August 23, 2019. Cold Arctic wind stings my face as I navigate the bicycle on a muddy road while looking for familiar faces in an unfamiliar place. My eyes scan the industrial town made up of prefabricated buildings and eventually fixate upon a rusty sign “Welcome to Deadhorse, Alaska. End of the Dalton Highway.” The blue wall of Prudhoe Bay General Store is covered with stickers of adventurers who made to The Last Frontier of Alaska.
Here, at this sign, my bicycle comes to a gentle stop. The bicycle computer indicates I have reached the end of my route at 70°21’N latitude covering a total distance of 33,105 km in three years, seven months and ten days.
A drizzle washes away dirt from my yellow rain jacket and black trousers as I stand there gazing at the sign which depicts a dead horse. “Where did you start your journey from?” I hear a voice.
I turn around and see a young man with a trimmed beard looking at my fully loaded bicycle from all angles. I give him a long blank stare.
Just a while ago, I was cycling long road where—rain droplets pierced my skin like needles—sky wrapped the horizon from all sides—wild wind ran like a ghost over the endless tundra ablaze with fall colours—and panoramas were so vast one needed a dozen eyes for the scale of the landscape was too big for a single pair of eyes to grasp. But now, everywhere oil rigs jut out of the ground like giant crosses in a graveyard.
The world around me makes no sense. How did I get here? Did I just wake up from a blackout? What is the journey I am on?
Then suddenly, before I can speak, I jump onto the bicycle and start cycling backwards from Deadhorse. Everything is happening in reverse. The rain rises upwards into the air, the snow lifts from the ground back into the sky, and the sun goes from west to east. I pedal backwards for two weeks on the Dalton Highway, leaving tundra, into the Brooks Range, and cross the Arctic Circle. In Fairbanks, I empty my food bags, go to the grocery store and leave food items in their proper shelves and get reimbursed. I travel in reverse in Canada on the Dempster Highway, then across Yukon, British Columbia and Alberta. Seasons change in the opposite order. Fallen dry leaves rise, attach themselves back onto the trees and turn back green again. My odometer ticks down as I continue my journey down South in the US, Mexico and Central America. I greet everyone with a goodbye and say “hello” before parting. Friends become strangers. I return food, water, and money to them on the way. In Colombia, I go to the police station, give them my laptop which they drop in a field so a thief can pick it up and return it to my hotel room.
Time on my watch ticks backwards too. Each day, I become younger and stronger. My beard gradually turns from grey to black, and hair on my scalp grow thicker. All the pictures from my memory and camera get erased one by one as I travel through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.
On January 14, 2016, I reach at the end of the road in Ushuaia where my odometer eventually becomes zero.
“End of the Road. This is where my journey begins!” I say to the camera and return to Hostel Amanecer de La Bahia.
From there, I go to the airport and sit on a plane. The plane eats a white snake of smoke in the sky converting it into fuel. In Layyah, tears rise from the ground and go back into my eyes. I dig the earth and lift mom from her grave. Then I cycle backwards from Pakistan to Germany and go to work where I delete lines from software source code for years and reimburse money to my employer. After that, I go to the universities in Rostock and Magdeburg to handover over my PhD and master degrees. In return, they roll back seven years for me.
It is the year 2002. I take a flight to Pakistan. Sitting by the plane window, I vision myself cycling from Germany to Pakistan one day. Later, I join Punjab College Multan as a lecturer. I give them 9,000 Pakistani Rupees every month and unteach students for over a year. At the BZ University Multan, a friend is waiting on the road. He tells me that my dad’s corpse has been transported from Layyah to Multan and that the doctors at Nishtar Hospital have resurrected him. I am full of joy.
The university and college in Multan give me money as I sit through the lectures and unlearn all the knowledge. I give this money back to dad for the tyre shop. Some of the money goes to my brother, so he can buy a motorcycle. Mom once again wears four gold bangles in her arms. Years come back really fast. My elder brother beats me with a stick for bicycle tours I haven’t even done yet. I cycle back from Lahore and then from Multan to home.
I’m now 13. I find myself in the hospital with a big wound in my leg; dad carries me in his arms and lays me down on the road again. Next moment, I get back on the bicycle which collides with a rickshaw and magically fixes itself. The deep wound in my left thigh heals in an instant.
My tiny legs in the plaid pyjamas pedal a kid’s trike violently as I discover for the first time what freedom means. Next moment, I stop and give away this trike to dad who returns it to the shop.
I’m few years old, running barefoot backwards, chasing a swarm of honey bees on a Friday afternoon. Next moment, I am rolling a motorcycle tyre along the Layyah Minor Canal.
“My son, Kamran, Meray Khwaboon ki Tabeer (the realisation of my dreams)!” I hear a voice for the first time as I enter the world weeping. Then I close my eyes. It turns black as I spend an eternity in mom’s womb, but the tyre of life keeps rolling while I am asleep.
As I slowly open my eyes again, I feel as if I have woken up into a dream, not from a dream.
In Deadhorse, the air smells like oil, though it doesn’t stink as much as my body sweat. My hands are freezing from cold. I see someone staring at me, waiting for an answer.
“South America!” the words get stuck in my throat as if my mouth is filled with a loaf of bread.
How should I tell him it hasn’t been merely a journey from one location to another, rather, a way of life deeply rooted in the present moment and embracing uncertainty? Waking up at a new place, pedalling all day long, and then sleeping at a random location, every day I feel part of a rhythmic cycle of the universe. Regardless of sleeping in a tent or an abandoned house, a comfortable bed or a toilet, a church or a mosque, I dream the same way.
I learn it is possible to find peace and joy despite the hardships of a long journey we are all on.
At the Arctic Ocean, I find myself rolling my bicycle front wheel at the shore, as I used to when I was a child at Layyah Minor Canal.
Standing there, I wonder. What if I have been at the same place all my life but the earth spun under my tyres? My vision changes from dream to reality, reality to dream and then back to dream again. It is impossible to tell where I am right now, in Deadhorse or Layyah?