Suzanne and I were sitting on the floor of our apartment one evening, flipping through the pages of our atlas, when the idea for this trip came to us. We’d just finished a late dinner and a candle dimly lit the pages. It was spring and the front door was open, letting in the scent of the sweet peas and jasmine blooming outside. A year had passed since the end of our last trip, and our savings, though still low, were showing signs of recovery. For several weeks we had allowed ourselves to begin dreaming of our next destination. Our atlas lay open and the two of us were leaning over it, admiring the possibilities as though it were a catalog. We had just flipped past Mongolia and China when Suzanne stopped.
“Here,” she said suddenly. “What do you think of this?”
I watched as her finger described a clock-wise rotation around the Baltic Sea. It began in Denmark, rolled across the flatlands of Southern Sweden, up Sweden’s east coast, through Stockholm, and continued north to the Arctic Circle. She then drew a ragged line southeast across the interminable forests of Finland before sweeping through the mysterious landscapes of Russia and the Baltic States. Her finger continued across the north coasts of Poland and Germany and came to a stop again at the Danish border.
I was transfixed. But Russia was still closed to independent travelers in 1990, and the Baltic States-Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania-were still controlled by Moscow and only vaguely recalled on the pages of our atlas by pale lines demarcating disputed borders we strained to see with a magnifying glass. We spent a week making inquiries but were informed that such a trip by independent travelers was an impossibility. We continued the delightful task of roaming through our atlas and dreaming as we saved our money.
For two years the idea of traveling around the Baltic Sea remained in the back of our minds. There was something appealing about traveling in a great circle, circumnavigating an entire region from beginning to beginning with thousands of miles in between.
Suzanne and I kept talking about it, and the world began to change in our favor. Then, in the spring of 1992, the idea surfaced for real. The Iron Curtain had come down, and the world was under the spell of Gorbachev. Russia was opening, and, one by one, the Baltic States declared their independence. Suzanne and I decided to try again and found we could get visas. Night after night we opened our atlas to page sixty-eight and hovered there as we plotted a route and talked about how we would make the trip.
Read our Interview with Allen Noren in which he talks about writing, traveling as a couple, and commitment to a life on the road.
At one time she hadn’t been afraid. At one time the enormity of our trips had inspired her. She’d led the way plenty of times. As I sat against the bike and waited for her to come out of the tent, I thought of a time in South Africa. We’d rented a cheap, broken-down car that had to be push-started from a wrecking yard in Pretoria, and we were making our way south across the Great Karroo towards Cape Town. It was six months after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, and every day the country was on the cusp of euphoria and extreme violence. It was also the middle of winter, and one particular morning it was so cold that we could not sleep and decided to begin driving.
We had only gone a mile when a man stepped from the tall grass on the side of the road and stood in the lights of our car. I swerved around him and kept going. We’d heard and read plenty of stories about hijackings and murders on the road, so I was surprised when Suzanne told me to stop. I asked her if she was crazy, but she insisted and said it would be fine.
By that point in the trip I knew she was right. She’d become almost clairvoyant when it came to the people we met and the places we went there. I backed the car up and the man, a small black man dressed in rags and covered with weeds, timidly approached us and motioned to the empty seat.
Though we had no language in common, and though the man could not read a map, we discovered that he was trying to get home, which he pointed to vaguely across the empty plateau. And so we drove.
We drove for almost three hours on a combination of small roads and dirt tracks, guided only by his hand signals. In that time we assembled his story. He had been traveling for more than two weeks to attend the funeral of an aunt in the north. He could not afford a bus ticket and had walked most of the way at night and slept during the day in the bush. He said the roads were very dangerous, that they were patrolled by rival tribal and political mobs that killed many people. He said he’d been chased several times before we picked him up. At one point I asked him why he let us pick him up. It had been dark and he couldn’t tell who we were. He smiled then and pointed to Suzanne, as if to suggest that he’d sensed her.
After three hours we drove to the end of a dirt track where a number of dumpster-sized brick houses stood on the cold, wind-swept plateau. Tufts of snow clung to the low-lying scrub like cotton. We pulled up in front of one of the houses and a young woman’s face, and then a child’s, filled the only window in the house. The man waved, and the look of relief and happiness on the woman’s face was plain to see, and then her tears.
We all got out to say good-bye. As we were standing there, the man did what I thought was an extraordinary thing. He took Suzanne’s hands in his, then he hugged her and kissed her cheek. They both cried and I felt as though I was intruding. They looked into each other’s eyes for a long time, and only parted reluctantly.
If you’re thinking of traveling as a couple, be sure to read Allen’s Ten Travel Tips for Couples.
To ride a bike is to be part of the machine. You’re essentially sitting on top of an engine and a raw steering mechanism, and your arms and legs are the linkages that make it all work. To ride well every part of my body had to work together in minute ways. With the fingers of my right hand I controlled the starter, the front brakes, right turn signal, and throttle. The fingers of my left hand controlled the horn, the left turn signal, and the clutch. My right foot controlled the rear brake, and with my left I moved up and down through the gears. My whole body was involved in steering the bike. By shifting my arms, hips, legs, or even my head, the bike moved in subtle ways. Every aspect of riding required preparation, thought, and coordination.
To negotiate a turn I had to think about where I was in the lane, when to begin leaning and how far, how fast I was going, whether there were obstacles like gravel or oil I had to avoid. If I had to stop I could not just stomp on the brakes as I would in a car. I had to set the bike up before applying them so the bike wouldn’t begin sliding. I applied the front brakes a little harden than the rear. At the same time, I carefully worked the clutch and shifted down through the gears, steered and balanced, and kept an eye on the traffic in front of me and behind.
To drive a car is to remove yourself from the surrounding environment with sheets of steel and glass, with soundproofing and lounge-like seats, with heating and cooling and audio, and with so many springs and cushioned parts that you may as well be sitting in a movie theater.
To ride was to place myself in the environments I rode through. I felt every bump and dimple in the road through my hands and arms. I was aware of subtle temperature changes and smells. I tracked cars like an air traffic controller tracks planes. It was as if my mind expanded and I was super-aware of all that was around me. At times it seemed as if I could see without really seeing, as if my mind could peer around turns and over hills. Best of all, my view of the world was only limited by how far I could turn my head.
We found the storm trapped in the next valley. The hills were too steep for it to continue any further, and the storm appeared to be trying to pry the valley walls apart. The road wound along the right side of the valley floor, just beyond the storm. I admired the swirling perimeter of the cloud bank. I admired its density, the way the black core seemed to absorb color, the way thick cords of rain fell onto the earth. I admired, too, the contrast with the calm, infinite blue of the sky above the road, and the way the sun healed the storm’s wake. Then, the road made a broad, sweeping turn to the left, into the storm.
It began simply enough: drops of rain against the windscreen, a slight buffeting of the bike as the wind increased. Then the sky darkened appreciably and the temperature dropped. An explosion of light flashed inside of the clouds. It began to hail. And then the storm swallowed us. I hung onto the bike, and Suzanne onto me.
It reminded me of a movie I’d seen about storms in the second grade. There was a segment on hurricanes that showed a U.S. Air Force plane flying through one to measure its incredible force. The camera was positioned in the cockpit, behind the pilot and copilot’s helmeted heads, so it was easy to imagine myself there, too. The plane began to shake as it entered the hurricane and the windshield appeared to melt. The pilot said, “Hang on!” and he hunkered down and took hold of the steering yoke as if the survival of the plane depended on how firm he gripped it. The sound of a thousand hammers beating against the metal skin of the plane filled my ears, and I thought the plane would surely come apart, as I thought the bike would come apart beneath Suzanne and me.
The road turned back towards the right side of the valley, and I saw a wafer-thin section of light that looked like a way out. I remembered how the pilot of the Air Force plane had seen a similar crack of light, and I remembered his staccato voice above the noise and confusion of the cockpit. “I see light!” he said with the conviction of a true believer. I accelerated the bike, and as we approached the edge of the storm, it opened like a mouth, and we seemed to speed off the tip of its tongue.