Winter in waiting

On the other side of the world,
you pass the moon to me,
like a loving cup,
or quaich.
I roll you the sun.
(Carol Ann Duffy)

We don’t seem to get winter in London any more. Last year the weather stayed so mild that I carried on wearing my fingerless gloves all the way through, and had to go to Iceland to test out my new snowbike. (Well, I’m pretty sure I could have tested it out in some of the snowier parts of Scotland, but my feet were beginning to itch in a way I knew I couldn’t scratch on home ground.) And this year – well, we’re definitely out of summer now, there are leaves all over the pavement and I have to start and end the day with my bike lights on, but it still feels like winter’s a long way off. I’ve added a baselayer to my usual outfit. That’s about it.

So I was perhaps unreasonably excited this week to see news footage from Buffalo, NY, that showed snow drifting up to 7 feet high, burying roads and cars and even houses, much to the delight of local children and the consternation of their parents.

[photo from an amazing set on Time's website, which I encourage you to check out]

I just had an email from (everyone’s favourite messenger hero) Rebecca Reilly (a Buffalo native) who says, with her characteristic wit:

In our favor, Buffalo is the land of snow ninjas.  Noone [else] knows how to clear snow, drive on snow, sled off their house, keep the keg of beer in a drift, apply the right amount of salt, flick a 20lb shovelful approximately 10 ft up in the air and aim it so it falls in precisely the right place.  We’re all given antifreeze shots as babies so we just shrug, sigh and the whole block goes out to shovel snow throughout the day as if we were all on the same schedule.  When I asked Mom if she got any snow she said no, “only 2 feet, not worth mentioning.”

Winter’s on its way, and even if most of that snow won’t make it across the Atlantic to London, I’ll soon be flying west to meet it in person. Admittedly it won’t be the same snow – Buffalo is almost as far from Anchorage as it is from London – but it’ll be the same winter. It amazes me sometimes, how the seasons follow their ponderous course and we, with the agility of mechanised travel, or simply by shifting our altitude or latitude, meander in and out of them.

This first struck me back in 2012, when, after surviving the coldest winter I’d ever experienced in Turkey and Iran and then sitting around on the plains of central Pakistan while the summer took hold (by May the temperature in Islamabad was regularly hitting 45C), I headed north, into the Karakoram mountains, where there was still snow on the ground and some of the roads were blocked by avalanches – effectively I was riding back into the same winter I thought I’d left behind three months previously.

A month or two later I’d found summer again, and was cycling through the Taklamakan Desert, struggling with headwinds, dehydration and sunburn, and often riding at night, when the temperature was slightly more bearable. Hearing that my brothers were planning to do the Dunwich Dynamo, I struck upon the conceit of riding through the same night, eight hours before it reached them, imagining the great darkness rolling around the globe towards Essex and Suffolk, carrying with it gusts of my breath and wisps of my memories. But as it turned out, their ride coincided with a much-needed rest day, and my unseemly desire for an air-conditioned hotel room far surpassed my capacity for whimsy, though in hindsight, it would have made a nicer story.

And now, I watch the snow pile up in Buffalo, and I spy on Anchorage via webcam, and I track the progress of the wonderful Sarah Outen, as she makes her way across Canada ahead of me, and I think: that’s my winter – the one I’ve been waiting for for over two years now, and soon I’ll be there.

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On doing well

I’m not depressed any more. And hopefully I won’t be for a very long time, although I won’t be so naïve as to claim that I’ve beaten the disease into submission forever. And life with all of its colours and its contours restored is a very lovely place indeed.

But it’s not all plain sailing. Something I’ve realized, during long self-involved conversations with fellow sufferers, is that your problems don’t magically disappear when you’re no longer depressed – it is then, in fact, that you find the strength and the stamina to face up to your mental housekeeping, and to make a start on tidying up all the ragged strands that blow about the inside of your head – no matter who you are – in the normal course of life.

So now I am mostly happy, and full of my characteristic joie de vivre, and bubbling over with excitement about the future, and all that I’m going to cram it with. But I’m still very aware of all the problems that threatened to overwhelm me when I was ill. They’re nothing special really. If I listed them all, you’d probably find you shared at least half of them. There’s the seam of self-doubt that runs through everything I do, no matter how well I do it. There’s the intermittent low-key body issues, that like every good feminist I’m embarrassed even to admit to. There’s the frequent failure to accept that I am a (reasonably) normal human being, who will be loved for what and who she is. There are all sorts of others, too weird, or too private, or too ill-articulated to mention here.

Written down it all sounds rather dismal, but it really isn’t at all. Most of the time these problems are background noise, if that. Sometimes, especially when I’m tired or hormonal, they come to the fore. Once or twice a year I have a mini-meltdown. But this is rare. More and more often, I find myself taking on the voice of the counsellor I saw last year, patiently and methodically talking myself through my issues, reminding myself that it’s OK, and that I’m OK, and gradually coming around to new ways of thinking and being. I suspect this is what you’d call good mental health. (Because everyone has a few problems, don’t they? If you don’t, then you know you’re repressing something.)

I’ve been to three very different events in the past week, which have helped to throw my recovery into relief. The first was a very glamorous press launch in a North London bar I would never have considered myself cool enough to set foot in. I was booked as a speaker, but felt unavoidably out of place among the other guests, all of whom were TV types with white teeth and shiny hair and modelling contracts. I enjoyed myself on the night, but my self-esteem suffered what felt very much like a hangover the following day and, embarrassed though I was by my crisis of confidence, I found myself talking about it to anyone who’d listen, re-enacting the awkward way in which I’d grimaced on the edges of all the photos, trying as hard as I could to twist the experience round into something I could laugh at, convincing myself, by sheer repetition, that it was ultimately OK, that I don’t want a glitzy TV career anyway, that I want to be a writer, and that I know I can do that, so why worry about the things I’ll never be good at?

The next event – Explore at the RGS – was an entirely different affair. Explore is an annual conference where novice explorers get to mingle with more seasoned adventurers, and where the seasoned adventurers themselves, who spend the rest of the year scattered about the globe, admiring each other’s blogs from afar, actually meet in person. I first attended in 2010, only a couple of weeks after I’d decided to cycle round the world, and spent most of the weekend feeling like an over-ambitious fool who didn’t have a clue what she was doing. (I’ll save the tales of embarrassing things I said to impressive people for another time.) For those returning as speakers, there’s the sense of a family reunion – not only do we all know each other via our modest internet fame; there’s also a strong sense of being amongst the only group of people who understand one’s own particular brand of madness. (I have similar feelings about my ‘real’ family, and about the international cycle courier community.)

The weekend was inspiring, exhilarating and magical. It was also intensely exhausting, especially for someone like me, who spends most of her time alone and isn’t used to talking non-stop from dawn till dusk. Curiously though, because of this sense of being among friends, and probably also because the flood of emails I received in the wake of my confession last October told me that I was by no means the only explorer to have experienced mental health issues, I found myself almost entirely uninhibited in sharing how I was feeling when people asked.

“Gosh, yes, I’m struggling a bit – all these people are just exhausting!” I’d gasp, and then disappear off into another half-dozen conversations, each one only ending when I spied another long-lost friend or hero in the crowd, delightedly pouring all of my energy into the day, aware that I’d have almost none left by the time I got home. Once or twice I found a quiet corner in which to catch my breath, or sat beside a friend and told them I wouldn’t talk to them, I just needed to be silent for a while.

And no one seemed to mind. There were none of the awkward pauses I’d have expected when telling people of my struggles, which perhaps just speaks very highly of my fellow explorers.

Towards the end of the weekend I chatted with K., whom I vaguely remembered meeting the previous year. She had just returned from several months in the field, and was still barely over the culture shock. It was better, we both agreed, to talk about this – especially since almost everyone in the room would have had the same experience at some point. I told her of my difficult reacclimatization, and my struggles with depression, and the constant underlying fear that everyone would despise me if they found out.

Quite the opposite, K. argued. People like you more if they know you have flaws. It’s very difficult to warm to someone who’s apparently perfect. Perhaps, she went on, we should even disclose our flaws to people as we’re introduced to them.

“Hello, nice to meet you, I’m Emily. I sometimes talk too much, I’m quite lazy, and I suffered from depression for a year when I came home from my big trip. That kind of thing?”

We both laughed, and then somehow she was swept away by the tide of people and I didn’t see her again.

This evening, I had the great privilege of attending the Mind Media Awards (which “celebrate the best examples of reporting and portrayal of mental health”). Again, there was the sense of a family reunion, of being among friends. Almost everyone in the room, I guessed, despite how glitteringly successful they looked, must have some direct experience of mental illness, either their own, or that of someone close to them. Occasionally my depression came up in conversation, and I didn’t have to worry so much about what people would think – they had often been there themselves. One of the award winners started his speech by saying “I suffer from anxiety”, and we all exuded love and sympathy to get him through it. Another burst into tears on stage, and we applauded while she composed herself. The final award winners were three mothers whose sons had lost their lives to PTSD after serving in Afghanistan. As they spoke, I cried, feeling powerfully and poignantly that their sons ought to be standing there with them. Everyone else must have felt the same, because we all rose to our feet to surround them, and clapped and clapped and clapped until long after they’d left the stage. There was no longer any shame in talking about what we’d been through – instead there was only pride (that we’d survived it), and relief, that acknowledging our depression really wasn’t as bad as we feared it might be, that it doesn’t swallow up your whole personality, that there is still room for humour, and for joy.

And then I left the building, and lingered for a moment on the Southbank, with one of my oldest friends, gazing triumphantly out over the dark river to the glowing buildings on the other side, and thinking of all the life I’d lived on just this patch of the earth, and how much more was to come. And then we walked past the Royal Festival Hall, and I remembered seeing a ballet there the very first time I’d been in London, with my grandmother, when I was still a child, and would never have been able to imagine the person I am today. And then I got on my bike and flew home through the deserted streets, still drunk enough to sit and write this, and probably also drunk enough to post it before I go to bed.

(Good night.)

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The opposite of paranoia

Over the years I’ve spent on the road I’ve got used to the fact that when I need help, help will appear – although I’ve never stopped marvelling at it. Sometimes it’s positively magical – I could tell you several stories of times when I’ve been cycling along, desperately fantasizing about what it is I most need or want at that moment, only to have it handed to me within minutes. You’ve already heard about the time I started to get hungry in Northern Japan and someone appeared at the side of the road with a hamburger. And there was another time, in China, where I struggled through a 100+ mile day to get to Urumqi before my contact went on a business trip, filthy, sunburned and saddlesore, distracting myself by dreaming about my triumphant homecoming (I often did this), and imagining that some millionaire would have read my blog, decided I was in need of a bit of a reward for all that cycling, and offer to send me to one of London’s finest spas for a weekend. Within minutes of getting off the bike that evening, in the lift up to Lili’s penthouse apartment, she casually mentioned that we were going to a spa the following day, and within 24 hours I was being steamed and and scrubbed and massaged and pampered just as I had secretly been longing for.

A friend of mine always used to say ‘the universe will provide’. And I’ve come to find that it does, or at least it does when I’m travelling by bike. The world isn’t always this generous to me, but something in the combination of a lone person (woman?), travelling on a bike and possibly looking a little lost or needy, seems to open people’s hearts. One of the reasons I love cycling so much is that I always seem to be in the right place at the right time. When I need something, I find it. Or rather, it finds me – or in fact, what actually seems to happen is that the person who’s able to help me senses that I need them and comes to the rescue.

I’ve become used to the way this happens. It means that I’m no longer afraid of people – as I used to remind myself in Iran, even if I do meet the one or two people who wish me harm, I’ll eventually be taken in, sorted out, and put back on my bike by the other 99%. I came across a new word yesterday: pronoia. It’s the exact opposite of ‘paranoia’; the belief that there exists a worldwide conspiracy to help me. And I am more and more – what would you call it? – pronoid. As you’ll have noticed from my last post, I’ve grown so firm in this belief that I’ll be looked after that I’m now mustering the courage to ask for help when I need it, without worrying that people will consider me greedy or grasping (though I still worry that I am).

The other night, for example, I was somewhere on the A44 between Oxford and Chipping Norton when my front light started to fail.  Annoying, as I had quite a lot further to go, and it was going to be dark for another 12 hours or so.

So I turned to Twitter.

Smartphones really are wonderful, aren’t they? I’m a very late adopter, but my iPhone has already become happily indispensable.

I didn’t really hold out much hope that this would work, so I stopped at a service station and bought myself a cheap headtorch, which wasn’t bright enough to show me the road ahead of me, but at least could be seen by oncoming traffic. But, to my surprise, within a couple of hours I’d received this:

I was still a couple of hours off, concerned that I’d keep him up past his bedtime, or annoy him by getting to Worcester and then spending an extra two hours trying to find his house.

I needn’t have worried. A few miles before Worcester I became aware of a car parked up ahead of me, and a shadowy figure standing out in the middle of the road, flagging me down.

“Are you looking for a light, by any chance?” asked the shadowy figure.

“Funny you should mention it…” I grinned, pulling into the layby.

I couldn’t quite believe that he would have come out in his car in the middle of the night, just to lend a bike light to a stranger, but things became a little clearer when he explained that he was a longtime Audax rider, and as such, perfectly accustomed to hanging around on A roads in the middle of the night, in the company of sleep-deprived people in lycra. Unlike most of the people I’d encountered in service stations so far, he seemed not to think it at all unusual for a person to be out in the rain on her way to Wales while everyone else watched telly and went to bed.

“I’ve been given a lot of help myself, over the years” he explained, passing me selections from the range of lights spread out on his back seat. It looked very much as if he’d brought along his entire collection. I accepted a very bright front light, and he convinced me to take an extra back one as well, tutting maternally over what might happen if my only other red light fell off and I didn’t notice.

“Would you, er, like a chocolate-covered coffee bean?” I asked, anxious to offer him something in return for all of this generosity. “Or I’ve got some squashed bananas?”

“Oh no,” he replied “I’ve got piles of food for you! Though of course that’s the best offer I’ve had in the last …fifteen seconds.”

He gave a cheeky grin, and handed me a pack of Snickers bar, and a couple of bags of dried fruit, and some energy bars, and a bottle of water, gleefully piling up the food until my arms were in danger of overflowing. Then he spent a few minutes telling me how I really should consider riding Paris-Brest-Paris next year, reminiscing about the four times he himself had done it, asked if there was anything else I needed, told me to get in touch if I needed rescuing within the next two hours, and sent me on my way, passing me with a cheery toot of his horn a moment later.

‘Am I hallucinating?’ I wondered.

But no, there it was – the road ahead of me, lit up once again by the beams of my saviour’s 200-lumen front light.

And when I checked my phone the following day I remembered that I’d taken a photo of him, his black jersey disappearing into the darkness around him, looking very much like he might well be a ghost after all – or the guardian angel that (to me, at least) he was.

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Sponsorship: is there an alternative?

I am quite often approached, at networking events for wannabe explorers (like Explore at the RGS next weekend), or in emails via this website, by people who are planning a big ride of their own and, as well as building a bike and planning a route, are trying to figure out how to get sponsorship for

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I can’t go on, I’ll go on

I finally booked my flights to Anchorage the other night, so now, after two years of planning and dreaming (and rethinking and deferring), I am officially on my way to Alaska. It hardly seems real, but I assure myself it is. Strange, when something has inhabited the inside of your head for so long, to

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Less than a thousand words

In the middle of a brisk autumnal ride to Brighton last weekend, just after we lost sight of the two parakeets who had amorously followed my riding buddy’s yellow helmet all the way from Croydon to Reigate, she remarked that she’d looked at my blog the other day, and the top entry still opens with

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Whiteout

Summer’s at its height, and until a thunderstorm cooled the air a couple of hours ago, I’d been sitting sweatily at my desk for what felt like days, wishing generally that I could be out on my bike, and specifically that I could spirit myself back to the chilly wastes of Iceland, or forward to

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On shutting up

Warning: Contains sexism and strong language I came to an uncomfortable realization this week, watching yet more women in the public eye being bombarded with threats of violence, rape and murder for having something to say, and for saying it. It’s becoming a depressingly familiar routine: a journalist, academic, celebrity or ordinary woman expresses an

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The Reckoning

Courier vs Triathlete I was up at dawn this morning, and felt like I’d been semi-conscious all night. But I no longer really felt nervous – at least not about the foolish competition I’d so rashly entered into. Whether Lucy Fry beat me or I beat her, it would be fine – as long as

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In which I am challenged to a duel

Courier vs Triathlete Last week, in a moment of bravado, I accepted fitness journalist Lucy Fry‘s challenge to race her over the 100km route of the FT London Sportive, on Sunday 11th May (i.e. tomorrow). And almost immediately I started to realize what a silly idea that was. For a start, I don’t own a

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