• Nadia Henderson

The Spring Path: Cycling In Rural North Sweden

Scene from a forest shows a fallen tree's roots sticking up. Around it there are tall pines. The sky is blue and the sun is dappled on the ground.

The spring path angles downwards, taking my bicycle with it. The wind picks up, a lively rush at my ears, and I gently squeeze the brakes, feeling the tires resist against the mud-smooth road. Next time, I think to myself.

It’s our first bike ride of the year. After months of winter, temperatures are rising, melting away the layers of snow that have lingered on the ground since November. Thanks to several weeks of sun followed by unseasonal heat over mid-April Easter weekend, our main route has thawed enough to safely accommodate us. We set out just before ten to a chorus of magpies, chaffinches and tits. These early mornings at the start of spring belong not to us but to the birds. It’s their world, I think, pausing to listen to the woodpecker’s beak twang off a tree somewhere in the forest. We just live in it.

Last year’s cycling fears have dissolved into reasonable hesitation. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel at ease astride metal and rubber, gears aching into place under my inexpert fingers. It’s another thing I tell myself I’m not naturally good at, as I watch Stefan’s slow pedal, hands lifted away from the handlebars. Edging uphill as we leave the village’s familiar parameters, I wonder what became of the girl who once tore down crowded promenades in Alicante on a pink bike a little at odds with her tomboy persona. She had not been afraid of commanding the vehicle beneath her; of being foreign somewhere new. She had surely not pumped the brakes at the first hint of ground dropping down.

A tall, old pine tree stands right by the side of a road. There is a traffic sign at its base. It has gnarled, bare branches but the top branches have green pine needles. The sky behind and around it is bright, cloudless blue.

The road leads us north, past a lake, still topped in winter’s ice, past evergreen pines that dapple sunlight onto our path, making it hard to see the potholes worn into the ground by the frost. What you can’t see you feel, and as I wobble over the inconsistent terrain I am thankful to my bike’s hydraulics. We’re heading towards a beloved landmark–a very old pine tree we’ve nicknamed Gnarls–about four kilometres outside the village. Gnarls sits right at the edge of the forest road that winds towards the northbound motorway; returning from visits to Stefan’s family, Gnarls lets us know that we’re nearly home. His trunk is grooved and knotted, and his lower branches furled and bare, but against the bright, blue sky he wears a crown of needles. Our guess is that he’s several hundred years old.

A bike provides a unique vantage point from which to experience the natural world. My senses, uninhibited by the frame of a car, pick up on the glistening trickle of a roadside ditch stream; the mating dance of Mourning Cloak butterflies, a little too close to the spokes. Without the gentle conversation that comes with our couple’s ambles, my mind is free to wander. I find myself with space for wide, creative thoughts as my body goes through the motions of gear changes and inclines, hands never far from the safety of the brakes. On stretches of downhill road, I want to fully embrace the exhilarating freefall, but fear of letting go always holds me back.

It’s an anxiety that has troubled me for as long as I can remember: what terrible things await me on the other side of pure, carefree joy? What misery will I open the door to the second I relinquish control? Now, as we hurtle towards undoable climate catastrophe, my time in nature is as fraught as it is fulfilling. I can’t trust the ground beneath me to hold solid, can’t trust my wheels to not swerve into chaos. And so, I squeeze the brakes–just tightly enough to slow my roll–restoring predictability and safety, because who needs to feel the childlike joy of barreling down a declining slope anyway? Next time, I tell myself, back on level ground. Next time I’ll let myself go. But it’s always the same.

The trunks of several tall pines can be seen across the photo, and the mossy, green forest floor. In the distance, the figure of a person can just about be seen at the edge of the forest. Between the trees, the sky is blue.

I pedal one last incline and pull in to an indent at the side of the road. Gnarls stands tall, keeping watch over a scrabble of pines, logging-company-owned forest that borders the intersection between the road and a hiking trail. Venturing into the woodland, I’m struck by the way that sound and light is mottled. The mossy ground bounces underfoot; the birds withdraw, startled by a stranger in their midst. I stand in the cool air for a moment, irrationally afraid of what creatures might prowl here, despite the fact I can see the road from my vantage point, can see the resting frame of my bike by the trail. A ribbon of tape bearing the name of the loggers flaps against the trunk of a pine as I make my way out, but this forest feels like it belongs to some other force entirely.

And then we’re on our way home. Eight kilometres there and back, and we’ve not encountered a single car. Our companions have been feathered and winged: fluffy caterpillars, narrowly avoided where they writhe on the tarmac; forest pigeons and butterflies cutting through the warm April air. This; this space and beauty–this is what I’d wanted. As my feet hold still on the pedals, the dipping road and wheels doing the work for them, I think of everything I could lose. But also: everything I have, and how lucky I am to have the capacity and opportunity to enjoy it. There’s a place for fear and rage, action and decisions. There’s also, must always be, a place for joy and hope. This time, I think as I head, legs spent, towards another merciful downhill stretch. This time I will let myself fall.