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2 – Outside The Comfort Zone

I’m stuck in an elevator. The door won’t open, my bike seems to be jamming the doors from gliding open so I, and this rather large, blonde (surprise!) Swedish woman can exit. She points excitedly at the ceiling. I am assuming she wants me to lift my bike. I take off the bags, and shove the front tire heavenwards. It works. We leave the elevator – she nearly runs off with my helmet. I don’t blame her. It was a mildly panicky moment. I guess right after escalators, elevators don’t like  me either.

This morning started early, or at least, the sun came out early. I crawled out of bed at 7.44am. The tent is dripping water – on the inside. Seems I didn’t set it tight enough, so the ventilation system didn’t work and now my sleeping bag is covered in droplets of water from my own breath. Postponing breathing till the next morning unfortunately won’t be an option for the next night. I put my sleeping bag in the lazy rays of the morning sun to dry. She does a good job, while I fumble away at my breakfast prep. I make porridge with honey and a coffee, which I feed to my aluminum steed. I giggle at my own joke, disappointed that no one’s around to see how funny I am.

As I get ready to leave, I realize I’ve completely run dry. My 3L water bag is as empty as I’m tired. There’s half a litre left, which I hope will carry me all the way to Häsleholm. After 1.5km, I see a cabin in the woods. An elderly couple is out in the yard. I ask them for water, and they happily give me a full 3L bag back. “Where are you going?” – “To the Nordkapp!” The man translates for his wife. “Are you alone?” She asks, via him. “Yes… It’s a little scary, but people are nice.” – “Yes,” he replies. “We Swedes are very nice.” I thank them and ride on.

The country roads are much easier to ride on than the highways. I’m grateful for the solitude on the road. I ride by a house with a red training bike in the living room, facing the woods. I smile. They could just take their bike out!

A few kilometers down, I ride past a lake. First, I like it. Then, they start pelting me: clouds and clouds of insects living by the lakeside. They make little “pop” sounds as they hit my jacket. I get a mouthful of a few of them. I no longer like the lakeside.

By the time I make it to Häsleholm, I have a few dead bugs on my jacket, and am pretty sure a few live ones are climbing all over my head and hair. I ride to the train station. I went back and forth on how “clean” I want this roadtrip to be. A friend sent me a voice message this morning: “I know you don’t know why you’re doing this, but it feels to me that the trip itself seems to be at the heart of it. Take the train if you’re tired.” The Swedes don’t like bikes on trains – but I find one heading to Växjö that will carry me over the next 100km. I ask my bike. Bike doesn’t answer. Guess that’s a yes. That’s when the elevator doors shut and refuse to open on me, as if the gods of biking can feel my resolve breaking, the. The ticket machine is (surprisingly) refusing my credit card. Even more surprisingly, it takes my EC card (which I had not yet unlocked for Sweden). I ask the train personal whether I bought the correct 245kr ticket. “Probably.” Their enthusiasm blows me off my feet. Eventually one of them does check their phone. The 14.17 o’clock train to Växjö takes on bikes. I charge myself on carrots and peanut butter, and my solar panel on sunshine as I wait.

I meet a woman on the train. First, we speak in Swedish/hand-and-feet, till I finally have to admit that I speak English. She then asks “Wait, do you speak German?” I nod. “I’m from Austria!” she says, in a thick Austrian accent. She moved to Sweden with a Hungarian boy she met in her father’s factory in 1958. She’s 8o years old now. Her son, and two daughters are on a good way to 60. She’s visiting her son, he was hit by a bus just a few months ago. After making good recovery, he suddenly had an epileptic seizure. That was last week. “He’s doing okay, he’s with us, but sometimes his memory…” He was crying on the phone today. “So I’m going to see him for a surprise visit, cheer him up, you know?” .

I tell her about my trip. “You should ask the Swedes to let you stay in their yard! They’re such nice people. We all used to keep our doors unlocked for each other, in case anyone ever needed something in an emergency.” She leans in, conspiratorially, and whispers: “We don’t do that anymore. There are a lot of new people in the country, and they’re not … They went through a lot. The war, you know.” Then, she gives me an orange. She touches my cheek as she leaves the train. “You’re a brave one, aren’t you. I can see it in your eyes, you’re the type that just Has To Go. Don’t worry. You’ll make it there.” She gives me her number, and waits on the platform for the train to leave. She waves good-bye as I head on.

I cuddle into my sleeping bag in the woodworking shed in Hanna’s and Matthies’ backyard. The fan is blowing warm air on my sore back. The light gives off a warm soft glow, and I can see the lights of their kids’ bedroom through the shed windows. A part of me whispers: “Can we never leave?”


A few hours before, I was so tired and unmotivated that I absolutely had to call my brother. While I got lost on my bike, found the right turn, and then made my way from Nässjö into the woods, we chatted about life, his weekend (which sounded so relaxing to my ears, filled with sleeping in and pancakes and theater and boulder shoe shopping) endurance sports (guys: check out “Sweat Science” by the Outside podcast!) and the Key Question: Why am I doing this? We were getting somewhere in regard to an answer when my phone suddenly died. It doesn’t like cold temperatures, and it had dropped down to 10°C as we had been speaking. It had started to rain. My fingers were red from the cold, and my shoes were starting to get wet. And now, my map had also died, along with my phone. Cue *inner screaming*.

I look around me. I’m next to the last house of the tiny village I had just passed through. I could see children’s toys in the backyard. “Should be safe to knock…” I think, and do. A man in his PJs opens the door. Rarely have I ever seen this beautiful of a combination of befuddled, amused and irritated on someone’s face. I launch straight into it, not even mentioning my name: “I have a weird question: Can I pitch my tent in your backyard?” He smiles, confused. “Hanna!” He yells into the house. Hanna joins us. They throw Swedish words back and forth. In the end, she says:”Yes, of course!” She offers water to me from a spout. I’m happy as a wet clam. “Thank you so much! I’m Bot, by the way, and I’m going to the Nordkapp!”

As I pitch my tent, Matthies brings me a cable which spans from the shed to my tent for my phone. “So you can charge!” I thank him, infinitely grateful. Hanna comes over, too. “Would you like to use our toilet?” Yes, please! Hanna comes back with a key a few moments later.

“We have a shed you can stay in. We can heat it up, it’s normally for Matthies’ carpentry work, but you can use it. Also, if you want to go to the bathroom and shower, you can!” My voice actually squeaks out of sheer happiness. “Thank you so much!”

I begin cooking dinner when she crawls into my tent. Hanna looks at me, smiling. “So, this is a big adventure?” I nod. “So…. Why are you doing it?” I’m silent for a moment. Finally, an answer. “He left me.”

The first time you tell me, my body starts shaking. Quivering like a leaf, I get up, walk to the bathroom and nearly throw up, but I can’t. I walk back to you. “What was it like?” I ask. You show me. Your lips flutter gently on mine, as lightly as if caressing a small bird in the palm of your hand.

The second time my body still shakes. Breathing is hard. There’s not enough air in the world to keep my senses afloat. My skin tingles. I can’t feel my hands. “What was it like?” I ask again. “Did it at least feel good?” You shake his head thoughtfully. “Not really. It was actually quite awkward. She didn’t seem to feel comfortable in her own skin.” I don’t know if you’re lying to make me feel better.

The third time I simply hang my head, get up from your lap and leave the room. My body no longer shakes. I want to cry, but can’t tap into those emotions anymore. It’s been too much over the past one and a half years. “Why do you keep doing this to me?” I ask. You have no answer and just fold your arms around me. Your once heartwarming hugs feel cold and mechanic. “I’m really leaving this time,” you say. I hide your shoes while you’re in the bathroom. “Are you going to give them back to me?” You’re smiling, in spite of the situation. I manage a grin. “You can beg, but I won’t give them to you. If you really want to leave, you’re going to have to walk home in your socks.” You rummage around the apartment for a while, looking for them. Finally, you open the door. “I love you,” I say, one last time. Silence. “I love you, too.” One last kiss before you finally leave. Then you head down the stairs in your socks.

I close the door and turn the key in the lock.

Twice.

Hanna is silent for a while. Then she nods. “I understand. I’ve been left, too.”

The shower is amazing, and there’s even a hairbrush of one of the kids lying around I quickly use to brush my hair for the first time in 4 days. I miss my comb. As I pass the living room, Matthies asks how the shower was. “An absolute delight.” We chat for a while. He wants to go on an adventure, too, maybe take his 15 year old son with him. They have 4 kids in total, 3 from previous marriages, and one is their shared daughter. The kids’ pictures dot the living room walls. I tell them about the time I hiked up the Teyde, the highest mountain in Spain. “That’s where we got engaged!” Hanna exclaims excitedly. As I head out for the night, their cat Elsa rubs against my leg and purrs.

“You’re really brave,” Matthies says. “I think I’m really stupid,” I reply, laughing.

As I get ready to leave their shed, I take much longer than necessary. I don’t want to go. This place feels safe. But as the Woman on the Train said, I have to. I can feel it. And yes, I’m scared. “Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared,” a little voice says inside my head. I agree – and am convinced that I’ve definitely read too many calendar quotes.