The loneliness of the long distance

Most of the time I don’t even think about what it means to be a woman on the road. I mean, it’s not as if I have to wake up every morning, pop in my ovaries, strap on my breasts, spend a careful half hour putting on my make-up and then decorously and delicately wend my womanly way over the next mountain pass. Cycle touring is, for the most part, an identical experience for all genders, which is why I’m slightly surprised that people zero in so persistently on the fact that I’m doing it as a woman. Because I tend to forget.

There are a couple of extra challenges of course – dealing with menstruation and fending off the occasional amorous gentleman, for example. But these are compensated for in other ways. I get invited into people’s houses a lot more than some of the men I’ve met – especially those travelling in convoy. A lone woman not only poses less of a threat, but actually inspires people to protect her (whether or not she thinks she needs it). The day I joined forces with Ben in Horasan was the first time I had to pay for a cup of tea. I had come to assume that the small glasses of hot, sweet, strong Turkish tea that I was plied with every time I stopped were complimentary, but it seemed this only applied to me when I was on my own, and didn’t extend to …couples? Men? Belgians? I had no idea.

One of the reasons I’d rather people didn’t dwell excessively on my gender is that there’s a tendency to let it unjustly magnify my achievements. I gather from the grapevine of international long-distance cyclists that I’m developing a reputation for being ‘tough’, among other things. I’m flattered, but this is unwarranted. Most of the men who perpetuate my legend are doing exactly the same thing themselves, and some of them are actually faster and stronger than me. To my disappointment, people still seem to set the bar lower for women. If I’m to be famous, I would like it to be for some more valid achievement than merely keeping up with the boys. I’ve no interest in such easy laurels. For example, I could, if I’d wanted to, made this an attempt to set the record for the fastest circumnavigation by a woman, since, as far as I’m aware, no such record currently exists. But I refuse to aspire to a lower standard than everyone else. If I ever did make an attempt on the speed record (unlikely, so don’t get any ideas), I would be aiming to break the men’s record – not for the satisfaction of beating the men, but in order to compete as a human being, rather than having special concessions made for me because I’m a woman.

So I tend to play down my femaleness, to insist on its irrelevance, and to steer the conversation in other directions.

But a few weeks ago someone put me in touch with another solo female cyclist, someone I knew by reputation, but have never had the good fortune to cross paths with, and we got to talking (emailing) about all the swirling, sprawling, scarcely articulated thoughts that swim around in our heads as we ride along. The conversation quickly became a chorus of ‘what – you too?’, ‘I thought I was the only one who felt like that!’, ‘oh god, I never noticed that…’, and ‘yes you’re absolutely right, you just put it all into words, this is how it is’. It was only through talking to someone who’s had the same experiences that I realized there are actually some key differences between us solo females and everyone else who’s doing this.

Some of them are, in fact, so profound, that we decided that riding as a lone vagabond and doing it chummily, as part of a team, or domestically, as part of a couple, barely qualify as the same activity. Because, after all, the physical side of cycling and camping is pretty straightforward. The real challenges on a trip like this are mental: motivating yourself to keep going, keeping yourself sane and entertained, facing and processing all the messy emotional tangles that inevitably come up – fear, laziness, indecision, self-doubt and, above all, loneliness.

Yes, the loneliness. Much as I enjoy – and crave – my solitude, it’s always lurking round the corner, waiting to jump out and bite me when my defences are down; when I’m tired, or ill, or scared. And, as I’ve learned over the past year, there are different kinds of loneliness, and some of them are more painful than others. There’s the loneliness I feel when I’m at a loose end, on a rest day, or during an off-the-bike period (such as right now, killing time in Hong Kong while I wait for my new Chinese visa), and miss having a nearby circle of friends I could summon at a moment’s notice, to while the afternoon away with cider and scrabble. There’s the loneliness of knowing it’s all carrying on without me – two of my best friends got married in Cambridge last week, and I wasn’t there. There’s the loneliness of seeing a particularly beautiful sunset, or mountain, or stretch of tarmac, and not having anyone to nudge and say ‘wow, look at that’. There’s the loneliness of realizing no one will come to my rescue. When I suffer any sort of breakdown, mechanical or mental, there’s no one to fix it but myself, no one to moan at, no one to lean on, no one to pat me on the shoulder, no one to provide moral support, no one to help me figure out what to do, no one to take over when I can’t go any further.

There’s the loneliness of being an alien to those around you. And the solo female cyclist is an alien in so many ways. In places like China and Pakistan I already look different and speak a different language. But my gender adds extra layers of difference. In most of the countries I’ve passed through – in fact, in all of them – it’s much less common to meet a woman travelling alone than it is a man. In some places it’s even rare to see a woman out on her own in public, and here and there I’ve spent several days exclusively surrounded by men (most notably between Sost and Tashkurgan). People are usually friendly, of course, and curious, and often admiring. But there is less opportunity to connect on that basic, human, we’re-not-that-different-you-and-I level than there is for the male cycle tourist.

I’m not just talking about ‘foreign’ cultures. Even in my own cultural area, there is a lot less space for the female solo adventurer than there is for the male. Since Perseus and Odysseus, men and boys have been encouraged (and even expected) to go off and have adventures, to sow their wild oats, to seek their fortune. There is far less cultural precedent for women doing the same thing.  The books written by men who cycle across continents tend to follow very similar lines (this does not, of course, detract from the magic and courage of some of their stories). A young man, usually somewhere in his twenties, can no longer suppress his urge to cast off the shackles of society and venture out into the world. He sets off, sometimes alone, sometimes with a likeminded friend (though there is a high incidence of such partnerships foundering after a few months). There are lighthearted tales of beer and hi-jinks with local policemen, hair-raising encounters with the wilderness, colourful descriptions of stomach disorders, and more introspective musings on the whys and wherefores of solo travel. And almost always photos of our hero’s burgeoning beard. He will hint obliquely (or boast openly) of his amorous conquests, though the story often ends with his marriage to a woman he meets along the way, or a faithful sweetheart who waited patiently at home. (Witness Alastair Humphreysbooks (dedicated to Sarah), Rob Lilwall‘s book (dedicated to Christine), and the forthcoming film about Tom Allen and his wife Tenny.)

It’s not that I don’t love these stories. I still have enough in common with my male counterparts that reading about their experiences regularly moves me to laughter and tears of recognition. But my story is different, as as yet mostly unknown. I have not grown a beard. I do not expect to find Andromeda chained to a rock, or Penelope awaiting me on my return. Of course, this means I have much more freedom to make my own way in the world, and I’m glad of that. I’m not tempted to try and follow too closely in the footsteps and tyre tracks of those who went before, and thereby miss out on what might lie beyond their very well trodden path. If I do decide to write a book about this one day, I am much more likely to have something original to say. But my peer group is minuscule. Yes, there are people who would offer support and sympathy if I ever complained publicly – and in fact, I have, people did, and it helped a great deal. But this is not the same as someone really understanding what I’m going through, because she’s been there herself.

The other day I found myself barbequing on a Hong Kong roof terrace, the guest of an Australian diplomat who also turned out to be a former London bike messenger (my reality is always stranger than fiction), and got talking to a friendly couple about the pros and cons of solo travel. For them, the most rewarding part of travelling as a couple on their recent tour of Europe had been a few weeks in, when they found they had become so much in tune that they no longer even needed to nudge each other when something amazing happened, or to say ‘look at that!’. They’d just turn to each other, and grin, and know that there was no need for words, because the other person had seen exactly the same thing, was experiencing an identical sense of wonder (or hilarity, or disgust, or whatever it might be). Language could, for once, be bypassed.

It’s this sense of absolute shared experience that, just occasionally, I find myself craving. I put a lot of energy and thought into converting my adventures and emotions into words, and I rely on the imagination of my readers to reconstruct my experiences using the bits and pieces of language and memory we have in common. (Ralph Waldo Emerson: “One must be an inventor to read well. There is creative reading as well as creative writing.”) It seems to work fairly well most of the time.  But oh, wouldn’t it be nice, once in a while, not to have to pull everything out of my head, untangle it, scrutinize it and translate it before I can even attempt to share it? Just sometimes, to catch someone’s eye, and nod, and know that that’s enough?

I’m careful not to complain. As I am constantly reminded, I’m living the dream, leading the life everyone else has always dreamed of, and am very lucky to be doing so. And most of the time I’m very happy. With every month I spend on the road I realize with more certainty that I made the right choice, that this was a good idea, that this glorious solitude was what I wanted all along.

But, although I’m living a life I chose, and am content with and grateful for it, no life is without its difficulties. You have babies, you bid farewell to a decent night’s sleep. You choose to live in a magical city like London, you have to put up with rain, pollution, and overpriced …everything. You sign up for a mortgage, you can no longer quit your job and take off to another country at a moment’s notice. You choose solitude, you have to live with loneliness.

And perhaps the most acute aspect of this (freely chosen and willingly accepted) loneliness is that, unlike all the complaints I’ve listed above, it’s something far fewer people will share, or ever really understand. Which is why I’m particularly grateful for the one-in-a-million friendship and camaraderie of people like Ellen Moseman.

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