On Monday morning, June 26, we left early to head to the post office when it opened so B could send much of her gear on to France to lighten her load. Afterwards we headed to the train station to take a bus – and then a train – to Kongsvinger. This allowed us to cut out many of the biggest hills on the way to the Swedish border. Our goal was to start off with some easier days (40ish and 50ish miles, respectively) to ease B’s knee back into riding.
Upon arriving in Kongsvinger, we ate hard boiled eggs we’d prepared at our friends’ in Oslo and then headed out. The riding was quite pretty, but unfortunately it was on a busy, narrow road with quite a few large trucks passing us. B and I held our own, taking the rolling hills in stride, and enjoying the scenery. It reminded us both of Maine – conifers, wooded, secluded lakes, and very few roads. Eventually we were able to get onto secondary roads where we stayed until right before the Swedish border.
We had been told that there are some restrictions when crossing between Sweden and Norway, though we didn’t spot any border guards. There were 500m of no man’s land between leaving Norway and entering Sweden. The road was newly paved on the Swedish side and we made the next 6 miles or so into the first large town quickly. We stopped there for lunch and to avoid the intermittent drizzle; the day had started out sunny and warm, but the sky was grey by early afternoon. We sat on the pavement outside a major shopping center – prices in Sweden are still high, but so much lower than Norway, that the parking lot was full of cars with Norwegian license plates.
As we rode, we saw more and more lupins. We had seen them a bit while in Denmark, but in Sweden they were everywhere. They bordered every roadside, congregated around sign posts, and speckled the highway medians. In an effort to stay off of the large narrow highway, we took a rolling backroad with gravel bits that was entirely surrounded by lupins. We had to stop for some photo taking – the lupins were many more colors than we usually see in Nova Scotia or in Maine. They were purple, violet, deep indigo, white, fuchsia, light pink, nearly blue, and several more in between. There were even some that were part purple, part white.
We descended into Arvika, a small western Swedish city. We stopped first at the major grocery store where, equipped with a mistaken exchange rate, we got extremely excited by the low prices. I had B double check the exchange rate on her phone when we left the grocery store and it ended up it wasn’t nearly as favorable, but regardless, the prices were still better than in Norway. B bought a package of frozen strawberries to ice her knee. She had said throughout the day that it felt okay, just weird. The meds had taken away the pain, but she could tell it didn’t feel totally right.
Our plan for that night was to wild camp. It is legal in Sweden, in accordance with the allemensratten. We figured we would get dinner in town and then ride along the road a bit closer to the following day’s destination, before finding a good campsite for the night.
We sat for an hour or so by the Arvika lakeside, enjoying the sun. Once B had finished icing her knee, we also had a nice snack of semi-frozen strawberries. We used the small Gorillapod I’d been carrying and took some photos of ourselves, much to the amusement of two teenage boys sitting near us on a bench.
We ate dinner at a Thai takeout place. For around $9, we had phenomenal pad thai. The takeout spot was closing – it seemed everything in Arvika closed at 8 – so we took what was left and got on our bikes to head out of town.
Our navigating has been primarily through the website Ride with GPS, aided substantially by B’s iPhone and Google Maps. Ride with GPS has the distinct ability to recognize every road and path in each country in which we’ve used it, but that doesn’t mean every road and path are rideable. That evening, Ride with GPS took us down several dirt roads with large “private” signs on them, before taking us under a metal gate and connecting us to the side of the highway. At least it knows the area well!
It was around 8:45 at that point, and the sun was getting lower, but of course it was by no means twilight. We rode along the highway for maybe 25-30 minutes more, pulling off onto dirt roads to check if there were any potential campsites. We found a small road/driveway that appeared to be no longer used, off of a dirt road that paralleled the highway. We could hear the thrum of cars on the highway, which was a comfort. It felt rather illicit to be wild camping, but we had to keep reminding ourselves that it’s completely legal in Sweden.
We walked down the abandoned road a bit – it was overgrown with weeds and flowers – and set up our tent in the flattest-seeming spot. We had been carrying our tent with us at that point for nearly three weeks and this was the first time we used it. B purchased the tent before we left. It’s a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL3, certified at three people, but it comfortably fits two. We put up the rain fly – despite the lack of rain in the forecast – and quickly got into the tent, attempting to avoid letting in the hundreds of mosquitoes swarming around. It was the first time on the trip that we’d really encountered mosquitoes, despite eating outside at many of our hosts’ houses.
I wrote in my journal for a while and then finally closed the notebook around 11:15 PM. It was still light – I didn’t need a headlamp to write. B and I both slept well. I woke up briefly around 4:30 to bright sunlight, but went back to sleep until around 8.
Woods by Arvika to Karlstad
The day was beautiful and after packing up our tent and our panniers and wheeling our bikes through the weeds to the dirt road, I realized my back tire was flat. It was my second flat of the trip and our fourth flat total. I must have pinched the tube while bumping over dirt roads hunting for a campsite the night before.
The morning started off back on the highway, but the shoulder opened up a bit, so we had a bit more distance from the large trucks speeding past. We pulled off onto a small rural soccer pitch for breakfast. We sat on the one wooden bleacher as two robotic lawn mowers putted around the field. We had seen these in Germany quite a bit, but this was our first time seeing them in Scandinavia. They ended up being all over Sweden. They look like Roomba vacuum cleaners, but they’re lawn mowers. They’re completely silent and don’t appear to have too many safety switches as one came straight at me at one point, and I stood my ground to see when it would shut off. It kept coming, up until about a meter or so from me, at which point I stepped out of the way.
Having survived the robotic lawn mowers, we continued on our way, arriving around 3 in Karlstad. It’s the largest city in that part of Sweden and it also is based on the shores of the largest lake in the European Union, Vanern. Our Warm Showers hosts were based near the university, a bit out of town, and had told us they wouldn’t be home until around 5 or 6 so we got some food at a grocery store, and headed to a park on an island in the middle of the river. We hung out there for the afternoon, snacking, reading, lying, and attempting to rectify some train tickets we had bought for the wrong date.
Eventually we headed to our Warm Showers hosts’ house, after stopping briefly at the bus station to buy a ticket for B, who would be taking a bus the following day, rather than pushing her luck with her knee for a third day in a row. Our WS hosts, T and N, were a lovely Bulgarian couple who have been living in Sweden for nearly 7 years. Between them they speak Swedish, English, Bulgarian, Russian, and Turkish.
They made us a delicious meal and we sat at the table for nearly three hours (we hadn’t showered before dinner, so we got to share with them our lovely scent of two days’ worth of sweating), chatting about differences between the US and Sweden.
B and I looked at each other several times during the conversation and asked why we didn’t live there. Some of the more notable facts:
-Women receive 480 days of maternity leave, that they can take at any point in the first 5 or so years of the kid’s life. Their place of employment pays part of it and the government pays the rest.
-The second parent also receives 4 months – or perhaps more – of parental leave upon the birth of a new baby (this was a central topic as N is pregnant and expecting in September).
-University is free and students can apply for a loan at .8% interest to help finance their living expenses.
-Beginning when they’re born, children receive something around $150/month from the government as a sort of allowance. They receive a debit card with which to access this money.
-Mortgages have very low interest rates in Sweden and because it costs nearly the same to pay a mortgage as it does to pay rent (which is somewhat expensive), many people buy homes. However, many only pay interest for the rest of their lives; there is much less pressure to eventually own your home outright. N and A explained, however, that the housing market has been going up in Sweden for decades – which makes this scheme work well – but there is talk that the housing bubble will have to burst at some point, so they’re unsure whether they should go ahead and buy an apartment when the baby comes or if they should wait.
Karlstad to Örebro
On Wednesday morning, I set off around 9 for Örebro, 75 miles or so to the east. B took the tent. They were 75 miles of headwinds, hills, and highway riding, a rather unfortunate combination. I paused for my first lunch at around mile 25. I ate in a beautiful churchyard (photo!) – feta and honey on crusty bread.
When you’re riding that many relentless (wind and hills) miles alone, I think one ends up blocking out much of what happens. I remember only small snippets of the ride – the several very large hills I had to climb up along the highway, slogging through a sad industrial area around mile 50, 8 miles on a rural dirt road past lake cottages to avoid the highway, and finally, the moment, at around mile 60, when an access road began and I could get off the highway. Along the highway I was riding with a safety vest strapped to my panniers, and a red rear blinking light.
The access road paralleled the highway for about 8 miles (I stopped along it for my second lunch), heading directly into the wind. With around 7 miles to go, a shirtless boy in sandals on a mountain bike came up behind me as I was wallowing up a hill into the wind at about 7 mph. I got a second wind and followed him for a while, before going around him up a hill so I could go at my own pace. He stayed on my wheel for what turned out to be 3 miles at a gradual uphill. I stayed at 14-16 mph the entire time. As we got to a turn, I gave up, with very little gas left after having climbed something around 3000′ into the wind with around 40 lbs.
When I got into Örebro, I had a text from B that said, “I’ll meet you at the castle.” I found the castle easily enough, and waited for her. We had a snack – I was pretty out of it – and lay in the grass for a while. Around 7:30 we headed to a grocery store and then to our Warm Showers hosts’ house for the night. They lived in a residential area a bit out of the city, which was accessible entirely on bike paths.
Our WS hosts, A and S, were a young couple. A is doing her medical residency and S runs what he believes is the only homemade kimchi business in Sweden. He sells at the farmers market in Örebro, as well as perhaps online and to friends in other cities. They were lovely and served us a wonderful dessert of fresh strawberries, whipped cream, and hot fudge.
Örebro to the Woods Beyond Mariefred
This was our longest day of the trip. B and I felt good as we rode in the morning, despite the crushing headwind. We stopped at around 10 miles for a bit more of a snack. A and S had fed us a lovely breakfast of fried eggs with sesame seeds (which was delicious), cheese, toast, spinach, muesli, yogurt, coffee, tea, and oatmeal milk. The oatmeal milk was delicious and was a nice addition to the coffee.
After our 10 mile snack, we pushed through the headwind, drafting close to each other, until mile 25 where we stopped for biscuits, peanut butter, and bananas at a gas station. We were there for long enough (maybe 35 minutes) that we saw the custodian come into the bathroom twice to clean it. It was certainly a lot cleaner than most gas station bathrooms off of highways in the States.
The miles ran into each other as we stayed at a steady pace. It was challenging to go much faster than 13 or 14 on the flats (to put it into context, typically we have been riding at around 16-20 or higher on flats) and occasionally we were unable to pedal faster than 10 mph due to the roaring wind. It was only two days later, once we had made it to Stockholm, that we were told this area of the country – the southern route to Stockholm – is called Sweden’s wind tunnel.
B and I pushed until Eskilstuna, a town which allowed for no shortage of puns. We popped into the grocery store for carrots, bread, cream cheese, and a cucumber. I stayed outside as B went in and watched the extremely diverse clientele come in and out. Eskilstuna appeared to have a large refugee population.
We hopped back onto our bikes and rode about a mile into the center of Eskilstuna where we ate on a bench overlooking the river that bisects the city. It was nearly 3:30 PM at this point and we had ridden more than 60 really hard miles. We spent about an hour on the bench, enjoying the sun and trying to replenish the extra calories we’d burned riding into the wind.
Since starting our trip, B and I had envisioned a day where we would simply bike as late as we could, making full use of the northern summer sun. On that Wednesday we were both feeling pretty good, and as we had no Warm Showers host for the night and had intended to wild camp, this seemed like the perfect evening on which to go forever. We decided we would try to make it to the two towns our hosts had mentioned as having nice castles, and would then assess from there how we felt.
We were at 80-something miles when we reached Strangnas, the first town. As B put it, this town’s “castle was inferior” to that of the next town, so she suggested we continue riding. I had some gummies as we pulled out of Strangnas around 7:45. It was, of course, still sunny and bright.
The wind died down a bit as we rode to the next town, Mariefred. We were riding due south for part of those 15 or so miles, so the headwind had become more of a crosswind, making the riding easier. The clouds were gorgeous – small puffs that were high up in the sky, spreading slowly over the vast expanse. The road we were on paralleled the highway for quite some time, until we turned away from it to ride through undulating terrain, alternating between forest and fields. Eventually there was a long sloping downhill into Mariefred. The sun was a bit lower in the sky and our shadows had grown longer. We were both quite hungry at this point, as we reached Mariefred about 96 miles in. We went first to look at the castle.
It sits on an island in the water need to put info here on this huge expanse of water – freshwater that connects to the ocean and it’s all sailable/navigable
I was really in the mood for pizza, but nearly the entire town had closed up for the night, including the grocery store. I ended up buying a $7 calzone from the Circle K gas station. It was potentially the best calzone I’ve ever had.
B and I left Mariefred around 9:30 and continued west. We reached the 100 mile mark as the moon started to come up, but the sun was still shining behind us. We began keeping an eye out for possible campsites along the side of the road. We stopped at one point to put our blinkies on the backs of our bikes as the wooded road blocked the remnants of sun. Eventually, at 107 miles, we found a dirt road that turned off the main road. We followed it up a hillside about 150 meters and found a flat, soft area on which to pitch our tent.
Similarly to our wild camping experience two nights prior, we could still hear the main road. However, this site had a view of the night sky from the hillside. A crescent moon was visible as we set up the tent and got into pajamas. At about 11:15, when I closed my eyes, the sky was a dark blue, but it was certainly not dark yet.
Woods outside of Mariefred to Stockholm
Aside from being an accomplishment, the previous day’s 107 miles set us up for a short ride into Stockholm on our fifth day of riding across Sweden. B and I set off around 9 in bright sun, with yesterday’s headwind still present, but slightly less debilitating. The ride was slated to be 35 miles or so, and we had texted O, my high school friend with whom we would be staying in Stockholm, to let her know that we would arrive around 12 or 1. Little did we know, however, that there was some real weather coming in.
By 18 miles into the ride, we had already ridden through farmland, small towns, a city, an industrial park, and we were headed into communal housing. The sky, which had grown more ominous as the morning wore on, opened up. B and I stopped to put our rain coats on as the wind picked up.
Because we had initially planned to travel from Örebro to Stockholm via the northern route, we didn’t have cue sheets for the southern route we ended up taking. We followed B’s iPhone and the Google Maps cycling directions it had pulled up. They are most often very good, but on that day, Google Maps took us through what seemed like people’s back yards, a farmers’ market, lots of housing projects, some power lines, down dirt roads, and a mountain bike track or two. As we rode slowly through the varied terrain, the wind continued to get stronger and the sky darker. The rain came on and off.
With about 10 miles left to go until Stockholm center, the wind picked up, with gusts of 40-50 mph. I think it was the strongest wind I’ve ever felt on a bike. We had trouble keeping the bikes upright, and we were gassing ourselves while going about 6 mph.
After nearly an hour of ferocious wind and steep uphills, B and I made it into Stockholm. My friend lives right in the center, so it was easy to access her apartment. We had a really nice catch up before B and I showered (which we desperately needed, considering the time in the wind/rain and the 107 miles the day before) and then headed out to explore the city.
As with quite a few of our hosts, when I had posted on Facebook about our trip and the cities win which we were looking for housing, this friend of mine from high school, who lives in Stockholm, generously volunteered to host us. We had initially intended to stay for two nights, but after changing around our schedule, we had only one night in Stockholm.
O was extremely generous and her apartment is stunning. She moved to Stockholm after college graduation to become a nanny and has ended up staying. She and I hadn’t seen each other since graduating high school – 7 years ago – so we had a lot about which to catch up.
The following day, B and I packed up our bags and headed out in street clothes to visit with S, our Dave Jordan Racing teammate from New York City. S is from Sweden and had arrived the day before with her boyfriend and their baby to visit her family. We went out for breakfast with the three of them where B and I got to try our first kardamambulle.
We walked through the Vasapark where S pointed out a small building next to the playground. It looked a bit like a long garage. S explained that it is a sort of communal daycare. Parents can bring their kids to the building and there are staff present all day long who will play with your child so parents can do a bit of work or chat with other parents. These buildings are also equipped with a changing table.
After learning all of these terrific facts about Sweden’s socialist democracy and repeatedly asking ourselves why we don’t live there, B and I headed south out of Stockholm to Nynashamn. After about two weeks, it was time to leave Scandinavia behind and head to the Baltic States and the former Soviet Union.