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20,000 Miles & Countless Life Lessons: Tom Allen’s Global Adventure

This is a quest case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

More than two years ago, I met Tom Allen in California when I was on tour for The $100 Startup. He’d just finished a big tour of his own, and had a project he was working on: the screening of an all-new documentary about an extended journey.

Tom and I have kept in touch since then, and I used his story as one of the central case studies in The Happiness of Pursuit.

Tell us about yourself:

I’m Tom. Since 2007, I’ve been leaving home in England and going on bicycle adventures to places like Sudan, Iran, Yemen, Syria, the Arctic, Ethiopia, Armenia and Mongolia. The original quest that kicked it all off was an attempt to mountain-bike, self-supported, around the entire planet. beginning from my front door in the English Midlands.

Now, with a number of continent-sized detours, acquiring a second citizenship, and learning two new foreign languages, I’ve pedaled about 20,000 miles to date. My journey has never really been finished. Instead, it evolved into an open-ended quest to explore the art of making personal, meaningful journeys.

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Why did you decide to undertake your quest?

Originally, it came from a deep lack of fulfillment in my life. I’d passed through the education system, done fairly well, and earned a nice-looking degree that my parents could proudly hang on the wall. But while my peers were being snapped up by graduate recruitment schemes and moving into high-energy jobs and big cities, I languished. I dreamed of escape, but with no real life experience to draw from I couldn’t really imagine how actually to get out.

Months went by.

Then, a small minority of friends jetted off with backpacks to exotic-sounding places, sending back exciting stories and colorful photos of their adventures. And at the local bookstore, I happened upon a handbook for ‘Adventure Cycle Touring.’ These two events brought the liberating idea of travel together with my traditional head-clearing technique of casual bicycle-riding. I was stunned. These were dots I’d never thought to connect.

What are the costs associated with epically long bike trips  (and how do you cover them)?

The question of budget is one I’ve never been able to answer conclusively. I had 750 Euros in my pocket when I first left home, and there was still some change hanging around four months later in Istanbul—working out to less than 5 Euros a day.

I took a hard line on being thrifty: no coffee, no street food, no sightseeing, no paid accommodation (which is not to say I didn’t enjoy myself; I did, just in ways that didn’t involve spending). I also carried two ’emergency’ credit cards. I never needed these backup measures, but they certainly provided peace of mind.

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Tell us about a low point in your journey:

The lowest point in this journey came a few months after departure as I was cycling through northern Turkey. It wasn’t a specific moment, rather a gradual realization that my actual experience was growing ever more distant from the idealistic dreams I’d had for the adventure.

I was eventually faced with tangible decision at the top of a snowy mountain pass—the decision to either press ahead with my original plans out of pride and stubbornness, or to turn around and follow a new path which was far better aligned with my true priorities. Each of these options was represented by an almighty descent out of the Armenian mountains from which there would be no turning back. And so out of the journey’s lowest point came the opportunity to learn one of life’s greatest lessons.

I’d had enough rough edges knocked off me by this point to see what was happening with a little more clarity of thought than I’d had when planning the trip in my bedroom, and so I took that opportunity. I’ve never looked back. It was a turning point in my development as a traveler and as a person.

Tell us about something that surprised you:

The first big surprise was just what I was capable of when put to task. I’d done no training for the ride, as I didn’t see it as an athletic endeavor. But simply changing my routine to one of pedaling all day meant that I got fitter and fitter, until one day I caught myself having done 130 miles on a mountain bike in the rain with nearly a hundred pounds of luggage in tow. I still struggle to explain to newcomers to bicycle adventures the fitness aspect “just kind of happened.”

And in the same way you become accustomed to all the other scary aspects of this kind of travel: navigating by your wits, communicating your needs with no common tongue, finding safe places to sleep each night, fixing broken parts on your bike. Each day is different, and therefore each day you learn something new, until so many such days have gone by that you can barely remember how things were when you started, let alone why you thought these things would be scary in the first place.

Even more of a surprise to me was how much the ongoing experience inspired my creativity. I’d never been much of a creative person, but the slowness and immense duration of these trips allowed for so much space to play, away from the judging eyes of the society I’d left behind. I started experimenting with writing, photography and filmmaking. People began to respond, and I began to learn the value of creative work, of sharing stories, and of reaching out to likeminded people in that way.

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What advice would you give to someone else considering a quest?

Bear in mind that your own personal quest need not bear any resemblance to that of anyone else. A quest like this is so all-encompassing, so central to life, that even if you do attempt to imitate, it’s only a matter of time before you realize that the fundamental forces that are driving the quest forward are unique only to you.

It may be, however, that imitation can provide a shortcut to the starting line—indeed, it may be that it is only through imitation that your quest can come to life. This happened to me. All of the superficial aspects of what I did (and continue to do) with bicycle travel and adventure look more or less identical to those of countless other people out there on long, world-ranging bicycle journeys. As I prepared to leave, I read countless books and blogs by other people, looking at how they did it and modeling my own plans on those stories that inspired me the most.

Ultimately, though, I had to break free from the ‘model’ I’d constructed in my head of what a round-the-world bicycle trip was supposed to look like. Deconstructing this self-built institution took a lot of emotional energy, and so if there’s one piece of advice I would give to someone considering their own such journey, it would be to make sufficient plans that you do actually depart, and that you have a direction to go in—but then to leave enough room for things to depart entirely from what you might have previously expected.

How did returning to a more traditional life after your time on the road? 

Many people ask me if it was difficult to come back and reintegrate into ‘normal life’ after nearly four years on the road. They want reassurance that what I did was a temporary blip; that it can be packaged up as ‘that trip Tom did’, consigned to history and never again questioned.

But the fact is I created my new life of adventure as an antidote to that very conception of normality. It was never my intention to ever ‘come back’. And while I might have come back to England in a purely geographical sense, on an emotional and spiritual level I can’t help but see every day as part of the same adventure that began when I took life into my own hands on June 17th, 2007, and cycled away from normality for good.

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What’s next?

There is no end to the adventures I could dream up (as my wife would tell you!), but the bigger answer to the “what’s next” question lies in building upon the idea of meaningful personal journeys and growing the community of adventurous people planning and undertaking them.

Keep up to date on Tom at his site, Tom’s Bike Trip or follow along with him on Twitter @tomsbiketrip.

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