White smoke rising up off the coast

I stumbled into Bakarameistarinn before the sun had really even moved above the horizon, bleary-eyed and starving. I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but I was aiming for the Bonus in Kringlan, crossing the huge dual carriageway – heavy now with rush-hour traffic – that separated it from the residential block where I was staying. Once across, I’d trekked almost the entire perimeter of the shopping centre in search of a pedestrian entrance, only to discover that it didn’t open for another two and a half hours. My stomach, last satiated eleven hours ago with a Cup Noodle and snack-sized pot of Skyr, contracted sharply. I’d spent so long kicking around the city the day before that by the time I’d arrived at the Bonus on Laugavegur, it was too late. I’d already eaten all of my provisions – Scottish Tablet and a grab bag of salt & vinegar Kettle Chips that I’d picked up for the plane from the Sainbury’s outside Queen Street Station – so I’d taken refuge in the nearest corner convenience store, but that was too far away from me now. The bakery, immediately off the dual carriageway, reminded me of the sort back in the United States that serviced white collar commuters from the distant suburbs, but it’d have to do for now. And thus, I spent my first morning in Reykjavik, sitting at a bar at the window with a freshly baked cinnamon roll (which always taste much better straight out of a Scandi bakery) and a much-too-frothy flat white, watching the late-rising sun come up over the morning traffic. I was overjoyed.

I’ve been back in Scotland for over a month now and I have written nothing, but nothing is the same as it was then, when I sat in that bakery waiting for Bonus to open. Everything has changed, and Reykjavik is the tangible barrier between how things were before and how they are now, or perhaps it was the catalyst? I don’t know if the timing of that trip had turned out to be coincidental, or if the stark contrast of the landscape up north that I’d first seen from the plane as we glided over Reykjanes, the Southern Peninsula that houses Iceland’s only international airport, had jarred something in my head. But the last time that I did write here, a tiny entry executed on my phone as I sat alone on that empty flight, there was a sense of disbelief at the easy nature of what I’d done. Staring down at the black Atlantic as it lapped up against the snowy shoreside was absolutely no different to me than staring out at the Southern Uplands on the cross-country service back to England, and how important that sensation turned out to be. I’d longed for years to see Iceland, and it struck me as profound – beautifully so – to find that there was nothing extraordinary about it all. After all, there is little that I love more than spending a few hours on a train, rolling through the hills and heading to nowhere in particular.

I never left the city while I was there. My dorm-mates seemed to have dropped tens of thousands of krona on every over-priced excursion that was on offer, and my excuses to them about my decision to stay in Reykjavik became less defensive and more half-hearted the more I recited them. But I didn’t want to go to the Blue Lagoon or to Gullfoss or Seljalandsfoss or the Black Beach. I did want to go to Vik and I kept an eye on the auroral forecast, but all the same, I felt so soon after landing at Keflavik that this would not be the last time that I would be here. I wasn’t so much disinterested in the Icelandic wilderness as I was straight-up interested in Reykjavik, so instead, declaring my hostel as the true centre of the city, I took all roads that led out from it and I walked for miles in every direction. The woods, the financial district, the impossibly quiet residential areas, across the frozen lake that separates city hall from Háskóli Íslands, and always down to the waterside. I stopped and watched tiny planes take off from the domestic airport in the middle of town, headed out to Greenland and Egilsstaðir and Akureyri. I drank a lot of coffee (the best being from Kaffitár on Laugavegur, although I was sad as hell when I realised that I’d forgotten to hit up Reykjavik Roasters before I left) and very little beer. I read through Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow, and two issues of the Reykjavik Grapevine. I fired through nine rolls of 36-exposure film on my ex-partner’s point-and-shoot camera. And I listened to the Wooden Sky’s Let’s Be Ready on repeat for five days straight as I wound my way through the city, a Canadian rendering of such northern lands. I can hear Gavin Gardiner’s voice ringing out every time I think about it: “White smoke rising up off the coast / heaven surrounds me now.” In the lavatory of the plane on the way back home, I learned some Icelandic. Reyk means smoke; Reykjavik literally translates into “bay of smoke”, named such for the geothermal hot springs nearby. I think I laughed out loud when it dawned on me. Stupidly profound, really.

And all of it so commonplace. As a teenager, I’d created an image of this place that was shrouded in mysticism, taken primarily from my love of Sigur Rós and my lesser interest in the ancient Icelandic sagas. I can hardly remember now what I imagined it to be back then, because instead, I can see perfectly the view of Faxa Bay from the corner of Snorrabraut and Eriksgata. Iceland is invariably white, you know; the only respite from the monotone snowy ground and the overcast sky comes from the sea and the eccentrically coloured buildings downtown. But in this instant, as I stared down that long street, a busy thoroughfare for traffic, a spot of sunlight, low in the sky and brilliantly golden, broke through the clouds and landed on the lower slopes of Esja on the far side of the bay. It lingered just long enough for me to register that it was there. I turned my head towards Perlan on the hillside for a moment, and when I looked back, it was gone, and I carried on, hands deep in the pockets of my coat.

It was so banal, so goddamn beautiful, and finding myself in that instant was no trouble at all. A train, a bus, a plane, another bus, and miles upon miles of footwork over the ground. All of it so simple and agreeable to me, and isn’t that it? Gavin Gardiner’s voice is ringing out again, singing a much older song now: “You were born a fair-haired child of the valley / and though at times it felt that you were tethered to the ground / you’re not a stone.

Two weeks after I landed back in Scotland, I moved out of the ‘burbs and into a room closer to town. My new housemates, themselves recently moved in, are folks who’ve just decided to take a break of indeterminate (but not indefinite) length from the full nomadic lifestyle. I laughed out loud when it dawned on me. I’ve been so wrapped up in chasing something, in forcing a sense of purpose here, in elevating myself to something that means something to others, but why? If what I find truly satisfying is the sensation of my feet on the ground, running through the streets of a North Atlantic city, moving over the neutral tones of the airport carpet, down the centre aisle of a train racing southwards, or glued to the pedals of my bicycle as it races down the street at 15 kilometres an hour, then why? 

I came home one night a few weeks ago and retracted my enrolment on a postgraduate course at the University of Stirling. I completed the half-finished application for a work visa in New Zealand. It was approved three days later. And isn’t that it?

I don’t know, but I do think so.

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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?

 

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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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.