short stories

~ What Am I Doing? ~

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~ What am I doing? ~

I was the only ‘gringo’ on the bus – gringo essentially being the South American term for a ‘white western person’. I was heading out of Bolivia into the north of Argentina. I had just spent a couple of weeks with new friends and was hitting the road again on my own. One friend had headed up to the Amazon and the other had travelled to another place in Argentina. And so there I was: back to riding solo down the highway of life, staring out of those bus windows and wondering what chaos and madness was over the next horizon of space and time. However, I wasn’t totally alone. A little old lady had been sat next to me for the sixteen-hour bus ride. She had been quiet the whole way, but as we pulled into a police checkpoint at the border, she started to shift around in an erratic manner. I kept one eye on her while leaning my head against the window. Outside I could see a group of police officers with machine guns leading people into a room to be searched. The old lady continued to shift around nervously and eventually started tugging on my shirt to get my attention. I turned to face her. My Spanish was still pretty bad despite being in South America for about two months already, but naturally I could understand what ‘co-cai-na’ meant. She said it repeatedly before opening her bag and pulling out what looked like a kilogram of Colombia’s finest in a see-through plastic bag. Slightly taken aback by the situation that was unfolding, I stared at her blankly without knowing quite what to say. She then proceeded to grab my backpack and try to put the cocaine inside of it. Not wanting to end up banged up in a South American jail for the next few years, I politely declined the old lady’s advances. I then grabbed my backpack to get off the bus and join the queue of people who were now being led through the police checkpoint.

While in the queue to get searched, I watched the old lady stand in line on her own. This poor woman, I thought. What was she doing? What was she thinking? She must have been almost seventy and it looked like she was on her remaining years in some hellhole Bolivian prison. There was no way the officers were not going to find her stash in that small handbag of hers. Not a chance in hell. I felt bad for her but there was nothing I could do at this point. Her reckless gamble had failed and her doomed fate was sealed.

The queue continued to go down and eventually the old lady reached the table to be searched. The officers patted her down then took her bag and placed it on the table. Another one then went to open it. This was it, I thought. I was about to witness an old lady have the cuffs slapped on her and get escorted off to jail. I stood there and watched the officer unzip her bag, pull out for the bag of class A drugs, inspect it under the lighting and then toss it aside. Then, to my confusion, I watched as the old lady grabbed her handbag back and passed through freely. There she walked: no cuffs, no arrest, no drama. Off she strolled to get back on the bus.

It was only when I reached the table to be searched that I saw the large stash of cocaine behind the officers. There must have been a dozen bags of drugs all piled on top of each other. It appeared that almost half the people on the bus I was on were trying to smuggle bags of cocaine across the Argentine border. The passengers consisted of elderly people, parents and their kids, but clearly that was just business as normal in this part of the world. In a state of surreal shock, I reached the police officers myself where they took one look at my passport, saw that I was a ‘gringo’ and then ushered me through without even bothering to search my bag. It suddenly hit me why the little old lady was so keen to put the drugs in my backpack. She could have got them through after all. Perhaps we could have formed a partnership and split the profits? Perhaps It could have been the start of a bright new career in the narcotics industry? I dismissed the thought and got back on the bus where me and the old lady both sat in awkward silence. I then pressed my head against the window once more, stared out at the passing countryside of those foreign lands and wondered what the hell it was exactly that I was doing with my life…

Fast forward a few hours later and I’m dropped off in a strange town in the middle of nowhere. It was the place where I was supposed to be catching my connecting bus to Buenos Aires. However, with my original bus arriving two hours late, the departure had been missed and I was now standing alone in the dark of night in a shady bus station. I tried to communicate my problem with a bus driver but naturally my gringo Spanish was of insufficient use. Suddenly I was stranded and in a spot of bother. With a gang of men eyeing me across the street, I quickly decided that the best thing to do was to get on any bus to anywhere. Luckily there was one final bus about to depart before the station closed. I booked myself a ticket to a town called Salta. I got on and arrived about an hour and a half later where I booked myself into a random hostel and proceeded to drink shots of whiskey until the early morning with some Irish guy who was drowning his sorrows after his girlfriend had just broken up with him. As those shots flew back, I stared drunkenly into space and heard that same question once again reverberate around the walls of my skull: what the hell am I doing with my life?

‘What am I doing with my life? What am I doing with my life? What the hell am I doing with my life?’

It was a question that went through my head probably more than any other. I was an introspective and reflective guy anyway, but when you got yourself into as many random scenarios as I did, then it was a question that was frequently at the forefront of all mental musings. On this travelling adventure I had already ended up in so many random situations that left me contemplating my own existence. I had just finished university and my parents had wanted me to use my degree and go out and get a ‘real job’. Yet instead of sitting behind a desk and forming a career of some sort, I’d be in some ridiculous situation thousands of miles from home. Evidently South America was particularly bad for this, hopping from one bizarre scenario to the next. At one point I stopped and lived in Rio de Janeiro for a couple of months with a Brazilian girl I had met on the road. We stayed with her family in an isolated suburb on the outskirts of the city where no one including her family spoke a word of English. She had arrived home from her trip but had decided to stay in holiday mindset; this meant we’d spend the days at the beach before going out to get drunk at random parties, sleep in her car, crash at the apartments of some tourists, or sneak up to the rooftop pool of one of the most expensive hotels in Copacabana. At one point we had an argument and she went off with some other guys to her holiday home somewhere down the coast. In my own dismay, I found myself getting drunk at the beach on my own, staring out at the Atlantic Ocean and thinking about the alternative reality on the other side of that water back in the U.K. That alternative reality where I could have been all suited and booted up like a regular member of the human race – where I would be finishing another hard day at the office before going to have a few pints down the pub with work colleagues. My drunken mind imagined it all. The alarm clocks. The traffic jams. The work desks. The shirts and ties. The small talk. The routine lifestyle. The television screens. The suburban lawns. The high street shopping queues. It all went through my head as I knocked back the beers and passed out on a Brazilian beach.

Such existential thoughts carried on as I left South America and arrived in New Zealand almost one thousand pounds into my overdraft. Arriving to a country on the other side of the world with no money was pretty outrageous, even for my standards, but by this point I was totally lost in the wilderness of life, accepting that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing but just trusting myself to the winds of fate and circumstance. That wind picked up and within a few weeks I was working in a kiwi fruit packhouse, living in a town of a couple of hundred people and renting a house with an eclectic mix of humans which included two guys from Chile, my English friend I had met in Australia a couple of years before, and my sister who was coincidentally travelling in New Zealand at the same time. Days were spent packing boxes of kiwis at a frantic rate as they poured like a tsunami from the conveyor belt, before heading home and sharing a bed with my sister in a freezing cold house in the middle of winter. It was a strange scenario to say the least, and naturally I still had no answer to that pressing question that lingered in my mind.

As that two-year backpacking trip finished and my life went on, there were times where I felt that I was beginning to realise what I was doing with my life – what was happening; where it was going; what it was leading to. Those times included coming home and thinking I was going to stop the travelling and settle down. It included times where I went back to university to study – where I eyed up career options as a journalist or copywriter and began to plot some sort of routine that would lead me safely and smoothly into old age. I should have known such things to be nothing more than mere mental musings. I’d go from having a plan to be writing poetry in the Himalayas. To hitch-hiking around Iceland. To raving beside an erupting volcano in Guatemala. To sleeping on a park bench in Slovenia. To walking across Spain in the midsummer heat (the most defining ‘what the hell am I doing?’ moment definitely being when me and four other hikers spontaneously decided to hike through the night, getting drunk off bottles of red wine before passing out in a farmer’s field). By this point I had learnt to go with the flow of whatever it was that was enfolding and even enjoy the comedy of my own chaotic existence. Hell, I even started to revel in it, smiling and smirking to myself in the most random of scenarios, stopping for a second and soaking it all in while the mess and madness unfolded around me. To some degree, I had managed to rewire my brain to living totally in the sheer anarchy of the moment.

I guess my most recent ‘what am I doing with my life’ moments came travelling in Europe. I had just flown back from Asia to meet my Dutch friend Bryan and head to Corsica to do a two-week trek through the island. However, our timetable wasn’t quite right and we had about three weeks until the snowy conditions made it possible to hike. Consequently, we arranged to travel through Switzerland and Italy in the meanwhile. Taking cheap buses in between destinations, we stopped and stayed with random friends we had each met travelling; we bummed around in cities, getting drunk in bars and parks; we stumbled around famous historic sites such as the Colosseum or the Vatican while cracking inappropriate jokes about history and culture. Bryan was like me in that he also regularly questioned the bizarre situations and scenarios the path of his life had led him to. We had been through a similar journey in life and were both highly philosophical about our own unconventional existence. This sometimes caused us to ask that question simultaneously as we walked down the streets of Rome or Florence, or when we drank beer on a random street corner and observed the human race like we were on safari. It was a very existential time of my life, even more so than usual, and ultimately we came to the conclusion that it was probably best that two manic minds like ours didn’t share paths for too long. Seemingly we were both a bad influence on each other’s lives. When I first met Bryan, he was a clean-cut guy, only having a couple of pints of beer each time we went to a bar; but now – partly due to the influence of myself and partly due to the crushing weight of the world – he was now an even more keen drinker than I was. I thought this would be a good development, but both of us being keen drinkers was a recipe for disaster. I was suffering from insomnia at the time and there was a moment every night where we would both think about being sensible and getting a good night’s rest. Then one of us would hint about going out for a drink to which the other would then utter the trip catchphrase: ‘why not? we’re on holiday…’ Next thing we’d be stumbling out again into the wilderness of the night, getting messed up and sneaking into VIP areas in clubs, before waking up the next day, staring at the hostel room ceiling and wondering that same old life-defining question…

What am I doing with my life? What am I doing with my life? What the hell am I doing with my life?’

I thought about it all those times on the road and I think about it now while I am writing these words, living alone in a new city, getting by off medical trials and agency work, not knowing what I’ll be doing in a few months’ time – whether I’ll be back out on that road or trying to write another book. It is a thought that has made itself at home in my head over the last years, but it is also a thought I think I see in the eyes of everyone around me too. I see it in the look of a businessman waiting in his car at the traffic lights. I see it at the look of a woman pushing a pram up the hill. I see it in the look of an elderly person drinking alone at a bar; in the look of a cashier in a store when they have a second to think to themselves. Sometimes I think I see it in my parent’s eyes too – in my father’s eyes as he’s doing the dishes or my mother’s eyes as she waters the plants. I have this suspicion I can’t shake that it’s all a big conspiracy and no one really knows what the hell they are doing. We all just try to follow and fake it – to go with what is expected of us by others and society – but deep down in every man or woman’s heart there are those moments of staring into skies, mirrors and spaces that are often as empty as the existential space they feel inside themselves. Perhaps that is a space that will never be filled no matter what we do or where we go. Sometimes I think I know what I’m doing, but that delusion quickly passes and I return to that bus window or solitary shoreline knowing that I am hopelessly lost in the dream of life as ever. Lost in the cosmic ocean of space and time. Lost in the woods of human existence. And accepting that, I find a sort of faith to keep walking wide-eyed through the wilderness and accept whatever it is that life brings my way. Deep down, no one really knows what the hell is going on, and the ones who do are normally just a divorce or redundancy or midlife crisis away from having their illusions totally blown to pieces. Life at its core is just pure mystery and madness, so why not just accept that? Why not go with the flow? Why not just sit back and enjoy the ride? Hell, go one further. Put the pedal down, wind down the windows, stick your head out into the wind and enjoy this random and chaotic trip of a lifetime.

God knows, somebody has to.

 

 

 

 

 

short stories

~ Coming out as a Weirdo ~

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~ Coming out as a Weirdo ~

‘You march to a different beat. You know it. You’ve always known it. You hear the things they don’t hear; see the things they don’t see. You feel something different when you stare into those skies and walk down those busy streets. And it’s that moment when you stand and face out into the great unknown, and you feel it calling you away into the wild. The adventures. The wonders. The dreams. The magic and mystery. Don’t shy away from it any longer. It’s time to stop hiding who you really are. It’s time to stop dwelling in a life which doesn’t fulfil your soul. Accept you are destined for something more than another standardised existence. Break free from that crowd. Emerge into the light of your truest life. Move fearlessly forward towards the shores of your own destiny. Ruthlessly pursue your unique passions and gifts. Be bold. Be different. Be beautiful.’  – Ryan Millward.

In this life there are few experiences more initially terrifying than exposing yourself to the crowd. Than showing them all that you are not one of them. That you are different, abnormal, odd – a little bit strange. Since we were hunter-gatherers on the plains of Africa, human beings have thrived off social acceptance and fitting in with the tribe, so doing something different from the rest is the sort of thing that can instil great anxiety into people. It’s the sort of thing that causes people to put on a mask and hide their true face. It’s the sort of thing that can cause some people to spend their entire lives going through the motions just to please others and fit in, and not be judged for being different. For not being regular in the sense of tradition and expectation. For not being ‘normal’.

Since as long as I can remember, I never really considered myself a normal person. Yes, I know we all have our own individual quirks, but beyond that, I knew something was dangerously different inside of me from a young age. At school I found myself a chronic daydreamer, escaping into alternative realities in my head that were more pleasing to me than the bland scenes that surrounded me. While the other kids played and chatted, often I stared out of those classroom windows envisaging myself becoming some sort of bird or animal. When I was five, I went around my neighbourhood collecting the wrappers of a specific chocolate bar after some older kid had told me they could buy a ticket to Australia if only I had enough. At one point I used to pretend I was a stuntman for Hollywood and went climbing dangerous things with those imaginary cameras shooting. And that’s not to forget my little phase as an undercover spy, which, admittedly, is best forgotten for legal reasons.

I guess these sorts of mental musings were typical of childhood, and something I thought maybe my eccentric mind would grow out of, but in secondary school I found that my weirdness stayed with me. Again, I didn’t really understand a lot of things the others did and preferred getting lost in the wilderness of my mind. Because of this, I wasn’t good at finding my place in the social ladder. Whatever group I was a part of, I was still the outsider of that group – an awkward tag alone. Still, I guessed I wanted to have some friends so I suppressed my madness and eccentricity to a degree, although occasionally it bubbled out in the form of me becoming a MC rapper, or declaring that I was going to take a vow of chastity all of my life to see how people reacted (definitely not the smartest decision to make in an all boy’s school, admittedly).

As an adult, my weirdness only increased. At this point you were supposed to be preparing yourself to become a normal civilised member of the human race, working 8-5, interested in things like careers, mortgages, marriage, furniture, television, cars, credit ratings and talking about the football over a few pints down the pub. Still, all I truly cared about was doing creative things and going on insane adventures. I wanted to climb trees and talk about the universe. I wanted to share ideas about existence and create works of art. While people were more interested in starting careers, I only had eyes on travelling in foreign lands. Naturally this led to me still being known as the black sheep anyway due to me never going on holiday with any of the others, but always choosing to instead fly alone to some random country like Ghana or Peru. By this point, I did actually have a core group of friends at home, but I was still known as the eccentric traveller. The outsider. The misfit.

Looking back, I guess that internal pull to get out into the world and do something different was my subconscious calling me toward some sort of personal purpose. While on these adventures and talking to fellow misfits, I gradually began to realise that I was never really destined for the regular life of the socially accepted citizen like my friends from back home. But naturally that was a scary thought, so whenever I was home, I hid my true alien nature and tried to suppress who I was. I bit my tongue. I pretended that I was going to pack it all in eventually and return to normal life, starting a career and doing all those super official adult things like driving a car and getting a credit card and pension fund. Surrounded by people who I was on a different path from, I started to feel social anxiety for the first time in my life. I put on a mask and, even though people considered me weird anyway, they really had no idea how deep my madness went.

My friend Ryan was one of my good friends from secondary school and probably the closest person I could relate to in the pain of wearing a mask and hiding your authentic self. He had suppressed his sexuality since his teenage years as many gay people in their youth did. I guess it didn’t help that we went to an all boy’s school too. Most people naturally suspected he was gay, due to his camp nature and the fact he fitted in so well with groups of girls. Even though we all suspected it, he never came out as gay. We lived in an age where it was more acceptable than ever to come out, but still, for many years he hid his true nature out of not wanting to face the daunting spotlight of the crowd. I didn’t know the extent of this until we were at a restaurant over dinner with friends in London and he reminded me of our hike up a mountain in New Zealand. It had been over four years since the hike, but he reflected about it as we drank together at the table. The hike was just a couple of weeks before he finally came out via a video on social media. I was totally oblivious at the time to the storm that was raging inside his head as he prepared to expose himself for being different than the rest. But he told me that it was on the hike with me where he decided he couldn’t hide who he was any longer; that he decided he was going to come out and reveal who he really was. Seemingly, it took him to go to the other side of the world, up the top of a bloody mountain, to finally feel free enough to take off the mask to the crowd.

While he told me about the struggle of wearing a mask and hiding his true nature, I reflected on myself and my own alien ways. He said holding it in was like holding your breath and I resonated a lot with that in terms of my own identity. As everyone around me walked down the aisles of conventional life, I had to hold my real nature in. I had to nod my head and smile and pretend I was interested in a standard existence when really I knew I was in conflict with society at my core. I didn’t care for what I was supposed to care for. I didn’t see any personal value in my expectations and cultural traditions. Even very basic attempts to fit in left me anxious and depressed. The act of writing a CV and applying for jobs I had no interest in only my heart rage and rebel against it all. As life went on normally around me, I often felt hopelessly alienated and misunderstood. People with good intentions assured me I’d find my place in the mould of society, but I guess I knew in my heart of hearts that I was an alien, an outsider – a weirdo.

The thing that kept me sane while experiencing this alienation was expressing myself via an artistic form. Over the years I had discovered that writing was my main talent in life. I could express myself with writing words better than I ever could when I opened my mouth. It was like there was a whole ocean of thoughts in my head, and when I spoke it was like trying to drain that ocean through a bath plughole. It was a hopeless task, but when my fingers touched those keyboard keys, suddenly I had the ability to pour everything out; suddenly I could send tsunamis of thoughts out onto the page. Yes, writing was my ‘thing’ so to speak, and I knew that I had a lot of poetry and prose in me that I wanted to share. The problem initially was that whenever I wrote things to share with my name attached to it, it was often a restrained and frustrating affair. Burdened by the thought of other people’s opinions, I wrote from the ego and not from the heart, obsessing over what my peers, parents and friends would think of the mess that filled my mind. Still, I knew I had to express myself and eventually it got to the point where, like my friend Ryan, I could no longer hold it all in. At one point I decided I was finally going to write from my heart about how I felt about life, myself and society.

At first, I used the anonymity of a social media blog to hide my face; to not have my name attached to what I was writing. I created a concept ‘The Thoughts From The Wild’ where I posted pictures of random strangers walking in nature with some sort of internal, introspective reflection about life or society. I made it look like the quotes were from different characters, when in reality they were all the thoughts and words that I had stored away inside myself for many years. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of what I was writing, it was just that, like my friend Ryan, I wasn’t ready to expose myself as the misfit I was to the stern-eyed crowds of culture and convention.

Nonetheless, the relief of not having my name attached to it worked and allowed me to finally write out everything I had locked away deep in my heart. Out it all came in a prolonged burst over a year or so. Declarations of my weird, alien nature such as:

“One day in this life you realise you are infected with the condition of being an outsider. The symptoms are revealed to you gradually. As you walk the neighbourhoods of normality you realise your heart yearns for something else. Stability and security only give you a feeling of sadness. You have no interest in the contract of life offered to you. As you stare at the rows of houses and green lawns and shiny cars, as you look up uninterested at career ladders before you, as you stare wistfully into space in the supermarket queue, you gradually begin to realise that something isn’t quite right about it all. Every ounce of your being rejects the things you were told to desire. What gives you fulfilment simply isn’t available in their stores or on their menus. You have no interest in material riches or status. Their television shows and newspapers are toxic poison to your mind. You are allergic to their conventions and expectations. The suits and ties don’t fit you. What is important to them, to you seems meaningless and trivial. In your world adventure and exploration and art rank above all else. Yes, accept it: you have the alien madness – the condition of being an outsider. You are infected…”

And:

“Yes, the more I stood there on that hill and thought about it, the more it seemed this was the destiny of someone like myself. The cards had been dealt and I knew deep down in my flesh and bones that it was my fate to sail alone, to get lost in the mazes of my own mind, to dwell in solitude among those mountains of madness. This was how it was; for some reason I would never fully understand, this is how it was. I guess by now it was just a matter of acceptance: a matter of accepting that I was a lone wanderer – a matter of accepting that I didn’t belong. I guess by now it was a matter of accepting the fact that no matter where I went in this world, I would always return to those hills above the cities, standing alone, staring up into the skies, looking for something – anything – to come and take me home.”

Oh, and let’s not forget the delightfully cheerful:

“In a world of steely-faced executives and agents, I felt like a castaway soul stranded in the dirt, chained down by gravity and government – trapped in a cage of slowly decaying flesh and bone. Since I was born, I often felt homesick for a place I’d never known; homesick for a place I’d never been. In the worst moments I gazed up into skies above thinking that maybe my species was somewhere out there beyond the neighbouring solar-systems and stars. After all, there was an endless ocean of galaxies and worlds out there, but somehow I had ended up in one full of things I just didn’t understand. The situation was strange, but what else could I do? Where else could I turn? Where else could I go?”

Sharing my writings with the internet world, I immediately felt relieved and rewarded. I discovered that my words could actually influence and even change people’s lives. I soon started to build up followers, shares and reactions to my posts. I received messages of gratitude and great emotion. Hearing that intense feedback, I felt gratified for sharing the chaotic contents of my mind. I always knew what I wrote was real and needed to be shared, and the response to my writings went and validated that.

Eventually I had the idea to attach my name to it by compiling all the thoughts I had written on the blog and putting them into a book. This would be the point where I would proudly own up, take off the mask and show that it was me – Ryan Millward – that was the writer behind the pseudonym ‘The Thoughts From The Wild’. This was the sort of thing that instilled great anxiety into me. What allowed me to write so purely was having this alter ego and attaching my name to it only caused stress and strain in my mind. People would finally be able to see on printed paper my name along with the deepest, darkest, most private thoughts of my mind. It was initially hard to do, but my desire to publish my stuff was too strong and I soon found myself creating the book, putting my name on the cover and sharing it with friends, peers, relatives and anyone else who asked a little about my chaotic life.

After the book was finally published, I had effectively ‘come out as a weirdo’ in my mind. Something that terrified me for years, was soon shown to me to not be so bad after all. Some people naturally distanced themselves from me, but many others bought my book, congratulated me and even told me they resonated with a lot of things I had said. Now that many people knew I was on a different path, I felt a lot more relief and freedom in what I could do with my life. Some people even gravitated towards me in my new state of being. It seemed that many normal people liked to have weirdos around to make them feel relaxed. If they were surrounded by ultra-serious, conventional people all the time than life became a drag. Hell, I even made new friends from my book. On one occasion I was travelling in Switzerland and ended up meeting up with a woman who had come across my blog online. She invited me and my friend around for dinner before going out for drinks. While listening to someone living in a different country tell me that my words actually mattered, I felt a strong gratification for sharing the contents of my heart. Like my friend Ryan, my life improved dramatically the second I took off my mask and revealed my true nature to the crowd.

As my life went on and I prepared to write my second book, I found I could write and express myself easier than ever. I didn’t even need a pseudonym any more to write down and share my most private thoughts. Like my friend Ryan had said, it was like finally being able to stop holding your breath for so many years. The sense of relief and freedom was enormous. Coming out as a weirdo had worked for me and I would now walk the streets and wonder how many other closet weirdos were out there hiding their real nature. How many adventures were denied because people were too afraid to walk away from those crowds of conformity? How many great works of art were not made public because people were too scared to share the contents of their souls with this society? The thought of it stayed with me and I stared at the faces of those in the crowd wondering what weirdness and madness lay hidden behind their masks and makeup. I thought of all the great writers, poets, painters and adventurers and explorers that went to the grave without ever coming out as being different from the rest. I thought of the strange ones out there hiding their secrets, suppressing their voices, feeling the things that I had felt before I took the leap. That leap wasn’t being taken because ultimately the part of the brain that craves social acceptance of the species had overpowered the gentle, pure nature of the heart and soul. The thought of it made me sad and inspired me to keep on writing away – to shake some feathers and stoke some fire in the hearts of the wild ones out there. To stop people going to the grave without ever having the courage to be their genuine selves. To stop people from missing out. To stop people from never truly experiencing the unparalleled joy of living a life of authenticity and spiritual freedom.

As humans we will always crave social acceptance; it is hard-wired into our brains as a survival mechanism. But a life of hiding your true authentic nature is nothing short of torture and is arguably a life not lived at all. Everyone has their place in this crazy world, even if it is on the sidelines being considered ‘strange’ or ‘abnormal’ or ‘odd’ or ‘eccentric’. Coming out as a weirdo was the best thing I ever did, so if any fellow misfits are reading this and are still trying to find the courage to be their authentic selves, then my advice (and I’m sure the advice of my good friend Ryan) is to go forth and take the leap of faith. A new adventure awaits. So throw away the mask. Shine your light. Wear your colours. Write your words. Scream a little with whatever sets your soul on fire. Walk fearlessly forward to the lands of your own destiny. Emerge into the light of your truest life. Ruthlessly pursue your unique gifts and passions. Be bold. Be different. Be weird. Be beautiful.

 

 

short stories

~ Toward the Keyboard ~

(The opening piece to my soon-to-be-finished book ‘Scraps of Madness: the Notes of a Wanderer’)


~ Toward the Keyboard ~

It was true. Oh god, oh god: it was true.

The opening years of adulthood had passed and my conclusion had been drawn: I was an alien – an outsider – an outcast. I had tried to a reasonable degree to slot myself into the paradigm of human society, but I gradually realised that there was just no place for me amongst those stern-eyed creatures of culture and convention. Each attempt to fit myself in had led to the usual bout of alien anxiety and staring up existentially into skies above. I stood still on those concrete sidewalks of life with my hands in my pockets knowing that I just simply wasn’t compatible with any of it: the jobs, the paperwork, the contracts, the football teams, the small talk, dating, mortgages, Ikea – Ant and Dec. Even simple everyday things like supermarket shopping somehow made me sad. Those aisles had a still emptiness which made my heart ache for something which couldn’t be purchased in any store, or made in any factory, or stored in any house.

People with good intentions encouraged me to mix myself in but I was hopelessly allergic to it all. A life of comfort and security was okay for a few months at the most, but after that my restless eyes lifted once again to that horizon of adventure and chaos. That possibly explained why I had spent three of the last five years on some sort of travelling expedition out somewhere in the world. Expedition makes it sound like I was climbing Mount Everest, although I did trek to the base camp twice, but too often I was bumming around, getting drunk in hostels and attempting to seem like a normal, functioning member of the human race so I could hook up with some young German girl who was about to become a lawyer and begin the peaceful middle-class existence in the suburbs.

People back home said that there was something wrong with me: that I was immature, that I was out of my mind – that I was running away from life and or something like that. Maybe they were right, but in my head, I wasn’t running away from life, but rather running toward it with wide arms, a heavy heart and a weathered backpack full of old clothes and a couple of books on esoteric philosophy to boot. It was just a different perspective and all that, you know? Truthfully, I guess I just saw no thrill in a life of bill-paying routine, in a steady career, in promotions, parking spaces, weddings, television sitcoms, shiny cars or that same old holiday once a year to somewhere in Spain. All I could do was wonder was that really what human existence was all about? Was that my destiny as a sentient organism in an infinite universe? Was that to be my fate whilst briefly incarnate in this transient cage of slowly decaying flesh and bone?

It was an interesting situation to say the least. I truly and genuinely wanted to understand their way of life, so I did the usual things. I watched TED talks. I listened to Jordan Peterson lectures. I spoke to career counselors, parents and work colleagues. I argued with strangers on the internet in YouTube comment sections. I tried and tried and tried, but in the end, I just didn’t understand how the vast majority could do it so easily. What they called ‘growing up’ and ‘the real world’ to me seemed like some weird bubble of unnatural behavior. After all, what was natural about sitting in an office in artificial light all day, only to drive home in a gas-guzzling car and eat processed foods while watching a blinking box life until you went to sleep? That wasn’t what the real world was. To me the real world was out there among the fields and trees – the rivers, the streams, the sunset beaches and mountain wildernesses. That’s where the life and adventure was at! Even better was what was out there in the cosmos with its shooting stars and endless galaxies. It felt so cruel to be able to see that infinite universe on a clear night above me. I wanted to go out and explore it all, but I had been subjected by gravity and government to instead exist in a world of monotony and mediocrity. Instead of sailing through the cosmos, we’d stutter through traffic jams; instead of exploring solar systems, we’d explore supermarket aisles. Why was it like this? Which cruel god had created this circus? This pantomime?

Okay, so I guess I was a little bit bitter of the others being content with what they had – at actually managing to make the journey from the maternity ward to the crematorium in some sort of steady and sane fashion. I envied their contentment about neatly fitting into system without any friction. They peacefully rode the cultural conveyor-belt through the education system, the jobs, the mortgages, the family life, the bank holidays and retirement before arriving safely into a wooden box to be duly buried six feet under the ground. It was a simple and smooth procedure. But me? I was a chaotic mess waiting to move perpetually on to the next adventure. I just couldn’t stay still in one spot. I had an itch that couldn’t be scratched; a madness that couldn’t be cured. I was just so excited to even exist at all that the 9-5 routine seemed impossible to do for more than a year at the very most. I needed frequent adventure but travelling all the time was tiring and most notably: expensive. It was true that I needed to find something else to help me fill the time in between the maternity ward and the crematorium like the others had done. There must have been something that fulfilled me other than travelling? Something that I could do while living in one place? Something? Anything?

There was: writing. Switching on some ambient music and letting myself lose my mind at a keyboard was a very fulfilling thing indeed. It reminded me of being a young kid again, picking and piecing those Lego bricks together, building structures and creating things, only with words and ideas instead of plastic bricks. It was an act of joyous play which never felt like a chore or a job. Hell, even the essays in school were somewhat enjoyable as long as there was some sort of agency and creativity involved. In a society of rigid rules, the act of writing allowed me to be the archetype of whatever alternative reality I wanted to momentarily migrate to. That pen was a portal and quite simply it took me to a different place. A separate place. A better place.

Yes, it was clear to me that being a writer would have been something to solve my existential problem. So naturally I looked at the realistic and sensible options available and decided to start studying journalism at university. I guess I thought that the role of a journalist would provide a way to make money while joyfully strumming away on those keyboard keys. However, about midway through that three-year course, I realised that sitting in an office and typing up a news story I had no interest in didn’t really interest me either. What I wanted to do was to WRITE – creatively and expressively that is. In a world where I was slowly suffocated by sanity and sensibility, creative writing was my opportunity to go insane – to explore the spaces down the rabbit hole and create my own wonderland of words and bizarre ideas.

So, after finishing my journalism course with gritted teeth and a damaged liver, I went on to study creative writing at master’s level. The thought of the situation made my heart pump with excitement. This was my chance to explore my passion with like-minded creatures. Finally, my tribe! My place with people who wanted to create with words, who wanted to explore their imagination – who were also driven to write out of their total and profound incompatibility with absolutely everything else in human society.

I was certain I had found my place of belonging but soon after starting I realised I was out of luck once again. I sat in a room of middle-aged marketing executives having a mid-life crisis, trying to write the next War and Peace or Wuthering Heights. One guy read out some story and I watched as about five different people from different demographics weighed in with their conflicting opinions, to which he then butchered the essence of his piece apart to make it sit in the middle of the road and please everyone. For some reason it made me sad and I decided there and then to quit. Maybe I wasn’t a writer, but these people weren’t definitely weren’t, so off I went again, quitting the course, flying one way to Mexico, travelling around, staring out into sunset skies – getting drunk and hitting on German girls who were about to qualify as lawyers and begin the peaceful middle-class existence in the suburbs. The usual.

The more I travelled the world, the more I started to appreciate and gravitate toward the wilderness of planet earth. The party and the girls and the foreign cultures: those sorts of things were definitely fun while travelling, but the best parts were always getting out of the cities and hostels. It was those little camping trips or hikes into the wild. The mountains, the forests, the fields – the sunset beaches and rugged plains devoid of any substantial human civilisation. From the volcanoes of Central America to the untouched, empty wilderness of Iceland, to the isolated Buddhist temples of the Himalayas – it was all a magical wonderland to me. Like writing, it was a beautiful escape from the world of clocks and calendars and concrete and contracts; a place where you could exist peacefully without being disturbed by a traffic jam or deadline or some boss belittling you over something meaningless and trivial.

Recalling being a little kid, I remembered that I always found a great joy in the time I spent in nature. Even if it was just a field or something, there was a sense of adventure in a simple stretch of grass which had more life than any buzzing city could ever hope to achieve. The average field mouse had more adventure in one day than many humans had in their entire lives. And it’s not just that the animals’ lives were more thrilling, it often seemed like they were smarter than us too. Take the birds for example: instead of bulldozing entire rainforests down so that they could use the materials for cosmetics and tabloid newspapers, they instead picked up and recycled fallen branches and used them to build homes integrated with the world around them. The animals understood that they were interconnected with nature and that, rather than trying to rape and destroy it, it was better to work with it. Dogs too. They didn’t chase the stick because they saw an advert on the television for it, or because they thought they would get some sort of promotion. They just did it for kicks. They knew existence was playful not political, and they knew not to stress and strain their lives away working for trivial things or the opinions of other dogs. And cats, well, they knew what life was about to the absolute core. Just look at them sitting there doing nothing. Total Zen masters. Godlike geniuses and gurus – every goddamn last one of them.

Okay, so I guess maybe I was a bit jealous and bitter again when it came to the animals. I felt sad that I was spawned on this planet as a human-being and not a squirrel or something. Since childhood I had often felt that I was born into the wrong species. I stared out into the eyes of the humans thinking that perhaps there had been a mix up back at the soul distribution warehouse. Perhaps mine had been wrongly delivered to the human department instead of the cats or dogs or birds? Probably that was it: some incompetent god not doing his job properly in the depot centre. For a while I tried to be like a cat – a total Zen master, meditating and sleeping and eating and staring into space with no excitement, just total acceptance of the here and now. But after a while I realised I was still actually human and needed things like money and companionship and hobbies and purpose. As usual I was out of luck: I was a human-being and nothing was going to change that. Sex changes had just about hit the market, but species’ changes must have been a few centuries away at the least.

And so, with a heavy heart and a broken bank account, I retreated back into human society. I flew home, got a job in a bar and tried to get back into writing. By now I had realised it was the one and only thing I enjoyed at home, so naturally I had to pursue it ferociously and uncompromisingly in an attempt to stay sane. I had been writing for a while, but I had never really had anything read by anyone else. I wanted to find my audience and so I started considering the possibilities. It was the 21st century I had realised, so maybe online was the way to go? Okay. Online I went into the virtual wilderness – to the lands of trolls, porn, junk mail and depressed people trying to make it look like they lived happy and exciting lives to strangers on the internet.

Firstly, I went onto Instagram to check out the hotshot authors: the ones with thousands of likes on every post; the ones who somehow managed to actually make some money off pounding some keys on a keyboard. As I read, I realised that there was some sort of mass trickery taking place. Everyone on Instagram seemed to post bland comments about life or love and then dress them up in pretty fonts and filters to try and make their words look more meaningful. Even worse was the way people had to like and spam comments on each other’s posts in an attempt to get more followers and views on their own pages. It was a strange situation; it was like watching those suited marketing executives in the city network with each other in swanky bars after work. Confused as ever, I decided to carry on my way.

Stumbling further through the virtual wilderness of the internet, I came across Facebook. At least on Facebook you could post lengthy pieces of texts, I thought. I logged in and started a blog called ‘The Thoughts From The Wild’ where I posted images of people walking in nature with some sort of internal dialogue about travel or life or society. It was a simple concept and it worked! My blog took off within a few weeks and people, real people, somewhere out there across the world were reading and interacting with my writings for the first time ever. I felt like Shakespeare or Hemingway back from the dead, armed with a grubby laptop, hopelessly and poetically alone with everybody on the internet. The pen had moved on and there I was: hiding my face behind a pseudonym online while being read and digested by a few hundred people sporadically scattered somewhere around the globe.

As I carried on sharing my words and thoughts, a quiet flame of joy began to flicker in my heart. I wasn’t even adventuring, yet I was still finding some fulfilment by just bleeding my brain dry at a keyboard. What a joy it was just to have your stuff read by others somewhere out there! One woman even messaged me saying she had quit a job and was about to drive around Australia because of something I had written. Another young painter told me something similar – that I had given her the courage to pursue her ambition to become an artist.

That feedback was like a class A drug to me and I sat back delusional at that keyboard like a man of importance, like a man of purpose. I was content knowing that I was helping to spread some colour and madness into this grey world. I looked out at the window with a smug sort of grin. Soon those streets outside would have mad men and women crawling down the sidewalks, eyes full of fire and saliva dripping from their mouth as they quit their desk jobs and chased their passions with a demonic sort of possession. The revolution was coming over the horizon, I knew it. I just needed to keep writing away and helping the side of the crazy and disturbed and demented.

Of course, I still needed money while I was toiling away in this heroic endeavour, so naturally I worked the monotonous jobs in the meanwhile. Jobs like bartending, factory work and customer service came and went in short bursts. They were always the easiest to get for an inexperienced and introverted creature like myself. Some were bad and some were awful, but they all helped pay the bills I guess, and I could even find inspiration for things to write about while daydreaming the hours away as I stared wistfully into time and space.

This state of existence went on for a while. It would be a day of menial work followed by an evening of losing my mind at the keyboard. Somewhere in there I would find time to eat a basic no-thrills meal, and maybe even treat myself to a bottle of red wine. Occasionally I would go out and walk the streets while listening to some Zen philosopher’s podcast through my headphones. With the sound of existential philosophy in my ears, I looked out and observed the human race like I was on some kind of safari. I wandered aimlessly through the city neighbourhoods and watched the way they all walked and talked while taking mental notes for my writings. Situations like standing in the crowd that momentarily formed at the traffic lights or waiting in the supermarket queue would turn out to be schools of ethnographic observation. Maybe it was a little strange I guess, but such an undertaking added to whatever it was I was striving for in a way I couldn’t totally explain to myself let alone others. There was some burning desire deep inside me that told me I needed to observe, to learn and understand the absurdity of the human condition. To what end? That wasn’t clear, but I just I needed to know what made them tick.

After doing this for a while, I realised I had substantially segregated and closed myself off from the rest of my species. As the months drifted by, I realised I was living dangerously in a world of extreme isolation and bad diet habits. I was somewhat used to keeping myself away from the masses out there on the streets. I liked it that way mostly, the situation of being content with your own company, but my hermit-levels had slowly reached castaway proportions. Every day I went to work and avoided any significant interaction with my co-workers before going home to sit in darkness and empty my brain at that keyboard to random strangers on the internet. It was an extreme situation and carrying on at this rate would almost certainly pave the road toward the madhouse. ‘Venture down the rabbit-hole just enough to find the magic; hold on to normality just enough to avoid the madhouse’ – something I had scribbled once into my diary. With that in mind, I decided that I would go out and have a drink with a friend.

By now my circle of friends and acquaintances had shrunk considerably, but luckily I had come across a few other misfits out on the road during my travels. I remembered one who also lived in my city and got speaking to her online. Her name was Emily – an anxious girl who didn’t have much of an idea how to fit herself into this society either. I recalled her telling me how she also listened to ambient music and painted abstract art to escape normal life. She seemed like the ideal person to befriend. We spoke for a while online and then arranged to meet up for a drink down the pub.

“So, your life sounds interesting,” she said, sipping a glass of wine across the table. “I do worry about you though.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Humans weren’t meant to exist in solitude all the time. Too much time alone sends you crazy. That’s what happened to my ex.”

“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “I’ve got it all figured out. I am just gonna write my books and start the revolution this world needs.” She looked at me like the madman I was.

“I’m glad you are enjoying writing now and not feeling like you have to run off to a foreign country every month. But what are you planning to do for work in the long term? Do you have any plans for the future? A career? It’s hard to make money from writing these days. Everybody with a laptop and internet connection wants to be a writer you know.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I just want to write and maybe have a few more adventures here and there. I guess I’ll work whatever job I have to along the way. I’m not sure. I stopped planning too much.”

“Come on. You know I love that about you, your adventurous attitude, but realistically you can’t just continue living like this forever. You need to spend some more time with people and learn to live with others. That’s what I did. Sure, I have to bite my tongue from time to time, but it beats being lonely and isolated and depressed. That’s what being alone all the time did to me.”

“I’m sorry Emily, but I like it this way. Maybe you do, but I just don’t understand this species. I am just here to observe and write about these creatures of conformity and convention before I return back to whatever place it was that I came from.” She rolled her eyes.

“Oh, please just stop. I hate when you speak like this. You say all these things, but I know you don’t mean them. I saw you were happy with those people when we were travelling. You do like people and you are human – just accept it! You have to face up to it and learn how to be happy in this society. You can’t just hide away on your own forever.”

“I can try.”

“No! No you can’t! You need some security, a way to make money – a place to call home! You need friends and you need family. We are all social creatures and you’ll go insane if you just keep secluding yourself in that apartment of yours. I know you are working hard on your writing but why don’t you go out and see some more of your friends some time? The ones from school you told me about?”

I sat back in thoughtful silence, pondering her words. Some of the things she had said did ring true. I couldn’t deny she was right in many regards. Human beings were social creatures and often the suicides and mental asylum patients were the people who had been subjected to years of isolation. Like I said, it was true that I felt pretty good in my own company, but maybe she was right with there being a limit to it all? Maybe I did need to regularly spend time with other people? Try and see things from their perspective? Enjoy the camaraderie and gregarious nature of my fellow man?

In the end I decided her fiery words were right. I had gone too far, been too audacious in my behaviour. I had wandered too long over the fences of normality and it was time to return to the farm of social sanity to rub shoulders with some more of the others.

The next week I decided to go to a birthday celebration night out of one of my friends from school. It had been an arranged date on the social calendar for a while. A large group of people were going and naturally I had planned to avoid it at all costs. A lot of people consequently meant a lot of small talk – a lot of small talk meant a lot of explanation about what you were actually doing with your life. Such a situation wasn’t really appealing but with gritted teeth and a determination to cling on the ledge of sanity a little longer, I booked my bus ticket to London and went and met everyone in a pub somewhere deep within the concrete jungle.

I arrived late into the bar where all my friends were sat around a table already on their second and third pints. The jolly laughs and banter-filled conversations were flowing in full steam already. That camaraderie of my fellow man on display right in front of me. I breathed in, composed myself and headed over to join the circus. As I approached, they looked up at me with their big eyes and smiles. “Here he is,” one of them said enthusiastically. “The stranger! He’s still alive then.”

I forced a polite smile and sat down among them. I got comfy and began getting through the formalities, reciting the socially approved script of small talk and making sure everyone felt I was happy to be there and see them. After a few shaky minutes, I went up to the bar and ordered myself a beer, along with a sneaky double whiskey coke to steady my nerves. I returned to the table and carried on mixing in with the crowd. The conversation flowed away and soon came the inevitable questions I so feared: the questions the normal people used to categorise everyone and everything; the questions that determined whether or not you were an accepted member of the human race.

“So, what are you doing now mate?” one of them said. “We haven’t heard from you in a while. Last I heard you started a master’s course in creative writing. You still doing that?” I sipped my beer slowly, mentally preparing my answer inside my skull.

“Nah I didn’t like the course, so I quit that after three weeks and flew one-way to Mexico to do some more travelling.” He looked at me with curious eyes.

“Fair enough… I guess it’s better to do that than to pay thousands of pounds on something you don’t enjoy. How was Mexico?”

“Great,” I said. “It’s a great country to travel.”

“That’s cool. I’d like to go there sometime.”

“Yeah you should.”

An awkward silence briefly lingered; I still hadn’t answered the original question.

“So, what is it that you’re up to now?”

The justification of my madness had begun. I sipped my beer slowly again before beginning to explain away. In all honesty I wasn’t even sure how to answer that question by this point. Often, I felt that I was simply too insane to justify myself anymore. My life was like being stuck in a car on fire speeding toward a cliff that dropped into the abyss of the unknown. It was seriously difficult to explain to myself let alone others, but I began bumbling away anyway, talking about my job, about my blog – about adventure and some vague writing goals for the future. I of course knew that vague goals for the future were a key thing when justifying what you were doing with your life; if you didn’t have some sort of plan and long-term targets, then the looks of concern were thrown your way in the bucket load.

Fortunately, this round of small talk went better than expected. I explained away my job and writing, and as I got more comfortable, I began opening up and speaking a bit more from the heart. I began talking about the things that actually interested me: about the universe and art and consciousness and philosophy. But I soon felt them dissecting me with their eyes. I was pushing the limit of social acceptability and naturally the conversation began to stall. I could see the sparks flying in their eyes; the buffering taking place in their heads. I realised I had gone too far and panicked. They were onto me. It wouldn’t be long until they figured out that I wasn’t one of them. That I was an imposter. That I was an intruder.

Naturally I responded to this problem by drinking faster and faster. Over the last few years I had discovered that alcohol could act as a temporary bubble of warmth in which to nestle oneself whenever human society was swarming too loud around you. This blur of drinking went on until the world faded away and I descended into the black void of nothingness I knew all too well. The next morning, I awoke in a friend’s living room before dragging myself back home on a two-hour bus with a hangover great enough to make the devil weep. I was still alive though and looking forward to returning to my lair of solitude where I belonged locked up alone with my own terrible madness.

After that occasion, I realised that there simply was just no way back to that farm of social normality. I had jumped the fence and got lost in the woods of madness with no chance of ever returning back. I was no longer one of the regular humans capable of being considered an upstanding, accepted member of society. With this in mind, I sat in silent solitude and decided that the only thing left to do was to abandon myself recklessly to the one thing that set my soul on fire: writing. Writing, writing, writing. If human society was the army of zombies closing in on me, then writing was my way of fighting them all off – my way of blasting away the darkness and keeping that flame of joy flickering bright in my heart. I opened up my laptop and stared at that familiar blank page. I lifted my hands and rode into war once more with words as weapons to fight my battles. My fingertips fought for freedom. For life. For sanity. For my own alien spirit.

In the meanwhile, life went on as it normally did. I worked those low-paying, menial jobs while staring into space and daydreaming about things to write down whenever I got home. As soon as I finished work each day, I marched through those concrete streets toward the keyboard to pour my thoughts onto the page. It had all become some sort of private religion of madness. Writing was the only thing I truly understood in my heart – it was the only time I felt at home when my fingertips hovered over those grubby keyboard keys. As human society buzzed on outside my window, I just sat alone in my room and wrote and wrote my way into oblivion. Other than that, I didn’t know where the hell I was going or what I was doing. I was at the point where I didn’t even care anymore. I was out of the farm of sanity, over the fences of normality, running with the wild horses barefoot and bewitched into the woods of madness. As planet earth continued rotating its way through an infinite universe, I just sat alone in my apartment incessantly hitting those keyboard keys, listening to ambient music, dreaming of exploring distant star systems, chained down to the earth by gravity and government – writing words and smiling to myself in the dark while sitting back and knowing that life was absurd.

Life was totally and beautifully: absurd.

the fighter

 

short stories

~ Natural Decay ~

~ Natural Decay ~

I was back home in England, it was a spring morning and I awoke with a rare sense of optimism for the day ahead. The sun was shining through the window, the flowers and trees were in bloom, and the sound of playing children could be heard from the street below. I went out to my apartment balcony and breathed in that air of new life. Ah yes, what a glorious day it was to be alive, I noted to myself. I then went to the toilet to take a piss. As I went about my business, I stood there and stared into the mirror. A little baggage under the eyes, but all in all not too bad. It was after a second or two that I saw it. I leaned it a little closer to make sure it wasn’t a trick of the lighting or something. But no – there it was. No way of avoiding it. In all its horror and terror and consternation: my first ever grey hair

    I took a sharp step back and began to process the situation. I then retreated to my room where I sat on my bed and stared into space, thinking about the gravity of it all. Twenty six – twenty bloody six and already past my best. I thought I was at the height of my youth and strength, but clearly I was already over the hill, on the downward descent into the abyss of death and darkness which eventually enveloped us all. The cosmic tides had turned and suddenly, in a matter of mere minutes, a light spring morning had given way to a dark winter night.

     While I contemplated my own mortality, I looked around at my room. I looked around at the walls and the clothes and the furniture. There was just simply no avoiding it. No matter what it was, eventually it all began to decay and degrade and die. The stitching on your clothes. The wallpaper on the walls. The hairs on your head. The flesh on your bones. The paintwork on your car. The paperwork in your portfolio. It seemed we all walked through life trying to create and build and own things, but eventually it all was destroyed by the entropy of the universe which swept everything back into the state of nonexistence, leaving it as cosmic dust floating through the galaxies of the universe. Nothing escaped. The diamonds turned to dust. The skyscrapers turned to dust. Buckingham palace turned to dust. The Queen. Chuck Norris. Kim Jong Un. All of it but transient waves in the great cosmic ocean of eternity.

    In the wake of this conflicting realisation, I gradually began to feel some sort of existential crisis sweep over me. Twenty bloody six, I repeated to myself. Twenty six and already starting to visibly decay. What next? Aching joints? Dementia? A hernia? A sudden liking for the sport of golf? 

     The horror of vividly facing my own mortality for the first time followed me everywhere. Everywhere I looked, I couldn’t help but witness the slow withering away of life before me. I was working in a bar at the time and it was one of those cheap dives where you could get drunk off a tenner. Because of this it attracted pensioners who had nothing better to do but to sit alone in silence, read the newspaper and drink themselves slowly and solemnly toward death. I watched as some men staggered up to the bar, hunch-back and frail, still fighting their fight to have just one more drink before they finally hit the canvas for good. A few of the guys who worked there called it ‘god’s waiting room’. And what a depressing waiting room it was. Full of weary-eyed souls who had worked hard and toiled away all their adult lives; now they were finally retired and able to enjoy their free time, but what good was that when you were too decrypted to go anywhere or do anything? What good was that when your beer belly left you slumped into a seat of submission? As I worked, I couldn’t help but let myself stare at them and think of my own future. Was that to be my fate in old age? Was that what awaited me after working all my life? If so, I should have been making the most of my life now! After all, I was just coming past the prime of my youth and yet, what was I currently doing in my life? Waving goodbye to my prime years while living alone in a dingy apartment, no friends or lover, and serving pints to people drinking themselves to death while daydreaming my life away as I stared emptily into time and space.

     Okay, maybe I was being a little dramatic on my part. All in all, my life wasn’t a total disaster, I suppose. By most people’s standards, I had had a lot of adventure for my years. I had travelled in many countries, climbed mountains, watched volcanoes erupt, had romances with exotic girls, got drunk on beautiful beaches under the light of the stars and full moon. I had even been the first person in my family to go to university (not that my degree had done me any good on the job front, evidently). Still, all of that just wasn’t enough for my restless soul. Though I had done those things, I hadn’t written any of my books; I hadn’t created something that would make me remembered for the next generations; I hadn’t even truly experienced a proper relationship. I had somehow gotten to this age without ever having an actual girlfriend. Clearly I still had so much left to do and see and explore, and time was ticking relentlessly on and on, making me the oldest I’d ever been every single day as I slowly lost my looks and strength and sanity and breath.

      Eventually the horror of it all became too much and I started looking into different philosophies to see if any of them could quell my existential dread. Doctrines like Zen Buddhism, Hinduism and Pantheism seemed to all have some good stuff, suggesting things like the universe being a playing of one great energy, a single divinity where we were all the godhead playing with itself in many different shapes and forms over and over again. We never died, for this energy was eternal, and it could never be destroyed but only change shape into something else. Only our ‘ego’ died, but this was just a hallucination of the mind anyway. Overall it was a nice theory which quelled my dread for a while as I retreated into monk mode, meditating hours each day, gradually feeling detached from everything as an expression of universal energy that was eternal and infinite as the cosmos itself.

      This worked well but after a while the sirens in my mind started wailing out again. Facing those morning mirrors of realisation, I saw the sinister hand of death leaving further marks and blemishes upon me. One day I discovered a couple more grey hairs on my head. On top of this, the wrinkles on my skin seemed to become more visible week by week. Even going out to bars, I realised I was now older than the majority of people around me. To round it all off, my hangovers now lasted two days instead of one. Yes, there was just no way around it. All of a sudden I had gotten old, just like the psychedelic philosophers Pink Floyd had warned me:

“Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain.

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.

No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking

Racing around to come up behind you again.

The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,

Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

     Roger Waters had written it correct. Time just passed us by with every year feeling shorter than the last, until whole years and decades seemed to have disappeared in the blink of an eye, leaving you sitting on sofas in suburban homes and staring idly into space, wondering where the hell the time all went. Thinking about that while looking out at those weary-eyed pensioners at work, I decided I still had so much to do. I wanted to see the world more than ever, to climb the mountains and spar face to face with the rugged face of life itself. I wanted to have great love affairs. I wanted to write the greatest poetry of my generation. I wanted it all and I wanted it now! 

     Yes, it was safe to say that I couldn’t ignore that restless desire to live my life to the full, so in the end I abandoned any doctrines or philosophies that gave me peace and decided to rage against the dying of the light, just as the poet Dylan Thomas had once pleaded to his dying father. To me it seemed the only way to deal with getting old. How else did a man or woman realistically face their own mortality? How else did we face the fact that eventually everything we ever felt and did would be lost forever in space and time? I guess for many people that was the beauty of life – its transient nature. Like footprints in wet sand, our lives were so fleeting and fragile – temporary cosmic patterns which eventually succumbed to the tides of transience as they were swept back into the ocean of eternity. And that’s what made it all so beautiful for some people. Just like with my travelling adventures, it was bittersweet and pretty because everything that happened on the road eventually disappeared into the hazy mists of the past as you stood reminiscing about your adventures while pouring pints in a grotty bar back in your home country.

      Reflecting further back on my travels while pouring those pints and contemplating my own mortality, I recalled my time in Rio de Janeiro. In particular, I remembered two middle-aged men I had met there, both of them of different stances about their individual descent towards death and darkness. One was a forty five year old Greek guy. I had met him in my hostel on Christmas day while drinking Caipirinhas in the reception. We ended up heading down to the beach together to drink some beers and soak in the sun. As we sat and stared out at the blue Atlantic ocean, I listened to the tales of his life. He spoke about how we shouldn’t be burdened by our age, of how it was never too old to travel and try something new. He had just about done it all it seemed: the travelling, the marriage, the divorce, the jobs, the alcoholism. And now, after just leaving everything behind, he was here looking to open a hostel and start a new life in Brazil. 

     “Age is just a number. Of course, it’s a cliche, but it’s true. Don’t worry my friend, you can keep travelling and living the life you want to live no matter what your age. Look at me, I’m proof of that. I was travelling at your age, went home and settled down for some years, and now I’m picking up the backpack again and venturing back out into the world. There is enough time for all of us. Don’t pay so much attention to a simple number.”

      “That’s a nice way to look at it,” I said. “But is there any part of you that regrets you didn’t carry on travelling and living this life while you were still young? You know it’s a different experience at my age, isn’t it?”

      “Not at all,” he said. “There is so much to experience in life and it can all be enjoyed at any age. Take your time. Don’t rush. Whatever is coming to you, will come. Don’t think because you are young you have to do all the adventurous stuff now. Hell, I have met people who went travelling for the first time in their 50s and 60s. Just do what feels right in your heart and don’t worry about doing certain things at certain ages.” 

     I respected his confidence and laid back attitude to age and life. I also respected that he hadn’t let the fact of getting old give up on his dream of opening a hostel. Like he said, there was enough time for all of us, so why rush? Why force things? We could still keep our youthful nature and hunger as the years passed us by. Age was just a number after all, even the grey hairs and wrinkles tried to convince you otherwise.

     It was just two days later I came across a Swedish guy who made me think a little differently. He was more or less the same age as the Greek guy. He seemed like a normal traveller at first, a little shy if anything, but after chatting about life over a few beers at the hostel bar, he started spilling his pain and fear and frustration at his aging flesh and bones.

      “Yeah you know, you are young,” he told me in a bitter tone. “Only twenty-two. You have lots of time to travel and see the world, but when you get to my age it’s not so easy. This is my last trip. I can feel my body wants to have children before it is too late. I want to be settled. I need to find a woman. It is time for me to have children. I can’t resist this urge. I need to find myself a woman.”

     I found his directness about his reproductive desires a little strange to say the least, especially considering that I had only just met him, but I got into the swing of it and entertained his madness. As he drank more beer, his despair and desperation poured out of him to the point where it was awkward for everyone else in the group of backpackers that were also drinking at the bar. No matter what the conversation was about, he somehow turned it back to his age and his broodiness. It made me sad and got me thinking about how I didn’t want to end up like that man, being sent insane by my age as the clock ticked relentlessly on before your eyes. If you really wanted to do something in life, then you needed to get it done before that time ran out and left you in a constant state of panic and anxiety and inner conflict.

     Being forty and having regrets was one thing, but at the extreme end of the scale were the elderly people who were now no longer even physically capable of doing anything about their regrets. In particular I thought of my seventy-year old uncle who I had bumped into walking down a street in my hometown the Christmas before. After saying hello, we started catching up and chatting about life. Eventually I told him all about my travels out in the world from the last years. As I did, I could see a look of bewitched curiosity in his eye, but also one of slight sadness. He went on to tell me how he wished he could do all of that stuff now, and how he should have done it when he was young, but now he was too old and living in an old people’s village which he didn’t sound particularly fond about. “Good on you kid,” he told me. “Go out and do it while you’re young. Retirement is not all it’s cracked up to be, you know. I wish I could do what you’re doing instead.” He patted me on the shoulder, gave a smile and then stumbled off down the street back to his retirement village, leaving me feeling a bit sad about the whole thing to be honest.

     That encounter stuck with me and made me think about how many souls were out there drifting through life, passively letting the years slip them by while idly just doing what was safe and expected of them by peers and parents and colleagues. You heard it all the time: people on their deathbed wishing they had done more, been a little braver, not worked so much, not tried to please everyone else but to follow their heart and trust their own voice through the wilderness of life. Remembering that conversation with my uncle, and the broody Swedish man, I felt that my mind was made up even more than ever that I was going to put the pedal down a little further and experience life at full velocity. Working at that depressing bar in the meanwhile, I made sure to retreat home and get to work on my books as much as possible. I made sure to keep planning my next adventures, to go running in the rain and tell people the things I felt in my heart. I made sure to walk out onto the shores of life and experience its storm full force so that I could soak in every last moment of what it was to exist as a sentient organism, riding a rotating rock of jungles, mountains, rivers and oceans through an infinite universe.

    Ultimately, I guess this insatiable desire to experience life to the max was one of the main reasons I lived my life like I did. At my core, I couldn’t accept the snail’s pace existence of everyday civilian life. I couldn’t accept the monotonous routine, the television culture, the shopping malls, the small-talk, repetitive tasks, and mundane expectations that took the light from your eye and the fire from your spirit. It all seemed like some sort of big joke to me. You didn’t exist for eternity, and yet here you were: a quick flash of existence before disappearing again forever, yet some people used this to plod along through life, burying their inner desires, working all their lives at a job they didn’t like just to come home and sit in front of a virtual reproduction of life until they went to sleep. Then they would use the money they gave their time up for to buy stuff they really didn’t need. To top it off, some people’s greatest dream was to become the head of their work department and boss around a few bored people in a dusty office room. Sometimes it all seemed like a great big comedy act, as outrageous and absurd to me as human existence itself.

     Well personally I tip my philosopher’s cap and say: fuck it to all of it. Life is not a rehearsal or a warm up act. It is not some show on television that can be replayed and re-watched at a later date. No, this is it: the real thing, here and now – the cinematic experience of your precious one life in vivid colour. You don’t let this weird and wonderful gift slip you by as you slowly decay away, but you go out and you make your stand. You walk wide-eyed into the wilderness. You let the adventures become scratched into your skin and the sunsets seared into your soul. You let yourself explore your inner and outer worlds to the full. You let yourself be free. You let yourself be alive!

     Yes, feeling that angst for existence in my bones, I thought of that grey hair on my head, of the men drinking themselves to death in dank bars, of my uncle in the old people’s home, of the man in Rio terrified at the of his own ageing flesh and bones. Every last cell of me wanted to rage and rebel against it all. And in the end, that’s exactly what I did. This is why I’m writing this book, I guess. Maybe these words will live on after I die, and I’ll have found a way to somehow keep myself alive in the hearts of others. But most likely these words will be read by a tiny amount of people, and then forgotten. Just like me. Just like you. Just like everyone else eventually.

     Oh well, what else can a man do to escape his own fleeting mediocre existence? Where else can he turn to to stop himself being consumed by the ravages of time and decay? Reckless rebellion, that’s what! Well this is me sticking a middle finger up to death and darkness and the inevitable descent into old age that awaits us all. Time may break me down, the hairs on my head may grey, and the skin may wrinkle, but I will keep on hunting those horizons. I will keep on writing these books, climbing those mountains, travelling the world with eyes full of fire and a mind full of madness. I will keep on fighting the good fight with all my heart and might and blood and guts. The grey hairs can get wither away and die slowly, but this fire inside will keep blazing as the darkness approaches. I guess at my core I’m just too stubborn to go into that good night without a little resistance. Without a little fight. 

Without a little rage against the dying of the light.

man walking toward sun.jpeg

short stories

~ A World Not Made For Lovers ~

~ A World Not Made For Lovers ~

Her hazel eyes dimmed with a sadness. There was a heaviness in them which pulled them down to the ground. There was the light of love still in there somewhere, but it had been suppressed down to the tiniest flicker in the vast darkness that enveloped every horizon of her inner universe. Like most lovers in this tortured world, she sat alone in silence and stared emptily into space, confused at the situation of existence before her. She knew deep down a sensitive soul like hers didn’t belong in this society of cruelty and trickery. She wanted affection but got rejection; she wanted passion but got apathy; she wanted to fly but was tethered down by the concrete gravity of reality. In her heart she felt betrayed that the gods had left her stranded in this environment. Her cards had been dealt and now, like a little bird in a cage, she flapped around hopelessly within her confines, aching inside to return to the place where her spirit belonged soaring free.

      We had met recently out on the road and now by circumstance I found myself with her in the Netherlands. A Spanish girl in Amsterdam, Sara, away from home, trying to get by and make her way out in foreign lands, but stuck in a struggle I knew all too well. “The people are cold here” she told me. “They are like robots. The men just fuck you and then stop speaking to you. I can’t make any friends. People put up barriers if they don’t know you already. Honestly, I have no idea what I am doing here.” She carried on spilling her pain and frustration, talking about her ex and her past failures in relationships. “I am broken but everyone is broken after a while, you just have to keep looking and find the person who is less broken than you are.” 

     Her words struck a chord with me and naturally it felt good to be around a fellow scratched and scarred soul. We continued sharing our thoughts about life as we roamed around Amsterdam, spending our time drinking in the cafes and bars, strolling down the canals and checking out the sights of the capital. At one point we walked around a museum and talked about life and travel and relationships. We looked at Van Gogh’s paintings – another lover driven to madness and isolation by the weight of the world. In his self-portraits you could sense his simultaneous love and despair for the human condition. Speaking to Sara while viewing the paintings, I stared into her eyes and saw that same tortured look. I saw that little bird inside longing to be free, to be loved and to belong to someone or something. I had seen it before in the most beautiful of souls I had come across out there on the road. It seemed that if you walked this world with an open heart, you were sure to suffer more than the average person. If you truly loved without a filter than people didn’t know what to do; often the other sex saw it as a weakness and inevitably you were left heart-broken and dejected. I thought of Van Gogh cutting off his ear giving it to a woman to show his love. Admittedly cutting off body parts was perhaps a little extreme but, like Van and Sara, whenever I fell for someone, I went in with all my heart and was inevitably left shunned. Ironically I was here with her but had recently fallen for another girl who had rejected me, and now I had only added to her misery by misleading her. I was also part of the problem. But I had my own problems too. We were both drowning in our own individual way.

     When I really thought about it, it seemed that it wasn’t just relationships where the ones who loved without a filter suffered. It was life and society in general. The more open-hearted you were, the more you were beaten and broken down by the nature of humanity. I couldn’t make sense of it. I looked out at the world around me and saw a brutal and backwards system. It was a place where the cruel and cold-hearted rose to the top. A place where sociopaths and narcissists flourished while the most caring and thoughtful were trampled underfoot. A strange game was being played and the people who were usually the winners were the ones with the fake smiles, the smooth lies and a cold, calculating nature. To be sensitive and caring was considered a weakness in this society. It wasn’t good for the economy. It wasn’t good for survival. It wasn’t good for business or strategy. The best rewards were for the merciless and uncompromising. Dog eat dog, as they said. Every man and woman and child for themselves.

    Meanwhile, those who loved with reckless abandon didn’t make it. They lingered in the solitary shadows and sidelines. The lovers. The dreamers. The idealists. The poets. The INFPs. Often this world didn’t know what to do with them. So many of them were cast out, shunned, neglected, or misunderstood. In the worst cases they were gunned down by the fear and hatred of humanity. John Lennon. Martin Luther King. Gandhi. Malcolm X. JFK. Abraham Lincoln. Aside from them you also had the sensitive and artistic souls driven to suicide or early death by the crushing weight of it all. Kurt Cobain. Hemingway. Winehouse. Kerouac. Ledger. Sylvia Path. Robin Williams. For such people to survive in this world, they needed to put up walls and toughen themselves up. But so many of them were clearly unable to do that, and consequently they were left burdened by feeling too much in an uncaring and hostile world, slowly being driven to death and destruction and alcohol and madness.

     Yeah, no matter how you looked at it, it was a world not made for lovers and I guess, like Sara, I knew opening my heart up to it would also leave me tortured, sitting alone and staring into space, confused at the situation of existence before me. But I didn’t really know what else to do. I was a man ruled mercilessly by his own heart. With child-like curiosity I explored the world around me. I tenaciously followed my passions. I lived fiercely according to my ideals. I loved without a filter. I expressed myself from my heart and soul. I thought these things would be good qualities in life but so far it had only made my life extremely difficult. People abused my kind nature. Speaking from my heart often caused people to distance themselves from me. My authenticity didn’t give me acceptance. My ideals and passions were not compatible with society. I guess I had the ability to stop being this way, but a part of me refused to let the essence of myself be diluted down by the hostile environment I had found myself in. 

     “You need to stop being so sensitive and ruled by your emotions.” 

     “Man up.”

     “Learn to play the game like everyone else.”

     I’d heard it all before just like the others had, but by now I knew I wasn’t going to change. Speaking to Sara as we strolled around Amsterdam, I was reminded how much better the world was when you had those sort of people around you. Just a day or two in her company and suddenly my faith in humanity returned. Suddenly the streets of society didn’t all seem to be doom and gloom with people like her somewhere out there. As long as you just came across a few pure-hearted people every year, it restored something in you; it relinquished the dread inside of you of your own species. Normally those lovers were the most troubled people, but in my eyes they were the most courageous, the most beautiful, the most precious. They were the ones who reminded you that there was still some hope left. The ones who reminded you that humanity wasn’t totally doomed. The ones who reminded you that there was still a chance to find some gentleness in the craziness of this world. 

    To the lovers out there fighting on in this world where so many cold-hearted creatures and demons run amok, don’t let yourself be swallowed up by the storm. Keep the flowers growing in your heart; keep the doves flying in your mind; keep the sun shining in your soul. Sara, little bird, if you are reading this, I hope you find your happiness and learn to smile a little more. Don’t let the weight of this concrete world grind you down. Don’t let yourself be broken down by those hollow-hearted and empty-eyed creatures. Keep your heart kind; keep your soul pure; keep loving fearlessly without a filter. When all is said and done, it’s the people like you that keep the soul of humanity alive.

short stories

~ The Way of the Wanderer ~

~ The Way of the Wanderer ~

It was month six of being back in the routine of normal life. I was on the south coast of England in Brighton, working in a pub down by the marina. It was a typical bar job, only it left me even more wistful-eyed than usual having to spend my spare moments gazing out the window at the ocean while dreaming of sailing off somewhere out into the great unknown. Outside that glass sat dozens of boats lined up in the harbour, bobbing side to side in the water, their sails flapping in the wind – those pieces of cloth eagerly twitching to once again feel the airs of freedom and adventure they were born to catch. In between pouring drinks and half-heartedly participating in small-talk with customers and fellow workers, I cast my gaze out to those waters while feeling the allure that only the bohemian soul feels each time they see those sails flapping in the wind, or a bird take off from a ship’s mast, or even something as simple as a singular raindrop swoop and swerve its way down the window glass. This yearning for freedom was only exacerbated by having to serve the group of fishermen who did a few hours graft out on the boats every morning, only to arrive in the bar midday to sit around a table and knock back copious amounts of ale. While I toiled away, they sat around jovially conversing and joking of the morning’s exploits out at sea. To me they seemed like men who had figured life out: a way to get the job done, taste the fresh air of life and get back to conversing around the tables of life, drunk, messy-haired and wild-eyed. Perhaps I was staring into my own distant gypsy future I thought, forty years of chaos and survival down the line, living on a scraggy old boat, still bobbing side to side through life’s waters at the mercy of the current of my own restless heart. It was a nice thought to entertain myself with. Other than those guys were some weary-eyed pensioners who sat in dark corners alone silently drinking themselves to sleep. The thought hit me whether they had spent their entire lives on the grind just to afford the privilege of drinking themselves slowly and solemnly toward death. I looked side to side from the alcoholic fishermen to just the standard alcoholic. As always with my extensive daily ethnography of the human race, it was hard to say exactly for sure which life was the one that had been lived well in complete certainty.

There was one thing I still felt certain about in my flesh and bones: a man wasn’t made to endure an entire life of relentless workplace bullshit only to descend toward death in a dark and depressing manner. Of course, not all jobs out there were like this – seemingly just the vast majority (which naturally included my low-skilled job). It had been increasing in absurdity as the last weeks had gone by and it was right about when my power-crazed supervisor was belittling me for pouring a couple milliliters over on a whiskey and coke that I made the conscious decision to quit. Having someone scrunch their face and speak down to you about something so trivial in order to make herself feel important was enough to make up my mind. Often in these jobs one had to deal with such souls – bitter souls, vengeful souls, spiteful souls – and there was only so much I could endure of the professional human-being before the deluge of absurdity caused me to crave the sweet release of the wild. I had been thinking about walking El Camino de Santiago through Spain for a while, so naturally it seemed like the next trip now that I had decided to pack my bags yet again. Summer had just begun and my skin awaited to feel the rays of the Spanish sunshine while wandering freely across an entire country. It wasn’t long before the final decision was made. I handed in that old and familiar notice and left the bar and scowling supervisors alone once again in that world I was destined to never understand or belong to or even tolerate for any considerable period of time.

Two weeks later I touched down in the French Pyrenees in a city called Bayonne. From there I would travel to the town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to begin the 500-mile hike across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. The route was traditionally an ancient Christian pilgrimage where lone wanderers would slowly and surely make their way across an entire country to achieve some sort of religious salvation. Nowadays the hike was completed by all sorts of lost, nomadic souls in search for something that would alleviate the pain of what it was to exist as a human-being in a seemingly meaningless universe. That had been part of the reason the trek had appealed to me. Being back in the neighbourhoods of normality always numbed my flesh and bones with a sense of sadness. Life just lost its magic when you were surrounded by sensible people content in their own lives of structure and sanity. Predictability and order were the slaughterhouses of the soul. I felt a greater thrill when I was surrounded by the desperate and deranged, the crazed and wild – the misfits and outcasts who threw their lives into a flimsy backpack and walked solo across an entire country just because something deep inside possessed them to get totally lost in the mystery of the unknown.

I couldn’t have gotten off to a better start meeting cockney Pete straight off the plane – an eccentric, bald-headed, retired army soldier with no home or plot or next of kin. He was a person who walked the Camino again and again simply because there was no other place for someone like him left in human society to reside. This time was number three of the year and number thirty-one in total. The man had walked so much the blisters were permanently marked into his mind as well as his feet. Hearing him speak, it was clear to me that he was a scratched and scarred soul, and naturally my alien flesh felt an affinity to such a being.

Having had him befriend me and a young Danish guy at the airport, we all walked together in the rain through the town of Bayonne toward the train station to try and catch the last train to St-Jean. Pete led the way marching through the streets while giving us a briefing on the journey that awaited us. With an erratic nature and a childlike sense of awe, he shared tales of the classic pilgrimage and basically told us how we weren’t cut out for it and that we should just go home.

“Lads what you gotta understand is that this isn’t your usual holiday. I hope you didn’t come here to piss around. If your heart isn’t set on it then just turn around and get back on that plane right now. I’ve walked this walk over thirty times now and I see people like you all the time starting this walk, thinking it’s a breeze, a booze-up – a walk in the park. Let me tell you right now, it’s not what you think. This journey – it’s a mental one as well as a physical one. Be prepared for the unexpected. Out there on that trail you have a lot of time to yourself and a lot of people aren’t ready for the things they have to face and deal with in their own minds. Especially in the Mesetta part of the walk; it’s a long stretch of nothingness and I’ve seen people break down and quit.” He kept wiping his bald head dry with a cloth while he briefed us, still clearly thinking he was in the army. “Did you see those two other English guys who were on the plane? Tourists. Tourists the both of them. I can see how they walk, how they dress – how they speak. Did you see that little guidebook they had? They will turn around and be heading home before the end of the second week. I’ve walked this walk over thirty times now, so I know what I’m talking about. Thirty times. Over thirty times I’ve walked the Camino now.”

Pete was delightfully mental. Already just off the plane the trip was well and truly off to the start I had hoped for. The scripted small-talk conversations about jobs and studies were a long way away now. I was back in foreign lands, walking in the rain with a deranged and wild soul, on the precipice of it all: sanity and society – joy and despair. He invited us to stay in a hotel with him in Bayonne, but I wanted to get to St-Jean so me and the Danish guy left him to it, at which point he got offended and stormed off into the rain. I knew I would see him again, so I didn’t get too sad about the whole situation. Someone that crazy was good to have around for small periods of time only, and I hadn’t quite gauged to what degree of insanity he was operating at just yet. I liked him but I didn’t really fancy waking up in a hotel room in a foreign town with a knife to my throat just a few hours after landing. The descent into chaos needed to be gradual at times – the breakdown piece by piece, rather than the entire engine exploding in your face as soon as you turned the ignition key.

The next day I got started on the walk, making my way over the last batch of hills in the Pyrenees before dropping down onto the plains of Northern Spain. It was a short and rainy stop in France and now I was in the lands where I could practice the awful Spanish I had picked up on a couple of trips in South and Central America. At the end of the day I emerged from a wooded trail and arrived in my first ‘Alberge’ – army-like barracks where all the wandering Camino souls lined themselves up to eat, drink and try to sleep after a long day on the trail.

The first one I stayed in was an old converted cathedral which could give shelter to almost two-hundred people. Looking at the sea of faces, it was clear that the walk attracted a diverse group of people of all shapes, sizes, religions and bizarre personalities. From young South Koreans walking to put it on their resume, to recently divorced Italians, to old married Ecuadorian couples, to attractive young Europeans, to the usual midlife crisis crowd – it was an eclectic pick and mix of modern-day pilgrims trudging their way slowly towards the shores of some distant destiny. In the evening we all sat around tables eating ‘el menu del dia’ while talking about life and travel and anything else in between. As always, the randomness of it made me feel good; it made me feel relaxed to be sat in circles of other people also drifting aimlessly through the great wilderness of life. Listening to them all, it was clear that they were people of different forms, of different experiences – of different confusions and delusions about life.

In the first days I walked the trail with a Croatian, an American, a Danish guy and, of course, Pete who continually appeared on the trail chatting the head off some slightly concerned stranger before shifting to another. Everyone on the trail knew who he was by the end of the first few days. He was known as ‘Camino Pete’ – the man who walked the trail again and again simply because there was no other home for him other than the rugged, dusty path of the Camino. I gradually began to learn that his life was even more chaotic than I imagined after recently losing the last member of his family, his brother, when he was killed by American friendly fire in Afghanistan. It made sense why the man wandered perpetually like he did. His life may have been chaotic, but it made me feel good knowing that there was someone like him out there relentlessly hunting the horizon for some sort of personal salvation and liberation. The more I spoke to him and watched him talk the head off of strangers, the more I realised this ‘something’ was probably a wife – a fellow soul to spend the rest of his days with in a more peaceful way than the absolute anarchy that had been the last years and decades of his life. Again, I sympathised with Pete; often I stared into the pretty eyes of passing women in the streets thinking they could save me from this life of chaos I had drifted towards. It is true that many a good man has been driven to death and madness by the lack of a woman’s love. Camino Pete just needed his break, like we all did.

Besides him I gradually began to learn why so many other pilgrims walked this path. Conversations were had with many walking besides little streams, wooded pathways, old cobbled lanes, golden fields of wheat, or sat around restaurant tables sipping wine on some street corner in a small town in the middle of nowhere. As usual with solo travelling, the social mask was off and people were more willing to speak from the heart when they were far from home surrounded by people they may never see again. This led to moments where I was walking alone on the trail only to find myself five minutes later listening to a complete stranger’s life story like I was some sort of therapist. Like I had noticed before in my life, my receptive, introverted personality attracted many people who wanted to vent the storms and thunder that raged inside their skulls. Maybe I was destined to become an actual therapist, I considered at one point. The idea of people confiding in someone like me was enough to shake my head in utter confusion and bewilderment. Didn’t they know I was on the edge like the rest of them? That I was also just a short way away from drowning totally?

Still I thought I’d give it go anyway, test the waters and see what desperation and madness was stirring within the skulls of my fellow pilgrims. Speaking to those first people I met on the trail, I found out that the Croatian walked because he was a Christian at a point in his life where he needed to decide where to take his career in dentistry – a decision that possibly involved him moving to my home country: the U.K. The Danish guy walked because he had just left his job and didn’t know where to go next on the road of life other than the fact his Chinese girlfriend was still studying in Denmark. The American guy walked because he could – a modern nomad who made money from renting out a couple of apartments in New York (although I suspected he too was searching for a girlfriend). Other than that, some people simply walked for leisure, including myself I thought. The people asked me if I had a reason to walk, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt that I just simply walked to walk. There was an equilibrium about this way of life which made far more sense to me that the conventions and traditions of my society. Putting a backpack on my shoulders and just moving forward in the present moment from town to town gave me a sort of monk-like contentment that could not be found in the things I considered trivial and frivolous back home. Job promotions, cultural box-ticking, mortgages, cars, material goods, the weekend, public holidays, television soaps and sitcoms – all of it just confused me to the core. Nothing about it excited me and made me feel alive in any way. More noble – more fulfilling – was this bohemian life out on the trial, speaking to people about life, living hour to hour, day to day, meal to meal. Perhaps I was fooling myself again though – something I definitely had been guilty of in the past. I’d go from thinking I’ve discovered the secret of life to being sat in a bar feeling hopelessly lost. On one particular occasion after the first week, I sat having a drink with a Belgian family watching the world cup football while awkwardly trying to justify my nomadic lifestyle to them. The parents were both teachers and were walking with their young son and daughter during the summer holidays. I’d look at them and ask myself whether I wanted what they had. Did I want that life? A life of family? Of career? Of stability and security and suburban sanity? Certainly, they seemed happier than I was on the surface of things, but I knew that that sort of predictable life would probably drive me to a high-story ledge eventually. As always, I grabbed my backpack and carried on walking wide-eyed into the unknown.

The journey went on as the weeks and miles passed by through the plains of Northern Spain. Each day I awoke after a bad night’s sleep in a crowded dormitory, chucked my clothes into my dusty backpack, grabbed some light breakfast, rubbed my eyes and let the soles of my shoes hit the trail once again. It amused me that I didn’t even have a map for the whole operation; I was totally reliant on these little bits of yellow paint that lay on the sides of rocks, street signs and dilapidated old buildings. Like with so much of my life, there was no set plan and I felt strangely at home in that unknown. Often, I wished life was as simple and peaceful as the trail life. Just following that yellow paint through a country left my mind in a meditative state, only stopping for paella and red wine and moments gazing out at pretty landscapes. The fields and quiet little towns I passed through allowed me to drift off into my own little world, and I spent time sitting wistful eyed in cafes, staring out and observing the settled lives of the residents there. After a long day’s walking I would sit back and watch swallows fly in sunset skies as I sipped my coffee in a hazy state of mind, scribbling some poetry and short stories into a wrinkled notebook. Soon I forgot about my everything else outside the Camino. The trek began to feel like a small lifetime, and the process and stages emotions of the walk encapsulated this. Sometimes I walked in a group; sometimes I walked alone. Sometimes I experienced joy; sometimes I experienced sadness. Sometimes I felt lost; sometimes I felt found.

If the Camino was a little snapshot version of life itself, then it was only natural that some female came along at some point to steal your heart and leave you confused. The moment came in the middle of the day as she stood there like an apparition, a fleeting mirage in the midsummer heat. There a little further down the trail I watched her blonde hair blowing in the breeze and tanned skin shining in the sun. The path had presented me with many things so far and now it had presented me with a goddess here to destroy me. Naturally I knew I didn’t have much of a chance with such a creature. The gods had cursed me by offering me conventional good looks, but also by leaving me with a strange, unrelatable personality that left most girls running for the hills like scared deer when they saw what really lurked beneath the superficial surface. They got lured in but the second I opened my mouth I could see them mentally packing their bags and bidding me goodbye with a confused and disappointed look in their eyes. I knew it was a hopeless task, but still I figured I’d get speaking to her anyway to see what exactly had driven her to walk the Camino.

Sharing some red wine around a table in a courtyard of an Alberge that evening, we spoke about life and travel and everything in between. Unbelievably the conversation went extremely well. It turned out that she was a twenty-four-year-old student from Denmark, studying theology and religious studies while working in a homeless shelter. Her name was Laura and she was a lover of philosophy, astrology and anything that involved mystery, magic and a little bit of hippy madness. Despite her model good looks, she was uncorrupted at her core and still remained a bit of gypsy spirit unafraid to pick up bits of dirty string from the road to use as bracelets, or bite her nails, or pop the blisters on the feet of other hikers. Trying and failing not to be lost in her raw beauty, I carried on sharing my mind with her while she let me peer a bit deeper into hers. It appeared, like a lot of Camino wanderers, she too wasn’t quite sure what she was searching for or even doing in this thing called life.

“Yeah I don’t really have any idea what I want to do in life,” she said. “Like you I would like to travel half the year and then work the other, maybe in a non-governmental organisation – a charity abroad or something. I don’t think I want a settled life, but I’m not sure. I don’t know.”

I emphasised with her lack of certainty about her direction. Like me she was also in her mid-twenties which meant her mind was feeling the effects of over two decades of cultural conditioning. The expectations to conform to the expectations and traditions of the older generations were at their peak in the twenties, especially as the end of education beckoned and ‘the real world’ awaited in all its stern-faced, cross-armed seriousness. The heavy hands of society, parents and teachers would fall on the quaking shoulders of young people standing at the crossroads of life, wondering what the hell they should do for the rest of their lives. I felt that after the age of thirty most of the pressure and tension was gone; if you weren’t part of the cultural machine by that point, people simply gave up and labelled you an outcast, hippy or simply crazy. Being the tender age of twenty-four and at her most vulnerable, her mind was no doubt full of noise about such choices in life. Still, she needn’t have worried too much I thought – a girl who looked like that was never going to have too much of a tough existence in this world. At least I imagined so anyway.

The next days we wandered together along the path talking relentlessly about anything and everything that lingered in the recesses of our skulls. There was a closeness between us that was altogether rare to experience with someone you had just met. By the end of the second day, we had told each other so many private things about ourselves that we never thought we’d share with another. I had even shared with her some of my writing which I had never done with anyone directly before. In between this we shared music with each other, sat and rested under the shade of trees, and enjoyed good coffee and ‘tortilla de patata’ in cafes – little bits of cake mashed together with potato, egg and cheese. Throughout all of this, I felt a strange sense of happiness and joy I was yet to experience throughout the grand journey of life. The thought hit me that it’s strange when you feel something that you haven’t felt before; especially in the third decade of your life. By then you imagine your brain has felt it all: the pain, the pleasure, the thrill, the desperation, the fear, the humiliation, the ecstasy, the anger – the crippling sense of loneliness that comes creeping up on you out of nowhere on a busy street corner. What could be left to feel? To taste? But it was true: there on that path with that girl I felt the world shine clear in a new colour alien to my eyes; I felt my flesh burn with a tingling sensation that made me feel strong enough to march against a thousand armies. The simple sight of her smile was enough to make me feel like I had arrived at the end of my Camino – that there was nothing left to strive for, to search for, to wander for.

But wander we did, on and on, over the hills, to every new town and every new sunset. New friends came and went as each horizon disappeared only to be replaced by another one beckoning me ever further forward.

Soon enough the inevitable happened and I awoke one day to find Laura’s bed empty. I had been up late drinking and by the time I awoke the whole Alberge was silent and deserted. Hungover and bleary-eyed, I grabbed by bag and started walking alone out on the trail. By then the crowds from the early stages of the walk had dispersed and it was sometimes an hour or so before I saw another soul on the trail. That day I walked alone expecting Laura to eventually come back into sight. Somewhere down on the trail she would appear again – her tanned skin shining in the sun and blonde hair blowing in the summer breeze like it had that day I was first saw her. But the miles and days drifted on and on, and it soon became clear that she had left my world as quickly as she had entered. I was not to see her again on this trip. The peace and contentment of sharing my path with a fellow soul I had searched for so long was gone. I felt a sinking feeling in my gut. I guess I knew she was a rare find. She was a person I had searched for back home in the eyes of strangers of streets, the eyes of strangers of trains – the eyes of strangers in bars and clubs and restaurants. Finally, I had found her out somewhere in Spain but now she was gone in a Camino instant.

And so back to wandering alone I went, spending the days drifting down the path, listening to some music and philosophy lectures on my phone, reading in hammocks, staring up into the sky and smiling at the immensity of it all. It was just me and my own madness as it had always been in my life, heading toward the horizon of the unknown, lost in the dream of existence while marvelling at the sights along the way. I missed Laura of course but I soon realised that this was how it was meant to be for someone like me. It was all I ever knew: the state of wandering alone; of moving through new lands; of observing and watching the world from behind the looking glass of my own eyes. In many ways this Camino business was probably the most natural thing I had done in my life.

Eventually I met some other pilgrims along the way and was back to my therapist ways. This included one of the more interesting characters I had met – Marti – a young eighteen-year-old from the U.K out on his first travel adventure. At first, he didn’t seem like someone I would have too much in common with, but I soon got close to him and learnt about his world. Coming from a rough neighbourhood, he had gotten involved with gangs back home until he eventually made the decision himself to remove himself from that scene and begin broadening his horizons. He had done this by moving to France where he had been working as a floor tiler, and now by taking time off from work to come and walk across Spain. The more I learned about him, the clearer it was that he had a tough time in the past – including the fact that he had never really known his parents and was raised instead by his uncle (and to a large degree himself). I could see the fire in his eyes begin to blaze when he spoke about such things. I knew he needn’t worry about his troubled past; the fact he was where he was now, doing what he was doing at such a young age, told me his fight was going to be a victorious one. His quest out in his wild had begun, at a much younger age than my personal quest, and I knew he’d be alright in the end.

Other than Marti came Monica. Monica was a twenty-eight-year-old nomad from the states, one of the ones somewhere down south in the desert. She was small in stature, but titanic in personality. One of the most extreme travellers I had ever met, her adventures had taken her to every continent of the world, to over three-thousand different rides from hitch-hiking, to fighting off Mexican truck drivers with a knife, to being a fire breather in the circus for three years – all the way to meeting a German guy in Guatemala and spontaneously hitchhiking to Vegas to get married. Her way of wandering was more like being blown around in a violent storm and it was clear that the thunder and lightning had left its mark in her crazed eyes. She was the most extroverted creature I had ever met, and although it was fun listening to her stories, I eventually found myself trying to get away from her just so my introverted mind could catch its breath. By just running her mouth she had a habit of pulling you into her own madness. I already had the mess of myself to deal with, and someone as wild as her was simply too exhausting to tolerate for any extended period of time. Still, I liked her, and eventually I learned that she was walking the Camino to come to terms with the fact that the guy she spontaneously married in Vegas had ended up moving back to Germany where he suddenly fell ill and passed away, effectively leaving her as a twenty eight year-old widow. She said she was walking just to walk, but I could see and hear in her voice that this was the real reason. Her way was a redemption; it was an understanding and coming to terms with the strange situation that had just befallen her. Eventually we parted ways and I carried on walking alone on the trail.

As I reached the green hills of Galicia and approached the end of the great pilgrim’s walk through Spain, I thought some more about all the weird and wonderful people I had met along the way and wondered why in the hell I was also out here drifting from town to town with no plans or ticket to even return home. Yes, it was true that I liked to walk just to walk, that it was own personal nirvana to be wandering freely through a country in the summer sun with just a backpack and the clothes on my back. But perhaps like some of the others I was fooling myself and there was something I was subconsciously searching for. Perhaps there was something gnawing at me inside after all. I kept expecting to have some great epiphany as I walked along the trail, or while I was sat in another cafe staring into the sky, or when I was swimming in a river after the end of another day. But sure enough, nothing came or arrived in my mind. The days went on and I eventually found myself stumbling into Santiago towards the finishing line. I had walked the five hundred miles across Spain, completed the ancient pilgrimage – another travel experience seared into my soul – and all I could do was stand underwhelmed in the cathedral square of Santiago and watch the other pilgrims congregate together and celebrate their personal journeys. Some cried, some posed for photos, some hugged, some sat alone and soaked in the atmosphere. I guess I was one of the latter, and I sat and stared expecting some great revelation to sweep over me, but nothing did. I was still another wanderer on his journey through the wilderness of life. I hadn’t found anything or been found myself. Despite the fleeting feeling of arrival I had felt with Laura, I was still just whipping around in the unrelenting winds of existence as ever – a relentless wanderer of life, sitting on steps and staring up into skies overcome by the wonder of it all. No finish. No end. No arrival. The road carried onward…

In the days and weeks that followed the Camino, I carried on travelling in Europe. For once I didn’t have such a burning desire to keep on living nomadically, but I also had no desire to go home and work at some job I had no interest in either. I still had enough money to keep on travelling and I decided to use it by travelling down the coast of Portugal with an American guy I had met on the Camino. We headed first to Porto and then onward to Lisbon. After this I flew to Budapest to party for a week. It was a strange period in my life and for the very first time, I felt tired and bored with the act of travelling. Uneasy with this feeling, I decided it was because I was now off the trail and travelling around conventionally with buses while staying in busy city hostels. With this thought in mind, I took a bus down to Slovenia to start a three-week hike there that would return me to the style of travel I had become accustomed to back in Spain.

Walking the first days on that hike, I soon came to realise and accept that I was still not feeling quite right. The hike itself was beautiful, but it was extremely isolated and all the mountain huts were closed. I had a little shelter with me I had picked up from a camping store which was far too small for my six-foot plus frame. At night I was cold, wet and miles away from another soul. I quickly began to see what I was doing was a bad and possibly dangerous idea. Still I kept on moving until one night when the sun had set and left me enveloped in the darkness of the thick forest. My head-torch had failed, and I used the last remaining battery on my phone to help me put up the shelter I had. With little room on the mountain side to place it, I settled for a damp patch of mossy turf. I erected the small nylon structure and then crawled inside like an insect trying to shelter from the night.

As I lay there gazing up at the starry sky, unable to sleep in the cold howling wind, I thought about my shambolic situation. Truly I was no longer where I was supposed to be: shivering in the night, tired and alone in a foreign country, fighting off spiders from crawling into my tent, hoping no wild animals would come across my momentary lair in the absolute middle of nowhere. Feeling hopelessly lost, I started playing over the whole Camino trip in my head. I thought of the places and faces along the road. I thought of all the little exchanges with other people. I thought of Pete, Laura, Marti, Monica and all those other wandering souls out there in the world making their way through life. Thinking about it all, I suddenly had the urge to write more than ever before. I remembered something Laura had said to me: “why don’t you write a book about your experiences and share how you feel.” I had been feeling it gradually within me for a long time now. My phone notes were littered with notes of things I wanted to write down when I was reunited with my laptop that was waiting for me back home. More than ever before, I had a strong existential desire to express the contents of my soul, to share my own story from the past few years of bohemian madness. A few weeks after finishing the Camino, that epiphany had finally arrived and suddenly all I wanted to do was to be home and write and write and write. It played over in my head through a sleepless night, and the next morning I accepted I had wandered too far through the wilderness. I was no longer fighting the good fight. I was no longer on the path where I belonged. In the realisation of this, I got up, picked up my backpack and marched back along the trail to the last town I had come across. Once I was there, I went and caught a bus to Croatia. Once I was in Croatia, I booked and took a flight back home to England. Once I was in England, I opened up my laptop and started to write my first ever book.

—————————————————————————————————————————————

You know, when people ask why I travel I still find it a hard question to answer. It is true that I was never able to find what I wanted from regular life. The jobs. The education system. The consumerism. The conventions. The expectations and traditions. Like others I met on the trail, I was a born explorer and found myself stuck in a system which seemed to sedate me into a passive existence. So, I guess I did what I felt was necessary and started to explore my outer worlds without any compromise. I ventured as far out into the world as possible. I climbed the mountains. I roamed the cities. I partied on the beaches. I worked the terrible jobs. I got lost in the eyes of strangers. I travelled far and wide until the journey eventually led me inward into myself. And I guess it was there where the real gold lay; where I found my passion and purpose. From England to Australia, from menial jobs to medical trials, from being down in the dumps to being high in the mountains – it has been a crazy journey through the wilderness, and no matter where I’ve been out there, it appears the only home I have ever found is right here at this keyboard expressing myself from my heart and soul. I have travelled the world and found the greatest adventure at the end of my own fingertips. It is the greatest act of exploration I have known, a journey into the soul where there are far greater treasures than one can possess physically. It is an act where I am finally able to express myself in a world that left me feeling voiceless. An act where I am able to share my experience and the experience of all those other wanderers out there in the world. An act where I am able to create a place which I finally feel I actually belong.

When I got home from that period of walking the Camino and travelling in Europe, I found myself glued to the keyboard for months after. I got a seasonal job working alongside my dad at a courier company, and every day after work I just sat alone before my keyboard, writing down the thoughts and tales of my journey onto a blank page. For the first time in my life nothing else mattered. I had no external desires other than where I was and what I was doing. Everything else faded from sight and I knew that finally I had found what I was subconsciously looking for all those years out on the road. I no longer cared about the adventures or the girls or what was over the next horizon. I no longer cared about that long, meandering trail. I no longer cared about the backpacks or hostels or foreign countries. Like the other pilgrims in the square of Santiago, finally my journey was over. Finally, my Camino had finished.

As these words poured out onto the page, for once in my chaotic life, finally:

I had arrived.

short stories

~ The Medicine of a Mountain Wilderness ~

~ The Medicine of a Mountain Wilderness ~

“Mountains are not Stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion…I go to them as humans go to worship. From their lofty summits I view my past, dream of the future and, with an unusual acuity, am allowed to experience the present moment…my vision cleared, my strength renewed. In the mountains I celebrate creation. On each journey I am reborn.”Anatoli Boukreev

In this life there are moments when we have that eureka moment when we discover a love or passion of something for the first time. When Hendrix picked up that first guitar; when Shakespeare wrote his first sonnet; when Pele kicked his first football; when Cook sailed his first boat. You start to do it, you feel some sort of existential thing click inside of you, and from then on you know it’s an essential medicine your soul needs to survive and sustain itself in this crazy and chaotic world. 

     I guess mine came somewhere on that mountain in Bolivia, face down in the snow at six thousand metres, gasping for breath after just throwing my guts up for the third time that morning. I lifted my gremlin face up toward the horizon and saw the sun rising over the backdrop of the Andes, gradually illuminating the winter wonderland around me. Even with a bit of sick dripping off my chin, the moment wasn’t ruined. I was out on the precipice of it all, living life on the edge, feeling more alive than I had ever felt before. Perhaps partying heavily the two nights before my ascent in the neighbouring city of La Paz wasn’t the smartest mountaineering tactic, but at this point I was lost in the thrill of my trip in South America that all rational and logic was lying in a roadside ditch somewhere a few hundred miles back. 

    Picking myself up, I carried on trudging up the mountain in pain. We were soon nearing the top as we ascended steep ridges with big drops and crevasses lying precariously on either side of the path. It was an arduous struggle and each vertical metre left me gasping ever more heavily for air. I had never been at this altitude before and it was safe to say that I was suffering. Each step forward felt like being stabbed in the thigh; flashes of silver went off in the corners of my eyes; the freezing wind whipped against my skin as the madness howled in my mind. Occasionally, the mountain guide would enquire if I was okay. The simple answer of course was no, but at this point I couldn’t bring myself to turn back. I was possessed by a strangely intense need to trudge further on into the wilderness before me. It is that deep, existential feeling of experiencing life at its fullest which drives men into the mountains, which drives sailors into the seas and skydivers to the skies. Sometimes it consumes a human-being altogether, leaving them flat-out dead in a ditch somewhere or drowning in a stormy sea. 

    Admittedly, the feeling of finding fulfilment through extreme adventure can occasionally be fatal, but in this instance it was worth it. Reaching the summit of Huayna Potosi, I cast my gaze outward at the otherworldly scenery around me. My bloodshot eyes beheld a wonderland of mountain peaks stretching out toward the horizon, with the sprawling city of La Paz nestled in the valley below – the sight of a hundred thousand people beginning another day of existence in this wild landscape. I smiled to myself and sat down to catch my breath, remembering how just a few weeks ago I was stacking shelves in a supermarket in England. With the mountain conquered, I then stumbled back down to the city itself where I remained bed-bound with a cold in a hostel dormitory for two days – the relentless joys of the backpacking life.

     Despite the pain and sickness, the feeling of living life on the edge on that mountain stuck with me and it was roughly about six months later that I found myself stranded on a mountain in New Zealand in the middle of winter with a friend. Having been diverted off the trail, we managed to get ourselves stuck in a ravine with daylight fading and no way to continue down to the bottom. There we remained stuck in the dark on a rockface above a waterfall, both with damp clothes, holding on tightly to each other in the sub-zero temperatures to stop ourselves from slipping into hypothermia. It wasn’t all bad however. We had somehow managed to get ourselves stranded in somewhat of a magical spot. The lights of the town in the valley below twinkled like a starry night; shooting stars soared across the clear night sky; the sound of the nearby waterfalls put my mind in a meditative state. It was a surprisingly pleasant experience and eventually, after about seven hours of lying there, we were rescued by some cheery local volunteers who made us tea and posed for photos with us. I guess it was at that point I had the idea that maybe I should start taking the whole hiking thing a little more seriously if I wanted to stay alive and keep enjoying it.

     That I did the next year when I decided to devote my travels specifically to hiking. This time I invested in some actual hiking equipment including boots, thermals, gloves, a head-torch, purification tablets and even an actual map or two at some point. Suddenly I felt like a seasoned professional, ready to tackle Mount Everest itself. Maybe that was a little extreme I conceded, so I resided myself to travelling to Nepal with a friend to hike to the base camp of the world’s highest mountain instead.

     We spent two months in that country, first walking the long route into Everest base camp before resting and then carrying on to go tackle the most popular hike in the country – the Annapurna Circuit. Again came the struggles, the sweat, the strain, the pain – the battling feeling of ascending up a hill as some ineffable force inside of you drives you forward to that summit. Amongst this, I beheld sights I could only once have dreamt of. I saw waterfalls cascading down from steep Himalayan peaks; smoky clouds sweeping in through snowy valleys; buddhist stupas perched dramatically on the side of cliffs. I saw the jagged peaks of the biggest mountains in the world piercing the sky as they rose up magnificently towards the ether. The beauty of the landscape was also reflected in the wholesome spirit of the people. The environment of a mountain wilderness had something that made you more laid-back and relaxed than the erratic city dwellers I knew from back home. Of course, the people were poor and generally had more difficult lives than a typical westerner, but their state of being was one that seemed much more harmonious with nature and relaxed at their core. Travelling through towns and villages, I often beheld the smiling faces of women and children as they went about their peaceful and simple existence. We also met sherpas who had ascended the world’s highest mountains and now spent their days hosting hikers in their guesthouses. In particular I remember marvelling at one elderly man who sat in silence spinning his Buddhist prayer wheel with a look of contentment and inner peace I had never set my eyes upon. It was only after speaking to him that I found out he was a retired sherpa who had summited Everest over ten times. Needless to say, I was bewitched by these people of the mountains; I was bewitched by their lifestyle and their environment. The mountains, the peaks, the waterfalls, the teahouses – the greeting of ‘namaste’ every time you passed someone along the trail – truly I was hopelessly in love with it all. 

     Naturally then I continued exploring my growing passion/obsession. After that trip I went on to trek in the Alps, the Pyrenees and finally in Iceland where I wandered alone through a solitary landscape, crossing a volcano and walking over newly- formed landmass from a recent eruption. At the end of that day I set up camp alone on top of a cliff, perched on some distorted volcanic rock, watching the midsummer sun set on the horizon before it came creeping back up just a couple of hours later. There wasn’t another soul for miles and it was probably the most blissful I had ever felt in my entire life. I soon had the realisation why this specific environment was so soothing and therapeutic to me. It was true that trying to find my place in society had often left me violently bent out of shape. Since a young age, I never felt like I could properly fit myself in anywhere. Society essentially was a rigid and mechanical world of straight lines, borders, boxes, bureaucracy, paperwork, suits, rules, contracts, cubicles, offices and job titles. But in that world of smooth lines and edges, I was bent shaped, awkward – a jagged piece of the jigsaw, misprinted, badly-designed or perhaps from the wrong box. It was no surprise that I felt more content and relaxed in an untamed mountain wilderness. It was more fitting to who I was and as I walked along those trails, I felt a feeling of belonging I had never known. The rugged hills, the meandering streams, the jagged peaks, the rocky paths – everything was a big mess and finally I fit right in.

     A couple of years then passed following those trips, mostly with me staying at home and saving money. However the desire to get back among the peaks and ridges didn’t subside. The more I interacted with society, the more my flesh and bones craved that mountain medicine. Staring out of windows at work, I longed for that feeling of freedom in that almighty arena of adventure where the only boss was nature itself – where the only timetable to follow was that of the sun. It wasn’t long before I caved in and let my hiking odyssey take me back to Nepal, the country that had already captured my heart. I was now twenty-seven, supposedly at the height of my youth and strength, and I felt it was time to take it to the next level. I planned to do three big hikes when I was there: Annapurna Base Camp, the notoriously challenging Three Passes and finally a climb of the 6500m mountain Mera Peak – higher than any mountain in Europe, Africa or North America. I felt as if I had climbed the hiking ranks over the previous years and it was time to prove myself as a competent hiker, capable of solo trekking tough hikes in the highest mountain range in the world. Admittedly it was a far cry from being sick in Bolivia and getting hopelessly lost in New Zealand on a one day hike. I made sure that I was prepared more so than ever before, even going as far as purchasing a compass.

      I arrived in Nepal again and got started straight away with the Annapurna base camp trek. Despite some unnervingly close calls with avalanches, I managed to reach the base camp and get back without being turned into a snowman. A good start. I then went on to complete The Three Passes, being one of the first people of the year to make it all over all three passes despite the unseasonal amount of snowfall. With me now feeling like one of the greatest mountaineers of all time, I rested a little before heading on to my biggest challenge yet: Mera Peak. The mountain was in the same area as The Three Passes and it took me another few days of strenuous solo hiking (and also reluctantly climbing over another mountain pass), but I eventually arrived to the base camp of the mountain where I had arranged to meet my sherpa guide who would lead me to the summit.

     Meeting him I was immediately envious of his lifestyle. Here was a man who had climbed the biggest mountains in the world as a job. Here was a man who lived every day as an adventure in the mountains – whose office was the almighty roof of planet earth. I curiously listened to the tales from his impressive life as we started trekking up the mountain, first strapping on some crampons and slowly making our way up a massive glacier. I was never a religious man, but as me and my sherpa guide trudged up that mountain in the morning sun, I felt more connected to a higher energy source than ever before. I breathed in the air, watched the sunlight glint off the ice and marvelled at the eagles flying majestically overhead. Yes, I thought to myself – truly this was where it was at. This was life at its best. Forget the drugs and the clubs. Forget the big houses and the fancy cars. Forget those advertisements and billboards telling you pleasure could be bought with some gadgets and gizmos. It was all a con – a fix – a lie. The good life was out in nature. It was right here on this mountain. It was right here with the snow and the pain and the bone-chilling wind that sent shivers down your spine. 

     After a sleepless night at high camp at almost 6000m, we got up early the next morning to finish the ascent. We cooked some soup, had some tea and then got going as the first embers of daylight crept over the horizon. It took two hours of pain with my guide deciding to take me ‘the shortcut’ (the steepest, most direct way), but finally we reached the final ridge, stomping it to the top to become the first people that day to summit the mountain. Success! The highest I had ever been outside of Glastonbury music festival. I stood there at the top for a glorious few minutes looking out at a totally clear view of five of the six biggest mountains in the world, all standing beautifully before me like the gods themselves shining in the morning sun. Yeah, I guess you could say it was a special moment for me. I was at the peak of the mountain, at the peak of my passion – at the peak of my random and chaotic life. If only those guys who rescued me from that small mountain in New Zealand could have seen me now.

     Having successfully summited the mountain, I figured the hardest part of the expedition was over. Now was the victory lap back to the town of Lukla where I could take the plane back to Kathmandu to finish this trip of a lifetime. Unfortunately, I was unaware that the greatest test of my hiking odyssey, perhaps my life, was yet to begin. I had been sticking tightly to a budget the last ten days as I had underestimated how much I would need when withdrawing money in the last big town. I could just about make it back with food and accommodation with the amount of crinkled notes I had stuffed in my pocket, but I would have to be fast about it. Unfortunately this plan hit a slight snag on the return when I trekked up towards the mountain pass back into the valley where Lukla was, only to find that a large amount of snowfall had made the return impassible. A stubborn trudging through the deep snow left me almost slipping down a few hundred metres to my solitary death in the valley below. Conceding defeat, I then returned all the way down to the bottom, lamenting the absurdity of the situation before me, thinking of what to do next with my limited supplies and money and strength.

     What to do? Where to go? How to approach this? The situation had all of a sudden gotten threatening and I needed a plan of some sort. It was a five day walk the long way around back to Lukla and I barely had funds for two days food and accommodation. Well, if it came to it I could sleep outside somewhere, but hiking for over ten hours a day would naturally leave me in need of some serious sustenance. I had never learnt to hunt so that option was out of the window. I could try to explain my situation to teahouse owners who spoke limited English and hope for a bit of generosity. I could also try to arrange a $5000 helicopter ride back if I was truly desperate. None of those sounded like a reasonable or affordable idea, so I took a deep breath and decided that I was going to try and storm it all the way back to Lukla in two to three days. Even though I was perhaps the fittest I had ever been, this surely was going to be a tremendous and painful struggle. The reality of the situation hit me as I stood totally alone with the snow coming down heavily. My legs also ached from the failed attempt at the pass. To round off the misery, my soggy map tore apart in my hands as I tried to read it. Yeah, my delusions of being a great mountaineer had passed and suddenly I wasn’t feeling so great in the environment I had gotten to love so much. Suddenly I was worried. Suddenly, I craved the comfort of human civilisation.

     I smashed down a pack of biscuits like a madman and got started immediately on the alternative route. About twenty minutes in I came to see the grimness of the situation I had suddenly found myself in. I was tired, low on energy and had such a long way to go it wasn’t worth thinking about. On top of this, I had somehow misplaced my waterproof backpack cover – admittedly not the greatest move in this weather. The snow continued to pour down and it wasn’t long before me and all my belongings were getting soaked. To make matters worse, I came to realise that the path I was on was seemingly the trekking trail from hell. It snaked its way along the valley side, occasionally dropping down a few hundred metres only to go straight back up – sort of like a rollercoaster ride in an amusement park. In this instance however there wasn’t too much amusing about it. It was taking me an hour to do what should have been a fifteen minute straight walk. Consequently, my strength and sanity were fading quickly, along with my treasured supply of biscuits.

     Nonetheless I continued onwards, fighting through the snow-storm, occasionally scoffing down those biscuits to try and regain some precious energy. The trail continued to go agonisingly up and down – up and down – up and down. At one point I lost it, threw my backpack on the ground and started cursing like a maniac at the trail itself. My mad voice echoed out through the valley like the howl of a demonic wolf. At this point I was completely drenched and freezing, so I decided to take shelter in a small cave. From inside the cave I could see the slopes of Mera Peak across the valley through some gaps in the clouds. Just two days ago I had been up there on top of the world and now I was a shivering wretch, a gremlin in a cave, exhausted and alone with a long and painful task ahead of me. I had gone from one of the best days of my life to one of the worst in just a couple of days. All my love for the mountains had faded and I now longed for a warm bed, home comforts, conveniences and amenities. I longed for restaurant meals and human interaction. Yes, the mountains had broken me and I needed the medicine of civilisation. 

     Eventually I summoned some strength and carried on moving along the rollercoaster trail. After a while the altitude dropped and this meant I was now hiking in the rain instead of snow. This nicely ensured that every last one of my belongings was now thoroughly soaked throughout. On top of this, I also had managed to form an enormous blister on the back of my right foot. This left me with a throbbing pain every time I took a step. The situation was almost comically pitiful and the grimness went on for about six more hours until I made it to the next village where I decided to call it a day. I had been hiking at pace for over eleven hours at this point and I was ready to collapse. However, first I got my wet clothes out of my backpack and spend precious resting time hanging them out to dry. After that I ordered rice and lentils with some of the last of my money and scoffed down as much as humanly possible, preparing myself for another long and painful day on the trail. At dinner I told my story to a couple of German hikers and their guides who were heading the other way back to Mera. They looked at me like the deluded madman I was and questioned what the hell I was doing all alone out here in the Himalayan wilderness. It was a reasonable question to be fair. Apparently no westerner went to this mountain without a guide of some sort, especially in bad weather. One of them took pity on me and gave me a bandage for my blister and a couple of breakfast bars. Then I went to bed, setting my alarm for dawn to continue the solitary fight early the next day. Drifting off to sleep, I couldn’t help but lament the stupidity of my situation. A great mountaineer, I was not. I had sobered up from my mental delusions and was back to being that unprepared, hungover kid being sick on the mountain in Bolivia.

     The battle continued the next morning and went on for two more days, hiking great distances in solitude, ascending and descending hundreds of metres with limited energy and an injured foot. At some point I had almost descended entirely into the realms of madness. I’d start talking to myself or the birds beside me on the trail. I’d fall over laughing to myself about some old memory from my childhood. I’d start singing and do a little dance to try and liven myself up. Eventually all my snacks were gone and I used the last of my money on some boiled eggs and rice to try and get through to the finish line. The fuel from that kept me slowly trudging forwards on the final day. Each step was exasperating but finally, after another ten hours of soul-sucking pain, I limped into Lukla exhausted, penniless, starving and slightly insane. I was a broken man, but I had done it; I had made it out of the mountains of madness in one piece. Feeling victorious, I withdrew some money from the cashpoint and collapsed at the nearest guesthouse I could find. By now I was sick and shaking, and also slightly malnourished. Cold shivers went through my body continually as every ounce of me ached and throbbed. With my body in this state, I continued my gremlin ways and spent two days in bed gorging on snacks and staring at the bedroom walls, trying to find the energy to get up and make my way out to face the daylight of the outside world. Eventually I just about managed to summon the strength to get out of bed and take a flight back to Kathmandu where I continued to rest, recover and regain weight. I then spent another couple of days lying in bed thinking about the gruelling trip I had just undertaken, trying to digest and make sense of all the madness, feeling thankful that I had made it out safely out of the wilderness. I was done with the mountains for a while, I conceded. The trip had well and truly broken and beaten me.

     A few days later I was in the lakeside city of Pokhara, still resting and recovering from my ordeal. I was in a bar beside the lake doing some writing, drinking a beer, and enjoying the comfort and conveniences of city life. It was then that I got I speaking to a guy beside me. He was a man in late thirties from Libya who was about to walk the Great Himalayan Trail – a four month hiking trail that traversed its way across the entire country of Nepal. I quickly found out that such an adventure was not something new for this man as he told me the tales of his life. He told me of how he had no home or family, and how he had basically spent his entire adult life walking around the world, crossing countries, mountain ranges and entire continents. Exchanging stories, I started telling him my story of running out of supplies and money, being alone on the trail in a storm, how much pain I had been through, and how I was now happy to just relax and stay away from the mountains for a while. He looked down at the ground with a contemplative look, nodding his head slowly, looking a bit like a Yoda or Buddha figure.

     “I know my friend” he said. “I know sometimes you can question why you do it. But out there in those mountains, it’s the struggle that makes it all worthwhile. For what is the journey about without the trials and troubles? How can you experience the greatest heights of life without also experiencing the lows? How can you know ecstasy without desolation? Pleasure without pain?” He put his drink down on my table and looked up towards the mountains across the lake. “I have been in such situations myself. I have been injured, alone and starving. I have been lost and scared. But no matter what happens, always I return to those mountains my friend. You know why? There is a life out there that cannot be experienced in a comfort zone of routine and security and predictability. There is a life out there which gives us something which cannot be purchased or store. It is a haven for the wild spirit, and I, like you will do, will return to those mountains always and remember I fell in love with them in the first place. It is who we are. It is what we do. It is why we walk.”

     Listening to this philosophical musings of this eccentric wandering guru, I thought back to almost freezing to death on that mountain in New Zealand, and throwing my guts up on Huayna Potosi, and being bed-bound for days after in a busy hostel dormitory. It was true: despite the grimness and pain and danger, always I came back with wide eyes and arms, ready to hurl myself into that rugged wilderness once again. The thought hit me that no doubt this latest saga would just be another one of those stories I would think about on my next hike. 

     Sure enough it was a few days later when I was with some new friends, listening to them talk about their upcoming hike in the Annapurna region, that I felt that mountain madness stir inside me once again. Now I was rested and recovered, I could feel my flesh and bones itch to join them and get back out there. Hearing their plans, my eyes lifted once more to those mountainous horizons, feeling that existential pull back into the place where I felt most alive – where I felt most free. Sure, I knew that such pain and discomfort was out there waiting for me; I knew that even death lingered somewhere on those high mountain paths. The record number of trekkers dying that year in Nepal went to show how death and destruction was sometimes just right around the corner. But yet we went out there and did it anyway. Like the Libyan wanderer had said: it was necessary to feel alive – to be alive. It is what drives men and women to the mountains. It’s what drives those sailors to the seas and those skydivers to the skies. A connection. An existential belonging. A way to spar head-first with the majesty and glory of life itself. 

     I guess at my core I was another one of those mountain madmen, destined to forever be searching for something to keep me feeling alive in a world that too often seemed to sedate you into a passive existence. Like the Libyan man, there was always only so much I could endure of the scripted and straight-lined reality of society before I needed that medicine again. Like so many things in my life – from travelling to mountaineering to writing – I guess did it in my own crazy way because I felt it was essential to keep that life flowing through my veins. To me it was a medicine for the soul – a fire for the spirit that warmed me from within. And that is why some of us choose to abandon ourselves to things that make us feel alive. To throw ourselves into that wilderness. It is the direct way to experience life at its rawest and purest; to shake off the shackles of monotony and banality. And yes, though at times its painful and scary and isolating, it will always keep you crawling back. Because once your soul has felt it, you will long to return to those lands where you feel totally alive. You will long to return to those lands where you feel totally free. You will long to be out there living and not merely existing, hunting horizons with eyes full of fire, marching on through the wilderness, keeping the flag of adventure raised in your heart, perpetually exploring your inner and outer worlds – ascending your mountains and fighting your best fight until the day you die.

Cheers to that, Anatoli.