A few days of my life recently were mostly just cycling. Endless, painful, boring cycling. It wasn’t even anywhere particularly nice; a highlight of my journey involved crossing a huge, empty bridge, and staring down at the busy main road below. It looked like river of dull, faded colour, stretching back for miles, kids and adults and the elderly all reduced to the same static precision. The cars, without my glasses, blurred together the further back I cast my gaze, until they weren’t cars at all but a single, vague mass.
And there I was, standing on top of the bridge, my bum red and raw and my legs aching and tired. There I was, separate from all of that, but struggling in my own kind of way. I was distant from the consistently glum faces below but my face wasn’t exactly smiling, so, really, what was the point in me being up here? Why hadn’t I just gotten on a train or in a car like a normal person?
An itching to try something adventurous was what set me off. A strange, unquenchable thirst for something other than my day to day life. I’m going to university in a few months and am terrified, as I’ve very rarely if ever been thrust into such an unfamiliar situation. The people are what scare me, all those vaguely competent and mildly intelligent people. How can I compete with that? So I decided to scratch my itch, and give myself a little taste of something a whole lot less ordinary. Nothing too much, I didn’t have the time or willpower. But something weird and small would do. So there I was, hopping on my bike and setting off for anywhere.
When I reached that bridge, it had finally dawned on me what a stupid idea this was. I’m unfit and don’t go cycling much, so the whole cycling aspect of it was stupid. I hadn’t managed to find anywhere to sleep tonight, so even if I made it to my meagre destination I might be having a pretty bad time of it. And I was cycling through the middle of England, for god’s sake. This wasn’t a story I could tell people. This wasn’t conducive for personal growth and steadily increasing self-reliance. This was boring and stupid and a waste of time and money.
But it was kind of beautiful, that view from the bridge, in a peculiar sort of way. The sheer industrial size of it, the slight dizzying panic I felt from being so close to the edge of something so high. It wasn’t what people imagine when they think about a great long bike ride. But it was its own thing, and it was worth seeing. Once I caught my breath back, once I stood up a little so my backside stopped burning, once I closed my eyes and shook the anxious complaining from my mind, I felt pretty alright too. Because I had made it. A tiny, tiny first step along a journey much larger. But a first step all the same.
The doorstep mile is a phrase I’ve stolen from someone and somewhere I can’t remember. It’s the perfect explanation of what I felt on top of that bridge though. I felt like I’d completed that doorstep mile, and a few more after, and the rest of the journey, whatever it ended up being, could only be easier to handle.
Once I’d left the bridge I began to feel like I was so much more a part of the journey. I have real trouble in my normal life with days where I’m just down, moments in those days where I’m buried beneath a pile of gloomy anxiousness and regretful annoyance. Something I’ve found, though, when your body is engaged in the day just as much as your mind, is that they come together in a way they very rarely get to. Whether it’s on a great long walk, a row down a river, or, in my case, a stupidly boring cycle ride, the moments of deep anxious sadness often correlate with the moments where things get really, really tough.
I remember inching my way up a steep hill, gritting my teeth and snarling at the sky, progress unbearably slow, the intense effort I was putting in barely being registered in the bikes movement at all. I remember feeling intense anger and sadness and regret at the world and my future and my past. I remember feeling all those things I feel on the bad days, marching right alongside the burning in my thighs and the straining of my ankles. Then the cars started coming up and down the hill, and I had to keep myself right against the hedge row so as not to be in the way, and I kept pushing and growling and sweating-
I fell sideways into the hedge, and just lay there for half an hour. Cars stopped to see if I was alright. “Just resting” said I, the boy sprawled out in a hedge, bike twisted over him at an awkward angle. “Just taking a nice little rest.”
I remember too, however, reaching the top of one such hill, finally getting all the way up, having fought through the resistance of my body and my mind and seeing… Seeing… Seeing the most brilliant, beautiful, winding road, all downhill, gently curving this way and that. It was steep, and it was forever, and when I kicked myself forwards I felt the wind rush through my hair and I shouted into the sky. I was perfectly, untouchably happy, just for a few glorious moments.
There’s something so simple about going on a physically challenging journey, in that you can rely on elation and you can rely on sadness. Your body walks in step with your mind and where normally I’d find my smiles rudely interrupted by my frowns, there, on that journey, my happiness came and went in predictable waves, my sadness too. It was by no means a joyful experience but it was an experience that contained joy. That joy was at the world, at myself and the tiny little victories I had achieved. It was a joy that’s hard to come by in my ordinary days.
That joy is worth fighting for, I think. That joy is worth gritting your teeth through the pain and the boredom and the frustration. And so that’s the lesson I’ve learnt from this stupid little journey. That, and to pack light. Pack light as hell, lest you want your bum to look like a baboons. But most of all, fight for your joy about the world. It can be pretty hard to do, sometimes. But it’s worth it.