Where are you going in life?
For the past few years, I have been going through a crisis of career identity, asking myself this question on a fairly regular basis. So, when I read about Dave Gill’s “Vague Direction” project, I knew this was something I needed to learn more about. Dave is engaging in a bike journey loop around the US, making a documentary about his travels and the people he encounters along the way—some of whom are very focused while others, like me, are still exploring. Dave states that “before this project, [he] wondered if [these questions of identity] were thoughts that only a select few have, but [he] realizes now that so many people struggle with being content.” So, we catch up with him and his progress a third the way through this experience:
USCR: How does a video producer and filmmaker decide to bike 11,000 miles around North America?
Gill: For the last couple of years whilst working really hard making commercials, I had a nagging feeling, one that grew daily, that I needed to go on an adventure and make a personal project. And then there was a point where everything came together to say ‘If you’re gonna go and do this thing that you’ve been dreaming of for years, you need to go now’. So I did. My background is in adventure filmmaking, so I knew this project needed to go back to the adventure roots. Making a project that you truly believe in is good for your soul. You can totally tell when a project has been ‘dragged through’ instead of being made with true passion.
Why I chose cycling specifically, I grew up on a bicycle (trials mainly), so maybe it was trying to get back to that - a time that looking back I only have fond memories of. The thought of working forever, and putting up with a week away here and there terrified (and terrifies) me. So it was a search for a big adventure personally. But also because I struggled with doubts and being content, I wanted to figure out if other people did too. So the project grew in my mind, until it became less about the cycling and more about exploring other peoples’ lifestyles, to see if there was anything I could learn from them.
USCR: How supportive are your friends and family?
Gill: Totally supportive. I think to be honest, my constant research and chatting to them about this when it was just an early thought, probably indicated to them many months before it began that this would be happening.
USCR: Why make a documentary about people’s lifestyle choices?
Gill: There’s so many interesting people out there. Often we look on from a distance and think ‘that’s crazy’ or ‘that’s super interesting’, but we never take it any further. So many people are living such fascinating lives, but we don’t learn about them. I saw an opportunity to use my filmmaking background as a way to take a look into those kind of lives. People who I wouldn’t ordinarily spend a lot of time around; from Civil War Re-enactors, to major Hollywood directors, to singing cowgirls. You name it, there’s a bunch of fascinating people out there, and I wanted to explore how they’ve ended up where they are now, what that journey looked like, and what they learned from it.
USCR: What do you ultimately hope to achieve with this journey?
Gill: That’s a tricky question to answer. I’ve already learnt so much more than I expected to learn, and I’ve only cycled about a third of the overall distance. If I had to put it in a sentence, it would be: I’d like to learn as much as possible from the people along the route, and use it as an aid to figure out what’s truly important in life.
USCR: On the website, you say : “This is a project about people. Those who lead, seemingly, ‘normal’ lives. What is normal? And those who embrace something completely unusual.” So is the documentary primarily a celebration of mankind’s diversity of choice? Or is that over-simplifying?
Gill: The project is unique in that it is adapting all the time. At the moment it’s not so much about the diversity of choice. For me, having so many choices is mostly a good thing, we live in an age where so many opportunities are out there. It’s more a look under the surface. The diversity of choice helps to choose characters who are really interesting - they’re doing something unusual or inspiring or still don’t know what want to do. But regardless of any of that - a persons’ job, or hobby, whatever it is - we all struggle with certain questions. Questions like: how do I find out my true calling in life? What are the truly important things? Am I doing something worthwhile? So it’s a project that sets out to explore those questions rather than a specific choice someone has made.
USCR: How have you chosen the people you are featuring? Did you set up meetings with these people in advanced or are you just finding them along the way?
Gill: Both. Some of the people have been setup in advance, and they’re great because I already know a lot about them, and can plan for the interview. The pre-planned people give a nod into who I draw inspiration from in many cases. But also, so many fascinating interviews have happened off-the-cuff and by a chance meeting. And often these provide some great interviews, because they literally need to explain everything, as I have no idea. Like “what on earth made you want to be a singing cowgirl?,” which is a question I never thought I’d ask.
USCR: Why did you choose the bike your means of transportation?
Gill: It’s healthy, it doesn’t need fuel, you get fresh air, and you travel at just the right pace. Walking’s too slow to cover a whole continent within a year window, and by driving you miss out on all the good stuff of cycling, and also you miss whole areas, places, and ultimately unique experiences as you drive past them. Cycling fits perfectly in the middle. I’d be lying if I told you I’d never wished this was a motorbike project though!
USCR: Were you a cyclist before this trip?
Gill: Not really. I used to be really into trials riding, but then stopped, like many do, at around 17. One of my regrets is stopping. I have nothing but good memories of days spent trials riding. In recent years I’ve commuted to work but it was only ever about 3 miles there and 3 miles back. So getting off the plane and knowing I was about to cycle a massive continental loop was intimidating to say the least.
USCR: What types of training did you do, and do you feel it was effective?
Gill: I didn’t do any training. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. The last couple of months before departing involved pulling together the crucial bits of the puzzle to make this project possible. I spent all waking hours working on logistics. There wasn’t any training. But it wasn’t just poor time management, I actively avoided training. I knew that if I went training with a bike that I’d not ridden before, with heavy loaded panniers and tried to climb a hill, I’d realize what I was getting in to and may be put off. There was naive logic at play.
USCR: What have been the biggest challenges along the way?
Gill: There’s the physical ones; like bike breakages, and hills that go on for days. They’re never that fun. Even if you’re not naturally a problem solver - set out on a project like this and you’ll become one. My bike has broken so many times, and I’ve run out of water a few times now too. But you learn from your mistakes thankfully. Then there’s a whole other world of challenges - ones that are more mental. You have to deal with loneliness, uncomfortable people / situations, and illness. And when they combine it really sucks.
USCR: What have been the most surprising events so far?
Gill: There’s been so many truly unforgettable moments. In terms of specifics, it’s impossible to name them all, but one was spending a day with a group of Civil War re-enactors in Georgia. They were recreating a battle at a fort and walking round with muskets and cannons. I’d never seen anything like it. Overall I’d say peoples’ generosity and kindness have been really surprising. We live in a world where we’re bombarded by negative news, and you hear horror stories all the time. The truth is most people are good. Human beings, on the whole, are inherently kind. So there’s been so many times when someones’ offered a place to stay, or a home-cooked meal. Just simple stuff that you miss when your life is strapped to a bike. Also, being invited onto a TV set to watch a scene where a van exploded in front of an LA city hall was something I’ll never forget!
USCR: How is Steep Media involved?
Gill: SteepMedia is a production company I founded as a teenager, and marked the start of my adventure filmmaking background. It’s been laying dormant for a few years now, so I thought this may be a good project to revive it.
USCR: How is Evernote involved?
Gill: Evernote has this app called Evernote Hello, which is just super useful on a project like this. It’s an address book app that lays out contacts in a timeline of where and when you met them. So rather than anyone getting lost in an A-Z, you know exactly who they are because you can relate it to the journey. I’m using the app to remember everyone I meet on the project.
USCR: In looking at the route map this is about little over halfway….how do you feel it’s going so far?
Gill: It’s like a rollercoaster. Excuse the cliché. Some days are absolutely amazing. Other days are the worst. You end up thinking ‘why on earth am I doing this?’ and are hit with horrible mental questions like ‘Is what I’m doing even worth it? Is it making an impact on the world? Is there any point?’ . Sometimes when it’s all been going wrong for days it’s really hard to think positively. But on the good days, and the good phases, it’s absolutely awesome. I’m meeting all these people, a lot of whom I really respect, I’m getting fresh air, exercise and feeling creative. When it goes right, I think ‘Right now, there is nowhere I’d rather be’.
Ultimately, this sounds like a very positive exploration of the human condition, and using the bike as a tool to do so is even more inspiring. So, USCR will continue to catch up with Dave on this trip to see what other fun stories he can share.
He does maintain a detailed, and exceptionally interesting blog, videos, route information, and general updates on the project at http://www.vaguedirection.com/, as well. But, we will continue to catch up with Dave as well as he treks across the US exploring the spirit of humanity.