“I’d often dreamed of going West to see the country, always vaguely planning and never taking off ” Jack Kerouac
There was a thick red line running north through South America, projected onto my classroom whiteboard. After 2,000 miles the planned bike route doglegged east over the Andes mountains. It then continued across the Argentinian Pampas towards Paraguay before arcing back again through the Altiplano of Bolivia. It formed, I realized, a great big question mark over the South American continent – the unintended metaphor not all lost on my 10th Grade English class.
“I am quitting my job to go on an adventure,” I told them, and, looking over my shoulder for inspiration from the big red question mark, “adventuring means you’re sometimes unsure about what might happen. It means letting go.”
I thought I had rescued my air of uncertainty with that comment. The sniggering at the back quietened down. The speculation about me having been fired due to regularly arriving sweaty and late by bike (and for holding such off-topic lessons) seemed to be on hold.
Next I informed the class, “I will be going alone.” This came as little surprise to a front row student. (The previous week before school she had caught me patting down my helmet-hair and grabbing a necktie from a classroom filing cabinet. Later she pityingly asked, whilst nodding speculatively at my filing cabinets – “Do you live here?”) For the majority of the class, however, I could see this solo trip was quite out of the ordinary.
“There is,” I hedged, “a difference between loneliness and being alone.” And then, directed at the boy at the back -quietly refreshing his phone for social messages of personal approval – I tried to explain that being brave enough to travel with just my own thoughts and a bicycle was an important expression of self-love. “Perhaps the first and most important kind of love there is.” I planned to be alone, but hoped that in the future the decision would bring me closer to others. They kind of got that.
“And all my house,” I said, warming to my theme “will be on my bike” (Like I said, they digged metaphor and it drew some wry smiles and sarcastic comments about which pannier would accommodate the kitchen sink.) I explained how I’d chosen both front and back racks to distribute weight; a beautiful British Brooks saddle and a beetle green tent for camouflage whilst wild camping (see next post). “Choosing what to live without,” I said sagely “is a lesson in knowing what’s important to you.” Filing cabinet girl looked vindicated. The rest, however, looked just a little bit intrigued.
“But how will you know where to go,” a child astutely asked, “and isn’t everything in Foreign?” This initially worried me too, as it was a rather big journey; and I wasn’t at all fluent in Foreign yet. As a start, I’d chosen 5 tourist sights along the journey that moved me – a condor brushed mountain; a glacier that roared; a city on water; the road to the sky and a waterfall that carved countries. The red question mark showed the general route, and the remainder I would decipher from gestures and goodwill of locals, better maps found in country and anything else that came blowing in the wind.
“All right,” said one of the brightest students, “I get all that (making the peace sign) hippy stuff but what will you do for MONEY?” I explained that I already had my one-way plane ticket and, once I got there, I really didn’t expect to pay for much else. My accommodation each night would be wherever I chose to pitch my tent (with an ocean or a mountain view at no extra charge.) My transportation would be the two wheels I rolled on, and it’s fuel would be the food I cooked under the stars. A far cry perhaps from their experiences on family holidays to that point in their lives; but a few of them I could see were now smiling – captured by the mystery of an adventure.
At the end of the day, when all the students had left, I got changed into my bike clothes once again and hanged my tie with the crepe paper. I then turned the projector off and watched as the question mark slowly faded into the whiteboard.
Next Month: “Wild Nights On Cycle Tours!”
Call for comment
What plans have you got for taking off?
Do you find that talking through your ideas helps remove your doubts?
Matt Maynard is from the UK. He used to be a teacher but now is an outdoor journalist, environmentalist and photographer based in Santiago, Chile. (He did go on that bike trip to South America completing three quarters of the question mark before he met a very wonderful Chilean woman.)