Recently Victoria and I stumbled on a series from 2004 called “Long Way Round.” It is the story of Ewan MacGregor and his best friend Chaley Boorman who ride motorcycles all the way around the world. They start out from London and go through Central Asia into Mongolia, up through Siberia and the Road of Bones, hop on a plane to Alaska and back down over the north of the US to New York. I read the book when it first came out, so I was quite keen to see the series. Typically when you read the book first and then see the movie, the movie is ruined for you, but for some reason, perhaps because this was real life, the series was better. In fact it was incredible.
There are a lot of reasons that it was so incredible. Ewan and Charley and their cameraman Claudio have an amazing adventure and bond. Their camaraderie was inspiring. That was great. The scenery was just breathtaking. One might have expected that. I reminisced a lot as they went through Central Asia because it was so much like my own experience when I lived there. I actually went to bed that night thinking of the smells of the market, the roads they travelled, sitting at a hosts table and feeling like you were the most important person in your hosts world. Even more than these things however what struck me was how many deep deep struggles they had on their journey and the end result was almost the exact opposite of what we wish for in this life. Or rather, it is exactly what we wish for, but they got there…the Long Way Round.
So what did they want? What do WE want? In some way, they wanted an experience of a lifetime. For our purposes we can say a “happy life.” Much of our life today is lived in avoiding conflict and difficulties. Character is not the goal. A happy life is desired but rarely achieved. I could rail on and on about how to get that life and what is wrong with our society, but in their 9 part series, it was illustrated so much more effectively than I could argue.
It would seem that the “happy life” takes going the long way round. What is true is that those who are most happy in this life are those who have not had an absence of difficulty, but have been through much of difficulty and have developed incredible character through the process by virtue of their responses. As my MeMaw used to say to my mom, “It’s not what happens to you, but what you do with what happens to you that matters.” This was said by a woman who had seen her fair share of difficulties. But unless what I am saying remains unclear, let’s return to our 2 riders having a not so easy time as they get to Mongolia.
Up until Mongolia, while there had been some hard roads with pot holes and some other added obstacles like Kazakh hospitality distracting from the road ahead, they had not been completely prepared for what they found. It is hard to describe the conditions of the roads in Mongolia, or really the lack there of. Roads is too nice a word really, a goat path might be closer but somehow still comes up short. After making only a few miles over a lengthy period, Ewan and Charley were broken men. Days of getting lost, getting stuck in almost knee deep mud, falling down in swift rivers, eating sand as is shifted underneath them, and breaking down with no one to help until the most random of travelers just happened upon them, they were ready to hightail it Russia to get back on some “normal” roads, even though it was anticipated that these parts of the journey would be perhaps the most rewarding. Mongolia’s unspoiled nature was such a draw, but the difficulties had become just too great. They were at their end.
And so there they were, waiting for a couple of nomadic Mongolians to fix their stand-in Russian made bike (the cameraman’s BMW had broken down), talking on the satellite phone with their producer who was several days behind them with the support trucks and having almost just as terrible of a time making headway, when suddenly the producer had to hang up because the truck in front had flipped over! If ever there was a time to quit it was then. People’s lived were in danger. Their doctor, Vasily, came near to having his head explode, not to mention getting it nearly taken off in the accident, because such risks were being taken for…what? A TV show, book, and the dream of two guys? Oh how he laid into them for such non-sense.
And maybe he was right. Certainly in our day and age, the “happy life” comes from avoiding danger and difficulty. But that night after the dust had settled a little, Ewan and Charley talked with their producer and he gave what I think is some sage advice. He said, “Sure, we can split out of here and get ourselves up to Russia where it might be easier if you want. I’ll back your choice. But it would be a shame to miss all of this beauty in Mongolia for just a few days difficulty. We knew it would be hard, that’s the whole point. So what if we get to New York a few days late? It would be a real shame to miss all of this just to get there on time.”
In the end, the carried on. It was tough. They fell. They cursed. They questioned. They cried. But they made it through. Mongolia. They made it through stronger men, stronger and more capable to tackle what lay ahead, the Road of Bones in Siberia.
The Road of Bones is a “road” that cuts through the most remote part of Siberia. It is truly wild land. The road itself was built by prisoners in the Siberian Gulags, many of whom fell and died and instead of receiving a proper burial, they were simply buried into the road itself. The road is as rough as its history. Bridges would be swept away by raging rivers formed by melting snow. Bears and wolves dominated the wooded forests. Finally after having to take engines apart because they took in water and the river ahead was just too wide and swift to cross, and because of a severe injury to Charlie’s shoulder, Ewan and Charlie had to simply load the bikes onto a Russian truck that ventured by on the route and they became participants. Along the way to Magadan, they had to help the trucks along though. They had to rebuild roads, jump in rivers after fallen camera equipment and more. Things did not get easier. Yet in the midst of all of this, they developed a ton of character, laughing and thinking more differently than they ever had before because what faced them no longer scared them. What was in front of them was no more that what lay behind.
Finally they came through and came to Magadan, got on a plane for Alaska and started again. The rest of their journey was easy paved roads. They sighed a sigh of relief and went to the first restaurant they had seen in months. It is here where the most telling of things happens. They had been so changed by their experience that along the road at one point Ewan makes a revealing comment. Difficulty was gone. Ease was now at hand. Yet he said, “I just want to be back on the Road of Bones.”
I argue the very same point. Life’s difficulties, while strenuous and often scary, make us better and happier people if we choose to walk through them focusing on the right things. For the believer, the focus and indeed only hope of growth is found in and comes from Christ Jesus and through the Holy Spirit. Yes life is difficult, but when we are found in him and choose to walk in him focusing on how we can grow our character, we become, simply put, more like him.
It’s not an easy thought. It’s perhaps the most scary one we can have. It certainly isn’t comfortable. But it is the one that leads to life. I by no means do this well. If I am honest, I would rather have the paved roads of North America than the Road of Bones. But I also have to be honest and admit that if I don’t go down the Road of Bones I am a much more shallow person.