Long ago, during the summer of 2011, as I counted down the weeks and days until I set off on my Big Round-The-World Adventure, I noticed that I was spending a lot more time at home than you’d expect, given that by rights I should have been rushing around making the most of London and all the lovely people that I wasn’t going to be seeing for however many years I was away. I remember long lazy sunny days in my beautiful dining room (who knows when I will ever have a dining room again?), occasionally pottering through to the kitchen to check on the steady stream of bread and cakes and slow-cooked stews issuing from my oven (who knows when I will ever have an oven again?), revelling in the peace and the silence and the solitude, and the feeling of being at home, even though I knew full well that it wouldn’t be my home for much longer – in fact, precisely because I knew it wouldn’t be my home for much longer.
Even back then, when I hadn’t been on a big adventure before and everything was new and strange, I knew that this nesting instinct must be a psychological response to the knowledge that I was about to spend the foreseeable future without a place to call my own (or, to put it more optimistically, with nothing but the whole wide world to call my own).
And now it’s happening again. My memories of this last month in London will be of a messy desk in a sunny living room, of local pubs and my lovely neighbourhood coffee shop where they know it’s always a flat white, of long chilly walks and runs around Dulwich College and up to Crystal Palace park, of hot showers and clean clothes and all the little rituals and routines of being at home. Yesterday I spent hours in the kitchen, happily chopping and peeling and beating and whipping and stirring and tasting, and serving up hearty lentil soup, cheese scones, chocolate brownies and a gutbusting cooked breakfast to the siblings who had come down to London to bid me farewell.
Sometimes, momentarily, this orgy of homemaking causes me to doubt myself. Do I really want to give this all up and spend the next chunk of my life living under canvas, cooking up packet soups on a single burner and being a guest in other people’s houses? Yes, I do. Does my sincere and heartfelt enjoyment of home life undermine my love of living as a vagabond? No, I don’t think it does. I’m only properly happy when faced with the immediate prospect of both. Too long at home and I feel trapped. Too long on the road and I feel like I’ve lost my moorings.
And this time I’m only away for three months, which compared to my last adventure feels like just a slightly-longer-than-average holiday. There are close friends in South London with whom I’ve been trying to arrange coffee dates for longer than that. I know that my home will still be here when I return, much changed by my adventures, and yet also much the same as I ever was, ever will be.
My nesting instinct isn’t the only recurring phenomenon I’ve noticed. Last time I was building up to a big trip, I became increasingly nervous about the large pile of brand new kit that began to build up around my desk, partly because of the diminishing patience of my housemates, partly because I don’t feel my kit is really my own until I’ve taken it out, got some mud on it, worn some holes in it, and made it part of my story. Back then I fretted about “my clean new tent and as-yet-fragrant sleeping bag”. A year later, halfway across China, I gleefully reported how filthy and holey they were, how many spokes I’d broken, how bald my tyres were and how disfigured my chainrings were after several thousand miles of mud and dust and grit and snow.
There’s currently an even bigger pile of kit filling most of my living room (winter sleeping bags take up a lot of space).
It’s all shiny and new and sweet-smelling and complicated and very very expensive – and I feel like an absolute amateur in comparison. All the gear and no idea. I don’t yet know how long it’ll take me to do up the laces on those boots when my fingers are freezing at -40C. I haven’t learned the fastest way of folding my new tent up and stuffing it into its bag. I haven’t figured out the trick to strapping my bedding roll onto my handlebar harness without it unrolling as I let go of it to fasten the clips. Every now and then (usually to buy a little more tolerance from my flatmate by making her laugh) I practice putting on all my winter layers and getting into the two sleeping bags + bivvy bag that are hopefully going to keep me warm and alive through whatever Alaska can throw at me, and then roll around on the floor like a giant larva. This is the closest I can get to a dress rehearsal, until I actually get there. There’s no way of telling whether I’m making any mistakes. And, where I’m going, a couple of small mistakes and things could very quickly get serious.
It’ll be fine though. It will. And I know it will, because as well as all of this, experience has taught me that, just like Pre-Trip Nesting and New Kit Angst, Fear of What’s To Come is a natural and healthy part of the process. It has taught me that I will always rise to a challenge, that I will always manage to chew what I have bitten off, that I will always find the resources somewhere, somehow, to carry on. That the scariest part is normally just before you set off. That someone will always be there to help, and if they’re not, then I’ll be able to help myself.
Besides, as I discovered when facing up to the Turkish winter all those years ago, a healthy pile of fleece and merino and goose down is in some ways just a very expensive and hi-tech security blanket. Put another way, I am really only leaving one comfort zone and stepping into another.