Am I really in the Arctic in February? I ask myself as I clamber from my tent once more. I’ve been wild-camping for several days and have noticed that I’m emitting an increasingly blood-curdling reek. Unsurprising – it’s been almost a week since I last took off my long-sleeved baselayer.
The reason I’m asking myself this question is because I’d imagined the winter up here to be nothing but bitter and merciless. Trust a bike trip to smite down a few preconceptions. My tent is coated in wet, sticky snow – my bike also. It must be really warm to have glued itself to my gear this well.
I’ve stealth-camped in a national park just up the hill from the E6 route that shadows Norway’s coast right round to the Russian border. It’s almost 3,000km in length, a main road by all accounts; but here the traffic is benign – I could be riding on a quiet B-road in England. Today it is a wide channel of dirty meltwater, with a few patches of slush that confound my attempts to hold a steady line in case a truck-driver decides to pass particularly closely.
Hold on a second. This isn’t winter. This isn’t freezing cold. Having already stripped off my hat, neck-warmer and gloves, and unzipped every bit of my jacket I can find, I stop on the side of the road.
And I force myself to accept that today is significantly warmer than several of those December days I spent riding in my local area in England wearing a thin T-shirt and a single-layer waterproof jacket. Why the hell am I wearing a bloody great skiing jacket, padded skiing trousers and woolen underwear?!?
The answer is easy, of course: up until yesterday, I needed all of it. Monitoring and adjusting clothes and accessories has always occupied a sizeable portion of my mental energy. But this sudden change is a great wallop round the chops.
Finally I wrestle my winter clothes into a pannier and continue, feeling bizarrely nimble and unencumbered. It’s a quirk of a thoroughly unsettled local climate, I think, and I just happen to be here during an unseasonal spell of warmth.
Soon I come across a road tunnel, donning headtorch and setting rear light flashing. And when I emerge from the far side and look about me, I’m suddenly transported three years back to the time when Andy and I were riding along the Black Sea coast of Turkey, on our way – or so we thought – to the Caucasus, Iran and Central Asia.
My overriding memory of those days in December 2007 is a feeling of misery and darkness. At no other time before or since can I remember riding day after day after bloody day in such soul-destroying conditions, just for the sake of doing distance. It was perpetually freezing cold and damp, constantly (it seemed) raining, the road was a tedious truck-route, the days were far too short to cover much ground, and Andy and I weren’t getting on particularly well any more after six months living in each other’s pockets and with the stress of being entirely unequipped to deal with the climate.
(This all ended rather abruptly when I fell down a hole in a tunnel, smashed my face in and ended up in hospital, tended to – I seem to remember – by a particularly pretty young nurse. At the time this seemed infinitely preferable than actually continuing to ride.)
Here on the coast of Norway – superficially at least – seems oddly similar. All the ingredients are present: a dramatic, cold, wet, storm-lashed coastline; precipitous mountains in the distance; an eternal succession of sweaty climbs and chilly descents amidst road-spray and trucks thundering past. I even meet an old man with bushy eyebrows who doesn’t speak English and who verbally bombards me with nationalities until he hits the correct one. The parallels are just uncanny.
This somehow puts me in a dark mood, reflecting on those long-ago times, and I consider how that now-recollected phase of my first big ride and this soon-to-be-finished little outing are both fruits borne of an abrupt change in direction I’d made in my life even longer ago again, when I decided that to sell everything and just pedal was the only sensible option I had. Goodness – it seems like an eternity ago…. a parallel universe almost.
Yes; as a lady I met in the Swiss mountains once wisely noted, that change had been “a pillar in my life”.