Wander no. 6

My parents went to considerable lengths to get my £30 bicycle up to Scotland for me. I sat in the kitchen on the morning of my departure, head still spinning from the jaegerbombs pawned off on me by my brother the night before, while they spent a good while outside in the cold November air, trying to figure out how to rig a bike rack to the back of their car. And two months after they’d dragged it up the length of the M6 for me, I wheeled it into Recyke-a-Bike and left with another. So long, sweet pal. We’d been together for just over four months. It was a good ride.

I’ve had my new wheels for about five weeks now, and in that time, I’ve learned how to take it apart and put it back together again, how to fix a flat, how to ride with my hands idly catching wind at my sides. I remember, not long before I left, I went on a bike ride around Preston with a fella that I’d been seeing at the time, and he told me that riding hands-free was one of the great milestones in the life of a casual cyclist, and I remember never once being able to do it as a child. But I can do it now, and it came to me so effortlessly that I wonder if it was ever really any great feat at all.

The first thing that I did when I moved to Stirling was ride to Dunblane. I’d been here for perhaps three days. It was mid-autumn. Everything was ablaze in deep orange. The distance was comparable to that travelled whenever I rode into work in England, over fields of pale green and down along the industrial canal. It was a breeze, but I never did it again. I cycle in and out of work every day here and I’ve cycled many times down past the abattoir and through the farmlands at the bottom of my road. I’ve cycled through the university campus. But it’s been three months and I haven’t been anywhere! I get such a buzz on the bike, and how desperate I’ve been to get out and ride!

So I gazed out of my kitchen window on Monday morning, staring despondently at the mist descending down over the foothills immediately behind the flat opposite; at the puddles of water in the parking lot, rippling in sudden uptakes of wind. It was my day off, it was the day!, and I stood in my kitchen, deliberating postponing the ride yet again. Not only was the weather questionable, but the ride that I’d been planning all this time took me down a road that had, that very morning, been closed for maintenance. For five weeks! I was too damn late.

But sack that, right? I grabbed my helmet and hit the road anyway.

I set off towards Stirling as I always do, and it was a battle to get my legs to cooperate and take me down the cycle path that runs along the railway tracks. But once we reached the end, near the pedestrian crossing that I dash across every morning, I turned left where I would’ve typically turned right, and suddenly they were up for the game.

I rode the entire eastern outskirts of town, from the bottom of the university to Bannockburn in the south; through industrial farmland, past the short smoke stacks that I can see from the dead centre of town every morning when they push steam out against a burning sunrise. I found myself underneath a railway bridge so short that I had to touch my chest to my handlebars to get beneath it, on a path so close to the stream that the cycle map pinned to my bedroom wall advises me to avoid it completely in the rain. I turned down off a busy A-road and onto the descent of a vast, suburban hill on the way back into town, and I saw the Ochils for the first time in all their glory to the north. Living far too close to them to really comprehend their size, I realised just how high we’d climbed when my cousin and I had scrambled to the top of Dumyat, their eastern-most peak, last month. I got lost for a while in Bannockburn, and when I finally made my way back into Stirling, I ditched my bike outside the Thistles and stumbled directly into Our Place, where I ate the best goddamn bowl of soup that I’ve ever had and flicked through the final pages of Ways of Seeing on my e-reader.

I slept for hours that night. I pushed through a nine-hour shift on Tuesday with so much energy, with such totally high spirits. The sensation that you get when you stare down at the road rushing underneath your feet is everlasting.

It was 18.9 kilometres in total. It was just precisely one-quarter of the distance of the race that I’ve signed up to do in September. It was nothing, but it was so goddamn fun, like cycling hands-free, half-asleep, to work under the rising sun.

Onwards, with nothing (/everything)

Tonight, I sat on a bench, and the bench itself sat perfectly parallel to the road, which ran parallel to the community pavilion building, which sat parallel to the playing grounds, which sat parallel to the river, which ran parallel to the railway tracks in the distance. I stared out towards them in the dark and waited for the passenger trains to race across my horizon – I caught two travelling south into Stirling proper and beyond, and then the much faster northbound service, headed perhaps to the Tayside coast or up to Inverness. Much closer, cars and cyclists and runners passed me on the road. My ass was wet on the bench and my hands reeked of the rubber cement that I’d used to patch a puncture on my bicycle tire. My head was in tatters, and I scarcely knew why.

Yesterday, I dumped half of my belongings into the clothing bank at the fire station. I felt immense, and still do. I don’t own much anyway, owing to a base character makeup of frugality and non-commitment, and when I’d moved up here in the first place, I’d abandoned half of what I’d owned then as well. I now own roughly a quarter of what I did three months ago, and the ultimate dream of whittling down my possessions into a single bag doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched as it did then.

I’ve been wondering how long I’ll stay in Stirling, and it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that it likely won’t be much longer. When is it appropriate to leave? I’ve got my eye on the Hebrides, on Dundee, on Aberdeen, on Kirkwall, but how do I get there? How do I stay there? The logistical distance between where I am and where I want to be always seems insurmountable and the restlessness builds and builds.

I feel sick and nervous. Suffocated and frustrated.

And so on.

And so, as it goes, I thought too much about the future and stormed out of my apartment, setting off towards the open air and the open arms of a panic attack. I thought too much about the words, and a heavy palpitation pounded in my chest; a thick, torrid thump that reminded me of the physicality of my blood and my body. “This is fine,” I told myself, capable now of coping with such sensations, and I sat down to stare out towards the trains until the January air sank through my coat and I began to feel cold again in the winter mist. I took the long way home, joining the river at the footbridge where it veers away from the tracks and towards the high street. And passing over it on the main road, I thought I spied a heron through the dark, standing stock-still on the edge of an ait. I called my dad to tell him about it. I told my mother that I wanted nothing more than to live out of my backpack and head elsewhere. And they said to me, 220 miles to the south, “why not?”

Why not?

 

On snowfall

Year after year, with the arrival of the solstice, I always feel a deep-seated disappointment at the fact that, come morning, the pendulum will begin to fall back in the other direction. There’s something about the inherent extremity of the solstice that attracts me in the weeks preceding, but the day itself is over far too quickly for me and I begin to lament its passing before its even out. This happens to me in the summer as well, but it bites more in December, when I get it into my head that the lengthening of the days must mean that it will no longer be cold, that the weather will no longer be severe and unreliable.

But the solstice marks the first day of winter, and year after year, come the January snow, I wonder how it is that I seem to remain so consistently ignorant of that fact. It’s the first day of winter!

I guess that growing up, the first snow often fell on Halloween – actually on the day itself. I spent so many years squeezed into my trademark pumpkin costume, gazing expectantly at the sky while I dragged my pops around the neighbourhood for candy, and I wasn’t often disappointed. But the snow falls here in January instead and I always feel surprised, almost as if it shouldn’t be falling at all if it can’t be bothered to start doing so in October. But 52 and a half weeks ago, I was descending into Ambleside from Loughrigg Fell with Harley, patting off a thick layer of snow from the top of his hood before we retired into the jam-packed Apple Pie Eating House; and two years ago, I was climbing into the Lakeside mountains with my then-girlfriend, collapsing into the fresh powder when we got to the top; and today, I stared out at the dark gray that hugged the horizon to the West and bled out into the pure white sky above me, and I knew that it’d come. And no sooner had I even formed that thought in my head than it did.

The lower Northwest – Lancashire, Manchester, coastal Merseyside, Cheshire even; the places that I lived and roamed – usually experiences the January snow in the form of a dismal sleet (hence, I suppose, my winter trips into the Lake District.) But this is my first winter in Scotland and it’s been falling properly for hours now, occasionally as a flurry, now heavier, burying the grit that was preemptively laid out by the council yesterday evening.

It’s no secret that I love the snow. I love the harsh Arctic wind that rattles against my windows and threatens to throw me into the Forth as I cycle over the old city bridge. I love sub-zeroes, and I know that when the clouds clear tonight, the temperatures will plummet, and tomorrow will be fresh. And I can’t wait.

 

On December 21, the sun was up for six hours and fifty-five minutes in central Scotland. It didn’t seem like a satisfactory number to me, and I longed to be somewhere where it was six hours and four minutes, or four hours and nineteen minutes. Or somewhere that won’t even see twilight until mid-March. But the solstice is arbitrary to the jet stream, to conflicting air masses from the Arctic and the Continent, to the Atlantic currents. Winter comes regardless, and thank goodness.

Glasgow (or, Wordlessness)

I went to Glasgow on a whim today. Halfway down the stairs of my apartment building, I decided that I’d give my legs a rest and take the train into town, and halfway to the station, I decided that if the train was ultimately bound for Glasgow, I’d get on it and go the distance. It was – and it was the express service – so I did. And from my perch on the pull-down seat next to the train doors, I watched as the impossibly picturesque Forth Valley gave way to the familiar industrial landscape that bleeds out from all city centres; and I was struck, not for the first time, by the realisation that central Scotland possesses a colour palette entirely different to that of the North of England. A green much less vibrant, marked with sandy browns and the deep maroon of a plant that I have no name for. And here, as the train rolled through Bishopbriggs, through Springburn, grays and whites appeared in the form of brick walls and rail-side birch trees. An aesthetic that I’d long since grown accustomed to, but entirely different at this latitude.

I’d taken this journey a week ago, in the early winter darkness, but it didn’t end when I disembarked at Queen Street. I’d fought against tides of festive families en route to the Christmas Markets and run blindly in the general direction of Central Station, anxious to get to my connection. But today, in the midday sun, I rolled out of the station with no set destination, hands wrapped around a surprisingly delicious flat white prepared for me by a station attendant, and I walked for hours.

And I’d arrived in the mood to write. The linguistic areas of my brain had already been illuminated, set alight late last night by a girl in love with poetry. So I saw everything and responded with language. The ginger babyface wrapped in a blanket and crouched on a piece of rotting cardboard on Argyle Street. The hasty Italian men that checked me as I idled at a crossing, breaking into a panicked sprint as they clocked the double-decker racing down the hill towards them. The crumbling buildings and 1990s store front facades, and the railway bridge that shoots out over the River Clyde, carrying passengers in and out out of the city on cross-country lines. And the kid with the denim jacket and leather bicycle seat, trying to weave his way up a busy pedestrianised high street; I envied his lifestyle momentarily, envied – as I often do in the places like this – the fact that he belonged to such a perfect dive, but I saw him hours later, wheeling his bike off the train in Stirling. Turns out that it was me, and I saw everything.

But I had no notebook with which I could bring this language into existence, so I ducked into Waterstones to buy one. But it was unbearably busy, and I was hot, and the notebooks were both substandard and overpriced. So I turned around and raced for the door, but my eyes, darting around as they do in these instances, fell upon a copy of Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. And I cannot overstate the profundity of this moment, for I both somehow stopped dead in my tracks and didn’t miss a beat in grabbing it and racing back towards the till. I’d forgotten my headache and my dizziness, and I’d forgotten all about my inherent frugality. I’d been looking for this book for almost two years, and here it was. A dude called Glenn titles his hyper-concise Goodreads review of this book as “the Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer“, and here we are.

Five weeks without a single word.

Five weeks of something, of everything, but five weeks with absolutely nothing to say.

Five weeks of frustration, of self-deprecation, of endless irritation at my lack of ability to conjure up anything at all, brought to a sudden end with an uncharacteristically impulsive trip to Glasgow. By a late-night conversation with someone who loves words as much as I do. By a series of beautiful accidents and questionable choices.

I haven’t read anything by Murakami in months, but I’ve thought about him often in these last couple of weeks. Poster-boy for dedication to the craft and everything that I lack.

Glasgow.

A reminder to do better, as always, next time around.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surmountable & insurmountable inclines

I’ve been here eleven days and all of my time has been spent in one of two ways – either loitering behind the counter at the coffee shop that allows me to pay rent (or rather, the coffee shop that allows me to be here) or with my ass glued to the saddle, pounding my way over the road in a manic attempt to see it all, to understand my landscape, to absorb everything as quickly as I am physically able. But late last week, I rode down through some farmland behind my house,and I took a wrong turn and ended up on an incline that my legs just couldn’t respond to. But I pushed my bike to the top, and when I got there, I caught sight of a Trossachs peak, just visible between the rolling hills that lined the long road I was standing on. Snow had fallen the night before and the sun was heading down and this mountain sprouted up in magnificent pink, one million miles away; almost close enough to touch but far too far for my legs to carry me to. Bitterly frustrated with my lack of stamina, I got back onto my bike and turned away from it all, racing back down towards the floodplain and dreaming that I’d get better, get stronger, go farther… eventually.

But in the couple of months that I’ve been cycling, I’ve neglected my feet as a means of legitimate transportation. Yet they’ve carried me much farther than my bicycle; miles upon miles, through cities, countries, continents. And on and on. So, earlier this week, given the opportunity to get away from the coffee house for a day, I set out alone for the hills behind the Bridge of Allan and I walked for four hours until the callouses on my feet – untried and untested for so long – had hardened to the point of agony. And here we are.

I’ve been disappointingly wordless for eleven days, but here’s the next best thing, from the hills:

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Nothing can happen (til you swing the bat)

Last night, I leant against a wooden telephone pole several streets from my grandmother’s home. I watched a plume of heavy smoke drift into the night sky from the foot of a nearby hill, carrying the light of the street lamps up with it and revealing the field of transmission towers that stood between us in its brilliant luminescence. I hadn’t seen a fire in a long time and my eyes searched, perhaps hungrier than they should’ve been, for the hint of a flame poking out between the houses. I never found one, but a firework went off above it all, and I wondered about that for a moment before I realised where I was and what it was all about. It was soon followed by another, and then another, and I pushed myself upright and stuffed my hands into my pockets. Conceding to the fact that the glimpse of a tiny bonfire was a poor replacement for the old wildfire that I really wanted to see, I carried on. Novo Amor sang out through my headphones. It was the third time yesterday that I’d aimlessly wandered around this neighbourhood.

I leave in 24 hours. I lasted five years and twelve days. I’ve been writing this out for over a week now, but I’ve struggled to maintain a consistent vibe because I’ve struggled to maintain a consistent feeling in my chest, oscillating constantly from one extreme to the other. I wanted to write about everything that I’d learned in the last five years, but last night, gazing out at the smoke and the pylons and the poorly executed light show, I realised that everything I’d learned was just a different rendering of the same exact lesson, and this is it: The only thing worth giving a damn about in this world are the folks in it, and absolutely nothing else. Nothing else at all.

But again, as ever, I can’t reconcile the love for my friends with the need to seek out my ever-unattainable original landscape. And what do I say here?  Do I need to leave because my parents accidentally gave me the beautiful gift of placelessness as a child, or do I need to leave because I grew up around lanky adolescents who talked about nothing but the Kerouacian dream? Do I need to leave because I can’t commit to anything for an extended period of time, or can I not commit because I still believe in the deepest part of my soul that the original landscape actually exists? You can’t build anything on unstable ground after all, but I was taught to always be wary of earthquakes and there is nothing more exhilarating than dashing out through the door when one hits.

Is this all in my head? Most definitely. And am I sorry? Most desperately, but also not at all. My mother always tells me that I would find a way to settle if I really wanted to, but I have found no way. And truth be told, I haven’t even looked.

My shoulders have grown broad and hair has sprouted up on my cheeks since I’ve been here, and everyone likes to tell me all about how much I’ve changed. But I am ever the scrawny seventeen year-old with sun-bleached brown hair and a battered old copy of L’etranger in my pocket. But listen, something significant has changed in me, and I no longer hold my friends at arm’s length, and I would travel the world over with any one of them if only they’d come with me. And I blame not one of them for staying put, because this place is endlessly beautiful.

I’m always hyper-aware and often times embarrassed that, whenever I sit down to write something here, every word that drops down from my fingers is tainted with pseudo-poetic bullshit, but I lack the means (read: the guts) to be direct about anything. So let me be explicit, let me be absolutely clear for just once: I am sad as hell to be leaving but I am happy as hell to be going, and this is the most wholesome feeling that I’ve ever known.

My palms have only just healed over from the first swing of the bat, but they itch now for another hit and I’m almost certain that they’ll never again sting like they did all those years ago. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to step down from the plate, I wonder if I’ll ever want to; and I can’t stop thinking about all the people who dragged me up there in the first place, the people who handed me the bat without even knowing it, the people who lightheartedly slapped me on the back as I clenched my teeth and willed my arms to stop shaking. If only I could express to them what it meant to me. Thanks ma, thanks pops, thanks Jamie, thanks Kim, and so on and on and on.

Scotland feels one million miles away, and the hilarity of that thought cannot be overstated. When I left Reno, I left Reno. I surrendered every right I had to abode there and cannot go back. I know that I’ll always be welcome here, but with the sharpest taste of irony in mouth, this action feels absolute in a way that that one never did. I’ve learned what happens when you can’t find your way but don’t turn around and run home, and it is nothing short of limitlessly glorious.

What do I say here?

I love you, I’ll miss you, I’ll see you soon.

Smoke that spreads out and covers everything

This story begins in the bookstore of Gothenburg’s Hasselblad Center. Sweden is surprisingly sweltering in the summer, but buckets of rain still fall from the sky and Katie and I race there on clunky city-scheme cycle hire bikes, pounding the pedals towards the ground in a near-vain attempt to get them to move forward through the sheets of water that are falling from the sky. We arrive drenched and spend the afternoon wandering from exhibition to exhibition until at long last, weirdly comfortable in our now-damp clothes, we come to the main attraction: the books.

I’ve long had a thing for Japanese photography and I immediately spy a tiny Daido Moriyama publication from afar. I make a beeline for it and crack it open. I land not on a photograph, but on two black pages – one blank, and one with the following written in white sans serif type:

For people like me, who don’t have a ‘home town’ to return to, who run after their dream of a ‘home town’, behaving like a spoiled child in spite of being old enough to know better, the idea of a ‘home town’ is a swollen utopia of countless childhood memory fragments. It’s something like the ‘original landscape’. I have to say that I was helplessly obsessed with Tono being the embodiment of my ‘home town’ dream – a place that existed only in my imagination.

Daido Moriyama, Tales of Tono

I blink and I read it over again and again. I don’t look at any of the photographs, and to this day I don’t know what Tono looks like. I reshelve the book and browse other titles. I go outside and the rain has stopped. I get back on the bike and Katie and I eventually continue southward to Lund, to Malmö, to Copenhagen. I come back to northern England, I get a job, I take a breather and get back to the grind, but the idea of the ever-allusive original landscape has burned itself into my soul and my psyche and I can’t let it go. I think about it every single day, but this is nothing new.

Rewind back to Chicago O’Hare in 2011. The immensity of my situation has hit me for the first time. I sit at my gate and stare at my one-way plane ticket to Manchester and begin to cry. Our departure is delayed, but I cry all the way through take-off with my coat pulled up around my face because it’s embarrassing to admit that my decisions are painful. This is the first time that I set out for this so-called original landscape, abandoning the place that I grew up for the place that I was born. As it happens, the original landscape isn’t where I thought it was. It fucks me up for years.

Rewind back to Reno-Tahoe International in 1999. My pops carries my dozing figure past gate-side slot machines and out through the baggage claim. I’m six years-old. My parents are excited and I’m malleable. I pick up a West Coast accent. I go to school in the suburbs. I grow older. I spend every other summer in England. I become increasingly aware of my cultural duality but I lack the words and the life experience required to adequately express myself. Unlike the Latin-American families around me, I am the only English person I know in Reno. I feel cheated out of familyhood and belonging. I am an adolescent and everything sucks, so I leave.

Fast-forward to the present day. It’s been three months since I was in Gothenburg, five years since I moved back to England, and seventeen years since I moved to the United States. As I write this, I’m sitting on a train rolling through the Central Belt of Scotland. I am moving here imminently. I came to discuss the feasibility of such a thing with the manager at the coffee shop that has been highlighted as a potential transfer location. It went well and, beyond high street shopping chains and shit weather, there is nothing here but everything unfamiliar to me. This is all I crave right now.

I’m conscious of sounding irreverently down on life, but do believe me when I say that I am no longer adrift in a sea of discontent. I’ve accepted my decisions and their consequences and I’ve learned to love my landscape, even if I hate it. I got myself a degree. I formed new friendships and made sure that I tended to them more carefully. I allowed myself to be dragged along on various exploits and my love and faith in the idea of moving around and experiencing the world was rekindled. I was able to recontextualise my upbringing; and I acknowledged that, coming from a working class background in the desolate and economically deprived north of England, it was an incredibly privileged thing for me to have ever even experienced. So, with those things in mind, I’m staring out into a misty field just outside of Edinburgh and setting myself in motion to move up to a place that, until yesterday, I’d never been; where I know nobody; and where I have absolutely nothing to rely on but my wage and whatever lessons have been imparted on me by life thus far. My inner compass drags me ever north and I have to believe that the original landscape – or the closest possible thing – lies in this general direction. So, here we are.

It could very well turn out to be another disaster, but here’s to that.