You’re going to sleep *where*?
There’s a moment in the trailer for the upcoming videogame Watch Dogs where one character turns to another and says:
Oh my god, I love it because it’s such a horrible idea!
Sometimes I reluctantly conclude this sums up my relationship to travel. Good food? Yeah, whatever. Great weather? Well, I suppose. Huddled under a rock on a hillside as the rain scythes down, regretting my infinitely stupid idea of walking across the North York Moors on what promised to be a dreadful October day? Ooooooh yeah, NOW you’re talking.
This book is about misery that’s mixed in with pleasure, rather than taken straight: about self-indulgence rather than mere survival. However, all bivvybags do have a secondary function as survival aids, and it’s true that you can’t have much of either fun or suffering if you died the previous winter.
Turnbull’s book is about a light, admirably compact replacement for a tent called a bivvybag. You know the bodybags you see people getting zipped into in forensic TV shows? Imagine one of those in a jauntier-coloured breathable fabric. When the sun goes down, you hunt for somewhere that will merely be uncomfortable rather that life-threatening, you roll out your bivvybags, you stuff your sleeping bag inside it, and you crawl in. If you’re lucky, it won’t rain – and if it does, don’t worry, it’ll only take a few hours of misery the next morning for you to dry out again (if it’s not still raining, of course).
This is of course madness. It’s the opposite of the kind of restful, comfortable travel that seeks to protect you from the effects of uncertainty. Let’s call it sitting duck travel. Why on earth would anyone put themselves through this kind of agony, and not just in bivvy bags? Why does Nick Hancock keep returning to Rockall to break the endurance record for clinging to it without expiring? Why was local Yorkshireman Karl Bushby trying to walk round the world before he fell foul of Russian bureaucracy? What on earth is Ben Fogle doing next year? What is wrong with these people?
And they’re all blokes, so…it’s a macho thing? Perhaps – but that doesn’t really explain Roz Savage or Dervla Murphy or all the other women that willingly fling themselves into states of profound, protracted suffering in the name of adventure. Is it something self-punishing and Puritanical? Is sitting duck travel the hair shirt of the 21st Century?
Are they just flat-out, pants-off insane?
Or is there some deeply meaningful experience of the world that only a certain level of vulnerability (read: possibility of discomfort) can bring you?
Adventurer Alastair Humphreys is one of these people. I was tipped off about his work by the good folk at Maptia, and I’ve been waiting for my work to calm down a bit to be able to put aside some time to read through his microadventures project, for which he was put forward for the role of National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. The philosophy behind it is simple and beautiful: don’t look for adventure in faraway places you rarely frequent – seek it out where you are right now.
This is perfect for me, right now. I’m piled high with things I want to get done ASAP, I’ve got storytelling mentoring clients I can’t neglect for very long, and I’m trying to pay debts off at the expense of travel-time. I need regular bursts of travel (for my sanity; for my health; to keep my travel writing skills in shape; to find experiences to write up & sell) but they can’t be for very long right now – a weekend here, a midweek overnighter there. Microadventures are just the right size for me.
So I’m starting with number 4.
1. Your journey must start and finish at your front door
2. You must cover, through non-motorised means, a circular journey of at least 30 miles (or a distance that is moderately difficult for you)
3. It must take at least 24 hours
4. You must sleep outdoors (no tent) in a place you have never been before
5. You must have an outdoor swim
6. Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men
Here’s how this coming Sunday to Monday will fit the bill.
1. I’m walking from my home town, Hornsea, along the coastline to Bridlington and out to Flamborough Head (above), where I will find somewhere to crawl into my bivvybag and spend an uncomfortable and probably mildly terrified night either on or near the beach, before setting off the next morning and walking home again. Round trip distance – around 35 miles, a good 5 hours of walking a day, minimum.
3. I set off nice and early on Sunday morning. I should get back sometime on Monday afternoon. (If I get back at all, of course.)
4. Bivvybag. Me. The wilds of Yorkshire. It’s a date.
5. Oh bugger. Um . . . well, okay. OKAY, fine, I’ll do it, yes.
6. Since I’m a fool, I promise I will stick to these rules like glue.
However, I’m adding an extra rule of my own for this jaunt:
7. While walking, you must talk to at least one person every hour.
It’s very easy to put your head down and disappear into yourself on these kinds of walks. That’s great when you have a long, painful slog ahead of you and you just want to reach your destination, unroll your sleeping bag and fall asleep face-down in your trail mix, but it often gets in the way of collecting interesting travel stories, filled with lunatics you probably shouldn’t have tried talking to.
So, is this a horrible idea of the good kind or the bad kind?
Only one way to find out.