Searching for the Meaning of Travel at 11 Miles an Hour
A tale about two-wheeled island hopping in the midnight sun
Several years ago in a conversation, a friend said something along these lines: it’s funny that in the United States we don’t think you’re worldly unless you’ve traveled a bit and have a passport, but often when we travel, we go halfway around the world to out-of-the-way places and meet people who have never left those places, and we come back and tell stories about those interesting people who have stayed in one place their entire lives. But if they lived just down the road from us, would we think they were interesting at all?
I grew up in a small town in the middle of America, and sometimes when I travel to small towns in other places that feel exotic to me, I catch myself thinking, This is a great place. I wonder if I could live here? And then I wonder if the people who live there think their little town is as amazing as I do, or if they wish their town had a movie theater or more things going on, like I did when I was growing up. Maybe both.
Hilary, my wife, and I walked our bikes into downtown Svolvaer, Norway, in the late evening, looking for a spot to sit down and eat “lunch” out of our panniers before riding another 15 miles to the village of Henningsvaer. Svolvaer, population 4,700, is a small town similar in size to my 3,000-person hometown, but it’s backed on one side by 2,000-foot rocky peaks dropping straight into the ocean and on the other by the open waters of the Vestfjorden, separating Norway’s Lofoten archipelago from the mainland by a two-hour ferry ride. Around 200,000 visitors pass through this town each year, including Hilary and me on day five of our bike tour, having pedaled just over 180 miles in between three boat rides from one island to the next.
We chatted briefly with Ulke, a man we met, about where we’d camp for the night, as he was also looking for a spot. Ulke was hitchhiking his way through Lofoten on his way to Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, having left Turkey, almost 3,000 miles away, a month and a half ago. He mentioned a place near town, but we said we’d planned to ride a bit more south and then find a spot. As he walked off, I was a bit in awe of his adventure, and smiled that we had crossed paths with him on our own, much smaller-scale trip—just 300 miles across eight islands. I mean, Ulke’s trip was not a vacation—it was a journey. The type of thing you quit your job to do, move out of your house, maybe never come back.
As we rolled our bikes up to a picnic table, a Norweigian couple asked us where we were headed on our bikes and where we were from. I told them we were from the U.S., and the woman replied, “Kardashians. That is all we know about the United States,” and we all laughed. I commented how beautiful Svolvaer was, and she said she had grown up there but had been living in Oslo for almost 40 years. We chatted a bit more, then sat down to eat, and then pedaled south.
The sun hung low in the sky as we wound our way down the E10 and then a smaller road toward the village of Henningsvaer, where we’d spend the night. We hadn’t been in much of a hurry most of the trip, because it was June, and at this latitude, eight degrees above the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn’t set between May 25 and July 19. We had no real reason to stick to a schedule, aside from riding through towns when the grocery stores were open. We hadn’t been to bed before midnight since the trip started, and on day two, we’d slept off our jet lag from 12:40 A.M. until 1:40 P.M. On day three, as we sat and ate lunch at a table outside a convenience store in a small town, I commented on how quiet the little town was, then laughed as I looked at my watch to notice it was almost 10 P.M.
If you catch a few days of sunny weather while traveling here during this part of the year, the result is the longest golden hour you might ever see, unless of course you live here, or in Alaska, or somewhere else in the high northern latitudes. You look at the horizon and your brain thinks it’s seeing a sunset, and the deep amber and orange light just stays that way for hours. Normally if I witnessed a lovely sunset while camping, I’d rush to grab my camera or phone and snap a photo of it. That evening, while I was cooking dinner near Henningsvaer, I looked over the calm water to the glowing rocky peak of Sørfjellet and felt that same pang of urgency, but then I remembered, No hurry—just take a photo in the next hour or so.
We had planned our trip to give us plenty of time to hang out, shoot photos, explore a little bit, drink coffee in cafés, and in general not be in a hurry. Three hundred miles over ten days equaled 30 miles per day. I had found someone’s route starting in Tromsø and ending in the village of Å, and it looked perfect. Fly into Tromsø, rent touring bikes, ride to Å, jump on the ferry to Bodø, fly back to Tromsø, and then head home. If you mention Norway in a traveling context, the first thing people will usually say is, “Isn’t it expensive there?” And yes, it is, but it’s also in a country where you can camp anywhere because of something called allemannsretten, which means “all man’s right,” so any place you like can be a campsite as long as it’s about 500 feet from the nearest building. It’s kind of a dirtbag touring cyclist’s dream.
Many of the islands are connected by bridges or tunnels, but those that aren’t require a ferry to get across. Our second ferry of the trip, from Gryllefjord to Andenes, took us across open sea and was the first time I’d ever seen motion-sickness bags hanging on the walls. We strapped our bikes securely in the vehicle hold downstairs, then sat at a booth in the bistro and watched chairs slide back and forth across the deck and people stagger back and forth from the snack bar as the ship pitched and rolled. I ate a waffle, drank a cup of coffee, and then put my head down on the table and passed out for half an hour—the jet lag was finally catching up with me.
Almost everyone on the ferry was local, and when they got into their cars when the ferry docked at 8:45 P.M., we headed down to find our bikes and wait our turn to disembark. When all the cars had driven off the boat and onto shore, we pedaled out, a little surprised to note that eight other touring cyclists had been on the ferry. The door opened facing almost due west, and as we rode out to see the cluster of buildings in Andenes and the jagged peaks behind it, the sun washed everything a golden orange. We rolled off the boat and onto land, pedaling on a narrow asphalt road into town, the whole thing feeling like we were at the edge of the world. Of course, to most of the people on the ferry, it was just part of another day of heading back and forth between home and work, or home and some errands. Our adventure was someone else’s commute. We ended up camping about 100 feet off the road south of town that night, cliffs dropping down to the Norwegian Sea on the other side of the road, and a moose strolled through our campsite as we cooked dinner at 11 P.M., the golden hour still hanging on.
There’s a quote from Andy Warhol’s book America that I think about a lot when I think about living somewhere else or being somewhere else:
“Everybody has their own America, and then they have pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there but they can’t see…. So the fantasy corners of America … you’ve pieced them together from scenes in movies and music and lines from books. And you live in your dream America that you’ve custom-made from art and schmaltz and emotions just as much as you live in your real one.”
That passage can have many different meanings, depending on when you read it, and Warhol’s 1980s America is of course far different than the one we live in now. But when I first read it, what struck me was the idea that I could only live in one place at a time—no matter how much I fantasized about other places and what it would be like to stay there for a month or a year. And as I’ve made my way through the middle part of life, I’ve started to understand that I was never going to live in, say, New York in my late twenties or early thirties. And I was probably never going to live in a lot of places for that matter. But I could travel, and see places, and try to experience a little bit of them for a few hours or days, and know a little bit more about the world because I’d been there and talked to a few people, and navigated a city, and ordered coffee, and maybe haggled with a cab driver.
I don’t know why we travel, just that we’re lucky to be able to do it at all, if and when we can. I can’t say, “I love New York” or “I love the Lofoten islands” like the people who call those places home and do so because they were born there or because they chose to move there. I don’t know exactly how to communicate my feeling for the places I’ve been, but it’s something like this: I’ve been there, count myself lucky to have gotten to experience it in a small way, and even though I’m not there right now, it makes me happy that it’s still out there happening right now, without me. I got to dip in, have the time of my life there, and dip back out, and life kept going on as it was before I arrived, probably changed not at all by my brief presence there.
Bike travel, I think, makes the world feel bigger, because its slower pace forces you to pay attention. A town that’s half an hour away by car or bus can be half a day away via bicycle—both in our backyards as well as places halfway around the world. Biking to the next town over wakes you up to things you’ve missed while flying by at 35 or 65 miles an hour dozens of times, and the process of exploring your home territory can make the whole place feel bigger. Which is travel, too. But when we’re close to home, we usually have our travel brain turned off, and we’re less open to discovery and wonder. And maybe that’s why we feel bored with where we live, even though it’s probably more interesting than we give it credit for. I think part of what my friend was saying, when he was talking about us traveling the world to find people who stay in one out-of-the-way place their whole lives, is that you don’t necessarily have to travel the world to be worldly.
If you timed it right, you could almost get through our entire ten-day, 300-mile Norway bike trip in a single day by driving a car on the exact same route. But experiencing it at 11 miles per hour over a week and a half means more images have stuck with me for years afterward:
Looking back at Hilary pedaling an all-but-deserted road one late evening, dodging not cars but sheep, wearing Gore-Tex mitts over her cycling gloves. Riding through a dark mountain tunnel under construction, water dripping everywhere, no lights inside, hoping no cars came through. Sitting atop Reinebringen, after a steep hike to the peak, where the clouds parted for a few minutes so we could see the mountain-ringed inlet and the town 2,000 feet below. Lying in the tent scratching the dozens of welts on my legs from some sort of insects that bit me while I was cooking dinner, when Hilary asked, “Do you want to put on some pants?” to which I replied, “Nah, I think they’re just gnats or something.” Trying to sleep on the popular Kvalvika Beach after watching the sun “set” sideways at midnight, only to be awoken by dozens of sheep bleating through the night as they grazed around us, keeping the grass as trimmed as a golf-course green. Jumping into the freezing surf for four seconds just so we could say we swam in the Arctic Ocean, and then wondering if it was technically just the Norwegian Sea or if the Norwegian Sea was considered part of the Arctic Ocean. Looking to the west and remembering that over the next ridge, there was nothing but open ocean for 1,500 miles to Greenland. Watching a man drop a 100 Norwegian krone bill out the window of a pizza restaurant in Bodø to a street musician who had just packed up his steel drums to leave for the night after playing for a couple hours in the plaza below.
On our third-to-last day, we stopped at a small tourist shop in Ramberg for coffee and waffles, and chatted with the man tending the register, Henrik, who had been born in the house across the street in 1943 when it was full of German troops during World War II. His mother had fed some of the 500 Russian prisoners in the town and so was taken away by the gestapo. She was supposed to be sent to Auschwitz but was not. Henrik had become a driftwood artist, and his eyesight had been fading the past few years. He came out of the shop and sat at our table to talk for a few minutes in the sun before we headed on our way again.
We bought a small glass fishing float from the shop and packed it in our panniers, hoping it would survive the next few days of our ride so we could take it home. When I see it on our bookshelf next to some other knickknacks, the float always reminds me of being halfway around the world, talking to a guy who had seen a lot in his 72 years but could still point across the street to the house where he was born.
Brendan Leonard’s new book, Bears Don’t Care About Your Problems: More Funny Shit in the Woods from Semi-Rad.com, is out now. This piece is the ninth in a 12-part series celebrating ten years of his blog at Semi-Rad.com.