As a kid, I had the wildest sense of imagination. This is according to my oldest friend, who I roamed the woods with on gorgeous summer days. We would disappear between the trees and climb into the branches of the most magnificent, giant magnolia tree I have, to this day, seen in my life. We spent days hidden between its leaves, curled up in our makeshift hammocks we’d braided out of rope taken from her parents’ garage. The summers were passed reading books out loud to each other – of wild women hard to tame, and adventurers braver than the Little Wild Things we were. In the evening, as the sun set, we’d run back to the house, twigs stuck in our hair, pants stained by dirt and mud. It was glorious.
Back in school, the Little Wild Thing in me always wondered if she was truly brave. After all, the dark scared her. The nights were filled with ghosts only she could see. She’d cuddle into her little brother’s bed, feel his little chest rise and fall gently next to her and think of herself as everything but brave. People scared her. She sat in school, too shy to raise her hand to answer a question she was sure she knew the right answer to. She’d cry when she wasn’t picked to do the chemistry experiment in front of the class, because she’d been too scared to ask if she could.
So instead of doing, The Little Wild Thing dreamed. She stared out the window and wondered how brave she would have been in older times. She dreamed that she wouldn’t be quiet and stay at home. She dreamed she’d cut her hair and pretend to be a boy, just so she could become a knight’s apprentice and see the world. She dreamed she’d be a knight herself in those times. She dreamed that no one would ever be able to tame her.
I know she’d be proud of the person she’s become.
(Sorry about the steel steed though, kiddo. I know you would’ve preferred a real horse. And I’m sorry I stayed with him, kiddo. I might be brave, but I guess just like you, I’m still a dreamer.)
There’s eleven of them. Twelve, if I count the one that’s barking. And they’re all watching me.
When I left Korpilombolo this morning, I wouldn’t have thought my day would end like this. Admittedly, there hasn’t been a single day that’s ended how I though it would. I had been packing up my tent when Sven (the actual husband) asked whether I would like some coffee. I do not decline coffee. So I joined Sven, Inge and her brother Roge (who I’d mistaken for the husband the night before) for breakfast. Inge shared her own homemade cinnamon rolls with me, even packing up two for the road.
Roge is the only one comfortable and fluent enough in English to speak with me. He, Inge, another brother and their sister all live in these 5 houses next to each other. Roge still lives in the house they were all born in. “Is this normal?” I ask. “For all the siblings to be so close in a family?” Roge laughs. “No, no! But we like it. We all have saunas, so 5 saunas. And every day in the evening we meet up for a sauna. On Mondays here, in Tuesdays over there, on Wednesdays here again, on Thursdays at my place…. For the entire week!” I ask if they ever left Korpilombolo. “Yes, for studies. But we all came back. This is where all the old people live. This is where we belong now.” He grins.
I tell him about my research on learning and memory. He tells me of a cousin he has. “He remembers everything! 20 summers ago, he came to visit, and he met the neighbors mother. 6 years ago, he’s back, it’s August again, and he knocks on the neighbors door and says: ‘Do you remember me? I spoke with your mother, exactly 14 years ago, to this day!’ And the neighbor doesn’t remember and thinks he’s crazy.” Sven and Inge occasionally laugh when Roge and I do, but never add anything to the conversation. They’re shy about their English. “Yes, I remember, we went to a car museum one day. And my cousin, he was listening to the tour. The guide said: ‘This is a Chevrolet 1956 model, in original condition!’ And he lifts up a finger. ‘Original, you say? That’s impossible! In 1956 this car had leather seats, not rubber ones like here!”
Roge is smiling, staring out the window. The only thing missing from this scene is a lit pipe in his mouth, as the old man tells me the stories of his past.
Eventually, I do have to leave. It’s begun raining. I slip into my rainproof pants and hit the road. “The next 20km are the worst!” Roge assures me. It’s true-ish. There are many hills, but I’ve been in worse roads by now. Also, the rain is making it easier for my bike to speed down the hills. I’m listening to music. I’m singing to the woods. No one cares. After 2 hours of pedaling, I make it to Pajala. I’m craving spaghetti with tomato sauce and head into the closest restaurant that has ‘PASTA’ written on its window front. I order pasta and a Greek salad. “No,” the man replies. “Excuses me?” I ask. “No. It’s too much for you.” I have a look at the menu again. The salad is as expensive as the pasta. “Alright, just pasta then.” “Where are you going?” He asks. “To the Nordkapp!” He’s taken aback. “All alone? But what if you get sick?!” I smile. “People are nice. I’ll be okay.” We chat for a little longer. He’s from the Lebanon, and he hates the winter here. His brothers and cousins live further south. One of them lives in Berlin. “But why did you move here, if you hate it?” He eyes take on a misty quality. “My girlfriend…” He smiles.
I devour the plate of noodles and then ask him if I can nap here. The restaurant is empty, except for the two of us. “Yes! Nap, have coffee, eat, do whatever you want!” I nap. When I wake up, it’s pouring outside. My bike is wet. I get back into my rainproof pants and hit the road. The rain lets off a few kilometers before the Finnish border. I don’t want to leave Sweden, but it seems that Finnland is the way to go.
The sky is grey.
And it’s getting colder. The houses aren’t painted red anymore, and a larger proportion of the houses is built of bricks. There’s barely anyone on the road, except for a mom pushing a pram, and a guy bringing beer bottles back to the store.
The Finnish roads are well made, and I breeze out of Kolari, hoping I might even make it to Muonio tonight. It’s 76km down the road.
The road is long. I’ve listened to the new The National album, had a bit of a cry during the heartbreak songs, sing along, yell at the woods “I LIKE THE WOODS BUT THIS IS A LOT OF WOODS!” and cut the chunks I need to ride in 15km bits. Every time I pass another 15km, I get to play around on my mile counter. It’s almost as good as changing the channel on the radio.
It’s 45km to Muonio, and I’m spent. All of a sudden, my knee is back and it’s screaming for me to stop. I’m just passing through a tiny village, made up of about 10 houses. A group of kids is riding the bikes past me, as I sit on the ground, wondering what to do. Eventually, I get up and follow them. The kids flock all around me on the porch. “Do you speak English?” I ask the oldest girl. She smiles and shakes her head. The rest of the bunch giggles. A boy comes out from inside, about 15 years old, wearing glasses. He speaks English, and asks his father if I may stay in the yard. The father, the only parent it seems, says yes. I ask how many kids they are. “I have 10 siblings!” the boy answers. “OH MY GOD!” I yell in surprise. The young ones burst out in peals of laughter.
I can see them watching me from almost every window of the house as I set my tent. I go back inside to ask for some water. The boy with the glasses lets me in. He’s studying for something. “ETHICS AND MORALITY” Google translate helpfully translates. I ask him a few questions on the topic. The boy with the glasses is visibly nervous, going through his book as if he’s trying to assess how much paper is in the book. I’m 85% sure he has a crush on me. The 15% might just be that I’ve accidentally asked an exam question, and he’s freaking out because he doesn’t know the answer.
I head back into my tent, after playing shortly with the 12th kid – a young dog.
The dog whines and whistles when I leave it. I feel safe sleeping next to this bunch of children.
The day starts off with a jolt. I set an alarm, but overslept. It’s 10am by now. The kids have already left for school. “I might even be seeing them come back, at the rate I’m going,” I think to myself as I gobble down breakfast and take a swig of my cuppa coffee. I pack up my belongings, and head back out on the road. A few kilometers down, it’s noon by now, I see a school bus passing by. The kids wave at me. “I did see them again after all!” I grin. I finally end up in Mounio around 2pm. I’ve gone 50km – and am glad I stopped the night before when I did. There were a few hills in there I wouldn’t have managed in the state I’d been in.
I head for the Swiss Café. My phone had spontaneously died once I passed the city borders. I feed it with electricity and myself with passion fruit cake and meringues. The cafe is filled with random little trinkets, and vests with odd watercolor prints featuring nature scenes drawn on them for just 230€. A coffee refill is only 80ct on the other hand, so I make plenty of use of that option. I ask the (Swiss – surprise!) owner if I can leave my bike with him while I wander off to the store to buy more Adventure Food for the Adventurous Connoisseur (that’ll be me!).
As I leave the city, I see a biker on a rusty steel steed by the road. He’s on the phone, and nods towards me with a smile. A few kilometers down the road, I suddenly hear a voice next to me. A jumble of Finnish words hits my eardrums. “English?” I ask. “Ah! No problem!” It’s the biker with the rusty bike. He’s just traded it off someone for an ‘even shittier women’s bike’, and is going home from school. “I’m learning how to be a nature guide!” His name is Johnny, and he lives 20km down the road. He’s just written an exam on kayaking. “It was so stupid, all about theory. What types of kayaks are there, how do they work, what do you do…” He doesn’t know if he’s passed. “But next week is the practical exam. I have to do 500km with the kayak along the river!” I will later camp by said river. It’s a wild one.
“I’m actually a city boy, from Helsinki,” he tells me. I ask him why he now lives 20km away from the closest village in the woods. “I like nature, and I don’t like city people,” he says matter of factly. I ask him what he likes about the nature. “Ah, you must think I’m crazy. I like the sounds. I like feeling it. I like touching the moss, and the trees.” I smile, because I absolutely get it. “And in the woods, people are different. It’s easier to find people like me and you. In the city, everyone is asleep, even though they’re wide awake. It takes energy to wake them up.” He tells me of the bird exam he had last week. “I had to name 300 birds I’ve never seen!” He laughs. His bike is falling apart as we ride on. His pedals are jamming, and the steady creaking is upsetting him. “I have to fix it,” he says. “That’s the best part!” I reply. He laughs. “Yes, you’re right.” We shake hands on our bikes as he veers off towards his house in the woods. “Goodbye, Nea!” he yells, getting my name wrong in the most charming, Finnish way. .
I head further down the road. It’s late, and I’m hungry. I want to eat some nuts before I head on…..