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Willie Weir : August 27th, 2010

Lift Off

As Kat and I rush around trying to get ready for a bicycle trip in Spain and Portugal, I’m reminded of a column I wrote for Adventure Cyclist magazine as we were rushing around trying to get ready for a bicycle trip in Colombia. Time has passed, but not much has changed.

The following is an excerpt from my book Travels with Willie: Adventure Cyclist.

I vividly remember watching the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery. The camera zoomed in as the rockets ignited. The billowing fireballs, its shear power and energy, were awesome. But the shuttle just sat there. Was something wrong? Then there was movement, almost undetectable movement, as the shuttle struggled. It was hard to believe that this lumbering, struggling vehicle would soon be up in space and free from the force of the earth’s gravity.

I love travel—the open road, the undiscovered nooks and crannies off of the tourist track. There are moments on a bicycle journey when I believe I’ve discovered true bliss. Yet, in order for me to take that bike trip, I first must break free from the gravitational pull of home.

Actually, Kat and I both struggle with it.

The list of things to do before we go has increased with time—getting a house sitter (and one who likes cats), finishing up work projects, getting rid of enough stuff that the house sitter has enough room to live in our house, finishing house projects so a house sitter would actually like to live in our house, paying bills, paying other bills in advance, finding people willing to fill in with several nonprofit projects we work on, shoveling a layer of compost on the garden, filing for an extension for our taxes, going to the dentist.

It wasn’t always this complicated, was it?

Escaping the gravity of home

Twenty years ago, I lived in a dumpy basement apartment. My bedroom had no windows. My roommates and I couldn’t afford to turn on the heat, so you could see your breath inside the apartment from November through February. I had no furniture to speak of, unless you count a cardboard apple box used as a bed-side table.

I didn’t have a cat, but my roommate did. The cat had fleas. The fleas liked me … a lot.

When I embarked on a bicycle journey, instead of pulling free of gravity like Discovery, leaving was more akin to being a hummingbird sitting on a branch and then instantly and effortlessly zooming into the sky.

I didn’t leave … I escaped.

Over ninety percent of the weight of the Space Shuttle at liftoff is fuel that will be burned in the first eight and a half minutes of flight. Almost all of its resources are used solely to break free from the pull of the earth’s gravity. Leaving the earth is hard—outer space is a breeze by comparison.

It is the same for many a journey; leaving home is the hard part—the actual trip is easy in comparison.

I’ve known people who have been planning trips for years (decades even), and still haven’t made the move.

They keep asking the same questions and search for the perfect bike. They go on countless training rides and take a language course. They buy maps and tour guides, but never take the trip.

For some the emotional pull of home is too great. Traveling means leaving friends, family and pets. And for most of us, there truly is “no place like home.”

Then there is the money issue.

The financial pull of home can be even stronger than the emotional one. Finances can be the black hole of travel dreams. …

When I speak at high schools and universities, I want to shake the students and say:

“Travel now. Get on your dumpy, used bike and go somewhere, anywhere. Those people who tell you that it doesn’t get easier? They’re right.”

“Go before you have debts and mortgages and kids and a career. Go. The gravitational pull of home will never be lighter.”

A few of them get it. But most get a car and a wallet full of credit cards.

You would think that the best way to be a world traveler would be to have no home, no base, no ties of any kind. However, I believe home grounds us as travelers. I’ve met too many people who severed all ties with home, only to become aimless wanderers. Traveling without a purpose or goal can become just as mind numbing as the world’s worst desk job.

A man in a small village in South Africa once told me, “Travel is worth nothing unless you return home a better person for it.”

I think he is right. Each trip shapes me as a person. So much of what I believe and who I am comes from the combined experiences of my journeys.

Do I long to return to the days of basement apartment living with no heat? Not a chance. I love my city, my neighborhood, my garden and my cat. But I also love to get on my bicycle and go.

That’s why we’re packing and storing and running a thousand errands in preparation for another trip.

I can’t change gravity. The physical, financial and emotional pull of home is there and I am a fool to try and ignore it. It’s better to acknowledge it, celebrate it. I consider myself fortunate to love home as much as the open road.

It takes a lot more time and energy than it did twenty years ago, but the ride is still worth it.

I don’t escape anymore. I lift off.

Lift Off was originally published in Adventure Cyclist magazine.

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