Searching for the Meaning of Travel at 11 Miles an Hour


Hilary, my wife, and I walked our bikes into downtown Svolvaer, Norway, in the late evening, looking for a spot to sit down and eat “lunch” out of our panniers before riding another 15 miles to the village of Henningsvaer. Svolvaer, population 4,700, is a small town similar in size to my 3,000-person hometown, but it’s backed on one side by 2,000-foot rocky peaks dropping straight into the ocean and on the other by the open waters of the Vestfjorden, separating Norway’s Lofoten archipelago from the mainland by a two-hour ferry ride. Around 200,000 visitors pass through this town each year, including Hilary and me on day five of our bike tour, having pedaled just over 180 miles in between three boat rides from one island to the next. 

We chatted briefly with Ulke, a man we met, about where we’d camp for the night, as he was also looking for a spot. Ulke was hitchhiking his way through Lofoten on his way to Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, having left Turkey, almost 3,000 miles away, a month and a half ago. He mentioned a place near town, but we said we’d planned to ride a bit more south and then find a spot. As he walked off, I was a bit in awe of his adventure, and smiled that we had crossed paths with him on our own, much smaller-scale trip—just 300 miles across eight islands. I mean, Ulke’s trip was not a vacation—it was a journey. The type of thing you quit your job to do, move out of your house, maybe never come back. 

As we rolled our bikes up to a picnic table, a Norweigian couple asked us where we were headed on our bikes and where we were from. I told them we were from the U.S., and the woman replied, “Kardashians. That is all we know about the United States,” and we all laughed. I commented how beautiful Svolvaer was, and she said she had grown up there but had been living in Oslo for almost 40 years. We chatted a bit more, then sat down to eat, and then pedaled south. 

The sun hung low in the sky as we wound our way down the E10 and then a smaller road toward the village of Henningsvaer, where we’d spend the night. We hadn’t been in much of a hurry most of the trip, because it was June, and at this latitude, eight degrees above the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn’t set between May 25 and July 19. We had no real reason to stick to a schedule, aside from riding through towns when the grocery stores were open. We hadn’t been to bed before midnight since the trip started, and on day two, we’d slept off our jet lag from 12:40 A.M. until 1:40 P.M. On day three, as we sat and ate lunch at a table outside a convenience store in a small town, I commented on how quiet the little town was, then laughed as I looked at my watch to notice it was almost 10 P.M. 

If you catch a few days of sunny weather while traveling here during this part of the year, the result is the longest golden hour you might ever see, unless of course you live here, or in Alaska, or somewhere else in the high northern latitudes. You look at the horizon and your brain thinks it’s seeing a sunset, and the deep amber and orange light just stays that way for hours. Normally if I witnessed a lovely sunset while camping, I’d rush to grab my camera or phone and snap a photo of it. That evening, while I was cooking dinner near Henningsvaer, I looked over the calm water to the glowing rocky peak of Sørfjellet and felt that same pang of urgency, but then I remembered, No hurry—just take a photo in the next hour or so.



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