Back to the mountains, to the beginning

snuggling with two sleeping bags in our tent in the anti atlas mountains of morocco while bicycle travelling

There have been times while cycling in West African countries that I’ve felt I was not earning my experiences bicycle travelling. This feeling is not, this time, about the money I spend to travel. This is instead about distribution of labour. When I am in a certain mindset, the tasks that fall to Evan feel more significant than those that I take on. Note that it’s only me that feels this way.

But it’s objectively true that in camp, for example, he scurries circles around me. I’m more relaxed, I have no urge to fill all the moments with doing something. I am lazier. Enjoying camp comes easier to me. The tasks I do, I do slowly. He tends to find himself on the hamster wheel of earning his bike travel every waking moment of every day. He is more efficient. He tries harder. He doesn’t yet know how to really chill. He doesn’t see why a task should take longer than it needs to. He likes working. All these statements are true.

Route choice and navigation usually falls to him. He enjoys it. It’s problematic for him. It’s brought meaning to his life. It’s brought suffering. It’s brought him into deep engagement with the places he navigates through. The numbers and distances have taken away his ability to be present in these places too. All these statements are true.

So I’ve started doing the route choice and navigation. It is an opportunity and a responsibility. Maybe one doesn’t come without the other?

As a side-effect—this wasn’t the direct intention—I’m feeling more like I’m earning the bicycle travel I experience. To choose a way, and then take that way is an active conversation with a place. It’s a conversation that takes effort for anyone, and it doesn’t come easily to me. It’s not yet possible for me to see a map and have its topography stay in my mind like a photograph, such that when I’m cycling through I anticipate and recognize the peaks and valleys as they appear. Not even close. I need to look at the map a lot. A lot! I double and triple check. I second guess myself. Distances are difficult for me to judge with any accuracy. This is one reason why, especially when they’re in airplane mode, smartphones are awesome. They make navigation possible for people with my levels of competence.

Neither does it come easily to me to choose a road, given a choice of many. What is right, what is possible, what is success, what do I want? When I used to make these choices, I felt a range of emotions, among them pleasure and purpose. Sometimes it even felt thrilling. I’ve enjoyed being reminded of this.

**

I am taking us up into the mountains. This had been our hope for our time in Morocco, where we are now. I took over Evan’s aim, to not only take us up into the mountains but keep us up there for a little while. But ranges are more easily cycled over than cycled along. Roads that go up have difficulty staying up. Finding a way through is about weaving together the routes going over. Back when Evan thought he’d be navigating, back when a brief look at the map was enough to etch the ranges in his mind, he looked but didn’t find a way through.

I think I’ve found a way through. It is my secret. Evan will see the way through only as we take it. Afterwards, he’ll pore over the maps because they’ll be safe for him, they’ll show where we have been, not where we are going. I have only been smug for a moment about finding a way through when he, master navigator, did not. I caught myself and stayed humble, because a dynamic of “I win and you lose” is generally problematic in relationships. I also returned to humble because we haven’t made our way through yet, and it looks hard, and I’m the one that must take us through, and I think: did he miss it, or did he know something I didn’t?

It’s up to me and so I must have confidence, but I don’t quite believe that I can do it, and I don’t quite believe yet that it is possible. It helps a lot that we want the same thing. It also helps to remind myself that once we’re on the way, I will have more confidence. This is usually what happens when I start pedalling.

All I’ve got to do is follow the blue arrow on my phone on its slow journey from one waypoint I’ve made to the next. A lot of the time, these waypoints follow a road as it appears on the map. But sometimes there is only a path marked, and rarely, the path line itself fizzles out. Where this happens, I, surprising myself, didn’t retrace my steps and retreat to the safety of a named, numbered road. I wanted to keep going. It became a game to toggle between the map and the satellite imagery, to see if despite what the lines on the map layers say, whether there’s actually a way that goes, that connects.

I toggled until Google ate all my data. I emerged blinking into the real world, long enough for a man at a shop to recharge my balance. What takes the most time and feels most like a game (and really chows data) is judging the nature of the road a few hundred metres at a time. Sometimes, the path really does end. Other times, there’s a way through, but…

A goat path looks on satellite imagery slightly different than a small dirt road actually used by humans on vehicles. At least, it usually does. The distinction is significant, it can be the difference between walking and cycling, the difference between a day we can manage and a day we cannot.

I hope that along the way I will be able to incorporate some information from the people we meet, but my language skills stand between me and having nuanced conversations with most Moroccans. On the other hand, now before we go, I don’t wish to hunt around the internet for someone else’s bike travel route through. I wished to decide myself, even as slow as it has been for me, even at the risk of missing something important. To find a way through became an end to itself.

So here I am, juggling different aspects of route choice in my mind. Thinking about distances between shops, between settlements, between places to charge phones, buy petrol to cook our food. Will the settlements be home to people as the winter approaches, or will they descend to the warmer valleys, to the larger towns? Thinking about mountain roads and their passes. Thinking about the weather forecast, about facing cold that’s now unfamiliar after our time in the tropics. Facing it with gear that’s borderline inappropriate, not warm enough. Thinking about the possibility of snow and then avoiding thinking about snow.

“ABC,” Evan tells me, “remember, aqua, benzene, chow, that’s what you need to have a plan for every day.”

**

I’ve done something before that felt similar. My first experience of bicycle travel was up into the mountains, in the shoulder season, with borderline gear, with the same bicycle and panniers that I have now. I went up into another region where people bulk up their meals with fresh, stale or very stale round bread that is ripped and dipped into high calorie liquids at mealtime.

This was in the Pamirs of Central Asia, with Ilona, in the spring of 2015. I remember feeling with Ilona that I couldn’t bail, that she was counting on me as much as I was on her, that there’s only one stove and one tent between us, that even if I was struggling I couldn’t jump ship. I took that seriously. We pored over the maps and elevation profiles together, both feeling ownership over navigation.

While we’re up in the mountains this month, Evan would jump in to navigate if our safety depended on it. So it may be a bit contrived, but nonetheless I am revelling in this type of active responsibility. I am revelling in it because I don’t yet feel competent, like I do when I take on other responsibilities like asking strangers for water or for help, or cooking our meals, or planning our food and finances. So maybe I can’t say I feel ready, but I can say I feel ready to grow my competence.

Back in the beginning, I was concerned about the climate in the mountains. It turned out that there were some cold days and cold nights and some tears and fear. Because of this, entering the warm home of a mountain family was so comforting it would make my eyes glaze over. It was like being drugged. We’ve already cycled a few days in other mountains here in Morocco, just last week. It wasn’t yet that cold at night, but nonetheless we were given literal and emotional warmth by some people we met. Some aspects of the people’s lives have felt reminiscent of what I saw in Central Asia in the Pamirs. Maybe there’s something similar about mountain people everywhere in the world, the environment converges the culture that forms.

I’m also reminded of the beginning because some gear from then remains with me. How delighted I’d have been then if I’d had known these items would survive time, use and my consumeristic tendencies!

The sleeping bag I used then is now what Evan uses. My down jacket is the same, except that when I tried to wash it last year, instead of returning to plump it got flatter and that was even before Evan started to use it as a pillow. At least he doesn’t drool like I do. My wool shirt is the same, just a few little holes.

Since 2015 we both acquired far better winter equipment that’s nonetheless not with us now. Over the years it’s been sent to my parents house, or shipped home and lost in the mail, or given away. I wish for it now. Some of it was extremely expensive and high quality.

Then, as now, I wonder: Will it be too cold? I know now that it will at times feel too cold, it will be sometimes be uncomfortable. Too cold is to some degree subjective. The cold I expect is the kind of cold that is not dangerous, but rather causes minor physical discomfort. For me, the suffering is primarily caused by the worry such discomforts bring about in me. It freaks me out when my extremities are cold and I don’t know when I’ll get to warm them up.

Then, as now, I can afford to buy whatever winter equipment I need. Then, as now, I am surrounded by people who also need to survive the winter because this is where they live. There’s a demand for warm clothes, and therefore a supply. So let me not exaggerate the stakes. It’s our choice to go up only with what we have, the warm clothes and gear we have not used since Namibia and South Africa, over a year ago.

As it’s my choice about where we go and how high (and therefore cold and exposed) we are, for once I’m more concerned about the weather forecast than Evan. And I thought, the other day, will he be warm enough in the Phalcon? We give names to the gear. The Phalcon Minus One sleeping bag from that sports shop in Bishkek, in Kyrgyzstan, it’s lasted so well, let me have nostalgia, let me daydream.

There was a morning recently, pictured above, where Evan got up to make coffee and tea and I took the Phalcon Minus One so that I had both bags. I continued snuggling alone like a mouse in its hoarded nest. The tent doors were open, as there were finally no mosquitos. It was perfect to us, and felt like it. Really, Evan didn’t feel hard done by for his stove job! I think this moment felt special because it felt ephemeral instead of normal. We were fresh out of the hot places, we were soon heading for the cold places, we were in flux. We had somehow found a secluded ledge to camp on, we were exposed but safe, we were in the mountains, we had somehow organized our life around travel. Life and the weather and our relationship and life could and would change quickly or slowly. We bickered that morning, and also got over it.

**

What I didn’t know or deeply acknowledge when I began bike travelling is that a bike trip is very often, like it or not, accomplished only with significant help from people you meet along the way. To some degree that’s the pleasure and the point. When I look at our route and zoom in on a grainy satellite image of a little settlement, I know now that if there is someone there, and we need help or hospitality, we can ask. Moreover, it’s likely it’ll be a win win: they’ll be pleased to help. My eyes will glaze over in a warm room with blankets. Or, not expecting too much, I count help as an encouraging hand shake, or a little shop with biscuits for sale and a water tap.

What has changed over the years is that I now consider it a responsibility of my own to reciprocate appropriately. Although I am the weary visitor—and weary I will definitely be—it is really a pleasure to have giving and learning on my mind, to complement what receiving I’ll undoubtedly be doing.

I’ve been thinking about how my experience of travel has changed over the years. One change I like—for there as some changes I am not happy with—is that when I meet people along the way, it’s almost a habit to wonder about what their lives are like, instead of wholly focusing on the interaction in the context of how it relates to me.

I often bring up the experiences I had at the beginning of bike travel, in the Central Asian mountains. That time was so influential on my life. As an end to itself it was so fun and different, challenging and interesting, but it also directly impacted how I spent the following years and therefore the perspectives I have today. Besides the nostalgia brought about by the gear, the route planning, by the mountains and their people, I’m also thinking of my beginnings because once we leave Morocco, we are pausing. We don’t know for sure when we will bike travel again.

And when we do, if we do, I hope we do, it won’t be with Stan The Bicycle. This bicycle of mine is ending its service life after five years. Over this time I’ve asked far more of this bicycle than I’d expected when I purchased him…it.

I used to enjoy calling Stan a piece of shit, but I’m trying to stop doing that now because I’ve spent the last few years around people doing amazing and difficult things with piece of shit bicycles, and sometimes around people owning little else besides a piece of shit bicycle that has far fewer bells and whistles than mine. Plus, if a cyclist read Stan’s resume without seeing him or his specs, no-one would call him a piece of shit because he’s gone the distance!

Stan doesn’t have feelings or consciousness, so it’s just me that’s anthropomorphizing this fitting end to his service life, in the mountains just as it began for him and I. For just a little while longer, I am relying on Stan The Bicycle.

Evan is relying on me, and I on him, maybe the balance is just a little different now. And we are all relying, in ways not yet fully known, on Moroccans (some may prefer to be called Berbers) and whoever has built, government or community, Moroccan dirt roads. Now, as back in the beginning, we can hitch a ride if things get too gnarly—even if we feel we haven’t earned the ride. What’s the calculation for earning a ride, especially when we just took a bunch from Mauritania to Morocco?

Or we can buy a sweater, or a blanket, or wait it out, or stop going along and instead go up, over and down from the mountains.

Evan likes to remind me, I’ll paraphrase, that the version of me that started riding in the mountains five years ago would have very different, lower, standards for what earning it looks like. He says this to make me feel happy and proud, and he means it, and it’s useful to have someone else around to help you zoom out on your own life. To help you motivate yourself to grow and seek challenges and responsibilities, while also being gentle on yourself.

What do you think?

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