I’ve Left, but I Haven’t Arrived
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.
Powerful, thought provoking and insightful…as ever!. I felt rather priveliged to read such an honest account of your thoughts on the journey so far Paul. Kind regards, Steve
Good writing. Impactful & resonating-hard to achieve in a short piece. Your writing is as much what we enjoy as the adventure- don’t stop
Paul, great blog, there’s nothing I haven’t liked. You are not alone in those thoughts! I’d say, once a soldier always a soldier. You gave it the best years of your life you can leave it but it won’t leave you. Over the last few years I’ve connected with nearly all of my first troop on Facebook. I left Germany in 95 just before meeting you and heading off to HK. Nearly all are out of the Army but you wouldn’t think it for a minute when you see how close so many of them remain and slag each other off constantly. They are one of many band of brothers who will always have the Army in them. I can imagine it is slightly different with Gurkhas, no less a strong bond but I think culturally it will be that little bit different. I worked with about 20 ex Gurkha Engineers and employed 10 for a while myself. The Army never left them and I consider them friends as well but it is a different feeling from what I have for the guys from that Troop. Keep on travelling and writing. All the best for this part of your journey. Grant
Institutionalisation can hit you at any time and I did not serve anywhere near as long as you did mate. It matters not what you did for so long with rituals but that you did them. I make myself deadlines for work, the ‘appointment’ was with myself and I’m the boss for the magazine. As the time approached that I’d set for the task I was still shopping with 20 mins to go. I felt a strange panic and I found myself running maths in my head about how much time it would take to do the checkout and then travel home taking into account possible traffic problems so that I would 5 min early… for an appointment with myself!
I let it go and worked on being late, it was like fee falling. A mixture of exhilarated release combined with a kind of panic or morose wave that there lacked any solidity to what I was doing meaning that what I had done in the past to the same effort somehow counted for nothing either. It’s taken a long time but as with PTSD it can strike at anytime over a smell, a noise or indeed an old muscle memory invoking all the nostalgic feelings of comfort and purpose.
Is there a point? I don’t know is the honest answer… I haven’t arrived either but I will say that I’ve learned to enjoy the journey.
Crap at staying in touch but I do read, avidly, and enjoy your blog immensely. It is inspiring and gently nurtures ambitions of my own, for when the time is right. I admire the path you’ve taken and equally appreciate your musings.
Enjoy it all, and thank you.
Will Kefford +65 9007 2474
Pitch – this is really thought provoking and I certainly get the same feelings. Flashbacks to really fun moments when it’s raining and that sense that you are intuitively programmed. But now over 4 years later it’s something that shapes my thinking but doesn’t solely define it. I’m sure on your travels you’ll have been shaped some more. It’s just that some of our military experiences have been so powerful. I’ll enjoy sharing memories of those fun moments with those I was with. Hope you can make it to the GBA dinner in November.
Still enjoying your adventure Paul, that looks like a great camping spot for the night ! Bed/camp or just coffee available for you within 10 mins of Eurotunnel UK side if you need it.
Simon Faulkner (mate of Ben Farrell)
Hi Simon. Thanks for the offer, but I opted for Le Havre-Portsmouth. I’d done enough motorway flogging and wanted the shortest route!
Hi Paul, as always, well written, insightful and personal. Keep up the great work. Our experiences are what makes us who we are today. And who we will be tomorrow.
A collective thank you, everyone, for taking the time to comment and share some of your own thoughts. I sometimes feel a little self-indulgent when I write the more reflective pieces, but I am always reassured afterwards when people tell me they appreciate what I say. Whilst I enjoy writing about motos and the likes, it is this more philosophical and reflective stuff which is most nurturing and of value to me.
Love reading your stuff – makes me feel less of a weirdo. Do this sort of stuff discreetly when I basha up – whether that be alone or with others, from car, bike or foot. Wife initially wondered about my sanity as I mooched around for ten mins and came back to move a pitch a few meters so it was in ‘cover from view.’ It all has real world application – out of sight, out of mind. Welcome back mate; have loved following what you are doing and everything you write has struck a chord in some way. .
Great piece as ever!
All the best
I will confirm that Pitch is indeed the ‘harbourmaster’ after embedding with his company in Kandahar in the freezing weeks of early 2008 as they pushed deep into hitherto undisturbed Taliban territory. Each time we stopped somewhere for a night or several days, I would fall asleep usually numb with cold but confident I would wake up in one piece as his guys always had every angle covered, whether we were located in open plains or abandoned compounds. Below is an excerpt from my notes of that operation (“Southern Scorpion”). When moving at full strength, the logistics of circling all that hardware Wild West style were complex enough even without the threat of enemy attack. So a motorbike and tent within striking distance of a French vineyard shop must be a positive joy.
“The company’s harbour area is in the middle of wide, earthy plain with a few mud compounds and craggy hills in the distance. More than 50 vehicles are parked up in defensive formation, Vectors, WMIK Land Rovers, flatbeds with containers, a Foden recovery vehicle and JCB excavator, and the Humvee and 23-ton Cougar mine-resistant truck of an American explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team attached to the operation. I find the officer in command, Major Paul ‘Pitch’ Pitchfork, talking to a US Special Forces officer by a large map of the AO. Pitchfork has an easy, humorous manner I never saw flag once despite problems that sprouted like hydra heads that month, and the endless planning work between the driving and footslogging.” Nick Allen
Happy days, man. Maybe I should dig out a photo of one such harbour to post here – bit of extra context….
Long time no see. Last time was on JWIC I think, or at Shrivenham. Great blog & very jealous of your wandering lifestyle. I got out last year only to end up working in the city – mind numbingly dull. This post struck an almighty chord with me so thought I’d drop you a line to say hello. Stay safe mate.
Señor Glenn!! Long time indeed, but surely not JWIC – that was in a past life, wasn’t it? Lovely to hear from you. Hope they are at least paying you well in the City – sadly, money helps oil the wheels of life and a military pension doesn’t go far here in the UK, so there are upsides and downsides to all decisions in life. Hope to see you around some time… P
if you ever find yourself in town drop me a line, it’d be good to catch-up over a beer. Saw Marcus Reedman at RMAS reunion last winter, on good form. 20 year reunion! WTF just happened?! Where did that time go? Glad to hear you’re doing so well on 2 wheels
Funny how the Universe works…. We get in contact with each other for the first time in who knows how many years, then as I’m clearing up my stuff in my dad’s loft your grinning mug jumps out at me on both the PCBC and RSO’s photos!! Haven’t found the JWIC phot yet, but I suspect that will also emerge from the piles of dust-covered junk!
Happy new year youngster. Here’s one for the “you can take the boy out of the army, but not the army…..” I found myself walking to the panto today with 2x junior mathers, looked down a pleasant side street in epsom, and thought “nice firing position; which side of the road most likely?”. But got a bit confused about whether it was enfilade or defilade? Either my memory is getting rusty, or I never really knew which was which?! 🙂 So googled “enfilade fire from a defilade position”. Set my mind at rest, and decided I’d have gone for the left side of the street…….
you back here? in Jan? Let’s catch up for general chitchat.
Hello mukka. I’m sitting in the United Services Organisation lounge in Houston Airport, waiting for a flight to Chile!! Bluffing the Army vet gig!!
Won’t be back for a few months I suspect. Mexico beckons on Feb-Mar. But I’ll probably be back for a trip in the Spring. HNY, and get revising your principles of defence in case an anti-Google flash mob appears in Epsom.
jejeje,mejor que en Musa Quala,