Earlier in the winter, Tom Davies had felt a craving for a journey — one that would push him mentally and physically and, with any luck, leave a sense of accomplishment at the end.
Now we witness him, stripped to his underwear and shivering on the bank of an angry-sounding river on the edge of Wales, 20 yards wide and flowing fast.
His pack is rolled up into a waterproof case, but Davies knows the weight of his clothes, food and camping gear will be a liability in such swift waters. As he tiptoes into the torrent, the reality of the challenge sinks in. The freezing March water rises to his thighs mere feet from the bank. He feels the current tug at his feet.
“Nah, man. Nah,” Davies mutters.
He retreats to the bank, fuming. “Do I swim it? DO I SWIM IT?” he yells into the gray sky, as if summoning advice from an absent deity. It is too risky with his heavy pack. He dresses quickly and turns his gaze upriver, still muttering to himself. For better or worse, a short walk takes him to another tempting, but risky, crossing.
“Oh my god. What is that? Look at this. No,” Davies says. “It’s all collapsed. No fucking way.”
In front of him is a collapsed wooden bridge, the remnants hanging crooked along chicken wire and a single rusted steel cable that spans the banks. The wood is weathered radiant green by the wind and moisture. The water underneath, pinched into a narrow band, roars with streaks of foaming white. “Shit me, son,” Davies whispers. Then, after a pause: “I can do that,” spoken with the edge of a man in need of self-convincing.
One careful foot after another, he inches across the fallen structure, stepping on chicken wire and hanging to the cable. The wind whistles hard in the gully, waving the dead winter branches into Davies’ face. He’s in military fatigues and hiking boots with a full pack, and every ounce of it weighs on his mind as he stands at the midpoint of the bridge. “If I fall in now, I’m fucked,” he frets.
Then, a few delicate feet later, he’s off. He looks back across the river and touches the GoPro mounted on his chest. “I hope that filmed,” he sighs.
That river was just the first nerve-wracking challenge in a five-day slog that Davies filmed in March. He uploaded the project to YouTube earlier this summer with the title “Mission Across Wales.” The 29-year-old Brit planned the journey in a whirl of inspired recklessness late last year, honing in on a particular ambition: Has anyone crossed a country in a straight line?
Internet searches suggested no. For inspiration, he looked westward from his home on the edge of Birmingham, England. Ahead lay the English border and Wales, a little nation that also happened to have a narrow waist. He examined topography maps and concluded that the best route took him from the hamlet of Llanerch Emrys to the Mawddach estuary on the western coast. He would have to cross farmlands, mountains, dense forests and a massive lake, all with limited food and basically no assistance.
Yet it was that small river just one hour into the journey that gave Davies existential pause. “The sense of being in a really mental situation, it was that feeling personified when I approached that river. I just thought, God, I’m really out of my depth, no pun intended,” he tells me. “I mean, it was the heavy rainfall that made the river so treacherous. But I made the decision to do this at the end of winter. That’s all part of it, innit?”
Why winter? Because the summer months change the landscape, growing it to the brim with brambles, thick foliage and stinging nettles. He knew the insects would destroy him, too. Something the seasons didn’t change, though, was the threat of human intervention. The straight line took him through acres upon acres of private property. At best, getting caught would lead to an awkward escort off the land — and the skewing of his straight path, tracked via GPS. At worst, the authorities could get involved.
“A lot of people in my life I told thought, Well, this is mad. There’s a reason no one’s done this, including actual explorers. Others I worked with, who didn’t know me as well, just kept on with the why. ‘Why? I don’t get it. That sounds horrible,’” Davies says, raising his brows for effect. “I suppose a lot of people don’t think it’s doable. Or they’re scared of getting caught, thinking the worst. Maybe they wouldn’t enjoy it.”
In contrast, the journey he so lovingly edited and uploaded is a high-water mark in his life, Davies says. For the rest of us, it serves as a wickedly funny, genuinely inspiring folk tale of heart, stupidity, devastating errors and uncommon resolve.
The Wales trip also had a somewhat unintended effect: It served as the trigger for Davies quitting his job and forging into the murky waters of full-time life on YouTube. This is a thrilling development for Greg Davies (no relation), Tom’s friend from childhood and an unofficial “stepbrother” because their parents once dated, but never married. When I ask about how the idea for the Wales mission came to be, the first thing Davies mentions are his adventures as a young teen alongside Greg. They had a particular technique: Greg would come to Davies’ mother’s house, and they would stare from the back of the property, searching the horizon for landmarks to touch. Often, it was a radio tower, sometimes as far as 10 miles away. Davies led the way due to age and attitude, which Greg says hasn’t waned after all this time.
“We were both quite naughty in school, you know, both in trouble quite a bit. It was more mischievous trouble than anything insidious,” Greg admits. “But he was two years older than me, and that’s a big difference in adolescence. He was a big influence, and he pushed me toward going out for adventure and I looked up to that, absolutely.”
But Greg also watched Davies “drift” after secondary school, not on track to attend university and with no particular career aspects other than part-time jobs. One odd shift, however, came about five years ago, when Davies was working nights pouring ale at a pub and wasting away the days at home. “One of my mates just one day came up and said, ‘Eh, have you played this internet game? It’s right up your street,’” Davies recalls.
The game was GeoGuessr, in which you use photos of streets and landscapes to figure out what location in the world you’re looking at. Geography, maps, exploring — these were all sources of obsessing for a teenaged Davies. Now, here was a hard, but logical, puzzle to crack over and over again as an adult. As he improved, Davies began to fixate on achieving a perfect score faster than anyone he could find online. On May 15, 2015, he uploaded a video of him playing through a staggering 18-minute perfect run. It was the first of hundreds of videos, all of which stirred up a cult fandom around the “GeoWizard.”
A combination of practice, luck and a genetically blessed memory (“He remembers all sorts of little details in life, even roadway details, that people don’t pick up on,” Greg notes) has made him a hit within the game’s community. Yet Davies also knew in 2018 that GeoGuessr was a niche product, and wondered what could make a splash in his subscriber base while also being a legitimately unique experience to share.
Hence, the Wales trip. Perhaps just as daunting as the journey itself was the task of editing everything together in the aftermath. Davies only had experience cutting basic video together, not compiling and narrating a five-day journey. So, in the spring, he quit his job driving a van for an insurance salvage company. “I’d saved a little bit of money at that point, and me and my girlfriend moved into a flat with rent that wasn’t too bad,” he says. “I knew I had a few months to make it or break it. If Wales was an epic failure online, I thought I’d just get another job. That would’ve been depressing. But I had to give it a go.”
As for the trip itself, that first river crossing ended up being just one of many heinous situations Davies found himself in. He got stuck on the wrong path up a hillside, trying not to freeze up from the cold mountain mist and a deep-seated fear of heights. He skirted an anxiety attack as he paddled, sans life jacket, across a choppy lake in a cheap inflatable kayak. And, on the fourth day, he suffered the biggest blow yet: A turn of events that left him shivering and exhausted with no food and the wrong gear, stuck on a rain-swept mountain as the sun began to wane. Facing an exposed, potentially deadly night, he turned and found safety. Unfortunately, that took him off his straight line path.
“It’s absolutely devastating. You feel like punching a wall,” Davies says. “I used to feel it in soccer games, you know, when you’re up 2-0 and then lose by 1. This was probably the biggest letdown from a long-term, meaningful project, yeah. I knew I’d messed up.”
Stubborn and motivated, Davies returned days later to finish the trip. He wondered whether online audiences would care. Apparently not, as he’s racked up millions of views with his first-person depiction of survival for survival’s sake, all hinging on the ridiculous, arbitrary goal of crossing a country in a line. Actually standing at the mouth of the estuary on the western coast swelled Davies up with a confidence he didn’t expect, he says. “God, the terror and getting through it makes you so proud of yourself, and being alive,” he adds with a wide smile.
It’s inspired him to plan bigger, too. In August, Davies rejoined forces with Greg for a journey of unprecedented scale for the duo: A trip from Geneva, Switzerland, to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, comprising nearly 650 miles of hitchhiking, boating, hiking and more. It’s a more glamorous trip in many ways, Greg says, but with its share of low points, including walking dehydrated and starving for nine hours under the blazing Hungarian sun. “It’s the wave of emotions you get, those feelings that are so intense, that make everything worth it,” he tells me. “When you get to the end, normal life tends to feel much more one dimensional and not so harum-scarum, really.”
You can expect that video sometime in February, as Davies is beginning to edit the footage now. Meanwhile, he’s still chewing on the lessons learned earlier this year. He realized after Wales that his attitude had changed in a permanent way.
When I ask him how, he pauses and scrunches his mouth, gathering his conclusion. “Everyone has all these obstacles in life, and a lot of time you just skirt around them and feel a bit shit about doing that. On this trip it was just, Buddy, you gotta go straight through it. It’s very scary. You’re dreading it. But going across Wales in a straight line was worth every bit of that,” Davies says. “Given that, it’s actually confusing that no one tried it before, y’know?”