I was happy but happy is an adult word. You don’t have to ask a child about happy, you see it. They are or they are not. Adults talk about being happy because largely they are not. Talking about it is the same as trying to catch the wind. Much easier to let it blow all over you.
The Passion, Jeanette Winterson
If it wasn’t for all of the rubbish on the ground I could have been back home. Puddled woodland trails had given way to the scrub and scent of Eucalypt forest. I was on a gentle downhill, the kind which lets your ego believe you had just become really buff lately, when the familiar twang of an Australian accent brought me to a stop. Standing among the trees with a beat up touring bike was a tall, fit, blonde woman in her 40’s. With her khaki clothes and gaitered boots she looked like the archetypal Aussie bush whacker; Steve Irwin with breasts.
She was one in an international mix of pilgrims heading to what the Romans called the ‘end of the world’, or what others call the coast of north-west Spain. If the medieval Catholic’s were right ‘The Way of St James’ was one of three pilgrimages on which all sins could be forgiven. Furthermore, if a Compostela (certificate of proof) was obtained, it would result in 50% off purgatory, or a full get-out-of-purgatory-free-card on a ‘Holy Year’. Not a bad investment in the afterlife for all you sinners out there.
My Aussie mate’s motivations were slightly different. As I fixed up her back brake pads (no euphemism intended!) I learnt she was an animal rescuer suffering from chronic depression. When asked the ‘why the pilgrimage?’ question, she responded ‘either that or a long swim’. We talked about the concept of ‘cycle therapy’, which she was finding more helpful than any ‘psychotherapy’. When she returned home for snake season she was looking forward to ‘pissing off with her bike around Australia’ to keep the blues at bay.
It is no secret that muddled war veterans, the depressed, schizophrenics, and the completely sane have all enjoyed the beneficial side effects of the wandering life. Along the way we have met a colourful array of travelers, but perhaps nobody radiated as much joy and contentment as a solo Frenchman travelling with 2 wheels of a very different kind. No pedals were involved, just a standard airplane cabin suitcase which he had dragged for thousands of kilometers behind him. The rocky cliffs of Cabo de Gata in south-east Spain proved too bumpy for his mode of transport though. Undeterred, he continued on with the case bound to his chest with rope, giving him the unnerving appearance of a suicide bomber. His laughter and joy was infectious, and every sentence and question ended in body-shaking chuckles, reminiscent of the French soldiers in Monty Python.
If there is one thing we have enjoyed most in our travels it is the simplification of life that comes from owning only what you can carry and consuming only what you need. In amongst all of the torrential downpours, brilliant starry nights, roads that can be any combination of busy, dangerous, boring and breathtaking, winds that chill the bones, winds that push you up steep hills, untimely equipment failures and the generosity and eggs of strangers, there is one thing we have always felt: alive. And when we lay our weary heads to rest at night, more often than it is to the sound of church bells, dogs barking, or techno music, but more often than not it’s with a satisfied mind.