Hitch-boating in Sweden

I’m sure my mom told me never to hitchhike. Or if she didn’t, I’m sure she meant to or hoped that I would understand that hitchhiking fell squarely under the “don’t talk to strangers” category. Don’t talk to them and certainly don’t ever get in their car.

All of these thoughts passed through my head as I stuck my thumb out for the first time, caution overcome by the reality that we were really freakin’ far from where we needed to be. In an hour. To catch a boat. To an island where our luggage sat waiting in our room for the night.

In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain wrote that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” I sure hoped Twain was right about those “charitable” and “wholesome” men.

That morning, my husband and I had set out on a hike along a section of one of Sweden’s most popular and longest hiking trails, Sörmlandsleden. Marked by orange dots, arrows, and rings, the trail covers 1000 kilometers through woods, bogs, fields, and past lakes and streams. The plan was to do about 15km along the path, ending at the boat launch to Savo Island.

The day began rainy and gray but the lush green landscape and blueberry-lined path helped to make up for the extreme sogginess I felt from the waist down. We soon learned we weren’t alone on the path – swarms of mosquitoes trailed behind us, a mass of swirling insects whining in our ears and landing swiftly on any exposed skin if we paused for even a second. So we kept moving, enjoying as much as we could but also hoping to conserve our blood.

But somewhere along the line we got lost, though we didn’t know it for several hours. About halfway to the pier, we reached a beach and a signpost for the Sörmlandsleden pointing both straight toward what looked to be a shelter and to the left and a hill. We chose left.

We chose wrong.

Hours later, hungry and wet, we stumbled out of the woods and on to a driveway that led to a road.  That’s when we realized that we had made a mistake. Instead of a straight line toward the pier, we’d made a huge oval, ending up on the busy road a few kilometers north of where we started and about 20 kilometers from the pier. I called our hostel to explain the situation. The owner told me to call her when we got to the pier and she would send over their boat to get us.

Unsure what to do or how else to get there, our thumbs went out. My husband had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail a few years back, where hitchhiking is as much a part of the experience as hiking. I was the novice. The guidebook had warned that Swedes won’t stop but I hoped they were wrong: that the warning came on the advice of the publishers’ lawyers rather than any statement of fact.

The first car to stop was a Prius driven by a man who spoke no English. After a confusing series of gestures and jabs at our topographical map (completely unhelpful for roads), he drove us a few kilometers to his driveway before pulling over and staring at us. We took that as our cue to get out.

Feeling confident by our initial success, I stuck out my thumb with a bit more conviction.  We walked along a bit further until a red station wagon driven by a man from Stockholm en route to his summer cabin pulled over. He spoke perfect English and lived only 3 kilometers from the pier. We chatted the whole way to his place, grateful for the kindness of strangers and the Swedish penchant for summer cabins.

Only a few kilometers from the pier now, we walked along the road, hoping for another ride but knowing it wasn’t too far now, that we would make it. We debated the finer points of hitchhiking as we walked. Nice cars won’t stop, my husband said, only crappy cars overloaded with clothes and bags and other junk. He also said that my presence made it more likely for someone to stop. Strangers will pick up women (a thought for another day) but rarely lone men.

A shiny red BMW rounded the corner and I barely put my thumb out, sure it would pass us by and probably so close that I’d have to jump onto the grass. But instead it stopped. Inside was an older man wearing hip waders and holding a basket of foraged mushrooms. We told him where we going and he nodded and waved us in with a “I’ll take you.”

Arriving at the pier, we got out and thanked him for the ride. He shook his head and said, “no, I’ll take you.”

He pointed us to a motor boat tied up on the pier. We climbed in and he took to the controls. We soon learned that he lived on the island with his wife. When I asked him how many people lived there, he said that year ’round it was only two, he and his wife. Then he said, “I own the island.”

I caught my husband’s eye. “Oh my god, can this even be happening?” my face said. He only smiled and we sat and watched the island come closer in to view.

“I take you to my house. To meet my wife,” he said. Unsure what to say, we nodded and waited until he pulled up to the dock. We climbed out and followed him up the grass toward the house. “She will be surprised,” he said. A second later, “but maybe not so surprised.” He laughed and I laughed too, wondering if he does this often, picking up lost Americans by the side of the road.

He knocked on the window of the kitchen and his wife came to the door. He said something to her in Swedish and then “I found them by the road.” She smiled, looked slightly confused, and said “hello.” We thanked her and thanked him again. He turned and directed us down the path and through the woods to the hostel.

“Have a good time,” he said and turned to head back down the path to his house.

Ten Years On

Ten years ago yesterday, I packed up my car and moved 2,000 miles away from my home state. I was off to grad school in a new state, knowing no one, and not really quite sure what I was going to do in grad school but it seemed like the right thing to do. I liked to read and to write and to think about the past – what more did I need?

Wisconsin wasn’t a complete unknown. My parents grew up in Illinois, and like all good Illinois residents, they often spent their summers in Wisconsin. Even after they moved far away, to a town just outside Seattle, Wisconsin remained a summertime destination.

As a kid, my Wisconsin was rolling hills, fireflies, farm fields, blaring tornado sirens (though I had no idea what they were – being bookish, I liked to imagine it was an air raid and that we would soon need to darken the windows with our blackout curtains), and lightning that cut across the sky in an angry gash. My Wisconsin was Wisconsin Dells, Taliesin, House on the Rock, Lake Geneva, and the truly bizarre Don Q Inn. It was water towers with town names painted on the sides as though they were staking a claim to a piece of land and proclaiming it to all the surrounding fields and towns. And it was unlike anything I knew back home.

And while I came from a place rich in natural beauty – Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, towering evergreens – it was this more humble Wisconsin landscape that few would call magnificent that grabbed me and never let go.

Perhaps that’s why I now call Wisconsin home.

Home is a funny word, though. What does it mean and how do we know when we’ve found it? Is it the place where we grew up or the place we find ourselves as adults? Is it people or place or something else completely?

A Wisconsinite now for ten years, I still startle slightly to hear people refer to me as a “Wisconsinite” or a “Madisonian.” I’ll still tell people I’m not originally from here but at ten years and a third of my life spent here, what does that even mean and why does it matter?

I’ve heard people say that home is “wherever [insert loved one] is,” which sounds lovely and true. And while I don’t doubt their sincerity, I can’t help but want to shout “but place also matters!” Or at least it does to me, to my definition of home.

Everything I do and can do is a product of this place and its past. Everyone who lives here is a beneficiary of its people, traditions, and landscapes – all the elements that make a dot on a map a real place. Reading and writing Wisconsin’s history has taught me about Wisconsin but also about myself. And it’s helped me to feel at home here even if I’m not yet ready to call this place “home.”

That’s something I’m still working out.

Undiscovered Iceland

Looking down on the statue of Leif and Rekjavik

It seems that everyone wants to go to Iceland. Or maybe it only seems that way because I just returned from there. When I tell people we’ve just been to Sweden, Norway, and Iceland, the most common response has been, “I’ve always wanted to go to Iceland! What’s it like?” Forget those other two. The Iceland Tourism Board should be thrilled by this news.

What’s so intriguing about Iceland? The somewhat forbidding name (Norwegian Viking Floki Vigerdason named the island – some say it was to discourage enemies from settling there but more likely, he named it after traveling to the northern part of the island where he saw… ice)? It’s location? Having now spent a few days there, I feel hard-pressed to tell you what isn’t intriguing about Iceland. The light is spectacular. The landscape is both dramatic and stark with its volcanoes, glaciers, mountains, waterfalls, and thermal pools. The ground literally smokes. The capital city is modern, literary, friendly, and brightly colored.

And the history, oh the history. Nothing warms my little historical heart like seeing a statue of Leifur “the Lucky” Eiriksson outside the Rekjavik cathedral, the true European discoverer of North America, don’t you know. Not to mention a trip to the Þingvellir, where the Icelandic parliament formed in 930 (no, I didn’t forget a 1) and continued to meet until 1798. A pretty incredible history for a pretty incredible place.

Þingvellir, home to the Icelandic parliament. It’s also where the North American and Eur-Asian plates are splitting apart – visible plate tectonics.