The adventure world is full of people who are passionate about the outdoors and the planet. But with exploration comes a significant impact, especially if it involves a flight.
Rosie Watson and Mike Elm are bucking this trend and shining a light on the environmental footprint of adventure. Making their way to Mongolia, Rosie by running, Mike by bicycle, both are finding and sharing stories of people working to tackle the climate crisis, and creating a more healthy, fun and sustainable way of living. This is about creating what Rosie and Mike call a New Story in our search for a different narrative.
Rosie has been on the road since August 2019, Mike since November 2019. We caught up with them just after an enforced break due to the Covid lockdown, as they were about to leave Skopje, North Macedonia.
Why have you decided to run/bike across the continent? What is it about running/biking that you love so much?
Fell/mountain running is my main passion. I love how much you are forced to the extremes of simplicity by carrying everything on your back while still trying to run. It gives me a kind of meditative, relaxing headspace, and allows me to connect to the world around me in a much more intense way, as so much effort goes into every step, yet you still move slow enough to see the detail of what passes you by.
By travelling slowly you encounter a country or continent authentically. I like the speed of travelling by bike. It feels like you cover distance but you experience the place with all your senses. It also means that you connect to people, barely verbally just with waves or the relevant hello. These low level social interactions mean a lot. It is also a way of seeing a big chunk of the world without it costing the earth.
You’re undertaking what you call the New Story Ride/New Story Run. What do you mean by ‘New Story’?
We desperately need to transform how we are living as human beings on the earth. Everything we do, especially how we think of ourselves as humans compared to other species, the earth, and each other (i.e. different groups), is all underpinned by a collection of narratives or stories about us and those things. It's at the root of everything, and to get the kind of transformational change we need, we need to critique and reform these stories/narratives into something that is healthier for us, the planet and all living things.
Stories are also how we connect to each other emotionally, so by telling these stories I hope to show a more human side to change that people relate to on a personal level, as opposed to just stating the data alone.
As the ride has gone on I've become more and more clear on the New Story being about building a story, a system, that is good for the people that are living it and the rest of nature they depend on.
Which countries have you been through?
The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Serbia and North Macedonia. Link to my route map
So far I've ridden through Austria, touched into Slovakia and Hungary, then Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia.
What have been your most memorable encounters?
This is hard! One would be visiting Hambacher forest, which you can read about here. Another would be one particular day in the Alps, which you can read about here. On a personal level, crossing the channel by ferry after my first week of running was a really cool moment! New Year's eve on a mountain top with Mike and the best sunset and stars and sunrise ever, waking up covered in frost.
I've also met so many amazing people on the way who've spontaneously taken me into their homes, with no pre planning (just invited me in when I asked where I could camp, or asked what I was doing while walking down a street). There's too many to go through them all – some where you are just totally enveloped and absorbed into a family temporarily, some which challenge your perspectives of how you view people, some where you have no common language but still spend hours ‘chatting'.
The very first day of arriving off the train in Vienna before I'd ridden an inch I met Jonas Skielboe who's combined his passion for sharing music and transformed his lifestyle and in so doing created something innovative and fun: an electric cargo bike which transforms to a music stage "VeloConcerts". He's been a model of that combination of passion and joy that's needed to get to a new story. I am also really keen to experience what the car-free future looks like. So pedestrian Islands like Silba and the centre of Ljubljana were cool examples.
The 3rd of January, Rosie and I spent a whole day at an incredible completely off-grid solar powered mountain hut in Croatia above 1000m. It was a really special place of peace. The first night that a complete stranger invited me in to their house after I asked if I might camp in their garden. That was incredibly humbling and has been almost the rule along the way where I've experienced so much generosity.
Why is it important to talk to people about climate change?
I would say this adventure is more about listening and telling other people's stories. But the more we all talk about the issues, and listen to each other, embracing ideas, disagreements, working stuff out, the quicker change will happen.
The climate crisis is a focus of this journey because it is the most pressing challenge of our time. Showing that there are people in all sorts of places working in their own ways to tackle parts of the climate crisis will encourage those watching the journey to act how they can, I hope.
Have you always been aware of climate issues?
I became interested in it just in time to apply for my degree, which was in Environment and Business. There was no 'big moment of realisation', just that I wanted to do something with my life that had a positive impact – then I realised that the climate crisis was a main issue we were facing. I believe that one of the main purposes in life is to leave the world a better place than what you were born into! I also had a very outdoorsy upbringing so that probably had an impact (although at one point I wanted to be a fashion designer).
I feel like I've always been roughly aware of climate issues – my parents are both hippies and the issues of the world were always topics of conversation. I studied Geography and International Relations with the aim of working to end human suffering with a particular interest in peace studies. It wasn't until later that getting my first job I had the realisation that none of that work would mean shit without a stable environment.
What do you hope to achieve from your journeys?
From the run I want to be able to show a big diversity of versions of the 'new story', in a way that people connect to emotionally and personally, and sparks their imaginations (and action!) for how they can bring about a better world in their own context. I want to show that that world will be more positive and fun, not one of gloom and restriction. I want to explain big, complex issues in a way that the average person can understand and enjoy reading about. I want to show the universal nature of needing and creating a new story, not just focused on 'developed' countries. And after the run, hopefully link these all up into talks, maybe a book, maybe a film!
The story that has led us to where we are now is just that, a story. Time and time again we see how stories are what drive both good and bad outcomes. My aim is that the ride helps bring to life the new and better story that is happening. Not to create a How-to guide, but a Why-to guide. Whether that remains just on the New Story Ride website or becomes something more polished is going to depend on tapping into the skills and interests of others.
There are some adventurers who are trying to raise awareness of the carbon footprint of adventuring, but many people just don’t want to hear it. What do you think is our role as adventurers? Sustainable is such a buzz word, but does it really mean much in reality?
I think there's actually a lot of collective denial in the outdoor community as a whole right now, that's really holding change back. Which is a shame, as I think it could be a massive force for good on a much wider scale, if people faced the facts and applied some creativity to the issues. An article I wrote recently covers most of this.
Re the word 'sustainability'… Yep, I think it's potentially a bit outdated now. I use the term 'tackling the climate crisis' a lot as it emphasises that action needed, as well as the fact that it's a crisis (as opposed to climate change, which sounds like it could be natural).
And… when you reach Mongolia, how will you be getting back?
By train of course :)