Nov 12

Life Cycles – What we think about on the bike

Pacific Coast in El Salvador

The wobble in the handlebars increased noticeably as Tony and I steadily picked up speed and flew down yet another hill.  We flashed through the slightly cooler pockets of shade and I arched my neck to the left and right, taking full advantage of the cool breeze and trying to expose as much skin as possible to the light caress.  It was another day of unremitting, hellish heat on the Tour de Zack y Tony, and as we rode along the beautiful pacific coast of La Libertad, El Salvador, I looked with envy at the Salvadoreños lounging in shady hammocks along the roadside.  They obviously had the right idea.


We rounded the curve at the bottom of the hill at full speed, whipping through a collection of half a dozen houses with rusty corrugated tin roofs as we let our momentum carry us up the first part of the long uphill stretch that was quickly appearing before us.  I downshifted, feeling every aspect of the clean, lubricated mechanical action vibrating up through the tiny plastic lever pressed against my thumb.  The chain resettled onto it´s new gear and I resettled into the long slow climb.  There were no cool pockets of shade here, no soft caresses of wind, and so within seconds I felt every 36 of those sweltering degrees centigrade begin to bead and then pour incessantly from my every pore.  By the time the drops slipped down to my forearms they had formed into a inexorable flood, one that ran down to my gloves, inundated them, overwhelmed them, and soon was leaving a sweaty trail of darkened damp spots on the asphalt behind us.


We gradually caught up to a man walking up the hill, his baseball cap in one hand and well-used 2 foot machete dangling casually from the other.  “Buenaaaaas”, I greeted him in my best small-town accent.  “Buenas!”, he replied in a chirpy tone, “Que te vaya bien!”.  Leaving him behind us, I glanced down at the odometer and saw with delighted surprise that we were about to hit 75 km.  75?! How had that happened?  Where had the last 25 kilometers gone?

I had obviously been lost in thought again.  But what had I been thinking about?


I have a lot of time on the bike.  On the days I ride, I can spend anywhere from three to eight hours a day in the saddle.  If you do the maths, I’ve now clocked up somewhere between 600 to 800 hours of ride time since the start of this trip.  In addition to the hours I spend churning out the kilometers, I also have countless quiet hours to myself and my thoughts while I rest on the road side, while I set up camp, while I cook, or while go I through the motions of the other daily activities that I can perform on auto-pilot.  It all adds up to a great deal of pondering time.  Some of this time is killed by listening to recorded spanish lessons, documentaries, or music, but your ears get tired after a while and eventually you have to put the MP3 player away and let yourself zone-out and your mind wander.


So where does my mind wander?  Here are five of the big ones:


1)  The Road and Trip Logistics

First and foremost, a part of my brain is always paying attention to the road and the workings of the bicycle and my body.  Is that car behind me going to pass me?  Is my front tyre starting to get a bit low?  When was the last time I ate?  Should I stop and pee at the bottom of the hill or at the top?  What’s that clicking sound?! Is that bottom bracket coming loose again?  Is my front tyre lower than it was five minutes ago? How many kilometers have I done?  How many are left?  What’s been my average speed thus far?  It’s 2:34pm right now, if I continue at the same rate what time exactly will I arrive at my destination?  How many hours do I have before dark? Ooo now that’s a pretty sunset…  Will I need to camp?  Should I ask someone If I can stay in this village?  Do I have enough water to camp?

2)My past.

On this trip I have had time to go over ‘ in a very thorough manner – every single one of the past lives I have had.  Guam, England, Traveling, China, Traveling again, China Take 2, and Australia.  Important moments in my life, embarrassing moments, happiest moments, and depressing moments.  But from the dark recesses of the my cerebrum I have also been pulling out the most random of memories, such as word-for word transcripts of completely unexceptional conversations with mates from years back.

The recent past though – AKA my two years in Melbourne, Australia before this trip – has been stealing most of the limelight.  Particularly people.  I swear that virtually every person in Oz that I ever spoke more than 2 sentences to has had their 5 minutes of fame in my head during this trip, and the closer the acquaintance the more stage-time they have claimed.  I’ve spent countless hours thinking about close-friends.  Not in a creepy stalker sort of way, mind you.  More in an empathetic, I-miss-you-guys, kind of a way.

I’m not one to let close friends get the better of my ego though, and so the person that I have thought about more than any other… has been me.  From the awkward first few months, to the wonderful and hectic final months, I have run through my entire life in the land down under with a scrutiny that any CSI agent would be proud of.


The past women of my life have been a big distraction on the road.  The ex-girlfriends obviously have dominated this area of my thoughts and I have diligently worked through my past relationships over the course of the last 10,000 km. But I haven’t just thought about the exes, I have also given thought to every other past relationship – no matter how small or even imaginary.  I’m talking about every “almost-girlfriend”, every fling, every romantic encounter, every heartfelt chat, every one-night stand, every friend who might have become more than a friend, every date, every girl who has rejected me, every girl I have rejected, and even a few cheeky smiles or other missed opportunities that I didn’t have the energy or courage to follow up on.  Its been like watching my own personal version of Hollyoaks.

4)Future Lives

When I started this trip I had no idea where I would actually end up living at the end of it and I would spend hours on the bike creating future life scenarios for myself all over the world.  Later, when I received permanent residency – and subsequently realised that I was almost certainly heading back to Australia – it made no difference and I have continued to enjoy one of my favourite cycling pastimes.  Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Sweden, Guadalajara, Melbourne, somewhere else in Australia, Cape Town, or Austria; I’ve brewed up imaginary future lives in all of them and then some.  Sometimes I muse over details like what my flat/house will look like, other times I imagine a typical weekday evening at my local.  Sometimes I consider what hobbies I will be into or what the weather on the walk home will be like, other times I reflect on how cute my girlfriend will be.  The possibilities are endless.

5)  Future Travels

Anyone who knows me knows that I love to “scheme”, especially about future travel adventures.  I do it incessantly in the “normal life” whether it’s during a run, over a beer, or at a boring day at work, its an incredibly addictive habit to get into to.  I’m not alone in this addiction, it is one shared by virtually all travelers.

One might reasonably assume that this scheming would slow down whilst actually traveling – whilst living the dream – but nothing would be further from the truth.  On the road you are constantly surrounded by new ideas and inspirations, you are constantly bumping into other travelers who have been to other places you haven’t yet, or who are traveling in a way you haven’t tried yet.  You know food envy?  It’s far worse.

So on this trip I’ve already schemed up at least a dozen “next trips” and quite a number of what I am now calling “alternative” trips.  Examples include but are not limited to: Canoeing from Amsterdam to the Turkey via the European waterway network, Traveling across Bolivia on donkeys, walking across PNG or Madagascar, hitching freight trains through Mexico with illegal migrants (tad dangerous), and motorcycling in eastern russia.  (You may notice than none of these include a bicycle…).

6)  The Tour de Zack y Tony

Though there wasn’t much to think about when we first started out on the road, now – after nearly a year on the bicycle – the Tour de Zack y Tony has become the newest member of my past lives club.  As we quickly near the end of Operation: Jungle Boogie!  we now have over 11 months of fresh, interesting and exciting new experiences and observations to mull over.  These thoughts are about the friends we have made on this trip, the people we have met, the place we have stayed, the roads we have ridden through, and the knowledge we have gained.  To think that 11 months ago I had never traveled in Latin America and my “knowledge” of it was all second hand and forged out of loose inferences!  Now though, I get Mexico and Central America.  I get the culture, I get the whole range of lifestyles, I get the people, I get the language and I get the music.

Imagine the map of the world in a colouring book.  When I started this trip, Latin America was that off-white colour of recycled paper, hemmed in by thick black border lines.  Now though, this entire part of the world has been brought to life and colored in.  I still have an entire continent to explore, but through this tour my comprehension of the world has gone up another notch, because I now comprehend much of Latin America.  This is why I travel.  It’s like having a light in your head suddenly switched on, it’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle and suddenly seeing the whole picture.



So that is where my thoughts wander.  The list goes on and on though.  I also spend a great deal of time thinking about my family, future career ideas, money-making schemes, politics, my next blog post…  Hell, sometimes to fill the time I tell myself stories in Spanish, or I have a chat with Tony.  Sometimes I ride with a completely blank mind.

There is one thought though, one mental image, that has been popping into my head more now than ever.  It’s an image of me – on a bicycle – riding up a long, unrelenting hill in a hot sun with a big grin on my face.  I’m grinning in this fantasy because I’m in Colombia with Medellin is just a couple of days ride away.  It’s an image of me on my victory lap.

Note: The title of this post Life Cycles has been borrowed from a film that was entered into the 2011 Banff Mountain Film Festival.

For more photos go here



1 ping

  1. Alistair MacLeod

    Do these thoughts make you happy?

    It sounds like you mostly think about the past and future, not the present. I’ve been reading (actually listening) to Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now, which is all about being in the present. Your writing about having your travelling self and a settled self, which is like another person which inhabits your body but is not happy, made me think of what Tolle calls the pain body. I think you would find this book interesting.

    I get bored and miserable when cycling, but for some reason decided to cycle from Mexico to Patagonia anyway. I’m in San Cristobal getting ready to head South soon. I found your blog because I was looking for info on routes south from here. I want to go through Belize. Most trans-am cyclists seem not to go there.

    1. Zack

      Hey Alistair, I read the Power of Now in 2005, and listened to a lot of Echart Tolle’s talks in addition to reading other zen and living-in-the-moment books. Though I find what I learned from them to be an interesting tool to appreciate life more, I think Echart Tolle takes it to an extreme level that is neither natural nor healthy, and to pursue that path does not interest me (or my ego?). You already absolutely right though that I often struggle to focus on the present, and it is something I continue to work on.

  1. The End. » Zack Skerritt

    [...] wrote that back in November whilst riding through El Salvador, and the day before arriving in Medellin, that mental image became a reality.  It was the final [...]

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