How does a book inspire a journey a generation later? How does an adventurer who loves to travel alone reconcile himself to a life more ordinary? In today’s interview, I talk to Alastair Humphreys about his walk across Spain in homage to Laurie Lee.
Alastair Humphreys is an adventurer, author, and motivational speaker named as National Geographic adventurer of the year in 2012. He has cycled around the world, walked across India, and The Empty Quarter desert, rowed the Atlantic, and run the Marathon Des Sables, as well as going on many other micro-adventures. His latest book is My Midsummer Morning: Rediscovering a Life of Adventure.
- The necessary element of vulnerability in an adventure
- The uniqueness of travel when walking
- The difference between type-1 and type-2 fun
- Which adventures are chosen to be shared as books, and which are not
- How photographs and film change the dynamic of a trip
- What is ‘truth’ when writing a travel memoir?
- Micro-adventures and living adventurously close to home
- Finding adventure in seemingly mundane places
Transcript of interview with Alastair Humphreys
Jo Frances: Welcome to the show, Alastair.
Alastair: Thank you for having me.
Jo Frances: Oh, it’s great to have you on. This book is about your walk across Spain is inspired by another book, ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning‘ by Laurie Lee.
Why this trip and why do you love Lee so much?
Alastair: I think those two questions are linked. I loved Laurie Lee’s book, ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.’ I first read it as a student and I loved it because it was a beautifully written book, first of all, but, secondly and specifically to me, it was also a fantastic adventure, it had all the things you want in a good adventure book. And it was really simple, it’s such a simple idea.
I’ve long since felt that the best adventures are simple but not easy. So it got me thinking, ‘This would be a lovely thing to go and do myself one day.’ But it took me 15 years to actually get, between reading it to actually getting around to doing the trip myself.
Jo Frances: It’s interesting because you said that, ‘Simple but not easy.’ And, of course, you’ve done so many like incredible things that people would find so difficult, and yet, walking across Spain, it’s not that hard.
What made this trip not easy?
Alastair: I’ve done quite a lot of big traditional expedition-type trips, and, like any job, if you do something a lot, you get good at it, and then you get familiar with it, and then, even though you’re in the world of adventure, you end up finding yourself stuck in a rut, just like many people do.
I realized that I wanted to start trying to look a bit differently about how I considered adventure and travel. And the adventurous part of this trip, for me, was going to be the musical part.
I can’t play the violin, I’m completely unmusical. The prospect of having to play in public in front of people terrifies me. And I have no talent at all. So I thought, if I could combine those scary, frightening, risky, vulnerable activities into this trip, then that would become a proper adventure.
So, the twist between, say, my walk through Spain and your walk through Spain, which were, as you say, very similar, the difference was, I had no money, no credit card, and only my violin to earn the money I needed, and that added this spice of terror to each day of having to play to earn my next meal.
Jo Frances: Which is kind of crazy. And in the book, you do talk about learning, which is also interesting.
I want to ask you about fear, because, for many people, they would be much more afraid of some of the other things you’ve done, and yet, you talked there about the terror of playing the violin.
Is fear an important part of adventure?
Alastair: Yes. I think fear, the spectrum of fear, certainly, I think is an important part of adventure. And I think it also merges over into uncertainty, not knowing exactly how the script is going to play out, surprise. All of those similar aspects of those sorts of things are all really important to me in a trip.
When I try and plan any journey, I try and do as little planning as I’m comfortable with. I generally plan enough so that it will vaguely, hopefully, succeed and I won’t die. But then, I plan enough to give myself the confidence to get out the front door and begin, but I try and make myself be brave enough to leave the rest up to spontaneity and serendipity and all the things that really make a trip exciting, that perhaps turn a holiday into an adventure perhaps.
Jo Frances: I get that. And then, I wanted to ask you about walking. What is different about your walking trip? You’ve walked across India, and you have a wonderful book about that as well, but you’ve also, say, cycled around the world, or run, or rowed.
What’s different about the world when you walk?
Alastair: The key thing about walking is that it’s simple. Again, it’s very simple, you don’t need much gear, you don’t need to be an expert. Pretty much most of us can walk, and therefore, you’re qualified to go on a walking journey.
It’s very slow, and generally, the slower a trip is, the more you notice and the more memorable and the more rewarding it is.
And also, and this is perhaps where I become a bit of a weirdo with my answer, walking is also extremely painful, which I quite like. So, what I like is that it’s slow and it’s simple, which perhaps you’ll agree with, and then it’s miserable, and I like misery, which is perhaps where you and I diverge in the wood.
Jo Frances: Absolutely. And actually, I was reflecting on some of your painful journeys.
I have heard you talk about type-1 and type-2 fun, could you maybe talk about that again because I think that’s important.
Alastair: Type-1 fun is a good description for anything in life that you do that is simply fun, like eating cheese, or drinking gin, or whatever you enjoy.
Type-2 fun is doing stuff that is miserable, painful, uncomfortable, horrible, and people who’ve done, say, long-distance hiking challenges or marathons will be familiar with this.
You’re doing something painful purely in the hope that at some unknown point in an unknowable future this will somehow, retrospectively, make you happy. That’s type-2 fun.
Jo Frances: When you’ve done your adventures, do you find type-2 fun?
Alastair: My adventures are entirely based around type-2 fun. If ever I’m having type-1 fun, in fact, I feel guilty that I’m on holiday when I’m supposed to be on an adventure, and I can’t call myself an adventurer if I’m having fun because then I’m just a bloke on holiday, which isn’t what I’m aspiring to at all.
Jo Frances: Well, that’s interesting because, on this show, I welcome listeners with ‘Hello travelers,’ and that’s kind of who we’re talking to here, so people who are travelers.
What would you say is the difference between a holiday and travel and adventure?
Alastair: I think a lot of the difference is down to snobbery. For example, people don’t like to be called tourists, they like to be called backpackers. And then, people don’t like to be called backpackers, they like to be called explorers.
Whereas, essentially, we’re all just traipsing around the same old places. So I think there’s snobbery.
I think also perhaps it comes down to the levels of preparation and organization. And traveling is more about opening yourself up to surprise and uncertainty, and I suppose also the independent side of it as well. I think, if you take everything under your own control, and the whole thing becomes more independent, that, to me, feels more of an adventure than an organized holiday.
Jo Frances: I also read in the book, you say you’re cursed with fernweh, a German word, and you could probably pronounce it better.
What do you mean by that and how do you balance that with everyday life?
Alastair: My German GCSE level expertise would call it fernweh, which is a yearning for far-off places. And it’s quite similar to wanderlust, which is a familiar word now, wanting to wander, wanting to travel. Fernweh is slightly different in that it’s more of the yearning just to be far away. And I’ve always had that.
When I’m off round the other side of the world, I’m often yearning for England and home. And then when I’m back in England, I’m dreaming of different places.
I think I just have this appetite for the other, just to be somewhere that I’m not. Which is exciting and leads to a fun life, but it’s also quite annoying and I’m not sure it’s the route to eternal happiness.
Jo Frances: Do you think we’re born that way? Or is it something we’re raised with? My Mum took me to school in Africa when I was 8, and I think back to that as when I felt this way.
Tell people where you come from because it’s quite a different background to me.
Alastair: I don’t think it’s necessarily born in us all, I don’t think I was born to run. I wasn’t particularly interested in travel or adventure until I left school really, at 18. I grew up in a little village in Yorkshire, and I lived there all my life. My mom and dad are still in the same house I’ve always lived in. So, that’s a very structured home-type environment.
It was only really when I finished school, and before university, I went to spend some time in Africa, that just opened up my eyes really and it showed me that there were places even more wild and exciting than the Yorkshire Dales. And then I just thought, ‘Wow, if there’s this place, what else is there?’
And of course, the more you travel, the more you realize how little you’ve seen and how little you’ll ever see. And that then becomes, or for me has become a very compulsive and addictive part of my whole adult life.
Jo Frances: There’s always more, that’s the thing, and we can never do it all in one lifetime. You’ve done a lot of trips that you haven’t written about.
When do you choose a trip to write about and when do you just do a trip for a trip’s sake?
Alastair: I do always try, first of all, to think of the trip itself. So I try and think of a trip that I want to do simply because I want to do it. And I always ask myself a question, ‘Would I do this trip if nobody ever found out about it?’
I started asking that question quite a few years ago when I was in the world of more dangerous expeditions as a way to try and make sure I was doing a trip because I actually wanted to do it, not just because I wanted to do something really crazy and dangerous just to show off about it. So I think that was a good check and balance for me.
Now, writing is a part of my job really, so I also have to try and think of a story that will be of interest to other people, which is really the reason I’ve never done a big bike trip after cycling around the world. I don’t really think I can write a book about cycling now I’ve cycled around the world.
I do think a bit about the story side of things, and then I go off and do the trip, and really, whether I write about it afterwards depends on how exciting the trip was, to be honest.
I came back from the Spain trip, and I’d really enjoyed it, but, unfortunately, from a book point of view, nothing really bad happened. There were no disasters, I didn’t get mugged, I never nearly died, all this good stuff you need in a juicy travel book.
So, when I first wrote the book, it was actually quite boring because nothing really happened. And that’s the reason some of my other trips haven’t turned into books because they were fun but nothing really happened.
Jo Frances: It’s interesting you say that because, of course, a lot of people I’m talking to on this show wouldn’t see that. They’d see the whole experience as exciting.
Do you think there’s a difference between a travel book written by an adventurer and a travel memoir?
Alastair: I don’t know, is my answer to that. I don’t know. I suppose there’s a difference between a strictly chronological book, which a lot of books like, say, some adventurer climbing Everest tend to be is, ‘I went here and this happened, this happened, and this happened.’
And then, the more personal memoir is a bit more reflective on other aspects rather than just the sheer chronology.
Jo Frances: I think this book does have a lot of aspects of memoir in, which we’re going to come back to.
You also take a lot of pictures and you make short films. You make wonderful films about your travels.
Do you think about your travels differently when you write to when you take pictures or do film? Does it change your experience of traveling?
Alastair: The single best thing about writing about your travels is that it doesn’t have to interfere with the travel itself at all. And if you have a brilliant memory, you, in fact, have to do absolutely nothing at all, except go do the trip then come home and write about it.
But, ever since I began traveling, even long before I began writing, I’ve always written diaries on my trips, partly for just fun and partly to figure out my brain, partly because I’m lonely and have got no friends to talk to in the evening. So I’ve always written diaries. But that really is very non-invasive on a trip.
As soon as you start photographing it, and particularly once you start filming, that completely and utterly changes the dynamic of a trip. But then filming, in particular, is a hugely invasive part of the trip.
And really, you can either go on a trip in order for the trip to be the priority, and you film a bit, or the film is the priority and you have to accept the compromises to your journey. So, that’s an inevitable part of trying to film journeys.
My trip across the Empty Quarter desert I did a few years ago was the first time when I consciously said, ‘The priority of this expedition is the film.’ And that was the first time I’d ever felt this way.
The Spain journey, my priority was the journey, but I did spend a heck of a lot of time filming myself walking back and forwards and playing my violin very badly in plazas as well.
Jo Frances: Is that film out yet?
Alastair: Not yet. It’s going to come out with the book. I turned it into a 20-minute film.
Another thing to add, I suppose, is that I really enjoy the aspects of filming, and photographing, and, in many ways, they add to the experience for me. I really love filming and I love making films. And then, yeah, the film is done. That’s going to come out just when the book does.
It’s very different to the book though, which is another benefit of writing is that you can mold it to be whatever you want it to be later, whereas the film is just, whatever you filmed, you have to shuffle those jigsaw pieces around and that’s all you’ve got.
Jo Frances: It’s interesting you say that, because I think there’s a lot of memoir in this, as I said. How much of writing a book like this, is it true?
The idea of truth, I think, is fascinating when it comes to travel writing, because a lot of it is editing, like you talked about shuffling your video around, 20 minutes does not encapsulate the month you spent walking, and, in the same way, you edited your memory to go into the book.
What are your thoughts on truth in writing this type of book?
Alastair: I find this a really fascinating thing, because no book I’ve written would stand up as a legal document in a court of law, because everything in my books is true, everything happened, but I cut it up and chop it up and shuffle it around in order to try to make it more true.
I think there’s a difference between just a literal chronology versus trying to get at a deeper truth of how this whole journey made you feel. The whole impression of it is a broader level of truth.
This Spain book, there’s quite a lot of chopping, and changing, and I’ve taken a bit that happened in that week and shoved it to this bit just because it gets across the point I’m trying to make in my book a bit better. It’s like playing the piano, they say they have all the right notes, although not necessarily in the right order.
Jo Frances: That’s absolutely true. Now, I want to circle back. You said about writing a journal when you got lonely.
And another quote from the book, ‘When I plan journeys, it is the prospect of empty landscapes that appeals most. Yet, when I return from an adventure, it is the human interactions that linger in the memory.’
I want to ask you about the difference between traveling alone and doing travels with companions.
Alastair: I roughly, these days, try to alternate the two types of trip between by myself or with someone else. And I do that consciously because it’s a very different experience.
Traveling with someone else is usually more fun, it’s easier, you can share the load physically and mentally in terms of sorting out problems and things. You have an easy companion. And it’s generally more fun.
It can be more irritating as well, especially on a long trip, and also, you have someone to share the memories with later on in life. Trips by myself I find to be more challenging, more daunting, but also blissfully selfish as well, you can stop and eat jam whenever you want, or do whatever you want. So, that’s simpler.
But I think, overall, I think that a journey with someone else is more fun and a journey by myself is more challenging and rewarding in the long run. So, depending on what I’m trying to get out of the trip helps me decide whether it’s what I want to do by myself or with a friend.
Jo Frances: And I know you talk about this, and I talk about this with other people, but the idea of gender with adventure is a difficult one, because I’ve traveled alone in the Middle East, but, for example, I would wear a wedding ring, and I’d cover my head and wear certain clothes.
What do you think the impact of gender is with travel?
Alastair: I think that, a lot of the time, there’s a real advantage of being a woman in that you come across as less of a threat and often more of a curiosity. And I think then you end up getting warm welcome insights into communities and cultures, and specifically, a deeper insight into how the women in that part of the world live.
So I think there are definite benefits to it, and there are a lot of women now, solo women, doing all sorts of exciting crazy adventures who are brilliant role models.
The flip side, unfortunately, is that there’s no doubt that being a man is simpler and safer all across the world in terms of safety, in terms of not being hassled by irritating men, and that’s an unfortunate reality that I can only apologize for on behalf of my gender.
Jo Frances: I would say that I think you’re right and people are people, and you meet wonderful people and terrible people everywhere. I don’t think it’s that different necessarily wherever you go.
I did want to ask about your micro-adventures, and also you talk about it in this Midsummer Morning book, which is, living adventurously is an attitude. Because you have a family now and young kids, and so your adventures are quite different.
For those people who don’t want to go on a type-2 adventure, how can people live more adventurously close to home?
Alastair: I think the important thing to do when trying to decide about an adventure is to try and work out why you want to do it, why are you drawn to this.
This was what originally occurred to me, years ago now, was the realization that there are far more people who read books about climbing big mountains than there are people who actually go out and climb big mountains. And, so, I started thinking about why people read these things, why are people drawn to this adventure and they find it exciting but why they’re not doing it themselves?
The answer is often real life. Most people don’t have the time, or the money, or the expertise, or the lunacy to go off and climb huge mountains, for example. So I started trying to work out what I enjoyed particularly from adventures, and then seeing if I could apply that to normal life, living in normal Old England.
For me, adventure is about going places that are new, spending time out in wild places, the simplicity, the solitude, often an element of physical challenge and remoteness to it. And I’ve tried to find those things around Britain.
But for other people, adventure might be different. For example, it could be adventure is standing up and busking in order to earn your next meal. And if that feels adventurous to you, then you should be able to apply it wherever you happen to live.
That’s one of the reasons I ended up doing this trip was this amalgamation of big adventures, micro-adventures, and just trying to think of the attitude I try to live adventurously with, all kind of led towards go and stand in a plaza and play the violin and see if you dare do that.
Jo Frances: And what about seeing things in a new way? So, for example, you mentioned normal Old England, and for many people, wherever they live is their normality, even though many of the listeners might think England’s very exciting.
How do we see where we live in a new way in order to have adventures closer to home?
Alastair: One thing I really noticed when I was cycling around the world was that the further I went from home, the more exotic I became. So, you disappear off to Tanzania because you want to see the Maasai because they seem very exotic, and you’ve seen them on TV, and it looks fascinating.
And then you get there and they’re all just like, ‘Hey, we’re just Maasai, normal dudes, and you, however, are extraordinary strange, weird, exciting English guy.’
That realization that everyone thinks where they live is normal and all travelers find other places exciting was the reason that when I got home from cycling around the world, one of the first things I did was buy myself the Lonely Planet Guide Book to Britain and the Lonely Planet Guide Book to London just so I could try and make myself behave like a traveler wherever I am.
To try and do the things you do when you’re traveling, being curious, talking to people, going to interesting spots, taking detours. Trying to make myself do all those sort of things in normal life I think helped build up this attitude I have of just trying to always be exploring and always be looking for adventure wherever I am and whenever the opportunity arises.
Jo Frances: And you’ve just reminded me, you walked around the M25, did you?
Alastair: I did walk a lap of London around the M25, which is this big horrible boring circular road around the city which…
Jo Frances: Well, motorway, huge motorway.
Alastair: Yeah, huge motorway. But the point is, that every big city in the world has that equivalent, and it’s one that just fills people with dread rather than excitement. And I walked a lap of that specifically to see if I could find adventure in somewhere as mundane as suburban London.
And I did. I found pockets of beauty in between the ugly places, I met good, kind people. A family took me in for the night, just as would happen, say, in Kyrgyzstan or Patagonia. And it was a genuine adventure just on a very micro scale.
Jo Frances: I want to ask you about the future of adventure because, as we’re living right now, there’s a lot of talk of the environment, and whether we ethically should be flying to Kyrgyzstan or wherever, Patagonia.
What are your thoughts on the environment and eco-travel? How we can do things in a responsible way and yet still fulfill our need to get out there?
Alastair: I spent years desperately trying to fly to as many exciting places around the world as possible, and loving jumping on planes and disappearing off around the world. And it showed me many places that made me fall very deeply in love with the world’s wild places. And I had no guilt about that at all.
Gradually, I started to feel a bit guilty, the realization that flying is terrible for the planet that I was loving. But I pretty much ignored my guilt for a bit longer until it really got to a point where I was thinking the world and the wild place is very special to me, they’re getting destroyed and I am contributing to that destruction.
That also changed my approach now to travel myself in making me try and just explore closer to home. So, this linked with micro-adventures is making me make much more of an effort to not fly and to do my adventuring closer to home.
And there’s no alternative to that. If you love the world and you are flying around it, then you are being quite a contradiction. And it is not easy but that’s the simple truth, and I’m trying to make myself cut down on my flying and making some other changes in my lifestyle to try and help fix things on a tiny level.
Jo Frances: I agree, and I think it’s an interesting challenge. Do you think going by boat is any better? For example, half my family is in New Zealand, so, it’s pretty hard to get to New Zealand, the boat takes quite a while compared to flying, but I am considering it.
Do you think going by boat is better or not?
Alastair: It’s definitely better. Definitely better, environmentally, for sure. It’s also quite an interesting experience in itself. You can write a book by the time you get there.
I crossed the Pacific by cargo ship once, and the novelty of the middle of the Pacific did start to wear off that way, compared to, say, being in a rowing boat or a sailing boat where you’re always busy, you’re essentially just a passenger. You can also go by train. That would be a heck of an adventure.
Jo Frances: There would definitely have to be a boat involved at some point.
Alastair: At some point, yes, a rowing boat, Jo.
Jo Frances: Remember I like pleasure better than you.
I wanted to ask about other books. You’re a huge reader and you share books on your blog, and also on your Instagram channel, and you’ve got a wonderful writing shed, and you often talk about books.
What are some of your other book recommendations for people interested in travel?
Alastair: That is hard. But I was thinking, specifically to the audience, I’m anticipating of this podcast, I’ve chosen to veer away from the hardcore expeditions, let’s all sort of chop off our fingers type-1s.
Two books that are brilliant books, beautifully written, but also are really good films for any people who prefer things that way, one would be ‘Tracks’ by Robyn Davidson, about a journey through the Australian outback by camel, and then ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed. Both are beautiful books written by women, and really good films.
And then, ‘Travels with Charley’ by John Steinbeck, because, one, I love Steinbeck as a writer, and two, this is him crossing over into being a traveler as well, traveling around America with his dog, Charley, engaging in conversations.
And then, I couldn’t resist a bit of expedition misery and pain, but also, beautiful writing is ‘The Worst Journey in the World’ by Cherry Apsley-Garrard which is the wide account of Captain Scott’s ultimately disastrous expedition to the South Pole. That’s a fantastic piece of travel writing.
Jo Frances: Brilliant. I love all those. And, yeah, ‘Tracks’ and, Bruce Chatwin, obviously, ‘Songlines’ sent me off to Australia. Those were the books that made me go to Australia back in the year 2000.
Where can people find you and your books and everything you do online?
Alastair: Well, my name, Alastair Humphreys, in Google, will take you to my website and to Amazon. I’m @al_humphreys on social media, and I put a lot of films on YouTube under the name of Alastair Humphreys as well.
Jo Frances: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Alastair. That was great.
Alastair: Pleasure. Thank you for having me.