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.

 

 

 

 

 

thoughts

~ A Life Worth Dying For ~

~ A Life Worth Dying For ~

Back in the neighbourhoods of normality scrolling, scanning and searching for something that I knew was not there. I didn’t see it any of their eyes or hear it in any of their conversations. People of my kind; of my sickness and madness. This world had claimed the last of those wild souls, their world cemented over and tarmacked down, their dreams dead on the cold streets of modern life where houses were full but souls empty, where newspapers opened and minds closed – where the curtains were drawn along with our creativity and curiosity. I didn’t want any part of it. I wanted to go far away from it all. I wanted to get lost. I wanted to live a life of adventure and exploration. A life that would shake my bones and rattle my teeth; that would put light in my eyes and fire in my heart. Sometimes I felt bad for my parents; that I wasn’t anything that they probably wanted me to be. But I couldn’t change even if I tried or wanted to. My heart was corrupted and it was out in the unknown where I belonged. Wandering wide-eyed through the wilderness. Getting lost in the dream. Living a life that I could call my own; that I would remember as the last bit of light left my eye. A life to tell stories about. A life to write home about. A life worth dying for.

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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.

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thoughts

~ Heading Home ~

~ Heading Home ~

“Sometimes you wonder how many souls are also out there drifting through life, staring into space and skies, dreaming of something ineffable, a home that can never seem to be found here or there or anywhere. The eyes scan and search those grey streets for another of your kind, but you know deep down your fate is to wander alone through the wilderness of life, becoming ever more scratched and scarred by the wild things roaming around inside of you. You know you deserve a home, everyone deserves to feel like they have a home, even if it’s just for a short period, to stare into the eyes of another who finally understands, but ultimately nothing comes or arrives. Its the dark room of isolation. It’s the solitary shoreline. It’s the tired head against the bus window. It’s the trudging on alone through the swamps and storms, fighting through the muck and mess and madness in your own mind. Yet through all of this inner chaos, comes a great strength somewhere inside of you, strong enough to blast the darkness, to slay your demons and save yourself from the haunted places. In your own isolation, you gradually become a warrior of the wild – your own protector, your own saviour. You create your own world and forge your own path home. Even if you will never find it, you’ll always be out there hunting the horizon with wide eyes, moving fearlessly forward to the lands of your distant destiny. To the lands of salvation. To the lands of light and love and the life that is yours and will always be yours.”

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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 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.

thoughts

~ Home In The Unknown ~

~ Home In The Unknown ~

“A new adventure waited beyond the horizon as I stood alone in that departure lounge once again, feeling the straps of my backpack pull on my shoulders, enjoying the unique atmosphere that comes with having a group of people momentarily enclosed in one space before the explosive power of jet engines left them all scattered sporadically around the globe. As the others buzzed and shopped around, I stood still and stared out the windows dreaming of the upcoming adventure. The planes lined the tarmac outside and my stomach stirred with excitement and apprehension. I was flying solo into the anarchy of another adventure and as always I didn’t know what awaited me out there in the big wide world. Friends or foes? Pleasure or pain? Love or heartbreak? Life or death?

Like always, if I could have known, I wouldn’t have wanted to. For me predictability and order were the slaughterhouses of the soul. To me it seemed too much of all that only took the spark from your eye and the fire from your stomach. It was out there in the eternal mystery of the unknown where the magic and wonder lay. It was out there in the unknown where life was lived at its more furious and fullest. That was the beauty of the adventure which always made come crawling back from the suburban life of security and comfort. So far my ventures into the unknown had brought me many treasures and pleasures. No doubt they had also caused me pain and discomfort too, but it was a small price to pay for the wonders I had stumbled across on my journey through the wild. My soul was stirred by it all. The grand memories. The inner discoveries. The new friends. The burning passions. The feeling of living life at its fullest, knowing that if you were to die in an instant, you would leave the world behind with no regrets at all. That was what kept me returning from the safe and familiar.

When you really thought about it, it didn’t seem to make sense to have such a fear of living in the mystery of the moment. At its core life itself was one big journey in the unknown. At every second we are incarnate in slowly decaying bodies, riding a spinning rock through an infinite universe with nobody who knew to what end. One day we were all going to die and go on the biggest journey into the unknown yet. Still, despite our shared fate and circumstance, so many fearfully refuse the unknown their entire life. They try to organise their lives on a spreadsheet right up until their funeral. They iron out any mystery or wonder. They stamp out any possibility for surprise. For some life is one big wait in that departure lounge, staring out the window but never getting up to take their flight.

Thinking about it all, I suddenly remembered bumping into my uncle walking down the street the week before. After conversing about life, he started to quiz me about my travels. I went and told him all about my adventures and what I had done, and what I had planned to do. As I told him all of this, I could see a spark in his eye, one of bewitched curiosity but also one of sadness. He went on to tell me how he had wanted to do all of that stuff when he was young, but didn’t because he was too set on the security of a steady life. Now all of that had gotten him to where he was now: living alone in an old people’s home, too old and tired to go on the adventures he wished he had went on when he was young.

Thinking back to that conversation I was as ready as ever to hurl myself into the abyss of the unknown. I had even more courage and faith to throw myself into the wild. The gates had now opened and my flight was ready for boarding. I shook myself back to life and I headed toward the plane to begin another voyage out into that big wide world. I thought of the people I was yet to meet, the sights I was yet to see, the feelings I was yet to feel. I thought of the epic adventure that awaited me. I was flying to a country I had never been to, totally alone, but the fluttering feeling in my heart made me feel good. It made me feel like I was going back to a place my soul missed. Back once more into the wild. Back once more into the chaos and madness. Back once more into the beautiful unknown – the only real home I had ever truly known.”

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