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The Phrase 'Real Life'

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It's been over three weeks now since I finishing cycling 12,000 miles around North America. I thought things would settle down fast, yet the post-ride days have been manic with no slowing down whatsoever.

After the last blog, a few people who'd done big trips got in touch with a warning that adjusting to 'real life' would be difficult, but having just finished at that point I brushed it off thinking it would be totally fine. It's not like I'd been cut off in the Amazon rainforest -- why would it be hard to adjust?

Thinking it would be a smooth re-entry couldn't have been more wrong.

When I pedaled onto the bridge to New York, the final city, I was psyched. Psyched that the trip had come full circle. What a feeling -- the goal that at first seemed a bit ridiculous came off. And what a relief -- a little bit of normality could ensue. Settling sounded great, and for once I was ready to embrace it.

Then New York was, well, it was New York. The busiest place in North America overrides the senses and the mind. Millions of people, traffic, noise. I'm fond of that place, but after a few days there I had a realization that this wasn't simply another city that I'd become adept at 'just passing through'; rather, it marked the end of the previous year and with it a completely unique way of living had stopped too. That was like a metaphorical sledgehammer to the face. Smashing.

There was a mental conflict. Between stress and simplicity, and reality and over-ambition. Life on a bike is not stress-free by any means, but it is simple. You're on your own for the most part. Inevitably that means a lot of time in your own head, with nothing but your own thoughts (or very loud music in an attempt to drown them). You don't have many choices to make or people to answer to. Decision making is often selfish and it's easy.

It's a blessing and a curse. Being solo has a strange effect on idea-generation and confidence. It's not like a brainstorming session where everyone throws their hat in the ring. There is no risk of mediocritizing your own thoughts by watering them down through a but-they-mean-well people filter. There's no pessimism. The ideas, the motivations, the next moves are all 100 percent pure.

But here's the conflict: maybe that purity leads to a false sense of how realistic, or valid, those thoughts actually are. They are untreated, untested, without feedback. To get a true sense of how realistic they are, we need feedback. It's there to lead to things that are at least a bit grounded and semi-achievable. Is realism the enemy of optimism?

On the trip, and especially when reaching the wonderfully awesome 'zone' -- that place where hours of pedaling puts you into a meditation-like state -- creativity and clarity flowed. Next steps seemed obvious. Projects were formed. It felt possible that single-handedly, mountains would be moved and maybe, at last, a secure horizon wasn't far away. But a week or so after finishing -- all goals, all creative thoughts, all positive thinking, halted. I hit a wall. Unable to concentrate. Unable to make stuff. Unable to have decent conversations. Unable to follow up on those ambitious ideas. After such an epic time away that had ended in being glad to make a dent in 'real life,' what had gone wrong?

In the two weeks following the final day of riding, I began questioning how removed from reality some of the next moves generated on the trip might have been. And I couldn't stand that. Being conscious of the realization that maybe all the ideas, the concepts, the guarantees, were nice in theory but potentially worth little.

So I ran in an effort to ignore it. Screw reality. For a while it seemed like the best thing to do was to keep moving, stubbornly grasping on to the ways picked up over the previous year, forming new ideas and ignoring the potential that they might merely be worthy of getting knocked over. I landed back in the UK and spent a week bouncing around, not doing much staying still, and then at the drop of a hat took four days' work in Chile. What an odd thing -- to wake up in South America after only just finishing in North America and only just touching down in England. Was taking that gig a way of escaping? Of easing, or putting off the transition from the momentum of perpetual movement to something slower? In hindsight I think it was. Being on the run and striving for intentional discomfort, felt more comfortable than staying still did.

Upon hearing about the bumpy transitions back to normality that others had experienced, I thought it would be nothing, but now the opposite seems obvious. Of course there'll be transition pains. How would there not be after last year?

In these most recent days, a desire to stay put for a little while has become appealing. To embrace the long-forgotten noise and bustle of normality and to remember how to crack the productivity puzzle in conditions that unlike 'the zone,' don't make it as easy. Day by day the transition glitches are getting less. It's been a while now but finally the better ideas, and next moves are rising to the top of the pile. They're surviving feedback and getting stronger, and the pieces of the puzzle seem less scattered than just a fortnight ago. One of the things that has survived intact is making something epic from the stories collected over the trip, and those wheels are now starting to turn which is exciting.

The phrase 'real life' is as vague as ever, but it's certainly providing an adjustment.