Chapter 1 – The start of an adventure
Juha throws a few more spoonfuls of water on the hot sauna stove. Steam rises and another heat wave reverberates through the small wooden room and hits our bodies. It’s 1.30am but the tiny square window of the sauna provides plenty of natural light. “Lake time!” Juha screams excitedly. He storms out, runs down the few steps that separate the cottage terrace from the smooth, still surface of the lake that sparkles in the midnight sun and dives head first in the cold water, breaking the spell of smoothness. We have been repeating the same mantra for the past hour and a half. Sweating in the sauna for approximately 15 minutes until our bodies can take no more, storming out into the little clearing in the forest and leaping in the cool lake for refreshment. The process has repeated itself for 5, maybe 6 times, and each time the temperature of the water seems to rise a tiny bit. This time I don’t immediately follow Juha’s example though, but stand on the little wooden walkway that leads up to the lake, stark-naked and with both hands in the sides, and look out over the surface of the water facing north. The sun has just reached its lowest position in the sky for tonight and is already starting its next cycle. A new day on the rise. I think about yesterday, when I headed out of my Helsinki hostel in the pouring rain. About all my little doubts and insecurities to do this again. “Didn’t I get too old to be hitchhiking? Why not just take the train north? People will be looking at me like I’m a crazy person. What if someone throws a banana peel at my head again, like last time? I can afford it, let’s at least check the train schedule…”
They call it the doorstep mile. The first step of doing something big and exciting that you’ve been looking forward to for a long time and have been working towards for weeks, or months, or even years. Something that, to other people may seem odd, trivial, or crazy. Stupid even, maybe. An adventure that means nothing to most, but means the world to yourself. The doorstep mile is the hardest part of any journey, both in life and in travel. Creating enough momentum to actually take the first step. Once you’ve mustered up the courage to set the whole thing in motion, there’s no way back and everything becomes so much easier.
I awake from my musings by an aggressive mosquito stinging me in the buttocks and am suddenly acutely aware of my nakedness and the solid reputation of Scandinavian mosquitos during the height of summer. They are literally everywhere, and I hurry down the last few steps and let the cold water numb my body and soul. The moment my head touches the water time seems to stand still and an explosion of nerve cells hits the synapses of my central nerve system. It feels like my mind gets reset. I feel more alive than i have in ages.
Today really was the best day. Heikki, Juha’s redneck cousin and proud holder of the title of ’92 and ’93 consecutive Eastern Finland swimming champion on the 25 and 50 meters, taught me the game of Finnish ‘cottage darts’, a game that involves drinking beer, roasting sausages over a bonfire and, if still capable, throw a few darts in the direction of a darts board from a few meters away. Both cousins also took me fishing in their little motor boat and taught me how to catch no fish at all in the shallow creeks around the lake, despite our united efforts and another few empty beer cans.
Yet again the doorstep mile had proven to be the hardest part of all, I thought while laying in bed that night, counting the number of mosquito bites that had sky-rocketed during the fishing trip. Summoning up the nerve to just go for it. Once the decision to leave the hostel and find a good hitching spot was made in my head, the universe had conspired in my favour and had taken care of me. After leaving Helsinki in Hugo’s car I had been picked up by Juha who had told me it was no problem whatsoever to join him until Oulu, a city 600km further north, halfway across the country. As the hours had passed by the topic of conversation had ranged from music (Juha was an accomplished musician and let me hear the rough version of a few new songs he was working on) to the definition of success, religion, the opportunities and challenges of being part of generation Y, family and of course, girls. Before I knew it I had eaten dinner in his parents house, had met his sister who was working a summer job at the gas station down the road, had counselled his mother on the construction of a new backyard porch and had gone to a music bar in the city centre of Oulu for a few beers with Juha and another friend of his, conveniently also called Juha. Juha 1 showed his considerable musical talent by playing and singing a few songs on request. After a good night’s sleep in the television room and a lovely breakfast we had been on our way to the family’s lakeside summer cottage where Juha planned to spend a few days to enjoy some peace and quiet and compose a few new songs, much to the disagreement of Heikki who saw his own peace and quiet disrupted and at one point threatened to throw the guitar in the lake if he heard one more note. I slept like a baby that night.
The next day the hangover of both Heikki and Juha (I was spared somehow) was washed away with a big breakfast of omelet and potatoes and I said goodbye to Heikki. Juha and I did some sightseeing before he drove me to a good spot from where I could hitch a ride further north, to the Karhunkierros trail in Oulanka national park, close to the border with Russia. Confident now, I placed my pack next to the sign of the bus stop and sat down on top of it. The empty road before me cut through the vast, green blanket of forest as far as the eye could see. I put out a thumb and waited.