Immersion versus Insulation

May 13th, 2010

Much progress in civilization has come from more insulation from and control over the vagaries of our environment: A roof over our head, an enclosed steel box transporting us from A to B, an air-conditioned and artificially lighted living space, and more and more a virtual world we can chose to spend time in and enjoy. But too much insulation from the real world leads to its own distress and causes us to miss out in so many ways.

Touring on a bicycle is a very immersive travel experience: Cycling along the roads at rather slow speeds you spend more time “out there” and you have little to insulate you from the environment you encounter. It is literally immersive for all our five senses:

Vision: You see the places differently, with more time for the unique, the slow, the otherwise overlooked. You also perceive landscapes differently than, say, a motorist. You pay more attention to what forms of life exist along the road, but also to hills, gradients, and type of road towards your next goal.

Hearing: Unless you’re dealing with Patagonia-style winds or La Paz-style honking concerts drowning out other noises, you can hear much more about your environment. From the flock of parrots flying above to the alarmed whistle of the Llama to the barking dogs chasing you out of town – much of this would be missed when travelling motorized. You can also hear much more people, greeting, shouting, expressing surprise or excitement at seeing the touring cyclist…

Touch: You feel the temperatures, solar radiation, rain, wind – our skin is the ultimate organ of immersion vs. insulation. From the fresh, comforting Ocean breeze to the painfully cold sleet-rain in South Chile, some skin is always exposed. When out on the Salar de Uyuni, I could literally feel the sun setting by the sudden loss of warming rays on my skin. But you also feel with your body, the surface quality of the road, how smooth (or rocky) the bike is rolling, when a tire goes flat (or when your frame cracks) you feel that something is wrong…

Smell: You smell the air with all flavors along the road, good, bad and ugly. Whether it’s the fragrant strawberries or roses along the road, the unhealthy, dreaded Diesel exhaust of a passing truck or the pungent stench of a rotting carcass. One of my favorites was the fresh air from the Redwood forest when riding through the Avenue of the Giants in Northern California.

Taste: Sometimes you can’t avoid tasting your environment, with sand or dust or salt getting everywhere, including your mouth. More figuratively, you get more taste of adventure, as you need to make more decisions and solve more problems traveling by bicycle. You also have more time and MUCH more appetite to literally taste and sample the local cuisine.

I don’t want to romanticize things here: Bike touring is often hard. When I’m cold, I wish I was warm. When I am tired, I wish I was on top of the hill or at my destination already. When it’s raining, I wish I was in the sunshine. When it stinks, I wish I could hold my breath. But the intensity and the changes of those sensations make bike travel such a special experience. Also, our memory seems to selectively store much more of the nice sensations, while the dread is quickly forgotten…

There is also a “sixth sense” you develop when interacting with so many people and experiencing so many new places where (and how) people live, which invitations to trust or to decline, which areas of town to seek or to avoid. Luckily cyclists are almost uniformly greeted with friendly, supportive responses and rarely prayed upon by thieves.

I think we need a balance of immersion and insulation. I cherished being immersed in the remote wilderness of the Kluane ice-fields around Mt. Logan, but I also cherished my down sleeping bag insulating me from the brutal cold. I mostly enjoyed the sounds of nature, but I also used ear-plugs shutting off the barking dogs in Mexico to get some sleep at night. I reveled in the utter solitude and silence of the night on the Salar, but I also very much look forward to being back together with my loved ones.

But most of all, I cherish the opportunity to immerse myself through this project in the world out there, unleashing the potential to experience it and deal with it, thus avoiding getting too insulated by the conveniences and repetitiveness of everyday life. Pursuing your bicycle touring project brings Enjoyment and Happiness. Occasionally getting “out there” and “away from it all” gives us a good balance “in here” and “through it all”. In my book this is a good recipe for celebrating life.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Loree Westron  |  June 4th, 2010 at 2:49 am

    This is an excellent post, Thomas, and something I’ve tried to put into words myself. It’s difficult to explain the sheer joy of cycle touring to someone who hasn’t done it before, and by ‘joy’ I don’t mean happiness exactly, but rather thankfulness for the experience. In our ‘normal’ everyday lives, we become cut off from our environment, enclosed in our houses and cars and uniforms. Our lives are so easy that we rarely feel what it’s really like to be hungry, or too hot, too cold, or at the brink of exhaustion. When you’re on the bike, you’re right there in the middle of everything, you’re an active participant in the world – not just a witness. It’s when I’m on the bike, out in the middle of nowhere, not knowing where I’ll sleep that night that I feel most alive.

  • 2. Administrator  |  June 10th, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    Thanks Loree. Both while riding the bike as well as while climbing the high mountains we are fully immersed in nature. We may not always feel very comfortable, but you are right: We feel alive. And afterwards we appreciate the daily luxuries even more. (Just had my first hot shower after 7 days up on Huascaran!) Or remember how good fresh water or Coke tastes after riding for a while in the heat? Those who never get out there can’t understand the bliss from those simple pleasures or appreciate the contentment from the entire experience.

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