I’m back on the road, heading north through France. Pau is now on the other side of the Altantic, working for a couple of months. I am taking the Tenere home. After sharing the experiences of riding through Andalucia with Pau, travelling solo has felt a little hollow. But, as I rode up from Barcelona, through the Massif Central and onwards to Paris, it has given me time to think.
When I found myself back in Buenos Aires in May, preparing to depart South America from where I had arrived two and a half years earlier, I felt the chapter was closed, the circle complete. It was a moment of finality for me, and tinged with a measure of melancholy. As we rode around southern Spain these past few weeks, I felt no sense of a continuation of the South American chapter; we were in a different place on a new journey, and perhaps travelling with Pau on the back of the bike helped give the journey a distinct character.
However as I rode north, destined for my father’s house in a handful of days, I realised the my South American odyssey is not, in fact, finished. It actually started when I drove the Tenere out of the garage in Gloucestershire and bade farewell to my dad – I felt it so and he must have as well, insisting on a photo to mark the moment. During the long hours in the saddle this week, I has dawned on me that this chapter can only really end when I finally return to the same spot.
I hadn’t recognised that I’ve been in a state of limbo for these last few months. Whilst no longer in South America, I have nevertheless continued to live out of my panniers, in transit, anchored in some way to wherever my bike was, even when I left it in Spain and returned to England. In departing Buenos Aires, I had left where I had been, but I hadn’t arrived where I was going. In a few days I shall; and if I’m honest, the looming finality makes me a little nervous.
Passing through the Massif Central two days ago, the afternoon shadows lengthening, I was confronted ahead by the skies of Mordor, black and spitting lightning. Given the hour, the only sensible decision was to stop. I turned off the autoroute, called in at a village store to buy some basic provisions for supper, and then went in search for a lonely spot to camp.
When a team of soldiers – anything from a small four-man patrol to a company group of 150 men – set up a ‘harbour’ (a tactical camp, so to speak) for the night, there are some basic principles and drills which are always employed. The aim is to ensure that the harbour is well-concealed, and furthermore will not be stumbled upon by the enemy or civilians in the night. Firstly, a likely area is identified. It is then ‘recced’ and checked for suitability. The team then occupy the site, but before work begins on constructing shelters and defences, pairs of soldiers are sent out to check the surrounding area for signs of enemy activity, tracks or paths along which intruders may inadvertently approach, and any other useful information such as the location of a water source. Once the harbour has been prepared, the process is repeated, but this time looking inwards to confirm that the location is invisible from a distance. It is good practice to occupy and prepare such locations shortly before last light, to minimise the amount of time during which the harbour can be spotted in daylight.
When ‘wild’ camping, I intuitively employ the same tactics. It’s simple – if locals or passers-by don’t know my whereabouts and can’t stumble upon me, then they cannot rob or harrass me. Once again I found myself going through the drills, rushing to beat the impending storm. I came across a small track which wound upwards to high ground above the road along which I was riding. With no sign of use by other vehicles, it looked promising. I rode up it quickly to minimise the amount of time that someone nearby might spot me, their attention drawn by the noise of the bike. At the top of the slope I found a grassy plateau and a small copse, out of sight from the road below. I parked the bike up and set out on a loop to check for other tracks, nearby habitation and to confirm that the area I has selected was indeed well-concealed. I moved quickly, at a crouch and using the hedge lines and trees as cover from the road and farmhouse below. I then returned to pitch the tent, and did one final check from the edge to the plateau to ensure that it and the bike were hidden amongst the trees.
I’ve gone through this routine countless times whilst on the road in South America, but on this occasion I connected strongly with the sense or feeling – it was more than just a memory – of the many years I spent soldiering ‘in the field’. It caught me by surprise – such an unremarkable activity suddenly unlocking something that still lives deep inside me. It brought up conflicting emotions; on the one hand, I experienced a very comforting sense of familiarity – perhaps it went further than that, somehow affirming a deep-seated sense of identity. But at the same time, a feeling of sadness and loss came over me, as I recognised that I have left the soldier’s life behind me now.
In that moment, I was glad that I was alone. Despite the sense of loss, there was a richness to experience that would have been tainted and diminished by another’s presence. And I wanted to allow myself to fall into it and be immersed by it. The storm had failed to break and the rain had stopped. I was left enveloped by a still and silent evening, the sense of loneliness magnified by the heavy skies and empty horizons, as if nature wanted me to brood a little on my past.
It has been nearly four years since I left the Army – and over six since I was last ‘in the field’. Much has happened in the intervening years and I have crafted a new and very different lifestyle for myself. Yet in moments like this, I realise the cord which attaches me to my past is shorter than I think. When talking about the Army to others, I still find myself referring to it as “we”. And whilst gradually reducing with time, I still feel a little uncomfortable riding past Army barracks in places like Chile and Peru. For all my focus on letting go of identities, and my belief in the need to move forward in life and relinquish personal reference points which are rooted in the past, I must be honest with myself and acknowledge connections with my life in uniform remain strong.
And so too here – I may have left the Army, but moments like this show me that wherever I’m going, I haven’t yet arrived.