The Plan. (And the backstory.)

As soon as I turned 28 last March, people started warning me about the Saturn return.

It takes 29.5 years for the planet Saturn to complete its orbit of the sun, and return to exactly where it was when you were born. This means that, in their late 20s, most people will reconnect with their original values, experience a period of great personal instability, and then make massive life changes. I’m generally a bit sceptical about astrology, but I liked the sound of this.

A friend of my ex told me she’d never even heard of the Saturn return till long after it happened, but then, in hindsight…

“God, yes. I realized that in the space of about 18 months I’d changed my career, moved to a different city, and fallen in with a whole new circle of friends.”

I was looking forward to mine. I had it all planned out. I’d been meaning to apply for a PhD for years, but had procrastinated for all sorts of reasons (ranging from disbelief that any institution would ever accept me, to being too lazy to fill in the forms), and watched with vague alarm as people I’d met as freshers got on with it, wrote their theses, published their books, and ended up in well-paid teaching positions in the very universities I was still trying to get into as a student.

My Saturn return would be just the kick in the pants I needed to get on with it. As I waded into my 29th year, I looked forward to the tidal wave of motivation and proactivity that would sweep me into action. I planned exactly where I’d end up – a nice, comfortable, funded PhD programme at Columbia or NYU, an apartment in Brooklyn, and another 5-7 years of glorious reading, writing, arguing and loafing as a grad student.

I was so deeply in love with London that New York was the only other place I could imagine being happy. It offered the same profusion of places, lifestyles, people and identities, the same cosmopolitan plenitude, the same expanse and magnitude (how could I ever get bored with so many different neighbourhoods to explore?) – and loads of my friends were already there. I spent last March riding around the city, planning and fantasizing and imagining what it would be like when I lived there, and visiting its universities, which turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. “See you in 2011!”, I thought.

Then I got home and somehow it all fell apart.

I don’t even know how. I’d found the perfect city, two amazing universities, professors who seemed very optimistic about my chances of getting in, and all I had to do was apply. But the PhD plan started to feel like a millstone round my neck, and when I experimentally decided to give up on the whole thing (reasoning that I could always change my mind and take it up again), it crumbled away in an instant, as though it had been dead on the vine for a long time. Which perhaps it had. I didn’t miss it. It was like falling out of love with someone – they haven’t changed in the slightest, but all the little quirks and habits and turns of phrase that you used to find so adorable now just leave you cold, or even annoy you, no matter how much you strain to recreate the feeling.

This is what the Saturn return is all about.

I spent a giddy and nervous summer with no plan at all, enjoying my life and my cycling job a great deal, but fretting characteristically over my sudden lack of an ambition. I toyed again with requalifying as a doctor or a fireman, and wondered about becoming a teacher or a writer, or even selling out and getting a city job, just to prove I could. I wondered whether I’d just stay in this happy-but-directionless rut forever, and never achieve anything again. I wondered whether I really minded.

I started planning a couple of big rides over the next 18 months – the US West Coast and the Karakoram Highway. Holidays, really. And then I happened to meet up with my friend Susie and her new boyfriend Iain, with whom I knew I’d get on, because he was also a cyclist, and had ridden solo across the US a couple of years previously. And he didn’t disappoint. Susie had clearly told him all about me and my plans because, the moment I walked into the bar, he handed me a bottle of San Miguel and Alastair HumphreysThunder and Sunshine, and we embarked on the 20-minute discussion of gearing and kit and the merits of steel frames and Armadillos versus Gatorskins that inevitably occurs whenever two people meet and realize they have cycling in common.

I took Mr Humphreys home with me, and realized within a couple of chapters that – never mind the Karakoram Highway – I was going to have to cycle all the way round the world. I had a new plan.

Leave a Comment