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 air 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 fisherman 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 ale after 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 figured life out: a way to get the job done, taste the fresh air of the 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 alcoholic fisherman 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 majority (which of course 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 decided 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 the Camino de Santiago through Spain for a while, so naturally it seemed like the next trip now I had decided to pack my bags yet again. Summer had just began and my skin awaited to feel the rays of the Spanish sun 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 extended period of time.

      Two weeks later I touched down in the French Pyrenees in a town called Bayonne. From there I would travel to St Jean Pied du 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 a 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 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 a natural affinity to such a being.

      Having had him befriend me and a young Danish guy, 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 lead 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 told tales of the classic pilgrimage and basically how we weren’t cut out for it and that we should just go home. 

       “Lads what you gotta understand is 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 journey 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 what things they have to face and deal with in their own minds. Especially in the Mesetta part of the walk; it’s a lot 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 it how they walk, how they dress – how they speak. Did you see that little guide book 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 home 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, 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 only good to have around for small periods of time only, and I hadn’t quite gauged to what degree of insanity he was operating within just yet. I liked him but I didn’t really fancy waking up in a hotel room in a strange 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 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 ‘albergue’ – 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 housed over 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 adventurous 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 in between. As always the randomness 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 talking 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 had 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 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 others walked this path of the pilgrim. 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 surrounded by people they may never see again far from home. This lead to moments where I was walking alone down 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 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 a chaotic mess? 

     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 like 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 and just moving through 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’d been guilty of in the past. I’d go from thinking I’ve discovered the secret of life to being sat in a bar from a Belgian family feeling as hopelessly lost as ever. On one particular occasion after the first week, I sat 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 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 on the surface but I knew that that sort of predictable life would probably drive me to a high-story ledge eventually. As always, I felt doomed 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 sleep in a crowded dorm, chucked my clothes into my dirty backpack, grabbed some light breakfast, rubbed my eyes and let my the soles of my shoes hit the dusty 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 flicks of yellow paint that lay on the sides of rocks and 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 the unknown. Often I wished life was as simple and peaceful as the trail life. Just following that yellow paint road towards the end left me 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 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 in a 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 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 court-yard in an albergue that evening, we spoke about life and travel and everything in between. Unbelievably the conversation went extremely well. It turned out 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 and magic and a little bit of hippy madness. Despite her model good looks, she was uncorrupted 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 in a bit deeper to 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 to travel half the year and then work the other, maybe work 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 emphasized with her lack of certainty about her direction. Like me she was in her mid-twenties which meant her mind was feeling the effects of over two decades 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 in 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 had yet to experience amid 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 by then 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 and brave the deadliest storm. 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 beckoning me further forward into my hazy future. 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 albergue 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 two 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 when she had first appeared. But the miles and days drifted on and on, and it soon became clear she had left my world as quickly as she 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 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 through Spain I went, spending the days drifting alone 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 life while marvelling at the sights along the way. I missed Laura of course but I soon realised this was how it was no doubt 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 was 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 more clear it was 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 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 across 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 story, I eventually found myself trying to get away from her at moments 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 situation that had just befallen her. There she walked: wide-eyed and wild, another wandering soul out in foreign fields, marching her way through the tempestuous wilderness of life. 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 these weird and wonderful people I had met along the way and 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 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 on and eventually I 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 into 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 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 time 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 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 times I was cold, wet and miles away from another soul. I quickly began to see what I was doing was a bad idea. Still I kept on moving until one night when the sun had set and left me enveloped in the darkness of the 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 the 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 wandering souls out there in the world making their way through life. Thinking about it all, suddenly, I 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 there I booked and took a flight back home to England and prepared 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 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 the kingdom of myself. And truthfully it was there where the real gold lay; it was there 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. I have travelled the world and found the greatest adventure at the end of my own fingertips. With each word I type, my soul is racing to the horizon with wide eyes and arms open. 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 misunderstood and voiceless. It is an act where I am able to share my experience and the experience of all those other wanderers out there roaming the world. It is an act where I am able to create a place I could finally call home.

    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 the 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.