~ Frayed ~
I entered the airport at dawn in a zombie-like state. It had been another sleepless night and it was time to return home after what was perhaps my most reckless trip yet. Leaving Portugal, I found myself depleted in more ways than one. My belongings now amounted to just three kilograms in my carry-on backpack. I was light, lighter in everything – bodyweight, money, clothes, sanity. I was travelling on an emergency passport after having lost my normal one along with other things. Those other things included my electric razor – my lack of razor made evident by the big, bushy beard now covering my face. What had happened to everything I wasn’t entirely sure about. The trip had been a total blur, fueled by heavy amounts of alcohol and a lack of sleep which was now commonplace whenever I travelled. That insomnia had left my brain in a beaten and battered state. My body too was a similar way – skinny and sunburnt and in need of some serious rest after a chaotic few weeks in the Portuguese sunshine.
In such a weary state, I naturally got reflective about things. I realised that at that point I’d been living on the run for almost ten years. A whole decade ago I went out on the road of discovery and adventure, seeing what awaited me out there in this wilderness that has maddened my mind and scarred my skin. I went out into the world with wide eyes seeking something that seemed not available in my immediate surroundings. I stuffed those backpacks with my few belongings; I stuffed my eyes with beautiful sights; I stuffed myself with soul-stirring experiences. I was living for myself and soaking in as much life as I could during my youth. But after all of that, I’m finally at the point where I start to wonder how sustainable this lifestyle is. On this trip I had once again experienced enriching moments and connections with others, but more than any other trip, I had also experienced some very dark moments, including a couple of days that I would reckon as the worst of my entire life. That time began with me being kicked out of a hostel for passing out on the floor of a room that wasn’t my own. The memory of the night before was non-existent and in my ashamed state, I decided to carry on drinking at a nearby bar in the morning on my own. The last thing I remembered was smoking a joint with a retired guy from California before waking the next day with a large number of belongings missing including my passport. I had a bus booked up north to start a five-day hike along the coast that I really didn’t want to take. Confused, stressed and with the worst comedown of my life, I stumbled onto that bus feeling like some sort of gremlin – my lack of identification now confirming I was out of place officially as well as mentally.
That feeling of defeat was also there in that airport that morning as I continued drifting around in a zombie-like state, wondering just how much longer I could keep living life on the edge like this. Just two days I was partying ’til 6am on the streets of Lisbon before going to the British embassy to pick up my emergency passport. A stern-looking guard with a machine gun searched me and escorted me through the building while my comedown and lack of sleep filled me with nerve-shredding anxiety. That moment was just another point of chaos and madness in what was now a strong back-catalogue. My mind thought back to getting arrested in Australia for trespassing and having to hitch-hike to my court case. It thought back to almost being hit in the head by a falling rock on a precarious mountain path; to narrowly missing an avalanche by thirty minutes in a Himalayan valley. It was true that there was only so much chaos one man could endure before he was pushed to the brink of total madness (or worse, death), and now – at thirty years old – I feel the voice of sanity call out to me through this mist, telling me to calm down and stop this freefall into the abyss of anarchy. “Come in and relax,” it says. “You’ve experienced enough of this hedonistic life. Take a breath. Step back. Take some time to enjoy a quiet life.”
Meanwhile, I think of a man I know in his eighties. He is a beat poet who seems to have been also living on the run all of his adult life and continues to do so in whatever way he can. I read his stories about drifting around Europe while busking and living on pennies. I also think of my friend Bryan, three years older than me who had been living even more on the edge than myself during the last few years in Australia. He’s just about to commence a one-month hike through the Alps with his girlfriend. Maybe there is a way to live like this without going totally insane. But am I like those other guys? I wasn’t sure. They certainly didn’t seem to end up in the situations I got myself into. They knew how to look after themselves and not spiral off into complete oblivion like I too often did. My self-destructive side was seemingly getting worse with each trip I went on and maybe I just had to accept that I wasn’t cut out for this high-flying lifestyle anymore. Maybe I really was crazier than the rest.
With my mind in a pensive and delirious state, I made my way through security. I wandered through the duty-free shops before finding a little cafe to sit down. I then ate some breakfast while watching others walk around the departure lounge, all of them looking so much fresher than myself.
I guess it was strange as someone who was a travel addict, but sometimes airports could make me feel alone more than any other place. I think it was the sight of the families, the loved-up couples, the rowdy groups of friends. It seemed that were very few others like myself in those crowds – solo travellers making their way to or back from another tiring adventure. As usual, when looking at regular people, thoughts of sanity and stability entered my brain. I thought of finally getting my own place and settling down in one place. I thought of women – of the French girl I had recently met in Mexico. She was on a two-week holiday there and was now back in her stable life with a good-paying job and about to buy an apartment. Maybe I’d learn French and move over there to live a nice quiet life with her. Maybe I’d finally learn to drive, get a pension and stop this calamitous journey through the wilderness. But almost as quickly as these thoughts entered my mind, they were pushed aside by the other ones – the thoughts of wandering ecstasy, of partying with new friends in foreign lands, of standing on sunset shorelines and hiking through mountainous valleys. I thought of the love of anarchy and adventure, my soul sailing further out into that intoxicating sea of the unknown – that same sea which had currently left me in a disheveled state with no passport and few belongings, with insomnia and sunburnt skin, but also with a spirit that was set on fire and a mind that was blown wide open.
Oh, what is a man to do once he has tasted such a life? This thrilling run out beyond the fences, this glorious dance in the lands of chaos – how does he return from that to a life of sensibility and suburban sanity? How does he trade the mystery and magic for the predictable and comfortable? For the safe and steady? I still had things I wanted to do, after all. I still wanted to fulfill my dream of cycling from the UK to Asia. Of hiking the great Himalayan route. Of finally travelling around Colombia. My list was still incomplete, but continuing in such a way of being didn’t bode well on the current basis of things – at least when I thought of similar others to myself. I thought Jack Kerouac – the great beat writer – drinking himself to death in his forties. I thought of Hemingway and Hunter S Thompson – their brains blown to the wall with self-inflicted shotgun wounds. I thought of that guy from Into The Wild starving to death alone in Alaska. It was true that living at full speed on the edge for so long usually made you more likely to end up in a graveyard or institution. Still, a part of me yearned to keep on living this way, putting the pedal down to the metal, soaring down that open road of life as the wind raises the hairs on my head. On the other hand, I also know it’s time to recognise that I’m slowly falling apart too. The wheels are buckling, the engine is failing, and the screws are coming loose.
The smart and sensible thing to do is to accept I’ve experienced more adventure than most people ever will, and finally begin to take my foot off the gas. But the thought of leaving this life behind fills me with tremendous sadness. It causes me to distract myself by reading through the messages on my phone. One Argentinian girl asks me when I’ll be coming back to Mexico. A dutch girl asks if we are ever doing that hike in Italy. Once again, my mind wanders and starts to dream of the next adventure, the next horizon, the next great run through this bewitching wilderness that has claimed each and every part of me.
This strange feeling of conflict is there as I sit there with my sleep-deprived mind, with my skinny body, with my half-empty backpack, with my emergency passport, with the cuts on my arm of which I’m not sure of the origin. The people around me seem to notice I’m not entirely with it as my hand shakes while drinking my coffee. A couple of coins fall out of my pocket and I reach down to pick them up off the floor. I then look at my jeans and notice that they are starting to tear apart at the seams. It almost seems symbolic and I think about getting them stitched up once again by my mother or landlady. I also think back to that nice Puerto Rican girl in Mexico mending my frayed backpack in Mexico earlier in the year. It was funny: all these women stitching me back together, mending me, repairing me. But maybe this time I’m realising that some things just can’t be stitched back together. There is no thread strong enough anymore to stop me from ripping open as I dream of the next adventure with my tired and maddened mind. And even if there was, I’m not sure I would even want that at this point.