Alone on the Road

The almost full moon hangs like gold dollar, fixed just above a horizon of rolling evergreen forests dusted by the first snow. Behind is a backdrop of faded purple, pink, peach, and powder blue gleaming in the fading rays of the arctic sun settled just below the southwestern edge of the sky. As we roll past a half frozen lake, the moon’s reflected light shimmers off its fissure-streaked blue surface. On the near shore, a mill pumps out horizontal streams of grey smoke from his tall, narrow stacks. The translucent clouds appear motionless, held fixed in the frozen air as we pass under them. Everything about the scene – the sky, the lake, the colorful collection of Scandinavian homes clustered along the shore – seems fixed; everything except me.

The train whistles past the small town in seconds, the blackness of a tunnel swallowing the stunning scene. When we emerge, only the blurred brown of hibernating flora and amber of exposed rock fill my large window. It pulls me away from each picturesque scene, leaving me longing for a moment to stop, appreciate it, and perhaps capture it in the memory of my camera. I need just a moment. The light will last. The Earth turns slowly up here. Just a …. the scene is gone.

It has been nearly five weeks since I set off from my temporary home in Korea. I could have easily been home in less than a day, but I chose this path intending to take it slow. The world is far more interesting when we take the time to interact with it instead of merely flying over it. That has been even truer than I originally believed. Even this pace – trains at 200km/h, cars at 100km/h, and boats at 10km/h – pulls the world past me at blurring speeds, my eyes and my mind unable to focus on all that each beautiful place has to offer.

Not only does the pace of travel determine what I get to experience, but it determines how I experience it. After catching the 5:55 train out of Luleå, a cozy little town on the northwestern shore of the Gulf of Bothnia, I found myself in Umeå with about an hour before my connecting train to Sundsvall.

Finding no sense in spending the hour in the barren little train terminal, I shouldered my pack and went for a walk. The frozen little town was sleepy even late Monday morning. The main walking strip connecting the train station and what appeared to be a municipal building was almost empty except for a handful of elderly browsing the clothing shops and a pair of beggars seated pitifully outside food shops. Behind the municipal building I found the shore of a wide freezing river, along which ran a walking path of packed snow. I crunched along the path, grateful for the warmth of the rising sun still low in the sky even well past ten. The river crunched along as well, the chips of ice on its surface slushing past each other as it flowed around anchored buoys and rocks.

Taking note of the time, I started my return. I took a circuitous route past the town’s classic Lutheran church and through the bus depot. Attempting to cut through an alleyway that I knew pointed toward the train station, I got stuck. The passages that cut through the building were gated, and I had to double back. My alarm, which I had set to warn me of fifteen minutes until departure, sounded, and I picked up my pace.

Finding my way around the building and just across the street from the train depot, I saw a lone train parked on the tracks. That must be my train, I thought to myself, relieved that I had timed my walk well. Then the train began to move. That couldn’t have been my train. My train isn’t supposed to leave until 11:10. By the time I pulled open the heavy door to the waiting area, my gut was already full of anxious adrenaline. I looked at the departure screen, where the current time read 10:52, expecting to see my train at the very top. It wasn’t. The next train to Sundsvall was to depart at 12:45. What? How is that possible? I pulled out my phone to check my schedule. Journey from Umeå to Sundsvall, read my calendar, departs – 11:51.

HOW DID I FUCK THAT UP?! I wanted to scream. I tossed down my pack on an empty chair and cursed in anger. The dark-skinned man sitting in the corner looked at me silently. I paced the small room trying to regain my composure. If only I hadn’t tried to take that shortcut, I would have gotten here in time to realize that that was my train. If I had set a reminder earlier, I would have come back sooner. If I had’t been so stupid, I wouldn’t make stupid fucking mistakes!

When we make mistakes, it’s easy to fall into self pity. It’s easy to overlook the fact that making mistakes is merely a part of life, and it hurts the most when there’s no one to blame but ourselves. I have constantly reiterated the idea that we are never truly alone when traveling. I must make an amendment to that idea. We may not be truly alone in the sense that there is no one to turn to when we need help, but in many cases we are completely and totally responsible for our own fate. Of course, we always have control over our decisions, but in our everyday lives, there is often someone to offer advice in a pinch or correct us when we are deceived. Sometimes we don’t have someone looking out for us though, and when traveling alone, this happens at the most crucial times.

Today was the first time I felt entirely alone on this whole journey. It’s also the first time that I’ve made a mistake of any real consequence. Because of my carelessness, I needed to change plans with my host to something much less favorable, I lost the better part of a day in Trondheim, I lost a day on my rail pass, and I’ll probably be spending the night in a railway station in the middle of nowhere.

This is certainly part of the journey, but I believe that I could alleviate some of the stress had this journey moved at a slower pace. My attempts to cover great distances in short times have increased the complexity of my travel. With added complexity comes increased probability of error. Our minds struggle with the concept of time on scales longer than hours or days. It seemed perfectly reasonable to believe that covering in eight weeks the distance an aircraft covers in less than a day would be slow travel. In fact, this is about as fast as travel gets.

The pace of travel is not determined by the time it takes to cover a given distance. It depends upon the amount of time the traveler has to connect with the next mode of transportation. More than once have I been forced to run to a bus or a train station because there was absolutely zero room for error if I was to stay on schedule and avoid extra costs. My election for short stays and early morning departures have forced many of these stressful moments. Compounding the issue is that I often have no knowledge of the place I need to be or the occasional peculiar details. Staying a few extra days, being able to rehearse the journey, and leaving at a time when I’m more cognitively sharp would all reduce the risk of making mistakes like the one I made today.

Risk attenuation aside, this pace of travel has simply been too fast for the simple fact that one or two nights in a place is in no way enough to gain a true understanding of it. When I first left the United States, I had a strong attraction to Finland because of their apparent proper order of social priorities. Because of this schedule, I ended up spending just a few hours alone in the capital and seeing only one small northern city for a couple days before passing right on through to Sweden. It’s quite sad that I have effectively rejected an incredible opportunity to truly experience a country that I think so highly of. Norway will be the same, and my time is now even shorter. I will have a total of almost two weeks in Sweden and over a week in Iceland, but I feel that my priorities have been skewed on this journey.

In the future, my plans will include simpler travel and longer stops. Couchsurfing continues to provide the perfect opportunity to interact with locals, but to capitalize fully on the opportunity, I would be well served by finding multiple hosts in each city that I plan to visit. Getting multiple perspectives and a wider variety of experience would offer a better understanding of the places I visit. Even after eight months in Korea, I can’t say that I really understand the culture, but I can say that I know a significant amount about it. Even a couple weeks in Moscow or Tallinn or Helsinki would have given me a better understanding of those cities and their people, which is what traveling is really all about.

I have no regrets about this journey. Just over half way through, the excitement has yet to fade, and I continue to learn and grow at a rate not realized in a long time. The stories I have shared so far are only a small fraction of the stories I have made, and the book will only grow thicker.

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