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Wide Welkin and Speaking Stones, Part 3: Wind in High Places

October 21, 2012

This post is part of a series.  See the introduction for background and previous posts.

August 9, 2012

Long, LONG day.  On the one hand, that gives me lots of things I could write about.  On the other hand … goodness, I’m tired.

Tired will probably win, since it’s 20 to 10 already.  The valley I’m sitting in is in shadow, but that’s just because the sun ducked behind a mountain.  It’s been hanging out there for hours, and there’s still light on the mountaintops.

I woke at about 5:30, feeling extraordinarily well-rested, and somehow managed to spend until 8 eating breakfast.  I don’t know how, except that I had made too much couscous but didn’t want to waste the calories, so was choking it down slowly.

I filled my water bottle from the tap that runs straight from the stream, feeling rather daring.  It tasted like water, and diarrhea didn’t spring out of nowhere at me. (As of evening, hasn’t yet.  Am crossing fingers.) I left at 9:30, passing through birch forest before starting to climb.

View of mountains from Abiskojaure on a fine day

Leaving Abiskojaure

It turns out there were plenty of excellent camping spots shortly outside the park boundary.  So now I know that.  Many of them were still occupied when I passed.

Abiskojaure from the Kungsleden

Looking back at Abiskojaure

At the bridge, where the trail started to climb for real, I was passed by two young men – one in a bright blue shirt, the other in a flat cap and carrying a very large leather binocular (I think) case.  I leapfrogged with them throughout the day, and was looking forward to seeing them at the end of it and actually talking, but they either fell behind or took a different path.

Kungsleden between Abiskojaure and Alesjaure

It was pretty flat after the pass, and nice open tundra.  I saw loads of people.  Then I got to the lake (Alesjaure) and felt like I was home free, but of course I wasn’t, there being another 10 km ahead.  Alternated tundra and bog, with some rhodedendron [actually, dwarf willow] thrown in, mostly around the bog.

The descent to Alesjaure

The first sign at Alesjaurestugorna said 22 km back to Abiskojaure.  The second, 20 km.  Which was it? Who knows.  But I managed to press on (after a break) another km past Alesjaure hut, to find a nice private camping-spot on the hillside.  Some previous inhabitant thought it needed decoration and left some trash, which was unfortunate.  On closer inspection it might not be the best-drained, but I’m too tired to move the tent; I just hope it doesn’t rain too hard.

Campsite past Alesjaure

Saw my first reindeer of the trip as I sat eating my beans and rice; they went running from a dog and its associated hiker.

Faults on Kungsleden


Shiny rock

Phyllite? Biotite?
(I am not a petrologist!)

Gneiss in Alisvagge


Geology: Glacial striations.  Greenschist or phyllite? (Probably phyllite.) Faults. Folds? Awesome gneiss.  I took a lot of pictures.  Beware hiking with a geologist, for they will stop every five minutes to look at rocks …

August 10, 2012

I’m still sleeping intermittently, and woke at 2 am as before before going back to sleep.  I suspect that’s when the sun rounded the side of the mountain again.  It didn’t rain, and my tent site didn’t flood – though on reflection, considering there was a mouse hole, it probably wouldn’t have anyway.  The morning was less cold than the night before – though, cold enough that there was condensation all along the top of my sleeping bag.  I love my new sleeping bag – it’s so nice to actually sleep warm, after years and years of shivering in a steadily delofting bag! – but the condensation is an unexpected problem.  I wiped it off with my pack towel, or maybe just spread it around.

I got out of the tent around 6:30, and for breakfast put muesli in my hot cocoa, which seemed like a good idea at the time and actually wasn’t terrible – more palatable than oatmeal, since it was more heterogeneous.  Then I had a nice big mug of tea that wasn’t even dishwater tea, because I’d overestimated how much fuel I would need for breakfast.  It seems that for breakfast, a half-full burner is too full?

River valley surrounded by mountains; huts in the distance

Looking back at Alesjaurestugorna

I was one of the first people on the trail, I think, since no one passed my way between when I got up and when I left, and lots of tents were still pitched back at Alesjaure.  The sun was low over the mountain behind my tent, casting gold over the tops of the mountains that had been in shadow last night.  To the south, where I was bound, clouds gathered at the head of the valley.

It was up and up all day, in and out of sunlight as I wandered up Alisvaggi and the clouds rolled by overhead.  The wind blew steadily out of the south.  A lot of people passed me from behind; I was going a little slowly, but that’s all right.

Not a whole lot of notable geology – I spent a good part of the day wondering if some particular piles of gravel were drumlins or moraines or neither, and never really decided.

The trail ran over ground that was steadily drier, more rocky, and more tundra-like throughout the day.  Down on the valley floor, Aliseatnu meandered like a river ought to be able to as it runs to base level.  The Nordkalottleden/Kallotireiti runs together with the Kungsleden here, but I only saw one Nordkalottleden blaze post; all the other blazes were paired standing stones, painted orange, which made me feel like I was walking through a series of gates deeper and deeper into … somewhere.Paired stone blazes on the Kungsleden

In this valley, I started to really feel small.  There were some pleasant reminders of human presence, like the blazes and the boardwalks, and some less pleasant reminders, like irresponsibly scattered toilet paper, but both were dwarfed by the mountains – and by the thought of the weight of the glacier that once filled this broad valley.

Tundra mountain under dappled sunlight

My left elbow hurts, as it does when I play the accordion for too long.  I really don’t know why this would be, and wish it would stop.

Starting out the day, I wasn’t sure where I would end it – Tjaktjastuga seemed awfully close, but I didn’t know that I really wanted to go over the pass at the end of the day.  I had a thought of camping further in the pass, before the highest point.  But sitting on a rock before Tjaktjastuga as a disarray of French boys passed me, stuff dangling every which way off their backpacks, I began to doubt that plan.  The wind, which had never ceased, was stronger up there, and the pass offered no shelter.  I’m pretty sure my tent could handle it, but I wasn’t so sure I could pitch it by myself without it blowing away down the mountainside.

Rock fields near the Tjaktja pass; cloudy sky

So at 2 pm I called it a day and decided to stay in the hut.  Based on the way the wind as ceaselessly wailed in the chimneys for the past three hours, it was the right choice. Besides, there are people to talk to.  I don’t think I’d talked to anyone since Abiskojaure, which seems a long time ago, besides the quick “Hey!s” exchanged in passing.

Tjaktjastuga, perched above the river

Tjaktjastuga feels a little like Tuottar [which I visited many years ago] – windswept brown cabins cabled on to the mountainside.  But unlike Tuottar, which is a bunch of little cabins, Tjaktjastuga has one main cabin.  There are plenty of windows, which you’re not supposed to open – because the stuga will catch the wind and blow away, I suppose – and woodstoves keep the place warm  The kitchen is filling with the smells of everyone’s tasty dinners – and the wind wants in, and is knocking at the chimney.

I’ve spent a goodly amount of time talking to one of the guys who passed me as I sat eating my lunch and tending my blisters in the sunlit field between streams by the renvakterstuga in Alisvagge.  I guessed he was an American by his Keen boots and because he was wearing shorts with long underwear, and I was right – he’s from Minnesota, a mechanical engineer currently bumming around between jobs.  He’s bound for Hemavan and has less time to get there than I do.  And doesn’t seem particularly organized – his stove is can of chicken salad which he hasn’t eaten yet, on account of having been vegetarian for the past six years, and he has a guidebook but no maps and doesn’t know how to pace himself.  Still, as I said, it’s nice to be able to talk to someone.

The Fjallraven Classic race-ish thing from Nikkaluokta to Abisko started today, and we’ve seen the first brave souls running by on the trail on the other side of the gorge, which is terribly impressive – it’s a long way to Nikkaluokta.  The first guy came by about 4:30, and had already run over a marathon.  Tomorrow I expect to encounter the straggling hordes …

… and now it’s raining.

First snowfields today.


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?


Wide Welkin and Speaking Stones, Part 1.5: Where the Sky is the Right Height

October 14, 2012

This is part of a series.  See the introduction for previous parts.

[Continued from August 7, 2012]

Have arrived in Abisko without a hitch.  I’ll write about Abisko later, but for now I’m bagging up my food and here’s what I’ve got for a week’s hiking:

One week's worth of camping food laid out on a table

700 g Gouda cheese [full fat.  I almost got reduced-fat, which would have been bad.]

~half a tube of nougat cookies (likely to be eaten before I leave)

~3/4 lb black bean flakes

~3/4 lb refried bean flakes

~3/4 lb falafel mix

~1 lb couscous

550 g rye crisps

210 g mashed potato powder

12 pkg assorted savory soups @ ~20 g each

19 bags peppermint tea @ 1.75 g each

330 g walnuts

400 g cashews

500 g 10-minute brown rice

250 g raisins

250 g assorted dried fruit

~.2 lb sundried tomatoes

125 ml sugar

575 g strawberry + quinoa muesli (smallest bag they had.  Should be interesting …)

78 g (3 pkgs) fruit soup

17 pkg hot cocoa @ 30 g each (possibly vastly excessive)

300 g dark chocolate

~100 g dried tortellini, left over from dinner

~2.5 fl. oz olive oil


So. Abisko.

The tourist station is a scattering of buildings near the shore of lake Torneträsk, surrounded on all sides by snowfielded fells.  Here, as always when I finally escape to the tundra, I get the feeling that things are just right – the mountains are the right color, the clouds are the right height, the air smells right, the wind is just strong enough.  It’s easier to breathe – I don’t get allergies up here.  I know “cozy” is not a word usually used to describe the arctic, but … this place is cozy.

The hostel had a bed for me, which I was glad of – I hadn’t made a reservation.  I joined the STF at the reception desk for the youth fee of 130 kr – certainly worth it, since the non-member surcharge is 50 kr per night.  I think they might have sold me a 1-month membership*, which I didn’t know existed, but it’s hard to tell because I’m mostly guessing at the Swedish on the card.  I’d rather have joined for the whole year, but oh well.

The hostel building is standard STF: bright, solid pine furniture, good lighting, very basic, very clean.  I’m sharing my room with two German women about my age (maybe a little older) and one possibly fifty-ish man of indeterminate nationality; he speaks good English with a British accent, but that doesn’t tell you a lot around here.  The hostel is about 3/4 full, unless more people have arrived.  About half of those are young people, and the other half is middle-er aged couples of families with young kids.  (But then, I only see people in the hostel building, not people who get more expensive private rooms.)  So far I’ve heard quite a lot of French, some German, some English, and some Japanese – plus two people trying to communicate in a Scandinavian-sounding language before switching to English, so maybe one was speaking Norwegian or Danish.

I packed up my backpack to confirm that everything does indeed fit, though it’s a squeeze and the tent has to go on the outside.  I haven’t dared weigh it yet, though there’s a hook scale hanging outside for exactly that purpose.

At the turiststation shop I picked up some alcohol for my stove, as well as matches, since you can’t bring matches on airplanes and I wouldn’t have wanted to anyway – Swedish matches are for some reason vastly superior to the crummy strike-anywhere matches that for some reason are the only ones available back home.

There are a lot of small, blond-haired children running around.  They look a lot like my older sister at their age, which is odd since we don’t have any Swedish in us since the Vikings.

Well.  They’re a lot tidier than my sister, who at that age never, ever brushed her hair.

When I was little and we came up to this area, there were a lot of lone wild boar types roaming around.  I don’t see them now.  And it’s funny I never noticed how many young people there were.  I guess this is my growing-older-ness speaking.

My left knee’s a bit achy.  I really hope it isn’t permanent.

The shop, I should add, is quite well-stocked indeed.  You could any replace any piece of equipment there – stove, raincoat, tent, boots, whatever.  It might not be exactly what you wanted, but it would do the job very well.  You would replenish a week’s provisions there fairly happily – they don’t have dried bean flakes, sadly, but they do have dried soups, fruit, oatmeal, muesli, mashed potatoes, pasta, spices, nuts, candy … they even have dried tortellini and couscous, which we used to have terrible problems finding in Sweden.

And then they have things I really can’t explain, like the 10-inch spork. (The type with a spoon on one end and a fork/knife on the other, not the kind with tines on the spoon.) What on earth are you supposed to do with a 10″ spork?

It is uncommonly easy to pour from the saucepans here without spilling.  I really don’t know why this is … but it’s never been so easy to pour from a pan and have the water go where I want it to.

Wait, actually, I have an idea.  The lip of the pan is bent over like the spout of a teapot, only all the way ’round.  Maybe that makes the difference? If so, that’s clever.

Less clever is Trangia, whose (excellent) 1-liter fuel bottles do not fit a full liter of fuel, due to the requirement of not filling it above a certain line, probably to allow space for thermal expansion.  Shouldn’t Trangia have made it 1 liter to the fill line, rather than all the way to the top, which will apparently cause it to explode or something?

If I keep writing at this rate every day, I’ll be out of journal in two weeks.  Fortunately, I also have walking to do.

Mountains and trees seen through window at Abisko

The view out my window at Abisko Turiststation

*They actually had sold me a full-year membership; single-month memberships don’t exist.  I was just confused because they gave me a temporary membership card which expired at the end of the month, by which time I was supposed to have my permanent card.

Wide Welkin and Speaking Stones, Part 1: Is there Jet Lag Where the Sun Never Sets?

October 13, 2012
tags: ,

This is part 1 in a series.  See the introduction for background.

August 7, 2012

Well, this isn’t an especially auspicious start to what was supposed to be a regular journal – I’ve missed two days before even starting! In my defense, I was sick and tired.  Now I am somewhat less sick and somewhat less tired, and it’s morning on the train to Abisko.

I slept as much as I could on the flight, which was not a lot, but at least my eyes were closed.  I hope all my snuffing didn’t make the woman next to me sick.  The Baltic was perfectly clear as we glided in to Stockholm, so it was like landing on islands in the sky.  I wrote a haiku about it in my sleep, but I don’t remember most of it anymore.

The ticket machine for the Arlanda Express, the train to the city, wouldn’t recognize my credit card because it didn’t have the chip that has become standard on European cards, so I had to go back up the stairs to the information booth.  This actually turned out to be a good thing, because I hadn’t realized that being under 26 years old qualified me for a half-price ticket.

So I arrived at Stockholm Central Station at about 9 in the morning, and then spent quite a lot longer there than I needed to because being runny-nosed and flat-out exhausted made figuring out the baggage lockers very, very hard.  They wouldn’t recognize my credit card either, you see, and while some took coins I didn’t have any coins and couldn’t see where to get any.  So I went back up to tourist information, where they told me there was a change machine by the lockers; back down to the lockers, where I still couldn’t find it; back up, where I milled around in confusion, picked up a map of Stockholm from the tourist information desk, and tried to figure out if I could get away with just taking my luggage with me on my errands.

The answer, which I arrived at after a great deal of contemplation, was pretty clearly no.  So I went back down the stairs to the luggage lockers … and there was the change machine, staring me in the face.

It only took 20 kr and 50 kr bills.  I had a 500 kr bill.  Somewhat guilty-faced, I bought a 25 kr cup of orange juice with my 500 kr bill, locked up my backpack, and went on my way.

I had seven hours before my train left for the north, and two things to accomplish: one, go to an outdoor store and buy a fuel bottle, some maps, bug repellent, and possibly a wooly hat; and two, buy my first week of provisions.  The latter was more urgent, because I didn’t know what kind of grocery store there was in Abisko, but I had the address of a Stockholm outdoor store and I didn’t remember where the grocery store was.  So I set out for the outdoor store – on foot, though it was a ways away, hoping that if I saw enough of Stockholm I would remember where the grocery store was, and also hoping that if I kept moving I wouldn’t fall asleep.

I’d forgotten what a crazy street layout Stockholm has.  It looks like a pretty regular grid on the map, but streets disappear into tunnels, climb over each other on bridges, dead-end, are pedestrian-only alleys … it took me a long time to find the outdoor store, despite it being on one of the major roads.  But I got my fuel bottle in the end.

Then I sat down in the sun of a nearby churchyard for a bit.  The bell tolled noon.  People emerged to eat their lunches next to the gravestones.  I pulled out my map of Stockholm, made my best guess at where the grocery store might be (I remembered it was in the basement of some mall somewhere in central Stockholm), and hauled myself to my feet once more.

Well, I didn’t find the grocery store, though it later turned out I’d been quite close.  Instead I wound up at the Kungstradgården and found another tourist information counter, where they gave me directions.

At the grocery store I discovered an unanticipated aspect of solo hiking, which is that if you need 700 g of dinner starches and the smallest package of rice is 500 g, you’re going to be eating the same thing for dinner a lot.  Oh, well.  At least I corrected the meal-planning mistake of the England trip four years ago and bought enough lunch/non-cooking foods.  I hope.  I might have overdone it on the soup … and I’m a little concerned about fitting all this food into my pack.  As well as about the weight.  My pack weighed 16 kg going onto the airplane, and when you factor in what was in my carryon, about 5 kg of food, 1 liter of water, and 1 liter of fuel … I’m going to at about 50 pounds.  I hope I’m not, but that’s probably what’s going to happen.

I also got some sandwich things, fruit, and vegetables, and walked back to Kungstradgården to eat my lunch.  It was 2 pm, and I hadn’t eaten since the airplane breakfast at 6:30.  I tore into it like a starving hyena.

Then I got kicked out of the table where I’d been sitting, because it turned out it was reserved for customers of the nearby hotdog stand, and I started to cry because I was so tired.  I had no idea how long it had been since I’d slept, and I wasn’t going to tally it up because that would just make the jet lag worse.  My nose was still running, my throat was itchy, I was pretty sure I was running a fever, and it was still three or four hours before I could get on the train and lie down.

At least it was a nice day to be sitting in a park snivelling, and at least I’d managed to leave my large backpack at the train station.

I made it back to the train station eventually, retreived my backpack, and re-packed it with as many of my groceries as would fit – they were all still in their original packaging and I didn’t want to do a lot of re-packing in the station, since that seemed a recipe for belongings scattered and lost.  As I was repacking, a woman came up to me and told me about a Swedish nature reserve where some courageous environmentalists are blocking the bulldozers of evil, development-minded Finns as I write. (That’s not quite how she phrased it, but that was her implication.) She gave me a quarter card, but it just had a QR code on it and don’t have a smartphone, so I don’t have any more information.

There were lots of young people with backpacks at the station, and also lots of families with kids and backpacks.  I watched them come and go, wondering where they were coming from and going to, and I dozed, holding on to my luggage, and periodically I got up to see if my train’s track had been posted yet.  When it was I went to the platform, but there were no benches there and my feet started getting sore.  I judged everybody’s backpacks, trying to decide if mine was unreasonably big, and didn’t come to any good conclusion – it was hard to compare since I didn’t know if people had gotten their food yet, people in groups shared gear, and everybody’s packs had different dimensions and pocket arrangements.

The train was about fifteen minutes late, but it came, and I got on it.  There was one other woman in my six-person compartment.  We both dozed.  When I woke she was gone, though her things were still there, so I guessed she had left for dinner, and another woman was just coming in, and I realized I was drooling.  I wiped my face in embarrassment and asked if she wanted any help with her luggage, since she had a walker, but either she didn’t need any or didn’t understand me, because she didn’t reply.

I ate some bread, peas, and cookies and then, fearing I might wake up hungry, went looking for the restaurant car.  At first I went the wrong direction and wound up at the back of the train, watching the tracks run away behind us.  When I finally found it, the restaurant didn’t have much of anything I wanted to eat.  Well, if I woke up hungry in the middle of the night, I could manage on the lunch leftovers I’d been saving for breakfast.  It’s not like my body could get much more confused.

When I got back to my compartment, woman #1 was still missing and woman #2 had folded down the beds.  We had some fun trying to figure out how to turn off the lights, though I’m not sure why they were on in the first place as it was still quite light outside.  At 9:20 pm I lay down at last.  I woke several times that night – when woman #3 arrived, talking what seemed like far too loudly and far too long, though probably it was neither; and at two, four, and seven am.  It was light every time I woke, and each time, after watching the taiga running by in the mist outside my window, I fell asleep again.

I woke for good around eight, well-rested, fever gone, my nose mostly dry.  The scenery was going by in the opposite direction, so they must have rearranged the train during the night – that explained the bumps I’d felt.  I got some coffee from the restaurant car, which was a different one though in the same direction, and brought it back to my compartment to drink with the last of my leftovers from the day before.  My knife was still packed so I just gnawed on my cucumber, feeling rather barbaric.

We passed many towns I’ve been to – Gallivare, Murjek.  I’ve been on this train before, but never so far north along its line.  The trees are growing shorter, and fog creeps down the mountains.  There’s a chill in the air, and I’m glad of my sweater.

I hope I don’t miss my stop; we’re somewhat delayed, so I’m not sure when we’re getting to Abisko.

There’s a kid down the car wearing fluorescent yellow hiking pants.  I guess her parents don’t want to misplace her on the tundra.

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.

Uprooting Myself

August 2, 2012

I’d thought I was too tired to cry at leaving.  I’d made it dry-eyed through the sleepless night of packing, the schlepping boxes up the hill to the post office and to friends’ houses; through the lunches with people I don’t know when I’ll see again, through the last jam and the last dance; through the sunset and stars as we stood looking out over the valley from the height of the war memorial; through the last dinner in town, the hugs, the going-away present of hand-knit socks, the farewells, the ride down to the bus station.

And then the bus left town, crossing the inlet, climbing the hill, passing the museum where I worked one summer, and I realized that I was going to cry after all. I did it as silently as I was able, my face screwing up in the darkness; wiped my face, dozed, woke briefly to a glorious sunset breaking through thunderclouds, and slept again until we arrived at the train station.

I remember, some time in high school, telling my dad about the sort of place I wanted to live when I grew up.  It would be enough of a city that there would be good restaurants and plenty of cultural events going on; it would be dense, a pleasant place to run errands on foot or bike.  It would be surrounded by nature – you might need to drive to get to mountains, but a simple walk in the woods would be only a thought away.

I didn’t think that place existed.  And then I came to college, and found everything I had dreamed of and more – not just the things I wanted, but also the things I didn’t know were missing from my life.  Community.  Music.  Real yogurt, fresh apples.  A space for myself in the universe – not only in the here and now, but also in the forever and always.

It’s been my Newford, my Bordertown, and I didn’t even have to run away to get there – I just woke up one day, and there it was all around me.  The rocks sang songs of time, and the stars answered.  Old folkies and young rock guitarists shared the same stages.  In the weird and wonderful Memorial Day parade, roller derby women precede the Baptists, who march bearing a dove banner like a dragon. Four-times weekly farmers’ markets take food stamps, and the co-op caters to hipsters and sporadically-employed hippies alike. They’ve been dancing the same dances on the Commons for the past forty years at least – hundreds of feet, weaving together the bonds of community over space and time.

(A friend of mine, who graduated several years ahead of me, used to spend fifteen hours on busses to come back and visit. “There must have been someone special,” remarked the person to whom I mentioned this.  But no: there was just the town, whose spirit has a habit of stealing hearts.)

It was here that I found My People.  They live with the world, not just in it; they ask questions of the trees and listen to the bugs; they walk softly and live boldly.  They keep bees, knit socks, sow seeds, sing songs, put up pickles, tell stories. They create and they share. Here My People found me – for I had no idea what I was looking for, and thought I was quite content by myself. Now I know better; however content I may be to spend time by myself, I am so much fuller and so much more awake when My People are in my life.

I recognize them now.  They’re everywhere.  I have to keep reminding myself of that as I leave. My Bordertown didn’t generate all of them them anew from the primordial soup; many grew elsewhere and were captured there for a time like fireflies in a jar, lighting the path.  Some, like me, are scattering across the world once more, where we will surely meet more of our kindred.

It’s hard.  I didn’t plan on putting down roots like this. I didn’t plan on anything, really; I just did things as they came to me and figured I would wind up somewhere eventually.  Well, this is where I wound up – struggling to uproot myself from a town where I lived for barely four years.  Leaving home, where I’d lived sixteen years in the same house, was easier than this. That was adventure; this, though it marks the beginning of many things I truly want, feels like exile.

It helps if I contemplate exactly what I rooted myself in. The bedrock, the Commons and its community, the co-op grocery and the co-op bookstore, the way the evening light falls on the hills and the towers, the stars at night, the waterfalls in summer and the icefalls in winter – I can’t take these with me.  But the music, the sense of being awash in the sea of time, the balance between local community and global awareness, the relationship with the earth and with my fellows – these things can travel with me wherever I go.  As I rise, stretching my fingers towards an unknown sky, roots feed the growth of these my leaves: Knitting a sock.  Cooking dried beans.  Keeping a plant alive one more day.  Matching another’s rhythm with my melody.  Telling a story of a day long past. Speaking for voiceless shells caught in the long dance of evolution.  Maintaining a friendship one more week. Now that the harvest has come, I gather the fruits of boldness, of love, of communion and curiosity.  Hopefully they will sustain me in the journey to come.

By the time I arrived at the train station, the universe had apparently had enough of my wallowing and seemed bent on reminding me that life would keep going on.  First was the white-haired lady with one squinty blue eye, wearing a fabulous straw hat and a bright yellow dress, who came up to me as I was fighting with my various and unwieldy pieces of luggage.  We had a nice conversation about the wanderings of her daughter, and she told me some things about me that were entirely true and wished me joy on my journeys.  And while my general appearance and demeanor could easily have supplied the things she told me, that doesn’t undermine the kindness of a stranger, unprompted, telling you things that ease your travels.  And then there was the woman I sat next to on the train herself: fortyish, wearing hand-knit socks, traveling all the way to California for a relative’s wedding.  She told me to knit the heels double so they wouldn’t wear out, and we had a nice conversation about the geology out west and her young nephew who was fascinated by dinosaurs.  We discussed the weather and its effect on the year’s crops; she asked if I had studied anything that would help us get out of this mess.

No, said I; there’s nothing I can do.  I’m a paleontologist.  The creatures that I study died long ago, when the world was very different from today.

And then she said, You’re wrong; what you do is important. Someone needs to tell those stories, clearly and loudly.  Because the world is changing, and we won’t ever understand that unless we understand the past.  We need a prophet.

I didn’t tell her that I feel there have been prophets aplenty – that I sometimes feel we are Cassandra, speaking truth while the glaciers fall, the seas rise, the forests burn, and no one listens.  That was just my tired mind speaking and I knew it.  We do not bear any curse of Apollo, and if the people are not listening, it is surely because we are using the wrong words, or because we are drowned out by the shouts of the powerful, or because it is easier to fear the future than to do something about it.

Change happens.  It happens in the smallest atoms and the largest galaxies, in the solid mountains and in leaves on the wind.  In time, perhaps, it will reach the halls of the powerful as well. Change has grasped my life and twisted it into a new shape; four years ago I could never have talked with that much passion for so long to even a friend.  I drifted, doing what was asked of me and little else.  It feels so strange, now, to have a plan that extends beyond a year, to know what I want.  It’s so much easier to be disappointed if you’re looking for something in particular, and so much easier to feel the loss of fruits carefully gathered.  On the whole, though, I’m glad to have this knapsack full of the gathered harvest, these ghostly roots that will nourish me wherever I go, these branches that bare leaves to the sun and storms. And I’m glad to have opened my eyes to those who root nearby, growing between the cracks of our concrete civilization, rising for the same broad sky.  May our forest spread far as we wander.

As Crowfoot sings:

So fare you well, my own true love;
Fare you well for a while.
I’m going away, but I’m coming back
If I walk ten thousand miles.

The Tracks of Giants

July 23, 2012

This land was formed by the footsteps of giants.


They rose from the sea – borne aloft by warm air, carried to the high latitudes where they froze and fell on land where there had been no land earlier, the continents having shifted in the course of time.  There they gathered their forces, for solid land shielded them from the warmth of ocean currents.


Finally the mustered army began to flow out.  Their time had come.


Frozen earth heralded their coming.  They marched in from the north, breathing cold winds and reaching out with colder hands.  The giants stood two miles tall, their bodies made of ice, and the earth bent under their footsteps.  Where rivers snaked their way through narrow gorges, the giants carved out broad valleys.  They flung gravel and boulders across the face of the earth with equal abandon, scraped fingernails over the surfaces of ancient edifices, filled up valleys and hollows with coarse unsorted sediment.  Like children in a sandbox, they built walls of mounded gravel at the borders of their territory; like scouts, they left trail signs for others to follow – ridges of gravel, pointing towards their destination.


Animals fled at their approach, and the trees fled, and so did the grasses and the grasshoppers – all the inhabitants of the earth cramming themselves into the remaining land between the North, which the giants held, and the southern seas.  Some died; some, isolated from their brethren and struggling in new environments, transformed; and some, which had dwelled long in cold and far-away regions, now roamed widely, heavy and shaggy-haired.


Even the lands of the sun, which never saw the touch of frost, felt the advance of the giants.  Forests dried and became grasslands, for the giants hoarded much of the world’s water for themselves and the cold winds carried little moisture.  The oceans retreated, land rose from the sea, and everywhere the world was changed.


The battle raged for more than two million years.  Earth tilted herself towards the sun, sending warmth onto the fortresses of ice, and giants fell where they stood. Some retreated to the heights of mountains; others regrouped at the poles and waited.  Earth could not hold her position for long. Seasons passed, winter and spring and summer and fall and winter again, varying in length as Earth’s orbit rounded and flattened.  The giants were patient. They bided their time.  And whenever the right conditions came around again, they swiftly advanced once more.


The brief-lived creatures of Earth understood little of these changes.  It was always winter, or always summer; the giants held sway, or they hardly merited a thought.  The stronger lived and the weaker died, for that was the way of things; creatures adapted, moved to newly-opened lands and away from lost ones, and learned new patterns of life – there was nothing they could do about the giants themselves.


We clever two-footed creatures who have wandered so far from our cradle, we find ourselves now in an age of summer.  The giants have fallen; their melted bodies fill our lakes and oceans.  The land is slowly lifting itself, recovering from the weight of their footsteps.  Ridges of gravel and U-shaped valleys are the ruins of their fortresses; they delved our deepest lakes and smoothed out vast plains.  You can still see the trail signs that marked their advance, the long-nosed drumlins pointing ever southwards.


They watch us from the poles and the heights of mountains.  They drop by briefly in winter nights.  They laugh as we spew greenhouse gasses into the air, for as long as the continents stand where they do, we can only warm Earth enough to destroy ourselves and our neighbors.


In time the giants will rise again from the waters and march southwards, and the kingdom of winter will be upon us once more. Not tomorrow.  Not in a hundred years, nor a thousand.  But some day, the giants will return.