Week 22: Packing it in Before Packing it up


Copenhagen to Oslo, 510km; final total (read on to find out!)


It’s nice to cruise to the finish line.


We usually punctuate our annual bike-touring summers with a week lake-lounging at Joce’s family cottage in Ontario. After our Oceania Odyssey ride across New Zealand, we booked a snorkelling stopover in French Polynesia.


But this time, we had even mightier motivation to ramp up our energy and ambition as our Europe Epic wound to its destination.


First, we still had two completely new, humongous countries to explore. None of us had ever been to Sweden or Norway - legendary lands in our minds as individuals and as a family. Beacons of progressive politics, gender equity and ecological innovation. Utopias of vast northern wilderness and a culture of protecting and enjoying it up close. The coolest accents on the planet.


Second, we had a goal.


Ten thousand kilometres.


From the first time we plotted the points on a GoogleMap and estimated the cycling distance from Portugal to Greece to Norway, we’ve been fascinated by this lovely round milestone. At each thousand-K mark, we stopped and celebrated with hugs and candy. As the final few weeks loomed, we re-calculated our route daily (some days hourly) to ensure we wouldn’t roll into Oslo at 9,950.


“Couldn’t we just round up?” Ed ventured one day, legs weary from another headwind.


You know in a horror movie when infected humans morph into feral beasts and are gorging on some poor minor character, then are disrupted from their gory meal and turn suddenly to face the camera, fangs dripping with flesh - yeah, that rabid, back-of-throat growl that requires a change of underwear?


Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the exact reaction to Ed’s suggestion. But general consensus has been 10,000 or bust for this intrepid foursome - even with Joce’s still-recovering torn knee ligament, panniers held together with zip-ties and duct tape, bike clothes beyond the capacity of industrial-strength washing machines, and rapidly dwindling appetite for more chickpea salad and hummus sandwiches.


Most importantly, however, we wanted to soak in every last second of our time together on an adventure we’d been anticipating and planning for years. Our tour to date had been so very rich with living fully in the moment - with the joy of parenting two fascinating boys, and discovering new places and experiences - that we yearned to pack in as many more moments as we humanly could before packing up for home.


Thankfully, we found ourselves in surroundings that inspired us to dig deep and discover yet another level of on-the-spot trip planning. And we stuffed our last week full.


A brief train and ferry took us from our happy place in Copenhagen to the gorgeous west coast of Sweden, where the well-signed Kattegatleden cycle route guided us on a sublime 390km tour of fertile farmland and big round bays. The unusually hot week coaxed Swedes of all ages to bathe in the sun and the Baltic all along the shore, whether the beach was sandy or rocky or just a wooden dock; shallow and seaweedy or deep and wavy. They welcomed us to share their space - our happy introduction to the uniquely Swedish ethic of Allemansrätten (“everyone’s right,” or right of public access), which dictates that we can roam wherever we want so long as we’re enjoying nature and being respectful of the land, people and signage around us. (The ethos is similar in the other Scandinavian countries, but the Swedish word is surely the coolest).



This wonderfully communal concept also meant we could pitch our tent pretty much anywhere awesome. “Do not disturb and do not destroy” are the only two guidelines to finding your night’s stay, even on other people’s property. In cities and protected areas there are sometimes Camping förbjuden notices, but otherwise best judgement was our guide as we chose our sleep-spots in view of the sea: first sheltered by beaches in a conservation area in Skåne Län, then nestled in a sandy valley amongst the grassy dunes next to a bustling beach concert in Ringenäs, and at a community beach park with picnic tables and shower at Stråvalla.




We cycled under purely sunny skies, stumbled upon cozy-chaired ice cream breaks, and took refreshing sea dips of various depths once or more a day (for Ed, morning, mid-ride and evening) to stave off the wild-camping stink and compete with handstand tricks. One day we detoured to a charming artsy town called Laholm, with funky sculptures everywhere and a small museum exhibiting the progression of Lasse Åberg’s witty sketches since childhood. Sitka and Heron were enraptured with how pencil drawings could be so expressive and subversive, taking on gender stereotypes, environmental issues and corporate culture with simple images brilliantly presented - resolving to boost their game for their daily travel journal sketches.



Then, the morning of our ride into Göteborg, Joce’s web-scouring for unique non-bike activities came across a life-changing discovery.


“Do you guys want to try an amusement park today?”


Several times previous along our European road, the reply had been a timid “Not today.” Sitka gets barfy in cars, buses, trains, boats and planes if there are twists, turns or the slightest turbulence. So unless there’s a sit-still ride, he’s generally out. He gets his sensitive tummy from Mommy, so Joce is equally un-keen to risk public puking (readers of our book Oceania Odyssey will understand why). Heron tends to notice only the screeches of terror coming from fair rides whenever he sees one, so more advance warning than “Oooh, wanna try that?” is required. And Ed - a rollercoaster junkie as a kid who spent many summer mornings repeat-calling the local radio station during contests for Canada’s Wonderland tickets - has had his adrenaline bravado tempered after noticing that even playground swing sets make his old-man stomach nauseous.



But something this time clicked all around: Ed got giddy at the prospect of introducing his sons to a great passion of his youth (given that 80s hair-band rock has largely struck out). Heron was open to trying a beginner coaster and going from there, and Sitka heard about bumper cars, so he was enthusiastically in. And Joce - seeing the after-6pm evening-admission discount - figured it was low-risk if she stuck to the Ferris wheel.


And so it was that we cycled hard into Göteborg to check in early and leave our bikes behind for Liseberg, Scandinavia’s largest fairground. Heron bounded ecstatically toward Joce like he just won the Stanley Cup after de-boarding the classic 80s coaster Lisebergbanon, and subsequently wanted to try every spinny, flippy, “Holy shit” option available - each one “the best EVER.” Sitka got his whitewater ride, and Joce remembered her fear of heights halfway up the Ferris wheel overlooking the world’s most environmentally sustainable city (Liseberg itself is powered entirely by wind energy, and one of its rides - the tummy-churning spinning pendulum called Loke - actually generates electricity with its swing and feeds into the municipal grid).



Indeed, Göteborg looks like any port city (with a sweet safe bike path and breathtaking botanical garden) as you cycle into it - but then you start noticing the electric public transit fleet, the restaurant menus with CO2 ratings for each item, and the hotels fiercely competing to promote their steps toward carbon-neutrality. Our impromptu detour to Copenhagen last week meant we needed to train-hop a bit to keep our schedule, or else we would have stayed another day (or week, say the boys) to explore the city more, including the archipelago of small islands a short ferry ride away.



So onward we went - and that’s when the Norse gods decided we’d had our fun.


A kaput rail line north of town forced us to change plans and cycle a couple hours to tiny Ytterby (with y’s pronounced like French u’s, naming this hamlet five times fast invokes the Muppets’ Swedish Chef), where we caught a train to Stromstad for the first hour of its route until another on-track snafu forced us to disembark 100km away from our destination. Luckily the driver of the replacement bus was a typically relaxed and flexible Scandinavian who pondered a moment before making an exception to the national “no bikes on buses” rule, and making room below the coach for our most precious two-wheeled possessions.


We arrived in Strömstad much later than anticipated, so we rushed to put together a picnic lunch/supper whose ingredients were being slowly organized all over the sidewalk when - truly out of nowhere - we felt our first raindrops of the week. Then, in the split second it took for Loki the trickster to snap his fingers somewhere above, the clouds assembled right overhead and sent us panicking to collect our scattered groceries and waterproof our gear.


It was like a giant bucket just tipped over and smothered us in wet. Instantly we were soaked through - in clothes and in spirit - as we sprinted back and forth to salvage what couldn’t wet into bags and under a nearby awning. One of the fresh baguettes didn’t make it, having succumbed to a fresh, giant puddle - and its limp, soggy remains reflected our mood as we continued miserably on our way, looking tentatively upward for signs of more trouble and slumping into a tiny campground cabin to begin drying out.


Sweden was done with us.



Next day, we were still damp but determined to enter country number 20 - Norway. The terrain evolved quickly from flat farmland, to rolling bouldery hills and thick spruce forest. Our bodies could tell we were near the end of our epic months-long marathon - so they started slowing down without notifying our brains. We blasted Norwegian hip-hop to keep us moving, and the kilometres rolled by until we reached 9,978 and stopped for our final overnight in a smartly designed octagonal loft cabin in Sarpsborg.



One more day to go, and a last train to catch into Oslo, where we would cross the magic threshold of 10k km’s.


We’d filled our family bucket to the brim with memories for a lifetime.


We could finally cruise to the finish line.


But would we?


—————————


BONUS: Chapter 23


“Make sure they replace the chain,” Joce insisted every time Ed whisked off to get the bikes tuned up - every 2,000km from Portugal to Norway. “It doesn’t matter if they say it’s okay - just change it.”


“Nah, this chain is like brand new, man,” the professional bike mechanic in northern Germany insisted - at Kilometre 8,865. “It’ll last you another two thousand for sure.”


“Really shoulda subbed me out back in Germany,” insisted the chain - at Kilometre 9,985, our trip’s final train departing 5k away in 30 minutes.


“Snap.”


“It’s an easy fix, guys - don’t stress,” insisted Ed, cursing himself for listening to the mechanic instead of his wife. “I’ll just get my chain link, and it’ll be good to go.”


“I can just run Mom’s bike there,” insisted Heron, whose diligent planning of our 36 hours in Oslo relied on making that train. “Ride the downhills and run up the up.”


“No, I can do it - just gimme five minutes,” insisted Ed again - five minutes before cursing himself for not listening to his son when the chain link didn’t fit.


A half-hour earlier, Ed had noticed that his creaky rear pannier rack was missing the bolt that was supporting half the weight. A half-hour afterward, as we all raced to catch our rail ride, Sitka’s handlebar mysteriously popped and started dangling by a long streamer of black grip tape.


So much for cruising to the finish line.


But as much as our bike maintenance may have failed us, our mission to foster resilience and constructive problem solving in our kids seems to have worked. While Ed grumbled around about his defective chain link (or more likely his defective ability to install it), Heron traded bikes with Joce and started run-gliding to the Sarpsborg train station with the rest of us trailing behind. Sitka took his mangled handlebars in stride, keeping pace without even mentioning the conundrum to the rest of the team until we arrived, frazzled and panting, just as the train pulled into the station.


Bolstered by our sons’ inspiring example, Ed replaced his rack bolt and repaired Sitka’s handlebar en route to Oslo, where we got Joce a new chain and continued with Heron’s magnificently planned tour of the Norwegian capital. We wandered about the open-air Museum of Cultural History with its splendidly preserved 13th-century wooden church, marvelled at Gustav Vigeland’s heart-lifting, 212-sculpture masterpiece on human relationships throughout Frogner Park, and dined on more funky street food before watching the sunset on the roof of the iconic Oslo Opera House. The next day’s walking tour led us to ferry-hop to a couple blissfully quiet islands in the Oslo fjord, a sobering but inspiring trip through the Nobel Peace Museum, and the imposing Akershus Fortress.




But the beaming moment came as we pedalled around the beautifully wild Bygdøy peninsula jutting out into the Baltic, where Sitka glanced down at his odometer and saw the golden number we’d been waiting for.


10,000.



It came at the perfect spot to take the picture we’d planned: our four helmets forming the 1 and the comma, and our four front tires providing the zeroes. Framed by a view over the sea.



Our final tally in the end was 10,010km - but the achievement was far more than the number. This was the adventure of a lifetime - hundreds of highlights wrapped up in one epic odyssey we enjoyed together. Vivid memories that will regularly come rushing back over decades to come.


“The time goes by so fast,” is the refrain of virtually every parent after their kids’ childhoods pass by. Soon we would be back home in the bustling routine of a family with teenagers: school, friends, ski-team training, friends, volunteer work, friends. But Mom and Dad are undeniably part of their lives. Our long-awaited Europe Epic did indeed go by fast - we can’t do anything about that, except make every second count.


No snapped chain, missing bolt or strand of handlebar tape could stand in our way. It wasn’t easy. It was often too hot, too windy, too rainy, too steep, too early, too late, too far, too hard.


But more often it was amazing, spectacular, incredible, fantastic. Awesome.



Our journey tested our resolve, our bodies and our patience. But those strains strengthened us. The weaknesses we took turns showing each other ended up pushing the others among us to step up. Overcoming the obstacles solidified our bond.


It made the sweet parts even sweeter.


We’ve lived so fully in the moment - almost 6 months on our bikes taking in the scenery, staking our temporary claim at each campsite and break spot, absorbing the awesome and experimenting with new experiences - that it hasn’t fully sunk in that it’s over.



We’re headed home now, more a family than ever. More proud and more in love. More confident and independent. More sure of ourselves to face the world on our own, because now we have proof that we have each other’s backs.


And more determined to always - ALWAYS - replace the chain.


———————


Above all the other emotions, right now we are all filled with immense gratitude to all of the incredible people that we met on this journey. You so generously helped us with the many bumps along the way, and meeting you made the whole experience truly wonderful for our family.


And much gratitude also to all of those cheering us on from home and beyond - your messages felt like wind on our backs :)


Thank you, obrigado, muchas gracias, merci beaucoup, dankeschön, gracie mille, hvala vam, faleminderit shumë, Σας ευχαριστώ!, dank je wel, mange tak, tusen tack, and tusen takk!



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