How many times in a day, in a week, in a month do you feel fear? Like real fear, total loss of control and rationality, that all-consuming pressure that one wrong move could be fatal.
My life was nice. My life was normal. I was outdoorsy, adventurous and ‘fearless’. I was content but my life lacked something. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It lacked fire. It lacked fear. It was stable. I was stable. Stable and somewhat monotonous.
Then I met a mountain man and, all of a sudden, my life was fire and ice. Every moment became something exciting, something special. He introduced me to the mountains in a way that I never dreamed could be accessible to me.
I took up three new sports; rock climbing, mountaineering and backcountry skiing. And under his tutelage, I became more alive than I’ve ever been. My stable range of emotions imploded and I tasted the tang of adrenaline, the tremor of knees, and fear, the likes that I’ve never known existed.
I’ve entered a world of no return. A world that terrifies and thrills me in equal measure. A world of snow-capped peaks, sheer cliff faces, of avalanches and crevasses, of chossy rock and snowy backcountry chutes. A world where fear grips me like a noose around the neck and makes me want to run home to my Mammy. A world that tells me that I’m not good enough, that I need to be better, that leaves me bruised and broken.
Yet there’s another side to it, a subtle one. That elusive feeling when you pull yourself on up onto a cliff ledge and put on your safety or the ski down that insane piste of fresh powder…. When you achieved that little feat that you never thought you could do. That moment when you’re regaining your breath, your mind is racing, you’re completely aware and in tune with your body and for one moment, everything is crystal clear.
And once you’ve tasted what life can truly be like if you move beyond your comfort zone. Well, there is simply no going back.
A weekend of ski-touring adventures on the Tasman Glacier, Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
How insignificant I am standing here in front of a monstrous wall of ice. Yet out of the two of us, it is the hundreds of year old glacier that is now more mortal, more vulnerable than I. It is disappearing. The generations coming after me will never stand where I stand right now. They’ll never see what I see in front of me. They will never feel this sense of awe that ripples through my body as I stare.
They’ll never haul themselves up the side of a crevasse. They’ll never ski new lines of untouched powder, cruise down 20km of uninterrupted perfection. They’ll never wander amongst frozen tunnels, jagged pristine seracs and sparkling shards of ice.
Here, away from civilization, perched on a glacier, we are happy, we are free. Here, we play with ropes, skins and ice-axes. Here, we drink whiskey from hip flasks and crack smiles that make our skin crinkle. Here, we don’t scrub or criticize our bodies and our flaws. Here, we eat what we can carry and earn every step.
Here, blisters, bruises and cuts wrap themselves around our bodies. Here, our muscles thrum with pleasurable aches. We curl up in sleeping bags and see our breath turn to steam. Here, there is nothing more gratifying than holding a steaming mug of coffee between your frozen hands. Here our phones have no signal so we talk to each other, we discuss real things and look directly into each other eyes.
You hear the mountains moan and grumble and watch in incredulity as small avalanches release around you like thunder. You put your trust, your life in fact, in other people’s hands. People who you believe (and hope) know much more than you.
Here, you push yourself to do better, to be better. Here, you feel fear and weakness. You feel the tears and panic brimming up inside body but you force them back down. Here, reality is a distant memory, your to-do list at work no longer seems so urgent, the hard time you gave yourself for your bout of overindulgence seems ridiculous. All that stress and worry you carry around with you every day suddenly seems so trivial. When here, out in the elements, you hold your life in your hands. Here, in the backcountry is where freedom and happiness lies.
But this haven, this refuge for us vagabonds and dirtbags is disappearing. Soon the world of ice will be gone and with it, so will we.
The bruises on my knees are yellow, a sure sign of the last stage of the heal. The skin on my bum has started to reform, the little bit of weight I lost, piled back on… I am back sprawled on the couch at home, a cup of tea in hand allowing nostalgia to seep in. That most complicated of emotion that has its wicked way with you, sucks you in every time, props a rose-tinted lens over your memory and keeps you coming back for more.
For twelve days, Dad and I took to the bikes to make the journey from Boston to Toronto. The two prominent cities were chosen merely because we had relations in both that we could crash with while we prepped and subsequently recovered. A relatively easy trip for us both, we had taken on much more badass adventures together and separate in the past. This was a holiday. Not even 1000km in total, roughly 80km a day, easy as. Ignore the fact that I hadn’t so much as seen a bike in the past six months owing to the fact that I was busy living life amongst the snow in the high Alps of France for the ski season. It proved to be a rookie mistake.
I should have known. It’s always the trips that you underestimate and belittle that fight back and prove to be the biggest test. Alas, that is the terrible beauty of adventure. So off we went, leaving my waving mother behind in the pissing of rain in a Boston suburb, blissfully oblivious to what lay ahead.
An hour in, I hit a pothole disguised as a puddle and burst my knees open on the tarmac. And that was it, a baptism of fire and our introduction to cycling in America. From then on our days were filled with linking Greenways and bike tracks, scary highways, nods of hello, intermittent rain, blazing sun and the constant hunt for food that contained a bit of sustenance. A Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s on every corner, of course, but trying to find quaint coffee shops and grocery stores filled with fruit and veg proved futile.
The American hospitality prevailed everywhere we turned. Everyone wanted to talk; everyone wanted to help. We ran out of water along a highway so we pulled into a power electro store and I ran in to ask for help. I emerged twenty minutes later with ice-cold water, a print off of Google map directions and beaming from ear to ear. There were so many little meetings that played out like this… the lovely volunteers at the canal museum doling out pistachio cake and coffee; the casual banter of people walking past us every time we stopped for a second to consult the map or take a bite of a cereal bar. And that’s the beauty of these little trips scattered throughout the year, that despite all the issues you see on the road; the lack of recycling, their consumer society, the prejudices… it restores some hope in humanity within my bones that people are essentially good creatures.
On day three, things started to unravel for me. I bonked so hard that I wanted to quit. I hit a wall; shed some tears. It was a constant slog, hills after hills, climb after climb, all in the pissing rain. Eventually, we pulled over into a little creamery at the side of the road to collapse momentarily. And it was my kind of place, fresh fruit and veg, organic produce and vegetarian options (hallelujah!). We went in for a coffee and stayed for a quiche while the rain poured down outside. That hour or so out of the saddle rejuvenated me, providing a new lease of life for the second half of the day. Yet, I had never been so happy to see the end of the day. Tomorrow will be better, I told myself constantly.
It was not. It was a disaster in fact. A severe weather warning was issued. Thunder, rain and hurricanes were coming for us. I woke up floored, feeling like a fever was ready to engulf me, plus perfect timing, as usual, my periods came to further torture me. I was stuck in my own personal hell. The tears came and my old friend, self-loathing, kicked in.
But I was not yet ready to call it quits on this trip, not after all I’d given up to be here. So on the fifth day, we packed the panniers and started pedalling. Moving from Massachusetts into New York State, quickly noting the startling difference; moving from money to poverty, riches to rags, Obama to Trump. While I continued to simmer in my own personal pity party, smothered in a cold while on the hunt to find food in these one-horse towns.
The misery continued like so, interspersed with moments of beauty and joy. Day six and I felt every bit of the 82km. The pain, the fever, the hurt rolled over me like a wave. I passed out the moment we reached the shitty motel. My head so congested that I was barely able to unload my bike. I showered and collapsed into bed to sweat the fever out. Meanwhile, Dad hovered in the background taking care of me. I questioned constantly if I could do this. My body yearned to stop but my brain kept resisting, repeating the mantra; ‘I’m not a quitter,’ over and over again. In every adventure I’ve ever done, the question always looms, especially when misery strikes…why? Why do we do this to ourselves? My reasoning is that hardship makes real life more tolerable; makes it seem easier. It teaches us how to endure and persevere when all we want to do is quit. Because the rewards at the end are just too huge to ignore.
I feel so weak and pathetic. My body is failing me. I am mired with disappointment. I am battling my demons and constantly feeling like I am losing. I know I should quit and call it a day but I really don’t want to. I can’t bring myself to do it. I’d never rid myself of the failure. It has become a case of mental endurance and stubbornness to get me to the end. I’ll crawl across that finish line if I have to. But the fear of pneumonia presses in. And the question is knowing when to call it quits; when to opt for your health over your stubbornness? We conclude that if I wake up the following day and it’s any worse, then it’s time to call it a day and get a bus to the border; the ultimate march of shame.
The alarm sounds. I wake warily, checking my body for any sign of recovery, any victory that I can cling to and use as a talisman to get me through another day. I didn’t feel better but I didn’t feel worse and that is all I needed. The relief of not having to throw in the towel is enough to lift my mood. I had the first good day on the bike that day and it was a great one; Constanta to Weedsport. Just when I thought I was a goner, I come back and the feeling of relief and joy is unparalleled. My body is coming back to me finally.
We celebrate the day against a backdrop of rolling hills, red barns, grain stores, long green grass and blue skies. We were in Amish country, witnessing first hand a bygone era, a community in frocks, trotting by in their horse-drawn carts. A young couple rode up to us to greet us, they were on their way to the lake for a picnic.
Deep down I knew that the momentum couldn’t last but all it had to do was get me through one more day… we had agreed to cut the journey short by one day and instead of Toronto been the final destination the border into Canada aka Niagara Falls would be our new finish line. A decision that I was happy not to rally against. The end is nigh, the finish line is looming.
Day 12 and with one last heroic effort, I pedal across the border into Canada. By god, we did it. Sweat, blood and tears, an iPod in my ears blasting Bon Iver for the latter half of the day in a dismal attempt to take me out of my own head, tears streaming down my face, chest infection strangling me and wet to the core from the lashings of rain. It was hard, so fucking hard. But crossing that border after 90km, handing over that $2 entrance fee and hearing the sound of that stamp hitting the passport page felt like we had reached nirvana. By god, we fucking did it.
This trip was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, especially so because I naively thought it would be one of the easiest. But two things, just two, made it so worth doing.
The fact that I endured when I know so many would have stopped. For someone that constantly questions their self-worth, their abilities, this was huge for me. The fact that I didn’t quit when the odds seemed stacked against me. For the first time in a long time, I was proud of myself. It was not the trip I imagined but it tested me, it pushed me to my limits and I came out the other side, albeit sick, bruised, sunburnt and worn but still, out the other side at least.
Number two, Dad and I. I know a lot of shit Dad’s and mine, I am happy to report, is not one of them. I struck gold with mine. I don’t know many people who have that relationship with their fathers. We are just easy in one another’s company, sometimes we small talk, sometimes we discuss the bigger things in life, and sometimes we lapse into a comfortable silence for hours on end. When I came off the bike, his sheer panic and concern made me calm, made me stand up and walk it off. When I wanted to call it a day halfway through, he knew exactly how to make me stay. He said if I go then he goes too. And that, frustratingly as I longed to quit, I could not agree to ruin his trip as well as my own. So together, we knuckled down and pedalled on.
Day to day life can be great, idyllic at times but it can also be really fucking difficult and monotonous. Trips like this scattered throughout the year lift me out of that routine, shake my soul and break the stupor. It’s like coming up for air after holding your breath underwater for too long. And that right there is the appeal. Something about been out of doors all day long in rain, hail or shine, the aches and pains of pushing your body past what you normally ask it to do. It’s addictive. And why I know, despite the suffering, that this is far from the last adventure I will ever do.
I told you I’d catch up. I told you I’d get there in the end. My parents always said that their three daughters were just taking the ‘scenic route’, ‘the long way around in life’.
But then I did it. I finally got what I’d been craving, what I’d been working towards and dreaming about for years. I got the dream job. And with the career, came security and a few quid in my back pocket. A normal life. Finally. Home at the weekend to see the folks and meet up with the home crowd to hash it out, vent about work, boys, life, etc. over drinks. Then back up to the big smoke on Sunday night for another week in the office.
I finally did it. Accomplished what I thought I wanted. I was officially settled. And I was comfortable…
For about ten minutes. That’s all it lasted. And then my mind began to whizz again.
The question kept cropping up in my mind’s eye. Again and again it would float to the surface, that most deflating and demoralizing question… is this it? Is this it for the rest of my life?
I wasn’t unhappy. Aspects of this life, I loved.
But for the first time in my life I did not have an end point to aim for, to keep me motivated, to make me enjoy the inevitable lows and the hard times. This could technically continue indefinitely. This could be it. For the rest of my life.
And I wasn’t ready. I still wasn’t ready. Even though everyone around me seemed ready. I, to my utter dismay, was not.
So I did something reckless once again. I decided to hand in my notice and do a ski season. The thing that most people commit to in their early twenties, on their gap year after university or just after, in that brief lapse of time before entering adulthood. At 27, had my moment passed?
But I have learned in recent times that if you care a little less about what people think of you then you are free to make up your own rules. So for the umpteenth time in my life, I threw caution to the wind and took a gamble. I applied to work as a chalet host in the French Alps. I informed work that I was running away and I packed my life into a 20kg duffel bag to join the hoards of youthful, party-mad seasonnaires boarding a plane to the mountains.
What ensued was weeks of highs and lows, day time siestas, way too many fresh baguettes and pastries devoured, a few extra layers of fat to line my stomach and thighs, drama, a lot of drama, sleeping on couches, chef’s with broken arms, passive-aggressive comments, belly-aching laughs, a new best friend, miles and miles of piste, howling at the moon, dancing under the stars, legs dangling off of chair lifts, pushing through fear, climbing mountains, countless perfect sunrises and sunsets, embracing the thrill of speed and the biggest surprise of them all; meeting a beard toting, van owning, free-thinking, adventure-loving vagabond to share my world with.
The season now draws to a close. The prospect of returning to reality looms once more. Yet the ride continues. A new adventure presents itself daily. The highs are high and the lows are low. Every week a new challenge to bask in; the first black slope, the first visit to the ski park, the first off-piste run, the first time using ice axes, ski touring sessions, sunrise hikes to the summit…
All welcoming the return of fear back into my world. A feeling that at times I despise. It makes me feel weak and inferior. But a tiny part of my brain revels in, craves it and seeks it out. Fear is all consuming. You tune out everything around you. You become hyper-aware of your own body, your own mortality, your chest rising and falling as your lungs fills with oxygen. Your palms slightly sweaty, the feeling of your teeth as they brush against your lips. One more deep breath, one swallow, one last thought before you close your eyes for a beat, everything slows down and then over the edge you drop….
Into blissful oblivion.
Every week I up the stakes a little more. I push myself to find that thrill, that feeling once more.
At 27, you would think you would know yourself pretty well. Yet, I am still learning, still discovering who I am. I now know, categorically, that my happiness lies outside the confines of office walls. I have discovered the lure of the mountains and I may never return. It has taken me a long time to learn, that for me, lifestyle trumps job.
What is next… who knows! The only thing that I am certain of is that I’m not yet ready to return to so-called ‘real life’. It’s not the life for me. I am content, at peace, at long last. The feeling is no doubt finite, it is inevitable that it will come and go in waves throughout my life. But at this moment in time, I am right where I’m supposed to be.
I am happy.
Banff to Jasper, Canada | July 2018
Bow LakePeyto LakeMaligne LakeViews along the wayLake LouiseCampingSulfur MountainMoraine Lake
Home, Ireland. March 2018.
Surf & Sunset – Lahinch, Co Clare.
The Cliffs of Moher, Co Clare.
Moyhill Community Farm, Co Clare.
This is a short documentary I made this year where I interviewed psychiatric nurses who used to work in the old Irish asylums. I have a unique perspective on this, growing up with two parents for nurses, four nursing aunts and two nursing uncles… all except two who worked in St. Senan’s psychiatric hospital.
Here is a taster of what I’ve been working on these past few months… full edits coming soon!
Travel changes everything. The harder the journey the more you learn and by God, India was no picnic… dust, dirt, and chaos. The swarms of people, the pungent air, the constant stares, the rats, the slums, the litter, sitting cross legged on the floor, eating curry with dirty fingers, horned cows and stray dogs roaming every street, the aromas of spices and incense wafting through the air, yoga lessons on the grass, crazy driving, incredible views and food and then there’s me and Tom (my best pal from uni)… a Scottish boy and an Irish girl lost somewhere amongst the madness of southern India.
Day one and a kind local invites us to his home to eat, but we realise too late he’s trouble and we are way too naive, that the world is not all rainbows and butterflies and not everyone is a misunderstood soul, when the “kind local” turns his back on you for the whole night and will only speak to your male friend, when he silences you with the infuriating words ‘ok sweetie’ and puts his hands up to quieten you, his exact and poignant use of pronouns when he refers to you as “she” and “her” are like punches in the gut and his use of flyaway phrases like “even she can teach us something” and all you can do is bite your tongue when you feel like screaming, “I’m right here you sexist twat.” He drives us back on scooters at 1.30am, insisting I ride with him, I can smell the whiskey off his breath as he says it. He drives too fast, a stray cow on the street turns his head and almost annihilates us. He topples his head back in laughter as I ask him meekly to slow down…
In Goa, we rent motorbikes and head off on a day trip to a secret beach with the ultra cool hippies from our hostel; one Indian, two Nepalese, one Mexican, one Portuguese, and one Guatemalan… all men, but this time they are the good kind. We scour the Indian countryside, stopping for a banana shake while they sip ‘holy water’, go skinny dipping (them not me) and we lie back in the white sands sipping beers on the deserted shores. Later, we take a quick ferry across to an island, the most northern point of Goa in the torrential rain for chai, returning at night to a restaurant delightfully known as the Happy Corner to bask in the sound of a cacophony of horns ringing from a Hindu Temple – Indian style live music.
Back on the bikes we hop, weaving down the twisted streets to Arambol to the candle lit beach bars for more beers. It’s all so magical. I am perched on the back of Julio’s bike and we talk and talk and talk as the wind sweeps through our hair and darkness closes in around us. He is a wise man who shares his story with me, with words of wisdom like ‘Never entertain jealousy and boredom is a great thing, because it allows creativity to come to life.” He has been bankrupt three times in his life. He is married but in an open relationship. His wife is working for the Red Cross in Myanmar, while he is setting up a hostel in India. This is why I travel, why conform when you could live like this, without rules or societal pressure, meeting people who live whatever way they feel like. This is freedom, this is life!
Only in India, have I experienced such highs and lows, an incredible day like that is followed by a brutal one… the rules of gender here are so misplaced, the men stare at me but ignore me when I ask a question, and address only Tom, ‘the man’, naturally it drives me insane. There are two prices for everything, one for foreigners, one for locals. Hassle and haggle all day long, a man putting a phone in my face to video me, they are like paparazzi and I am a caged animal in a zoo. Everyone is trying to rip you off, not many are kind just to be kind, everyone has an agenda. I know now how lucky I am to be born a white female from the western world. I have always considered myself working class, with two nurses for parents who have worked their whole lives to provide for me and my sisters. How blind I was, we live like kings and queens compared to the Indian version of working class.
Tonight we board an eleven hour sleeper bus overnight from Goa to Hampi. Packed like sardines on bunk beds. The conductor kindly lets us swap from two single beds to one double so as we are together, but then for his kindness insists we pay him a bribe of 100 rupees… everything has a price and though many preach about karma few seem to practice it. Curtains pulled, windows open on this non-AC sleeper bus, the wind cooling the sweat sticking us to the mat. Shoved and pushed, rolling around freely as the bus chugs on, we know this never would be allowed in the western world. It is like The Knight bus in Harry Potter. We giggle and chat, and try in vain to get some shuteye in this mad world as we are tossed around with every pothole and bump as we hurtle south.
We arrive in Hampi as the sun is setting, the local businessmen swarm us as we try and get off the bus, trying to push us into a rickshaw but we have our wits about us despite our tired eyes and we know it is only a two minute walk to the town. The monuments and temples loom splendidly on the hillside, long tail monkeys run across the electrical wires, while the weary people make their morning pilgrimage to the temple. Hampi is a UNESCO world heritage site, the equivalent of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. We find a place to rest our aching bodies with a toilet that doesn’t flush and a mosquito net pockmarked with giant holes patched up dismally with plasters, we finally fall asleep to the distant wails of chants happening outside as the rest of the world begins to wake.
We make new friends with people who are staying at the same guest house. Candi a strong, beautiful Argentinian woman who takes no shit from anyone, she is travelling with her best friend the delightful Mati. They have been hitchhiking and couchsurfing their way through India. Then there’s John from London, whose kindness has no limits, all the beggars we meet, he buys them food instead of giving them money. I know instantly the three will be our friends for life.
The food is incredible. It feels amazing to eat pure vegetarian, handfuls of floury parotta and chapatti swabbing up the spicy curry; the Veg Thali, Channa Masala, Masala Dosa, Aloo Gobi, Dal Fry, all slapped onto a plate or banana leaf. Using only our hands, it’s a spectacularly messy and uncivilized way to eat but brilliant in the freedom of it. I love it, I gorge and revel in the joy of food once more. Although, be warned I nearly always found a hair in my dish!
A local bus to Hospet in torrential rain through ‘roads’ that can’t even call themselves roads. We sit on the floor of the train station for four hours. The station reeks of manure, I swallow down the vomit that threatens to come up my throat. The rain makes it worse. Out on the street you see the caste system at work, one massive fancy ass hotel and all around it pure slums. We sit wallowing in the stench, drowned in the rain and the electricity goes. Typical. Everyone is in barefoot walking through the muck and puddles. There is a young girl in a green sari with wide brown eyes huddled in a corner swaddled in blankets staring at me. The lights blink in and out when a group of young boys taunt us and get right up in our faces, I thank my lucky stars that Tom is here with me. I don’t know if I could have done it alone and that thought angers me, why shouldn’t I be able to do this alone? Because this world is so fucked up, that’s why. It breaks my heart.
But alas, we survive the sleeper train, three beds stacked on top of each other. For twelve hours we lay in our caves to arrive in Mysore, where out on the streets we see cultures clash as the Muslim women stroll in their black burkas contrasting brilliantly against the colorful saris of the Hindus. After sleep, we are reunited with the Argentinians and John, we get a tuk tuk to Chimean Hill, five of us squished in the back of one, I on Thomas’ lap, hanging halfway out the tuk tuk, with Bob Marley blaring No Worries on the radio. We climb 1032 steps to a temple. The hike is a pilgrimage, the colours dabbed on each step in a benediction, a silent prayer. We trudge on, chatting, lapsing into silence as we pull ourselves up the steep incline and concentrate on our breathing. It is a stand out moment, one that I will remember forever.
An overnight bus to Kochi, a man sits next to us asks us for our name and our caste? He asks what religion we are, we say none, he says how come? We say you don’t want to know… The European vibes of Kochi are a welcome break. The boys are playing football, when I bump into Carly an old friend from university in the most surreal moment ever, the world is too small! We go for secret beers and catch up on her life, her adventures in Madagascar and Reunion Island and I just think to myself wow I know some cool people.
Its mad how progress seems to have just stopped in the country, like the 21st century just barreled through and they just cant keep up… or perhaps don’t want to? The electricity consistently goes, the utter lack of sanitation, the people in the shops/markets getting pissed off with you when you refuse to cave to their inflated price and push for negotiation, the rickshaw drivers constantly hassling you. A local woman thrusts her few month old baby at me so as the family can take pictures of the white girl holding a baby. Over the course of the three weeks I’ll have been in over fifteen strangers photos. If you can learn to embrace/handle India, nothing will ever faze you again.
Another bus, this time to the Tea Plantations of Munnar and they are incredible, even in the misty rain. We scale the cliff edges in a jeep to see them, passing waterfalls and miles of greenery; it is nature at its best. Then in typical Indian fashion, the country goes on strike and fails to tell the tourists. All restaurants, shops, buses, tuk tuks, national parks – everything shuts down, we have no food and water for the day.
Our days are numbered, on our second last night we sit on a pier back in Kochi, feet dangling, reflecting on life, when a rat runs across my bare feet. There is a frog in the corner, an Indian man pisses on the side of the street facing us… this is India. Back to the hostel to lie on our backs and stare up at the spinning fan, life is a strange and wonderful thing.
There is only one last destination left before home, Mumbai. The city is huge and bustling, here there is the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. As I look out the dirty window of the local bus, we pass the shanty towns,there is just people everywhere. Twenty five million people in Mumbai alone. Coming from a country of less than 5 million I just cant comprehend this scale. Then onto an overpacked train, full of men, pressed against them, everyone of them unashamedly staring at me. I cannot wait to be anonymous once more, to blend in with the crowd. The train doesn’t stop, just slows down and people make a run and jump and hope for the best…
Our last night in India, we invite the 19 year old Egyptian kid from our hostel to the bar with us, he drinks a double tequila when he’s never drank before. He is drunk almost instantly, slapping his head, talking to himself, we have to bring him home and put him to bed. I whisper a goodbye to Thomas in the middle of the night, the end is nigh, he is off to Cambodia for a year while I will return home to university for one last stab at that dream career.
The time has come to go home. It’s been a whirlwind, a love affair, highs and lows, both easy and terribly hard… worth it though, so, so worth it. Already my glasses are starting to tint with rose. We only have one life, and you must try really hard to live it. I am back behind the bar pulling pints and dreaming of the dusty roads, the host of colours, the spice, the smell of India and the next adventure.
“I urge you to travel. As far and as much as possible. Work ridiculous shifts to save your money, go without the latest Iphone. Throw yourself out of your comfort zone. Find out how other people live and realize that the world is a much bigger place than the town you live in. And when you come home, home may still be the same and yes you may go back to the same old job but something in your mind will have shifted. And trust me that changes everything.”
We take our bodies so for granted. At full health, what it is capable of doing is astounding; it can climb mountains, swim amongst the tides, sprint through fields of long grass… but what about those who never possessed a body at full health, those people who never had the option? When menial everyday tasks are more difficult, every outing is preplanned and climbing a stairs is an arduous task. How would you live your life if your lungs were your enemy? And your days were made up of physio, medication and hospital visits. When you had to consume 12 to 22 tablets a day just to keep you ticking over. How would you live if you were born with an illness that as of yet has no cure? Would you allow it to define you or would you rally against it in defiance?
Chris stops and sits on an outcropped rock to catch his breath on our 2km walk up to the hut were we will camp tonight. I hear his laboured breath, the painful drag in and out. Around us are dirt tracks and a brutally deforested area of Coillte. It is a muggy evening with a heavy grey sky that hints at an oncoming downpour. Chris pulls his backpack up and we walk on, heading into the trees. After about half an hour we reach our destination, a little green hut perched on a small cliff face overlooking rolling green hills. It is truly an idyllic setting to set up camp for a night’s microadventure, anything to liven up the week. We quickly unburden ourselves from our backpacks and lay down our mats and bags to gather sticks for a fire.
When I was in fifth year of secondary school my friend died from Cystic Fibrosis, he was sick his whole life, obviously sick, wheelchair and oxygen tank kind of sick. He died and we were heartbroken. We his friends continued to maintain contact with his family; his father James, mother Fiona and little brother Chris. We struck up a routine of sorts, dinners, drinks and a chat about the good times. The years passed by and one by one the friends slipped away, caught up with their own lives, their own worries and hardships but somehow I remained. I found his family liberating, strong and inspiring. They taught me so much about life and as I grew up they became my friends too. This family is different than any I’ve ever known. They are a joy to be around because they don’t suffer fools. They let you away with nothing; there is no such thing as I can’t and over the years we have lived a life less ordinary. We have kayaked the Slaney together, made it into the Guinness Book of Records for participating in the world’s longest swim, gone clay pigeon shooting, done countless Rubberman challenges and a few weeks ago we went camping for a night in the Wicklow mountains while Chris who also has Cystic Fibrosis was on IVs.
James throws some jacket potatoes into the ash to cook and we set about boiling water over the open flames. He plucks a bbq rack from those DIY bbq kits and perches it precariously between the rocks and logs to cook the sausages and pork chops on while the beans boil away contently in their tin. It’s a feast by my usual camping standards! Meanwhile Chris sits on a picnic table and lays out his syringes; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine… all glittering in the sunset on the pristine silver tray. He begins the slow process, filling them up from the glass vials one by one, lifting his t-shirt to expose the various contraptions attached to his body. He doesn’t skip a beat as he slowly injects the meds into his body, continuing the conversation as if this was totally the norm.
The risks are very real for a person with CF to camp while on IV’s; the lack of a sterile environment, the risk of hemoptysis with no easy escape route and a night spent lying on the cold hard ground is not the most comfortable. Three days ago Chris’s lungs were at 46%, the equivalent of me walking with one lung, yet he doesn’t complain. At 19 almost 20 years old, Chris is a breath of fresh air with his no bullshit attitude. CF does not define him or stop him experiencing all the simple pleasures that others his age have. Yes there are risks, but you have to live your life; “A lot of people with CF get caught up with all the treatments. It’s ok to once in a while to skip it. It’s not going to catapult you back,” he says, adding defiantly “Don’t let your treatments dictate your life. There is some leeway. A massive amount is mindset. If your health takes a small hit for a better life, its worth it.”
The sun lowers gradually but the moon is particularly bright tonight. We stare into the orange flames licking the firewood, prodding the embers occasionally. We sip tumblers of vodka and coke and red wine and we just sit and talk. A cold night ensues on hard ground, wrapped tightly in our sleeping bags to stave off the cold. Bedding down, Chris warns us of his coughing; he needn’t have, after a while he falls into a quiet slumber, unlike his father who will scare any potential predators away with his snores.
It is not an easy night and none of us sleep well, we wake the moment light returns, weary, sore and totally spent but exhilarated all the same. We get up groggily and stretch out our aching bodies. The air is crisp and damp and the birds greet us with their dawn chorus. We stuff everything into our backpacks, pull them on and walk briskly out of the woods. Time to go back to reality. A time out every so often is necessary to make you appreciate your cozy bed, the roof over your head, your life and to put those worries that seem so big into perspective. A little midweek adventure to wake us up, shake us up, anything to feel alive to feel normal. If Chris can do it, surely you have no excuse?
I have worked hard my whole life, slogged away at it quietly behind closed doors; the junior cert, the leaving cert, my degree, countless unpaid internships, countless shitty part time jobs. All on the basis that once I came out the end of that tunnel, my efforts would be rewarded. I would have the offer of a job, not just any job, but the dream job.
Alas, here I sit, a year on and not only do I not have the offer of thee job, I have no offers for any jobs, not even the ones I once thought beneath me to apply for. What has happened, where have I gone wrong?
I have followed societies orders, I have studied hard, never smoked or taken drugs, been nice to people, rarely fought with my parents, never had ‘issues’, never was demanding, or attention seeking, never built up a credit card debt, never gambled, never did anything illegal, never did anything too reckless. I’ve been a good little girl. Yet it seems, none of that plays a part, none of that counts…
I mustn’t be good enough?
Ouch. Saying it out loud is like getting punched in the gut.
So what do I do, I emigrate of course, like countless Irish before me. So here I sit in Perth, Australia crashing in a cousin’s house. Taking up space. I have announced to the world that I am here, you can employ me now, and once again I am met with stony silence. Moving was meant to solve the problem, a bigger marketplace, a better chance… instead just more people to reject my resume.
It has been suggested to me that I should think about retraining? One year after graduating, I should admit defeat and choose a more sensible option. To give up on Journalism, to give up on the dream before I’ve even given it a chance to take off.
No, I can’t do that, not yet. Shall I slug away once more, working bar jobs, scraping by, living the student life, waiting for the opportunity that might never arrive?
Or do I take the less sensible option and gather together the scrapings of my bank account to explore Australia, in the hope that while I shuffle through the outback, someone will reach out and take a chance on me? With the knowledge ever weighing on my shoulders that if they don’t, I’ll have to crawl back home with my tail between my legs, my confidence in shatters, and ask Mammy and Daddy to support their failing 24 year old once more.
Do I gamble in the hope that this may actually happen for me, or do I settle down to a reality that I’ve never wanted?
The time has come to make a decison.
Go on, roll the dice. Decide my fate.
If anyone is considering doing something similar (Hanoi to Ho Chi Min), here is our route, distance travelled each day and our kit list. If you need any more help or information, feel free to get in touch.
Ho Chi Min Highway & A1 Highway
Day 1: 92km – Destination: Hang Tram, maybe Hoa Binh?
Day 2: 69.5km – Destination: Roughly Lam Son
Day 3: 83km – Destination: somewhere near Thai Hoa
Day 4: 113km – Destination: near Phou Chau
Day 5: 83km – Destination: Huong Khe
Day 6: 132km – Destination: somewhere after Phuc Trach
Day 7: 59.5km – Destination: near Cam Lo
Day 8: 82km – Destination: Dong Ha
Day 9: 70km – Destination: Hue
Day 10: 100+km – Destination: Da Nang
Day 11: Rest Day
Day 12: 68km – Destination: Tam Ky
Day 13: Day off (sick)
Day 14: 98km – Destination: near Quang Nga
Day 15: 89km – somewhere on the highway
Day 16: 93km – Destination: Song Cau
Day 17: 132km – Destination: Dai Lan
Day 18: – Destination: Nha Trang
Day 19: Rest Day
Day 20: 92km – Destination: Phang Rang
Day 21: 82km – Destination: Phang Rang/Phang Thiet
Day 22: 77km – Destination: Phan Thien
Day 23: 75km – Destination: Long Khan
Day 24: 84km – Destination: near Bien Hoa
Day 25: – Destination: Ho Chi Min City
- Unlocked IPhone with Vietnamese sim-card.
- 2x panniers – (Oxford Low Rider Rear Panniers 36L)
- 2x pairs of cycling shorts
- 2x cycling t-shirts
- 5x knickers/5x socks
- Baseball cap
- T-shirt and light pants for evening wear
- Cycling boots with cleats (Shimano Gore-Tex Mountain bike boots & pedals)
- Lightweight rain jacket
- Canon 700D camera & Tripod
- GoPro camera
- 2x Waterbottles
- Phone/camera chargers
- Small towl
- Garmin Sat Nav
- 4x bungee cords
- Small pack of cable ties
- 2x Touring bikes (bought on Ba Trieu Street, Hanoi)
- 2x Buffs
- 2x standard bike lights
- 2x spare tubes
- Chain link
- Allen keys
- Mileage clock
- Water bottles
- Medication: Immodium, parcetemol, motillium, insect repellent, amoxicillan, dioralyte, bandages, plasters, antiseptic cream.
- 2x Helmets
- Map of the entire country
Vietnam is a country of contradictions. A stranger can hold my face between their hands, rub the hair on my arms, braid my blonde locks. Two minutes later another is shoving against me flogging their goods: “Madame smell the coffee, taste the pho, feel the texture, see the colours of the spices, buy from me, buy from me, Madame…”
I thread softly through the markets to pick up supplies. Sweaty bodies push against me, pungent air caresses my nostrils, humidity sticks my hair to the back of my neck. Smoke rises in the alleys, plastic kids chairs and tables consume the pathways, a cacophony of horns intertwined with the high pitched natter of the Vietnamese language drown out the peace, the dust churns and settles, churns and settles, the flies hover over the raw meat spread out across cardboard on the ground, the final flick of a live fish before the machete drops to behead it and life seeps out.
The Vietnamese crouch, the sweet iced coffee with condensed milk as it touches your lips, the tacky flashing lights over every shop front, the Buddha and mini pagoda statues adorned with fruit and cigarettes and cans of booze, the heaving flem filled hack of the locals whose lives play out in a world of putrid air pollution, the smoke and inhale of the thuoc lao pipe and the fifteen second blissful high that follows.
The tanned creases of the old women’s skin, the stereotypical straw farmers hat, the kindness colliding with the meanness, closing your eyes, crossing your fingers and stepping out on the road to cross, the cruelty to animals, the resonating sound of a slap of a child across the face, the red flag and yellow star, the fat white tourists licking ice-creams, the ao xao, the sauces, the lizards darting across the walls surrounding you. Every town has its product; aloe vera land, tile land, corn on the cob land, duck land…
Millions of mopeds zoom past. The squeak of the overloaded battered bikes with no gears. The crisp linen shirts and red chiffon bow of the school kids. The terrible roads, the contrast of stunning limestone eroded mountains with the polluted dirty cities. Like Ireland eighty years ago.
This is my Vietnam.
It is a dangerous world we live in. Or so everyone keeps telling me.
But fear is a terrible thing. Fear traps you, restricts you, and confines your mind. Fear makes you settle for average, when you were destined for so much more.
I decided I would not let fear of the unknown dictate my path, so I moved to Vietnam alone. Six months later my fifty-four year old Da flew out to Vietnam’s capital city to cycle the country with me. North to South, 2000km, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Min City.
My foot presses down, the pedal begins its rotation, and we are off, Hanoi to Ho Chi Min by bicycle. Instant chaos in the city’s streets, we push our way slowly out of Hanoi while trying to find our balance with our overstuffed panniers. Finally we break out of the cities confines and into pure countryside, to the town made of sludge. With no compact ground to stabilise ourselves, we struggle in vain through a road of ankle high muck, we fight to keep the momentum going because if you stop, you’re stuck and you will sink. The locals on the side of the street look on laughing their asses off at us. Dad makes it through the fifteen minute mud bath. I stutter and fall and have to drag my way out on foot, giggling in disbelief. The madness has commenced, we have reached the Ho Chi Min highway, our home for the next two weeks.
We cycle against a backdrop of limestone cut mountains, patterned paddy fields, farming women bent over their crops, while a constant dribble of kids emerge from their homes and chase us down the road to scream their hellos. We aim for 70km but end up doing 92km because there is no place to rest our weary heads. The series of hills gnaw away at our energy and leave us replete. Day one and already a routine, one we will fine tune over the coming weeks. A shitty motel tonight, with cigarette butts, squat toilets, no sheets to line the rank mattresses, and only an uncased fan to cool us in the hazy heat. A full chicken carcass, beak, bones, feet, organs intact and some leaves and rice thrown in front of us to dine on. But what magic, we are here, we are finally doing it. What a wonderful life it is.
The days roll by; I quickly learn the Vietnamese words for father and daughter because everyone thinks we are married, creepy. Da’s gears won’t change cogs, so he’s having a rough time trying to get up the hills of which there are many. Low mileage forces us to ride on through peak sunshine, ebbing away at our battery, stopping every few miles to force water down our throats and slather on sun cream over the sweat. We push on, making a note of what not to do; there will be no lie in tomorrow, up early to get the miles under our belt before the heat hits. Surreal beauty surrounds us, blue skies, water buffaloes bathing in the lakes, the beautiful people waving, we have to fight the urge to stop every minute and take a photo or we will never get there.
A sense of easiness settles between us as I plague Da with questions about his life, about the world, which at twenty-three I still have so much to learn about. He entertains me with tales about the life he has led until now, about work, about my brilliant mother. It distracts us both from the heat and the pain. We keep commenting that maybe it is us westerners that have it the wrong way round, these people in all their poverty seem happier than us. Labouring in the farms or chilling in a hammock in the shop/restaurant/house they own until a customer rocks up to be served. Taking a siesta between twelve and two each day, cruising through the rolling landscape on a motorbike, spreading seed in a paddy field knee high in mud underneath the sweltering sun. Meanwhile we burst our balls to build a career, to get another promotion to make more money to buy more crap that we do not need. Are we really the developed country or is the joke on us?
We are both tired, needing a place to stay and not finding any, there is nothing worse than having to push on when you’ve already given up. Da grabs on to the back of a bamboo truck, to hitch a ride up the hill. Tonight is another cheap motel, another hand held shower, washing out our gear with soap in the sink. I treat myself to a fresh pair of knickers after three days. This is the life. The days start to morph together. We stop to help an unconscious drunken man out of a dike. We despair at the miles and miles of deforestation in process around us. It saddens me to witness a world ‘develop’, Vietnam will soon mourn the loss of a simpler lifestyle without machines and technology. I want to shout at them to stop, to look at the western world and see that they are making a mistake. They should be preserving their way of life, not destroying it. We ride past a dead man on the road, after been knocked down, a sheet covering a part of him, blood pouring out of his head onto the tarmac. Tragedy, and yet somehow the world continues on as if nothing has happened. I have a rash and blistered backside and heel, and an infected ant bite on top of the foot. I am punishing my body, forcing it to adjust rapidly. But in all this pain, there must be some light, some beauty.
I push my bike up the side of a mountain in tears; a frightening descent follows as darkness closes in. Our bodies hurt; we need to rest if we are going to have a chance at making this. The Vietnamese point and laugh at us, overcharging us because we are white, therefore assumed to be wealthy. Sometimes I hate it all, the people, what we are doing. Pushing eighty to a hundred and thirty kilometres a day, every day on a motorway consumed by road works in the pissing rain. I’m in misery, questioning everything, this trip is going to change who I am. We pass war memorials every few miles, reminding us of this countrys bloody past. I snap at Da because he’s left handed and if we sit beside each other and share one plate, his elbow constantly hits off me because I’m right handed. A car hits a motorbike who hits me, knocks my panniers off and nearly topples me. Rashes, ant bites, dark rims under my eyes, a bad cycling tan, knotted dreadlocks… I look a mess. Why do we choose to suffer? But every time we reach those lows, a moment will follow that lifts us right back up. Always such simple things; a pea and grain flavoured ice-pop for breakfast, a nap under a tree at noon, the blast of a shower, calling home, a cool beer, a pineapple. And voila, day saved.
1000km later, we crawl into Da Nang, head to toe in muck, the dirty rain filling and corrupting our lungs. We have reached our half way point. We gorge ourselves on glorious western food, satisfied for the first time since we started. We take a moment to appreciate what it is we are doing. To appreciate life, kindness, beauty, fun, calmness, the freedom of choice, the freedom to change things, to evolve, to change myself and the path I walk on. To suffer in order to appreciate what I have, the luxuries of my world.
The rest is short lived and we return to the road, this time on the A1 motorway in the lashing rain. A series of wrong turns, added miles, a puncture and more rain follows. Hardship. Maybe there is something after all to the 9-5 job, the mortgage, the husband, the babies, the log fire, the cable TV? Day thirteen becomes an unplanned rest day, after I submit to fever through the night. Da fusses around me worrying that they are malaria symptoms. We ride to the hospital to do the test. There we witness real suffering; a young man after a motorbike accident, bleeding out, with broken legs. In another corner two old men writhe in pain on their deathbeds. We perch awkwardly on the edge of a trolley. The test comes back clear, but a high white blood cell count suggests a viral infection. Rolling with the punches.
We trudge on. Miles of road works; dredging up so much dust it’s dangerous. The buses and lorries beep and barrel on through, if you don’t make a swift jerk of the handlebars towards the ditch then you’re a goner. We bellow profanities after them after the near misses, but they just wave, carting their busloads of fat white tourists from scenic spot to scenic spot, missing all the culture, the actual food and lifestyle of the Vietnamese people, content to be blindfolded to reality as they holiday. Some days I think, wow look at what we are doing with the time we have been given, what badasses we are but sometimes for a second I think, I wish I was on that bus that nearly barrelled me over into a paddy field. How great it would be to be reclining, eating a can of Pringles, and looking out the window at the lovely scenery, but not looking close enough to see the wrinkles on the locals faces, the bend of their spines after years of being hunched over labouring in a field. Not close enough to see the poverty, to see suffering. To see their lean, sinewy figures in motion. not from dieting but from manual labour. No notion of what indulgence or McDonalds or spare cash is. I pull my baseball cap down, my buff up around my nose and mouth, and through squinted eyes I push on through the dust cascading down around us.
I can feel myself growing stronger. I am starting to enjoy the burn; I don’t dread the hills as much. There is something about earning it; it’s a good kind of suffering. Around us the world chugs on, a migration of yellow butterflies surrounds us like snow falling. The hammering of the stone breakers clinking out a tune, chimes around us. After a tidy descent, we stuff our faces with mangoes; bananas and cans of coke at a quaint little food stall, enjoying the evenings heat on the back of our necks. The Vietnamese talk to Dad, he replies in Gaelic and they both pretend they are having an actual conversation. I stand back and laugh.
Day 18 and we roll into the resorts of Nha Trang to feast on Mexican food and large pints of golden San Miguel. The sheer enjoyment we get from the taste, from understanding the conversations around us, and from simply being anonymous again. Six beers and we are blotto, like giddy school girls. We discuss life, make plans, and marvel at the wonder of it all, and the realisation that we are actually here and in the midst of doing it. We stumble back to the hotel, and call home to tell them all how much we love them in slurred words. What a hand we’ve been dealt.
Day twenty-one and we are somewhere between Phang Rang and Phan Thiet. A miserable start, a man on a motorbike drives up and grabs my breast, Dad chases him but in a case of bicycle versus motorbike, the motorbike is going to win. What is wrong with this world that makes people think it is alright for men to do that? If I am to survive, I must toughen up. Sparse desert surrounds us, there is nothing to entertain our irises, but you can’t put your head down and focus solely on pedalling because a truck will devour you. Every day we guzzle litres of hot water and butter biscuits, undercooked eggs, coriander, chilli and soya sauce thrown on a bread roll, or if we are lucky a banana sandwich. My stomach is curdling and Da’s lost so much weight he’s now got a pair of moobs. I’ll never again take a fridge for granted.
Morals are low, my body is starting to give up, I’m sick of trying. Da is the only thing keeping my legs rotating. Four days left, we must push on. The heat presses down as we push up an exposed hill, we find a cluster of trees, lay out the sleeping bag, and lay down to ponder it all. These are the moments we crave. I cannot describe the pleasure derived from a cold can of coke pressed to your lips, when your tongue is dry and the sweat is gathering in beads on your forehead. Somehow, time passes; more crazy heat, another crusty motel with squat toilets, bum guns and no sink. I break down; Da rubs my back and tells me not to be so hard on myself. This better get better in hindsight! I swear if I ever see a bike tourer or backpacker walking past my house, I’m going to chase them down to smother them with tea, cake, dinner, a bed to sleep in and nourish the shit out of them.
And then suddenly in the blink of an eye, it is day twenty-five. The final day. We stumble into Ho Chi Min city among a traffic jam of motorbikes. I cannot believe it. Finally after all of that, it’s actually over. We make a beeline for McDonalds, sup cans of Saigon in bed, it’s all sinking in. We really did it. What an extraordinary thing for a father and daughter to do together. And although at times, I wanted to kill him, he’s my Dad, he’s my hero. He’d never been to a developing country before and at fifty four, with a year to go to retirement after years psychiatric nursing; he jumps on a plane and cycles the length of Vietnam.
I’ve realised that your life doesn’t have to be the stereotypical idea of perfect, the Facebook perfect; the far flung lands, the backpack, the tan, the Raybans, the bleach blonde hair, the figure, the boy, the parties, the selfies, the Instagrams. None of that is real. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone, you don’t have to impress anyone or make them jealous. How about striving for your own version of perfect? It can be on a much smaller scale. Having a family, living in your home town, having a group of friends who you can laugh with, a Friday night beer, a little job that you love, your own idea of perfect. We are so privileged here in Ireland, and we have no idea. But I suppose I never would have known I could be happy with this, unless I did what I did, have done what I’ve done.
Two weeks later, my blisters have healed. My muscles stopped aching. The hardships suffered are but a hazy memory. I am home. I am free and I am already bored… the next adventure awaits.
These ten edits are some of my favourite from the past year. They will make you think. They will make you smile. They will make you so jealous that perhaps you will re-evaluate some things. They may also force you to look on life, the world and the people in it a little differently from now on.
1. This is Backcountry
3. Racing through the elements – Red Bull Elements 2013
4. Motion Reel
5. Open Eye Signal – Jon Hopkins
6. Adventure is a way of life, welcome to 2014
8.The North Face: The Explorer
9.The Joy of Air
10. North of the Sun
David and Katharine are 13months into running the length of South America. 5000miles through rainforest and mountains to raise both money and awareness for the environment. I got in contact with Dave when he emerged from the rainforest for a brief spell to hear about their amazing story so far.
1.You ran to raise awareness and get people passionate about nature again, do you think it has been working?
Ha, that’s a tough one to start with! I think it depends on what level. Locally, when we stop at a school midway through our running day it is a fantastic opportunity to inspire – it’s easy! We are there with people, we are enthusing about the natural world around us, we have images and video and feathers we find by the road to identify and the feedback is immediate, people are psyched! From afar, who knows?!
People are used to sporting events been used to raise money for cancer or other human-related causes, not wildlife. The publics reaction can depend on class and country, but generally speaking most people are resistant to anything that they see as an attack on their current way of life – it’s the human condition. We are saying, “look out the window, the natural world is utterly amazing”, people are hearing, “these guys are greenies trying to make it more difficult for me to have a big car!”
Also, depending on the media, feedback isn’t immediate, in fact with some forms of media e.g. radio, you never receive it! So its hard to tell.
2.What do people need to do to help?
It’s easy, have an affair with nature! People of any physical condition can do it – go out, be in the real world, be amazed by the complex natural systems that support human life, ask questions, investigate, learn that we are part of nature, not above it! We are passionate that so long as people know more about the natural world’s secrets, there is a chance that we can reverse the damage we are currently inflicting on out planets life support systems.
To help people find tangible actions that suit their lifestyle, we’ve set up a campaign with ‘DoNation’ which anyone can join and help do cool things for the planet. We’re also raising money for Birdlife and Armonia and Conservatcion Patagonica.
3.What running experience did you have before this?
We are both keen recreational runners, no more than that, with the odd longer competition under our belt. Kath has ran the 45 mile ‘4 INNS’ race several times. I have enjoyed the Scottish Islands Peaks Race, and Northumberlands Castles and Islands, both sailing/running events, but mainly we run for the fun of being outside in all weather. Nothing better for de-stressing!
4.How are your feet withstanding this?
Really good, I haven’t had a single blister! We have a nice combination of shoes for running with the trailer and running free, plus we go barefoot about 10% of the miles now – its great for training your running style and hardening the feet a little.
5.What distance do you cover on average per day?
Our average running day is now 23miles. We used to find 20 was enough, given the 80kg trailer we run with, and given the fact an injury could end our dream, but now we can smell the finish we are looking to take a few more risks to squeeze a little more out!
6.How do you keep your mind focused and your spirits high after so long on the road?
It’s better not to consider the overall distance remaining – just deal with each shift as it comes, each half hour, each mile, each step if it’s a really tough climb! Each step makes a difference, and we have taken close to 10,000,000. It´s a nice metaphor for the steps people are taking to protect the planet too, 1 in 7bn is daunting, but there is no silver bullet, each small, seemingly insignificant step is making a difference!
7.Any stories of good deeds or amazing people you’ve met along the way?
Many! We are alone a lot, but never far from human kindness. One thing I would say is that the place in which we received the most charity by the roadside; food, drinks, shelter, banter, is Bolivia. What is interesting is that Bolivia is the poorest country in South America!
8.What advantage have the barefoot shoes given you?
They are great. The idea is always to run as naturally as possible at all times. On certain road conditions (or with the trailer!) you simply can not do it with bare feet. The gravel makes you wince or you have road debris, or the asphalt is so hot it sticks to your skin. We slip on the barefoot shoes and we are back on, running lightly with a quick cadence. We change our shoes a lot!
9.Have you came up with an effective way to treat blisters yet?
Yes! Our INOV-8 race socks have basically all but eliminated them. We are not paid-up athletes so are not obliged to say this, but they work. They are single skin socks and with our INOV-8 and VIVOBAREFOOT. I have not had a problem in over 5000miles of running in rain, wind, and snow. Barefoot running probably helps too as it hardens your feet.
10.How have you seen your fitness change?
I have no idea when these calves arrived, but they did! We have improved greatly fitness wise, but still there is never an easy 23-mile day running whilst pulling a heavy trailer, sandwiched between other longer running days!
11.How much food and water do you carry on you?
Good question, it varies wildly. We carry the minimum possible whilst making sure we never go hungry. In the more populated areas that could be 2 days worth, maybe 3kg. On the wild stretches (we have carried food for 21 days)probably 100kg! We eat local food and do not use bizarre packet foods which are expensive and unavailable, and seem to me to just taste of stock cubes.
Water, again depends on the territory. We drink a lot, usually 10L each per day, so that’s 20kg water per day on the trailer when we are in dry areas. Good to remember that dehydration is a major cause of running injuries so not to be messed with. In Chile and here in the rainforest we can carry very little as it always available. In Argentina water was the limiting factor, and at times we carried over 30 litres. We use a LifeSaverSystems water filter to pump and clean wild water where it feels like we need to, but this does take valuable running time (and calories!).
12.You have been running for over twelve months, when is the expected date of completion?
20th October 2013, not a day later!
14. What is the coolest animal you’ve seen on route?
I love Guanacos, it´s like a sexy version of a camel with long eyelashes! Best bird moment? An Amazona Parrot landed on Katharine´s shoulder a few days ago whilst we were running past the rainforest. Sounds silly, but we asked it what it was called and it said “Laura”. It’s true! Mind you, it said Laura to everything, whilst nibbling Katharine’s ear.
15. What are you using to navigate?
Garmin Forerunner 310XT GPS watch plus google satellite images. Each charge lasts us two days now, and we can charge it with the PowerMonkey solar panel easily in an hour. It’s very good, but I wouldn´t swim with it on as the seals are going, we are really using our equipment!
16.What are you finding the toughest to cope with?
Living by the roadside – it´s sort of a mix between local celebrity and being a tramp! We try to hide as best we can when we are not running but it can be really tough, not having somewhere to call home.
17.How are you getting on with each other after so long in each others pockets?
Can you imagine it?! We are friends as well as husband and wife, and running partners, but at times we flare up!Sometimes the whole of South America wouldn’t be big enough, and we yell in the wind! Naah, like all relationships we tend to focus our angst on the ones closest (especially given there is nobody else who speaks your language within 5000miles!), especially when hungry and tired, but we are normally too tired to remember what the thing was all about! What normally happens is some wildlife moment or other gets in the way of our mood, and we end up saying ¨wow, what the hell was that?!¨.
18. What’s the best piece of gear you have brought?
INOV-8 wrags! It is a little piece of fabric that we cannot live without! They protect us from the sun, wind, dust, rubs in a myriad of places best left undisclosed!!
Check out my interview with adventurer and TV presenter Simon Reeve on Sidetracked online.
Over the last ten years, author, adventurer and TV presenter Simon Reeve has travelled the world with a camera in tow to record his extraordinary experiences for shows such as Equator, Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn and Indian Ocean and now his latest adventure ‘Australia’, is showing in the UK on BBC 2. We spoke to Simon about his past, current and future adventures.
Sidetracked: Hi Simon, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. Author, adventurer and presenter: which do you think best represents you?
Simon Reeve: An adventurer would be one of the descriptions I might use if I was feeling really poncey along with author. I like calling myself an author because I wrote a book and I’ll be trading off that for probably the rest of my life. Also now, probably my most important title is dad and that’s the hardest one to live up to.
So tell us a little more about your book, and how did you go from writing to presenting?
I really don’t know how that happened to be honest. It’s really bizarre. I wrote a book on al-qada that came out in 1998 which warned of a new era of terrorism and nobody took any notice whatsoever and then 9-11 happened and it became a best seller, I went on the telly to talk about it quite a lot and that lead to discussions with the BBC about making TV programs for them. I had my own hair and teeth and I had written this book that had given me some experience and legitimacy and so I set off on a journey for them around central Asia which was interesting. It was an area in which I was really interested in and I thought BBC viewers might like to learn a little bit more about it and so that was my first TV gig. That was around Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan for a series brilliantly titled Meet the Stans and I’ve been going ever since. I can’t believe it. Here I am now ten years later. Don’t tell anyone.
Read the rest of the interview on the Sidetracked website here.
1. What is the difference between a pro women mountain biker and a pro man mountain biker?
There isn’t a huge difference! The men are usually quite a bit faster, but there are a few pro women who tend to beat up on some of the pro men (not me!) There are less pro women than pro men.
2.What is it that appeals to you about the sport?
I love that you can get on a trail and ride way out into the middle of nowhere in a relatively short period of time. You can get places cars can’t go, and places it would take days to hike to! The adventure and being in the trees is my favourite thing about mountain biking. Also, with trail riding, it forces you to be present and focus on the moment because you are trying to navigate a trail. It’s harder to space out and it’s mentally relaxing. Everything else seems to fall to the wayside and I can just be on the trail. I love racing because it gives me opportunities to ride different places, meet new people, and of course – challenge myself!
3.What has been the highlight of your career so far?
I’ve been so lucky to have a lot of great moments in my career. The coolest thing I’ve done is the Yak Attack Stage Race in Nepal – a 10 day race across the Himalaya that I was the first woman to ever finish! Racing Marathon World Championships in my USA kit, winning a couple of 24 Nats titles, and winning the Breck Epic twice have been really huge for me too. I’m excited about future growth and adventure in my career. I’ve really been pushing myself the last couple years to think outside the box and try races that are considered to be the “hardest” in the world, and in exotic places!
4.How many bikes you have and what are they?
Oh wow, lots!! I have 2 road bikes, a CX bike, 2 Canyon mountain bikes, a Misfit SS(it’s new!), a beater bike for a commuter, and a Canyon 6inch trail bike. Next, I want to get a fat bike! The Surly Moonlander looks sweeeeet!
5.Which is your favourite one?
Right now? My 29er Canyon HT…I am dying to get a 4” 29er full suspension. I should have one this year!
6.What do you find is the best brand for gear?
It depends on what you want to use it for! I am really excited about my Primal sponsorship this year because they not only make great clothing that fits me (think women specific), but they are involved with a lot of events I go to and really give back to the community. I love my Hestra winter riding gloves! I’m also a fan of Maloja (I don’t own any yet, but I always admire it) and Capo for clothing.
7.Where is your primary spot to train?
In the summer, I head up to Summit County as much as I can and ride CO Trail sections around Breck. I live in Boulder, CO and most of my go-to rides are dirt road climbs are 1-2 hours in length, or trails up the mountain!
8. What are next big competitions coming up on the calendar for you?
This is going to be a big year! I’m so excited at the opportunity! I just won the first mountain bike race across Haiti called the MTB Ayiti Ascent Stage Race. I’m heading back to race the Yak Attack in Nepal for my second time in a couple weeks! After that, I’m looking at a few one day events like Whiskey 50, Breck 100, Pisgah 111K, and Leadville… which will revolve around the Transylvania Epic, 3 day Breck Epic, and one of the most exciting – Mongolia Bike Challenge at the end of my season. It’s going to be a huge year for me, it’s hard to believe it’s all going to happen!
9.Whats your diet consist of to keep on top form for the season?
I don’t change my diet all that much throughout the year. My diet consists mostly of fresh foods. I normally eat granola+berries or oatmeal for breakfast, almond butter sandwiches for lunch, and various veggie/fish/whole grain dishes for dinner that I’ll cook. Throw in some dark chocolate, beer, and Michael David wine for treats and there you have it!
10.Who is your main competition?
Myself! I try not to focus on my results on who is there. I try to focus on performing to my best ability and usually the cards fall into place.
11.You have a job as well?! How do you balance both? Is it because there’s no money in women’s mountainbiking?
It is extremely difficult to get paid to ride your bike as a female mountain biker. I work for Ergon full time doing sales and marketing which involves some weeks sitting at the computer, and some weeks travelling to various spots in the USA to do dealer visits. Additionally, I work as a freelance journalist with about 5 different magazines I contribute to. I stay very busy! It’s all about time management. I sit down at the beginning of the week and schedule everything including my training to make sure it all happens.
12.Your favourite distance to race is the 75-100mile range. Why is this?
I like covering more ground because you get to see more! Also, it doesn’t cost you the race if you make a mistake or have a mechanical. I also simply love just riding my bike, so the longer I get to ride, the better! I love the challenge. I always feel like it’s over too fast if I do a shorter event and want more.
13.How does it feel to represent your country in your sport?
It’s a great honour to wear the USA jersey! It’s something I never imagined doing, and something I will never forget.
14.How do men in the sport treat you?
They are actually really great –fun and encouraging for the most part. I love kicking their ass too. They also keep me humble. I ride with a lot of pro guys and am constantly getting dropped. Sometimes it really messes with my confidence, but on race day it’s always, “Oh, I’m not as slow as I thought I was!” That’s a good thing!
15. How did you go from it been a hobby to you turning pro?
I just sort of raced into it. I find that if you work hard and have a vision, things work out.
16.What do we need to do to grow the sport?
Our sport is actually growing rapidly. The racing scene maybe not as much. I think lower entry fees and fun, challenging courses with a festival atmosphere are key!
Follow Sonya’s Adventures:
Published on OutDare Adventures, read the full interview here.
Q: Did you ever drink and party and live the ‘student life’?
A: Ya definitely, I was a completely normal student; I did all of that stuff!
Q: You’ve never received sponsorship; you just save up and then do cheap trips. That’s freedom in one sense but does it mean you’ll never be financially free because you have to spend so much of your own money?
A: The row the Atlantic was a sponsored trip so I am starting to head down that way. But if I can possibly afford to do it myself then I like to maintain the independence, the simplicity and just to be my own boss and that’s worth quite a lot of money. Most of the trips that appeal to me really aren’t very expensive, so I just save for it.
Q: Do you think it’s just as safe for women as it is for men to go on solo adventures/expeditions?
A: I think that 99 percent of the time yes it is or perhaps even safer because people are nicer to you, but I also think there is that slight, elemental, potential risk that at times you’re a women on your own in the middle of somewhere, it can get a bit scary.
Q: What do you look for when choosing a suitable place to set up camp?
A: Running water, so near a river would be good and nice soft grass.
Q: Do you get any criticism over not having a traditional job? – How do you prevent that from disheartening you?
A: A little bit, people often say things like oh it’s alright for you, or you’re lucky, or it’s easy for you. Mostly I think, well I chose to do this, I’m no superman, I’m not a genius. Anyone could have done what I have; it’s just a choice I made. It slightly annoys me when people sneer a little bit and say oh when are you going to get a proper job. I’m earning enough money to live the life I love. So it doesn’t really bother me, mostly I think it’s just envy.
Read the full Interview here.
In a pair of Doc Marten boots and Primark gloves, with no training done or experience under my belt and only a Tesco sandwich in my backpack, I decided today was the day I would climb Ben Nevis. At 6am, I boarded a minibus tottering with strangers and gear and off we set on a three hour journey across Scotland to the base of the UK’s tallest mountain.
At half past nine I put one foot in front of the other and began what I thought would be a pleasant stroll up a big hill. Three steps in and I was peeling the clothes off me, sweating and nervous about my tendency to assume that I can do anything as long as I keep moving. After the uncomfortable pleasantries of introducing oneself to the group, I fell into a thoughtful silence and shuffled onwards. It is never until the going gets tough that boundaries break down and people start to open up and share their stories. An hour and a half into the hike, the snow appeared, the hats came out, the gloves came on and we talked to break the monotony of our thoughts and to forget the twinges of our muscles as they began to protest.
One German, four French, one or two English, one Swiss, several Scots, and one Irish hiked our way upwards, single file, mostly in silence, lost in our thoughts and the blissful scenery that held us in place. One hour to the summit and all we could see is white; snow and fog embedded us. If our leader didn’t know the route off by heart, we would be lost forever and all I had was a Refresher bar for nourishment. The group split, with the latter one slowing and ready to potentially turn and head back to base. I was stubborn, I could keep up with the speedy fuckers. But as time elapsed, I felt my body slow. I was not keeping up, I was tired, I wanted to abandon, to turn back but if I did everyone would have to. So I dug deep, it killed me to do so but It would forever haunt me to make others abandon due to my weakness, so in my boots that were built for fashion not for climbing I dug my way onwards. Falling often, sliding backwards on the ice, frustrating the group with my pace. But they were kind and patient and they encouraged me onwards. And eventually, when all I could see was vast whiteness I stepped upon level ground and one of the hikers turned to me and said “Guess where we are?” “Where?” I replied, sagging on the precipice of defeat. “We are on the summit.” he smiled and hugged me.
Blissful glee rocked me for a moment, a quick photo by the marker and then a plea to move quickly back down before daylight fades. The descent was rapid, six of us took off at the front, I fell many a time, some scarily close to the edge. But once my boot touched gravel I was free and solid, and I moved quickly down the mountainside. Six hours after setting off, I had returned to reality. A quick call to my overprotective mother to tell her I was still alive. And then the usual thought popped into my head; “Hmmm, what shall I do next? Perhaps a surfing trip on Tuesday?”
Losing my job was not part of the plan, but neither was a global pandemic. Within days the world ground to a halt. My picture-perfect life began to crumble. No more adventures. No more income. No more visa.
An empty canvas.
The time has come to start again. Not quite from scratch, but once again it seems all uphill. Time to cut my losses, to go home, to regroup and figure out the next step… the next big adventure.
Perfection is finite. I hope I made the most of it while I had it. I hope it will come again. The unknown that lies ahead scares me, but it’s also a rare opportunity to hone in on exactly what I seek.
For the time being, I spend my days finding beauty once again in the mundane, in the everyday. Filling time with yoga, baking, learning, painting, and catching up with long lost friends. This is the time to embrace life without fear of missing out.
Look up at the stars, the sunrise and sunset. Listen to your breath, feel your chest rise and fall, make love, do a jigsaw, do another one (or ten), get to know your kids, your neighbours, your grandparents… See this as an opportunity to regroup, to find yourself again and when this is all over (and it will eventually pass), we’ll take to the streets once more and embrace the world and life with renewed vigour.
But perhaps as the months and years fly by and this all becomes a distant memory, please remember the lessons learned, the solitude, the empty streets and the blissful silence of the earth recovering…
It was not a good day that day when I heard the news, but after a few deep breaths and a little perspective, I know my world won’t really crumble. Instead, it’s an opportunity to radically alter my life once more for the better.
I will rise again. We will rise again.
Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, I feel the most awful pain in the pit of my stomach. It builds up my throat and thrums in my ears. My head fills with fog, my brow furrows and I find it hard to breathe.
Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, the anxiety in my body builds up to such a point that the centre no longer holds. It feels like I’m a vessel filled with liquid that has reached its capacity. And when I try to move, the liquid sloshes over the side. The tap won’t turn off and it flows and flows over the brim.
Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, the tears tip over the ledges of my eyes and leak down my face. Sometimes it’s so unexpected I cannot even trace where it came from. I cannot fathom its cause.
We criticize, we criticize, we criticize. We look in the mirror and we tear ourselves apart. We look at others and we tear them apart. We should be marvelling at ourselves and each other, celebrating. Yet, too often I look down at my body and pinpoint all of its flaws, one by one. My scars, the size of my thighs, my nose, my height … how often have I looked at myself and thought, ‘wow, I am incredible?’
The answer is never. Not once.
But look at what my body can do. It has taken me around the world, up mountains, into lakes. It never fails me. Every blemish is a battle wound that tells the story of who I am.
Yet sometimes, I forget it…
Sometimes, not often but sometimes worry drowns me. Fear consumes me. That I’ll make the wrong decision. That people won’t like me. That I won’t be good enough. That I’m too weak, too stupid, too ugly. That I won’t get another chance, another job, another love.
I fret the small stuff and I fret the big stuff; climate change, poverty, human rights, the direction this world is heading in… that I’m not doing enough to help. I’m never doing enough to help.
And sometimes, not often, but sometimes all of that accumulates and my mood spirals downwards.
To cope, I run, or I bike, or I hike, or I throw myself off a cliff (recreationally!) into open water… so that for a few blissful moments, time stops and I can breathe again.
For a few blissful moments my head is not clouded with worry or anxiety.
I am free from the soul-destroying grip of my phone.
I am at peace.
Perhaps it’s the beauty of the sunset, the colours in the sky, a knowing smile from a fellow runner as I pass them by, the realisation of pure isolation, the laboured panting of my breath, the sweat dripping down my forehead or the frigid wild Atlantic swell hitting my skin… it’s always a moment like that, that makes it all go away.
That perfect feeling when you close your eyes briefly and you are totally free.
It only lasts a second.
But that is all it takes.
To be reminded.
That this world really is a beautiful place.
And I’m lucky to be in it.
And perhaps that I should stay a little longer.
And just do my best.
Try my hardest.
And see what this world has in store for me.
Lugnaquilla (925m), Co Wicklow | 6 October 2018