As I start the serious prep for my Big Stupid Trip of a Lifetime, people keep asking me about which route I'm taking. After all, putting routes together is what I do. Lincolnshire to Australia's a very long way. Surely I've planned this route down to the last inch?
Well, no. I have only a vague notion of which way to go. At the moment. Oh, I'll refine it a bit… and I have an ever-growing wish-list of places I want to visit along the way, but I'm trying to leave it as free as possible because – by natural inclination – I'm a wanderer. I like to explore by following my nose, finding the beautiful byways and gem-like hidden stops I'd miss if I rode only the must-ride roads and visited just the must-see places.
Professionally, of course, it's never really been possible to be a wanderer. I had to become a planner when doing road tests and especially when compiling touring guides for RiDE. The constraints of covering enough ground in a limited time (while spending a limited amount of money) meant every day had to be tightly scripted. When Weeble the photographer and I left a hotel in the morning, I knew every road we'd ride – including which ones were likely to generate the pictures we needed – and I could predict where we'd have lunch and what time we'd reach the hotel, even without the sat nav's ETA display.
There is something deeply reassuring about following a well-planned route. Any uncertainty is removed, as you just know everything is going to work. The roads will be good – they should include those must-ride roads and take in those must-see places – and you know there's a nice hotel waiting at the end of the ride. It can really let you relax and enjoy the ride.
The trouble is, even when I've joined group tours in the past, quite often I can't help but want to keep getting off the planned route to explore – especially if the route follows a road I already know. I crave that sense of stepping into the unknown, of exploring as well as just riding. As far as possible, I try to use fresh roads every time I go somewhere, rather than ride the same route as last time. But of course I also still enjoy riding those must-ride roads… so I usually end up doing a lot of miles in a day. That's the curse of the wanderer.
Actually, the curse of the wanderer is missing stuff: setting off without a plan and just drifting along, finding a fairly good road while being blissfully unaware of the totally amazing one running parallel; seeing some pretty scenery but missing the truly jaw-dropping views from the other side of the valley; having lunch in a pleasant cafe on a market square, but missing the monastery in the street behind, where modern-minded monks have opened a traditional restaurant in the cellars selling only the finest local specialities in a unique setting with bags of atmosphere.
The complete wanderer does always have a great trip, because they discover everything for themselves. They just don't know what they haven't seen and, to be honest, rarely have a trip that's as great as it might have been…
Certainly, I was a complete wanderer (I think that's what I was called) when I first started riding and touring. That didn't last long. After my very first long, aimless tour I had a succession of conversations that went along the lines of:
"You went to... Did you see the amazing...? It's one of the best things you've ever seen, right?"
"No, I didn't know about it."
After that I started doing the basics. Working out the stuff that needed to be seen and the roads that needed to be ridden. I'd read books and magazines before going, but always preferred getting tips from friends. I began asking bikers I met along the way for suggestions – and even when we didn't have much language in common, everyone loves a map and I've yet to meet a motorcyclist who doesn't like showing off by pointing out the great road nobody else knows. I'd always make sure I had a rough idea of how to string my main pre-planned bits together while keeping things loose enough to explore and incorporate any advice picked up along the way.
For my own trips, I became kind of planned wanderer – enjoying the uncertainty of not knowing precisely where the next bed was or where the cafes were, of exploring while still stringing together the sights and roads I knew I wanted to visit. It usually meant long hours in the saddle and sometimes a few missed meals, but it always made for memorable trips without getting home to the sinking feeling of having missed something I should have experienced.
And that's the plan for the Big Stupid Trip of a Lifetime. Not to plan it to pieces – just to collect a manageable list of must-see places and must-ride roads, but to leave time to explore between them. If I'm only going to do this trip once, I need to do it right… and that means giving myself the freedom to recapture a bit of that wanderer spirit.