddite at heart and had hoped to be riding without much in the way of electrical items; things that can break, get stolen and sap the soul out of experiences. I quickly conceded that I’d need to bring my digital camera and Ipod, a need that necessitated a power source and thus came a solar charger. Then, in line with my desire to be as self-sufficient as possible came rechargeable batteries for my headtorch and bike lights, which of course bought with it the recharger that attaches to my solar panel. I had discounted all forms of GPS (including messengers) and it never even entered my mind to bring a computer. This area of my set up has evolved beyond a point I ever thought possible. Having started appreciating the value and security of writing my thoughts in a blog as well as in my (potentially loseable) journal, and faced up to the reality of a WiFi based computer world, I started considering the value of a computer. I was surprised to discover that Justin was touring with a laptop, something that I secretly judged him for during the start of our time together. I was soon eating my own thoughts as his machine proved invaluable to both of us. Without Justin’s computer my plan of uploading all my photographs to Flickr would have been virtually impossible and small things like arranging Warmshowers contacts would have been so much harder. I don’t know whether this would have happened if I hadn’t met Justin but it has; I am dancing with the devil I despise and have bought a small Netbook that will be accompanying me south.

My teaming up with Justin has not only led me to a future beyond Vancouver with a computer, it will also have me carrying a Spot satellite messenger. These are not GPS units that give you your location, they merely send a message out so that others can see where you are. I had seriously considered investing in a Spot but discounted it as I figured I’d always ensure that those close to me knew where I was, regarding it as just another thing to lose, break or get stolen. Justin was riding with a Spot and although its proven effectiveness has not driven me to get one, others reactions to being able to chart our daily progress has certainly got me thinking. My Fathers fascination with charting this progress has made the decision to get one easy… he’s going to pay for it! Thus, when I’ve eventually patched up Shermy and cycle south out of Vancouver, you’ll be able to log onto a map through my website that will tell you exactly where I am. Aren’t you lucky.

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Justin rocks the one trouser leg rolled up bike in the air style

Being fortunate enough to cycle thousands of miles with Justin instead of on my lonesome has been a blessing which has heavily influenced both out outlooks. When we met up on the Dalton Highway we were in very different places psychologically, a situation that allowed me to help him out. Since then we’ve both been as useful to each other in climbing the steep learning curve towards building a successful and effective touring routine and mindset. Building on each others experience and decisions we have managed to hone our camp skills and routine to a point where we sometimes even surpass our own expectations. Our partnership has also been incredibly beneficial in learning to deal with the mental side of such a long tour. We both inevitably had our low energy days and times where our moods weren’t always the most accessible. Having someone with me has not only helped me push through these fleeting lows but also given me a perspective on my own behaviour. We’d both know the telltale signs of a bad mood pretty quickly, signs that often came to nothing after a good feed and a bit of banter. However, some mornings hardly a word would be uttered as one of us was feeling the pace. I learnt a lot from watching Justin’s moods and dealing with his highs and lows. We seldom reached unbearable depths yet it was still immeasurably helpful to be on the receiving end of someones fatigue, allowing me to evaluate my own behaviour and positivism. I believe that we both gained in this respect, one of the reasons why our last ten days together were so comparatively blissful.

It turns out that this chap I bumped into a few days down the Dalton Highway is similar enough to me to ensure we had a great time together and  easily developed a mutual understanding that facilitated us in feeding off of one anothers actions and experience. Yet, different enough that his actions sometimes completely bemuse me, aptly serving to hold the interest of someone who historically gets bored and loses patience with people very quickly. Since we met we’ve spent two months  living in each others pockets virtually 24/7, in all this time we never once broke into an argument or disagreement, an achievement that’s hard enough even without the physical and mental stress of cycle touring. There is no doubt he had times of frustration with me as I did with him, but we both recognised the intrinsic value of our bond, a team mentality that served us well in developing and progressing. I have no understanding of what drives him in many if the things he does but nevertheless congratulate him on putting up with me.

Justin was a surprise and overwhelmingly positive introduction to my tour and I am grateful to him for his friendship and companionship over the last 3,000 or so miles. Cycling with him has also had an impact on the opening up of the tour beyond simply a journey south, rejuvenating a sense of adventure that will likely tack an additional year onto my original thoughts of an eighteen month tour. We both agree that the best thing we have done was to heed the advice of locals and detour away from Prince George over to Jasper and the Icefields Parkway. Without the support of one another in this decision it is unlikely we would have had that amazing experience. We were both aware that the rest of the End-to-End class of 2010 were down around San Fransisco  and that we were coming ever closer to being swallowed up by the northern winter, yet without ceremony we decided to prolong our way south by a couple of weeks. In one easy decision we threw off the shackles of a journey south and in our own minds became adventurers, embracing the freedom to go wherever whenever we want. The diversion put our minds in the right place to really make the most of the rest of the tour and taught us the value of mastering our own destiny. Without each other it is unlikely this lesson would yet have been learnt so soon.

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Deep in thought on the Cassiar Highway

As Justin relaxes with friends down in Seattle and I take time off here in rainy Vancouver I’m sure we are both glowing with a sense of physical and mental achievement. We’re doing it, we’re free; we may not be entering Mexico like the majority of folk who started up in Prudhoe Bay this summer, but we’ve taken a course few of them would have, we’ve been rewarded with exceptional weather and we’ve got more to look forward to than they have. The ‘we’ will now become an ‘I’ and I’ll forge my way down the coast to San Fransisco before striking out on a winter tour of Yosemite National Park, Death Valley, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. I will then likely cut back west to ride down the Baja peninsular before boating across to the Mexican mainland and cycling through the Copper Canyon, then all the way over to the Yucatan peninsular and hopefully a boat to Cuba. From Cuba who knows, maybe Jamaica or perhaps straight back to the mainland to continue south down central America.

It is exciting times for the newly free Justin and myself as I’m sure it is for the two guys who are planning the foraging tour I’ve been so critical of. I applaud anyone who has ambition for exploration and expedition and wish them the best of luck. I sincerely hope that their expedition is a success, whether by evolution into a more achievable form or in its current form; it would give me immense satisfaction for them  to prove me wrong and have fun making a success of their current plan. I just hope they realise, as Justin and I have over the last few months, that you need a plan to go forward but that plan will go backwards if you’re too focused and inflexible.

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