Friday, June 8, 2001

Kiuruvesi, Finland

Friends: Greeting from the heart of Finland.  I am 300 miles into the first leg of my travels in Scandinavia that will take me first to Sodankyla and the Midnight Sun Film Festival, just north of the Arctic Circle.  Then it is on to the Nordkapp, the northernmost point in Europe in Norway.  I'll then cycle back down the coast of Norway through all the fjords before cutting over to Sweden and my flight home from Stockholm in better than a month form now.

It was no easy task finding the library where I'm presently composing this post, as contrary to what tourist officials advertise, not too many people speak English in the hinterlands of Finland. I was in need of an English speaker again this morning when I came to a series of intersections on the poorly marked back roads I've been taking. I could only get marginal, if questionable, assistance. But by now I know most of these roads don't dead end and eventually will lead me to where I need to go, though not necessarily by the most direct route. A little extra meandering isn't too painful right now. I accept detours as opportunities that take me to places I might otherwise not see--all part of the experience. 

Plus I can rest assured, after my assistance from a mysterious gnome a couple days ago, that this journey may well have the blessing of whatever benevolent being there might be who looks after touring cyclists. It was a virtual miracle when, out of nowhere, a gnome appeared at a moment when I was in desperate need of help. I was perplexed and frustrated that the significant paved artery I had been riding suddenly degenerated into a rough and narrow dirt road. I continued on, thinking it just an aberration, but the road only continued to deteriorate. I was in a semi-panic. There was no traffic to wave down.  I thought I was in luck when I saw ahead a gray-haired woman at her mailbox along the road fetching her mail.  I sped up to reach her.  I had to chase her a bit up her driveway but caught her before she disappeared into her house.  I quickly blurted, "I'm not sure I'm on the right road.  Can you help me."  She vigorously shook her head without saying a word, scurrying away as if I bore the plague.

I continued on, but after two more miles, as the road continued to degenerate into a road to nowhere, I knew this couldn't be the right way and turned back in defeat, something I am always loathe to do. Less than two minutes later a little old man wearing emerald green bicycling shorts and long black socks was just emerging over a steep hill, pushing a fully loaded one-speed woman's bike. I couldn't expect any English from this quirky little creature. But I recognized him as a brother of the bike, who might at least give a nodded "yes" or shake of "no" to the mention of the town I wanted to go to up the road.

It worked. He immediately unleashed a torrent of speech in an indecipherable gibberish that could have been Finnish or some forest dialect, but seemed to affirm I was headed in the right direction. He eagerly waved ahead, indicating I ought to follow him. But first he wanted me to look at the highly detailed map strapped to his handlebar bag. He waved a finger over it, following one line then another. It could have gotten me to Hansel and Gretel's house, if that's where I wanted to go. He seemed to be as happy to have met me as I was to meet him. It was hard to believe that this energetic little fellow had suddenly materialized, so I couldn't help but to entrust my fate to him.

Any bike trip of thousands of miles, as this would be, is an act of faith, faith that a mere bicycle could go such a distance and faith that one has the strength and stamina to power it and to persevere in the face of adversity. All along the way, and even before I start a trip, I am showered with incredulity that I am attempting such a thing. The most common response is amazement, if not disbelief. Before my first trip I had doubts myself, even though I knew others had accomplished similar feats. I knew it was possible, but knew too that it would be a challenge. How much of a challenge I didn't realize. After that first one, a coast-to-coast ride across the U.S., I knew I had the capabiity to do it, but I still needed faith. So it was easy to lend some to this savior and present riding companion.

We pedaled together for better than an hour, he pushing his bike up the hills, but bombing down their descents much faster than I dared, gleefully catching up to me. I was a bit restrained on these rough, unpaved roads, as my front wheel had been slightly pretzeled on my flight over. I had trued it to within a bare blip, but I was still wary of hitting a hole or rock and collapsing it, sending me tumbling. I suppose I shouldn't have been concerned about any mishap while I was in the care of my gnome. When we parted I copied all the essentials from his map. He let me take his picture, though whether it will come out remains to be seen. I don't even know if he had a name. With 68 per cent of Finland forested, there's no telling how many such creatures lurk here. I'm on alert.

I have yet to have a sauna, a Finnish passion, though I nearly had a chance this morning. At about eight a.m. I came to an intersection in the road that led to a bird-watching area and campground and sauna. It was a couple of kilometers out of the way, but it had been two days since I had taken a dip in a lake, so I took the detour. It was down the roughest of roads I had encountered. I didn't expect to find any one there and I didn't. The sauna was locked. It was just as well, as I didn't care to take the time to build a fire to heat it up. There was a nearby pond to leap into after baking in the sauna.  It was the swimming hole I was looking for, even though the temperature, air and water, wasn't even 60. I had been on my bike for an hour, so I was fully and deeply warmed. My body offered little protest as I slowly slipped into the cool water to perform my ablutions. I even washed my clothes while I was at it.

Later, George

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