Two extended adventures in my life featured a rucksack as a catalyst and they were learning and growth experiences, as well as being a lot of fun (well, not all the time).
When I finished my biochemistry honours degree at Stirling Uni, I fancied trying working in the field and applied for a technical student exchange scheme which got me a three month job with the biotech giant “Pharmacia” in Uppsala, Sweden. It was a fork in the road; all my uni pals were heading off in different directions to different careers.
I disliked long goodbyes and as my job started before the graduation ceremony, I was on my way on my own by train to Uppsala. I hated cases (at least before the days of wheeled-ones), so I packed my gear into a red framed rucksack with country badges sewn on it, like the one on the front cover of Ken Welsh’s A Hitch-hikers Guide to Europe. I glued a big Lion Rampant on the upper flap. That proved to be a charm, since when I was travelling around Europe later, people would give me a lift just to find out where the flag was from.
In Uppsala, I had an apartment, my own lab and research project, a salary and a realisation that I had done no organic chemistry – which was essential to the project – for two years. So I buried myself in the institute library for a week, wondering whether I could master the research problem. As the summer months passed, I felt despondent – a common trait in new researchers, but I hung in there and the world finally turned for me, as I found a new resilience that was to serve me well in my subsequent research career. I also learned to live with uncertainty, another valuable skill. I was able to complete the project and publish the results.
I relished the adventure of trying strange new foods and going off on weekend travels around Sweden, Norway and Finland with two American girls that I had met at work, as well as nights out in Uppsala with some ex-pats colleagues.
When the job finished in September, I had arranged to meet with my pal Mark in Geneva and to go to the French wine harvest for work. So I hoisted on my rucksack and was off hitch-hiking on the road – like my hero, Jack Kerouac. There were lots of adventures, like the passing through Copenhagen that turned into a week of parties in squats and in the “hippy city” of Christiania.
I eventually got to Geneva and after travelling round Switzerland, Mark and I hitched to Lyon. We stayed for 2 weeks, but the harvest was late and there was no work. As the money ran out we hitched to Paris and then home via pals in Hammersmith. My original plan had been to stay with a girlfriend in Munich and get factory work for the winter. I wonder how life might have turned out if that had happened.
Back in Stirling, unemployed and wanting a break from research, I got a job as a technical sales rep which I did for 2 years, travelling over Scotland demonstrating and selling biochemical equipment. While training in Watford, I hung out with my Uppsala ex-pat flatmate who was a local.
I knew that I wanted to make research my career and started another adventure when I quit the job for a postgraduate studentship. At the same time, my new wife became a student too and we moved to the village of Ashfield in Perthshire, handy for Stirling Uni. Through the neighbours, the biochem department and the Castlehill Karate Club, we had a new band of friends to party with. When I got my PhD, science in the UK was savaged by the Thatcher cuts. I needed publications and a postdoctoral job to get them. I decided to go to McMaster Uni in Hamilton, Canada. My wife’s family lived around there and we figured she could come out in the summers after her course finished.
So in January, after the wheels had fallen off the marriage, I was off again, alone, with the rucksack, first staying with some undergrad days pals in Brussels. In Hamilton, I made a new group of friends from the lab, as well as with my wife’s family whom I had met before in the UK. Despite my wife and I finally splitting after I had been there three months, my brother-in-law moved in with me and that was another troop of pals and social acrobatics. But the defining moment was still to come.
I used to walk from my flat in central Hamilton to buy at the farmer’s market and fill my rucksack. On the way home, I would check out all the bijou wee shops and their interesting proprietors on King St West. I discovered Hesse Village, the faux English Pub, “The Gown and Gavel” and after a few visits I was sitting on the patio beside my pack when a girl (Suzanne) came up to me and asked about the badges. Soon I was in her world and meeting her friends, including my best friend there, John Craig. I became a citizen after marrying someone else and stayed for ten years of crazy adventures across Canada and the USA. But like that ying and yang symbol, when things are at a peak, they fall away. In my experience, when the good times were gone, it was time to move on. In 1994, with a new love and a son across the Atlantic, I returned to Scotland. That didn’t work out either, except for the wonderfully close relationship with my son.
The rucksack is still hanging in the garage, but I won’t be getting it down any more. I have finally had twenty-five years of reasons not to (Nicki). It’s still an adventure, but not as a lonesome traveller.