Day 155 dawned bright but distinctly cooler reminding us once again how incredibly lucky we have been to enjoy such a glorious summer this year. Autumn keeps peeping around the door but it’s not coming in just yet.
Gill and I spent the morning touring Southport’s municipal art gallery before meeting up with four cycling friends who were joining me for the final ride home. Three of them had escorted us for the first twenty miles of our journey all those weeks ago so there was a nice feeling of symmetry to be riding back to Freckleton with them.
We had announced a time for our return but with my four outriders on their super lightweight carbon bikes we were soon way ahead of ourselves and had to take another tea break to delay our arrival. I was more than happy to spin out the final few moments of the trip, torn as I was between seeing old friends and accepting that the adventure was finally over. We made the final rendezvous arrangements with Gill to make sure that she and Vera would be able to accompany me on the last few miles and set off on familiar roads.
It was wonderful to make the last turn into the village and see a small crowd of friendly faces waiting for us outside the pub. I do believe we even got a cheer and a small round of applause. The hand shakes and hugs that followed were warm and heartfelt on both sides, a real genuine show of affection and an affirmation that we were well and truly home again.
The beer and wine were flowing along with many congratulations as more friends arrived and the inevitable endless questions began. I was more than happy to sate people s curiosity but there was one, often repeated question that had me floundering for an answer; “how does it feel?” I simply didn’t know. I was probably more capable of explaining the origins of the universe than trying to convey what it felt like to complete a four and a half thousand mile bike ride to be honest. I think I mostly said that it hadn’t sunk in yet and that I would need some time to settle down and reflect on the whole thing. In the mean time there was more beer to be drunk, more hands to shake and jokes about my scruffy beard to endure. I loved it all.
Waking up the next morning I asked myself the same question that I had faced repeatedly the previous day; “how does it feel?” Nothing. Just a big empty space where I had expected to find happiness, relief, sadness maybe even fear but there was nothing. I had read, and been told, that returning home from a life changing trip like ours could be difficult and that adjusting back to normal life could take time so I dismissed the lack of emotions and just got on with some routine stuff. I needed to write up the final couple of days in my diary and there were photos to sort and people to contact. It wasn’t difficult to fill the time and I decided any analysis of my feelings could wait. There were a couple of moments during the day, looking at the map of Great Britain and recalling details for my diary when I thought I felt something stir inside but it wasn’t much. It was later in the evening that I began to get some clearer indication of what was going on in my head. We went to the pub to catch up with more friends and spent the evening talking about the trip, the blog and the future now that we were back. It was a lovely evening but I began to notice that every now and again I would feel a huge welling of emotion creeping up on me. More than once I had to take an extra gulp of my pint to swallow back the rising lump in my throat as we talked about the sheer scale of what we had done and how hard it would be to live an ordinary life after such an extraordinary experience. Finally the fog began to lift and the apparent absence of emotion began to make sense.
I started to think about the times when our emotions come to the surface and overflow outside of our control. The overwhelming grief when we lose somebody really close and we can’t hold back the tears or the complete inability to stop smiling in the first flush of a new love affair. Sometimes we just can’t hide our feelings but most of the time we maintain a mask, revealing just a faint hint of how we really feel. Like a ghostly face behind a veil of smoke we make sure we can’t be easily read. Now I began to understand that I was feeling nothing because I had packaged up my emotions to protect myself. I had packed them up so well that they were buried too deep even for me to feel them. They were definitely there though, bubbling away like a well of magma rising up and threatening to blow the lid off the volcano. I suspect the suppression is a kind of mechanism we must use to prevent ourselves from being completely overwhelmed by the enormity of a situation.
It makes me smile because I recalled how Gill and I never ceased to be amused and amazed by the way we exploded into a camping space shortly after arriving at the end of the day. Once the tent was up we would begin to unpack cooking kit, clothing, bedding and other camping paraphernalia until it occupied a space that seemed impossibly big. How on earth would it all fit back on the bikes. Indeed, we weren’t alone in our bemusement. A lady from the adjacent caravan on one site engaged us in conversation and confessed to being fascinated by how we carried everything. I told her the show would start at about seven thirty the next morning if she wanted to see it and guess what, she got up early to watch us pack up. I’m reminded of this as I think about the sheer volume of feeling and emotion that I must have packaged up and stored away to make it possible to deal with the end of our tour. I can’t really imagine what is in there waiting to be discovered.
It’s like confronting the most enormous pile of Christmas presents and being told they are all for you. Every possible shape and size of package teasing you as you squeeze and prod them trying to guess what might be in them. You know that they won’t all be what you wanted but you still can’t wait to open them. I see our memories, feelings and emotions like that pile of presents. It makes me feel excited knowing that I will be unwrapping them for a long time. I am also aware that, like our touring kit, carrying such a large amount of packages around with you would be impossible if they weren’t compressed and packaged into a smaller space. That’s what I think I am doing right now. I’m crushing, squashing and squeezing all those things into a smaller and smaller space. I’m compressing them down and down into an ever decreasing volume. I’m condensing them until eventually, like magic, they turn into diamonds. They are becoming a small pouch of brilliantly shiny diamonds that I will be able take out and scatter across my mind at will and when the time is right. Gill and I have made those diamonds over the five long months that we have been away. We have honed and cut them from the million experiences that we have enjoyed. They contain the mountain vistas and rugged coastlines that made us stand and gasp in awe. They reflect the faces of the many, many people who helped us along the way and in some cases became true friends. They twinkle like the stars on a moonless night. They sparkle like the dew on the tent in the early morning sunlight and they glint like the eye of the eagle that soared above as we rode along a Scottish mountain track.
They are precious, priceless and timeless. We may share them with you over a glass or two of something but we can’t give them to you. They are ours forever and ever to treasure and revisit for the rest of our lives. A little bag of gems made from a whole heap of memories.
So I do know the answer to the question; “how do you feel?” I feel rich.