“And then, after Italy, we’ll continue east through Greece and Turkey before heading up into Georgia and making our way across Central Asia to China.” I could see the hotel manager’s imagination was running wild, his eyes widened as they panned across the map of our proposed route. He asked how long it would take to reach Vietnam. I told him about a year, Insha‘Allah. “Unless we get bored and sell the bikes halfway across Uzbekistan,” I thought, updating my oft-used, pre-trip disclaimer about North Dakota. I always completed that attempt at downplaying our plans by adding: “And buy a one-way ticket to Tahiti.”
I wasn’t thinking about Tahiti at the moment, but neither Kristin nor I shared the manager’s excitement. We were spent. And it wasn’t all the time spent on the bike either, but just being on the move. No, the number that wore us down wasn’t the 9,000 miles we had pedaled to reach the Sahara, but the 170 different places we had slept in within a span of 8 months. The topic of taking some time off – measured in weeks or months and not days – became part of our nightly dinner conversation.
The conversations continued, even several days later after returning from an overnight camel trek in the Sahara, only then they were peppered with phrases like “bucket list” and “once-in-a-lifetime.” And it got us thinking about our lifelong travel wish-lists: African safaris, cruising to Antarctica, trekking in the Himalaya, and visiting Easter Island were just a few of the dream excursions that were mentioned.
And few of them fell along that line we drew across the map several years ago.
I forget who first mentioned it, but we were soon agreeing that we had lost track of what made us take this trip. Our goal was never to bicycle around the world, our wish was to take a mid-life timeout and travel, uninhibited, for as long as we had the money to do so. The bikes were merely a means of conveyance; the trip around the world, simply a compass bearing. And, frankly, the bikes were starting to get in the way of that. We developed stock, disarming, answers to all of the myriad questions posed to us over the past few years. From the one about North Dakota and Tahiti to our canned response of “when our money or desire runs out” when asked how long the trip would take. It would seem, with 65% of our budget then still intact, that desire was the first to show fatigue.
Before we share our plans for the immediate future, we must first address the elephant in the tent: Kristin’s father has an advanced, rare cancer that’s terminal. He was diagnosed two years ago and was able to curtail its spread until this past autumn when the effectiveness of his treatment options met their end; the cancer has begun growing again, albeit slowly. Whereas I have used campground and hotel Wi-Fi to work on the website, upload photos, and play PC games, Kristin has often used it to put her biotech experience and industry contacts to work in researching clinical trials options for her father. Her father’s condition was always in our minds, leading Kristin to bury her tear-streaked face in my shoulder on the side of the road on more than one occasion. As you can imagine, it was a difficult decision to even start this trip. But, as long as he was feeling well – which he fortunately still is, even now – and we were within a flight’s reach of family, we felt that it didn’t matter if we were back home in Snoqualmie or somewhere abroad. Her family kept their protests to a minimum and respected our ability to do the right thing. The only request came from her father: “Just promise me you won’t be halfway around the world when I’m dying,” he asked. We promised.
One of the things that helped us get through the occasional bouts of homesickness this past year was remembering that everything would still be there when we returned. If we’re lucky.
It’s time to cut to the chase: our bikes, panniers, and camping gear are currently in storage in Rome. We plan to return in early September, after the crowds disperse, and continue our tour through Italy, Greece and Turkey at that time. And after that? Central Asia. The original plan, continued. Or not. Money and desire…
So where are we?
By the time you read this, we’ll have surprised Kristin’s parents at their beach house in Florida (after a brief trip to Everglades National Park). We were going to spend a month or two in Florence, Italy, but decided that it made more sense for Kristin to spend that time with her father than it did sitting idle in an Italian apartment. This is also a chance to take advantage of a very unique opportunity we have. So often, as we age, and family turns ill, we become so busy with our own responsibilities and obligations that we can’t just drop everything and spend as much time with our loved ones as we might in a perfect world. Kristin and I are in a unique position right now: willingly unemployed, homeless, and without a schedule. All of the same reasons we used to convince ourselves to undertake this journey, we now use to convince ourselves that this temporary pause is the right thing to do. And the thoughts we used to ward off homesickness now remind us that we’re not going to miss anything. Athens and Istanbul will still be there later this year.
Taking some time off the bikes was something we had discussed several times over the last month, but our discussion of “bucket list” items reminded me of two things that I’ve longed to do for many, many years. I got so used to these ideas being out-of-reach that I completely forgot about them. Back when I was a broke graduate student and Kristin and I were routinely juggling our bills to keep the lights on (not always successfully), I used to sit and page through the Mountain Travel Sobek catalog, daydreaming of visiting far-flung exotic locations. The one destination that always stood out was Bhutan, the Buddhist “Land of the Thunder Dragon” in the Himalaya with some of the tightest tourist limits on the planet. I’m ecstatic to report that we’re (tentatively) booked for an 11-day trekking trip to Bhutan at the end of April.
And before that? My favorite travel memory was a six-day trip to Japan I did in 2009, stretching a pair of two-hour business meetings with Platinum Games in Osaka into a memory of a lifetime. Japan was, and remains, my absolute favorite destination. And the more I raved about my time in Japan, the more Kristin regretted not being able to come along (we were hosting a Korean exchange student at the time). I always said that when we finally made it back to Japan, I wanted to go for at least a month and follow the cherry blossoms northward as they painted the islands in pink and white petals. And, family concerns permitting, that’s what we’re going to do. The yen has fallen a lot since I was there six years ago (nearing a ten-year low versus the dollar) so there’s no sense in delaying, especially if we need to be in that corner of the world for our trip to Bhutan. So, in March, we’re going to head home to the Seattle area to spend some time with friends and retrieve some items from storage, then continue on to Japan, without our bikes, and follow the sakura northward across Honshu and Hokaido islands. The shutter button on my camera will get a workout, for sure.
So, the blog isn’t going to be about bicycle touring for a few months. Nevertheless, we’ll still be posting every one to two weeks and hope you continue to follow along as we document our travels in words and photos. We’ll be back to posting bike-related content once we return to Italy later this year and throw legs back over our trusty Salsa Fargos.
This was a hard choice to make, as we had to beat back the inevitable feelings of our decision signaling a failure or that we were quitting. It isn’t and we’re not. But I’m particularly sensitive to those feelings, given a small list of key regrets I carry through life. Oddly enough, the decision to box up the bikes and take some time off was even harder than pedaling across another mountain range, despite how much our bodies – and our hearts – knew doing so was the right thing to do. It would seem that we had reached a point where continuing to pedal onward, even though we weren’t enjoying it as much and had family concerns on the mind, had somehow become the easy thing to do. Weird, huh?
Part of that is your fault. So many of you have shown such great dedication in reading and commenting on the blog and on Facebook, and in so generously providing support and hospitality, that we simply didn’t want to let you down. We hope our detour isn’t a disappointment and that you understand our need to temporarily change gears, switch to the fast lane, and jump ahead a few dozen degrees of longitude.
Thanks for reading. We hope you continue to do so.