Across Continents

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Loneliness of the long-distance cyclist

“Alone he rides, alone” Lionel Johnson 1867-1902

Language difficulties, punctures, the odd minor ailment, these are all problems you expect on the road. They’re solvable, sometimes with a bit of ingenuity, some lateral thinking. You just get on with them. But then there’s loneliness. Never far away, lurking, waiting for the moment to reappear, catching the solo traveller unaware.

You may be in the most beautiful of places, surrounded by the most kind, generous and hospitable people. And still be immensely lonely. But is it such a terrible thing? I find myself reflecting on what I’ve left behind to spend four years venturing on a bicycle around the world. Family. Friends. A green, lush land, cosy, comfortable, familiar. A reassuringly simple world. Truly beginning to appreciate what I have to return to.

But then the insidious self-doubt, sometimes destructive thoughts. Gnawing away at one’s self-confidence. The perils of an idle mind. You tell yourself this will pass, you know it will, just a squall. And yet it seems quickly entrenched, unwilling to budge, like a parasite growing stronger as it saps your own strength. Pedals seem harder to push. Colours ebb away. Sounds fade.

You learn to cope. Because you have to. Sometimes the very things you might think would exacerbate the situation help push it back into the shadows. News from home, the smallest of tidbits, mere morsels. An e-mail from friends, however brief. The anonymous ticking over of the website visiter counter, knowing that someone, somewhere is thinking about you, however fleetingly. Family photographs, of growing nieces, celebrations, simple gatherings.

And keep the grey matter occupied. On the road. In the tent. Every waking moment. Leave no room for loneliness to creep in, to gain a foothold. So hard to dislodge. Listening to music, composing the next blog post, plans for the next few days. Just doing stuff. Enough, but not excess or else you overwhelm yourself, making yourself vulnerable to another episode.

Writing about, talking about, discussing it is very cathartic. It’s not an affliction, an unspoken evil, simply a natural consequence of travelling alone through an environment where communication with others is difficult, either because there are few people or a language barrier. Not surprising. Humans are, after all, a social creature. Nothing to be embarrassed about.

Being amongst other people, even if conversation is limited to just a few words, can make a good deal of difference. The merest of social interaction, a simple smile, a warm handshake, just a nod. A little kindness towards strangers. It all helps.

But most of all, interaction with native English speakers, or those who understand the real nuances of the language, of Western culture, the unspoken subtleties. A real craving, seeking out Western style cafes in the cities, the odd ex-pat bar, or simply staying with those working overseas. Australians, Americans, Brits, it doesn’t really matter. No longer alone. Just for a moment.

[Originally written and recorded for 10Radio – Community Radio for the 10 Parishes in Somerset – www.10radio.org. You can drop Ken an e-mail via the ’Contact’ page on his website www.acrosscontinents.org – he’d love to hear from you]

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One response to “Loneliness of the long-distance cyclist”

  1. Thanks for your honesty, Ken – I think mental obstacles are harder than physical ones because they nibble away from within and there’s no obvious way through…. but keep on pedalling, we’re all right behind you, virtually speaking!

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