The weekend was cold, much colder than lately. Winter gear had to be found from the back of the draw as temperatures halved from what they were just a week ago. The first of the Swallows are back, just in time to wish they had stayed South. We had a very simple plan for yesterdays ride and we still failed.
The idea was to bike out with a Vargo alcohol stove and make a nice cup of coffee with an Italian Espresso. It started well, we saw two Swallows as we rode out on back roads between fields of lurid yellow rape oil. It comes into flower earlier every year, throwing its un-natural perfume into huge low hanging clouds. It drives every Bee for miles wild.
We were heading by a roundabout route to the Goblin Ha’, a ruined castle in the hills behind Gifford. We could see to the north-west that even before we got there the fine weather was about to break. A small flock of Swifts, back for the summer, were carving the air as we pushed the bikes into the field. There is a pond, and beside it a beautiful old Oak tree. A perfect place to brew a coffee.
I was using a new stove. We had been cooking with gas canisters on the last few trips. They feel like a very wasteful way to do things. Sure they pack quite a punch, but they can let you down. A quick shake to asses the amount of gas left and on you go. A few minutes later and there is hardly a flame. I made a poor connection one morning and we started the day with tepid porridge. So, I have been playing with spirit stoves.
In the UK you can not buy alcohol, so we use methylated spirits. This has stuff put in it to deter the desperate from drinking it. The additive makes it taste foul, but also burn with a horrid smell. As a way around this companies have started to sell bioethanol, some of which is logos and packaging and a price tag to encourage you to use it in ultralight backpacking stoves. Perfect, and a cheap version is on sale in hardware stores such as B&Q for use in silly ‘ indoor fire ‘ systems.
To cut a long story short, the fuel works great. But not if you do not load the Vargo with enough of it. The espresso failed and letting things cool down and a second go at things just ended with to failed coffee-making attempts. I will get this to work. It is an amazingly light system. I have a couple of stoves on the way from a trawl of the WWW.
There is a new ultralight sleeping bag in the post, which will join the OMM bag that Esther has now got and very soon I will have the ultralight summer kit of my dreams. In putting together a kit list recently I realised that firstly, I have a lot of kit and that it could perhaps fall into three subsections. Long tours, short tours and not quite summer and hurrah it is summer in Scotland. It goes from heavy but light enough, to joyously light. I wrote a piece about my thoughts on equipment for a web retailer, and the kit list is here and at the top of the page.
It looked like a tandem. Certainly there were two dark shapes on one bike climbing up to where we had pulled over under the shade to wait. From memory I am saying it was Bosnia, but it could have been Croatia or half a dozen other countries that are fudges together from that area. It was a hard climb, but then when is it not. Most of the world is a climb or a headwind and either trying to bake you or freeze you in the road-days you remember most clearly. The bike drew nearer, and the two shapes that had been swaying from side to side as the pedals were forced over turned into a young guy with a guitar strapped to his back.
He looked worse than his bike. Well if you spent a day cleaning it, and did a couple of solid hours of spanner work on it I would still have rated the bike higher. It had frying pans and potatoes a tent and a tarp to put up to cook under that was actually much heavier than our tent. It was all strapped, bungeed and hung onto the bike front and back. Now, solo travellers fall into two camps. The ones that we have waited to chat to, only to watch in slack jawed amazement as they went by with barely a nod, and these do exists, but are rare. More usually a solo traveller will stop, and quickly begin an outpouring of chat that will last without pause, hesitation, deviation or even repetition for up to 15 minutes. Hours of their own company need to find some relief. It may be you, or it may be the 7 pages of A4 that they will fill in the next guest book they are asked to sign. The solo traveller on a bike has stared into the abyss of their own mind, and needs to communicate.
Now, I am not one to write out too many kit lists, and I have never come even close to doing a spread-sheet that would itemize and add up all the weights. To be honest, like many of my school reports, I have tried and done my best so now lets move on. It is not that I do not care, I can almost burst into tears when I am forced to buy a kilo of sugar or a new bottle of stupidly heavy shampoo. I have bought the best kit in the world, I have been on the forums and blogs. I have really tried, but a whole load of light kit still weighs too much. To be honest, I never wanted to know how much the bike weighed because there was not a thing I could do. I had it weighed towards the end of the journey at the Adventure Cycling headquarters in the USA, 96lbs, and I still do not know if that is good or bad.
This guys bike was heavy, that was clear and undeniable to anyone but an imbecile. Then there was the liturgy of breakdowns and the hours spent pushing or thumbing a lift, and the treks around towns looking for bike shops and spare parts. But then also there was the great big wide eyed smile and the laughter at his own stories in their retelling. “ I missed my guitar, so I just had to buy one “ and he lived on pot noodles, potatoes and kindness. The journey was payback for months of a crap job, an investment in life and living. He was young, with the resilience of youth that allows you to get away with stuff.
He had been on the road just 3 months on a knuckle white tight budget. I bet my bike cost more than his total spend for the trip and I doubt he would even know that you could actually spend that much on a bike. We had so much in common, we shared the road but were polar opposites. He was writing about his trip and had got lots of attention on the web, enough that he was now selling the stories. If you plan too well you will have nothing to write about, and here was the proof of that. I could have told him things that would have made his life easier. I could have begun by telling him his saddle was too low by almost an inch, That the tyres were wrong and a hundred other things.
We swopped emails and I left it at that. He was out on the road finding out about the world and how things workout. You can wait for that inch perfect alignment of money, time and good health, that 400g sleeping bag and all such stuff. We all love outdoor gear, pack weights and gear tests. But it is the doing that counts. You can plan yourself to a standstill if you think too much. Get out there and see what breaks, find out what you do not need. Just go for the night, the weekend or the week, but do just go.