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Not every journey ends when you get back home, as Joshua Meissner discovered upon his return from a solitary tour around Scandinavia in 2021. Settle in for a thoughtful reflection on the twists and turns that followed his journey and a set of photos from the vast north here…
It’s been more than a year since I returned home from my extended solo tour around the Baltic Sea that took me through Scandinavia’s remote interior. While it’s fairly straightforward to talk about stats such as distance and duration, highlights and lowlights, sights and sounds, leaving it at that would be doing the episode a mighty disservice. There’s a quote by Aldous Huxley I like that says: “Experience is not what happens to you, but what you do with happens to you.” Given how the trip shook me up and turned me inside out, any attempt at recounting it must include the reorienting that only began once I returned home.
Up in Lappland, I encountered a perfect storm of vastness and solitude. You can go for hours—if you’re lucky, even a day or two—seeing no cars, buildings, or other people. Apart from the gravel track, the landscape is devoid of the familiar features that remind you that you’re a person of society. My identity, my story of who I was and would be, had little value to anyone or anything out there, and without the usual cues to reinforce it, that story quieted and eventually evaporated entirely. The outside world demanded my full attention.
Sustaining myself while tuning in to the longer wavelengths of the vast taiga occupied me completely. It took everything I had and more to face the austere beauty of the rocky highlands and not retreat when it rained or the mosquitos attacked. Stripped bare of my armoring stories, the world pierced my heart and soul. I cried tears of joy and frustration every day. It was wondrous and cathartic and exhausting beyond anything I’d experienced in my life.
The first days back in the city were surreal. My airtight apartment felt like a jail cell after living under open skies for months on end. I enjoyed the awesome power of my kitchen stove but was puzzled by my hoard of possession that would never fit on my bike. In the mornings, I went walking in search of natural stones or grass, anything to get some texture underneath my feet in this strange smooth and straight manufactured reality. Coming from the perfect silences in Sweden, even just sitting in a side-street café was overwhelming to my senses. The frequencies of the city were all wrong.
Out on the road, I’d hoped to find life and ask it my most pressing questions. Who am I, what should I do, where shall I go? Oh, the naivité! I didn’t get any of those answers, of course. Life only smiled like a sphinx when probed head-on. Far from having clarified my next steps, my mind was wiped clean. I felt way more lost than wandering in the woods without a GPS. My slim hope that everything would sort itself out while I was away had been shattered for good.
We’re conditioned to jump straight into the next thing; pausing even for a moment is hardly an option. On tour, the days are rich and full doing little more than sustaining ourselves and being present, but in the hustle and bustle of the city, doing “nothing” felt wrong. Surely, something as big and important had to follow this life-altering trip?
No new course I plotted seemed to stick for more than a few days, and in hindsight, I’m glad for that. I was adrift in an unruly sea of emotions, and just staying afloat required all hands on deck. The waves crashed over me from all sides. It wasn’t fun, but I could appreciate it like riding through the rain storms in Lappland—physically uncomfortable but beautiful in its raw intensity and clearly an integral part of the experience.
The northern excursion was a clean break in my life’s comfortable continuity. I’d come back as a different person, or at least with the potential to be one. And I saw I had lots of baggage, old clothes I didn’t want to put on again. Standing uncovered in the meantime wasn’t all that comfortable. I’m grateful for the friends and loved ones who held me with support and patience while I drifted.
I wanted to write about everything, but that’s a good way to write about nothing. So I wrote about navigation, more an intro and what-if than a conclusion. It was an opportunity to sit at length with that swirling cloud of feelings and thoughts and crystallize out of it a productive story that, if not true, at least pointed to something important. Like touring free of a route, writing about something you can’t quite grasp is a meandering process of feeling out the salients and depressions and flows of the underlying psychic terrain and finding unexpected connections. As a continuation of the physical exploration, it’s no less thrilling.
That was the tip of the iceberg I could make some sense of, but there was so much more in the depths that escaped formulation. It’s pretty frustrating, and it makes you feel like an infant, charged full of emotions that want to get out but unable to articulate them. Writing doesn’t seem to ever get easier, but so it goes.
Gradually, I gave up agonizing over which of the dozens of paths I felt I should pursue. It wasn’t a year for chasing big dreams, but that didn’t mean a lot of small changes couldn’t happen. My priority was giving space and time to my experience to let it unfold and see where that might point me. It was an unlearning of my future—more living, less living up to.
Outside in the world was where I needed to be. It was an endless summer of never cutting short a good conversation in a café or turning down a weekend bike trip. I took time to be kind to myself, and in befriending myself, I found it much easier to appreciate others. At my birthday picnic, someone mentioned that I was a social person. It sounded wrong when it hit my ears, but the proof was sitting all around me.
I kept a safe distance from others—and indeed myself—for most of my life and was pretty lonely for it. It took pedaling solo through the most remote and barren landscapes of the continent to reveal the broad web of love and care I’m enmeshed in. Without it, I simply couldn’t make the journey. The realization sent me soaring high above the belief that any one person stands on their own.
I found it challenging to keep the awareness gleaned at the peak alive down in the city. There’s little room for expansive appreciation to thrive in offices and classrooms with low ceilings. Mercifully, I had the free time to open up and listen, which let me find allies everywhere. Through their stories, I got to marvel at the aurora borealis in northern Canada, get heartbroken traveling through Chile, and experienced hospitality and kindness on the steppe in Central Asia. These experiences from across the world seemed to echo the universal awe and grace and love and connection that had sent me soaring in Scandinavia. “I think about it every day,” was a common refrain, and over time, it dawned on me that I wasn’t alone nor particularly special in being caught between worlds.
While I was making room for a multitude of realities in many areas, I was dissatisfied with my own situation that wasn’t as pure and simple as I wanted. Working in the digital world ruled by science and technology drained and dispirited me. The meaningless daily grind threatened to crush the fresh green shoots in my mind, so I couldn’t help but expend even more energy dismaying and resisting my reality. Comparing the relative sweetspot I was actually living in—rich in time and good friends, low on stress and obligations—to some idealized vision caused me a lot more suffering than necessary.
At the tail-end of summer—one year after my return to Berlin by the calendar—I rode down to Budapest to see what was between here and there. Within my allotted vacation time, I dipped back into that simple touring mode of being in which the past and future evaporate and all attention radiates out to sense the present. I was back home in movement, and when I arrived in Budapest, my body could have kept on riding east. Back in Berlin and hunched in front of the screen a few days later, it was like the trip never happened. I gripped the memories I had from Scandinavia even tighter.
For all the letting go of the past year, tenacious new stories were sinking their hooks into me. I envied those who seemed to be enjoying well-adjusted lives after their big adventures; it seemed impossible to me. For in my mind, I was still out there in Lappland and, truthfully, didn’t really want to come back. But that peak I was constantly referencing was slowly fading into the distance, and the thought of losing its guidance scared me. Always the fear of sliding back into destructive old patterns.
The pervasive notion of passing time does no favors. The clocks and calendars in the city seemed to push Lappland further and further away with each day, even though I wasn’t done with it yet. If only I had more time. But holding out for a complete and accurate reckoning is perfectionism in disguise. I was squeezing too hard. Obviously, I wouldn’t work through all my issues and solve my entire life by meditating on this singular episode. And yet, I couldn’t bring myself to turn about.
I’m all too familiar with feeling stuck. A habit of harsh self-judgment is a mind parasite that eats mental and emotional capacity, while the fear of future judgment completely incapacitates in the present—which is only more fodder for the parasite to feed on. It took a big break to interrupt this life-long vicious cycle. More than that, I get to be a different me on tour. I come out of my shell and I’m less wrapped up in my head. The sabotaging ghosts get blown away in the wind, and I can look at myself and like what I see.
Something good in me fought hard to maintain that state of mind when I returned home, which allowed those fresh shoots to put down roots. At some point, though, they can stand on their own. Relating everything back to some past event then becomes a burden that detaches you from your present reality. You’ve got to let go and trust that you’ve been changed. Easier said than done, when you’re predisposed like me.
Fortunately, after going through these evolutions, I no longer had to rely only on myself to come unstuck. The stories of a good friend returning home from his own grand tour brought everything flooding back. The day after we met up, I found myself bobbing in the swell like on my return last year. Massive waves crashed over me and made my soul shudder and my heart cry. I didn’t fight it. Instead, I embraced the beautiful churn and let myself sink below its roaring surface. Floating down into the depths, it was quiet and peaceful, and I realized I had nothing to fear. Everything precious I feared to lose was all around and part of me, no matter what passing time or fading memory had to say about it. Clutching was unnecessary because I could touch it whenever I needed to.
Lappland no doubt left its imprint on me. It took me out of my comfort zone, broke my continuity, and charged me with infinite potential for transformation while leaving it up to me to realize it. Granting space and attention to the experience after the fact stretched my capacity for appreciation. It dared me to love myself and those around me.
Through it all, I was the source and victim of a simplification. The error started infinitesimally small but accumulated over time. I was seeing everything that happened to me through a singular, increasingly distant lens—slowly sliding back into living in the lonely past. But experience has no smooth edges, no beginning or end. It’s not a static, delineated cause that effects can be attributed to. It’s more like one big, intractable convolution of everything that came before and has happened since—a unique kaleidoscope that refracts the present into ever more complex and beautiful patterns.
As the distinct memories inevitably decay, the experience lives on by being integrated into new ones I make and intertwining with those of others. So, the next time I encounter a humbling landscape or receive lodging from a kind soul, my gratitude will extend not just to them but the entire chain of events that brought me there. It took time for that important lesson from Lappland to sink in. If you’re on the other side of the spectrum, anxious to get back out the second you set foot back home, know that the journey isn’t necessarily over then. It might still have many more twists and turns in store for you, if you trust it.
More than a year later, I still tear up just like up on the barren plateau when the breeze hits me right, but new love doesn’t take away from past ones. I can seek out new horizons without disavowing the gifts given by the places I’ve left behind. Appreciate the fleeting fractals of your kaleidoscope, just don’t get stuck staring like me. At some point, you’ve got to go out to find and create colorful new shards and shake it all up again.
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