“Now here you go again
You say you want your freedom.
Well who am I to keep you down?
It’s only right that you should
Play the way you feel it.
But listen carefully to the sound
Of your loneliness like a heartbeat
Drives you mad.
In the stillness of remembering what you had,
And what you lost.”
– Fleetwood Mac, “Dreams”
The end of old chapters and the beginning of new ones is an interesting time in anyone’s life – you’re simultaneously excited by new possibilities and scared of losing what you already had. They allow a bit of introspective thinking. A lot of things crystallise at moments like these.
Unfortunately, your time of introspection and battles with self-doubt can make you insufferable to the people around you. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I decided a while ago that instead of looking for a job after finishing my journalism degree, I would hop on my bicycle in Vancouver, Canada and start riding south with the optimistic goal of, eventually, reaching Ushuaia, Argentina, where the road south and the South American continent finally run out. Since then I’ve been grappling with the decision to leave my family and some great friends for a solitary ride into a big unknown. Running away and all that. That Fleetwood Mac song above? Those lyrics are really resonating for me right now. Man.
Ugh. Let’s talk about something else.
In 1884 a 29-year-old Englishman named Thomas Stevens decided to ride his bicycle around the world, starting in San Francisco, where he was living at the time.
He’d be king of the hipsters if he was still around today.
The American west was still a harsh place in 1884. Stevens spent roughly one third of his journey to Boston, (which took 83 days) pushing and carrying his ungainly penny-farthing along rough wagon tracks and railroad paths. In his handlebar bag (which you can see in the likeness above) he carried no more than a spare shirt, a pair of socks, a waterproof coat that doubled as a tent, and a revolver. The gun wasn’t mere posturing – in Nevada he had to use it to scare off an approaching mountain lion. Upon his arrival in Boston, Stevens became the first person to cycle across North America, and he didn’t stop there. Several months later he caught a steamship to Liverpool and rode all the way through Europe and the Ottoman Empire to Afghanistan, where border authorities there blocked his overland route. Similarly barred from the Russian Empire, Stevens instead caught another ship to Karachi and rode across India to Calcutta, from where he sailed to Hong Kong. He cycled through China to Shanghai, across Japan and finished at Yokohama, from where he sailed east back to San Francisco again, over two years after he’d first left. Along the way he had been the guest of the Iranian shah, used his revolver to ward off bandits in the deserts of Eastern Turkey and Kurdistan, been chased by a rioting mob in China and survived countless other escapades.
A man named Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who heard Stevens speak at a bicycle club in Massachusetts, wrote about him like this:
“He seemed like Jules Verne telling his own wonderful performances, or like a contemporary Sinbad the Sailor … Instead of going round the world with a rifle, for the purpose of killing something – or with a bundle of tracts, in order to convert somebody – this bold youth simply went round the globe to see the people who were on it; and since he always had something to show them as interesting as anything that they could show him, he made his way among all nations.”
As undeserving as I am of the association, I’ve begun to feel a certain affinity for the man after spending the last hour or so reading about him. Those of you who know me have probably seen my tendency to turn a story into a performance, and Stevens spent a good twenty-five years chasing the best stories he could land himself in. Like him I am, in the words of my mum, “escaping gainful employment” for something far more reckless and, frankly, far more fun.
I’m under no illusions of grandeur – the route I’m planning is only a significant fraction of a bigger, established cycling route between Prudhoe Bay, at the northern end of Alaska, and Ushuaia. Trawling through cycling blogs online, I feel like an outsider among the gear obsessed, wiry-limbed, leather-skinned, hardened veterans who do this sort of thing.
My preparation thus far has consisted of:
- Riding my bike literally everywhere I go in Brisbane. There is nothing better than hitting the bottom of the hill on Paddington’s Latrobe Terrace after a big night out, and as your legs start to work you feel the increased blood flow pump alcohol through your system. Not only are you getting fitter (maybe?), but you’re getting a second taste of the night’s beer and rum.
- Hauling tourists around south bank and the city on a rickshaw/pedicab for extortionate prices. Perks include people watching, providing a service that people really seem to enjoy and being offered sexual favours in lieu of cash by drunks on the night shift. Cons include hauling over 200kg worth of bike and bogan up Eagle Street towards Fortitude Valley, the poor pay (due to my inability to hustle) and being offered sexual favours in lieu of cash by drunks on the night shift.
- Two weeks of cycle touring with my buddy Robbie from Newcastle to the Gold Coast, which proved that I really do enjoy this cycle touring business. This helps when you’ve already told everyone you know you’re about to go and ride 10,000 km through the Americas.
Robbie and our bikes, Reidy McSqueak and Baxter, on the road between Port Macquarie and Crescent Head, NSW.
It seems a bit arrogant to be telling people about what I’m going to attempt. I have very little experience, I am not prepared for any “worst case scenarios” and I have very little idea of my route beyond some casual scrolling on Google Maps. I don’t even think I have enough cash to make it the whole way, which will indeed make things interesting.
“It’s going to get pretty tough at times,” I said to a friend of a friend the other day, somehow only just realising this. Dave chuckled and nodded.
“Man, I hope it does. What’s the point otherwise?” was his reply. It made sense.
I’m also using this trip to help me raise money for the Australian Cancer Council’s Research Fund. The donations I receive will help them hurry up and find a cure to strains such as the murderous pancreatic variety that robbed my family of Kevin Caulfield, or “Uncle Kev” as I knew him. You can donate here.
You can follow my exploits right here on this blog, which I’ll be updating as regularly as I can.
So come September 14th, after only 13 months away, I’m going back to the Americas. My beloved Colombia lies about half way, and aside from pockets of that country and Peru, the whole thing is one big unknown. I take solace only in the fact that Thomas Stevens, once a farmer and a miner, simply decided one day to ride a bicycle around the world – and he didn’t even know how to ride one at the time. Also, I won’t be on a penny-farthing.