Alppikierros Day 6: The Dolomites

Today the plan was to head west and south into Italy and ride the Dolomites down to Arabba, a skiing-related town set amidst mountain pass roads 50km due west of Bolzano. Things started smoothly enough — it was another beautiful day, and the roads alternated between wide sweepers and occasional straight sections and hairpinned ascents and descents from minor passes. On the Austrian side the roads were a bit thinner than yesterday but still in excellent condition. Once again cars and other vehicles were quickly left in the rear view mirrors, and only buses presented any serious problems. But once we crossed over to the Italian side a nuisance that had been present but minor in Austria became a major one — cyclists.

Yes, there were three species inhabiting these Alpine roads: motorcyclists, drivers of cars, trucks, and buses (collectively, “cagers”), and finally, the cyclists. The latter were complete animals, physically powering their way up these grades of 10% or more that lasted for miles, all with just a pair of water bottles on their bikes and perhaps a couple of energy bars in their shirts. I have no idea how they made it even a few kilometers on that amount of provisions — the calories burned and the amount of water sweated must have been prodigious. I don’t know what they must have thought of us motorcyclists blasting loudly by them with just a twist of our wrists, but to my unending surprise not a one gave us the finger or even so much as a dirty look. In turn we riders did our best to give them a comfortable berth, which was much easier for us than it was for cars. The only problem was we were busy trying to watch out for cars ourselves, especially ones coming the other way and sliding out into our lane — perhaps due to passing some cyclists. But we couldn’t simply hug the right side either since there could be cyclists just around the next bend.

Some areas were populated by a fourth species as well — hikers. Obviously for the most part we probably didn’t see these, but there were various transits between trails, and parking lots and trails, where they would need to walk along the road. They also amazingly did not shout or shake their fists at us, even when they were obviously standing waiting to cross the road as we were blowing past. In any case, it was good that everyone got along harmoniously, because when some cyclists were weaving through side pedestrian traffic, cars were stopped or waiting, and a bus was coming in the other direction things were close to getting out of hand.

Around 1pm Päivi and I stopped to decide whether to take a shortcut to the hotel. So far the weather and been beautiful and the riding not too taxing. So we decided to take the long way, which was still only an extra 70 or so kilometers on the map. Wrong move though. Hardly had we gotten going when clouds started looking ominous above the peaks to our left. They moved in steadily until finally they started opening up. We stopped to wait the rain out in a restaurant, but after a coffee and a snack it became apparent that waiting wasn’t going to do much good. We just had to press on and push through. Heavier and heavier the rain came down until at one point it started hailing like mad as well. We stopped again, then resumed during a respite. The rain soon returned, without the hail, thankfully, but now we continued. Supposedly only a few kilometers more. Finally we hit the town of Arabba, but our hotel was apparently out on the other side. Soon we came to some stopped cars and pulled into the left lane to go around them. Only to run smack into a black rushing torrent coming down from the hillside that had thrown black mud, stones, and logs a meter high and several wide across the road. Game over.

We retreated back to the closest building and collected ourselves under the overhang. There was basically no practical way around at this point, only long, soaking wet pass roads. Eventually an SUV from the Carabinieri came rushing through, then an ambulance, and, finally, a bulldozer. At that we started to have some hope that we might get through after all. Around an hour later, we did, and pulled in in wet and bedraggled state to the Hotel Alforte, where kind though excessively talkative staff greeted us with Italian warmth.

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240 km

 

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Alppikierros Day 5: The Großglockner

This morning we woke up somewhat refreshed, though still not feeling completely caught up on sleep, grabbed breakfast, and rushed off on our bikes at 9 to hit the Grossglockner. Grossglockner, or Großglockner as they prefer to write it here, is the highest mountain in Austria, as well as the name of a toll road that runs past its base. We started off with a couple of other guys from the group, but soon lost them as their pace exceeded Päivi’s comfort level on our first full Alpine ride. We slowed down as we rode past 1000 meters, to 2000 and finally 2500 meters. We parked our bikes and looked out across a valley to a glacier. Below us was a wash of loose stones and pooled water, evidence of what one of our companions said, that the glacier had come much lower in earlier years. Not much time for discussing the finer points of climate change, however. Back on the bikes and onward and upward. We ended up stopping once more at the highest point of the pass around 2500 meters, and then down to Zell am Zee, celebrated base for Alpine skiing in the winter, but a snarl of traffic now in the summer. There we turned around and headed for home, arriving back around 3:30 to the hotel.

Motorcycles rode almost universally aggressively. There was not much of an attitude of cruising through the scenery here. Campers, small trucks, and cars alike were dispatched with little mercy; only buses were paid a wary respect, primarily because they took up more than their lane and were therefore difficult to pass. Furthermore they had a tendency to swing out into the oncoming path when taking hairpins, which meant they had to be watched out for. I doubt it was the riders themselves to blame for all the aggression though — the roads were so full of delicious curves and teeth-sinking slopes as to drive even the most mild mannered of motorcyclists into a frenzy. Twisting throttle, upshifting, downshifting, engine braking followed by opening it up, just blasting through the terrain. Finally, we had found what our bikes had been born to do.

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150 km

 

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Alppikierros Day 4: Into the Tyrolian Alps

We awoke after five hours of sleeping like the dead. We had to get up and on the road, but I would never forgive myself if I left here without seeing the Festspielhaus. Fortunately its location within walking distance and in the middle of a park made it ideally suited as a running destination. It was a lovely morning, and I saw only two other souls in the park, one a dog walker, and the other another “culture runner” like myself.

Back to the road. After yesterday’s poor experience with the big, main autobahns, and more jam-ups promised since this was Germany’s big vacation road travel season, we decided to change things up and do some B road riding. For the most part this worked — the scenery was much better and we didn’t even go that much slower much of the time. We also saw a LOT more motorcycles than we had on the autobahn, so it seemed we weren’t the only ones who found the great superhighways a bit wearying.

But sometimes we ran into long stretches of crawling through towns and lights, and once we hit a road closure that left us with a 45-minute detour. At last when we had drawn to less than an hour of our destination where we’d meet up with our merry band of Finns, one last complication arose. The road came to an end and the GPS seemed to be directing us to put our bikes on a train. While we were waffling over whether this was really what we wanted to do, the train left and the next one was a full hour later. We ended up waiting it out, for the ways to go around this turned out to be quite limited indeed. So sure enough, we rolled our motorcycles onto flat rail cars where an attendant strapped them down. A fifteen-minute ride later and we were off on the last part of the journey. Thankfully this, at least, went smoothly, and we were just in time for dinner and some beers with our group.

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515 km

 

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Alppikierros Day 3: Riding the Autobahns

Up for breakfast at 7 and then on the road. My GPS didn’t take a great liking to the route I wanted to give it, persisting in doing something different no matter how many via points I put into it. Eventually it led us into the small harbor town and onto a short ferry. Then we got onto some small roads winding through farmland that were quite pleasant. The landscape was full of windmills, and, later on, fields of solar cells as well. Germany seemed to be moving into the future regardless of whether other countries were coming along or not. In wonder whether the situation had been similar leading up to World Wars I and II. Had Germany also been so far ahead of everyone else back then that they eventually lost patience waiting for them to catch up? Certainly *something* had gotten Nietzsche and others alternately praising and damning German culture but always focusing on it as if there were few other developments worth noting in their contemporary world.

All of this was rather ironic considering how things stood 1500 years before that, when the Roman Empire represented everything civilized, while the Vandals, Goths, and other rough-living German tribes were tearing away at its flanks. An East German colleague of mine in the research community had once laughingly remarked that “The wrong side sure won that war!” But in the story of human history, victory goes always to the strong. The Roman Empire was decaying from within, and there was some kind of vitality in the Germanic culture that led them to defeat it despite vastly inferior technology and military discipline.

We finished up with the small roads in the morning and got onto the big A roads — the autobahns. My GPS has the speed limits stored for all roads, but once we hit the on ramp the display just disappeared. Indeed, cars were just flying by in the left lane. We stayed to the right, Päivi’s 500cc machine not being up for the exalted speeds that were possible here. But surprisingly we ran into problems when cars came in from the on ramps in front of us, because, however fast they liked to drive, it appeared that the Germans did not particularly enjoy accelerating and would take their sweet time to come up to speed.

But in general things ran pretty smoothly and the drivers seemed pretty good, handling the large disparities in speed that tended to crop up with aplomb. Unfortunately, all of this smooth flowing meant that when things broke down, they broke down badly. Somewhere along the A9 southwest of Berlin there was a major accident in the morning, leaving at least one car in flames, which in turn lit a brushfire and caused the road to become blocked off. Traffic built up behind while the police inexplicably didn’t close off the entrances further up. Passage was only prevented for an hour or two, but the resulting jam-up lasted for the rest of the day. It was so bad when we hit it in the afternoon that traffic would literally halt for several minutes at a time, then advance one or two hundred meters, then halt again. It was hard to believe that there was absolutely nothing blocking the highway, but that was indeed how it was when we finally crawled up to the trouble spot after four hours.

We hit a few more jams after that, totalling up to maybe an hour all told. The late summer sun slowly set on what had mercifully been a beautiful day, and the lad rose up as we coursed into the northern foothills of the Bavarian Alps. Soon we found ourselves speeding through black night on the German autobahn! We finally rolled in to Bayreuth at 10:30, a total of 14 and a half hours one road, of which 9 and a half were actually traveling. We were bushed.

Our arrival was a study in contrasts. Bayreuth was a German town about halfway along our journey to the Alps, suitable for breaking our journey, but we’d chosen it because we’d been toying on and off with the idea for a while of attending the Wagner festival held here each year. A week of Wagner operas at the opera house that the great composer himself had had built during his lifetime. They were presented without any sort of subtitles as far as I knew, and there was a ten-year wait to get tickets. You had to be pretty hard-core, and I was still figuring out whether I *was* that hard-core. But anyway the hotel we were at was within walking distance of the hallowed Festspielhaus, and opera lovers from the world over would be coming to stay here within the month.

Indeed, it seemed like they were already here, judging by the number of tuxedoed individuals walking in and out of the lobby when we arrived. Meanwhile we climbed off our bikes and tramped up to the desk wearing our sweaty leathers. To the staff’s credit they didn’t bat an eye, but courteously went about efficiently checking us in. The man at the bar even fixed us up some sandwiches after the kitchen had closed when we informed him of our situation. We rounded out the evening with two steins of Bayreuth’s finest local brews. Our coasters proudly proclaimed in enthusiastic letters, “Das ist bierkultur!”  That doesn’t need any translation.  What a country!

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650 km

 

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Alppikierros Day 2: Landfall in Germany


We got up in the morning around 8 feeling much restored after 10 hours in the horizontal position and made our way out into streaming sunshine on the cafe deck for a morning coffee. What a difference a night’s sleep makes! While being on a boat made it different — so that we didn’t get that full exhilarating feeling of freedom that you reach already that first morning out on a motorcycle trip — there was still a pleasant sense of a clean break having been made from our life back home.

The boat had an interesting meal arrangement in which an extended “brunch” was served from 9:30 to 1 in the afternoon, which you could re-enter as you pleased. We elected, like many, to dive in at 9:30 for a late breakfast, then return just before 1 for lunch. Two meals for the price of one, though it was not particularly cheap nevertheless. We wouldn’t arrive in Germany before 10:30pm Finnish time so we’d have to make it some time before another proper meal.

All in our group but us were planning to bravely sally forth and ride 200 kilometers straight off the boat, allowing themselves to make it all the way to Austria with a single, big 800km day after that. Päivi and I, especially with her 500cc bike, lacked the appetite for this. We’d check straight in to a local hotel on the first night, then do the ride to Austria in two 5-600km days after that. We’d miss the first day of riding in the Alps, but hey, we’d be on our motorcycles anyway, so who cared? Besides that I’d noticed that a certain town by the name of Bayreuth happened to lie around halfway along our route. I booked us a hotel within walking distance of the famed Festspielhaus where the Wagner festival was and has been held since the great composer’s own time. I was still deciding myself whether I wanted to embark on the 10-year wait to get tickets to see the Ring in its original birthplace some summer, in German without subtitles and all, but in any case the chance to walk on those hallowed grounds where great art held the highest place was an unexpected bonus.

The brunch on the boat was a tremendously rich feast by any standard. Here is but a partial list of all that was on the tables:

- Salmon caught off Norway and served uncooked, fileted and salted
- Thin-sliced roasted game from Germany
- Yoghurts of various thicknesses made by collecting milk from cows, probably in Finland, then fermenting it
- Carrots grown in the earth, pulled up, cleaned, and grated
- Seeds harvested from oat grass, collected, dried, and then sliced to flakes, and finally boiled in water with salt
- Other seeds harvested from wheat grass, ground up and baked with microorganisms that give off gas to provide a fluffy consistency
- Sausages made from the meat of animals brought into existence and raised on our behalf, probably in Europe, and then killed to give up their flesh
- A brown beverage made by passing hot water at a certain rate through beans harvested on the other side of the globe, shipped, roasted, and ground
- Sugar produced from cane also on the other side of the planet and shipped across the oceans

I could go on to describe the origins of the materials of the chairs we sat on, or the fact that they were painted just such and such a color chosen to be pleasing to our eyes in combination with the colors of the sea outside, and what was the highly developed chemistry of the paint, and so on. But I have made my point. Mankind has reached lofty heights indeed. Moreover I have weeks of leisure ahead of me, all earned by me sitting inside a glass-walled, tiered building tapping little squares of plastic that move up and down in a grid while staring at a glowing screen displaying quasi-repeating patterns of light and dark. Even science fiction authors in the middle part of the 20th century could not have imagined this. And yet.

We could lose all of this before another hundred years has gone by. Even now we are engaged in a race against death although we are barely conscious of it. Death, not of individuals, but of civilization itself. Everything we have built is dependent on fossil fuels we extract from the earth. These ships by which we trade and project goods across the sea, the tractors that groom the fields so that a few people can grow vast quantities of food, the machinery by which we construct our buildings, pave our roads, and ourselves travel to the places our mental capabilities can best be put to use — all depend on fossil fuels. The vast bulk of the electricity that lights our homes and breathes life into our entertainment and data systems, our networks of communication, depends on fossil fuels. If a man had to deliver the same amount of work we extract from a single barrel of oil, it would take an entire *year* of hard physical labor.

And yet the supply of oil, gas, and coal is limited, and we will exhaust it within the next century and perhaps much sooner. Awareness is there, but not in all parts of the ship, yet it is a very big ship indeed that we must steer, and the direction it must be steered in is not even fully known. We must develop technologies for extracting and transforming energy from more challenging and diffuse sources like sun and wind than the concentrated chemical energy found in fossil fuels.

The book _A Canticle for Leibowitz_ is the best description I’ve ever come across of what might happen if our civilization collapsed. It was written in the 1960’s and so the nuclear apocalypse which was our greatest fear at the time served as the trigger, but what happened in the aftermath could equally well apply after a failure of the primary engine of our civilization. The story describes a land that is but sparsely populated. Most people are subsistence farmers growing barely more than enough to live off the land. Here and there there is enough extra to support an enclave of monks who do not farm but devote their lives to attempting to preserve what light remains from that past civilization. They spend their days copying books, by hand, bringing the precious contents of their pages before they decay, letter by letter, to new parchment. Parchment which itself eventually degrades and must be copied anew. They do not even understand the texts that they copy, abstruse treatises on engineering and science, except that they know they held the keys to the soaring structures and networks we once built. They are monks, because returning to that better time was seen as bringing man closer to God.

The book follows generations of the monks, over the course of hundreds of years, as things slowly improved. In the end civilization was rebuilt. Not necessarily from the contents of the books, but undeniably from the faith in man’s capabilities and destiny that they inspired. And just as we have in some way grown wiser since the excesses of the Greco-Roman civilization that preceded our own, the reader got the sense that this new civilization built on the ashes of the hold was more humble and less headstrong than its predecessor, and likely to avoid the same doom.

It may be that this will be our own path. We have made it further than the Greeks and Romans, but we won’t quite win the race against declining oil reserves, and that will make all the difference. The period we live in now will be looked back upon as the height and the glory of human achievement, a bright white light shining forward in time to a darker tableau. Let us not take it for granted, which means both to enjoy it and to work to preserve it against what can be foreseen.

The boat arrived in due course at 10:30pm Finnish, 9:30pm German time. We rode smoothly off the boat and had a short 3km introductory ride in Germany to our hotel. It was in the midst of a surprisingly rural area despite the proximity to the harbor.

“The air smells different here,” Päivi remarked as we got off the bikes. I had to agree with her.

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3 km

 

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Alppikierros, Day 1: To the Alps!

Here we are, off on a motorcycle trip to the Alps! The grand and storied land of soaring peaks, winding narrow roads — home to the best James Bond car chases — green slopes, longhorns and pure maidens, cable cars and hikers’ huts, the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc, all this and more in the summer. And in the winter of course the ski resorts. Fortresses of luxury set in mountain fastnesses, outdoor cafes perched on overlooks, and long, challenging ski runs beginning in the thin air of high altitudes. I’d seen this winter world once at Alpe d’Huez more than 30 years before (yes, I’m that old) on a spring skiing trip, and had a couple of brief sojourns in the Bavarian Alps and the Black Forest a few years after that, but that was it for my Alps experience.

As for my long-distance motorcycling experience, I have somewhat more of that. In fact my motorcycle touring started the same time as my motorcycling itself. The year was 2005 and I had gotten started on my mid-life crisis a little early, still in my mid-30’s, prompted by a difficult separation from my wife and generally being ground down by the less glamorous sides of life as the recipient of an ordinary middle class income in Manhattan. I’d sold my car when we’d moved there and had no easy way to escape the city for fresh air / open space breaks other than renting one. Even that was a pain, because I had to first take trains or buses out of the city in order to even get a rental for less than exorbitant prices. Thus it turned that in the winter of 2005 I found myself searching online ads for Kawasaki KZ650’s after reminiscing with my Dad at Thanksgiving over the one he’d had almost 30 years before that. Eventually I found the perfect bike, but in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, no short distance from New York City.

So the next April I packed my soft strap-on side-cases with everything I thought I’d need, donned my riding pants and motorcycle jacket, and got on a plane to Milwaukee. The seller picked me up, I swung my leg over a motorcycle for the first time other than our 125cc trainer bikes at the 2-day riding course I’d taken a couple of weeks before, and I headed off for a 4-day journey through the midwest to Pennsylvania and then down the Hudson into NYC. It was nerve-wracking, it was cold, and it was far more exhausting than I’d expected, but the sensation of freedom out on the road in the open air with the capability to go any direction I chose was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I was hooked.

A rapid succession of shorter and longer tours followed — NYC DC, Connecticut, Maine, and the Gaspe peninsula in northeastern Canada, numerous day trips to the Hudson Valley, and ultimately the series of visits to upstate New York that culminated in me buying a house and moving up there in December, 2006. That summer I didn’t stop, but got on the bike and rode it all the way out to Colorado, went for a week-long hike with some friends, and turned around and headed back. Six weeks that could not at any point be said to be easy, but absolute heaven through and through.

A few months after that Päivi came into my life and everything changed, but much stayed the same. When you meet a soulmate there are slight adjustments in course to be made, but no major changes in direction. After a period of international travels in too many countries to name we found ourselves in 2013 with two motorcycles and time on our hands. We retraced the first part of my Colorado route from 6 years before — it was that good, running out from the boundaries of New England across the Great Lakes and through the Midwest to the Great Plains, following in the footsteps of the pioneers in the 18th and 19th century. All the way out to Colorado and this time even further, up along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains through Utah, Wyoming, and Montana into the eastern part of Washington State bordering on the Pacific. If you counted states touching the oceans, coast to coast had been achieved. We came back through North Dakota, Minnesota, and Ontario. More than six thousand miles in six weeks, and some hiking and relaxing besides.

The next year we moved to Europe, and after some acclimatization, some longer journeys in Finland, Sweden, and Norway followed. A year ago I had one fantastic week to Norway’s Lofoten island chain and back, rivaling the longer US trips in magnificence if not in length. Norway is indeed a land of the gods, but in Europe one area rises still higher in reputation among motorcyclists, and that is the Alps.

And so now here we were, on board a Germany-bound ferry boat with my Italian adventure tourer and Päivi’s Japanese cruiser in the hold, relaxing after a hard last week of preparation and eagerly awaiting the trip ahead. All the difficulties of arranging expensive accomodations, obtaining proper documentation for our vehicles and insurance, purchasing highway toll passes and the like now forgotten, only the dreams of white mountain peaks soaring above winding roads fringed by green grass and trees visible ahead of us.

In a new first, we were going to be traveling with a group from our motorcycling club. The entire route through the Alps had been planned in road-by-road detail, along with every night of accomodations. We were going to meet up in Austria, but around a dozen members (out of nearly 40 overall) were on board with us here. We met them while boarding and though we knew we should start getting acquainted, Päivi and I were both just too exhausted from the preceding week to have much energy to be social. We wandered around the decks and cafes on board for a while, ate the food we’d brought for dinner, and went to bed by 10. The thing I was happiest about was that our cabin was completely in the interior without any windows. That meant we’d be able to sleep as long as we felt like and needed without being forced awake by the summer light — like that which streamed into our bedroom windows at home daily from 3am on.

25 km

 

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Home

2017/07/30 (Sunday; Humppi -> Espoo)

Now this was it, the last day, and although this campground had had the friendliest atmosphere, I was in no mood to sleep late and lounge around. I got up and got rolling early, and then stayed on the bike for 180 km straight before taking a single long coffee stop at the “Cafe 58″ — situated appropriately along Highway 58. When I got there the TV was showing live coverage of the rally and the dining area held half a dozen men glued to the set. I mainly munched my food, sipped my coffee, and minded my maps as I normally did. When I headed back out, I took a moment to insert the jacket and pants liners that I’d left out when starting out. At 8 am it had been sunny and warming up rapidly, but now at 10:30 it was cloudy and cool.

No matter, I got back on the bike and rode another 190 km and was home.

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370 km

 

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Finland

2017/07/29 (Saturday; Pajala -> Humppi)

Today I was planning to cover a lot of distance, but I figured that since I wasn’t going to stop for a hike, I’d have more time AND energy to do so. My goal was to get as close to home as possible since nothing is harder than having a long ride on the last day of a motorcycle trip to get home. I knew I wasn’t going to have the energy for a really long ride tomorrow.

Everything started out smoothly and I was out of the campground before anyone else but a couple of dog-walkers were up.  I rode south along the river.  The road was still nice, but somehow not as pleasant as I remembered it coming up in the afternoon almost a week ago. Something about the light, the temperature, and the breezes then had been optimal, and even though mornings can be good times to ride, this time couldn’t match it.  But the ride went well enough, and there certainly wasn’t any more traffic than then. After about an hour or so I came to a rest area marking the arctic circle.  A ring of flags flew representing each nation the circle passed through. Starting from me that was: Sweden, Finland, Russia, US, Canada, Denmark (for Greenland), Iceland (it just touched the northern tip), and Norway.

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I carried on, rolling uneventfully south, until finally the time came to cross the Tornio over into Finland. The weather had gotten a bit cloudy by then, and this only increased the tremendous sense of wistfulness that suddenly welled up. This is always the same on a motorcycle trip. You come to that point where you must leave behind whatever strange and new place to which you have gone.  While the turning around is long past at this point and the trip back has been in progress for some time, there has still been a very real sense of being on the road.  Home was still far away and abstract, and the immediate here and now was still exotic and foreign.  But now with the crossing into Finland all that foreignness was gone, and now I truly was just on a slog home.  I tried to comfort myself with the warm feelings of coming back to familiar surroundings, but this never really works — the sense of loss of the whole magic of the trip is just too great.

To add insult to injury, I had only been heading south on the Finnish side for less than an hour when the unrelenting grey clouds started letting down rain. At this point I wasn’t far from Oulu where I planned to have lunch so I thought I’d just try to stick it out without my raingear, but it ramped up until it was nearly a downpour. I pulled off at an exit and spent the 5-10 minutes it takes to struggle into my raingear, the rain of course lightening the entire time. There was just nothing for it — I’d either have kept going and the rain would have kept increasing, or I pulled off and it would be guaranteed to lighten and stop within 15 minutes.

I carried on and indeed, 15 minutes later while I was rolling in to the Raksila section of Oulu for my lunch, it finished dying out. Now I headed in to dry off both my raingear and my self. P and I had lived in this area for our first three months in Finland, but that was nearly ten years ago and in winter and I hardly recognized anything now. I had to follow my GPS in to the very shopping plaza we’d walked to grocery shop. I ate at a Subway and took half the sandwich back to the bike to have for dinner. I’d cooked the last meal I’d brought along last night and decided I’d keep things simple for this evening. After that I rode over to our old apartment (again using the GPS). Everything looked so green and lush. Back then the streets and sidewalks had all been snow and ice. I snapped a selfie for posterity and then got back on the bike to head out.

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The radar had shown a few patches of rain on my route, and I debated briefly whether to just don my raingear now, but ended up deciding against it.  Then, of course, maybe 30 minutes later I was stopping to put it on.  I got maybe 20 or 30 minutes of use out of it this time. I kept it on for quite a while after that and dried it out thoroughly but no further showers came. Eventually the sky starting turning blue and it looked like I’d paid my dues. The only rain on the entire trip came on the two days I was in Finland, but hey, on the whole I’ll take my chances here rather than Norway any day of the week!

I’d decided to head east right away after Oulu instead of hugging the coast like I had last time. The route would be shortened somewhat, but I had to be careful not to go too far east, or in particular the straightest route, because the annual rally race in central Finland was taking place this very weekend. Thousands of people would be trying to get in and out of the area to spectate, without a single passing lane in sight.

Apparently I stayed far enough away though, for I made steady progress until in the early evening I found myself rolling in to the hamlet of Humppi and the “Iso Mies” (“Big Man”) campground. Unfortunately there was music blasting out from some speakers next to an outdoor cafe there, and this seemed to be a party place when I was in no mood for a party. I just wanted to clean up, eat, and veg out! I’d stopped the bike in the parking area and was seriously considering turning it right around and heading out to look for someplace else when a grey-bearded man came up and asked me in Finnish what I was on about.

I told him honestly that I’d been thinking about camping but that the looks and sound of the place were giving me pause. “Not to worry,” he exclaimed, “You can just go out to that end which is a bit down a hill and you won’t hear a thing!” I was a bit skeptical whether it was possible to get far enough away for THAT to really be the case, but he was so friendly about it I figured I at least owed it to him to investigate. He didn’t look so official though so I first verified that he actually worked here. “Yes, yes,” he said, apparently not bothered by my poor, stumbling Finnish. “Just go over to the office and check yourself in; I’ll get you set up afterwards.”

And so I did, and a perky young woman got me signed in while he told me about the saunas they had there. There were two wood-burning saunas for men and women and also a smoke sauna, presumably shared by both. Maybe it was time to start liking smoke saunas! After this, the man proved he was as good as his word. He hopped on a bicycle and I rode my motorcycle out a couple of hundred meters to the back of the campground, and, sure enough, it wasn’t too bad. There was an expanse of healthy green lawn surrounded by trees, and not much else. He pulled out a cigarette and started riding back, and I started setting up my tent.

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Next up was a trip to the sauna, and the difference between what we had here and my experience at the Swedish campground the evening before could not have been more marked. I’ve already mentioned how wood-burning and especially smoke saunas like the ones here are considered superior to electric ones. But equally important is the location. The campground sat next to a lake, and the saunas were right at the shore. You see, to truly enjoy being hot, you first need to be cold, and one especially efficient way accomplish that was to go swimming in a cold Finnish lake! First you strip down and go into the sauna and warm up, then, armed with that body heat, you head out and dive into the lake. You swim around until you are good and cold (a process that takes noticeably less long in winter), and then get out and head back into the sauna. Thaw out in there until you just find yourself feeling hot again, then go back to the lake and do it all over again. Repeat several times, add beer (only if it’s summer), and enjoy. Extra bonus if you start in the evening and go on until morning, during high summer when it won’t ever get dark.  That’s the art of the sauna as I’ve only ever seen it practiced in Finland.

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As for me, I hadn’t brought any beer and the strain of speaking Finnish was began to wear after two or three lake dips, so I headed back up to take a shower and get a beer at the bar. I ended up speaking more Finnish though, this time with the woman at the office, which doubled as the bar (and the restaurant), but she went easy on me so it wasn’t too bad.

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630 km

 

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Back to the Tornio: The Rubberband at Work

2017/07/28 (Friday; Evenskjer -> Pajala)

Every motorcyclist goes on the road to escape, echoing a wanderlust that has been a fundamental part of mankind since our ancestors left Africa.  And yet, however much time we manage to arrange off, and wherever our personal limits are, nearly all of us return home in the end.  It is almost as if we are bound there by a rubberband, which may stretch but does not break.  Sooner or later we succumb to its pressure.

Here I was, along the same road where only three days before I’d been eagerly traveling out, now returning as inexorably as if I were following a physical law.  But if the trip has been a good one, this return is usually taken in the proper spirit — as part of the journey to be savored for its own qualities, rather than a sad time focusing on home and loss of the here and now.  Which is still here and now, when you get right down to it.

This morning I slept long and late, until 8:30. That’s actually saying something during the Scandinavian summer, when the sun can start shining into a tent from 4am.

Today the plan was to head southeast into Sweden and get all the way across to the Finnish border. On the way I hoped to stop and do some of the hike I’d seen the beginning of between Abisko National Park and the Norwegian border. This would take some time, so once I was up, I hustled about getting my breakfast made and my things in order. It was still gray and foggy as it had been the night before.

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I strongly suspected that as soon as I went a mile inland it would be clear, and I wondered if it ever was sunny here. And sure enough, I didn’t even have to go a mile, or even inland for that matter. Just about a kilometer north and all was blue skies.

The first part of the ride went smoothly, though the distance to cover in Norway was longer than I expected, and the transitional zone on either side of the Norway-Sweden border was spectacular as I remembered.

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Soon enough I came to the spot where I was planning to hike, and I pulled off.  It was none other than the spot with the refreshing stream and the “Navvy Trail” that I’d lucked onto on my trip out past Torneträsk some days earlier.  But now I could add planning to luck and give myself some time to actually do a bit of walking.

I got down to changing and getting ready. My day-hiking approach was minimalist and wouldn’t work on any but a day with foolproof weather — a water bottle and a bar in my pocket, a long-sleeved top tied around my waist. But it had worked in Norway and worked again here, and soon I was on my way.

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I started out by heading up along the stream to the falls I’d seen from the road before.  Given confidence by the fact I hadn’t gotten sick from my tentative drinking the previous time, I emptied and refilled my water bottle from it at the spot by the bridge.  Then I climbed on.

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And climbed.  It was easy to make rapid progress when I wasn’t carrying a backpack to weigh me down!

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This time I went up for an hour instead of 45 minutes, but there was no obvious place to bring the hike to an end, so I found a rock with a better view than the immediate surrounding area when the hour was up and had a sit-down and a drink.

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Then there was nothing else but to head down along the stream and get back on the bike.  Rubberbands again!

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As yesterday, the hike used up a lot of energy and I was a little worried about the rest of the ride ahead of me, which was more than half. But a longish lunch stop at a Burger King helped me through the first part, and a pause near a lake towards the end got me through the rest. At the end of the day I found myself back to the main branch of the Tornio river, close to a main bridge which actually did not go straight over to Finland, since the border actually ran west of the river for some reason here. My campground, again checked on Google rather than my map, did exist right where it was supposed to, and this time there was no fog. In fact it was the most beautiful I’d been at so far, both because of the idyllic spot along the river, and its neatly arranged red-painted cottages amidst the trees.

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The proprietor of the place spoke English, but seemed to prefer Finnish, so we ended up switching back and forth between those languages while I signed in and paid. I didn’t have a tremendous amount of energy after the long day so focused mainly on the basics — getting my tent set up, taking a shower, and cooking my dinner. One nice benefit of being so close to Finland was there was actually a sauna on the premises, and I wasted little time in availing myself of its comfort.

It is a curious idea, the Finnish sauna, at once simple and yet profound. One can easily imagine the attraction to a people inhabiting the cold, far north in the days before insulated homes and electricity: heat up a small enclosed space, strip off all of the cumbersome skins and furs, and just absorb the heat. And yet still today when we live and work in amply heated buildings, so we can be in shirtsleeves even in winter, we still find ourselves going to the sauna.

And as with many other pleasures, it has been embellished into an art form. Only a certain kind of wood should be used for the walls, and another for the benches, which should be a certain depth. Wood-burning sauna stoves are considered superior to electric. Rocks should be piled over the heat source, and the more the better. Water is thrown onto these to make steam, and if there are many deep nooks and crannies the steam will be generated more slowly over a longer time, producing a “softer” heat. The softest heat of all though is produced in so-called “smoke saunas”. In these, the heat is produced by burning wood, and some of the smoke is deliberately kept from escaping through the chimney. The smoke mixes with the steam and either “softens” it directly or holds it in the air longer. Smoke saunas are highly prized by Finns, but from my perspective they seem to be a bit of an acquired taste. It can be rather difficult to breath smoothly between all of the steam and smoke, and often the overall temperature feels too hot. I avoid them as a rule.

In any case, this version was a humble electric sauna, lowest on the totem pole but most convenient. Most home and apartment saunas in Finland are electric, and they get the job done. This one did as well, and I had a restful sleep with all of the kinks from sitting on the bike removed from my body.

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415 km

 

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Return to Mainland

2017/07/27 (Thursday; Moskenes -> Evenskjer)

Things got pretty quiet for a while during the night, but then in the morning a woman got up at 5am and set about the project of inflating an air mattress out by the nearest picnic table.  I suppose it was because the mattress had lost its air and she needed to do something to sleep, but it was pretty annoying nonetheless.  The campsite was nice and well organized, and the “pub” was a nice plus, but was the most crowded by far of any I had been in.

I tried sleeping a while longer and managed to make it until 6am, but that was about as much as I could manage in the broad daylight, even with my eyeshades.  Pretty soon the sun would be beating down on my tent and baking me alive.  So I was motivated to get up and rolling early.  But not without going for a walk first!

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This ferry from Bodø is the way most people get to Lofoten.

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One export Norway is known for is dried and salted cod, or as I first came to know it, klippfisk.  Wikipedia rather unromantically states this “cliff fish” is no longer dried outside hanging against cliffs and rock faces, but rather indoors with electric heat.  Fortunately rumours of the deaths of these practices were at least partially exaggerated, and there was plenty of outdoor drying going on here — at least, I assumed, when the proper season came.

I decided to try looking for a more significant hike in the hills here as well, but if I didn’t find it after a short time, I’d just start heading back and then do the same hike I’d done before again, this time continuing further.

And in fact I ended up not finding anything at the place on the map the trail was supposed to start, so after a short pause to earplug up I was on my way eastwards. The official turning point of the trip had come.

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I ended up stopping in same town, Svolvær, for gas and lunch as I had on way out. It was kind of nice to now feel a seasoned traveler here in Lofoten, but along with that turning around at Å came the loss of that exciting sense of mystery about what lay beyond the next bend. Of course the road looked different coming in the other direction, and in fact that was made more so by the fact that the tide was at a different level. I passed a number of white sand beaches this morning for example that had only been choppy blue water yesterday afternoon.

This brought home to me even more clearly just how lucky I had been the day before in coming to that particular place at that particular time. It was paradise then and there, and would have been (at least somewhat) more ordinary on any other day and time. I could go on a hundred trips to Lofoten or anywhere else and not once achieve the same experience. Whether we call it dharma (fate), karma (extended cause and effect), God, Allah, Brahma, or something/someone else, it was clear that some forces had conspired to bring me to that particular time and place and grant me a wonderful gift. Now it was up to me to treasure and preserve the experience, and do what good with it for others that I could.

After a short early lunch at the pair of gas stations in Svolvær, I returned to the bike and carried on eastwards, reaching the campground of one night before in less than an hour, only a little after 12:30. As I was parking and stripping off my riding gear in preparation for the hike, I noticed it was quite a bit warmer than it had been the evening when I’d first started this hike. It was too bad, evening really is my favorite time for a hike, but there was nothing to be done since I had another 100+ kilometers to go after this. I grabbed a water bottle and an energy bar, and tied my thermal top around my waist in case it actually got cool and windy up at higher elevations. Riding gear and helmet were cable-locked to the bike since I had no room in my cases to put them.

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Keeping my remaining ride in mind, I headed up at a fairly good pace, and in only a little over 20 minutes I came to the he-man’s campsite where I’d turned back before after nearly an hour. Now I continued, the trail winding its way along the lake. It seemed that there were many others besides myself who turned back where I had the evening before, since the trail was noticeably narrower and more overgrown. It was slow going, and I was glad to finally find a spot where it started to climb up above the lake.

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Unfortunately it died out even more soon afterwards, but I kept on, nosing my way from sign to sign of previous passage.  At least I came to discover that this turnout actually hadn’t been the one I should have taken at all, for I was confronted not by another alpine lake, but a sweeping view down to the valley and the fjord from which I’d come. Never mind that it was the wrong place, it was absolutely spectacular, and I couldn’t help but pump my fist in the air and yell, “Yeah!!” at the top of my lungs.

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You can get an idea of the scale of all this with a zoom-in on the boat in the image above.

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I was also treated to a bird’s-eye view of the campground I’d stayed at two nights before.

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And then I headed back down, again moving quickly, eager to get back on the road again. But I was now happy twice over — for coming to the tremendous overlook that I had, AND because I still had reason to come back and do this hike for yet a third time, to finally find the third and fourth lakes the map had shown.

It was still hot and sunny back at the bike, but I had to put on my heavy gear before I could start riding. Then after I got going and the sweat started evaporating, I started to realize I’d spent a lot of energy. The ride went OK at first, but grew progressively more painful as the afternoon continued. I was only too happy to cross over the final bridge to the mainland. I just had to go a few kilometers up the coast to reach my campsite. But hardly had I turned north when the sun disappeared and grey mists descended from all sides. A few minutes later when I got off the bike at the campground, a damp chill pervaded the air and a steady wind was sweeping in from the sea.

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I lost all of my appetite for camping and decided I could splurge for one night in a cabin on the trip. It wasn’t cheap, nor was the cabin particularly well-kept, but it was clean enough, and warm. I brought a few things in from my bike, took my shower, and then stayed inside for the rest of the evening. I had been outside almost continuously for the past five days and now I was content to rest for a while and just reflect on all it had been my tremendous privilege to see.

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280 km

 

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