On the Road
The boxes kept coming, endlessly recurring stacks of cardboard. I couldn’t speak Dutch so it was the only work I’d managed to pick up. The boxes would come, I’d open each one, compare the contents against a check sheet and then seal it. The enormous warehouse held a chill that belied the summer warmth outside. People milled about in fleeced uniforms, waiting for the signal, a school bell that regimented break time.
The people were friendly, and the few that I saw everyday exchanged brief smiles with me. But, even after a month of never ending boxes, I still didn’t know them. Years later, their faces will be a blur, their names will be forgotten, but those boxes, with their myriad electronic components, are still imprinted upon my mind.
It was time to move on. I’d woken that morning and realised I had to go. Living with my mother had brought me a sense of understanding, of who she was and in turn of who I was. I could stay another month, or a year, but nothing would become clearer.
I’d reached a crossroad, one in which I knew I could stop wallowing in the past and instead set upon my own path. I knew that I could look back at this moment without guilt, knowing that at least I’d tried.
As children blooming into adulthood we are plagued with paralysing questions, even more so the children of divorce. Questions that seem vital, that we hope will enlighten us and determine who we are. In truth there is no answer that can be given that will satisfy. Life is complex and only once you have lived enough years will you grasp a semblance of understanding.
I had many questions but I was there for only one: ‘what kind of person is my mother?’ At the time, that question was all important, it threatened my developing personality, it clawed incessantly at me from the inside. Somehow, I believed its answer would tell me why she’d cheated on my father when I’d been only two years old. Did she act knowing her consequence would be to lose her children?
To seek the answer to that question I’d left Scotland, after my degree, and gone to live with her in Netherlands. I was adamant that I wouldn’t be dependent on her so I got a job packing boxes, which was easy since I’d learnt from a young age not to depend on her.
What I learned in my time there is beyond simple explanation, suffice to say that spending over a month with her was an enlightenment in itself, boxes aside. My relationship with her became as functional as it would ever be and the clawing ceased. Like the stages of grief, all it comes down to in the end is acceptance. You can’t change a person, can’t dwell on the past or things that are outwith your control, all you can do is take people for who they are, and accept that life is bloody complicated.
Even though I knew I had to go, I had no idea what came next. I’d completed my further education only to realise it held no real meaning. So with a five figure debt from student loans and a few hundred euros to my name, I decided to explore Europe. By bicycle.
I took a faded green bicycle from Holland, it was built without gears to suit their famously flat landscapes and had been fated for a scrapyard. It was perfect. Then, with a large rucksack that held my meagre belongings, I set a course south west. There was a destination in mind, an area I’d worked in a few years prior; the Jura region in the south of France. The holiday season was drawing to a close, but I held a fondness and a familiarity to the area. It seemed as good a place as any to try to pick up work, little did I know I wouldn’t reach the cooling waters of the Cascades du Herisson. Wouldn’t swim again within its deep green pools whilst the waterfall cascaded refreshingly upon me.
For the first couple of days, the journey was idyllic. Long green flats stretched all the way to the horizon, dotted with the occasional rustic windmill. Like my pedals, their sails turned lazily under a still blue sky, enjoying the vestiges of a long summer. The breeze upon my bare legs and arms was pleasant, and I felt a part of a romantic summer novel.
Cycling all day proved meditative, a continual physical motion uninterrupted for hours. I’d calculated my distance, my funds and therefore my days. Each day I planned to cover 100km, a figure that after a couple of summer days felt achievable.
From my naivety developed numerous flaws, each one seeming in hindsight to be obvious, each one an unforgettable lesson. On night one I realised the first of these. Caught in a trance by the setting sun, I reflected on my mother and my past, and with a smile dreamed of where the road would take me. As darkness descended I’d not yet found a place to sleep.
My limited budget had no room for hotels but thanks to youthful eagerness it wouldn’t be a problem, for I had a hammock. I was, and remain, mostly ignorant as to the laws of sleeping by the side of the road in Europe. At such an age where mortality holds little relevance, so too are certain legalities inconsequential. Lawful standing aside, I still needed to find a suitable spot; two trees for anchorage, away from sight of the road. Daylight, strangely, hadn’t seemed important until that very moment.
I trundled along the road, a front light flickering like a firefly as the old dynamo rubbed against the wheel, my back like the dark side of the moon. Cars were infrequent, sudden shooting stars that blared their horns before passing into the night. When a small tangle of stumpy trees came into view it was with relief that I heaved my bike through the middle of them. I stooped as I hurriedly unpacked my hammock, hemmed in from all sides by what was really no more than overgrown shrubbery.
I’d imagined my hammock swinging gently in the breeze but instead it scraped against the ground like a beached whale, its two anchors straining to stay rooted. I lay there with my face plastered with a smile, this is adventure.
Out of the flats
Even though my hammock lay upon the soil I slept peacefully and long, awakening in high spirits. I laughed to myself at my own stupidity and simply took note of how to do a better job next time. As I began to spin my pedals I felt a great sense of wonder.
The borders at the south of the Netherlands jigsaw in and out of Belgium and Germany so that within a day’s ride I visited all three countries. Skirting along each, only realising the change of country by the welcome signs. Around midday I stopped by a clear stream to fill my water bottles and take the opportunity to enjoy some lunch.
Food for the most part consisted of granola cereal packed into a see-through bag, as well as a supply of bread rolls, cheeses and sandwich meats. As a student I’d lived off worse, and that had been an improvement on the food I grew up on. I struggled for years to get over my aversion to meat, but it turns out real animals, thankfully, bear little resemblance to chicken in a tin can.
The sun continued to shine and towards the end of the day I wheeled on into Germany. The border was wide open, the towns on either side equally picturesque. For me there appeared little initial difference. The German roads had additional signs, depicting whether or not they were suitable for use by tanks, the windmills died away and slowly the country began to undulate.
Apart from a brief stop, when I was enticed by the warm and comforting smell of freshly baked pastries, Germany passed quickly. That minor diversion aside, I’d avoided staying inside any built-up areas and had little in the way of human encounters. I relied on my journal to satiate my need for communication, of course I was still interacting only with myself but it helped me to escape the reiteration of looping thoughts.
I was distinctly aware that I was at a defining moment in my life, the simplicity of education was over and the safety of family was behind me. At the time I faced it with the casual ease of anyone aged 21, with naive and foolish confidence. I didn’t know where my future would take me, where my next meal would come from or if I’d find work, but none of that mattered. I was faced with a tougher question, one that is the result of western privilege; ‘what do I want to do with my life?’ Those who aren’t given a choice will envy those who do, they’ll consider us spoiled or pampered but in reality that choice is terrifying. Rather than create a sense of much needed belonging within society, you’ll always be questioning your place within it, always asking yourself if you made the right choice.
I did well in school, better in university, but neither of those things taught me about the real world or gave me a sense of purpose. My father and grandfather had been tradesmen, elevated through years of experience to engineers, they’d toiled and built things with their hands that I was simply shown on a screen. My father still remembers every lesson he learned in the workplace, forged through practice, while all the theory that was pushed at me fizzled away like morning dew.
Upon the border of Luxembourg I was met by the firm grip of the rain. By then I considered myself an expert at picking hammock spots, and with spare string looped above it I created a web like base, upon which I placed natural foliage to protect me from the elements. An evening of moderate showers showed my construction for what it truly was, a ridiculous collection of twigs and leaves that looked like a four-year-old’s art project. Stubbornly I feigned sleep, determined that my shelter was doing its job and that all I was really feeling was just a little bit of moisture from the damp air.
Come morning I knew I had to try to dry out my sleeping bag. Futilely, I stared at it for a while whilst it hung, slowly dripping water, from a branch. Rain petered on and off, but at no point did the sun come out to warm the air and I knew I’d have to look for a place to stay.
I pushed hard that day exceeding my 100km average, through the fairly empty but hilly countryside of Luxembourg to reach its one and only city by the same name. At times the hills became steep and I cursed my Dutch bike with no gears. The single cog of my back wheel turned slower and slower whilst I stood up to throw my weight, and that of my life-size rucksack, onto the pedals. Eventually it got too challenging for my little one-trick pony of transportation, and I was forced to walk.
My trainers and socks were soaked through and my wrinkled toes squelched uncomfortably, as I tramped up the hills, forming blisters. It wasn’t too bad, for every uphill struggle came a winding descent upon which I could freewheel.
The city juts out of the surrounding landscape on a sandstone formation that isn’t particularly high but makes up for it in staggering steepness. Enough grandeur remains of its fortifications and walls to give an instant appreciation for its military strategic significance throughout European history. The city itself spreads from the plateau to the gorges below, with a rich and varied architecture, from roman to renaissance, that is beautifully scenic.
By the time I reached the top I was grateful for the street lights and desperate to find a place to stay. Finding a hostel in those times consisted simply of looking and asking; in October 2006, smartphones were just around the corner and if TripAdvisor existed I’d certainly never heard of it. It was the golden age of the first internet cafes, but you certainly wouldn’t be having a coffee while checking emails.
I begrudged the €25 it would cost me for hostel for the night, knowing it was 10% of my budget I’d set aside for the next three months, but I needed a place to dry my sleeping bag. After I dumped my belongings and draped my damp smelling sleeping bag across exposed pipes in the basement laundry room, I ventured out to see the city.
In the heart of the city was a beautiful market of fresh foods and an array of blooming flowers, untainted by the peddling of cheap clothes and second hand electronics I was accustomed to seeing in such places.
I delayed leaving the next day and, catching a smile from a cute girl at the hostel reception, even wondered if perhaps I should stick around. However, I could feel my money belt chafing against my skin, pressuring me to keep moving. On the way I stopped by the train station, considering buying a one way ticket to Strasbourg to propel me forward on my journey, but even that was too dear for me. I lingered briefly to enjoy the fruits I’d picked up at the market, steeling myself for what was to come.
I dove down from that hill like an eagle, as if driven by the wind itself. Spirits had been restored, and I’d even bought some bin bags to help waterproof my future lairs.
Into the Floods
South from Luxembourg the road naturally followed the Moselle River into France, the rural nature of which surprised me with its simplicity. Small villages seemed plucked straight from a black and white arthouse movie set. Faded wooden shutters and peeling paint covered homes that looked ready to collapse. Modern cars were infrequent, and life appeared little affected by the turn of the last century. With so much rebuilding after World War II, it felt bizarre to encounter places which had seemingly gone unscathed and unaltered.
Autumn was coming into full swing and water ran off the roads as heavy showers passed above. My bin bags proved essential at keeping the worst of the rain off as I slept, but something always inevitably seemed to seep through. As I cycled, water swished up and onto my legs and the wind struck my face harshly.
There were still glimpses of blue sky, promising warmth if only I kept moving south. I hadn’t talked to anyone since Luxembourg, apart from a bonjour and a merci when buying some supplies, and my mind was venturing to strange places.
As an introvert I enjoy the silence, the opportunity to reflect on my thoughts. A few days in silence, with only my mind and my journal was an enlightening experience. I found moments of profound stillness, discovered hidden meanings in old memories and became completely connected to my emotions as my social barriers broke down. The less zen-like aspect, that people don’t often mention, is the desire to hear a voice, even if it’s just your own. An hour could slip by as I talked to myself in pretend accents. Days passed where I tried to sing lyrics to any song I could remember, only to inevitably realise I just kept repeating the chorus.
There is a fine line between finding peace, and being lonely. And, I find there’s a finer one between that and melancholy. So I kept singing the chorus, refusing to dwell on the friends and conveniences I’d left behind.
As I continued on my way, the clouds were always one step ahead of me. The roads became shallow pools and the Moselle burst its banks with ease.
Villagers gathered together to barricade doorways that had already lost the fight. Some formed chains to pass their belongings and furniture to higher ground. I wish I could say that I stopped to help, that I made some friends and was welcomed into the community. Instead, I pressed on for the imagined greener, dryer, pastures that awaited me ahead.
Beyond the bogged and bedraggled buildings, the road was blocked. The Moselle had consumed huge sections of it, forcing vehicles to stop, uncertain of the depth of water ahead of them. People got out of their cars to gape as a strange boy waded through. My trouser legs were rolled up to above the knee, in one hand I carried my shoes while the other pushed the bike. With the rucksack on my back I made slow progress but I did so with a light heart, enjoying every moment and waving to the drivers who watched me amble towards them.
I came to a fork in the road and neither direction was helpful. All I wanted was to continue south unimpeded but the junction ran east to west, where to the east lay Nancy and to the west, Toul. I’ve never seen Toul but I wish I’d given it a go because the road to Nancy forced me, however briefly onto a motorway, and the city itself seemed as hilly as Luxembourg.
The detour cost me a lot of time, the hill even more and I had no desire to sleep within the city. It was with regret that I found myself cycling once more through dusk. With desperation I found myself wading towards a few isolated trees, the swampy ground threatening to devour my trainers.
Despite the panic and fumbling in the dark to assemble my hammock, my bin bags proved their worth and kept me dry, for the most part. Exhausted, I slept right through the night. In the morning as I prepared to pack up I realised my rucksack had become overrun by woodlouse who had fled upwards, like me, to gain dry ground. With great care I scraped every inch of my bag clean but even so, as I cycled away, every gust of wind upon my neck seemed a creepy crawler.
There was no respite in the rain over the next day. Long, continuous days on the saddle started to take their toll and the constant battering from the heavens certainly wasn’t helping. When your bottom feels like a soggy and bruised peach you know it’s time to take a break.
It was not yet noon when I passed a small cluster of rural houses and clambered over a fence to enter a wooded area. With the fatigue and weather combined against me, I decided to take a half day to rest and make sure I had a solid shelter. After securing my hammock, I painstakingly began work on the roof. I placed black bin bags across several lengths of string, and then finished my construction by laying leafy branches atop it.
Confined to a space more cramped than a coffin, I spent the afternoon within my sheltered hammock, for the most part in enforced meditation.
The sky churned thick grey clouds around and against each other, until all was a roiling blackness. My shelter succeeded in keeping me dry and that was all I needed to be happy. To the background of continual patter, I contemplated my will, wondering who meant the most to me and what, if anything, I had of worth to pass on. The list was short but not without meaning. For the most part I considered my will would be more about documenting my love for family and friends. In the absence of company, sentiment flooded through me.
I’d spent all my time between university semesters trying to explore the world, trying to better myself. Volunteering in Africa, working in holiday camps in Europe, dreaming of more and more exotic places. These pursuits meant I’d rarely returned home, they meant I’d missed a few family events and not reconnected with school friends. My adventures had been amazing but for the first time I realised there had been a cost. What struck me most was the realisation that I’d always resented my mother for her absence, and yet I too seemed to flit through life without attachment.
That night all my preparation proved futile, I slept briefly but the rain endured over all else. I was awoken with a splash. Drenched beyond all redemption. For many hours my shelter had been collecting water that slowly formed a trapped bubble. The moon was still high when it finally burst upon me.
I bounced into action, throwing my sleeping bag into a waterproof liner before it could get any wetter. A chill crept into my bones as I did my best to rebuild the shelter, and I was too wet by the time it was finished for it to serve any purpose. It wasn’t yet midnight and my heart sank as I realised it would be eight hours till dawn. There was no option other than to wait it out and only really one way to stay warm; dancing. My mind was stuck on a loop, limited to a song that reflected my body motions: Shake Your Booty, by KC and The Sunshine Band. And I did.
I don’t recall how many times I shook my booty that night, only that it could have been a contender for a world record, and that it wasn’t enough. The night was still young and my brain couldn’t conjure another song nor bring itself to shake anymore.
Mindlessly I set to running along country roads. After a few kilometres I reached an isolated house, where a small yellow porch light beckoned to me. And underneath the protruding roof, dry as a bone, was a three legged stool. Never before or since have I sat upon a stranger’s front door through the night. It’s strange to think I’ll always be grateful to someone I haven’t met.
When dawn pushed back against the darkness I fled my haven, bizarrely concerned with being caught. Fortunately, the heavens had thrown down everything it could and the sky was drained. I doubt my resolve could have lasted another hour.
There is something frighteningly primal in sleeping wild in a foreign place. Knowing that you have no money and no back up plan. Then, when nature itself seems to conspire against you, it is easy to understand the origin of legends, of gods. Easier still to find yourself emotionally overwhelmed.
That night remains the longest and most difficult of my life, even compared to a couple of instances where I’d found myself sleeping rough on some city street. Yet what stays with me most isn’t the sense of dread but the elation that followed it. A euphoric realisation of how simple life really can be. Good company, close friends and a place to call home. Sometimes I still question what I’m doing with my life but whenever things seem hard I try to remember what it all boils down to.
Although the sky had dried up, tears flowed freely that day, over something as simple as realising how important my family and friends were to me. I understood that self-discovery doesn’t have to be a solo adventure. Physically, my journey didn’t end that day, or the day after that, but it might as well have for I’d found an answer to my questions. I realised it didn’t matter what I would do with my life, as long as I was there for those I loved, to be a man who could be trusted and relied upon no matter what.