With apologies to Ben Matthew, my bicycle is probably my best friend. It’s rare for me to arrive at any engagement without a pannier awkwardly wedged under an arm, yet I prefer to use it for pleasure over purpose, regularly spending weekends cycling up and down my local canal like I’m conducting a haphazard topographical survey.
Last year, I arranged to undertake a solo bike ride from Glasgow to Inverness. The journey, my route map promised, would carry me through ancient pine forests, open heather moorland and two national parks. I would traverse a mountain range, cross divine Victorian bridges, visit Rob Roy’s grave and see the millennia-old Fortingall Yew. In the weeks leading up to my departure I was barely present in my daily life. It was as if I was already in the Highlands; I’d get to sleep by imagining I was in my sleeping bag, under a sky ablush with stars.
An afternoon, an evening, a can of Irn-Bru and a fistful of sweets into my adventure, I realised something was awry. I was being eaten alive. Despite the relatively low top speed of the Highland midge, outrunning them had ceased to be an option. A cloud of winged creatures hung around me like a cartoon bad mood, my flesh a siren song for their plodding, fevered hunger. The holiday wasn’t going well. With the last of the day sinking beneath Loch Venachar, I had scant minutes to arrange canvas, poles, pegs and guy ropes in the vague configuration of a tent. When I finally made it inside my refuge, arrhythmic insectile drumming announcing my success on the flysheet, I looked through the mesh triangle and wondered what had brought me there. A sensible person might have told me that camping next to a loch at the height of summer was a mistake. But there was no one to say anything.
As my body released a torturous rush of histamine in a misguided attempt to be helpful, I realised that I was telling myself that I was having a good time rather than actually having one. The truth is there’s no such thing as travelling alone: you always end up taking yourself along too. Even as I pedalled through some of the most dazzling landscapes I’d ever seen, my thoughts, unbridled from the demands of work, daily activities and other people, were free to tumble into fathomless depths. Strenuous physical exertion and solitude conspired to exhume everything I’d wrapped in bin liners and buried under the patio of my mind. As an enthusiastic amateur, I had trained my body to cycle from morning until night. Spending a week stuck inside my own head was another matter.
When you experience solitude alongside ordinary interactions you’re able to appreciate both states more keenly: getting away for ten minutes to buy milk can be like a cooling breeze on a sweltering afternoon. This only works, however, when isolation exists in isolation. As the spectacular trudge of my first day had neared its conclusion, I felt overwhelmed by the likelihood of a whole week without talking to anyone outside the hospitality industry. Between travel companions the difficult parts of a journey become something you share: an in-joke, an elaborate story you tell later, a secret. What joy could I find in flat tyres, midge onslaughts or disappointing pies? When faced alone, they were just hassles. That night I lay in my besieged tent in the dark, listening to the insects hum. I felt guilty. Why did I need another person in my life to be happy? Why didn’t things feel the same by myself? I’ve been fiercely independent since my mid-teens, and yet the idea of cycling hundreds of miles across mountains daunted me less than the prospect of doing it without anyone to make terrible puns with.
There wasn’t a triumphant breakthrough coming. Loneliness is like a heavy coat that you’re unable to take off; the sight of Ben Macdui or a dotterel or the Glen Ogle viaduct could only be so helpful. I struggled on. The good and the bad rode along with me, bulging panniers on either side of my emotional bike rack. I learned to live on small comforts: a wave from a man on a tractor, a barmaid in Pitlochry who told me about her brother, the cerulean signposts of the National Cycle Network informing me someone had been there before me. I realised—and there was plenty of time to reflect upon this—that all I could do was give myself over to the experience wholeheartedly, regardless of how I felt inside.
So that’s what I did. I swam in every loch I saw, cycled in torrential rain, flew down mountains; ditched my bike to bound up hillocks, yelled from summits, sang to the birds, recited mountain poetry to nonplussed sheep, awoke to see a deer idling outside my tent, ordered four side dishes in an incongruous Australian theme restaurant, camped in a field of heather, camped on the side of a hill, camped anywhere the midges wouldn’t get me, drank Glenfiddich as the sun went down, stood waist deep in Loch Moy and read Nan Shepherd, stumbled across a Bronze Age cairn and walked among the passage graves and thought about the still living and the long dead. And then it was over. On my final night I wriggled out of my tent to sleep under the stars, even though it was overcast and I couldn’t see them.
Rather than being a break from my regular life, the trip became that life in microcosm: trying to make the good things outweigh the bad ones, offsetting struggles with wonders, yearning to connect. I love spending time alone, but I understood as clearly as I ever had that I don’t want to be alone, because life is best when shared with other people: family, friends, maybe even someone who’d be willing to occasionally spend a week swimming in lochs and enduring the bombardments of the Highland midge. I haven’t met them yet.