Crazy Trip Dispatch: Aftermath from Doug WalshI asked Doug to write about what it felt like when his incredible trip was over, and here's what he sent me.
DISPATCH #10: SNOQUALMIE, WASHINGTON, USA
APRIL 26, 2016
It took more than three months before I felt comfortable being home. Three months before I was able to finally get my thick-headed subconscious to understand that I needn’t spend my waking minutes wondering where we’re going to sleep, where we’re going to get food and water. Three months before I was able to quiet a mind that had run at full throttle for two years.
That’s right, we’re home — and have been since December 12th. I’ll explain.
My last dispatch, dated September 15th, was from the middle of Turkey. We were en route to Istanbul before returning to Piraeus, Greece where we’d catch a cargo ship to Malaysia. We did all of that. But right before getting on that ship, my wife’s former employer emailed her an offer we couldn’t refuse. Instead of spending the winter cycling north through Southeast Asia, we pedaled 50 miles to Singapore, had the bikes and gear shipped home, and then returned to Bali for a month of relaxation and celebration. That we didn’t look back or shed a tear as we left our bikes to be boxed up was all the indication we needed to know the time was right. The trip had come to an end.
And now we’re back in the Pacific Northwest, renting an over-priced townhome a mile from our old house, a house now worth nearly thirty-percent more than we sold it for just two years ago. Oh well. We’ve seen all of our friends, shared meals with everyone who ever took an interest in our trip, and have finally run out of questions to answer and tales to tell. My wife had gone back to work at her old employer in downtown Seattle, albeit with a promotion, and I spend my day’s working on the novel I began brainstorming while cycling through the Pyrenees. I’ve also resumed writing video game strategy guides for my old publisher. My first book since coming home will release in two weeks.
Somehow, through a blend of hard work, luck, and Providence, we managed to step right back into our old lives as if we never left. Perhaps even better.
But what about the culture shock of reentry? Wasn’t it hard to spend all that time abroad and then return to the United States?
The challenges we faced returning to the United States had very little to do with culture shock. And the reason I say that is because, in some ways, we never truly left. Because of our blog, social media, and regular phone calls with family, we never actually got that isolation from American culture and news that we had anticipated. Part of it is because the world has grown smaller with technology and much of the world stays abreast of International news — news often dominated by U.S. politics and shootings. Also, we spent the first several months of our trip cycling across North America. Then, six months later, we returned to spend time with my wife’s ailing father. A few months after that, we returned again for his memorial service.
The profound culture shock long-term travelers expect is, in my opinion, very hard to experience in this digital age unless you do one of two things. One option is to truly commit yourself to going off-line: no Facebook, no regular contact with friends and family back home, and no YouTube or cable news. Another option, and one even more difficult for overland travelers like ourselves, is to jump directly between countries that are known to have vastly different cultures.
By bicycling west to east we were able to wade into the varying cultures of the world and see the subtler shifts and influences culture and history have on a given region. It was only in those times where we transited directly between two different, distant, countries that we encountered true culture shock: Morocco to Italy by ferry; Italy to Florida after spending six months in Europe; loud, brash New Jersey to Japan; and clean, peaceful Japan to chaotic, noisy Indonesia. I’ll never forget spending a month in rural Morocco, getting on a ferry, and then 72 hours later waking up in a Christmas village in downtown Livorno, Italy. A complete mind-melter.
No, returning home didn’t provide much culture shock. It was more like cultural disappointment, particularly when it came to food. We often find ourselves longing for the higher quality and lower cost of Mediterranean produce. We stare at the paltry baked goods on sale at cafes here in the USA and think about the decadent pastries on offer in France for a fraction of the cost of a factory-made muffin. And don’t get me started on the amazing fruit in Indonesia. Other difficulties involved the socio-political disappointments we felt highlighted by the — ahem — quality of the discourse surrounding the current Presidential election.
But the hardest part about returning home, for me, was allowing the stress to dissipate. For the better part of two years, the pressure of navigating foreign countries enveloped me. Every day, usually in areas where few people spoke English, I was responsible for navigation, finding safe shelter, food and water. My wife assisted, of course, but day-to-day logistics fell under my list of responsibilities. And even when we were holed up in a hotel for a few days and knew exactly where our daily necessities were being fulfilled, my mind still raced with the anticipation and anxiety of where we were headed next.
What’s next? What’s next? Every day over and over, for two years I worried about what was next.
As much as I enjoyed our travels and am terrifically proud of having undertaken such a trip, the day-to-day stresses weighed on me like a lead blanket in the dentist’s chair. And though many of the areas we traveled through were very conducive for bicycle touring, there was always an uncertainty bubbling beneath the surface, kept simmering by the need to constantly monitor our spending and out of concern for family, for employment, and for our future. Even home, back in our old town, it took me several months to finally quiet my mind and allow myself to relax, to adjust to the comfort and security of this life we enjoy.
The act of simply being in the moment proved far harder than the 13,000 miles we cycled, more difficult than the nearly 500,000 feet of hills and mountains we ascended.
I sometimes get asked if I’m sad the trip is over. The first time someone asked this, I didn’t know how to answer. After a couple of weeks of fielding questions about our trip, I found myself sharing stories about the struggles and lowlights. Part of it was a self-effacing instinct to deflect attention and jealousy — I could never get comfortable hearing people say they live vicariously through me. But more than that, I was reminding myself of the difficulties we faced in order to postpone my mourning it was over.
For nearly seven years we saved our money, researched gear, and planned our route. And for twenty- one months we traveled. Like few people ever get to do. And then… poof! It was over. And we’re back home. And life goes on. And the trip gradually becomes a distant memory.
I think of the trip not only as this amazing thing we did but as having had a life of its own. It became a friend, a lover. And then it passed from our world. But unlike when a family member or a pet dies, I don’t find comfort in reminiscing about the good times we shared. That only makes me miss it more. It makes me want to pack up the bikes and head right back out onto the road again. Maybe south this time? Instead I think of the hard times, the times when it wasn’t really all that fun. The times when the sun was setting and it seemed like we’d ridden eighty miles without finding a suitable place to pitch our tent. The times when it was a hundred and ten degrees, we were out of water, and the earsplitting chirp of the cicadas kept us awake all night long. I find myself dwelling on these more trying moments to remind myself that I am glad to be home and, lest I forget, that endless travel is hard. Sometimes much harder than ordinary living.
But those times were few. They really were. Every aspect of the trip went as well as we had any right to ever hope for. And we are glad to be home; we love it here. Bicycle touring around the world is a hell of an adventure. But it’s not the only one. We’ve got plenty of bite-sized adventures in store for this year and years to come.
Though not nearly as exciting as making it from Seattle to Singapore by bicycle and ship, I have begun work on a novel inspired by our trip. I first came up with the idea while in Spain and then spent most of our time at sea and in Bali working on the outline. You can lean more about my upcoming work-in-progress, Tailwinds Past Florence, and my experience as a first-time novelist at www.dougwalsh.com.
Thank you for reading.