She calls over to me in Swedish, waving, big smile. I’m standing by the side of the road, staring at my phone. Once more, I’ve taken taken the wrong turn, and am trying to find out whether to go back, or whether there’s an alternative route. I’m going to add 500km to the end result of this trip, judging by how often I’ve already had to do this.
She’s clad in super cyclical looking sports gear. Her bike is a white racing bike. She asks me where I’m from, and where I’m headed. I tell her “Berlin, heading to the Nordkapp!” She gasps a little, her face lighting up. “That’s amazing! I want to know all about it!” So we decide to head to Aneby together. She shows me a Viking burial site on our way there. “I was here once in the evening, it was really spooky.” The big rocks are covered in lichen and moss. I stand in the center of a circle of large rocks. Together we wonder what makes people commit to the creation of these sites with such dedication.
As we ride on, she asks about my diet. “Oatmeal with milk powder and honey for breakfast, differing lunch “snacks” (mostly involving peanut butter), and the weirdest dinner imaginable: red lentils with milk powder, butter and cheese. It’s actually not that bad!” She laughs. “You could make that a trademark dinner!” I can see it already – a patent for millentils (milk+lentils). The food of the Cykel-crazy Millennial!
Her name is Johanna. She’s gone on a crazy endurance trip herself: a hike through Sweden, I believe 1300km, which took her 8 weeks to complete. She trains for triathlons, and has a young daughter at home. She used to live on a farm, and for a few months, had to ride her bike to the store, 15km away, for groceries every day. She offers to buy me lunch (which I gratefully accept) and we head to a Thai place in Aneby. We spend the next 2 hours chatting about my work on memory and the brain, the Swedish culture (the anti-vax movement has a different slogan here: “Vaccines cause narcolepsy!”), love and relationships.
We also talk about why I’m on this tour. “I don’t know why I’m doing this,” I say for the hundredth time since I’ve gotten off the ferry. She smiles that beautiful optimistic smile I want to just pack up and take along. “Because you can!”
We hug at the little Stalpet waterfall at the edge of Aneby. She has to get home quickly, her daughter will be coming back home from school soon. After she leaves, I take a short look at the waterfall. A butterfly lands next to my hand.
I don’t know why I choose this place. I think it’s the beautiful Cadillacs in the backyard against the backdrop of a yellow shed. I see orchids in the windows. The doorbell almost makes it through the entire song of London Bridge (at least, I think that’s the song it is) when he opens the door. I can’t help but notice his lazy eye. It’s the right one. “Yes?” he says. “Hi! Do you speak English?” A little, he replies. I ask him if I can pitch my tent in the backyard. He waves his girlfriend/wife Annika to the door. She has a bright laugh. “Yes, or course! Do you need to use the restroom?” .
Before I know it, I’m sitting in their kitchen. The house smells of pleasantly of flower-scented smoke. Annika put out some cheese, bread, marmelade and ham for me for dinner. “You can’t sleep outside, it’s much too cold!” As I’m writing this, I am sitting on the couch she prepared for me to sleep on. I am a walking talking happy smile. “Tack, tack, tack!” Thank you, thank you, thank you. Jürgen offers me a beer, and for once, I don’t turn it down – too many good electrolytes to miss.
Annika has three sons. One of them lives in Canada, and another is a stunning near 2 meters tall! “Jürgen doesn’t have children,” she tells me. “He has cars! Four of them!” – “And two motorcycles,” he pitches in. “And a crazy woman,” he says with a grin. His eyes twinkle playfully.
We chat for a while, sitting next to the fume hood in their kitchen. The smoke from their cigarettes trails lazily into the air. “We smoke too much,” they both agree. How many a day? “About a packet,” Jürgen replies. I tell them about how I used to study diabetes in Australia, and about the Cartwheeling Escalator Incident. Annika tells me of her work as a carer for a disabled family. She can sleep in tomorrow, and asks what I would like for breakfast. “I like Müsli!” I say. Jürgen chuckles. “That’s horse candy. Just the right thing for my horse.” He gestures towards Annika. She flexes her biceps cheekily in response. I like these two.
Emil is inspecting my bags when I get upstairs to the couch. He’s a gorgeous 6-month old, grey cat. He sniffs at each bag separately and the decides it’s not worth his time to play with. I can hear the sounds of the occasional car passing by as my eyes droop. I’m going to sleep well today.
I’m close to tears. The pain in my left knee is still manageable, but I want to give up. It’s 80km to Örebro, and if I want to have any chance at getting some sweet, sweet Supplement T(rain), then I MUST make it there. I’m behind schedule by 2 days already. The cyclist I modeled my trip on was a frigging BEAST. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite so starkly aware of that fact as I am now, in this moment, wishing very much to be either A) a fit, trained long-distance cyclist, not some Biking Gumby on Two Wheels or B) Not Here. Unfortunately, I am neither. “Come on!” I tell myself. “Just 13km to Gördegard and then you can rest, and maybe sit in a café and laugh about this.” The pain in my knee is getting worse with every step.
It’s not as if I hadn’t tried to take it slowly today. I biked to Motala (30km). I made agonizingly slow progress, even though the roads were good, the wind minimal and the sun and birds and bees all cheering me on. I put it down to the two kitties I had woken up with – one, purring, and very close to my face, and the other angrily hacking away at the inside of my brain. That one beer had actually managed to give me a hangover. “Damn those electrolytes!” I thought. Annika was already out and about, enjoying a beautiful morning in her white slippers and bathgown. She asked me if it had been too hot in the room for me. “Definitely not, this was just right!” I answer. I’m going to hate the cold of the North.
I had horse candy (Müsli) and bread for breakfast. Annika asked me if I wanted oil to drink again, as I had last night. I once read about some guy who ran along the length of the Appalachian trail, and I’d thought “What works for him will work for me.” So much to Annika and Jürgens amusement, I’d tried a shot of oil the night before. I cannot recommend.
I took a picture of her in her bathgown in front of the yellow shed, and the Oldtimers. “Oh, people will laugh at the crazy Swedes when they see that picture!”
I give her a little origami crane before I head off. She waves goodbye, and I peel away from the driveway, heading north.
I reach Motala with only a shred of my mental strength intact. The words “QUIT” keep ricocheting in my head. The only thing that keeps me going is reason. “If you go back now, you have to cycle 600km back. If you stop, you’re stuck. Keep going.” I head straight to the train station. I need Supplement T, desperately. I walk into the train station – there’s no one at the Resecentrum. The machine won’t speak to me. I don’t know what to do about my bike. The lady at the kiosk doesn’t speak English in a proficient enough way to help me. Exhausted, frustrated, and tired, I walk back out. “Perhaps I can get some Vitamin PWC (people with cars) to make it to Örebro,” I think. My hitchhiking endeavors steal an hour of my time, and give me: nothing. Every single driver driving past me gives me a strange look, and no one stops to help me. I sigh, and get on the road.
There are not enough words in the English language to describe the terror of riding your bike on a highway. It is legal to do so on this stretch of the road, but the cars show No Mercy. The trucks blast past me at 100km/h. I have to tense up my entire body for when the wind catches me and starts shaking my bike around. This. Is. Awful. I gasp with relief when I reach the little road into the woods. The highway might’ve been the road The Beast Cyclist took, but I am no beast. I’m tired and scared. I head off into the woods.
Fast-forward 10km. I’m close to tears. The pain in my left knee is still manageable, but I want to give up. Cars are still passing me by, I’ve given up signaling for help with an outstretched thumb. I keep pedaling. Even my favorite podcasts aren’t helping me distract from the agony of having to go on, when you just can’t feel it in your mind anymore. I hear another car coming. For some reason, I stick my thumb out again, not expecting anything to happen.