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Wide Welkin and Speaking Stones: Introduction

October 4, 2012

There is a particular group of people who are drawn to wide open spaces where the wind blows freely, bounded only by the arc of the sky.

Some are drawn to the desert.  They love the silence, the simplicity, the dark clear skies, the hot winds, warm colors, and defiant life.  In hot dry places, their souls take flight.

Some wander the trackless roads of the world’s oceans.  They find peace in ceaseless seas, stability on turbulent currents.  Their homes are wave-tossed nutshells, easily carried.

Some leave the ground, soaring like silver birds on the air – or even blast higher, where the solar wind blows through still spaces between worlds.  They look into the depths of nothing, and there find something – the breath of life and the fires of creation.

And me? When the arctic tundra calls my name, I come running.

Tundra under broad, cloudy sky

 The story of how my family, despite having no ancestral ties to the region, came to spend part of every summer of my childhood in northern Sweden, Finland, and Norway is a long and convoluted one, involving the migration routes of the Indo-Europeans, a record store, a courtship conducted by letter, glaciology, 1:50 000 scale maps, a kind Irishman, the Soviet Union, trade secrets, rowboats at midnight, and the 1950s Stockholm accordion craze, among other things.  This story is mostly not mine to tell.  The end result of it, though, was that by the time I was eighteen I had spent at least an accumulated year of summers in a patchwork of places across the European North.  There, on that windswept landscape where life clings to every crevice and scrap of dirt, I learned how to recognize berries, follow a compass bearing, read a topo map, find a campsite, light a fire, and row a boat.  I learned how to walk happily through a storm, keep my balance on wet rocks, give thanks to the hail, and listen to rocks.  I learned how small I was, and also how bright.

It was, I now realize, the place that laid the foundation for my interest in natural science. My primary-school education in earth science was, like most people’s, deplorable, but every summer we returned to the fells, in all their intriguing glory; to the rivers, growing from snowfield trickles to impassible torrents; to the groves of wind-twisted birches and expanses of boot-grabbing bogs.  Nature spoke a language I did not understand, but its every word was poetry.

Until I moved to my Bordertown, Lapland was the place I loved most in the world.  For all that, after I graduated high school, I did not return there. My college summers were full of more important things: Classes.  Jobs. Research projects. Things that contributed directly to my future.  Against that, how could I justify taking a few weeks to just wander around on the tundra?

I changed a lot, in those four years of college.  I guess most people do.  I discovered joy.  I found a calling and a plan for my life.  I learned that I both needed and loved community.  I opened up, a little bit, and trusted.  I learned to depend on others, now and then.  I inhabited my skin, moved my body powerfully, danced.  I talked to strangers.  I made fast friends.  And somewhere along the way, as I peered into the depth of time and contemplated the complex web of interconnectedness that is this universe, I transformed from an apathetic agnostic to an extremely much more confused and reverent atheist, quaker-sympathizing, pantheist, pagan … just what had I become, anyway?

That was the question, at the end.  Who had I become? How did that follow from who I had been? What did I want? Where was I going? How did the disparate strands of my life knit together? It was very hard to hear answers amidst the hubbub of sometimes-conflicting demands, opinions, and expectations of friends, advisors, family, responsibilities, duties.  And I didn’t want to head off into grad school and my first shot at independent life without some sense of the nature of the steady core of my being.

Who was I, now? It was a question that required contemplation.  Normally, when I need contemplation, I go for a walk.  This was a very big question.  It would take a very long walk.

Map of northern Sweden and Norway from Abisko to Hemavan

 I had an entire summer of gainful unemployment stretching out before me.  I decided to go north to Lapland, the place where I first fell in love with geology, though I didn’t know it then.  Now that I had learned the language of the stones, perhaps the mountains would have an answer for me.  If not, I might find it in the wind in birches, in rocks rolling in rivers, or in the spaces between the stars.  Along the way, too, I would find out what I had learned over the past four years – see all the geology I had missed as a child, when I walked across the wilds without understanding.

And when I went north, I would go alone.  This is one of those things that you’re generally supposed to avoid doing, but I felt very strongly about it.  I knew the risks, but I also knew that on this trip, even the best of friends would be a distraction from what I was looking for.

Well, if the summer after graduation isn’t the time for mildly foolhardy, epic, instructive, formative adventures, I don’t know when is.  Some time in May, I pulled out maps and started planning my route.

I decided, as a general scheme, to take the train up to Abisko, in the north of Sweden, and follow the Kungsleden south as far as I could in a month- maybe even to the end at Hemavan, over four hundred kilometers away.  It’s a good trail for a solo walker – well-trafficked, so that I could find help if I got into trouble; well-supported, with places to buy food at least every week, so that I would not have to carry too much; well-linked to the national rail and bus systems, making it easy to get to and from the trail no matter how far I walked.  The trail itself has enough topography to be interesting, but not so much that it ever feels impassible; meanwhile, the stunning alpine views for which it is justifiably famous sprawl in every direction.

The Swedish mountains, in general, have a unique combination of accessibility and wildness, and the regions around the Kungsleden are an exceptional example of that.  The wonderful Svenska Turistforening runs self-service huts along the trail, along with more luxurious turiststations at wider intervals, making it possible to hike without a tent if that’s what you want to do.  On the other hand, there are still plenty of wild and quiet corners of the mountains left for as solitary a hike as I could ever want.  And despite seeing a hundred years of hikers and several hundred of reindeer herding, the region’s lakes and streams are still, incredibly, safe to drink from without treatment.  It’s a landscape undoubtably touched by human hands – the trail, the blazes, the huts, a fire circle here, a slightly matted campsite there – but the hands have touched only lightly, with care and reverence.  I regard it as one of the great successes of conservation.

Wooden arch at northernmost Kungsleden trailhead in Abisko

On August 5, 2012, I boarded a flight bound for Stockholm.  On August 8 I left Abisko, the northernmost point on the Kungsleden, and started walking south with a week of food weighing down my backpack and a spirit of adventure buoying me up.  The next month and three hundred kilometers would see joy, loneliness, speechless wonder, curiosity, knee pain, despair, geological speculation, rainbows, nifty rocks, wild imaginings, bad singing, slips, mosquitoes pattering like rain, rain falling like blessings, flowers in crevices, flaming autumn creeping over fells, uncharacteristic gregariousness, music played for reindeer, poetry declaimed to trees, voices on the wind, broken bridges, hypothetical bears, stone-strewn roads, small boats, big fish, miles upon miles of thistles, advice from ancient men, paths crossing and parting, riddles in dark cabins, still mornings, cold nights, faulted mountains, braided rivers, many-footed fog, bounties of berries, a full moon over an ancient lake, white reindeer, slime molds, gates to other realms, solidity, peace, openness, and direction.

Nothing, of course, went as I had planned.  But I did find what I needed.

As I always do on summer adventures, I kept a journal.  Over the next weeks or months, I’ll type it up and post it here in sections. Since I have a lot of journal to get through (being alone, I often had no one to talk to at night but myself) I only plan to edit for privacy and clarity when necessary, so you can expect the posts to be somewhat rougher than is my wont. I hope the story comes through anyway; I would rather tell it imperfectly than not tell it perfectly.

Check the trackbacks, below, for a list of journal entries posted to date.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 11, 2012 3:42 pm

    I look forward to reading your journal entries. I am sad to say that I have never been to the Arctic tundra myself, although it is a region I have always felt an attraction towards and I hope to one day spend some time there. I can also not imagine walking for a month across it alone! It sounds like a life-changing and life-affirming journey.

    • October 21, 2012 3:19 pm

      I hope you make it there some day – there’s no other biome like it. And you, at least, are somewhat closer to the tundra most of the time than I am!


  1. Wide Welkin and Speaking Stones, Part 1: Is there Jet Lag Where the Sun Never Sets? « A Mighty Matter of Legend
  2. Wide Welkin and Speaking Stones, Part 1.5: Where the Sky is the Right Height « A Mighty Matter of Legend
  3. Wide Welkin and Speaking Stones, Part 2: Pilgrimage « A Mighty Matter of Legend
  4. Wide Welkin and Speaking Stones, Part 3: Wind in High Places « A Mighty Matter of Legend

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