I’m in the back of a camper van reminiscing about a camping trip with my family which must be more than 15 years ago now. We rented a motor home just like this one, with a sleeping compartment for two people above the front seats where my sisters and I slept sideways to accommodate the three of us. “The smell of the dogs isn’t too strong, is it?” Hélène asks. She and her boyfriend / partner / lover Philippe are on a six week road trip from France to the north cape with their house on wheels. I shake my head unconvinced, breathing through my mouth. At my feet are two giant dogs that smell like they have been wet for a month. We are driving through northern Sweden at a leisurely speed, stopping every hour to take the two beasts for a walk among the pine trees. I don’t like dogs and wonder if it shows. It must be obvious, I think while avoiding the tongue of the younger dog who accidentally licks a pine cone instead. Despite our differences on the dog front I’m grateful that Hélène and Philippe have picked me up. I was thumbing on a junction just outside the nice little town of Jokkmokk, where I had spent the previous night in a comfortable bed of a huge but empty hostel. Finishing the Kungsleden trail in Kvikkjokk had been a thrilling personal accomplishment but the weather gods didn’t celebrate with me. After walking that last mile and digging into that long overdue reindeer casserole I had camped in the yard of the fjällstation where I had slept through a rainy night, grateful for my investment in a new and waterproof tent. The rain kept pouring down all night long, and breaking up camp in time to jump on the early morning bus that would take me back to civilisation the next morning had been a grim affair. I had ended up in Jokkmokk with a soaking wet tent and in dire need of a rest day. Now I had resumed my hitchhiking trip, planning to enter Norway and make my way to the Lofoten archipelago for what everyone told me was one of the most beautiful areas of Europe.
After saying goodbye to Philippe and Hélène I walk through the suburbs of a town of which I have since forgotten the name. The colourful wooden houses in blue, red and yellow are in stark contrast to the dominating deep green of nature. It’s August now and the summer is really at its peak. The smell of Douglas fir is omnipresent. I find a small picnic place on the bank of a lake and take out today’s lunch. Yesterday’s bread is a bit stale and the chocolate is half molten, but it tastes like a feast. Everything tastes better outside.
The day continues and so does the road. I keep Petr company for 300km while he tells me of his ex-girlfriend and 10-year-old son he’s going to visit in Harstad, some place in Norway. We share some biscuits and swap tales from our respective journeys through life and country. I’m not sure what to think of his life’s story that seems to revolve around a lot of missed opportunities, bad luck, wrong decisions and regret. Petr is 65 and as the last chapter of his life begins he seems to stay behind with very little. No partner, an estranged son and no house nor pension. The longer we share time together the more personal his stories become.
I have noticed this before. Many of the people who pick me up here in the north really open up to me, contradicting the frigid, reserved reputation northerners have in the rest of Europe. They talk for hours about their hopes and dreams, biggest regrets, fears, happiness and most intimate feelings. They often tell me they haven’t talked about these feelings in years, or have anxiously kept them to themselves for as long as they can remember. Maybe for fear of appearing ungrateful. Once you’ve chosen a path in life, no matter how successful you are, people expect you to stick to it, even though through compromise there are always ambitions that get sidetracked. Maybe it’s rather for fear of sharing their dreams with the world and creating expectations in the process. Expectations that might not get fulfilled. In our society unfulfilled expectations are often associated with failure, and nobody wants that in their life. But with me it’s different. We only share a few minutes or hours together, until the next junction in the road takes our lives in different directions again. Our lives coincide so briefly that I’m no threat to the bubble most people have so painstakingly created for themselves, allowing them to step out of that bubble for once. In many ways I’m the mirror that they spend their lives avoiding. I reflect my choice to give everything up to chase my dream upon themselves, which is confronting for many people. The mirror I hold up makes it impossible to lie, for lying to me would be the same as lying to themselves. It’s funny how we share our biggest secrets with complete strangers that way. They see me as an unbiased, objective passer-by in their life. They don’t know who I am and will never see me again once I slam that car door shut. There’s no threat and no judgement. I feel quite well in that role. They talk, I listen. They drive, I travel. It’s an honest exchange.
Petr recollects childhood memories while we drive past Kiruna, the famous mining town that is being moved in its entirety. This is the second time I pass by here. An hour later we also pass by Abisko again. A few hours in the car have wiped out my 9 days of walking. This time we drive past the start of the Kungsleden trail and a little later also past the Norwegian border. I say goodbye to Petr in Narvik, genuinely hoping that things will turn out ok for him.
After a beer and a few Nutella sandwiches in the centre of Narvik a few short rides bring me to a gas station at the edge of the city. It’s 8pm but I don’t want to give up just yet. I had hoped but not expected to make it this far today, but decide to see if I can stretch my luck a little further. Bodø and the ferry to Lofoten are still 300km away, a 5 hour drive on the winding coastal roads of Norway. Then I meet Olemann, a fifty-year-old father of three that looks no day older than thirty. He drove past a few minutes earlier, he tells me afterward, stopped in a parking lot to free some space in the front seat and then drives past again to pick me up. “For the company,” he tells me. It really is my lucky day today. Olemann is on a crazy 2000km road trip from his family’s place in Alta, way up north, to his own house in the Oslo area (and I thought the half hour drive to visit my grandparents was a worthy effort!). We drive for hours into the night but as long as there’s light Olemann stops in all the most beautiful places to give me the opportunity to take pictures. There are a lot of beautiful places. He explains me all about them and the way the locals deal with the often harsh conditions that come with living this far north. People here are hunting, fishing and building their own houses. For all these things they depend on nature and their own resourcefulness to literally build and sustain a noteworthy life, something I respect immensely. We spot two moose from afar. They’re known to come out during the twilight hours when dusk turns the sky into a velvet reddish colour. They’re enjoying the calm before the storm. The hunting season is coming. On one of the short car ferries that are typical for this rugged coastline Olemann buys us both an ice cream and we watch the sun disappear behind the distant mountain peaks. As a real outdoors person and Lofoten enthusiast he gives me a few tips for my itinerary towards Tromsø that later prove to make a huge difference, cutting a lot of less interesting kilometres away by avoiding to turn back to mainland Norway and adding the island of Senja to my route, about which I’ll write more later. By the time we reach a fork in the road where our roads separate it’s after midnight. After a lot of insisting on both sides I manage to decline a 500 crowns banknote (about 50€) and stroll around the dimly lit village centre where I pitch my tent in an inconspicuous corner of the local graveyard. Fauske village, a name to remember when bragging about that night in the pub. A little uneasy about my choice of accommodation I manage to fall asleep behind a few voluptuous buxus bushes.
The next morning I quickly pack up my stuff before someone decides to get buried today. I hitch a ride with Pjotr, a Polish contractor that moved his business to Norway a decade ago to be able to pay for his wive’s yearly holiday to Dubai. I eventually reach Bodø and the ferry to Lofoten by 9am, just in time to dig into the freshly-made on-board coffee while the distant, dramatic mountain peaks of Lofoten come ever closer.