Sunday, June 28, 2009

Into the Foothills, Days 2 and 3

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Day 2: Arbon to Höchst
It is fair to say that we were both amazed by how much that first day destroyed us. We crawled out of bed around 8:30, sore but thankful for Rudi and Margrith. Charles was coughing deeply, so I braced myself for the inevitable and wondered if I had the cojones to hike on without him. My sore hip was giving off cowardly twinges.

Rudi left for work before we awoke. We had said goodbye the night before but I still felt bad for sleeping so late. Our breakfast was already set by Margrith: cheese, toast, boiled eggs in egg cups, hot chocolate and tea. It was a tremendous spread and I ate like a pig at a trough. My body, back then all skin and bones, craved calories. Charles ate sparingly however, and this confirmed my suspicion that I might be nearing the end of the "guided" part of my tour.

But it was not in the purview of Dr. Death to make quitting easy on Charles, so I carefully avoided opening the door to that discussion. Instead I complemented Margrith's unique rotating cheese knife and made grand offerings of American hospitality which I could never hope to fulfill. Afterwards we both thanked Margrith warmly. She had already packed us a generous bagged lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches, tomatoes and freshly picked fruit from her own backyard orchard. With these in a plastic shopping bag (no room in the packs) we slogged it back to Bodensee.

The section we intended to hike, from Arbon to Rheineck, Switzerland, was very similar to what I have already described: sidewalks and gravel paths along the side of the lake. The only difference was that the heat was more intense and Charles was coughing up blood. I felt certain that the moment of truth was at hand but Charles hung in, complaining only of blisters. My hip had not recovered so I made up my mind to lighten my pack at the next available post office.

I longed to dive into the clear water of the lake but was determined to match Charles for stamina and self-deprivation. I also didn't want to suggest anything that would slow down our progress toward the mountains. If solo hiking was inevitable, I first wanted a glimpse of the higher altitude terrain.

During our frequent breaks I devoured the sandwiches and fruit that Margrith had prepared for us. Charles was not interested in eating, which I took as a bad sign. Still, he was stoically silent about quitting. It was shortly after noon, following another coughing fit, when I finally broke down and asked him whether or not he would continue with the hike.

"I just need to get to the mountains." He said, repeating his assertion from the previous day. "The alpine air will cure me of this, I'm sure of it."

I hadn't realized how determined Charles could be. It was hard to believe that a guy who was coughing up blood could continue with something so strenuous. Yet he had no intention of quitting. He even seemed a little offended that I had assumed he would. As if to underscore his determination, he picked up the pace and we made it to Rheineck in good time.

When we arrived in Rheineck, just on the Swiss side of the border, it was only 4:30. There Charles continued with his phoenix-from-the-ashes recovery. At an outdoor cafe, from which we could have lobbed meatballs into Austria, Charles ordered and ate a hearty dinner. I did the same. My spaghetti bolognaise was delicious, and for the first time we revelled in our progress. Over several cold beers we closely examined our map and determined that we might still make some distance before nightfall. Although we could have easily found lodging in Rheineck, Charles suggested that we head for the next pension on the far side of Gaissau, Austria. I was thrilled with the idea, though I would regret it soon enough.

As soon as I heaved my heavy pack onto my shoulders, my beer-strength deserted me. The one mile remaining could not go quickly enough. Thirty minutes later, at the door of the pension, I rested while Charles went looking for the master or mistress of the house. Charles was unfamiliar with this particular pension. On his previous tour he had slept in a patch of stinging nettles nearby. That turned out to have been a lucky choice, oddly enough, because when he did finally locate the owner he was told, rather sharply, that this was not a pension at all and did not offer rooms. We were trespassing and he wanted us out of the yard.

There was no other building in sight that could match the guidebook's description. It was almost certainly the place where the pension was said to have been. We pressed on, disheartened, toward the next small town -- about two and a half miles further. Perhaps, we considered, the guidebook was not to be trusted.

The going was slow. Our feet burned and our shoulders ached. We found ourselves hiking on asphalt roads through corn fields, uncertain of our direction, only hoping that the next town would eventually appear beyond the green wall of corn.

We arrived in Höchst an hour and a half later, once again totally shattered. After several false leads we found a "zimmer frei", a vacant room, at an inn on a residential side street. There were two twin beds and a small private shower which felt like Shiatsu to my wasted muscles. As I showered I stamped soap into my laundry and then hung various pieces over every knob in the room. Charles had already announced that he would take a brief nap before doing the same. That was his way of saying goodnight.

Day 3: Höchst to Bregenz
I am not a superstitious man but there may be something to be said for the power of faith healing. The moment we entered the Allgäu (pronounced OW-goy) region, Charles' bronchitis started to disappear. We awoke feeling strong, ready to enter the foothills.

The town of Bregenz, Austria was a short walk from the pension. It was there that Charles bought new hiking poles with carbide tips and a large tin of herring which he stuffed in his pack. The carbide tips were an improvement on the rubber-tips of the poles he had left on the train. They would, as I have already suggested, save Charles' life several days later. I also bought a pole, a Leki Wanderfreund, that has been my walking companion for the eleven years since.

I took the opportunity to unpack and send back several items, via post, before we hit the mountains. My pack was now blessedly lighter and we both felt optimistic again -- Charles with his herring and I with my lightened load.

We hopped on the bus to Lingenau, about eight miles southwest as the crow flies. The bus ride was part of the hike recommended by our guidebook. We would, otherwise, have wasted another day walking along roads and gravel bike paths. Instead, we were dropped in Lingenau and proceeded to tackle our first 1000 feet of elevation. It seemed like a dream after the roads we had suffered. The trail was soft and my new cane-style pole gave my hip just the cushion it needed. Like Charles' bronchitis, my hip was healing nicely.

When we arrived at Pension Hubertus in Hittisau we were greeted by Frau Hubertus herself, lounging in a folding chair in the front yard. She was a jovial woman, middle aged and with the red nose of a heavy drinker. Beside her was a muttish dog that she said was a pure breed but she had forgotten what type. Charles asked her, in German, how much was a room. She replied somewhat awkwardly that it was 270 Schillings. Charles translated for me that the price was just over $20 for the night.

"Why are you speaking English to him?" she asked Charles.

"We're from the States." Charles replied in German.

"But why are you speaking English to him and not to me?"

After several confused seconds we realized that Frau Hubertus hardly spoke any German at all. She was English, from Dorset, and had precious little interest in the local culture and language. Having married an Austrian she had found herself expatriated to Austria and longed for English speaking companions.

She showed us to a comfortable room with two twin beds. We chatted for quite some time and, over a bottle of beer, she offered Charles a job as her translator and desk manager. Her husband, it turned out, was in Geneva for a knee operation. He was away a lot, she said, and judging from the pictures of Herr Hubertus and some Austrian ski bunnies, we drew our own conclusions.

Charles did not decline the job on the spot but seemed to be seriously considering it. As we entered the town square, to all appearances an historic alpine village, an outdoor polka concert was just getting started. We took folding seats in the audience. A pair of attractive, chesty fräulein in traditional dress made their way through the sparse crowd offering free schnapps. Between them they had two shot glasses, a jug of clear liqueur and a dishrag. As the first fräulein filled one glass, the second wiped the other glass clean with the dishrag. Then they swapped glasses and moved to the next customer. They worked their way through the crowd this way and eventually offered me one of the glasses. I declined their hospitality but their quaint, open friendliness was unforgettable.

In a restaurant nearby, all post, beam and stucco, we had a wonderful meal of sausage, potatoes, a light salad and beer. Listening to the music as it drifted through the warm August evening I could see why Charles might consider staying behind...

Next week.
No Sleep 'Til Sonthofen

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Konstance to Arbon

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Konstanz to Arbon

During the night I realized that Charles had Bronchitis. He kept our Syrian roommate up until dawn with the coughing. I was fortunate to be traveling with earplugs and slept like the dead. In the morning, the Syrian guy was extremely understanding but I was somewhat unnerved. The last thing I wanted was to be half way up a mountain with Charles falling apart.

"You're actually going to hike the Alps with bronchitis?" I asked him as he pulled on his socks in the white-washed bunk room.

"Don't worry," he said. "Alpine air cures anything."

It was impossible sometimes to tell when he was being ironic. And deep down I wanted him to hike, regardless. I guess that's why his mother calls me Doctor Death. When it comes to danger, I don't do a very good job dissuading Charles. I made one more half-hearted attempt and then, with a resigned shrug, I dropped the subject.

We had read that we "wouldn't want to miss the breakfast" so it was with no little anticipation that we entered the dining room that morning. What we found was not bad (brie, baguettes, jam, coffee) but certainly not praiseworthy. By North American standards it was the bare minimum. Later, once we had experienced Swiss prices, we concluded that the main reason we "wouldn't want to miss" a free breakfast was not the quality but the affordability. As for the service, it was just about what we were beginning to expect in Zurich. When Charles asked for more hot water in the carafe, the woman at the counter flew into an apoplectic rage. We both agreed that it was high time we left. I stealthily pocketed a baguette and some cheese then we headed for the train.

In the first installment of this serial I detailed several other unfortunate incidents involving Zurich natives. So, before going any further, I want to dispel any notion that I might hold a grudge against the Swiss. I do not. Some of the nicest people I know are Swiss. I am only telling it like it was. Although our troubles were far from over, the further we got from the city the more the people seemed to brighten up.

The Zurich natives, Zurichians if you will, are of a temperament altogether different from the the ordinary Swiss -- except that all Swiss seem to share a deep yearning for the outdoors. While walking back to the train station (no more taxis for us) we noticed a city park full of camping youths. Shabby, hung over, and possibly homeless they were just beginning to crawl out of sleeping bags and tents. Their existence was in stark contrast to the cleanliness of the streets and the orderliness of the architecture. Even so, they were not living in cardboard boxes. It was as if everyone in the city were, in one way or another, grudgingly making the best of what they considered to be a very bad lot. You had to feel a little sorry for them. So close to the mountains and yet so very far away. Even the poorest were pining for the fields, so to speak.

We were later informed that Zurichians are considered terribly rude by their pastoral cousins. Those from outside the city would shake their heads and "tut" when I told them about our first few hours in Switzerland. "Yes, they make a very bad impression on visitors." they would say. Apparently Zurichians are the "rude New Yorkers" of Switzerland.

Glad to be on the move again, we walked back to the train station and grabbed the first train to Konstanz, Germany. Konstanz (also Constance) is a small lake-side city that that shares no land border with the rest of Germany. It should, by proximity, belong to Switzerland. It is so much a part of that country, in fact, that it never had to worry about Allied bombing raids during the Second World War.

Disembarking at the station, we began looking for signs of the trail head. It proved surprisingly difficult to locate. Asking around, nobody seemed to know that there were any hiking trails at all. We were the only hikers in sight and, if Charles had not assured me to the contrary, I might have begun to wonder if we were in the right town. We finally found the marker in a small park. There, by an unremarkable stone tablet, we took our first official steps on our trekking adventure.

It was a very short walk back to the border of Switzerland. In fact, we had only just crossed into Germany on the train a few minutes before. But crossing borders never loses its appeal, even when done repeatedly. Just hopping back and forth over a border can keep me amused for a surprisingly long time. As it turned out, the border guards couldn't even muster the energy to shoo us along. Charles walked right past the booth without even a glance. I, with my enthusiasm for borders, insisted on getting my passport stamped. Once I caught their attention, the border patrol began to show a great interest in me. Note to self, don't talk to any more heavily armed teenagers.

After a few tense moments and a passport stamp, we were again skirting the south western border of Bodensee. AKA Lake Constance, this beautiful spot is a haven for sun-bathers and fresh-water enthusiasts. It is not quite so refreshing for hikers. The hiking trail, sometimes gravel, sometimes sidewalk, shares its purpose with a constant stream of bicyclists. At first we thought everyone was just saying "hi" is Switzerdeutsch, but we soon realized that the hoots and hollers meant "get off our path!"

The day was hot and we could feel it through the soles of our shoes. We had decided to do the 50 kilometer Bodensee stretch in order to say we had hiked all the way from the trail head. This purism would later draw baffled looks from our fellow hikers, and for good reason. There was nothing remotely mountainous or even trail-like about this stretch. Instead we faced miles of sidewalks and gravel paths, and any hiker will tell you that this is terrible for the feet.

By noon we were both hurting. Charles' cough sounded terrible and he had blisters from the heat. I had sore shoulders and a throbbing hip. Over a trail-side lunch of flattened baguette and lukewarm brie, we decided reluctantly to soldier on, preferring to get the lake behind us as quickly as possible. Charles had forgotten his hiking poles on the train in Konstanze and was missing them badly. Later this mishap would save his life but right now it seemed likely to cost us the hike. I didn't yet own poles but had decided to buy some at the first opportunity.

I can now only wonder at the figures we cut as we shuffled past trailer-camper families in their Speedo bathing suits. Between Charles, with his hacking cough, and myself in trousers and long-sleeves -- both of us carrying 40-pound packs, it is no wonder that we attracted some peculiar looks. But this was my first real hike, and only Charles' second. We were on a steep learning curve that we looked forward to leaving behind.

After 29 kilometers, while passing a picnicking area in the town of Arbon, Charles announced that he couldn't go any further. As if to punctuate this statement, he sat on a picnic bench and fell over backwards... not once but twice. The first time he drew gasps from the nearby sunbathers. The second time he actually drew applause. In Charles' defense, the bench was missing a leg. We were just too tired to notice.

We took off our packs and hobbled over to the snack bar. I got a Coke and Charles bought a Swiss "sports drink", an effervescent concoction with the great taste of sour milk. It was this horrible beverage, and Charles' reaction to it, that got us a room for the night. While he was choking it down, I noticed a middle aged couple watching in amusement. They had, no doubt, seen our slapstick entry and were enjoying the continued performance. Margrith and Rudi were their names and they were a Godsend. We had only chatted for a few minutes, in blessed old English, before they invited us to stay the night at their home.

They left us sitting on our bench and biked off to retrieve their car.

I was skeptical that Rudi would return but he did. In minutes we were swept off the street and into the comfortable bungalo of this kindly Swiss couple. The livingroom was done in rustic Swiss fashion: leather, exposed wood, and fur. Rudi explained that they were, themselves, hikers. They understood our predicament and were thrilled to be able to help us out. Margrith, nestled under what appeared to be a wolf-skin rug, talked about their son who was off at college. He was a hiker, too, and they looked forward to his visits, often traveling to the mountains as a family. It was an enjoyable evening, with a dinner of cold cuts, cheese and Swiss beer interspersed with light conversation.

After showers and foot-repair we crawled into bed -- together. There was only one bed. Ordinarily it would have been awkward, Charles being well over six feet tall. As it was, we were too tired to care. I don't even remember Charles coughing that night but he must have been. The next day his bronchitis was even worse.

Next week
Into the Foothills>>

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Konstanz to Bozen, Prologue


Anyone who knows me will tell you I've had some far-out schemes. Like when I bought the condemned four-unit apartment building, or the time I started an ill-fated line of T-shirts imprinted with with suggestive double entendres. Better yet, there was the time I tried to right the fortunes of the erstwhile prince of Madagascar...

Sometimes these schemes paid off, more often they ended in a hasty backpedal. This segment is the first part in a serial that will detail my earliest long-distance trekking adventure. It was this brilliant disaster that led to my obsession with the hiking trails of Europe. I don't know any better way to summarize it, so I'll just tell the story.


I can't really claim that it was my idea. In fact, I can't honestly remember if it was my good friend Charles or I who first suggested it. He was the most committed in the beginning. In fact, I let him test the waters before setting foot myself. That would have been 1997, the year Charles went hiking alone in Europe.

Charles is a tall, lanky guy with round glasses and a superior intellect. He speaks fluent German and is always cooking up some new and interesting project. That first year is really Charles' story. So until I license it from him, I'll stick to my own experiences. What I can say without infringement is that he came back determined that someone else should know the experience first hand. I was his most constant companion so the honor was rightfully mine. And I was also easily led. The idea was a romantic one -- backpacking over the Alps. Although Charles was always painstakingly honest about the hardships involved, I was filled with naïve optimism.

Not only was Charles willing to lead the trip. He was also willing to buy the tickets. Now my reputation as a cheapskate was second only to my reputation as a schemer. So Charles offerred to buy my tickets if I would help him redecorate his apartment. The offer was an extremely generous one on his part. In hindsight, I have to believe that the bargain was partly a ruse to get me on that plane. The ceiling that I patched and the paint that I scraped was hardly worth the price of toilet I cracked with an errant beer bottle, never mind the price of the tickets.

That is how I found myself standing at an unmarked kiosk in the furthest reaches of an unfinished terminal in Boston's Logan airport, guided by vague directions and a dismissive wave of the hand from a bored information clerk. It was only the start of our journey but we were already beginning to wonder whether we had made a tremendous mistake.

We were hitching a flight on a charter airline. Charles had paid $800 for two thin, round-trip vouchers from a company called Airhitch. These vouchers were rumored to be good for seats on this mystery plane. Thirty minutes before liftoff, the staff was still suspiciously absent and the other potential passengers looked as uncertain as we both felt. Ten more minutes passed before two zombie flight-attendants arrived with a slap-on sign that read "Trans-Air" or something equally suspicious. It was exactly the name you would choose for a doomed airline in a 1974 B-grade flick about the Bermuda Triangle. Nevertheless, we submitted to the humiliation of being unwelcome guests on the shoddiest of carriers. The most important thing was to get to Europe.

I won't detail the horrors of that miserable flight except to say that food and water were scarce, service minimal and legroom almost nil. We arrived in Paris six hours later, kissed the ground and melted into the converging throngs of travellers. Munching on airport croissants we quickly located the SNCF train terminal where we purchased two tickets to Zurich, Switzerland.

It was 10:30 PM when we pulled into the Zurich railway station. A painted, life-sized plasticine cow hung from the ceiling girders. The information booth was vacant and the floors were already mopped clean. The train hissed quietly then fell silent. The other few passengers quickly disappeared out the doors and we were left alone on the deserted platform.

The first indication that things might get complicated was the young men with automatic rifles standing by the doorway. Charles, confident in his German, approached the two men to ask directions to the hostel. They had no interest in speaking with us and no patience for German. Instead they pointed at the door with their guns and, in brusque Switzerdeutsch instructed us to leave the building immediately. No discussion. So much for our welcoming committee.

The streets were as silent and deserted as the station. As the last cars drove off into a spitting mist, we stood on the damp sidewalk and wondered what to do next. The guards leered at us from the doorway and made it clear that we should be moving along quickly. No loitering in Zurich. A taxi stopped and lowered his window. It had been our impression that most Swiss understood German but we were quickly disillusioned of this notion. The driver just shrugged. I tried English with much the same response. We showed him the sheet I had torn out of the Hostelling International book. He shrugged again, rolled up his window and left us on the curb.

It was another tense five minutes before the next taxi arrived. The driver of this one spoke English reasonably well. He drove us to a far corner of town, took the equivalent of $20 in Swiss Francs and dropped us off on a quiet street corner in a residential neighborhood. He had already driven away when we realized that we had no idea where the hostel was.

After a quick scouting of the area we realized that we'd been scammed. We were nowhere near the hostel. So we picked up our bags and started looking for a busier street. It was nearly midnight when our final taxi dropped us off at the doors of the Youth Hostel Zurich, fortunately open all night. The desk clerk rang us in and found us a room. After thirty six hours of hard travelling we were both beyond exhaustion. I fell into the clean white sheets of Switzerland with my boots still on my feet.

Next week
Day 1: Konstanz - Arbon>>

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Tale of Two Bogdans

So there were these two guys named Bogdan. I was living in New York City at the time, studying at Hunter College, and I met them in one of my classes. I like to think of them as Bogdan 1 and Bogdan 2 -- in order of preference.

Bogdan 1 was a well-mannered, soft-spoken guy. The kind of guy you'd introduce to an attractive new girlfriend to gain her trust. Bogdan 2 was pushy and oafish: one of those guys who says "You're my best friend in New York" the third time you meet him. Meanwhile, you're shuffling madly through your mental index cards: Bragdon? Bogram? Boxy? I suspected he would ask me for something sooner or later. People like that always do.

The Bogdans were both from the country of Poland, where the name Bogdan translates to "beloved of God" or some such. I thought that they were best friends; and this was not the only way in which I was naive. In any case, I often found them talking together in Polish.

I knew neither of the Bogdans very well. We went out for an awkward drink once or twice and it seemed to me that Bogdan 1 was very ill at ease. As the semester wound down, I saw less and less of them. When classes ended, I figured that would be the end of our friendship. I wouldn't have minded staying in touch with Bogdan 1 but didn't at all mind leaving the second one behind.

By early summer, Manhattan had grown stale for me. I have always had a knack for knowing when a social scene is about to collapse, and my gut told me my current one had run its course. To stay ahead of the curve, we had found a new apartment in Boston and my girlfriend had already installed herself there. Our boxes were half packed in our upper east side apartment, and I was tending to the final details. In a week I would leave the city behind. I was stuffing red and white, dutch-print dish towels into a shoebox when the phone rang.

"Hey, it's Bogdan."

"Oh, hey. Bogdan 1 or Bogdan 2?" I asked?

"The tall one." he replied.

My heart sank. Bogdan 2 never could keep my numbering system straight.

"I've got a favor to ask," he continued. There was a long pause. Sometimes it is better just to keep quiet and hope for the best. "I mean, if you don't mind," he said, ending on a painfully high note.

Another pause.

"What do you need Bogdan?" I finally said, regretting the words as soon as they hit the receiver.

"Well, you know you're the best friend I have in America." he said. "And I am getting married."

I was surprised. Who would want to marry Bogdan 2? "Well congratulations. I didn't even know you had a girlfriend."

"I met her two weeks ago. We are getting married next week." He said, as if that were a perfectly normal thing to do.

I figured he was going to ask me for money. Maybe he couldn't afford the ring. Maybe he needed a security deposit for a new apartment. I didn't really care because I was flat broke. He couldn't have gotten a dime out of me if he had held a gun to my head. So I was completely unprepared when he asked me to be his best man.

I won't bore you with any more dialogue -- not just yet, anyhow. Suffice it to say that I agreed, very reluctantly, to witness the ceremony. These were my caveats: I would not pay for a bachelor party and could not afford a tuxedo. I would go out for drinks with him and any other friends he could muster and would buy him a drink or two but that would be the full extent of my contribution to the festivities. He agreed gratefully -- almost too gratefully. This was going to be the best day of his life and he was so happy that I could be a part of it.

Unfortunately, the wedding was set for Wednesday, June 18, my birthday. Usually I am more selfish about my birthdays but I had already agreed and saw little point in protracted negotiations. I would have to skip out of work midday and take the 4, 5 & 6 to city hall but that could be done. None of it was ideal but at least it would be over quickly. Or so I thought.

On Tuesday evening we all met at Mc Sorley's Old Ale House, a little bar in the East Village where they serve two kinds of beer, "light" and "dark", and where women were not allowed until after a 1970 court order. I figured that was as good a place as any to begin a bachelor's last night out.

With Bogdan 2 was Bogdan 1 and one other guy who turned out to be the wedding photographer. Everyone except for me was from Poland. Bogdan 1 showed us pictures of his betrothed, a lovely Polish girl with long blond hair and a stunning figure. That was the first surprise of the night: Bogdan 1 was marrying a knock-out. The night was going well and everyone seemed to be relaxed and enjoying themselves. Conversation flowed freely.

If you have any sense of 20th Century European history, you are going to think I was a complete idiot. I suppose I was. Honestly, though, the connection never really occurred to me. You see, after Mc Sorley's, my second favorite bar was a hip little place called the KGB Bar. The location had once been a speakeasy for ex-pat Ukrainian socialists and was decorated with communist propaganda posters. It was now a hangout for an up-and-coming crowd of artists and writers, all happily oblivious to the horrors of Stalinist rule.

My friends were polite, considering. I am sure it is hard to appreciate the clever irony of a place like that when your parents and grandparents were overrun, perhaps murdered by the communist army. They went in with me anyway as I blabbed on about the history of the place and led them into the little barroom decorated with kitsch right out of their worst nightmares. It took me about ten minutes to realize that the mood of the evening had changed for the worse. "You have to understand," Bogdan 1 explained gently, as if to a half-wit, "the KGB makes the Poles very nervous."
It was right about then that Bogdan 2 started feeling his alcohol. He began by talking about "the Jews". None of what he said was particularly original but it was all idiotic. I stopped him and told him that he could either drop the subject or I would be leaving forthwith. So he moved on to the subject of Poland. "You see," he began, "there are really two Polands. I am from the strong Poland and my friend here," he pointed to the other Bogdan, "he is from the weak Poland," I looked at Bogdan 1. He didn't seem at all surprised by this revelation. "And someday, the strong Poland will crush the weak Poland." He pounded his fist on the table for effect.

"OK," I said, "now we're done talking about Poland."

The rest of the evening was depressing and uneventful. We left the stifling atmosphere of the KGB Bar, found a corner pub and, after one more awkward drink, went our separate ways.

Now, nobody wants to be the best man to a belligerent anti-Semite -- except, perhaps, another belligerent anti-Semite. As I was nothing of the sort, this was one of the most disagreeable things I had ever been asked to do. But I have a terrible fear of letting people down. The following morning, the morning of the wedding, I simply could not call Bogdan 2 and cancel. My hands would not dial the number. Instead I put on my only decent suit, chose a tie that I disliked for its striped conservatism, and took the subway into the office.

At 10:00 a black forest cake arrived on my desk. It was from my girlfriend. Not being in New York for my birthday, she had done the next best thing. It was a wonderful gesture but I would have no time to share it until I returned from my distasteful task.

At the time, budget marriages were sanctified in New York City Hall. I arrived at noon and found the nervous couple in the middle of a small huddle in one corner of the waiting room. It was a hot day and there seemed to be no air conditioning in the building. The bride's family was present but Bogdan 2's family was not. She, the bride, was even more stunning in person. Her face was that of an innocent wax doll. In her hand was a bouquet of flowers. She spoke almost no English. I wondered for a minute whether I should warn her against marrying Bogdan 2 but decided against it. Perhaps she was looking to be the next Eva Braun. How could I tell? One only hopes that her betrothed had shared at least some of his shabby ideas with her in the two weeks preceding their marriage.

"Where is Bogdan 1?" I asked Bogdan 2.

"Oh, I don't think he will come," he replied.

I didn't bother asking why. I was disappointed but not at all surprised. The photographer, however, was present, so he and I sat together on a hard wooden bench and watched the eager stream of brides and grooms step into the private chapel and reemerge seconds later, shell-shocked and beaming.

Time passed.

After an hour, I started to wonder when I would get back to the office to eat my cake. I asked Bogdan 2 when we were scheduled to go on.

"They have a list. They will get to us soon."

Another hour passed. New couples came and went. I began to feel trapped in a hot, sticky limbo, butt bones aching, watching endless happy twosomes toddle off into the unknown.

"Are you sure you are on that list?" I asked.

"Yes, I am sure."

After another hour my patience was wearing dangerously thin. It was 3:00. The train back to the office could take thirty minutes or more. If the ceremony didn't happen in the next sixty minutes, I might find myself eating a very large birthday cake all alone in the middle of my empty living room floor. I had not eaten lunch and, if you ask my friends, they will all tell you that this is a very bad thing.

"Look Bogdan" I finally said, leaving off the "2" for emphasis. "I can't sit around here all day. It is my birthday. There is a big, beautiful cake waiting for me at the office. I would like to eat it with my co-workers before they all leave for the day. If you don't go up to that window RIGHT NOW and find out what is going on, I am leaving."

There was sudden silence in the waiting room. It was like being that guy in the old E. F. Hutton commercial. Without further protest, Bogdan 2 went to the clerk's window and returned with a clipboard.

"I guess I have to fill this out. Then she will put us on the list," he said quietly.
Forty five minutes later Mr. and Mrs. Bogdan 2 were joined in holy matrimony. I was not, actually, able to witness the event. There was only enough room for their family in the tiny chapel. Even the photographer had to stand outside. When the wedding party came out, the cameraman snapped a few photographs of everyone. I politely declined Bogdan 2's offer to join them for the wedding dinner and bolted out the door.

I arrived back at work at quarter to five, just in time to salvage my birthday celebration. The cake was delicious and I was happy to, again, be surrounded by my own people. That evening I called Bogdan 1 and asked him to discourage Bogdan 2 if he ever mentioned getting in touch with me again. Bogdan 1 seemed to understand.

So that's the story of the two Bogdans. Somewhere, on a mantle or a bookshelf, perhaps in New York, perhaps in Poland, is a picture of me, smiling through my pain, standing up as best man for a disturbed Polish Nazi sympathizer.

And that is why I can never be your President.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

My Agile Neighbors

The guy in the tree with the machete was not, technically, in my back yard. Still, he was climbing a fifty-foot maple with the giant knife in his teeth. That's definitely the kind of thing makes you think.

I live on the cutting edge of the rougher section of Providence, Rhode Island. It is a busy street with multi-family dwellings crowded together on tiny parcels of land -- barely big enough to be called yards. We moved here from Massachusetts in 2002 because property was incredibly cheap. We bought a four-unit apartment building in the final stages of disintegration and spent 16 agonizing months bringing it back to life. My wife and I live there now with my mother-in-law, two-year old son and two other tenants. There are still many days when I wonder why I ever thought this would be a good idea.

It is the sort of place where you can't really build a big enough fence. We started with no fence at all but I soon realized that we had a backho infestation. In other words, the local "working girls" were using our back yard as an office with toilet. Additionally, car radio thieves and purse-snatchers found it a convenient escape route, and I would frequently find signs of junkies who had holed up there briefly, leaving their needles or other paraphernalia behind. So up went the first stockade fence. Problem solved, I figured.

Still, we've had several fence-climbers. One slick fellow actually claimed he was playing hide and seek. He was probably twenty-five years old and looked like he was either evading the law or considering breaking it. And the kids from next door routinely climb over, dig holes, rearrange the backyard furniture and leave their trash in our planters.

Then last fall we discovered that we had a sideho problem. Not willing to climb the fence with their Johns, these ambitious ladies had decided that our small side yard offered enough privacy for their illicit encounters. Hos are harder to get rid of than carpenter bees. So I am going to have to extend the fence to encircle the side and front yards, too. And I'm planting pricker-bushes all around the perimeter. We'll see how they like them apples.

Still, I don't know how I can keep out men with machetes. If they want to come in, there isn't much I can do about it.

The machete tree guy turned out to be one of our Guatemalan neighbors. His family lives in the house diagonally to the left of our back yard. When we first moved here he was raising rabbits and had fifteen-foot corn stocks swaying gently in the breeze -- on one tenth of an acre. The rabbits would roam freely and frequently escaped under the fence and into our yard. It was not unusual for me to come home from work and find two or three rabbits happily grazing on our tiny front lawn. For a while I would catch and return the little guys but that soon became a waste of time. For the rest of the summer they came and went as they pleased. It seems that the rabbits must have become dinner the following winter. They did not reappear in the spring.

So there we stood watching this nimble Guatemalan homesteader climb higher and higher. Reaching the top he began hacking off branches. He must have had the idea from watching the tree service that had recently removed two trees from my own backyard. The tree he was hacking at, however, did not belong to him.

We pondered what to do. Should we call the authorities and report that a Guatemalan farmer was denuding a fifty foot maple in the yard of his next-door neighbor? Would they even believe us? And was it really wise to mess with a guy like that?

My mother-in-law is fearless after six years of facing off against hos and gangsta wannabes. She decided that she would go talk with him and find out just what his intentions were.

From his perch, high atop the swaying maple, he explained that he was just tired of cleaning leaves out of his gutters. He continued, in excellent English incidentally, that he did not intend to cut the entire tree down. The property where the tree stood was apparently bank-owned and he was simply taking advantage of the opportunity to remove all of the branches while nobody was likely to complain.

It made a certain amount of sense when you looked at it from his perspective. I guess everything in this neighborhood makes sense from one perspective or another. Usually, though, that perspective wouldn't fly in any other place I've ever lived.

What Ever Happened to Marco?

I am not dangerous but I’m definitely going a little stir crazy this summer. It could be worse, though. My old friend Marco seems to have taken a spectacular swan dive off the deep end.

Usually I have a big vacation to coordinate. That is how I keep sane. It is not so much that I enjoy travel. Truthfully, my vacations tend to be long, brutal hikes -- more about catharsis and pain than relaxation. Mostly I enjoy planning for them and recalling them after the fact -- through pictures and shared stories. Still, exhausting myself has two benefits. It clears the brain and it makes me appreciate home. Everyone needs a release to keep from flipping out.

It has probably been eighteen years since I saw Marco. We were college buddies who became friends through our work with fringe causes at the University of New Hampshire. He was the daring, charismatic leader who got all the girls. I was the more cautious strategist who tried to keep out of harm’s way. Together we helped coordinate the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador and even brought Abby Hoffman to speak on campus. He was also involved with the Gay and Lesbian alliance, despite his decidedly straight orientation. Later in college, if I remember correctly, he helped found a group of sensitive men who would get together and talk about the challenges of being male. It was one of those groups where big men gave each other awkward hugs, tears were shed and everyone felt validated and appreciated. Truth be told, I only went once. I prefer playing poker or racquetball where I get my validation by crushing an equally aggressive opponent.

Anyhow, Marco was definitely in touch with his sensitive side. He was a burly Italian fellow -- a friendly back-slapper. I always figured he would become a therapist or a childcare worker. I liked him and admired him as a leader, even if I didn’t really want to hug him.

I have very few details and have only followed his life through the Internet. I don’t know when the downward slide began. It may have been going on for a long time for all I know. The first indication I had that things were a little rocky for Marco was an article that a friend sent along about a position that Marco had held at the parks department of a small town in New Hampshire. I don’t remember the details but it appears that the job didn’t go very well. The upshot is that the town decided it was necessary to hire a private investigator to follow Marco. An article to that effect was posted by the local paper’s web site. I have to imagine that this job did not end particularly well.

The next I heard of Marco was via Facebook. Through one of my old college friends I found Marco and befriended him in the non-committal way that one befriends other netizens. Nothing came of the virtual “friendship“. I don’t think we even exchanged more than one line of greeting. He has since taken his page off of Facebook so you will not find him among my friends.

Yesterday I heard a bit more news about Marco. It was not good news at all. It seems that he has left behind the cool, relaxed demeanor of old. It is hard to know the real story but a police website reports that Marco has gone berserk. Apparently Marco’s physician accused Marco of faking a prescription for pain killers at the local pharmacy. On the basis of this accusation, the physician refused to grant Marco an appointment. There must have been some harsh words because the argument quickly escalated into a fight. In the end, Marco punched the doctor. He then picked up a nurse, turned her over and dropped her on her head, breaking bones. It is, indeed, fortunate that he did not break her neck.

There is no apology for Marco’s actions. What he did was the act of a dangerous man and he needs to be punished and confined. However, I have a hard time imagining how he could have become so desperate and angry in the eighteen years since I last saw him. It makes me really wonder about the safety of pain medication.

I have changed Marco’s name for this blog. I don’t want to make his life any harder than it already is. I only hope that he can somehow get beyond this and return to his former self. He was once a really great guy.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Kungsleden - A Hiking Travelogue

I hiked the Kungsleden, Sweden's Kings Trail, in the fall of 2005. This is the travelogue of my adventures on the arctic tundra.

Alesjaure Sunrise on the Kungsleden - Kings Trail - King of Trails

I don't sleep much anymore. But this morning is unique and, as the train's alto whistle cuts through the bass rhythm of wheels and tracks, for once I don’t mind my insomnia. It is four o'clock in the morning and I lay listening, waiting. I pull back the rough fabric of the window curtain. At this time of year, and at this latitude, the early hours of the morning are eerily luminescent. Through skidding droplets of mist, miles of birch trees and scrub pines fly past.

This six-seat cabin is a model of stuffy efficiency. For night travelers, cots fold down from the walls, transforming the compartment into a hostel. On a crowded night you could suffocate in the smell of your five companions. Tonight we are, mercifully, alone. I took the bottom left berth and Charles, my traveling companion, has the opposite. He sleeps like an Egyptian king, wrists crossed over his chest, torso and legs wrapped tightly in his sleeping bag. The other four bunks are vacant. A polite, soap-scented mortician started the journey in our cabin. He is also headed for the Kings Trail. Around midnight he quietly bundled his bag and slid out the door to find his peace elsewhere.

We boarded in Stockholm, city of canals and beautiful blonde bicyclists, 624 miles south of the arctic circle -- our destination. The trip to the Kungsleden lasts 18 hours, and we pull in around noon at a desolate brick building that serves as the last rocky outpost on the line. We follow a straggling queue to the nearby Abisko Turiststation, a sprawling red brick building with all the charm of a Soviet grammar school. There we make our final telephone calls, fill water bottles and weigh our packs on a hanging scale. With water, my pack weighs just about 40 lbs, Charles' pack weighs under 20.

“There's no way you have enough warm clothes in that pack.” I say as he pulls it off the scale's hook.

“I've got everything I need” he says, smiling triumphantly. He is an expert ultra-light trekker. Every year for the past six years he has refined his pack. Every ounce has been considered and justified. He's been emailing me tips every week. This is his moment of glory and I am impressed, though just a little apprehensive. At least one of us didn’t pack very well.

At the log cabin arch that marks the beginning of the Kungsleden, we stand together and I hold the camera at arm's length, snapping a shot of our two faces. The image, roundly distorted by the close camera lens, shows the two of us smiling with eager anticipation.

Day 1
We hit the Kings Trail at a double-time pace, hardly knowing what to expect from the coming days. The trees beside the path are little more than shrubbery, knotted and arthritic, contorted from cruel, bitter winters. Few reach a height of more than fifteen feet. The effect is primeval and speaks of harsh weather and unforgiving cold. It is a fantasy movie landscape where reindeer are said to roam freely and, as recently as the beginning of the twentieth century, the native Sami people still lived undisturbed as nomadic herders. Some lonely ascetics remain but most have now left for the city.

Path to Abiskojaure, Kungsleden - Kings Trail - King of TrailsThis afternoon we will walk eight miles. On relatively flat ground this is not a long hike, and we should have clear daylight until 9PM. We break in our boots on well-packed dirt. Through frequent gaps in the trees, miles of low green and brown hills roll off in all directions. Small patches of snow dot the higher plains. Under our feet, the tundra has melted in many spots but boards have been handily placed over the marshiest patches. With no other signs of civilization, the views are eerily spectacular.

To our right is a river that we’ll skirt all the way to Abiskojaure. From time to time we catch a glimpse of its clear, rushing waters. The air is fresh and damp and the weather is cloudy but the rain holds off. The temperature hovers in the mid fifties with a breeze of fifteen knots or so.

Any troubles this afternoon are of my own making. I am often hopeless with adjustments, especially on the first day of a hike. First, my jacket comes off, next I want my hat, now I need to check a spot where my boot is rubbing too tightly. I’m wearing my favorite trail footwear, Lowa® trekking boots, but I have made the rookie mistake of tightening them too snugly. An hour into the hike I rest on a rock and run my hand over a rising bruise on my shin.

“Need any moleskin?” Charles asks, referring to a soft adhesive pad that hikers often carry for such emergencies.

“Nope, you go on ahead. It's nothing, really.” That's code for “Let's hike solo for a bit.“ I hate to slow him down and we are both loners at heart. Since he doesn’t share my compulsion for fine-tuning gear on the trail, there is really no point in him waiting for me.

Five minutes later I’m all sorted out and back on my feet. I walk another quarter of a mile before it really hits me; I’m alone in an arctic wilderness. An bird cries overhead, my boots clop softly on the dirt, my pack creaks a bit, otherwise all is miraculously silent: no airplanes overhead, no sirens, no traffic, the train is too far off to be heard.

Sami Hut on the Kungsleden  - Kings Trail - King of TrailsThe Kungsleden takes me south, through the Abiskojakka Canyon. To my left a hulking plateau ramps up and then drops off sharply. To my right, the Abiskojakka river plays hide and seek with the Kings Trail. Aluminum bridges cross tributaries that join from the East. When my water runs low, I scramble down banks of ice-crushed gravel to refresh my bottle with sweet, numbingly cold water. These brooks and rivers all feed the Abiskojaure lake, on the other side of which lies today’s destination.

As the sky begins to clear, I pass a traditional Sami shelter. Like a scruffy boulder, this sod-covered igloo sits on a treeless mound. Unpainted boards block the window and door. A thin, rusty duct pipe extends through the roof from what must be a small stove inside. A clumsy haircut of grass grows from the top. Off to the right, a chair, of dry crooked tree trunks, sits patiently vacant.

I gawk for a moment at this reminder of the subsistent, nomadic life that is vanishing as the Sami people relocate to the suburbs of Stockholm. Then I humbly cinch up my Goretex® pack and continue down the Kings Trail.

After two more hours of blue skies and rolling greenery, I catch up with Charles. He is sitting on a lichen-covered stone with his rucksack beside him.

“How’s your shin?” he asks.

Abiskojaure fjällstuga (Hut) on the Kungsleden - Kings Trail - King of Trails
“A little sore” I say. “We’ll see tomorrow morning.”

From the fork in the trail it is clear that our tent-site, the Fjällstuga Abiskojaure, is just across the Kamajakka River. We cross a suspension bridge, our largest yet, and arrive with plenty of daylight to set up our two solo tents. Even with all of my fiddling, the entire day’s hike has still taken less than six hours.

The Abiskojaure hut consists of a supply store, a bunk house, a flag pole and an arsenal of large aluminum propane canisters. Approaching the store we meet a jovial, middle-aged woman who shares the task of hut warden with her husband. We kick off our boots before entering the carefully swept little room. The shelves display a sparse collection of trail goods: maps, bug spray, canned meatballs and freeze-dried blueberry soup. I buy a soft drink, a post card and a small round patch – like a Boy Scout badge. The patch is trimmed in blue and yellow with what appears to be a white grouse-like bird in the center. The camping fee is about $10. The meatballs are calling to me but I leave them unmolested. I am determined to eat my 20 pounds of food.

We pitch our tents behind the store and spread our meals on a picnic table. My dinner is a fishy tuna-noodle casserole cooked over a homemade “cat” stove. The stove is built of cat food tins, punctured and fitted around a fiberglass wick. Charles found the design on an ultra-light camping web site, along with plans for his own “penny” stove. Mine takes two bottle caps of denatured alcohol to boil a pot of water, whereas his takes only one. But his stove is trickier to build and, as I did not care to explain a fully-built penny stove to a vigilant airport security officer, I opted to carry the pieces for the simpler model and build it on the train.

After dinner, in the dimming light of the sunset, I walk a quarter mile through the woods to the sandy shore of Abiskojaure Lake. I throw my clothes over a bush and wade into the cold water. I walk and walk until it feels like I’ll soon be standing buck-naked in the center of the lake -- but the sandy bottom doesn’t drop off. Self-consciousness finally overtakes me, as does the stinging, frigid water numbing my legs, so I plunge in, grab a handful of sand and scrub like a penitent. Sixty seconds later I am sprinting back toward the shore to the warmth of my dry clothes.

As I return to the campsite and crawl into my cramped little tent, Charles disappears into the woods on his way to the beach. He carries two one-liter bottles of water he has been heating. In his pocket is a perforated bottle cap. Through this homemade contraption he will squeeze out a warm, makeshift shower. For an ultra-light hiker, Charles travels in style.

Day 2
The next morning we break camp early. It was cold last night, perhaps close to freezing, but the weather gets warmer as the sun comes out. So far we have seen no mosquitoes. This goes against everything I’ve read about this hike, a pleasant surprise.

The biggest danger in this region is the weather. Arctic Sweden is notoriously cold, wet and capable of producing deadly storms on very short notice. Both Charles and I are playing our edge, traveling with minimal gear and sleeping in tents. In a pinch, we can sleep in a cabin but that doesn’t help between huts. Last night, around 2 AM, I had to layer on most of my spare clothes just to stay warm. This was, quite literally, a rude awakening. However, if I am ever too cold and without other options, I still have one last resort: my reflective metallic blanket. This thin plastic sheet could be the only thing between life and hypothermia. If it comes to holing up, I’m fairly sure I can ride out a storm.

Happily, the outlook for today looks fine. Despite some threatening clouds last night, the weather remained mostly dry with just a little rain between ten and midnight. By the time I roll my tent tightly and slide it into the nylon sheath, there is just a hint of dampness on the fabric. I breakfast on oatmeal with raisins and reconstituted milk. Charles warms up some leftovers. We both drink tea but Charles takes his twice as strong.

Alesjaure Lake Kungsleden - Kings Trail - King of Trails
We retrace our steps across the Kamajakka River bridge. On the opposite side, we rejoin the Kungsleden and continue south. Two and a half miles further we cross a wooden bridge only three planks wide. It bounces like a bungee over the rushing Kieronjakka River. I give Charles my camera and he takes a video clip of me walking across. From here we begin our ascent up the plateau to the west of the Alesjaure Lake.

From the wind-swept plateau we can see for miles. Boulders litter patchy fields of stone, moss, grass and gravel. The scenery is dominated by the mountains, the most dramatic of which rise up to our left beyond the Alesjaure Lake. Many of the peaks have snow fields, and some are crowned with funnel-like craters that pour glacial snow down rocky chutes into the valley. Few of the mountains are very tall but even 1000 feet can make an extreme difference in the arctic.

With this grand view, we can each hike at our own pace with line-of-sight contact for miles. Today I hang back intentionally and let Charles hike on ahead. I have something that I hope to leave behind if the ground is not too stony.

Here the Kungsleden is a strip of gravel that runs through a barren landscape where the topsoil struggles to keep the stony ground covered. Down by the lake there are teepees and small red and black buildings. These are seasonal villages where the Sami stay when herding their reindeer. But that was earlier in the summer. Today the villages appear deserted.

Our goal today is Alesjaurestugorna, the hut at the end of the Alesjaure Lake. It comes into view many miles before we reach it and then hovers in the distance, seeming to get no closer. On my left, the lake meanders slowly along the valley floor, more like a flood plain of sand bars and islets than a cohesive body of water. On the ledge, overlooking the lake, a small boulder field appears. This is the perfect spot for my little project. I wander off the Kungsleden looking for a distinctive boulder that might remain unmoved and recognizable through snow, wind and rain, for twenty years or more. With my GPS, I carefully make a record of the coordinates. I take multiple readings as well as photographs from two perspectives, aware that it may be difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to ever find this precise location again. From my pack I remove a keepsake and a note, wrapped carefully in several thick plastic bags. If nothing else survives, the keepsake should. It is for my children to find if they ever choose to follow in my footsteps.

Camping at Alesjaurestugorna Kungsleden - Kings Trail - King of TrailsWalking again, Alesjaurestugorna finally seems reachable. There are at least five buildingd as well as a sauna that hangs on a cliff above the lake below. Across the water, to the North East of this enclave, stands a larger Sami village of three dozen quaint red wooden box houses. In early July, the Sami herd their reindeer to this place using helicopters and other modern equipment. They mark their herds, working through the night until all of the animals have been tagged. This village, too, is vacant now. Most Sami have moved to the city, returning once or twice every year to renew their ties to the land. I am still hoping to meet one of the natives while I am here but my hopes are quickly fading.

I catch up with Charles at Alesjaurestugorna. He has claimed a patch of ground for us in a cul-de-sac, on the lee side of a long bunkhouse. I drop my pack on a flat patch of moss and walk to the office to register.

For those who choose to sleep inside, Alesjaurestugorna has 86 beds. It offers “conference facilities” but that boggles the mind just a bit. Hiking the Kungsleden would be one heck of a commute for attendees. At the reception desk we meet the mortician from the train. He’ll be serving here for two weeks as a relief hut warden. He seems nice enough but we haven't really bonded, and it seems unlikely that we will do so tonight. We scout out the larder and discover that, in addition to the staple foods, this hut also sells patches very similar to the one I bought last night. The patch of this hut has the same blue and yellow format, only with a different bird in the center: a soaring brown and gray hawk. I buy this from the mortician, hoping to buy one from every hut hereafter. There’s something about trekking that brings out the Boy Scout in a man. I also buy a metal tube of cream cheese with small bits of reindeer meat mixed in. The idea of eating reindeer from a toothpaste tube catches my fancy. I will save it for my lunch tomorrow.

At dinner we use kitchen facilities for the first time. As campers, we are allowed two hours there to cook our dinner and enjoy the homey warmth. The room smells of wood smoke and the walls are of knotty pine varnished yellow. The benches and tables are also of pine and the windows frame the mountains so beautifully that one wonders why they bother hanging cheap posters. The bottled gas burners take some practice but, once mastered, they work as well as an ordinary gas stove. While there is a certain appeal to cooking over my own little cat stove, it suddenly feels rather primitive. Cooking over a large burner with real utensils is so much more convenient. And eating with candlelight and tableware is luxurious. There is a wood burning stove for drying and warmth and, as it is growing quite chilly outside, we are pleased to enjoy two cozy hours here.

Tonight I eat creamed salmon on egg noodles. The diet that I planned for myself offers very little variety. Swedish meatballs are calling but the more I eat from my pack, the less I have to carry tomorrow. I am hoping my pack will be ten pounds lighter after five days of this. That, as well as my stingy pride, keeps me frugal though somewhat unsatisfied.

Despite the dull monotony of my dinner, there is really only one truly unpleasant feature in the kitchen. This is the “slask“ -- ominous, smelly, unavoidable. The term refers to the buckets of dirty dishwater and food scrap slop that collect under the sink basins. As running water is nonexistent in these huts, one must carry in fresh water and take out the slask. There’s a ring of orange grease around the waterline of every bucket, and I can think of no better word than “slask” for this disgusting slurry of meat bits, spaghetti strands and vegetable chunks.

Moon Over Alesjaurestugorna, Kings Trail SwedenEach slask bucket must be emptied into a plywood box several yards away from the hut. Here the water is strained through a protective screen of chicken wire stretched across the open top, perhaps to collect stray tableware. Below the box is a pit of unspeakable broth. Charles and I want to be good guests, so we each haul a bucket to this loathsome bin.

After dinner we crawl into our tents to listen to the hiss of the wind blowing through the valley. Thankful that we are protected in our cul-de-sac, I wonder whether my clothing will protect me on the high Tjaktja pass if we meet foul weather. Tomorrow we will take that test and will find out if we are truly prepared for the Kungsleden's biggest challenge.

I doze off quickly but am awakened by a bright moon that hovers over, and illuminates, the Sami village. I step out of the tent and attempt to take a picture but it does not come out: just a bright white splotch in a dark black frame. So much for my digital camera.

Day 3
By morning the wind has died and the mosquitoes are vicious. I try to cook my oats quickly over my small stove but Charles is much quicker using the real kitchen. I am holding up progress again, all thumbs with the bug-netting over my head and three layers of clothing to protect myself from the little flying vampires. Charles thinks I look like a poor Russian soldier at Stalingrad, covered in layers of dirty clothes, bent over my little pan of gruel, swatting at bugs. He takes a short video clip of me crouched there on my rock as I describe the scenery in pseudo-Russian gibberish.

While filling our water bottles from large plastic tanks in front of the store, we meet a German hiker named Hans. In addition to English, he speaks fluent Swedish, quite rare for a foreigner, and seemingly not necessary as everyone speaks English as well as we do. We have several Alpine hikes in common and immediately find things to talk about. During the conversation we remark about how friendly the Swedes have been to us. He corrects us with typically Germanic precision: “They are polite, not friendly.”

I bristle a bit at this. So far, the Swedes have been hospitable, gracious and, by-the-by, darned good looking. They are exactly what every nationality aspires to be. They are certainly polite – but are they friendly, and how do we know the difference? The question will have to remain unanswered for the time being as we do not yet really know any Swedes.

Bluff Near Tjaktja Pass Kungsleden - Kings Trail - King of TrailsToday we plan to hike a double leg. The weather is clear but windy. We set off toward Tjaktja pass, the highest point on our hike and, arguably, the most dangerous. As a double leg it’s a gamble. Generally, Kungsleden hikers stop at the Tjaktja hut, somewhat short of the full elevation and protected from the wind that is said to rip through the pass. But Tjaktja hut does not sound very tempting. We have heard it described as “barren and desolate”, offering no provisions but only bunks. We do not need bunks and prefer not to camp on bare gravel. So if we can make it to Salka, the next hut beyond, we will be much more comfortable. As further incentive, I promise myself that if we reach Salka before the store closes, I will reward myself with a can of Swedish meatballs.

At the beginning of the day, the Kings Trail is easy going. Two tall, blonde Swedish men follow us. They are friendly (or perhaps just polite?) and seem intelligent. One is a programmer with the cell phone company Ericsson, the other a college professor. Both are young, intelligent and look like poster boys for the US Marines. Together we break for a snack of Wasa crackers and reindeer paste on a grassy bank of the shrinking river.

The reindeer paste is quite good. Like bits of ham, the reindeer tastes comfortably familiar to my American palate. This type of cheese comes in other varieties like chive, salmon, vegetable and, of course, plain. It’s a bit like Cheese Wizz for the healthy hiker -- but it’s in a tube. Aside from sodium levels that would worry some folks, it is not at all bad stuff. I only wish I had some beer to wash it down.

These Swedish guys are, indeed, hard to befriend. We do our best, trying to convince them that they should hike with us all the way to Salka. Misery loves company, and hiking a double leg is certainly a fair recipe for misery. They are not sure. One of them has a pain in his knee that is concerning him. They might take the challenge but are not making any promises.

By early afternoon we are level with Tjaktja hut. Looking to our right, across a dry ravine, we see two small brown cabins with an outhouse and a flag flying stiffly in the wind. The tiny encampment sits between large swaths of scree under a granite ledge that resembles nothing so much as Dr. Frankenstein’s monster’s forehead. There is no possibility of pitching a tent on that rocky patch, and the hut seems hardly worth visiting. Desolate is exactly right.

“Do you want to check it out?” I ask Charles as we stand, braced against the steady wind.

“No point” he replies.

“Check out that flag” I say, noticing the stiffly snapping banner on the Tjaktja flag pole.

“Yeah, we’ve got time to reach Salka. I’m not interested in staying in that God forsaken place.”

Tjaktja Pass Hut KungsledenWe estimate two hours to the top of the pass. The wind is already at least twenty miles per hour. The Kungsleden has become quite rugged. Granite stones obscure the foot path and we each pick our own route through the rubble. It would be difficult to lose one’s way because we follow a narrowing valley that is still distinct from the walls on either side. There is the occasional cairn and bald patches of beaten down dirt connect the stones into various meandering lines that cross, diverge and, invariably, cross again.

As we climb, our feet grow sore. The dirt disappears and it is all loose rock. The wind tries to drive us back, slowing our progress to a torturous crawl. Although only 3773 feet, the weather today at Tjaktja pass seems, to my New England sensibilities, roughly equivalent to a cool day on Mount Washington. A windswept fog rushes over us like water pouring down from the pass. This climb seems to take ages, and we must literally fight our way up the incline.

The effort raises a sweat which, if we need to stop, could quickly turn this day hike into a dangerous hypothermic nightmare. Hard work keeps our minds off the ever-present danger. Our only thought is to make it to the top.

After two hours we are finally within reach of the emergency shelter, the wind crashing around us like a riptide. Charles gets there first and I make a slow-motion dash, Steve Austin style, and slam the door closed behind us. Inside the air is still but the wind whistles around the steep roofline and we marvel at the solidity of Swedish carpentry. The tiny building smells of stale cinders and, although cold and empty, is permeated with the greasy smell of sweat. We pause for only fifteen minutes in the claustrophobic hut, eating our crackers and reindeer paste, breathing sparingly. The building, perhaps twelve foot square, is crowded with ghosts. Dirty benches line the walls and it is easy to picture eight or ten stranded hikers sleeping above and below them. We eat quickly with dirty hands, hats pulled down over our ears, talking about our sore feet and the Swedish meatballs that we have promised ourselves for dinner.

Salka Hut on the KungsledenDescending on the other side of the pass, even for the weary, looks like a synch. With every step the wind softens. It is still no short walk to Salka, and our legs and feet become shaky as the day progresses. As we descend further, we find ourselves walking through patches of meadow in the crushed rock ground. Downy cotton-ball flowers, scattered in the grass, lean away from the breeze like windsocks. The green hills to the West and the red-brown hills to the East grow taller. In the distance a powder blue ridge cuts a jagged horizon. Clouds race above our heads, their shadows drifting like jellyfish over the grassy valley.

Salka appears suddenly. It consists of five brown wooden building with a sauna and a welcoming stockpile of split wood. Behind the main bunk house a patch of purple flowers rolls down the embankment to the river close by. We drop our packs outside the door of the main building and enter the store for provisions. I pick up a Sixteen-ounce can of meat balls that might pass for dog food back home. Here they could just as well be rib eye steak. We pay the hut mistress, a blonde 22-year-old knockout as we hobble, there's no helping it, to the kitchen.

I can’t say enough about the comforts of this place. Dinner is delicious. Of course, after a 15-mile hike, almost anything would taste good. I am sure that my endorphins must be playing tricks on me, but I am so happy I could almost burst. After I wash my dishes and empty the slask, I pitch my tent by the river, almost certainly in a flood zone, and head for the store to barter for a sauna ticket. The Salka staff is friendly. They are glad to trade me a ticket for some tuna packets that I am tired of carrying. They point me toward an outbuilding at the edge of this little settlement.

In front of the sauna building there is a small porch with three pair of boots. I take off my Crocs® and enter the anteroom. The yellow pine walls are lined with hooks. Wrestling with the remnants of my Puritanical sensibilities, it takes some steeling of the nerves to leave my clothes hanging and walk naked into a room of full strangers. My movements are mechanical, awkward and shaky even though the air is quite comfortably warm.

Before the steam room one enters a rustic washroom, empty except for three buckets, a broom and a ladle. There is a drain in the floor. Through the window in the sauna door I can see nothing at all so I take a deep breath, open the door and step inside, hoping with all my heart that I won’t be severely underdressed.

On the benches in front of me, like an audience, sit two young men and a woman. I smile with relief, noting quickly that everyone else is as naked as I. They greet me like a friend. I am immediately comfortable with them. Adolfus is a high school student hiking with his father, who is already sleeping in their tent. He sits on the top tier, politely quiet. The other two are a couple in their young twenties. Erik has long, fair hair and a scraggly, bearded chin. He leans against the far wall, one knee to his chest, carefree and unabashed. Emelie, his attractive, dark-haired girlfriend, sits apart from him on the second bench from the top. She leans forward with her hands at her sides and her shoulders hunched up, relaxed and unselfconscious. It is a healthy, fine-figured group, and I can’t help thinking that, aesthetically, I bring very little to this table. Still, they welcome me in perfect English and put me at ease with their self-confidence.

After Erik demonstrates how to fill the boiler on top of the stove and stoke the fire below, we find many other things to talk about. Erik and Emelie are avid hikers, having done many of the famous European hikes together: the Haute Route through Switzerland; several treks in Austria and Italy; the St. James’ Trail through the Pyrenees and others. They have even hiked the Inca Trail in Peru. For their age, they have covered a lot of ground. They plan, next summer, to hike in the mountains of Corsica.

Soon we are chatting away as if sitting at a backyard barbeque. Erik and Emile explain that they work all winter in group-homes with the disabled. It pays well, provides room and board, and allows them to save all their money for six months at a time. Then they travel for the other half of the year. They tour on a shoestring budget and this sauna is a luxurious splurge. They have made the best of it, though, sitting here for two hours already.

Adolfus mostly stares at the floor. I ask where he is from and he says outside of Stockholm. That seems to be everyone’s answer. From his shy downward stare, it is clear that, even as a Swede, sitting naked in a sauna is still a bit awkward for him.

The young couple suggests that I join them in a sprint and a dunk in the icy stream. Determined to experience every aspect of this Kungsleden ritual, I agree with a lump in my throat. I know, from experience, that the water will be frigid. We are higher up now than my first swim and the idea of going from one hundred fifty degrees to thirty-five seems a bit edgy.

They sprint out the door and I follow behind, miscalculating the wetness on my feet and the slickness of the porch. Wham! Down I go, right on my tailbone. I sit there for five seconds, stunned but uninjured.

“Shit! Are you alright?” Erik asks.

“Yeah, fine.” I say, not really certain, and we laugh it off, walking more carefully to the rushing stream.

“This is a deeper spot. You have to lie down right here.” Emelie explains. I hesitate -- but what the hell, I’m already naked with strangers in the arctic, red as a lobster and standing in ice-water. Why not?

Emelie is, by now, lying on her back, completely submerged -- a rippling sprite, in an icy-cold bed. Erik joins her in a backward plunge. I hold my breath and do the same.

The water, in a frigid embrace, wraps around my body. My skin tightens like shrink wrap. All I can hear is churning crushed gravel. My heartbeat has stopped I think. Will it start again? I lay under the water for what seems to me a very respectable split-second then sit bolt upright and scramble up the bank.

“You didn’t stay in long enough!” Erik shouts.

“Long enough for me!” I reply over my shoulder as I jog back to the sauna.

After steaming for another half hour we call it a night. In the washroom I ladle warm water over my head and then dry off with my small hand towel. Aside from clean under shorts, all of my clothes are now dirty. Still I’m warm and relaxed and ready for bed.Salka Stugorna on the Kungsleden

Day 4
It is my fourth morning of oatmeal with raisins and powdered milk. The tea is the highlight of the meal. I never get tired of tea. At home I rarely get tired of oatmeal but today I’d kill for an omelet.

Over this breakfast, cooked in the warmth of the bunkhouse kitchen, Charles and I agree to hike another double leg, bypass Singi hut and head straight for Kaitumjaure. It has been our plan from the start to cover as many miles as we can safely cover. Today we had scheduled another two sections and we are both well-rested and eager to try.

As we start down the Kings Trail again I glance back and wonder if this day can possibly beat the first four. Five minutes beyond the last building I see Erik and Emelie breaking camp by the river. Emelie is wearing a wrap-around skirt, an old woolen sweater and a red scarf over her hair. Erik’s long hair is braided down his back. Clothed they look like a pair of gypsies, which surprises and amuses me. We exchange smiles and a wave, and I realize that Hans was wrong. Erik and Emelie are as friendly as any Americans. I regret not having asked for their email addresses last night but it seemed oddly forward, given the circumstances.

Reindeer (Caribou) on the TjaktjavaggeWe entered the green Tjaktjavagge, when we crossed the Tjaktja pass yesterday. From context I realize that “Vagge” must mean valley in Lapp or in Swedish. This morning, blue-gray clouds blow down from the glaciers to our east. Rain threatens and I am glad we are over yesterday's hurdle. But will we make Kaitumjaure today? If the weather turns foul, we may have to sleep at Singi.

Singi has no store. To cut down on pack weight, I traded three pounds of food at Salka and left another seven pounds in the kitchen cupboard. If we don’t make Kaitumjaure, I will need to break into “emergency” rations. I’m hoping for my new favorite dinner, canned Swedish meatballs, so I‘d rather not bother with Singi.

Sami Hut Skeleton on TjaktjavaggeThe landscape is all moss and grass, and the path winds through miles of rolling, primeval fields strewn with rocks and low bushes. For four days we’ve wandered through caribou country with hardly a sign of a reindeer. This morning they finally appear. Within the first hour we spot a small herd up ahead to the west. I put down my camera and zoom in on three reindeer who stare back at me. I get my fuzzy trophy shot before they scatter.

Pausing, I swallow two aspirin. My right ankle may just be mildly sprained. Could I have twisted it yesterday outside the sauna? I tighten my right boot to add some support, careful not to aggravate the healing bruise from three days ago. I console myself with the thought that every day on the trail always brings some new pain. By the end of today I should know if I’m in trouble.

The stark, grey scenery distracts me from the ankle. There’s a faded red blaze on a rock with an antler leant against it. A bit later I see a pyramid of branches, like bleached bones in the sun, the skeletal remainder of an old Sami hut. Nearby we find a pile of eight antlers. We pick them up, rearrange them and leave them for somebody else to discover.

Along this stretch of the Kungsleden, the mountains and glaciers are supposed to be quite beautiful. Unfortunately we see very little of this “roof of Sweden”, catching only rare glances through the clouds. We can barely recognize Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain, to our left. Many of the hikers we’ve met will be heading that way, over Kebnekaise’s peak, while we continue south for at least another five days. If we bypass Singi today, we’ll be at our half-way mark.

From Salka to Singi the distance is only about 7 miles. The weather still threatens but the walking is good and my ankle is bearing up. We reach Singi by 12:30 in light drizzle and swarming mosquitoes. If I briefly consider staying, that thought fades quickly when we confirm that there is no food for sale. It is still early, the bugs are outrageous, and there is nothing to tempt us to stay.

Canyon Near Kaitumjaure Hut on the KungsledenIt should be another 4 hours, about 8 miles, to Kaitumjaure. After a five minute break, and two dozen mosquito bites, we hoist up our packs. Several other hikers try to stop us from leaving. “It is too far” says an earnest young woman. “You should stay,” adds her boyfriend, “it is too dangerous.” We hear that a lot when we do double-legs -- especially in the rain. Once a person settles in for the night, the idea of some other hiker carrying on becomes unthinkable. So we’ve learned to just smile. To stay means ten hours of boredom. I’d rather be hiking.

There is something cathartic about a good, long walk. It is the best way I know to my worries behind.

Despite the hovering dark clouds, and the occasional ankle throb, the view grows more striking with every new mile. The birches have begun to turn yellow with the season, and the stubby forests are flecked with color. These trees are the edging on what has become an immense plateau rolling down to a vast blue river. The river has carved a broad valley between cliffs that stand like castles, layered into the distance, each bluer than the last, until they disappear around a bend.

Kaitumjaure Stugorna Hut KungsledenThe Kaitumjaure hut overlooks this dazzling scenery. We descend to the hut overawed. The rain now begins more in earnest and leaves us no dry spot to camp. A warm bed is appealing after three nights in a tent so we allow ourselves the luxury of an evening indoors and happily settle into the kitchen. Rejecting the meatballs for a well-deserved carbohydrate feast, I cook up a pile of spaghetti with pesto and complement it with reconstituted wild mushroom soup from the store. The soup is creamy and delicious and the spaghetti is satisfying. What it lacks in nutrition, it makes up for in calories. I’ll catch up on green vegetables next week.

The beds are equipped with rough woolen blankets but I prefer the comfort of my own sleeping bag. In the middle of the night I begrudgingly leave this luxurious warmth for the call of necessity. In the fog, my headlamp beam is a bright white light-saber. The air is cold, and the outhouse is dank and dark, making me think of a casket. The smell of cedar mingles with the sickly sweet odor of decomposing waste. Outside, the crickets chirp slowly; I finish as quickly as possible.

Jogging back, I slip on the damp stones. I have to stop doing that.

Day 5
Instead of breakfasting at the hut, we get an early start and hire a lonely ferryman to motor us across the river. He drops us at a listing pier on a rocky beach, then returns to the opposite shore. Charles fills his bottle from the river, and we snack on Wasa crackers and reindeer cheese.

The river and sky are crystal blue today. The storm has passed, leaving the air crisp, clear and cold. It is our goal to make Saltoluokta Tourist Station by the evening but we are handicapped with the necessity of crossing three rivers. To make matters more difficult, we must take a bus from Vakkotavare to our final river crossing. It is a long shot but Saltoluokta is the pearl of the Kungsleden. There is a sauna, hot showers and a restaurant reputed to serve unforgettable meals.

The stark Moors of the KungsledenThe beach backs up to a steep cliff up which we must climb. It is slow going at first but once over the top a deep blue sky and cotton ball clouds drift over our heads. Before us, a topographical map of mottled green, grey and brown stretches almost as far as the eye can see. There is hardly a tree, and fresh snow fills the hollows of neighboring hills.

We reach a small hut called Teusajaure and try to cajole the surly hut master into taking us across the next river. He eyes us warily and says that he can’t make change. We pool our odd Krona coins and scrounge out our fares to the penny. With a begrudging mumble he finally agrees, tossing down his broom in a gesture of sulky contempt.

With all of these rivers, I am glad that motor boats have come to the Arctic. I cannot imagine rowing across, like the outdated Kungsleden guidebook suggests. Often the trail on the far side is miles upstream. And today the wind blows in angry gusts across the water.

Above the ledge on the far side of the river, the scenery is lonesome, fantastic and vast. A range of triangular mountains appears, their peaks rise like teeth from gums of enormous glaciers. They seem to lie below us but this is clearly an optical illusion.

Lonely Tree on the KungsledenBy lunchtime we realize that the hiking is taking longer than we foresaw. I become more eager to make time but the hours keep passing on this endless, rocky plateau. Trekking today is like a dream where I’m running in place. In this middle-of-nowhere land, the Kungsleden is sometimes hardly more than a nervous groove cut through the thin topsoil, or a strip of exposed stones with occasional cairns, like lighthouses in a wide green sea. There is no sign of an end, only miles of mossy landscape with the occasional stunted tree or shallow blue pond.

Charles has been walking more slowly today. Every day so far he has led our hike. Now I find myself standing on elephant sized boulders, squinting back to be certain I haven’t lost him in all this vast tundra. The random stones grow larger still as he falls further behind. I climb to the top of a monstrous one, the size of a two storey house, and lie there to wait for him.

When he finally appears he is visibly pained by a twisted ankle and knee. We decide to stick together for the rest of the day and are finally rewarded with a view of the next enormous river from the end of the plateau. I don’t take much time to appreciate the scenery. Instead I make a headlong run down the embankment to see if we can still catch the bus. I jog full-tilt down the brown, rocky trail. This is stupid and reckless, especially given the uncertain state of my ankle, but the thought of a real tourist station, a hot shower and a gourmet meal makes me completely irrational.

At the bottom of the hill sits Vakkotavare like a double-wide trailer by the side of the road. I throw off my pack, struggle out of my boots and stumble through the door, sweat rolling down my face. “When is the next bus?” I ask the startled hut master.

“Not until 11:15 tomorrow morning,” he replies. “Why are you in such a rush?”

I explain that we are eager to get to Saltoluokta and I realize, too late, that he takes this very personally. “Why don’t you want to stay here?” he asks, with an edge in his voice.

From there things just get worse. The man seems almost eager to take offense. He deals with us curtly, appears sulky when we say that we’ll be sleeping in our tents, and retires to his room before we even make dinner, leaving us with curt instructions about cleaning the kitchen when we are done. In his antisocial behavior I recognize signs of alcoholism and Charles agrees. But this doesn’t make it any less awkward.

By the time we have cooked, eaten and cleaned up, it is spitting rain outside. I crawl into my low, damp tent and read myself to sleep – awakening at midnight to realize that we forgot to take out the slask.

Day 6
Vakkotavare Stugorna on the Kungsleden
Early the next morning we rise from a sleepless night and enter the hut to cook breakfast. The warden sits in a rocking chair by the crackling wood stove and seems hardly to notice our arrival.

During breakfast a young German woman arrives and the tension is momentarily broken. She has been alone in the mountains of arctic Sweden for the past ten days. She speaks fluent English but Charles prefers to practice his German so the two of them chat while I read. Lapsing back into English they talk about similarities between German and Swedish, and Charles remarks that sometimes he understands Swedish words and phrases because of this. At this point, the warden stands up abruptly and says to Charles “I want to show you something.”

We are all a bit surprised by this sudden activity from the otherwise taciturn warden. Charles shrugs, I put down my book and we all pause and wait for the man to emerge from his room.

The warden returns and sits down close to Charles -- too close by North American standards. Charles is sitting on a bench behind a table with walls both to his right and behind him. Now he is awkwardly cornered, the hut warden blocking him in.

The man opens a large book, written in Swedish, and begins pointing to phrases on the page. “Can you translate this for me?” He asks. “No” replies Charles. “What about this?”

Turning page after page, the warden continues with this bizarre interrogation, confirming again and again that Charles cannot easily translate this book from Swedish to English.

Finally Charles’ patience wears thin. “Why are you asking me this?” he says.

But the quirky warden persists, as if he does not hear. He flips through another few pages and Charles, who stands 6’4” and weighs at least 200 pounds, now looks about ready to flatten him.

Suddenly the warden stops, closes the book and looks Charles directly in the eye. “You said that you could understand Swedish.” He says, “I wanted to see if you really could. If not, you should not have said it.”

There is a silence and I am frozen, waiting to see what will happen next.

“Get out of my way.” Charles says standing up, almost knocking the man off of the bench.

The warden stumbles backwards and lets Charles pass. “Take it the right way.” He says, realizing, too late, that he has pushed things too far. “Take it the right way.”

Charles grabs his backpack, throws his pots and pans into a plastic bag and storms out of the hut. The lunatic warden is still begging Charles to “take it the right way” as the door slams shut.

I follow Charles, scrambling to gather my own things.

“What the Hell was that?” Charles exclaims as I catch up with him near the road.

“I have no idea.” I reply. I have never seen Charles so angry.

The bus ride is longer than I had anticipated. Half way through we stop at a small shop with a diner-style restaurant and trinkets for sale. I buy a cold Coke and a donut, thinking I’ll treat myself to some refined sugar, but they taste disgusting. I end up drinking my water instead.

Saltoluokta fjällstation Kungsleden Tourist StationThe bus line terminates near a rustic boat landing. We walk down a short drive where a crowd of tourists is already queued up. If they are waiting for the boat, it’s going to be a crowd. As it turns out, they are waiting for the bus.

We negotiate the fare with some clumsiness but no real trouble. It is run by Samis who speak no English. It seems we’ve discovered what the remaining natives are doing when they are not herding reindeer.

Charles reports that his ankle and knee are feeling much better. He will be ready to hike again this afternoon. We can stay nearly on track if we get moving again directly after lunch. Staying at Vakkotovarre last night has set us back at least half a day. We have some time to spare but we had hoped to use that time for further hiking.

From the far side of the lake it is a short walk to Saltoluokta. We are just in time for lunch, an unbelievable all-you-can-eat buffet of poached local salmon, asparagus, freshly baked bread and a drink made from the juice of local berries. Perhaps it is just our recent trail food diet but Charles agrees that this is some of the very best fish either of us has ever eaten.

With full stomachs and a taste of the local comforts, we consider the possibility of staying for the night. We enquire about a room and discover that beds can be had for 270 kronor, about $40 dollars. The young man at the desk says that we should be able to have a room to ourselves. It is too tempting to resist. “Can I pay in advance?“ I ask, but the desk clerk prefers that I pay after dinner. The total cost can’t be calculated as of yet. It is an odd system, considering that the dinner appears to be prix fix, but I don’t argue.

Charles insists on paying in advance and decides to skip dinner. Charles likes his peace and quiet and we often split up at times like these. I like hiking with him because he takes space for himself and gives me mine. I once told him that hiking with him was like hiking alone. I intended it as a compliment but it didn’t really sound that way I guess.

Our room is painted with layers of white chipping paint. It reminds me of a hostel room, with six wooden bunks and a beat-up pine table. There’s a gas stove in the old fireplace and we soon have it cooking with sink-washed clothes draped all around. It is not spacious for six, perhaps twelve foot by sixteen, but it is a corner room with windows on two sides looking into the forest and, as promised, there are only the two of us.

After the wash-up, I go to take a Swedish sauna. It is not co-ed, unlike the sauna at Salka, and my only companion is John, a sad, middle-aged man who tells me that he’s been wandering with only a tent, a compass and some dried food for the past ten days. During this hiking he has seen no one, so this is his first conversation. He is taking some time off from caring for his wife, an invalid, who needs complete assistance. She was paralyzed several years ago. He describes how he took her on one final hike after her accident. He alternated between carrying his backpack and carrying his wife. His greatest guilt, beyond leaving his wife at home, is his neglect of the garden. She always cared for the garden and he has no knack for it. So it has gone to weeds and he wishes he could find someone to tend it for him.

It is a pitiful story. I feel very sorry for John but his company is making me depressed. After a half an hour of this monologue I politely excuse myself, take a nice cool shower and go in search of a quiet place to write in my journal.

In the main foyer there is a fireplace with an empty rocking chair and a wide hearth upon which to warm my feet. I make myself comfortable but have no sooner settled than I am joined again by John who, clearly, did not take the hint. He still wants to talk, and the fact that I neither put down my journal nor my pen does not stop him from starting up right where he left off. He seems to think that I can advise him on how to live with perpetual bereavement. So I put down my journal and listen. I suggest that he needs to get out more often and hike, perhaps, on well-traveled paths, for the camaraderie if for no other reason.

“But this is how we always hiked” he says. “We always hiked in the wilderness, not with other people.”

Hiking has become a penance, much like the rest of his life. His is a hard lot and enough to make the strongest man miserable. So I listen for two more hours, then it is time for dinner. John is not eating dinner in the restaurant so I am at last free to find some new acquaintances.

I sit at a large table with seven other guests including three young women from Stockholm and a sixty five year old man who started the Kungsleden alone but has bonded with them in a grandfatherly sort of way. For the past eight days this foursome has been hiking together. They are all fast friends and I, the odd man out, receive a polite but lukewarm reception.

The dinner, however, is perfectly done. It starts with a salad of wild greens, slivers of pickled onion and fresh tomatoes. Next is the main course of caribou with capers and scalloped potatoes. The caribou has the flavor of an excellent beef but with the smooth texture of calf’s liver. For dessert there is a wild berry crumble. With every bite I am thrown into ecstasy. I couldn’t care less about the cold company; I am in heaven. If I ever have the chance I will return to Saltoluokta, the Valhalla of long-trail hikers.

When I return to the room, Charles is already asleep. I check the dampness of my socks, rearrange them to get the full benefit of the stove’s warmth, and quickly fall into blissful sleep.

Rainbow Over Kungsleden Long Distance TrailDay 7
The next morning is a total disaster. Each of us finds a way to anger the hut staff. They are like Jeckyll and Hyde, these people. The same young man who encouraged me to wait and pay last night (the window was closed) now berates me for trying to pay too early in the morning. It seems that the office doesn’t open until after breakfast has been served and cleared. We, however, would like to get going at 8:30. This puts him out in no small way. He makes no attempt to hide a fierce temper, slamming the register drawer and turning his back to my apologies. Then, as we are on our way out, Charles gets in trouble with another young man for walking to the bathroom over a freshly-washed floor. Service with a smile is not to be taken for granted in Sweden.

The day continues to disappoint with a terrible deluge. The Kungsleden is a wet, sloshing mess, the only redeeming feature of which is a beautiful double rainbow. We see little else through the pouring rain and cut our hike short at Sitojaure. This throws us off our goal even further. After making great time for five days, we are now falling behind. Still, there is a silver lining in this cloud in the form of two new friends.

We meet this wonderful couple at Sitojaure, Olivier and Claudia. They are from Munich and speak beautiful English. They are young professionals and avid trekkers, hiking in Sweden for the first time. Olivier is tall, athletic and rosy-cheeked. He wears his headlamp through dinner although, with the candlelight, he never turns it on. Claudia has dark-hair, pretty brown eyes and a slightly pointed chin. The four of us are the only visitors at Sitojaure and we soon feel quite at home with each other.

Claudia by Candle Light Inside Sitojaure Hut on the KungsledenWhen the rain lets up a bit, I take a walk to a Sami village on the rumor that an old hermit there might have some reindeer meat (caribou) to sell. The “path” takes me trudging through waist-deep flood water. The Sami man is irritable and speaks no English. He looks like an aging Eskimo, lives in a tiny shack and just shrugs, uncomprehending, when I try to explain what I am after. I desperately try to pantomime the eating of reindeer but he is clearly unimpressed. Luckily, my hut warden is not far behind and helps me with the transaction. The meat is frozen, packed in reused plastic containers and stored in a chest freezer. His electricity is a mystery as there is none in our hut and no wires to be seen… perhaps they have solar panels somewhere?

I return with nearly four pounds of stew meat which Charles and I fry up in heaps. There is too much for dinner so we save the remainder for breakfast. We eat by candlelight with Olivier and Claudia’s conversation to entertain us. We sleep inside because the rain is far too heavy for tenting. It’s all very cozy, though, and I do not regret the expense. I am getting used to these creature comforts. If I ever hike the Kungsleden again I might just leave my tent at home.

Day 8
It is a blue-sky day but cold. The air has changed with the storm and it feels like we’ve gone from summer to winter in twenty four hours. It is pointless to hike further than Aktse today because, having fallen behind schedule, we must end our hike at Kvikkjokk. We had intended to camp our way across the vast no-man’s land after Kvikkjokk but we no longer have time in our schedule. And although we are both now in reasonably good health, the recent bad weather and ankle twists has given us pause. If we ran into trouble on that stretch of the Kungsleden, the result could be the end of one of us.

After breakfast, the four of us hustle to the river and, because of the flooding, have to trudge through some water to get there. The tiny ferry landing is out of commission, completely under water. Instead, our ferryman has pulled his several boats well up onto the shore. It takes three of us to shift the boat from the beach with icy water pouring into the tops of our boots. The boat is alarmingly small for the five of us. I am thankful for the life jacket provided by our host as the boat leaps the waves that rise up against the brisk wind.

Aktse Stugorna on the King's TrailOn the far shore Charles and I split up as usual. Olivier and Claudia hike together. Periodically we leapfrog each other but Olivier and Claudia are strong hikers and end up mostly ahead. The scenery is becoming somewhat less picturesque - long stretches of moss and rock with few dramatic touches. Or perhaps we are just growing weary. We have a river to cross in the morning and another river in the distance. But we’ve seen so many rivers already. If it were not for our new friends, there would be little to remember of the day.

It is a short hike by our standards, only five or six hours, and we arrive at Aktse to find an empty hut. There is another couple waiting for the store to open and they tell us that the wardens have gone to assist someone with a broken radio. This turns out to be an unfounded rumor, however, because the couple returns an hour later from a day-hike. No radio problems at all. They are both very pleasant and welcoming, curious about what brings us Americans to this part of Sweden. The woman has been to New England, where we are from, so we have something to talk about as I shop for my dinner. The husband has rigged up a funky, makeshift shower which he welcomes us to try. The water is cold but it’s not to be missed by a man in my current condition.

Charles decides that he is going to sleep outside again tonight. I am too addicted to the creature comforts. I no longer feel any desire to sleep on the ground. I settle myself into a bunk and read for several hours before dinner. Olivier and Claudia also decide to camp out so, in this 20-person hut, I am almost alone. I am, however, joined by one other man who soon has my gall rising. He over-stokes the fire, fiddles with his hands and, when Charles appears for dinner, informs him that he’ll be watching the clock. “You only get two hours in the hut if you’re camping out. When you’re done with your dinner you’ll have to leave. Those are the rules.” Why he should be so exclusionary in a big empty hut is incomprehensible. His attention to detail spoils what might otherwise have been a very pleasant evening. Irritated, Charles leaves as soon as he’s done washing up. It is beginning to feel like there may be a high rate of insanity among Swedish male solo-hikers.

I retire early, shutting my door to the heat as the cast iron stove glows red.

River Overflows on the Kings Trail, SwedenDay 9
In the morning I make plenty of noise with my breakfast, hoping to get some revenge on my still-sleeping companion. He rises, ignorant, and tries to make conversation. I ignore him and pack up my things.

There is another river to cross this morning, again with Olivier and Claudia. Shortly thereafter we plan to split. Charles and I are trying for a marathon trek. We hope to reach Kvikkjokk in a double-leg hike that will take us over 24 miles to the end of our journey. I am completely recovered from my ankle injury, and Charles is feeling 95% better.

The boat drops us off at yet another submerged dock. We make it to shore mostly dry and hike up to the day’s plateau. Claudia and Olivier say goodbye and then hang back as we pick up speed. They will be staying at a hut half way to Kvikkjokk. We do not expect to see them again.

River Between Aktse and Kvikkjokk on the King's Trail in SwedenFor the first half of the day, Charles and I stick together a bit more than usual. Although we are both eager to leave the Kungsleden and get back to the comforts of civilization, we realize that our adventure is coming to an end. It may be years before we hike together again. As a new father, Charles is feeling guilty about being away for so long. I am also liable to have a child in the next year or two. There is no telling what impact that will have on my own urge to hike so far from home. So we find more time to talk, going over our vacation, its ups and downs. We have encountered a diverse array of characters and scenery, some of each likeable than others but, as a whole, defying generalization. We have felt warmly welcomed in some places and misunderstood in others. We have experienced camaraderie and solitude, spectacular scenery and dull monotony, extreme pleasure and, also, anger. It is said that the arctic is a region of extremes. This is certainly true of arctic Sweden.

After several hours I begin to take the lead. Charles falls back as we pass under a rocky cliff. The views are, again, quite beautiful. I appreciate them more keenly, knowing that this will be my last day on an arctic plateau. In the distance below us is yet another river. We begin our descent and soon the ground becomes marshy and forested.

By the time I reach the turn off for Parte hut, Charles is nowhere to be seen. I set my pack on some planking at the turn-off and wait, sitting on my pack with my bug net over my hat to shield me from the swarms of mosquitoes. After twenty minutes, Charles appears around the corner, limping slightly but making a strong effort.

“You had better go ahead and reserve us a room,” he says. “I’m not going to move any faster.”

I am concerned about going ahead without him but we have a policy of not second-guessing each other. He has camping equipment and is perfectly capable of bivouacking for a night. If I don’t see him by morning, I’ll go back for him. “OK, I’ll see you there.” I say and start off again as quickly as I can walk.

Kvikkjokk Fjällstation on the KungsledenThis second leg is another six hours, minimum. This time much of the hiking is through conifer forest, and the trees grow more sturdy as I get closer. I am single-minded now. My thoughts are on a good meal and a pint of lager.

My pack has grown lighter over the past several days as I have either ate or left behind the remainder of my food. Each of the huts has a cabinet in which hikers leave non-perishable foods that they no longer wish to carry. I have scattered my supplies between three or four huts. It is amusing to think that these items traveled from Providence, Rhode Island all the way to arctic Sweden only to be left behind for strangers. Perhaps they will marvel at price labels written in dollars. Given the cost of food in these parts, I have no doubt that they will all be eaten.

It is 7:00PM when I finally enter the courtyard of the Kvikkjokk fjällstation. I arrange for two beds and then make my way to the restaurant for my last meal on the Kungsleden. It is only then that I realize how exhausted I am. My legs, limp and wasted, barely carry me up the stairs.

I drop my pack in a corner, noticing only one other table of guests. The bar and restaurant are informal but adequate, and I have a view of the trees and the sunset from my seat. A dark haired young woman takes my order. She is pretty and fit, like most Swedish women. She stands in the doorway of what appears to be a closet, and somehow cooks the entire meal in this claustrophobic space. I get a burger, fries and a Bass Ale to wash them down. The restaurant is closing soon but she is very considerate, allowing me to eat and relax while she cleans and shuts down. This is not Saltoluokta, but I would rather eat a burger from this kindly young woman than a gourmet dinner from an angry staff of twenty.

Charles is an hour and a half behind me. I am relieved to see him pass through the welcome arch. We meet in the courtyard and both head straight to our beds. Tomorrow we will sort out how to get ourselves back to civilization.

Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.
© 2009, Sleeping in the Car Blog. All rights reserved.