and when you pack a duffel bag and plan
on the gratuitous
— Marilyn Hacker
I’d been dreaming about it all winter, as my body healed from the surgery last summer. I got stronger, and it seemed to me I could hear the bicycle more and more clearly. For months it had been propped against the bedroom wall, each morning, the first thing my eyes opened to. The bicycle wanted to fulfil its promise, the reason I had had it made, the purpose for which I had called it into existence.
I wanted to ride it, under my own power, at my own speed, to roam around France. And Germany. Maybe Switzerland. Wherever. Without bookings, without reservations. Free to encounter whatever and whomever. Turn the future once more into a secret.
So I did that.
My passion for travelling this way has literary roots.
First, J.R.R. Tolkien. When I was nine, The Hobbit taught me adventures begin at your front door. You start on the most familiar of roads, the road on which you live. As you follow it, the world becomes less and less familiar. “The road goes ever on,” wrote Tolkien, a great walker himself.
And you don’t need a car or a ticket. When he sets off on a journey in The Glass Bead Game, Joseph Knecht just picks up a stick and a knapsack and sets off on foot.
The theme is taken up by Roger Zelazny in Nine Princes in Amber: start in the everyday, move slowly and steadily into the magical. Hard to say where the border is. (Certainly, nearer than you thought.) If you’re Charles de Lint in Canada, it’s a house in the next street.
Even a journey of a thousand miles starts beneath your sandals.
— Zen proverb
This is quite distinct from the ‘portal’ genre of fantasy, which places some discontinuity between two worlds. Stephen Donaldson uses a blackout in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. C.S. Lewis, a wardrobe; Philip Pullman, a slit in the fabric of reality.
I’m a terrible tourist. I can’t bear to treat places as if they were rides in a theme park, to entertain or instruct me.
I once attempted a taxonomy of journeys.
The first three all have expected outcomes: you know in advance when you’ll be done. The last is open-ended. You don’t know what or whom you’ll find, and you don’t know how you’ll react. And that is the point. You are willing to be changed by the journey.
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
— T.S. Eliot
The journey may be secular, but its archetype is the pilgrimage. There’s a story you’ve heard or read, and you want to see its location. Something in the story touched you – otherwise you wouldn’t care. There is an element of reverence, of willingness to be changed by your experience.
My first model for this was a fairly awful 1934 novel by Victor Canning, Mr Finchley Discovers His England. Mr Finchley is a timid middle-aged clerk in London, who has never had a holiday. His employer insists, and Finchley, a bachelor, books a fortnight in a Margate boarding house. He never gets there. On his way out of town he is caught up in a bank robbery, escapes the robbers, fears the police will consider him an accessory, and goes on the lam in the West Country on foot and bicycle.
The covert journey on foot echoes (for me) The Lord of the Rings and Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male. Zelazny does it superbly in Isle of the Dead. And it’s resurrected this century in Channel 4’s reality TV Hunted.
Finchley finds his feet, learns to use doss houses (they used to be a thing), begs for work, enjoys the fresh air, and meets people he wouldn’t normally speak to. He returns to London invigorated, sunburned, and with a new confidence. There’s more than a smack here of G.K. Chesterton’s idealisation of the working class in “The Secret People” and “The Rolling English Road”.
We‘re also into the genre that became the road movie. H.G. Wells gave us The Wheels of Chance; Jack Kerouac gave us On The Road, and we got Easy Rider. The romance of the road has its cost. As Kris Kristofferson put it in “Me and Bobby McGee”:
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose
(Director Monte Hellman said that the song was “a major character” in his film Two Lane Blacktop.
No apologies for the Mr Finchley spoilers. I really don’t think you want to find and read this novel.
In contrast, I strongly recommend Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. In this sequel to the better-known Cider With Rosie he tells of taking the ferry to Spain, disembarking at dawn in Santander, walking through the town into the hills beyond and keeping going. No map, no money, no Spanish. He gets dehydrated, and plays the fiddle to thank the villagers who rescue him. He learns Spanish as he walks from village to village, playing his fiddle in return for hospitality.
His confidence in the world is breathtaking. I read ten years ago of someone who wondered whether Lee’s journey could still be made in our hyper-connected world, and tried walking through France, playing his guitar in return for food and shelter.
Still works, he says.
There are networks for this now. Couchsurfing was started to “change the world, one sofa at a time”. Warm Showers helps cyclists host each other. You can be an itinerant farmworker with WWOOF. And it’s hard to cross France without bumping into a pilgrim heading for the Camiño de Santiago.
But there’s nothing like leaving it all unplanned. “Riding with Sir N. Dipity,” as a friend of mine puts it.
Here’s a taste of slow cycle travel from 65… and back on the bike.
Arise, Sir Night, and find your way.