Night descends gradually in the summer. After a day of hectic activity: cycling, talking, navigating, shopping and all the other things that fill our waking time, it’s bliss to lay back in my sleeping bag and look out at the stars as they begin to appear in the night sky. One by one the birds fall silent. Little by little the background noise fades away, leaving me immersed in quiet, the one thing my noisy mind requires above everything else.
I don’t feel any loss in the solitude of the situation. I revel in the fact that I’m alone in this instance. Nothing disturbs the wailing cry of silence other than the odd hoot from an owl or a cry from a fox. The wind occasionally ruffles the flysheet but nothing intrudes on my privacy. At this time of day everything is finished or finishing or at least that’s how it feels. I have cooked and eaten, organised and prepared tomorrow’s route. I have cleaned my pans and organised my clothes. All there is to do now is to lie back and enjoy the silence.
In a tiny lightweight tent, lying down is the most comfortable option by far. I cook crouched over the stove looking as though I’m about to pounce on it. Perhaps I am? There is little to be said for sitting like this although years of practise at sitting cross-legged helps no end in finding a modicum of stress relief. My spine aches and complains as I demand we endure this life-style for another month, but it is getting used to it, it always does. Cycling recumbent helps in this respect, supporting my back and leaving me far less tired in my upper body than when I use my Diamond framed bike.
In the semi dark, with no other light to contaminate proceedings, I place my head on the pillow I’ve concocted from a fleece, synthetic down jacket and a pillow case. I fully relax for the first time since I prized my weary body out of my womb-like pod this morning. I’ve truly switched off now and I know it won’t be too long before sleep takes me. Everything I own lies around me and I can find most items without even a head torch to lend a hand. Such is the power of routine.
At its highest the tent is only 90cm and it tapers downwards in both directions from there. It doesn’t matter that the fabric will touch my nose if I raise my head more than a few inches, it’s now night time and dark. Any thoughts regarding the tiny confines in which I live are rejected from my mind, replaced with the notion that I could be anywhere at all. I find comfort in that and begin to imagine that I‘m lying in a giant cathedral with all its attached splendour and sparkle. There could be a Michelangelo on the ceiling for all I know. I can’t see, so it doesn’t matter that it sits so close to my nose.
An increasing warmth fills the inner tent, even with the door still open. I’m always staggered just how much heat one body can produce. The secret is to trap it. Gentle gusts of wind blow and puff gently on my face. My body feels cocooned in my sleeping bag as I begin to snuggle down in in enveloping heat. Outside the world sleeps. The drone of a distant airliner scraping the sky seems so far off as to be in another world. It’s just me and my cocoon now while Kermit keeps guard.
A warm hand reaches out into the cold night air, closing the flysheet door and shutting out the world before scurrying back into the confines of the sleeping bag. I notice that the night sky is now glistening with a million stars. I’ve left a tiny flap open for ventilation, but other than that I can no longer see anything outside of my world of nylon. The inner door follows suit. The midges are long gone but closing the door is a must to stop mosquitoes and other biting insects from entering my domain without being invited. A calm descends. My thoughts quieten. I take my nightly medication and wait. Drugged sleep is coming to take me for the night. Ultimate peace.
As I lay there silently, at one with the solitude, my eyelids seem to gain a weight that they could never really attain. It’s an illusion in which, like the shutters of a shop, they slowly close in parallel. I don’t fight them, they have earned the rest, as has the rest of me after pedalling 130 kilometres during the daytime. I could be the only human alive for all I know as I drift away. I wonder, just fleetingly, what the weather will be in the morning. English to the end was the last thing I remember thinking as I enter a new world, the world of slumber.
I woke with a jolt, my head hitting the ceiling my arm completely numb and heart racing like a hare. Where am I? Confused, unsure, and then I remember, the tent, cycling and sleep. A night owl hoots as if to ask what all the noise is and I realise it’s another nightmare. Was I calling out loud? I can’t remember the content but I still sense the fear it left me holding. Why every night is plagued with these terrors I don’t know? I hoped this one would be different as I had relaxed and waited to enter the world of sleep. I’m woke feeling that something terrible had happened or is about to happen. It’s the same every night. There is never an answer, just a cinema of terror in my head that wakes me with a deal of anxiety and a palpitating heart. Add in that lingering memory, the one I only know as a sensation, the one that lingers for hours, or even days after the event and my nights are anything but peaceful.
It’s over now I tell myself. This is a little white lie, the kind you tell yourself to get through the night, or day. I may have no further nightmares. That much is true, but I might also have several more. That is my pattern. I wish I could unravel them, hire a shaman to rid me of them forever. Anything to stop the nightly terrors that roam my unconscious head space without invitation.
Opening the doors I stare into space. Cold air shocks my skin and I just gaze in wonder at the heavens. A million twinkling stars hold me in my waking sleep. A million tiny bedside lights, just for me. My mind begins to calm and my skin tells me to shut the door and retain what heat I can. I do as I’m told without a word being spoken. Comforted by the night sky I close my tired eyes and think of the beauty I have just beheld, hoping it’s enough to stave off the night terrors.
It’s warm and comforting although one arm had somehow earlier escaped and is still not only numb, but cold to boot. I drag it in. It feels dead. But it begins to tingle and awaken surrounded now by warmth. I tighten the hood of my sleeping bag, huddling in for security, just like a child. I don’t want to close my eyes again yet for fear of starting where I finished in my nightmare. I can’t fight it for long though and soon enough I start to ebb away.
As the agony of the nightmare fades I slide into my subconscious world. For as long as I can remember this has been a world of battles and warring ideologies. My conscious and sub-conscious mind argue like brothers. One trying to hold me together and the other yelling that I need to let go. Which is correct I have no true idea but I fear that both are correct to some degree. This is the only time my mind has to explore the things I daren’t do openly. It does so frequently and often destructively to try and sort out the inner mess. I often go to sleep calm and waken fighting as though my life depends upon it. Perhaps it does? Who is to know?
This night I slept. There was no second nightmare and I woke gently watching the sun as it rose. I felt refreshed and not depleted by the night terrors that had stalked me. A few drops of water had fallen onto the inner tent despite the ends being fully open to encourage ventilation. They sat on the yellow inner tent fabric like dewdrops on a flower and I noticed them straight away when my eyes opened. They made me smile as I remembered the fight I had in the night time and the feint undercurrent of fear than still ran through me. Ignoring that thought as I reached for the zipper, keen to see the world outside again and even keener to get some water on to boil.
Even before my hand closed around the zip-pull I knew it was a glorious morning. I could see the low sun through the translucent material of the tent. Once the inner tent opened the temperature plummeted. I reached for my jacket, pulling I over my head in a practised and automatic kind of a way. A buff followed swiftly, warming my cold scalp. Still warm from placing it my sleeping bag the jacket acted as a barrier to being fully awake, cosseting me in a semi-dream state, a kind of second step towards being conscious without being fully awake.
As reality slowly returned I lit the stove a lay back again. Through the flysheet door, now fully open, I gazed out across the loch. Small waves flowed from one side toward the other, driven by a keen wind. Ducks bobbed up and down like corks seemingly worry-free and a few seagulls dart over the surface playing skilful games with the wind, wingtips seemingly scraping the water. I moved my gaze to where marsh grasses waved in the breeze and water lapped around stones making gurgling noises. It was an idyllic scene made better by my bleary headedness.
It was then the cool air of morning hit my face and I was suddenly, without warning, fully awake. The silent stove heated the water until the rattling of a spoon told me it was nearly coffee time. My eyes stared out to the distant mountains, the place where I would soon be riding, and the alpine-fresh air filled my lungs as I took a deep and wakening breath. My coffee sat waiting in the pot and as if on auto-pilot I began to pack the belongings around me.
Mug in hand I stopped. The smell of my first fresh coffee of the day stealing my thoughts and my attention. I have often thought of leaving the cooking equipment at home, but I never do. There are plenty of good arguments as to why I might give up the cooker but this coffee, the one I cherish in the morning, is the main reason for carrying all the paraphernalia I do. There is something special about relying on yourself for everything, including drinks and meals. Eating out is a wonderful thing and cost wise I doubt there is as much difference as you might think. But I prefer to keep it for special occasions, one of a few thing I see as a treat when I’m away from home.
The coffee speeds my awakening and awareness and I remember that I made a plan last night of what today would hold. I sit and look, just for ten minutes, the calm before the storm of packing and getting underway. I pull the plug from my wonderful Exped mattress, feeling the luxury it once held for me escape by the second. I don’t really mind. Another day beckons and last night’s nightmare is long forgotten. Exiting my sleeping bag, I’m almost tempted not to by its still warm lining, I stuff it back in its bag. “I will air it later,” suddenly keen to get away.
By the time my mug is empty everything is packed barring the tent and my sleeping mat. Now fully clothed I get out of the tent in order to clean the pan I used to make coffee. Once done I fill it again, this time with muesli, before packing away my mattress. Small piles of belongings sit on the floor waiting for me to place them in bags. On a morning like this I leave the tent as long as I can but it rarely dries before packing unless the atmosphere is particularly dry.
Less than an hour after I wake I’m close to being ready to leave. On a bright day like this I pack everything I can, including the tent, before eating my muesli. As I sit munching a meagre breakfast that’s just enough to get me going I marvel at the simplicity of this lifestyle. I wouldn’t want it all the time but I appreciate its ease when I’m away from home. I stare at the tent and how small it is. “How could I ever live in there,” I find myself wondering as I pull the pegs one by one. Two minutes later it’s gone. Packed away as though it never existed.
The specific time doesn’t matter out here other than for shopping. It’s light and that’s all I need to know to function. There is no post or bills. No deadlines or pressure. It’s just you and your bike, or in this case trike and the people you meet on the way. Two panniers now sit proudly on Kermit’s flanks with 35 litre waterproof bag on top. The tent sits behind this, sopping wet in its own bag. Come lunchtime I’ll get it out if it’s sunny. Otherwise it will have to wait until I pitch it again later.
All present and correct, I finish packing and stretching and then it’s time to go. As I pedal away the only sign of my presence is the flat grass where I had lay. This is just how it should be, whether wild camping or on a campsite. You could be thousands of miles from home. You could be just a few miles away. It doesn’t matter where you are. What matters is that you found a way to do this and the freedom it holds.
Until next time………………………………