thoughts

~ Heading Home ~

~ Heading Home ~

“Sometimes you wonder how many alien 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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thoughts

~ Lost in the Wild ~

~ Lost in the Wild ~

“But I don’t understand how you can live a life without some security or a steady job” she said to me. “To me you just seem a bit lost in life.”

Yes it’s true. I am lost out in a great wilderness, but please: don’t send out a search party for me. I have found a great home in this unknown and I do not wish to return to a life which never suited me. I do not wish to be lured back into those slaughterhouses of the soul which have claimed too many of my kind. My greatest fear is not death to be left hollow-hearted and empty-eyed in a passive existence which slowly suffocates me from within. In this society often I find myself standing on its sidewalks and staring out at my surroundings. What I see is a rigid reality with little room for exploration and adventure; what I see is a world where you are ushered from the maternity ward to the crematorium on a cultural conveyor-belt of expectation and tradition. For the adventurous soul there is no simply no middle way to remain in such an existence. It’s not an easy choice to walk your own path away from it all but one some of us must make to keep ourselves alive. I am one such person and in this life I choose adventure over security, authenticity over acceptance – exploration over comfort and convenience. In this life I choose the grand mystery over the formulaic routine. Such a decision means my life is mess and madness to the settled soul, but that’s okay. Just know I am living a life that leaves me deeply fulfilled. Just know that I am living a life which fiercely serves my soul and spirit. Just know that you ever need me then you can find me out beyond the fences of normality, running with the wild horses – getting happily lost in the wild until the setting of the sun.”

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thoughts

~ Finding the Others ~

~ Finding the Others ~

“When you had been out on the road for a year and a half, the alienation of coming home was weird. While trying to adjust to normal life, you felt disconnected from everyone around you; you felt like you were an undercover creature from another planet. Walking down the street, you’d desperately look for another one of your kind – some boy or girl walking with a relaxed pace, looking at the sky instead of the floor. But they were never anywhere to be seen. Every now and again you’d see a crazy person screaming on the sidewalk as some sort of warning about how far you could drift from normality without going insane. You wanted to keep it together, but at the same time you were in constant conflict with everything around you. The billboards, the traffic jams, the hustle, the bustle – everything was an assault on the senses that left you wandering those busy streets on your own. All that was left to do was try to find the others, and that’s when the realisation hit: the only way to do that was to book a ticket, grab your stuff and head back out onto the road.”

finding the others

short stories

~ Living on an Edge ~

~ Living on an Edge ~

His eyes were bloodshot and demonic. His remaining hair fluffed off into wild little quiffs. Almost half of his front teeth were missing and sporadic drops of saliva shot out his mouth when he spoke. I was in New Zealand and the thought hit me whether I was actually staring at an orc of some sort. I mean presumably the Lord of the Rings movies used costumes and make-up, but this creature in front of me wasn’t too far from looking like he was spawned in the dark pits of middle earth itself. To be fair, after hearing how he and his son frequently smoked crystal meth together, it was no surprise that he looked like he did. It was understandable. What wasn’t understandable was how this man was in charge of the entire floor of a wine factory. I had been working here for over two months and every day I had to listen to this snarling beast shout and spit orders at a bunch of backpackers who were simply too tired with him to listen. Still, it was my final day and I let his words fly far away over my head. His reign of bullshit was over. His superiority complex would have to be suffered by whatever backpacker was going to walk through the door next. For me it was time to hit the road again. I toiled away until the end of the day, took one last look at the orc and then strolled out the door onward to the next adventure feeling like Bilbo Baggins himself.

The job itself had been a much needed bank top-up. It had been over six months since I arrived in New Zealand from Chile almost completely broke. I had blown all my savings travelling around South America and had consequently limped into the country on the other side of the world from home with a bank account in as worse state as the orc’s teeth. What followed was a tempestuous time of bumming around, hitch-hiking, sleeping in airports, bad diet habits, and scraping by off random agricultural jobs. It wasn’t all bad. Sure, I had been subjecting myself to a life of struggle and financial stress, but everyday I awoke with wide eyes ready to face the world before me – and being in one of the most beautiful countries out there, well, that helped too naturally. Of course, I would always lie to my parents whenever I contacted them – telling them I was fine and had no problems with money. I knew that if they knew I was living the way I was it would leave them in a state of panic and worry. Maybe I should have also been more concerned about living so precariously on the edge, but often in this life that’s exactly where the excitement and adventure was at. It was true that there was desperation and depravity out on that edge, but sometimes there was a little majesty and magic too. Sometimes the edge was a beautiful place.

I continued loitering on that edge as I hitch-hiked down the south island, stopping in a town for a week to party, before eventually heading to a job I had heard about off my Chilean friend. It was somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, among the fjordlands, and allegedly you could make good money sticking some plants in the ground. I had the plan to save up some more money to continue travelling in Asia after I was done in this country. Working consistently in one place with no distractions (mainly drink and women) would ensure that this was possible.

It was on the third day of that job, somewhere in the morning, that I decided to quit. I quickly concluded that I was never going to last the duration. The work itself was quite literally backbreaking and it turned out that I was the only backpacker working there. On top of this, the hostel I was staying at was a sort of abandoned shack without electricity, close amenities, a warm shower or even another traveller. The idea of staying there for three months made me shudder and I decided to get out of there fast. I grabbed my backpack, hit the open road once again and hitch-hiked all the way back to Queenstown – the place I had stopped in to party for a week on the way down here.

Now, aside from its spectacular scenery, New Zealand is a more or less a boring country to live. I mean, the sort of place that is best to retire, walk dogs, or work in a wine factory and become a meth addict. But Queenstown itself was the exception. Hailed as the adrenaline capital of the world, the town is a little wonderland of bars, restaurants, hostels, tour agencies and overcrowded houses that sit tightly packed together between the surrounding mountains and Lake Wakatipu – an enormous mass of sparkling blue glacial water that stretches out into the neighbouring valleys. When people weren’t skiing, bungee-jumping, skydiving, or riding speed boats, they could be found drinking in the array of bars that were stuffed into the small town centre that was no bigger than a couple of football fields. At night one could find any nationality of backpacker twisted in one of those establishments. It was the sort of place that was as far away from home as possible for most people – the sort of place where they were there ‘for a good time, not for a long time’ – and consequently this led to the chaos, debauchery and sexually-promiscuous behaviour that was rife at any given evening in any given bar. In all honesty it was probably the worst place in the world to save money and avoid the distractions of drink and women, but my will had been broken after just a couple of days of tough work out in the sticks and I needed a drink. The town was notoriously hard to find a place to stay, but luckily for me I knew a girl from my previous job in the wine factory who could get me a bed in a house a little out the centre that overlooked the lake and mountains. By New Zealand standards, I had hit the backpacker jackpot.

I arrived to that house and saw a Kiwi guy dragging a bed out the front door and attaching it to the roof rack of his car. I stood and watched him curiously. “Don’t mind me” he said. “I’ll be outta your way in a sec.” He and his friend proceeded to lift the bed onto the car, throw some straps over it, tighten it up, then get in and drive off down the road. It was an interesting sight to arrive to, and also an illegal one I quickly discovered. The Kiwi had decided to steal the bed after being kicked out of the house by the landlady. And he wasn’t the only one. The landlady was in the process of kicking most tenants out after so many had failed to pay their rent, or moved in secretly to sleep on couches, or threw wild parties and damaged the house – as was evident by the gaping holes in the walls of the hallway. Over twenty people had been living in this seven bedroom house, and now over half of them would be kicked out to be replaced with a new set of backpackers, including my good, respectable self.

After settling in, I decided it was time to go out there and look for some sort of job that would support my temporary existence in this chaotic town. As always my CV was a mediocre read which wasn’t going to help me too much. Most jobs in Queenstown were in hospitality or tour agency work – both of which I had zero experience in. With this in mind I headed straight to a labour agency that was located on the outskirts of town. As soon as I walked in they took one look at me and saw what type of person I was – another drifting backpacker with no discernible skills or trade or talent. It turned out I was in the perfect place. A new DIY store was opening soon just outside of town and they needed a bunch of helper monkeys to assist the store’s staff with setting up the interior. They gave me my work helmet and high-vis vest; I was to get started the very next day.

Settling into the job was an easy affair and I soon made friends. The labour agency picked up and shipped off a group of people to the work site everyday. There must have been over fifteen people crammed into that mini-bus every morning, most of which were hungover or asleep. When we got to work we were given an inspiring team briefing before everyone dispersed and went and found ways to keep themselves busy with some simple task that would normally end up taking an entire day. The team itself consisted entirely of backpackers, all of which were male. Speaking to them all, it was clear that most of them were like me: young guys scraping by and travelling around in whatever way they could. Naturally this had led them to this no-skills required job. I thought I had been living like a bum but after a week it was clear that I was an amateur at fringe-living compared to this team of delinquent drifters. Among the team included: a Mexican eighteen year-old who had overstayed his visa and was working illegally; an English guy who was running away from debt collectors back home; an Irish guy who was penniless and sleeping in the town park; a dutch guy living in the back of his van; another English guy who arrived drunk and smelling of booze every morning; and a couple of guys who spent most of their time using the work materials to build items of furniture for their house they were renting. To single out the English guy as an alcoholic was a little unfair I quickly realised. Most people not only in this job, but also in this town, were living lives that left their livers and bank accounts in damaged states. The allure was simply too great. Every night the town’s bright neon lights shimmered below beside the lake – the enticing glow of a bunch of people partying and enjoying the temporary buzz of being young, free and far away from the suffocating world of normality back home.

Naturally it wasn’t long before I was lured into that lifestyle myself. Most weekends quickly became a blur of hedonistic partying. Sometimes there was some hiking or camping, but that usually involved large amounts of alcohol too. Not only did I have the influence of all the guys working at the labour agency, but also I had a house of about twenty people residing at the house. Coming home from work everyday, there was usually at least a couple of people knocking back the drinks and preparing to make an assault on the town centre. There was simply no escape. Chaotic weekends soon turned into chaotic weekdays. Summer was here and I could do nothing but prepare to strap myself in for the ride. The drinks had been served – the madness had begun.

Now in this life, a man or woman lives on their edge more than you think. So many people out there in those towns and cities are limping by in ways you can’t see on the surface. What a person needed to survive in this world was food, water, shelter and normally a drink or something to take the edge off existence. If you had those things, then you could get by in some rudimentary way. Well, like many people in this town, I was getting those things and not much else. After a while I was making it to work just three or four days a week. This was usually enough to afford rent and cheap groceries, and then concentrate on the main expense of enjoying the summer festivities of this chaotic town. The whole thing quickly began to feel like I was in some sort of amusement park where I would do just enough to afford the entrance fee and ride out the rollercoaster of life. The thought hit me: wasn’t that what life was anyway? Finding a way to get by and survive while trying to find time to actually enjoy the ride? Still, often I thought I had taken it too far. I was on the other side of the world from home and I had a tooth problem I couldn’t afford to address, my remaining clothes were now tattered and frayed, my passport was considerably damaged, and the lack of sleep I was getting left my mind in a constant state of delirium. Some days I awoke and stared into morning mirrors of realisation and saw the sanity slowly fading from my eyes. At this point it had also become clear that my plan to do some travels in Asia was down the drain, and instead I was just concentrating on surviving the summer here and making it back home when my visa finally expired. My two year trip was coming to an end and I wanted to go out in style. The neighbourhoods of normality beckoned back home and I was going to exploit this brief chance of living young, wild and free in a beautiful place.

And so onwards the descent into madness continued. House parties. Work parties. Festivals. Christmas. New year. My birthday. More house parties. Camping trips. Climbing mountains. Sleep deprivation. Sleeping with strangers. Sleeping with friends. Not sleeping at all. Eventually the job at the DIY store was finished and we were all left searching and fighting for whatever form of work the agency could give us. This included traffic wardening, furniture removal, construction, and, on some weeks, nothing at all. Consequently my bank account began to slowly sink down and down towards the depths of true poverty. I was slowly falling off that edge into the abyss of being homeless, penniless and possession-less on the other side of the world from home. Naturally I felt better knowing that I wasn’t alone in such a fate. By now I had become good friends with the English alcoholic James from work. Many nights we spent together getting twisted in town or down beside the lake. Hearing the stories from his life, it was clear that he had set up camp and made ‘the edge’ his home. The last years of his life back home had consisted of travelling around the U.K with a cheffing agency, staying in hotels and drinking heavily every night. After a couple of years he had finally saved up enough money to travel. He flew one-way to Bangkok and drove around South-East Asia for eight months on a motorbike before arriving here skint in Queenstown where he was now scraping by week by week, paycheck to paycheck, living in a hostel dorm with nothing but a few items of clothing to his name. Like the orc back in the wine factory, he was another man loitering precariously on the precipice of total destruction, all the while still managing to be an integrated, working member of society. Meeting all these random characters in New Zealand, I came to realise that in a way there was a little bit of this insanity inside all of us. I could see it in the orc’s eyes. I could see it in James’ eyes. And now, facing those morning mirrors of realisation, I could gradually begin to see it in my own eyes: the anarchy of the human mind that must be suppressed so we could all fit into society and get money to survive in some elementary and socially-acceptable way.

As the time went by, mine and James’ influence on each other slowly and surely caused us both to descend deeper into those pits of madness. On one temporary job we both took turns controlling the traffic flow into the town centre during a busy festival period. One of us would stand on the road and aggregate the traffic in and out of the city centre, while the other went next door to the bar to drink red wine and chat with our friends who were working there. Under the influence, we decided to blog and post our exploits online and quickly became famous in town as ‘the traffic terminators’. Many cars drove past waving and offering us free drinks and food. Some people took pictures with us. Journalists even came and interviewed us for the local newspaper. With our new found fame, we felt like the kings of Queenstown – two drifting backpackers, somehow the momentary heroes of this famous town. Of course we always tried to keep the town oblivious to the fact we were really just messing around and taking it in turns to go next door to the bar to drink and talk crap with our friends.

It wasn’t until we worked one job that I realised we had perhaps gone a little too far. Through the agency we had been tasked to help set up and take down the stage for a gig somewhere about half an hour outside of town. The deal was that if we set up the stage and took it down after, we could each get a free ticket to the show. Like responsible employees we set to the task in the early morning and helped finish off setting up the stage. Then, like irresponsible employees, we went back to town where we spent the afternoon in the sun by the lake joining in an all-day DJ party. What followed was a day of drinking, dancing, swimming in the lake, a free concert, and then swiftly being dismissed from the job of taking the stage down the second the supervisors saw the state of us after the gig.

It was safe to say that the owners of the labour agency hated us after that fiasco and consequently assigned us the worst jobs they could, or nothing at all. Either it was a day of no work, or a day of doing menial tasks alone at some millionaires house in the middle of nowhere for the minimum wage. By this point any hope of travelling in Asia was over and I was hoping that a week stopover in Bali would suffice. I now had just a few hundred dollars of borrowed money left in my account. The entropy of the universe had worked its force and slowly ground me down. I was now a man holding on – living life to the fullest you could before death and destruction claimed you totally. Still I kept holding on as I was nearing the flight, picking up the scraps of employment, counting the pennies, living off packs of instant noodles – napping on my lunch breaks to catch up on some sleep. In the meanwhile the house had become a circus of insanity. We had created a rota in which you had to sign in when you started drinking and then sign out when you stopped. This soon created a competitive nature amongst everyone and our house quickly became some sort of perpetual party. It was a literal madhouse in moments and often I went and stood alone on the balcony staring out at that beautiful lake view, appreciating that my life was truly more absurd than ever before.

Eventually the day had come and it was time to escape Queenstown with whatever remnants of sanity, money and possessions I had left. I took one last look in that mirror and realised I had done it; I had lasted out the summer – five months of utter chaos on the other side of the world. Good friends had come and gone, the original group of the house was now being broken apart – the time in paradise now over. I said goodbye to all the friends I had made there and headed alone as always again to the airport. I was flying to Bali with basically nothing but a few tattered items of clothing, a damaged liver and mind, a faded passport, and money that most likely was not going to be enough to get me completely home to the U.K. Still, I felt more alive than ever and as the plane took off, I looked out the window at Queenstown to soak in the last glimpse of the town below. It was then that I caught my reflection in the window pane. Staring deep into my tired eyes, I could see a specific stare now seared into my soul. It was the look of my English friend James. It was the look of the orc in the wine factory. It was the look of every crazed soul who was living their life precariously close to the edge of sanity and society, trying to live their life to the fullest they could without completely destroying themselves. I smiled to myself and then stared down at my shoes – beaten and battered and bruised – little bits of material hanging off the outer section. Right then I realised that the edge was a place I had gotten to know all too well whilst out on my travels. It was a place of chaos and madness – a place of fire and destruction. It was a place where I was going to be for a long time yet.

With that thought in mind, I ordered a red wine and toasted to the next adventure.