An Anti-Social Ride
By Lee Craigie
In 2018, we commissioned 51 authors from 25 countries to write essays exploring ideas about freedom for The Freedom Papers, a publication produced in partnership with Gutter Magazine. Read on for Lee Craigie's essay, and visit guttermag.co.uk to purchase a copy of The Freedom Papers.
My life is not usual. By that I mean I don’t hold down a 9 to 5 job. I don’t have children. I don’t stay in the same place for long. I ride my bike. I pack two small bags. One I sling under the saddle. It contains my clothes, some food, a small titanium pot. The other I hang from my handlebars into which I pack tightly a sleeping bag, an inflatable sleeping mat and a bivvy bag. Strapped to the top of this bag is an accessories pouch containing small essential items like my passport, wallet and phone. In the neat frame pack that sits in above the bike pedals are my toiletries, electrical cables, lights, bike repair kit, a stove and some camping gas. I don’t carry a rucksack. I don’t need to. I wear a loose-fitting bamboo t-shirt because I like the way it feels when the wind ripples through its fine, silky fabric. It’s always the same one. Blue. I wear wool boxer shorts under loose fitting shorts. They are black with a slight sheen to them on the parts that have been continually rubbed over my saddle. When my bum fits onto the saddle, my feet find the pedals and my hands grasp those particular spots on my curving handlebars, my body remembers what to do and before I have to make any effort at all, I am rolling. Soon, I begin to feel the resistance against forward motion. Not in a negative way, just an aliveness in my muscles and tendons. I feel the familiar pressure through the soles of my shoes and the palms of my hands. I can feel the wind on the parts of my body that I’m pushing through the air ahead of me. My body and bicycle sing to each other and we hum along the trail in companionship.
This image of me on my bike is conjured up from my own mind’s eye but it’s probably not dissimilar to that which a passer-by would see. That’s me moving through space with unencumbered, unadulterated, loose-limbed and unfettered freedom.
To propel myself on a bicycle carrying all the equipment I might need to eat, sleep and survive and doing so only using my heart, lungs and muscles screams satisfaction at the top of a rather feral voice. At the end of the day, with body tired and relaxed, I’ll roll out my bed wherever I choose. I’ll boil water to make dinner and eventually settle to sleep replete in a way that is just not possible under most other circumstances.
And what’s going on in my head to allow this to happen? Nothing. Devoid of choice and any external stimulus other than that which is hitting off my skin or filling my nostrils or ears, I experience a calm contentment in those fine, fragile moments and my busy mind turns itself in a tight circle and curls up in the bracken with its tail over its nose.
I’m not oblivious to the privilege of all this. I am acutely aware of the difference between freedom from and freedom to. I know there are people in this world unable to do what I do (people incarcerated, paralysed or oppressed), yet I resent people calling me lucky. I’ve engineered my life this way and in doing so, I sacrifice money, relationships, and a sense of belonging, of watching projects develop and grow without me. With freedom comes choice but with choice comes inevitable, inescapable loss. Minute explosions of grief in choosing this road to ride and not the other, this thought to mull and not another. The blue t-shirt and not a different coloured one. So perhaps this freedom I seek in my privileged way is actually the restricting of choice and the limiting of loss.
Today I’m riding south. I’ve switched my phone off and sealed it in a plastic bag. In doing so, I liberate myself from the choice of opening up connections with others and having at my fingertips a world of information on my whereabouts, the weather and current affairs. I don’t know where I’ll sleep tonight or what I’ll find when I get to the next corner. I still my mind from its insistence that I need to know what’s coming next, what others are thinking and what they might want to communicate to me. Technology offers liberation at the touch of a button but it also restricts and narrows the workings of my mind. My phone is my lifeline. My anchor to the world as I spin through it in a liberated, directionless whirlwind. Putting it away both cuts me off and sets me free but it’s not as easy as that. Out there the world still turns and pulls with it the weight of expectation. This is what I am part of whether I like it or not. Whether I choose to remain connected or not, the world still expects it of me, assumes my mind will travel at the speed of a fibre optic internet connection.
Even with technology at arm’s length and my phone switched safely off and tucked away deep in my frame bag, I’ll find evidence of it behind the vacant, flitting eyes of the people I encounter along my travels. Our world is changing inside and out. By carrying burdensome expectations of immediate gratification everywhere we go and the possibility of unimaginable choice in nearly everything, it’s hard to stay present in the tussle of an unexpected, aimless conversation with a stranger on a bicycle. Conversations on my travels have become shorter and less meaningful.
If we move through life unconsciously knowing that at any time we can receive instant gratification at the touch of a button, then slowly our brains become dull and our curiosity drains like an iPhone left in the cold, eventually switching itself off. A bit gloomy?
Maybe it’s not true. Surely technology and exploring by bike go hand in hand. The possibilities that modern day GPS units and free mapping software open up mean more remote places can be explored with confidence, conversations can be conducted between people of different cultures, travellers can keep moving but remain connected to those they love as they do so, and information is available for everyone at the touch of a button. It’s progress. There’s a reason I’ve chosen to switch my phone off and bury it in my bag rather than throw it away after all.
I don’t have an answer. I suspect my mother would say something about exercising moderation and, let’s face it, our mothers are usually right. They also come from a generation that is being left behind by an exponential acceleration of technological advances. But depending on how you look at it, they have both freedom from and freedom to. As the years roll on and I find my body less and less able to ride bikes hard, fast and long, while my mind becomes less agile in its darting between ideas and it begins freezing at the thought of posting to social media, I’ll find a new freedom in the restrictions of ageing. There’s always something to look forward to.
Copyright © 2018, Lee Craigie. All rights reserved.
Supported by the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund through Creative Scotland.