August 02, 2021
Finding a Place Every Night
Words & Photos by Huw Oliver
Memories are ideally, the only thing taken away from the places that I travel to. Among them, the strongest are almost invariably from campsites, from within or beside a tent. Above all the other bits of equipment and paraphernalia that come along for the ride, my tent is heaviest with collected memories. It’s also imbued with the most power to take me back to other places and times. The days might be filled with movement and exertion, but it feels like the end goal is to arrive somewhere that I can exhale, stop, and become a static part of a landscape. At least temporarily. During the day, I spend too much time doing, and not enough time seeing or listening. The tent is like a mobile grounding cable, and once the last stake is in and the guy lines are tensioned, it feels like I get ‘round to the important business of being somewhere rather than getting somewhere.
For ardent explorers, the tent isn’t just a physical connection to a place; it provides a shield from it, too, when needed. In March 2017, the UltaMid that my partner Annie and I retreat to came with us on a winter bikepacking trip to Swedish Lapland, a few hundred kilometres north of the Arctic Circle in the mountains that form the border between Sweden and Norway — the land where the ski is king. Our fat bikes, loaded up as they were with the supplies that we couldn’t afford to buy at the mountain huts dotted along the trail, attracted more than a few funny looks from puzzled ski-tourers, but I’m coming round to the fact that explaining yourself to skeptical passers-by is just part and parcel of traveling by bike in places where they aren’t usually seen; the cost of admission, if you will.
In fact, for the first few days, it felt as if we were holding a well-kept secret. The bikes rumbled along the well-packed trails on a few exploratory forays: never fast but faster than skis, and more comfortable since we weren’t humping all that weight on our backs. By the time we decided to set out on a longer traverse of the mountains, we were feeling downright smug, and ripe for a put-down from the weather gods.
All of which leads us to this photo, taken just before dark on a wild and windy night as we received our payback for mistakenly thinking that good things come easy. A dump of fresh snow the day before had deposited just enough on the trail to turn easy-going spinning into post-holing beside heavily weighted handcarts, and also enough to persuade the skiers staying in the huts to remain indoors for the day, meaning no one was going to break trail for us. Damn. The day spent getting to this point felt as though for every step we took forward, there were two backward, or possibly even downwards. Tjaktjapasset, the high point of the route, lay another few hundred metres of climbing away, and as the snow continued falling and darkness came, we lay in the tent with the stomach-knotting uncertainty of what the next morning would mean for our hopes of pushing on south. It had taken over an hour just to cut a platform from the snow in our chosen, sheltered position, but as gusts of wind drove in more snow and knocked accumulations from the sides down to a growing pile at the base, it seemed we were being absorbed into the hillside. I know I said that my tent lets me feel grounded to a place, but at this point, I felt like we were taking the analogy too far.
All night the wind and snow could be heard making vaguely menacing noises on the other side of the Dyneema® Composite Fabric tent wall until after some questionable sleep, we got up in the morning to even more snow – who would have thought? As if in apology, a few rays of sunlight pierced the thinning clouds and said, “Hey, you made it this far. Come on. Today won’t be so bad.” With little other option, we prepared the porridge and tea and made plans for where we would push our bikes to that day.
For all that it provides a psychological sense of shelter from the elements, as I stuffed the tent back into its bag that morning, I was struck by how such a small, thin bundle of fabric could provide so much physical protection during the heavy snow of late arctic winter. Along with the tent, into the bag went a handful of new memories to add to the ever-growing total.