While ticking off an entry on his bucket list, Robin Esrock discovers the real reason everyone should travel.
It is said there are three simple steps to happiness: find something to do, someone to love and something to look forward to. I might add to this list, find yourself a bike. One day, on my way to the office, an unlicensed driver ignored a stop sign, drove through an intersection and crashed into me and my bicycle. I hobbled away with a broken kneecap, a $20,000 insurance settlement and the powerful reminder that life is precious, time is limited and I’ll really miss my knees when they’re gone. I quit my job and went travelling around the world on a quixotic quest to tick off the items on my bucket list.
All of which brings me to the dusty Chilean town of San Pedro de Atacama. For an outpost on the edge of the world’s driest non-polar desert, the town offers fine hotels, gourmet restaurants and excursions into a truly remarkable slice of South America. One such activity is to rent a bike and pedal 13 kilometres west into the Valley of the Moon, a protected nature sanctuary famous for its stark lunar landscape. I arrive at the park gates with my front tyre wobbling with all the stability of a Central African government. Parched for oil, my chain clatters in desperation. I make a note that from now on I will check the condition of any bike before I rent it. Sound advice, and I could have used some more. For example: under no circumstances should you leave your bike on the side of the road to hike around looking for better views of volcanoes. Soon enough, I am lost in the desert with no form of communication, directions, food or warmth. It is late afternoon in March, and the baking day will soon transform into a chilly night. My last update to my family was the previous week when I was in Bolivia. Not a single person on the planet knows where I am.
Before I set out on my journey, a friend asked what I hoped to achieve. My mates were settling down, building careers and starting families, so why would I choose to be that one older guy you typically meet in backpacker hostels? You know, the one who looks a little out of joint, has great stories, and often smells like Marmite. My reply? At some point during my adventure I will stumble into a transcendent moment of pure isolation, a challenge that can only be surmounted with deep soul-searching and personal inner strength. My friend looked at me askew, so I also explained there would be copious amounts of beer and beautiful women.
Just a few months after that conversation, there is neither beer nor babe for miles as I desperately scan the sprawling Atacama Desert for my rickety rentabike. Panic begins to tickle my throat. It appears my Moment of Zen has arrived. I sit down on a slab of rock, and breathe in. The dusky sun casts a pink glow over perfect pyramid-shaped volcanoes. Early evening stars begin to glitter. A cool breeze rouses goosebumps on the back of my neck, along with my long-awaited epiphany. I am here for a reason. Everything happens for a reason. The bike accident, the decision to travel, the dodgy rental bike, the walk into the desert…wherever I am is where I am supposed to be. Slowly, I relax into the fear and excitement, slipping into the moment the way one cautiously eases into a too-hot bubble bath. Then I hear a voice. A Japanese backpacker had seen my bike on the side of the road and figured there must be something to see. Soon enough, he got lost too, but somehow he found me just as I was busy finding myself.
As the night sky vanquished the peach-fuzz sunset, we see headlights in the distance. Relieved, we find our way to the road, recover our bikes, and pedal in darkness back to San Pedro. That night we get blindingly drunk to celebrate our good fortune, and I have my second epiphany: it is the people we meet who create the paradise we find.
Ten years and a hundred countries later, there have been several other moments of life-affirming clarity. As for those three simple steps, they sorted themselves out beyond my wildest dreams. Whenever I find myself lost, at home or on the road, I simply remind myself: wherever you are is where you’re supposed to be.
Vancouver-based Robin Esrock is the author of recently released The Great Global Bucket List (Affirm Press, AU$30).