Unsubscribe me: Winter in Mexico
This is the story of how I let go of my cross-continental ambitions and signed up to an inward journey.
Before starting our trip near the Arctic shore of Alaska, I imagined days filled with moments of joy generated by riding my bike in new places, and I pictured evenings spent chatting over a cup of tea and reflecting on all that we were discovering. I was sure I would discover even more of the world, but also the answer to why I had felt the urge to set off on yet another big adventure.
Joy and awe were certainly present almost daily. I had some great ah-ha moments. However, our choice to spend as much time in wilderness and away from cars also came at a cost: rough roads, long distances between re-supply opportunities, and a collection of tiny lightweight bags that we re-packed every morning in a maddening version of bikepacker tetris.
Biking across Alaska and parts of Canada and the American West for five months had been beautiful and thrilling. We had travelled many miles, and collected many experiences. But we were accumulating experiences faster than we could process them. We found ourselves craving more biking and less packing - and more reflecting and less planning.
At first I felt ashamed of this urge to slow down and discover something within myself. However, in the year that I quit my job to take an adventure sabbatical, I also experienced two of the most stressful periods of my life (even more stressful than getting lost in Kazakhstan or stuck on the top of a knife-edge mountain ridge as the sun starts to set). First there was the final week of administrivia and financial arrangements to extricate ourselves from Switzerland before the trip, and then there was the presentation I flew back to give at an alumni event on behalf of my masters degree cohort in front of Sir David Attenborough.
I tend to stay calm in the lead-up to a high-intensity event, but in the post-adrenaline come-down I often experience "the regretsies": a state of mind when I play back an event in my head and think of everything I could have done differently. I have to confess that at times it almost feels like an anxiety attack. This emotional residue of stress and the post-decisional dissonance (the official term for that feeling) followed me out onto the open road. I had freedom and beauty, and yet I sometimes caught myself ruminating rather than revelling in it.
Rather than rack up more kilometers or countries, after five months on the move I craved mindfulness and I knew I was in need of practice. Negative emotions can be useful indicators of what we are feeling, but they don't have to keep a hold on our attention. And the way to practice breaking free from those emotions is mindfulness meditation. Meditation trains the ability to quickly "arrive" in the present moment, find a distance from stress or emotion, and stay there in a state of equanimity. That ability is like a superpower that allows you to access presence of mind in any setting, even if for just an instant.
Finding a place and a plan to slow down: winter in Mexico
We were fortunate to have an invitation to stay in La Ventana, a sleepy fishing village on the Sea of Cortez in the southern tip of Mexico's Baja peninsula. This would give Adam a place to apply for teaching jobs for the next school year, and it would give me time for some much-needed contemplation.
Within two weeks of arriving we had rented a small studio apartment and we quickly adopted a daily routine that involved walking on the beach at sunrise, meditating, strength training, yoga, biking on local trails, kitesurfing, cooking fresh local fish for dinner, writing, reading, and watching whales. We also made many great friends with whom we shared meals, bonfires, and our enthusiasm for kitesurfing.
Making space for reflection
However, even in that setting I knew I would need to make time and space to practice mindfulness because wherever you go, there
you are is the internet. I started my unsubscribe detox by uninstalling all my social media apps, unsubscribing from every newsletter and promotional email in my inbox (even if they were filtered into the Google "Social" and "Promotions" sections), removing notifications on my phone, and making a rule to read only books or occasional world news. No more opinion articles, Instagram or Facebook - at least not for a month or two.
The first thing I noticed in my mission to unsubscribe was that although I didn't think I was exposed to much advertising, going through all the newsletters and mailing lists in my inbox to find the "unsubscribe" link at the bottom showed me otherwise. Opening my inbox had been like driving down a billboard-lined highway expecting not to be influenced, distracted, or shamed. Just because these emails share useful advice doesn't mean they aren't advertising. They are all vying for our attention, and mine needed to be in the present moment.
Unsubscribing from social media, and in particular Instagram, suddenly lifted a subconscious sense of fear of missing out - known as "FOMO" - that crept up on me when I looked at other bike travellers' photos. Instead I practiced soaking up the "joy of missing out" while watching my own live feed of the sky and ocean changing colours and textures. We too rarely indulge in wonder, and I am a strong believer in its power to make environmental stewards of more of us.
Of course I still regularly found myself instinctively picking up my phone to check for a new message: there is no doubt that the phone and app makers have succeeded in making these devices addictive. But then the excruciatingly slow Mexican internet connection would take seconds or even minutes to load a page and I would realise that I was staring at a blank screen waiting to be given advice I hadn't asked for or bad news or photos of a stranger's life.
The final "Unsubscribe"
However, the most important thing I unsubscribed from was this: the expectation that we ought to have biked all the way to La Ventana via the Baja Peninsula, or all the way down to Patagonia, or just farther than what we had done. Despite having told people we would be starting in Alaska and would be heading south and prioritising wilderness and safety over distance, an expectation had been raised that we would bike a continuous southerly line across two continents. I had genuinely craved the excitement and challenge of a huge cross-continental bike adventure - I just found it in less time than I had expected, and then realized that more of the same was not necessarily what I needed.
We always knew we wouldn't compromise safety by riding highways just for the sake of covering ground, but what we also learned was that unless we simplified and slowed down, we would also compromise on much more: full awareness, depth of experience, the energy to have joy, and the time to reflect.
Letting go of distance goals was not without some sadness and guilt. But I had left home to challenge myself to find my own path. It took unsubscribing from everyone else's ideas in my inbox to also unsubscribe from the ones that had gotten stuck in my head. What I really wanted and needed at that point was going to be less interesting to others, but it was the most important thing to me.
What about you?
Most people agree that well-being is essential, but everyone has their own recipe for getting there. It is all too easy to let both friends and strangers on social media make us think that travel is amazing and will change your life. But travel is not always what we need. Sometimes you can travel very far to very incredible places and start to find that your mind is not really there. And if your mind isn't really there, what's the point in being there at all?
What do you need to unsubscribe from?
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