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.

05_P1030043

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.

06_P1030047

06_P1030048

06_P1030049

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.

06_P1030056

 

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.

06_P1030066

 

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

06_P1030065

06_P1030067

06_P1030071

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.

06_P1030074

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

06_P1030061

06_P1030085

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.

06_P1030088

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.

06_P1030086

415 km

 

Posted in Lofoten 2017, Motorcycle Trip | Comments Off

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!

05_P1020982

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

05_P1020983

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.

05_P1020991

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.

05_P1030008

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.

05_P1030038

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.

05_P1030014

05_P103002305_P1030033

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

05_P1030036

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

05_P1030016

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.

05_P1030042

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.

05_panorama_2

280 km

 

Posted in Lofoten 2017, Motorcycle Trip | Comments Off

Å

2017/07/26 (Wednesday; Gullesfjordbotn -> Å Part 2)

(Continued from part 1)

I stopped at a small grocery store on the way back to the main road, then carried on. I’d basically used up all of my side-trip time for the day on this one sojourn, but I had no regrets.  There could not possibly be anything better to be than where I had just been.

I stopped an hour or two later for gas in Svolvær, and had one of my usual gas station lunches, this time with a panini-like sandwich rather than a baguette. Then I continued the ride west.  The sun continued to shine as I weaved in and out between mountain and sea.

04_P1020967

04_P1020965

At one point I crossed over a bridge where water was rushing madly in from the open sea to the fjord beyond.  The fierce tide I’d seen drawing out earlier had turned about and was now even more eager, if anything, to get in.

04_P1020961

The ride took some time, and as usual my energy level tended to degrade in the afternoon, but I eventually made it out to Å.

04_aPhone_20170726_003

The campground on the western side of the town that even Google had mentioned was not there, however, and I had to backtrack to Mosknes, a little ways east of it. The road winding through the town itself was narrow, curvy, and tight, necessitating a lot of pausing and slowing to allow for oncoming traffic or its possibility. I was quite drained by the time I rolled in to the campground, and it had a sign saying “Fullt” as well. Luckily that did not apply to tents, it seemed, and I was allowed to pay and pitch my tent in an already crowded field which felt a bit like the Grassroots music festival.

04_P1020979

And once again there was a cafe, this time serving very good-smelling food in addition to the beer. But the food was expensive and I had my own to cook anyway, so I settled happily for the beer.

There was no long hiking trail this time, but I found some places to wander nonetheless out over some hills overlooking the water.

04_P1020973

And again an early trip to bed, though this time some of the most recent arrivals talked long and made noise settling down.  It was an interesting crowd here though, at the end of the world, and I could not complain of my lot.

04_P1020972

270 km

 

Posted in Lofoten 2017, Motorcycle Trip | 1 Comment

Paradise Found

2017/07/26 (Wednesday; Gullesfjordbotn -> Å Part 1)

I slept well and long. This was the first morning in the last several that I didn’t need to bounce out of bed and get on the road. I’d put in the work to make it out here, and now I was free to enjoy it. I could spend up to two more nights here on Lofoten before needing to start heading back. Over breakfast I pulled out the map and mulled over my options.

There were three possible destinations, all vertices of a triangle outlining the main shape of the Lofoten island cluster. Furthest out was the town of Å in the west. It was the very end of the line of the longest road in Lofoten. When I’d first seen it on the map I’d joked with my wife that it was so remote that they couldn’t afford more than one letter for the name. Fittingly the next corner up was known as Bø. It was situated at the northwest extreme, which was not as far west nor as remote, and so they were able to make it further into the alphabet and even manage the luxury of a second letter. Lastly there was Andøya in the extreme north. (It was interesting how many Norwegian place names had a Russian sound to them.) Although there was a fair amount of action in Andøya, including whale-watching tours, the island itself looked flatter and less mountainous on the map than elsewhere, and so I decided to cross it off the list for being less interesting from a motorcycling perspective. I had two more days, so I’d shoot for Å and Bø. After some thought it seemed best to go for Å first, since I’d be disappointed if I didn’t make it there, and one could never know what would happen more than a day in advance on a motorcycle trip. Also it would be a really remote start to the trip back if I ended my last full Lofoten day on Å.

In addition I investigated the smaller side roads I could see on the map along my route, and made a couple of selections to explore. The actual total distance I needed to cover today was not that great, and even factoring in the slower roads, so there should be time for a side-trip or two.

I eventually got underway around 9 or 10, and the first side-trip came after only an hour or so. I would take the road south down to Årsteinen, of which the last few kilometers were unpaved.

04_P1020928

The first part of the side trip was quite excellent. I proceeded south along the east edge of a narrow fjord, perhaps 3or 400 meters across, but I rode along it for 10-15 km.

04_P1020927

At one point I saw an orange buoy out in the middle of it, and noticed that it was leaned over at quite a steep angle, with white foam trailing behind it. The tide was apparently pullling water out of the fjord at a high rate. I continued, and the road narrowed down to the point where there really wasn’t room for two cars to pass unless someone paused or backed up to a pullout. Even though I was on a motorcycle, I slowed down considerably to allow for unexpected situations. Soon my turnoff came to the dirt road for the final few kilometers. I had gone to far and doubled back to make a left onto it, and I had to stop for a car coming out. It was full of young “kids” maybe in their early 20′s (gosh I’m getting old) and they waved and cheered to me as they passed. I waved back.

The road was by far the best yet. It wound quite close to the water’s edge, and there was no traffic. Nor was there any wind. Just cove after cove of translucent blue water. I thought about photos but there were so many places I couldn’t decide where to shoot. Finally I came to a small pull-out next to some big rocks on the side of the road and I parked the bike.

04_P1020933

I scrambled up onto the rock and just sat and stared down to the water, amazed at the place to which I’d come. The sun, lack of wind, and 70+ degree temperatures combined with the scenery to bewitch me. I sat for a long time, just enjoying.

04_P1020931

Finally I climbed back down and got on the bike to continue. But when I’d gone only around the next bend, I stopped again. A patch of white sand I’d spied from the rock turned out to be a beach of paradisic beauty, and it looked like there was a way down to it.

04_P1020946

In fact there were two beaches. The first was the large crescent that I’d seen already, stretching a couple of hundred meters wide and about as deep. A few tents perched in the green area just above it, and a family with children were relaxing at the water’s edge.

04_P1020935

The second was a much smaller chute leading between the embankment of the road on one side, and a peninsula of jumbled rocks on the other. I stood between these for the time being, and after a short sally directly down the rocks, decided to go and visit the smaller beach, which had no occupants.

04_P1020941

What a great move!  The peacefulness and intimacy of the place went from zero to beyond imagination within seconds of me clambering down there.  No cars came along the road at all, and the only sounds were of the water, with no waves and just barely stirred by the hints of a breeze, gently lapping at the rocks and the “sand” on the beach, which turned out to be finely-crushed coral.

04_P1020943

I walked down to the water’s edge and listened to the gentle “tssshhhh” which came whenever a one-inch-high “wave” dropped down onto the coral bits, which were roughly the size of sesame seeds.  There was no other sound here, and in the “tssshhh” it seemed you could hear the individual sound of every last one of those thousands of tiny bits being tossed against its neighbors.  Into that space, the world expanded.

I climbed up and sat on the rock peninsula for a time, looking out ahead to the other beach, and to my left to scattered islands marching out into the distance. Paradise found, on a remote beach in Lofoten.

Video 1

Video 2

Video 3

But I could not stay here forever. Eventually I headed back to the embankment and pulled my jacket and pants back on, removing the liners first, it being so warm, and taking my sweet time over the whole operation. I got back on the bike and continued forward, wanting to make sure I got to the end of the road, but it turned out to be only a few hundred meters further on. There were a few houses at the end, nothing more. That was Årsteinen, I had to suppose.

 

04_P1020950
04_P1020954

04_P1020957

(Continued in Part 2)

 

Posted in Lofoten 2017, Motorcycle Trip | 1 Comment

Out to Lofoten!

2017/07/25 (Tuesday; Vittangi -> Gullesfjordbotn Part 2)

(Continued from Part 1)

03_P1020891

After this relaxing but energizing interlude I got back on the bike and soon found myself in Norway.  The above shot sums it up.  Is there any other place in the world that so dramatically combines land and sea?

I had previously decided I’d go down into the town of Narvik even though it wasn’t on the way to Lofoten.  I thought it would be easier to get a decent lunch and also refuel the bike there.

Not exactly, as it turned out.  I did manage to refuel the bike, but I probably could have done that somewhere else on the way. And lunch was a baguette sandwich at the gas station.  At a stop that came after a painful out-and-back tour through the entire traffic-choked town.  But there wasn’t much to be done about it but plan the next move. I decided that, thanks to my early start and extra mileage the day before, I still had the time to make it out into Lofoten itself.  But not to the end.  I found a campsite (using Google this time, not trusting my map) in a place called Gullesfjordbotn (the foot of Gullesfjord), which was close to the main junction between the roads leading to the north and west branches of Lofoten.

03_P1020897

The ride out there was impressive. The Lofoten island chain was basically a mountain range jutting out to sea from the Norwegian coast. The road wound along the shore passing along fjords and over short bridges, tunneling into solid rock when there was no easier way to continue. The sun shone down on and through blue water that was as clear as any to be found in the Carribbean. It was beautiful.

03_P1020899

03_aPhone_20170725_003

At the end of the day I pulled smoothly in to the campground right at the foot of Gullesfjord as promised. I was fairly beat, but the campground had a little cafe that served beer and apple pie — a very positive development. I paid and went and set up my tent, pitched right in the middle of a postcard with breathtaking scenery.  Not far away I found a nice place to sit by a stream that flowed into the fjord and cook my dinner.  Then I went and availed myself of both the beer and the apple pie.

03_P1020906

03_P1020924

After all this it was still broad daylight out (this being summer well north of the arctic circle), so I decided to go for a hike afterwards to work off the pie.  There was a hiking trail right across the road that went up into the mountains of the ajoining Møysalen National Park. I figured I wouldn’t be able to go that far but started heading up anyway. The trail followed an exuberantly rushing stream, which I assumed was the same one I’d seen in wider, flatter form when I’d eaten my dinner, up from the valley. After maybe 30 minutes or so I came to a small mountain lake, with a falls dropping down into it on the other side.

03_P1020909

I kept going, picking my way through marshy areas along the short of the lake, and then climbed up on the far side to another, larger lake. The sound of the lower falls faded away as I climbed up and dropped down. I saw the smoke of a fire not far up ahead along the shoreline of this higher lake, and on investigation saw an athletic bald man of around my age there in a tee-shirt, alternately trying to reach someone on his cell phone, it looked like, and playing around with a fishing rod whose line was cast into the lake. I thought about going to talk with him, but somehow, despite the cell phone, he seemed lost on his he-man adventure and probably not interested in human company that he’d evidently just hiked up to get away from. I headed back down.

03_P1020920

A shower and an early trip to bed rounded out the evening. The campground had been becoming more crowded since my arrival, tents in particular occupying numerous nooks and crannies that didn’t look particularly convenient, but surprisingly everyone else retired early as well and I had a peaceful sleep.

400 km

 

Posted in Lofoten 2017, Motorcycle Trip | 1 Comment

Torneträsk and Over to Norway

2017/07/25 (Tuesday; Vittangi -> Gullesfjordbotn Part 1)

03_P1020845After the cool night the sun came up bright and strong in the morning, and I rose at 5 or 6. The Austrian was up as well, and I went for a run while he got ready to leave. He waved farewell and headed out around when I was having my breakfast after getting back. He was heading down towards Stockholm planning 750 km per day on highways to get back. He’d already had his fun up in Norway, where he’d done both Nordkapp and Lofoten on a 2-week trip.

03_P1020843

My own ride started out in calm windless sunshine and became progressively more amazing as the morning wore on. The road wound up into the hills and then the snow-capped mountains dividing Sweden from Norway. I passed through Kiruna, a mid-sized mining town that is and was one of Sweden’s primary iron mining areas, the other being Gällivare, also in the north. The entire mining operation here was run by LKAB (originally Luossavaara–Kiirunavaara AB), a Swedish government-owned enterprise. Aside from that it was all open mountain land, with sweeping vistas and very few trees. It must be positively arctic here in the winter, but for now it was nearly 70 degrees and sunny with no wind. What a fortunate time to come!

I had been following the Tornio river since early yesterday when I’d crossed near its exit mouth into the Gulf of Bothnia (the northern arm of the Baltic Sea), and now I was coming to its source: the mighty Torneträsk, a lake in the far north of Sweden.  At this relatively early hour I arrived to find its surface was pure glass, a mirror reflecting the green hills and snow-capped peaks surrounding it at various points.

03_P1020846

03_P1020869

03_P1020873

03_P1020867

At one point when I had stopped to gawk and take photographs a couple riding two-up on a mid-sized KTM (600ish) pulled up behind me. It turned out they were Finnish! Although I’d left Finland only yesterday I was still surprised and happy to see them, and we discussed our recent journeys and planned routes for a while before moving on. They were riding ahead of me when we came afterwards to a long stretch of construction where the road was periodically interrupted by rough unpaved sections of a few hundred meters. Their bike had off-road tires and was well-suited for the job, and they took off passing other traffic left and right. Well, my bike shouldn’t be a slouch either, I thought, so I stood up on the pegs and blasted off myself, ending up well-pleased with the way it handled. Despite being a heavy tourer, the first-class suspension really got the job done.

Eventually we exited the construction area and I followed them for a while longer before pulling off at another roadside parking place to snap some photos. There was a small trail leading up the hillside through some scrub birches and a sign with an eye-like symbol on it.

03_P1020878

I assumed this meant there was a viewpoint up there, and, indeed, I could see a falls crashing down some distance above. I went to investigate and after about 5 minutes found myself at a more minor, but still lovely, falls with a bridge over the stream and posted hiking trails leading off in multiple directions.

03_P1020879

I’d already pulled off my jacket but I wasn’t really set up to cover any distance at the moment. I settled for lounging by the stream and even drinking a little of it, so clean and fresh did it look. There were even trail brochures in waterproof boxes, and in them I read that the main trail here was called the “Navvy Road” in English, “Rallarvägen” in Swedish, and was the modern evolution of the supply road that had originally been built to support the railroad built here from 1898 to 1902 to carry the LKAB-mined ore from Kiruna to the port at Narvik. Perhaps someday I could come back here with Päivi and hike it.

(Continued in Part 2)

Posted in Lofoten 2017, Motorcycle Trip | 1 Comment

Across the Tornio

2017/07/24 (Monday; Kokkola -> Vittangi)

The promised rain finally arrived in the middle of the night, and continued for some hours. But at 6 in the morning sun was streaming into my tent, and I couldn’t help but get up, so excited was I to be on the road. It took me some time to have my breakfast, break down the camp, and pack up. I was eventually rolling by 8. This should be getting quicker as I got back into the swing of things.

One thing, among many, that a solo motorcycle trip blesses you with is the opportunity to make decisions. Every day you must decide what direction to go in and how far to go, and the choice you make has a substantial and meaningful outcome on how the trip goes and what you get to experience. The presentation of these choices, and the lack of constraints on making them, is one of the things that contributes most to the overall feeling of freedom you get when you’re on the road. Today was unusually extreme in this respect though, and the choice I was going to make would affect the entire nature of the trip.

02_route_nordkapp

Planned route to Nordkapp

My original plan had been to go to Nordkapp — a place on the northern coast of Norway with the distinction of being the furthest north in Europe you could go by road. It was actually neither the furthest north point of Europe, islands existing further up, nor was it the furthest north point of mainland Europe, because it was actually on an island itself, just one that happened to be reached by a bridge rather than a boat. Somehow the northernmost mainland point never received much attention — there weren’t even any roads to get there — and no one really cared about the islands except a few fisherman and a bunch of birds. At any rate Nordkapp represented a destination that would take me through spectacular terrain and into the realm of the midnight sun. Furthermore my motorcycle itself was called the “Caponord”, Italian for Nordkapp, representing what was doubtless a remote and romantic-sounding destination fit for an adventure-style motorcycle, particularly one made in southern Europe. Indeed, remote and romantic-sounding even to me, who lived already in the far north of the continent.

But on the other hand the weather yesterday had sidetracked me west. I was now much closer to another, even more spectacular destination that I’d long been eying on the map: Lofoten. Lofoten was a sawtooth chain of mountains jutting up out of the water running in a 300-kilometer long arc off Norway’s northwest coast. A road actually went out to nearly the very end, weaving in and out along fjords, bridging across from island to island, and tunneling through solid rock when that was the shortest way to the other side of a mountain. Just looking at the map, it looked like a motorcyclist’s dream. The only reason I’d chosen Nordkapp was that my wife had made it clear she wanted to come visit Lofoten too, so I figured I’d better save it for another time.

But now I was out on the road, and the reality of the here and now trumped all other considerations. I pored over maps, plotting possible routes. I measured stages and counted days. I got on my iPad and studied weather reports, for various points along the road on the various dates I expected to be there. The reports for both areas looked quite good, absolutely rare and incredible for Norway, subject to so much dropping of rainfall from the moist Gulf Stream Atlantic air meeting its high mountains. But while both were good, the ones for Lofoten looked absolutely spectacular. Full sunny days with temperatures reaching up to 24 degrees. Nordkapp, while mostly sunny and absent of rain, was promising only up to the low teens. Furthermore there was rain predicted along my route back from there, while from Lofoten it looked to be smooth sailing all the way home. Not that one could put TOO much stock in forecasts from a week out, but the one for the northwest just looked SO strong and clear that it was clear that the odds were going to be better there.

That stacked up against my wife’s wishes. I knew that regardless of whether I went now, I would be bound to go to Lofoten with her again in the near future, probably before even seeing Nordkapp once. I decided I was willing to accept this, and when I made it clear to her that my going now wouldn’t affect us going in the future one bit, she gave me her blessing as well. And so it was decided. I got on the bike and pointed northwest.

02_route_lofoten

Actual route to Lofoten

The first part of the ride traced along the coast. The promised rain had hit hard and long last night, and it seemed it was still finishing up further north. I rode through a couple of showers, but in each case I was able to see some hint of lightening sky up ahead when the drops started coming down, so I declined to stop and put on my rain gear. My decisions were rewarded, since the rain wasn’t that heavy, and I soon dried on the stretches afterwards.

I stopped in Tornio for lunch and wolfed down a full pizza. I’m not sure why but I got the craving and all the riding seemed to be giving me an appetite. It’s a more physical activity than one might think, just sitting there on the saddle, but in reality you’re needing to provide substantial input to take the bike around curves, and you’re always leaning against the wind. Mentally it consumes energy as well, since you’re needing to maintain a continuous high level of alertness.

02_P1020820After lunch I crossed over the mighty Tornio River on a bridge, and just like that, without even so much as a stop, I was in Sweden. The Scandinavian borders are a wonderful display of what polite neighbors can be like. And yet, despite the lack of formalities, the change in character was swift and thorough. On the Finnish side the country was mainly forest, punctuated by the occasional isolated settlement. You could never see very far in any direction. But on the Swedish side we had open farms and grass fields broken only occasionally by small stands of trees. It was quite refreshing and felt great especially in the afternoon sun being washed by warm winds coming down along the river. The latter was a deep, bright blue under the sunny skies and being chopped up by the wind.

02_P1020826I made smooth progress up along Highway 99 although the speed limit was not that high and the road was rough in places. I stopped a couple of times to relax and get pictures of the river. Many of the place names, I noticed, were Finnish rather than Swedish. For example there were names ending in “-vaara” (hill), “-järvi” (lake), and “-joki” (river), as well as the ubiquitous “-nen”, that made up the ending of some 80% of Finnish surnames. Finally, I came to a small clearing next to the road with a Finnish “kota”, a conical-roofed structure based on the traditional wide-teepee-like tents used by the Sami in Lapland. Two flagpoles stood in the clearing, flying the Swedish and Finnish flags. I made a stop and found that it was possible to spend the night here, though one apparently needed to reserve the shelter with some kind of association. I noted it was NOT in particular a Swedish-Finnish “friendship” association, so the presence of the Finnish flag must have reflected something else.

02_P1020833

(Later on, I read that this whole area had traditionally been Finnish, before Sweden lost the rule of its eastern territory to Russia in the Finnish War of 1808-09 during the time of Napoleon, and the Tornio River was used as the border. Starting around 90 years later the Swedish government began a concerted effort to “Swedishize” the population, outlawing the use of the Finnish language in schools. The campaign, continued in the century since, has been largely effective, but the place names remain.)

My plan was to follow the Tornio when it turned northwest from the Swedish border and camp for the night at Junosuando, where my map showed a campground. Unfortunately when I showed up there the campground appeared to have been closed for many years. I managed to find out from a cottage accomodation proprietor that my options were either to go back 40 km to Pajala, or continue another 55 km to Vittangi. It had been a long day and I wasn’t particular fond of the idea of riding another 55 km, but the way back wasn’t much shorter, and who wants to go back anyway, so I continued. I told myself I’d just find something on the side of the road if Vittangi didn’t pan out.

Fortunately it did, however, and I ended up staying there for free to boot. The manager wasn’t in the locked office, but I found him driving around the grounds in a minivan. We spoke briefly, but when I turned down his offer of a cottage and said I’d prefer to camp in my tent, he simply said, “You are welcome,” and that was the end. He didn’t see fit to charge tents, apparently, though I would have been more than happy to pay if he had asked.

02_P1020839

An Austrian man on a BMW GS rolled in soon after myself. He too spoke with the manager and when he came up to me to say hello afterwards, he reported also that he had not been asked to pay. He was about my age, with a beard and longer hair in a ponytail, and the twinkling eyes that often go along with those. He wasn’t entirely comfortable in English, and my German being nonexistent as it was we did not speak long, but we did manage to trade a few of our stories and plans. He had just come from Norway, where I was heading, and said he’d been to both Nordkapp and Lofoten on a 2-week trip. I tried to ask him how Lofoten was, but he mainly wanted to talk about his whale-watching trip from Andøya there. That was all well and good, but I only had a week and was here to ride motorcycles, not to sit on boats and watch whales which may or may not show up. Tomorrow he’d head south towards Stockholm, and planned 750 km days on “all highways”. This was often the way of it — as I was doing now — to put in big mileage days at the start and end to get to the destination area, and then slow down once there.

At any rate we were here now, and the fact that I hadn’t paid anything wasn’t going to stop me from enjoying a swim in the branch of the Tornio flowing by the campsite, and a shower afterwards. Both of these I proceeded to do, and the swim in particular was quite refreshing. The water was just the right temperature to be bracingly cool when first getting in, but warm enough to stay in for a while without being too warm to refresh. It was a perfect summer temperature for a warm and sunny day.

02_P1020837

I went to bed around 10 as before, and also as before had no trouble getting to sleep. As long as neighbors are not too noisy, sleeping is quite an easy matter when on a motorcycle trip. We’d come up to around three or four hundred meters in elevation, and the temperature dropped a fair amount during the night, down into the 40′s where my sleeping bag was on its borderline (for me, at least). I woke up and pulled on my hat and socks.

02_P1020841

640 km

 

Posted in Lofoten 2017, Motorcycle Trip | Comments Off

Departure: North Norway

01_P1020603

2017/07/23 (Sunday; Espoo -> Kokkola)

[Note, if you just want to see the photos, go here.]

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to get on the road. It’s true, life looks like it’s tougher out there and that can be intimidating. When you’re on the road you’re not only without the comforts of home, but there isn’t even so much as a place you can call your own and occupy freely, at least with any degree of comfort. It can be lonely. And if you’re on a motorcycle, you’re exposed to the mercy of the elements on top of that. Even when you stop at night, if you’re camping you might be dealing with rain, wind, bugs, dirt and grime, you name it. And laboring to prepare meals and clean up with meager equipment. But despite all that actually being on the road is not that bad. You get the hang of it soon enough and don’t really miss as much about home as you thought. You might even say that things take care of themselves out there. But actually getting started, that’s another matter.

It’s not just because you’ve got all this packing and preparation to do, time-consuming and thought-requiring though it is. Nor is it even mostly because you’re going to miss your wife, or your child. It’s because you’ve got to take that step out of all of your habits and routines, and give them up for something else, perhaps something unknown.

Of course, eventually, if you go on the road enough, you’ll find yourself developing a new set of habits there. More likely than not they’re even related in various ways to the ones you have at home. But even so, making that shift, that jump from one set of habits to the other — it’s a hard thing.

Never are you more acutely aware of this fact than when it comes to a spur of the moment trip. Many times, when things are hard at work or tedious at home, we wish nothing else than that we could be going on a vacation. And yet sometimes the tables will turn, and the road can be ready for you and you are not ready for the road.

So it was this time. Work schedules were light in the summer in Finland, and I’d asked for and received permission from my boss to take a week off at some unspecified time during that period to go on a motorcycle camping trip. After having had earlier planned trips end up being in some ways less than enjoyable owing to rain and cold showing up on the appointed dates, I’d decided this time to wait for good weather to come and then pounce on it.

And yet, as it turned out, I’d fallen into the trap of letting other factors determine it anyway. Oh, work was too busy this week, I couldn’t go, oh, my sister and brother in law were coming to visit, and, oh, really what I needed most to feel more relaxed was a weekend at home to catch up on things. All good reasons, but the energy barrier of giving up my accustomed habits was doubtless playing its role behind the scenes and helping me come up with all of these excuses.

Finally I noticed in the weather reports that the weather was looking unusually good for unusually long a period of time for the north Norway region where I was planning to go. At first I was like, oh, let’s see if it lasts as we get closer — thinking it wouldn’t, and so making no moves whatsoever to prepare. But the forecast stayed good, and when even things at work seemed to be clearing up a little I suddenly found myself facing the uncomfortable decision of whether to jump and go now, a week earlier than I’d been subconsciously planning. Because, by the way, the one thing that can really help break out of habit is a plan. Such and such a trip is going to start on such an such a date, and everyone has been told about it and so forth, to the point that it would paradoxically be harder to break the plan than to break the habit!

But now I was contemplating giving up that crutch. At least to an extent. Because the minute I decided to go, I immediately decided to delay the most desirable Saturday departure by one day. I needed the time to get ready. But also I could now have a plan: I will leave this Sunday at such and such a time. But still I’d been hedging my bets, telling people at work I might go or I might not go, and of course this just made it harder to make the final decision. Even my wife wasn’t much help. “You want to go, then go,” she said. Not just “Go,” or even “Don’t go,” either one of which would have been easier.

And so I just put my head down and made my lists, bought my groceries, and started tossing various pieces of camping equipment onto the couch. I’ve done a few motorcycle trips now, and I know roughly what I need. It was only a question of what to put where on this particular bike, which I’d only bought this year. Eventually, at the appointed day and somewhat later than the appointed hour, I was ready. And finally, getting going was one last rubber band to break. My wife almost had to push me out the door. But then I was on the road.

Sunday traffic in July is about as mellow as it gets, and I made good progress northwards. I had had to divert my original plan to go to Oulujärvi because of a huge swath of rain sweeping out from Russia into Finland’s midsection. Instead I’d head up towards the west coast, and stop just short of the advancing front in time to get settled and into my tent by the time it got there. Not that going west did me any particular good given that I was trying to get to Norway’s eastern border (actually slightly east of Finland’s), but at least I’d be getting somewhere.

Kokkola was the destination, coincidentally the place where one of my work colleagues came from originally. Helsinki was a city of internal migrants, and it seemed the rest of the country was rather rapidly emptying out. In today’s day and age there is farmland and major metro area; there’s no socioeconomic place for small or mid-size towns that aren’t close enough to somewhere else to commute to. And Finland, with less than six million people to start with, isn’t able to support that many major metro areas. Helsinki and Tampere were the first tier, and there wasn’t much after that. There were a few areas like Joensuu and Jyväskylä that at least weren’t shrinking, but I wouldn’t want to bet on their fates.

I concentrated on making progress on the ride, selecting the most major highways with only a couple of exceptions that didn’t add much time to the journey. (Adding 5 minutes to a journey of 6 hours might count for google maps, but not for me.) I stopped once for gas and a snack, and maybe once or twice more for a short walk around, and that was it. On a motorcycle you can make some of your own luck, and in this case it worked, as I rolled dryly in to Kokkola just as the clouds were starting to gather more seriously overhead. I checked in to the town’s campground, which was unfortunately situated next to an open paved area by the marina where the town’s youth apparently came to amuse itself noisily every night, but otherwise nice. I had my shower, my dinner, and a relaxing walk past historic red boatsheds before coming to write this account. Old habits of the road, coming to awaken as they were before.

02_P1020802

01_P1020804

01_P1020807

01_P1020810

520 km

 

Posted in Lofoten 2017, Motorcycle Trip | Comments Off

Transition

aPhone_20151030_001

At the end of the last entry we drew an analogy between a Life, as the sum total of a person’s lifetime experiences and interactions with other living beings, and a life, an individual’s experience of conscious awareness during this time. We tried to suggest that not only does a Life continue its existence in some sense after the life has ended, but that this conception might form a basis for imagining afterlife and reincarnation. In this view, the Life itself can have its own conscious awareness, and moreover there is a link between it and that of the life that underlies it. In this and the next part will unpack these ideas a bit further, to try to flesh them out and so bring them a step beyond mere handwaving.

In order to understand how something large and complex like a Life could have consciousness and awareness in the first place, we can examine a few other cases of systems where we can see similar emergent phenomena more simply and clearly. For the first, consider playing a modern computer game in which you control a person moving through a simulated world, firing simulated weapons at simulated enemies. The experience feels “real” enough that we desire to engage in it, playing at “being” in this world. But what does it really consist of? Let us start from (closer to) the bottom.

There are electrical signals moving through circuits inside one or more “chips” inside the computer. These interact with one another according to the laws of physics. Through the techniques of digital circuit engineering, these interactions are equivalent to storing ones and zeroes in various places, and performing mathematical operations such as addition or multiplication on binary numbers represented by these ones and zeroes. Through the design of the system, these operations are equivalent to an agent executing “instructions” on contents held in memory. Engineers refer to these instructions as “machine language” at the operational level, or “assembly language” when written out in text. These instructions are quite elementary, like:

“Retrieve the value from location 453436 and add it to the one at 453437, storing the result in location 986743″

or

“If the value at 986743 is zero, jump to location 23332 and execute the instructions found there”

Again through the design of the system, this execution process is equivalent to higher level instructions expressed in a different language, like:

“Add speed_of_object_1 to -speed_of_object_2,”

or

“If the result is zero, execute the stopped_from_collision routine.”

There are usually one or two higher levels still, and then of course the translation by phosphor array to something we see as moving and interacting characters and world. The point to take home from this is that all of these descriptions are exactly equivalent to one another, each accurately describing sequences of events in the gaming system viewed through some particular lens. There is NO sense in which one is more “correct” than the other. And yet at one level we see moving objects familiar from our own experiences in the real world, and at another level there are electrical impulses (and very many of them) only understandable through complex calculations using the laws of physics.

And a second example, an electronic synthesizer such as used in modern musical performance. Again we have electrical impulses in circuits, but this time they are behaving in a cyclical fashion, turning on and off hundreds or even thousands of times per second. Another circuit amplifies these, and finally a speaker translates them. We hear simply a tone. A tone that will be higher or lower depending on how fast those electrical signals are switching on and off over time, but simply a tone nonetheless. But if we “listened” to that tone with a very sensitive microphone, we could again recover the time extended pattern of offs and ons.

In both of these cases, we see that we can interpret a situation involving many simple “low-level” events (electrical impulses) as one involving fewer rich, complex “high-level” entities. And in fact, we must admit that our own brains constitute a third example. We experience thoughts and awareness, and yet — as we are able to understand it — these are completely equivalent to electrical impulses flowing through millions of nerve fibers and junctions.

It is in this sense that we can see how a Life, made up of innumerable events over the course of a person’s existence at one level, could in theory be seen as a single, infinitely richer entity at a higher level.

* * *

At death, the physical body, including the brain and the mind it supports, ceases to function. But the transition for the Life is far less abrupt. The majority of a person’s influence on others at any given time is not through direct interaction, but rather through the lingering effects of earlier interactions, including indirect ones like books written, music recorded, and so on, on people’s memories and actions. This influence does not end on their death. On the contrary, sometimes it may even increase. The life fades into the background, leaving the space for the previously more subtle Life to come to the fore. It is possible that Awareness may make the jump from the brain, or the life, to the Life.

If this were to happen, then the transition at death is to a higher, slower life form. The primary elements interact more slowly, and themselves contain great richness. It is thus an elevation, aligning with the Buddhist idea of reincarnation to a higher realm, and as well with the Christian idea of heaven. But as we have seen, the richness of a pattern, that is, the amount and detail of its interactions with other patterns, can vary. Could it be that a less-richly interacting pattern in the lower realm corresponds to a simpler life form in the higher? And a more widely-interacting pattern, with its greater overall complexity, to a higher life form? The Buddhists say that some, who have led a life of greatest ignorance, will be reincarnated as lower life forms — such as non-human mammals, reptiles, or even insects — and from there have a much longer road to enlightenment. Because most other life forms interact less richly with each other than humans do, it stands to reason that they have a harder time progressing back up the chain. Whereas a Life that has touched upon many others in significant ways,will continue a rich and complex existence, perhaps taking the form of something akin to a human in the higher realm.

It is interesting to note in this context that the Life of a monk who chooses a life of solitary meditation, interacting only rarely with other human beings, is likely to reincarnate in a lower, simpler life form in this view. But in fact, Tibetan Buddhists see following this path as making an all-out make-or-break attempt at achieving full enlightenment in THIS lifetime. That is, the aim is explicitly NOT to set oneself up for a better reincarnation and another step forward on a longer journey, but to bring the game to its ultimate conclusion right here and now.

One final point. There is nothing in what we have described that precludes the process from occurring multiple times. That is, a Life gives rise to a life in the higher realm, which in turn lives a Life that itself gives rise to yet a higher life, and so on up the line. The Buddhists do speak of multiple reincarnations. But lest we let ourselves get carried away in thinking of this, we must remember that we already have as little conception of the next higher realm as a cell in our own bodies has of the human world. The first higher realm lies already beyond our imagination; we can hardly go further.

Posted in Philosophy | Comments Off

The Eternal

asia_summer_1996_0037

Let us imagine a pool, located underground, in a cave, let us say, where there is no wind. Suppose crumpled pieces of paper are periodically dropped into the pool from above. They are coated with citric acid and baking soda, the stuff that makes alka-selter fizz. When they’re dropped in, they send ripples expanding outwards toward the edges of the pool, where they hit and then get reflected back inward. The water works its way into the folds and triggers the fizzing, which sends the paper ball drifting this way and that as the coating reacts with it. This generates more ripples.

Eventually all of the coating has fizzed away, the paper becomes fully waterlogged, and it sinks down to the bottom. It no longer generates ripples, but the ripples it caused before affected other pieces of paper that are still floating, and thus the ripples they in turn generate as time goes on are therefore indirectly affected by floating existence of this piece of paper.

Now the paper represents a human being, and the time it was floating the span of their life. But I use this analogy to focus on another aspect of the life, which is the ripples. Imagine ALL of the ripples a paper generates in all the time before it sinks, and the evolution of these ripples over time: spreading out, reflecting off the walls, and coming back, interfering with each other and so on. Let us call this sum total of ripples over time a “Pattern”, capitalized to distinguish it from a momentary pattern visible in the pool at any one time.

This latter, momentary pattern results not just from the single crumpled paper, but from the interactions of all its papers in the pool. But a Pattern is the contribution of just one of the papers to that whole, stretching over the entire time it floats on the surface. And analogously we have a Life – not just the time a person was alive or the things they did during that time, but all of the effects that this living and doing had on the entire world over that whole time.

Now we can obviously see that this Life has its existence extending far beyond the life that gave rise to it, perhaps indefinitely. The memories other people have of a person continue to influence their own thoughts and actions, that is, their own Lives. The ripples continuing in the pool after a ball of paper has dropped to the bottom are partly a result of the ripples it made. One could mathematically analyze the continuing ripples as resulting from multiple components, each one a Pattern, ended or currently present. Thus we can see that a Life continues a virtual existence, one that, like a Pattern, actually consists of some set of objective events taking place in the world, inside or outside people’s brains.  After all, activity in the human brain as well is made up of patterns. Patterns of electrico-chemical impulses flitting back and forth, physical events.

We do not know the nature of the relation between these electrico-chemical patterns and the awareness they are associated with. But for the purposes of this analogy we do not need to — it is enough to know that the patterns and the awareness are in some way codependent — when one stops, the other is invariably stopped as well, and it must surely be that their operation is equally bound together. And so then we ask, what of these Patterns we discussed, and ultimately of Lives? Could there be some manner of awareness associated with them?

We are going to examine this question, but to continue following this main line of thought for now, we are going to assume that yes, there is some kind of Awareness associated with a Life, that just as the interplay of inputs, patterns, and countercurrents within a brain “generates” (or, at least, is codependent with) awareness, the interplay of interactions making up a Life and its interaction with other Life generate Awareness. We can only understand a little of the nature of this Awareness, since our own time- and space-localized awareness makes up only the smallest fraction of it. It is in some ways as if our individual cells were attempting to know something, through their highly sensitive but localized chemical perceptions of their environment, of our mental experience.

But we can understand some basics that are in common with both cells and minds — that while the Life is a constant thing by its definition as the sum total of the effects of a person’s life, this is essentially its “birth”, and after that, its nature unfolds over time as it interacts with other Lives and with the physical world (filtered through its affect on the lives of the humans making up the matrix of its existence). It is a realm of existence, therefore, with interactions and a “physical” universe that likely have very different qualities than our own.

But in this realm we can speak of some constant that goes beyond our own individual life. And perhaps there is some way to have a connection, a link between life and Life, and it may be that it is at the time of death that this connection is most closely established. Death, the ending of an awareness, but the completion of the birth of an Awareness. And, if this, could it not be that when a new life is born, for some reason, some chance intersection of coincidences and synergies, that it becomes in some way associated with a pre-existing Life? Far-fetched to be sure. But it is one way to fathom these mysterious ideas of an eternal soul and reincarnation using only (at least a pretense to) objective logic and not metaphysical assumptions or intuitive faith.

Posted in Philosophy | Comments Off