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Wide Welkin and Speaking Stones, Part 2: Pilgrimage

October 17, 2012

This post is part of a series.  See the bottom of the introduction for previous entries.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

For whatever reason, my brain regurgitates Old English poetry when it’s tired and traveling.  This time it was The Ruin:

Þær iu beorn monig,
gladmod ond gold-beorght, gleoma gefratwed,
wlonc ond wingal, wigehyrstum scan.
Seah on sinc, on sylfor, on searogimmas,
on ead, on æht, on eorcanstan,
on thas beorhtan burg bradan rice.

Inappropriate poetry, really, for a land that has seen little of kingdoms, cities, or hoards of treasure.  The Swedish settlements failed, more or less; the Sámi, who knew better, remained.

I didn’t get much sleep last night – I honestly don’t know if it was the jet lag or the perpetual light.  I went to bed at 10 and woke again at two- maybe the sun rose above something and Brain went “Ooh! Light! Time to get up!” No. After that I valiantly catnapped for another five and a half hours.

For breakfast I oatmeal made with milk, both from the hostel’s free cupboard; I’d had my eye on some eggs, but an earlier riser got to them first. Packed up, cleaned my room, and checked out without event.  I managed to pack my pack a little smaller than yesterday, though no lighter.  The hook scale outside said it weighed fifty pounds even.  At the end of the day I’m feeling it, but at the time I was surprised – the last time I carried a pack that I knew weighed fifty pounds, it felt much more oppressively heavy.  Key word is knew – Canada and the White Mountains don’t generally have pack scales scattered about, and I was younger the last time I was here.  Supposedly you’re at your strongest in your early twenties, and I guess I’m seeing that.

So I set out, and passed some people, and was passed by some people.  I had just about the biggest pack I saw; oh well.  The trail was moderately rocky but also quite flat; passing through birch groves, it paralleled the river.  The river had exposed some interesting geology, but it was too early in the day to stop and look at it.

Though I was in birch groves most of the day, little hints of tundra showed their faces now and then: bald spots on the tops of hummocks, crowberry bushes.  I must have climbed a little bit, because the trees got shorter, sparser, and more twisted.  I walked up the valley and the mountains embraced me, as though I were coming home.

Abiskojåkkå from the Kungsleden

A few kilometers into my day I stopped to take a break at an outcrop of granite which offered a fine view over the river.  There was a sign that said “meditationsplats,” whose meaning I could guess at, and a nice rock carved in Swedish on one side and Sámi on the other.  I couldn’t read either side, so I just sat on the rock and admired the view, until a woman caught up to me and told me it said “the longest journey is the inner journey,” and was a quote by Dag Hammer[somebody]*, who did lots of interesting things and hiked in the area a lot.  I should look him up.

Meditationsplats on Dag Hammerskjöldsleden

Rather apt, that rock.

My left knee stopped doing its unpleasant thing about two kilometers in; at the end of the day it’s been replaced by a general soreness in the kneecaps, which I know from experience is all right.  We’ll see how I feel in the morning.

Observation: Just about every pair of pants made by a Swedish outdoor company cinches up at the hem in some fashion – mine included. I wonder why this is. Is it a holdover from when most people wore gummi boots and tucked their pants in? Is it to keep the mosquitoes out? Is it so they act like gaiters and don’t let rocks fall into your boots?

Observation: Swedes are like elves.  They don’t sweat, they don’t get flushed.  Mud falls right off them.  They can survive on instant macaroni and spring water.  And there I was, a disheveled, sweaty, hungry human being.  It’s like Beren first glimpsing Luthien, only I’m not about to fall deeply in love with all these Swedes and get my hand bitten off by a giant wolf for them.

Kungsleden between Abisko and Abiskojaure. A boardwalk running over tundra and under blue sky.

I reached Abiskojaurestugorna around 3:30, so I contemplated pressing on another two kilometers to outside the national park boundary where I could camp anywhere I wanted.  Looking at the map, though, I wasn’t sure there was any good place to camp there – by then the ground was already rising to meet tomorrow’s pass.  There was a reindeer corral marked next to a stream, which usually corresponds to campable spots, but I don’t quite have my campsite nose back and didn’t want to count on it – I had enough energy to get there, but not enough to get there and back.  So camp at Abiskojaure it was.

It’s a peculiarly dismal set of stugor, considering its beautiful location.  On the one hand, it’s set at the head of the valley and the lake, surrounded by mountains.  On the other hand, it’s distressingly exposed, sort of under construction right now, and a bit marshy around the edges.  But once I sat down in the kitchen set aside for tent-users, I was very glad I’d stopped.

The free food shelf is quite well-stocked – you could make three or four tasty dinners for two out of it.  As I was drinking cocoa and trying to stay awake until a reasonable hour for dinner, a couple who turned out to be the incoming wardens for the next hut over came in and made their dinner out of that stuff.  I was tempted to do the same – it’s hard to turn down free food – but that wouldn’t have made my pack any lighter! I really don’t have any reason to be hoarding food right now.

I had some trouble lighting the stove – first you have to turn on the gas supply, then light your match, then actually turn on the gas at the burner and hold the knob down ~10 sec after the flame lights, and then ease up gently on the knob, or the flame goes out and you have to start all over again.  The incoming stugvärds helped me, and later I helped a young German couple – about my age, I think.  He used four of my matches – we were hoping for a fairy-tale three, but he let go of the knob too fast.

I found my parents in the guestbook from when they swung through here last summer.

The stugvärd has electricity in her cabin – there’s a small solar panel and also a turbine on a cord in the river.  It looks like a friendly red torpedo.

The stone with the quote from Dag Hammerborg*, “The longest journey is the inner journey,” makes this one kind of pilgrimage.  There are more of these stones along the way, judging by the map – about one for each day, all the way to Nikkaluokta.  You walk, you think, the mighty mountains make you feel small.  You emerge having lost something and having gained much more.  This is the coming-of-age side of my walk – I go walkabout, and somewhere along the way I claim my place as an adult.

And then there’s the pilgrimage where the stones begin to speak.

I planned this like I planned for going walkabout, but I didn’t expect it to hit so soon.  This corner of the world, where I spent so many summers growing up, is where I first became interested in geology and earth science in the vaguest sense. I appreciated nature sort of abstractly as a necessary part of my life.  Now I’m coming back to this place that made me so much of who I am, and I find that the once-silent stones are speaking – have, in fact, been speaking all along, but now I can hear their voices.

I saw conjugate fractures on the rocks of the path.  They were textbook perfect, and I knew what they meant.  I looked up at a fell and saw thrust faults on the cliff, and thought of the great forces that move mountains.  I watched forest give way to tundra, and thought of Alexander von Humboldt’s climatic zones.

Conjugate fractures on the trail to Abiskojaure

Conjugate fractures on the trail to Abiskojaure

I am only one person, and everything I know is connected.  The mountains were patient.  They could wait for me to learn their language.  And now they wait no more, and their faces turn towards me in greeting.

As I sat there in the kitchen hut writing, a lot more people trickled in.  The guestbook said most people came from Abisko and went south, like me.  I wonder what took them so long.  Many put up tents, thus exposing the Great Hilleberg Peril: the tent sites were scattered with near-identical dark green tunnel tents.  One of these days I’m going to crawl into the wrong tent by accident and that just won’t end well.

They’re good tents – excellent, in fact, which is why everyone here has them.  It’s the same reason everyone has a Trangia – someone hit on a recipe that does the job with a minimum of fuss and then just stuck with it.  It’s an odd contrast to the diversity of manufacturers and models seen on American campgrounds, where everyone has decidedly different opinions on what will suit their needs and the outdoor industry is large enough to support their demands.  Here in Sweden, it seems the Swedes have collectively determined what works best and pursued only that line – and it works very well indeed.  So are Swedes all just hiking the same way, thus necessitating the same equipment, or are Americans exaggerating how differentiated their gear needs to be?

I am so tired.  If I go to sleep now, at eight, and wake up at five, that’s reasonable, right?


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