Stop that train, I'm leaving

An old friend in Melbourne asked me yesterday "are you scared?" Yes. I am. Though perhaps not in the way that might be expected.

The start of it all, particularly when I was guiding, was that ubiquitous question, "so, what do you do?" Think about that for a minute, in the context of someone asking a guide who's working jolly hard on the track and saving his or her pennies. It's actually a bit insulting, although it's not intended that way. It reads as "so, what's your real job? [seeing as this guiding jaunt is obviously temporary]" I'm quite happy to explain that I've been doing a fair whack of quite different things over the last few years, from medical school to filmmaking. And this winter, I'll set off on a fourteen-month cycle journey, from Hobart to Helsinki, through Central Asia.


That's a gulp on the other person's side. Sometimes, it's as if you've said you want and go dig graves for a living.

...we could have watched Wolf Creek too many times. I've, so far, not watched it.
The best response, by far (and I assure you it happens often enough to keep me happy) is "By gum! What an adventure! When do you begin?" The classic, from a marvellous feisty guest called Trish on my last guiding trip, was "What! And you're cycling through Central Australia, too? The whole place is full of nutters!" She really meant it, in a Trish kind of way, and it didn't help that she knew a lot of them as a result of managing a whole lot of hospitals. She reckoned that all the most dangerous mental health patients discharged from 'her' hospitals on the East Coast jumped into their cars and headed straight for the Red Centre, favoured route of equally loopy cycle adventurers. Libby, halfway through my conversation with Trish, piped up from doing the washing up: "you're just as vulnerable on a bike as backpacker, you know". And they don't describe Central Australia's population as 'murderers, miscreants and misfits' for nothing.

Ah. Or we could have watched Wolf Creek too many times. I've, so far, not watched it.

Multiple mothers aside, I woke up in a cold sweat that first morning I decided that I really was going to cycle to Helsinki. I'd had a passing, quickly squashed idea previously. Then for some unkown reason I woke up at 3am in the morning. Awake just like that, with one idea in my mind: I'm cycling to Helsinki. Cycling. And back to sleep. That morning, and the next, and each morning for the next week, I woke with the heebie jeebies at the thought of how enormous, how impossible, how insane that idea was.

But you know what, the thing that was so, so frightening about that decision was only partly the unknown that lay beyond. A good swag of reading from excellent guidebooks, accounts from cyclists who have actually done it and some good route planning in atlases - it's very comforting moving from country to country with the flick of a page - a good deal of research put paid to the unknown factor.

I'm feeling like I've just unclipped the weights from my feet
The scariest thing of all is saying no to a conventional career, jumping off that grinding, squeaking conveyor belt of conventional life. No, I'm not going to university, no, I'm not doing any more courses, no, I'm not looking for a job, and no, I'm most certainly not getting a mortgage and 2.5 kids. Having a great wee house somewhere, sometime and a partner to share it with IS very important to me, but I don't want it right now. How bizarre it is though, to be in Hobart with my friends around me, and a good proportion of them are beginning to look for houses and settle into serious careers and serious relationships. They're settling down, whereas I'm feeling like I've just unclipped the weights from my feet and learnt to spread my wings. Let's just hope that I manage to fly on my first flight.

As Peter Tosh sings:

Stop that train I'm leaving
It won't be too long whether I'm right or wrong
I said it won't be too long whether I'm right or wrong

All my good life I've been a lonely man
Teaching the people who don't overstan'
And even though I've tried my bes'
I still don't find no happiness

I find the expectation to find a Job with a capital J and pursue a conventional career path absolutely stifling, even a very worthwhile career like practicing medicine with an organisation like Medicins sans Frontieres.

A memory of trekking in a very remote area of Nepal is like a pool of light in what was a struggle to motivate myself through medical school. Having discovered a very little-known village after three days' solo walk not seeing a soul and bivvying rough in abandoned villages, I'd managed to find the only Nepali speaker and a bed as well. I was absolutely purely happy. The next day, up in the mountains above the barely visible collection of stone houses and monastery, I wrote the preface of the book I wanted to write about the trip. I never wrote the rest of that book.

I returned to medicine and the fog descended again. Looking out the windows of libraries, the edges of my textbooks became distant horizons, and the anatomy of surgical patients became mountains in my mind. This journey is a return to that happiness, which had its origin in pursuing truly that which I love to do.

So, am I scared?

I'm not scared about the physical risks. There are so many 'what ifs' that I can't possible prepare for every one of them, though I'm certainly doing my best. But if I worried about each and every one of them, I simply would not sleep and simply would not go. I think that's why most people opt to go to bed in their homes each night and not to embark on an expedition like this: we're conditioned in this age of safe playgrounds and bandaids to avoid risk. The fascination with adventurers is in part a Western vicarious living, a substitute for physical risk when our lives are the safest and healthiest they've ever been.

I am scared about leaving a life behind. Leaving medicine one and a half years ago was a huge step. Immediately I took that decision the clarity of a course and a career mapping out my life decisions for me in the next 10 years fell away. I was very priviledged to be admitted to an excellent natural history filmmaking course in New Zealand: but again being in a course was not the right place to be. If was going to make a go of it myself, I wanted to do it my way, and that meant trekking off doing my own thing. I'm leaving behind a life that's secure, easy and with friends and family close at hand.

I'm trying to make my own way by doing what I feel happiest doing: travelling, writing and photgraphing
In place of comfortable but unsatisfying existence, I'm trying to make my own way by doing what I feel happiest doing: travelling, writing and photgraphing, so I can show other people what I've seen and experienced. For the first time, I've given it the time and effort of a real and valid thing to do. I'm still writing simply as myself, but am opening up that product to whoever wants to read and see my work. That's why this site exists. Despite what others may think, however many people say it sounds like a holiday, and however unlike a conventional career it may be, this journey is now my job.

And that's actually incredibly exciting. Get the bike, I'm leaving.


Digg this

Enjoyed reading? Consider supporting future entries with a donation.


Copyright © 2007 Nick McIntosh. All rights reserved.

All web design, web construction, interviews and photography by Nick McIntosh