There are sights that immediately tug at the heartstrings for many people, perhaps more than we imagine. To my mind, a sight of the open road is a symbol of freedom, of potential; of the choice to go or to stay, to feel that one’s personal space extends beyond the horizon. This last sensation is commonplace among native peoples the world over, but I encountered it first among the Sami inhabitants of Northern Scandinavia.
I hold the idea that those images are built in to our psyche from generations past, often from times before our history started, from times when our needs were not only fewer, but more clearly defined, when we led more uncluttered lives. For most of us the sight of young creatures initiates an empathy, babies and puppies for example, are designed to provoke a response favourable to their own survival. The outsize eyes grab the attention and divert our minds away from their helplessness. Unless of course, those eyes are freakishly large, like the dogs which guarded Hades in myth, with eyes the size of cartwheels, wreaking terror in the gut. Similarly, even a fleeting view of a snake, an insect, or things that in the unplumbed deeps of our mind are somehow ‘wrong’, in colour, shape or movement can bring instant feelings of revulsion, discomfort and even raw fear.
My meanderings in north Norway led me to the huge expanse of upland known as the Finnmarksvidda, a plateau where trees blasted by winter winds spread along the ground where the sparse snow cover will enable their survival under a layer of insulation. It’s quite strange to feel the forest brushing your ankles as you move over the land. In hollows and carved stream or river courses taller trees of the same species will grow slowly, but the sense of endurance through adaptation is overwhelming on the vidda. One trail in particular held my interest for several years until I actually managed to spend much time on it. An old droving road crosses the upland on the route from winter reindeer pasture and the coast in summertime, where the herd will give birth to a new generation.The trail leads between sites near to the Alta River, Gargia, where a small hamlet nestles in a broad green valley, and Suolovuopme, a way station, where the river departs to plunge through a gorge. This trail was trodden by herders for many centuries, as the animals they first followed, then drove, were scattered across the knee high forest. I have written elsewhere about the sense of space here; if a traveller simply headed East from here, they would cross a number of major rivers, a smaller number of roads, sometimes flanked by forest, sometimes tundra but with very few signs of humankind as you cross 10 times zones to reach the Sea of Japan.
Some of the most evocative and stirring writing involves exposure to these humbling sensations. Possibly the most liberating title for a book, for me is a collection of short pieces by Barry Lopez, one of America’s greatest natural history authors; “Crossing open Ground” embraces the exhilaration and intensity of being really, ‘out in the open’. Jack Kerouac in a frenetic period of travelling back and forth across America, captured the urge to see over the next hill, produced the classic “On the Road”. Most recently Richard Grant, having spent no longer than 3 weeks in the same place in 15 years, captures the nomadic spirit still alive in various guises in his book “Ghost Riders – Travels with American Nomads”
This serendipitous wandering may take us just around the next bend in the river or road, could find us on a secluded Scottish West Coast bay, gathering cockles to steam over a driftwood fire, could find us foraging in Cornish hedgerows for hazelnuts or berries. Lots of people do it, so I know I’m not alone in being captivated by open spaces and secure in knowing there’s nowhere that I have to be more than where I am right now.
Happy wanderings to neighbours Tina and Nigel, about to set off for a life on the road, Amateur Emigrant