For those of you who boast a healthy amount of scepticism, it won’t come as a shock to you when I say this blog is at best a highlight reel, covering the times when the urge to reach for the camera happened so frequently it hampered any forward progress along the road. Going through these posts may suggest that life on the road is one big adventure through an uninterrupted succession of epic mountains or enigmatically beautiful deserts.
I wish it were so.
The reality of life on the road is that there are long stretches of just riding a bike in order to get further along a map across unremarkable terrain. These are The Places in Between, the places between those that make you jealous and make it on to this website. Life in The Places in Between breaks down to a strict routine of purified riding in order to just get somewhere, to a distant place that promises an experience worth writing about or a town to offer a bit of R&R.
Quite frankly, the entire stretch between Salta in the arid north of Argentina and the beginning of the famous (and wet) Carreterra Austral in the south of Chile was one big Place in Between. Life boiled down to one of southerly progress. Strictly speaking, there’s nothing to write home about this time but that’s exactly why I thought I’d give it a try in order to give you an insight into an average day on the road. An average, unremarkable day of a long distance bike traveller.
I wake with the rising sun, or to the morning chorus of barking dogs and cockerels. After a few failed attempts to snooze, I reach up to my right shoulder and unscrew the valve of my sleeping pad. It deflates; I’m committed to the day. I unzip my tent, fill my pot with water and light my stove. As the water heats up I pack up my sleeping gear in the same order I did yesterday and the day before that, and start preparing breakfast.
It’s always porridge and coffee. I keep porridge interesting by the things I add to it, whatever I can find locally. Recently it’s been with bananas, walnuts, and cinnamon. If I know the day will be tough, I might throw in a few spoons of peanut butter (aka: rocket fuel), to the mix, if I can get it.
I sit outside my tent and eat breakfast. If I’m in the desert, I’ll be content to just watch the gradual change of the colours of the land around me; if not, I’m thankful for a phone that’s memory is mostly taken up by podcasts. The tent comes down and bags are packed almost without the slightest level of active concentration. Everything has its place and I could probably do it blindfolded. Gone are the days when I lose things when leaving a campsite, but I still do a walkover of where I’ve camped, for any stray tent pegs or rubbish (i.e. the empty tin of Tuna from last night’s dinner). Remember, kids: Leave No Trace.
I get on the bike, push down on one pedal and then the other. The result of this little movement of my legs is a journey that has taken me across 4 continents; not a bad return on such a minor investment. With a belly full of porridge, my brain buzzing on coffee, and the whole place illuminated beautifully in the early light, this is the golden hour. I don’t need headphones for this part. This is my favourite part of the day, and it still is after 3 years of that small, simple action of pedalling.
I let my mind wander, simply letting thoughts come and go as they please, not trying to control them. This is how cycling is so meditative, especially in empty places with little traffic. As time has passed, daydreams have done a 180 turn and, just how I’d daydream about the adventures of life on the road while stuck in some office, I now daydream of normalcy, of work, of commuting. With thoughts like that, it’s definitely time to wrap up this trip soon.
Ninety minutes of riding have passed without a glance at the computer to see how far I’ve gone. Time for a snack, a 10-minute break, and to reach for the headphones. If the riding is relatively easy, I’ll listen to a relatively podcast or a non-fiction audiobook (the lowbrow stuff is reserved for before bedtime), otherwise music – aural motivation – is necessary. The day passes on, scenery changes until I realise I’m very hungry.
Lunchtime takes up an hour to properly rest and refuel, preferably away from the road and sheltered from the elements. Getting back on the bike is always a struggle; music is always necessary and speeds are sluggish. The rest of the day passes in a blur.
When it’s an hour or so before sunset, it’s time to think about finding a campsite. I keep my eyes open for potential spots: rivers, small tracks leading away from the road, and forests are all markers of a potential spot. Technology has made things easier and with apps like iOverlander, it is often great to ride with a known wild camping spot to aim for and great to know what’s available there (i.e. water). If I’m doing things the old fashioned way, how I did it back in the olden days of 2015 and until I arrived in Australia, I’ll fill my 4-litre water bladder at the last opportunity before I start the search. That sorts me for dinner, breakfast, and water for the first half of tomorrow.
My tent goes up by muscle memory alone, no concentration needed, and dinner is just as automatic. If food is widely available, it’s pasta and fresh tomato sauce: the cyclists’ staple. In deserts or remote areas, meals leave much to be desired. Food here is reduced to nutritional groups: carbohydrate and Protein in some form that usually involves the usual suspects that have a good calorie-to-wright ratio. When I go home, I don’t want to see tinned tuna for a long time.
After dinner has been inhaled and everything washed up, it’s the traditional time to write in the journal. Posterity would appreciate detailed accounts of every day, and at the beginning of this trip, a day may maybe extend to three pages. But now that notebook has become dead weight. A week might just about take up a single sheet. There’s only so much you can write about doing the same thing every day. Like the camera, I only write in it when I’m inspired but even then after all this time, mountains, deserts, and camping under a view of the stars miles from civilisation have become normalised. I read. I read a lot and still appreciate the time life on the road gives you to read all those books you’ve meant to without any distractions because there are few alternatives if you don’t buy a SIM card. The desire to keep reading loses the battle against the encroaching wave of tiredness extraordinarily early, perhaps at 8pm if it’s dark, and I put a headphone in one ear and listen to some podcast I’ll never remember, because I fall asleep in less than 10 minutes and stay asleep until the sun rises, dogs bark, or cockerels begin another day.
I do the same every day, right down to the tiniest, idiosyncratic thing like the order I pack and unpack my stuff and where it goes in the limited space of my one-man tent. But this compulsive list of activities – my vehemently guarded routine – is important as it builds the one constant in an otherwise consistent state of flux. As I move, people and languages come and go; riding buddies part ways down different roads; scenery, ecosystems, climates, and exchange rates inevitably change. Everything is fleeting except for my routine and my tent. Whenever I return to my tent after a few nights in a city, I lay down and look up at a familiar ceiling that has been my home for 3 years and can’t help break a smile. It’s the kind of smile you’d make when you close the front door behind you after a long trip (or perhaps when some houseguests leave) and make a sigh of relief.
Home sweet home.