· Insanity: Check ·

“I don’t want to die in my sleep, or of old age, or OD. I want to feel what it’s like. I want to taste it, hear it, smell it. Death is only going to happen once. I don’t want to miss it.”
Jim Morrison.

There is a toothless old man doing the rounds near the shop, issuing resolutely disinterested bystanders a spray of venom, both literal and metaphorical. I’m pretty sure the bottle he carries in his hand must be close to 100% proof, and I’m pretty sure he’s asking for a lighter in amongst the rambling. I figure the blast radius will only be minimal though, so as long as there are at least three individuals between him and myself then I’m in a good way. His scent will also ensure that, should I fall asleep, his nearing presence will not go undetected. The toilet, down the other end, is manned (armed) by a woman (debatable) with breasts each the size of Haley’s comet and with the gravitational pull to match; those things could have sucked Jesus off the cross. She is amiable enough though, even if her toilets aren’t. We have a two litre bottle of beer in our hands, and the lads on the other side of the hallway are eyeing Keysy and I off with what one might loosely term as suspicion if not outright malevolence. We do the dance where one of them spits out a sentence in Russian without creating a second syllable, glaring at us unremittingly throughout. In response we smile sheepishly, which then finally serves to send them into raptures of laughter. They may all be bloody ugly, which does indeed provide some measure of gratification, but they’re all bloody ugly – probably less through birth than experience, unfortunately. And they have hockey sticks. At least, I hope they’re hockey sticks. You know it’s a bad sign when you actively want their weapon of choice to be a hockey stick.

The presence of a foreign language where it shouldn’t be, after all, even if it’s English, generally gives rise to some interesting results. It’s one of the joys of travelling, but even joy can be a capricious mistress. And so it was with Keysy and me, the two of us spending our first night in the United States of Gazprom on the upper floor of Yekaterinburg train station, woefully underdressed and trying to get some shut eye. We had, of course, fully intended on getting the bus to Irbit that night so as to be on time for the test runs on our motorbike the next morning for our upcoming rally. However, we had also, predictably, had one too many beers and missed the last of the said buses, despite the best efforts of a lovely Russian girl who carted us to the bus stop after sensing we had less of an idea (we caught a tram in the wrong direction) than the Russian democratic system. And so here we sit, in early-February, teeth chattering and our backpack straps wrapped around as many limbs and chair legs as possible, just in case old Gummy McGum decides he wants something more palatable for his arson than methylated spirits mixed with leaded petrol.

I suppose the question that is most pertinent at this point in time is “Why not the Maldives?” Ah, Watson, good thing you asked. Much to my parents chagrin, the stupidity gene got mixed in with the blood of the youngest in our family of four sons, and ever since I have been trying to exploit the result to its full potential, generally with glittering success. My family, despite being very close, has never been the model of the nuclear family – at one point the six of us were spread out over half a dozen different continents. And I figure, given my nomadic lifestyle of the last decade, to my parents I don’t really exist. Well, sort of. In keeping with the prevailing theme here, I resemble an electron, everywhere and nowhere all at once, and always ready to jump ship, but always hovering around somewhere discernible. Valency is a bitch, I’m sure my parents have surmised; but then again, I was borne of them, so it’s their fault anyway.

The Ice Run, which is ostensibly what we are here for, is thus just the latest in a carousel of events designed to kill myself in; but boy, this one is a doozy. Two thousand kilometres on a forty year old Soviet motorbike, due north in the dead of winter to a finish line on the Arctic Circle. So, in truth, the hockey players across the way should give us a good warm up, in more ways than one, should shit hit the proverbial fan, which is looking increasingly likely. There is an old Swedish proverb, though, that says that you should never cause a fight that doesn’t need to happen, for everyone has their own battles already. As I come to this realisation and toy with the idea of playing pacifist rather than provocateur, one of them beats me to the punch, raising his flask of vodka at me, and we drink in silence together with Sir Gumalot shrieking fifteen metres away in one direction and the toilet warden blocking out the light in the other. No helmet versus hockey stick fight tonight, it seems. 

There is a charity drive involved too somewhere in this, and Keysy and I have been pestering friends and acquaintances alike ad infinitum for the past four months. I muse to myself now that The Adventurists, our logistical mentors and the owners of the motorbikes in question, had chosen a dentistry charity, to combine with our choice of the RSPCA, as the flagship charity cause the teams (twelve of them) would be supporting – insert third drunk toothless man reference here. I would be lying, however, if I said that the charity was the reason why I signed onto this gig. If charity was indeed it, I’m sure I could have found a few different, easier ways to skin a cat (wait... something seems to be in conflict here...).

There is a quote doing the rounds at the moment which I’m quite fond of: “No one looks back on their life and remembers the nights they had plenty of sleep”. Now, despite the elephant in the room screaming at me telling me that the cold might put me permanently to sleep, or that a crash could put by neck and everything south of it to sleep, you would have to agree with me that it is quite a nice sentiment, no? I don’t like sleep altogether much because I simply feel there is too much in life to waste time being tired for. This impending trip contrasted strongly against somewhere like the Maldives, with its beautiful beaches, sun and warmth, people to wait on you hand and foot. On a scale of one to comfortable, the Maldives are pretty fucking comfortable. And therein lays the problem. Why on earth do you want comfortable? Are you going to remember that freshly served Caipirinha when you’re sixty and tell yourself, “OH Norman, that cocktail added so much meaning to my life”? No? How about “You remember that time we buried our motorbike in three feet of snow in the middle of Siberia having been run off the road by an errant snowmobile, and we ended up spending the entire afternoon doing shots and talking Putin with the soldiers whose tank towed us out?” 

Yup, thought so.

Basically, it comes down to this: Of your memories, what will still remain in fifty years? Many people, most in fact, live life as if it were a ritual, not a learning curve, as if they plateau at a point where they think they can get by with confidence, at which point they coast. This is not to say that they do not seek learning, but just that they don’t seek learning where the alternative is failure. I do not resent this approach, nor pity the people who take it, for it is human and for them it works, but I do question it. Why do people love this so? Surely it can’t just be for comfort? What is it then? Is it out of habit, taking hold like a vice grip? Is it constraint, by external forces? Perhaps it is laziness, an unwillingness to look for obstacles to jump over? Appreciation, for what you know the plateau will give you? Loneliness, tired of the esoteric position of self that the climb will forever leave you in, forever chameleonic and unstable? Ignorance, of what lies above the plateau? Is it a preparatory thing, a preparation for a future that never comes? Or is it just straight out fear of the entire unknown? I suppose for all it varies. Don’t let my arrogance fool you, for I too often get mired in these pitfalls, stalled and broken as any human can be, but I feel that I am at least cognisant of the notion that they are indeed pitfalls, and so I work against it, this ritual. I certainly don’t love it; that much is lucidly clear, and that is only fact rather than conceit. I am determined to replace torpor and idleness with anything but.

It doesn’t need to be comfortable. I don’t have to like it even remotely. But as long as it’s a story; life is nothing if not for the pursuit of stories. If I get lost, break down and get helicoptered out because I’m retarded, fucking great. Leaps into the unknown, the wilderness, pertain to the only faith I hold. It is the same with photography. I never want to take a deliberate photograph; I only want to know what photo I’ll get as I’m creating it. All because I know that learning more, particularly through stumbling in without premeditation, will change me, make me more. The unexpected is the best thing to expect. I need my life to change like the seasons, with similar regularity; if it is good enough for nature, it’s good enough for me, after all. I need to never be confident with what I am about to do, having done it before. I need to be a different person every time I engage the world. 

Sigh. I also need to piss. 

I get up to approach the elephant in the room. Prepare yourself, Ben. She smiles as I near. The twins are inviting me in. Quadriplegia and Frostbite I’ll call them, be there nipples or no nipples. 

Time to play God, roll the dice, and see if I get sucked into oblivion.

Let’s see how well Russia does at carpentry; I wouldn’t mind still being on this cross in two weeks, with the sky still stretched out in front of me, splendid in my gaze.