The Saga Continues …
I was coming up for air following the release of Gone Viking: A Travel Saga, delighted and humbled by the connections with new friends and readers around the world. And while that odyssey took me across half the planet, the explorer in me, unsurprisingly, remained unsated. Much of that journey’s appeal were those moments of mystery akin to the original Scandinavian Sagas, when there wasn’t always a conclusion. No answer, solution nor even a clearly marked finish line. Those dreamy expanses where horizon and cloud comingle in misty swirls. You convince yourself where you are is real, and beyond that, perhaps, lies the magic that fuels everything. Meanwhile, tangible, imagined, physical, emotional, geographical and spiritual boundaries remain. At times by our own making, other times, imposed upon us.
While Gone Viking: A Travel Saga embraced the adventure, playfulness and discovery inherent in travel, it remained, I believe, within acceptable parameters. Now I’ve gone viking again, a series of voyages toward the unknown. Only this time I’m setting rule books aside. We’ll play fair; make no mistake, just not necessarily within guidelines. And I welcome you. There’s always room for another adventurous wanderer, another Viking. But this time our destination lies elsewhere.
This venture was unlike any I’ve experienced – the result of travel restrictions and yet, through it all, the world opening anew – a depth and breadth of connectivity that simply wasn’t there before pandemic was our norm. This may also be the most ambitious expedition I’d undertaken. As a recently appointed Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, I felt an obligation to do justice to what every traveller craves, the experiences we pursue, exploration no longer being shuttling one’s husk between locales, accumulating passport stamps, but mental, emotional and tactile transport between places, times and sensory touchstones, occasionally glimpsing just what it is we’re doing here.
Gone Viking II: Beyond Boundaries takes place over a number of years – before, during and after the voyages of Gone Viking: A Travel Saga – what preceded the first epic trek, what else occurred at that time and what followed. All of this reflecting a changing world in which travel restrictions became our new normal. Invariably these wanderings, recording the world around us, emerge as scribbles in journals, our present-day version of scribes putting quill ink to velum. Once more I’ve done the same, with a weatherproof pack and blank notebooks. Again I’ve gone viking. Only now, it’s a journey beyond boundaries.
From what may be my favourite journal, dog-eared and embossed with a map of the world, frayed pages held in place by an elasticized band, while taped to the inside back cover is a photo of me and my dad. “Travel. The allure of escape, exoticism, and, yes, for some, bragging rights. For the rest of us it represents time-warp slivers of childhood, when this world remained a place of mystery, adventure. Where you can live, for a spell, a hero’s life: desert sand, high seas and buried treasure. X marks the spot to other worlds, imagination, moments when the universe is nothing more than pure potential.”
I was on the sofa in our tiny high-rise apartment, downtown Vancouver, the ambient score a rattle of shopping cart wheels on sidewalk, reminiscent of passenger trains slowing through town, crossing roadways. Clack-clack, clack-clack … clack-clack, clack-clack. Identical journeys in their way. Somehow synesthetic. The same familial line of sensory sounds associated with every peregrination: whirr of rubber on bitumen, rumble of engines asea and the wind-fuelled rustle and snap of mainsail and jib.
I remembered losing myself in the incubating whoosh of a bow-parting ocean in feathers of froth, a blend of cocooned isolation combined with utter connection. And the comforting, familiar yet foreign hum of coach tires speeding on sand, coastal highway where road was literally the shoreline, low tide sand that stretched forever alongside marram-clad dunes. Speed limit on the beach: 100 km/h. The light there at that time was the same as where I am now. Flat, dampened sunshine, the kind that makes you squint, tear up and question your emotions. Every photo from that long, dreamy trip is over- or underexposed, muted in a way I now realize captures the experience precisely.
Back to the train, or more accurately, trains. We’d been living with COVID for what seemed a very long time, numbers spiking again at an alarming rate. And I was attending a lecture, virtually. Propped up in a nest of plump pillows, feeling like a sultan, a steaming cup of coffee to hand. Travel author Monisha Rajesh spoke to us through laptop screens, as she was the presenter for London’s Royal Geographical Society lecture series. The subject? Her travels around the world on 80 trains, some of the world’s most scenic.
It had been a year since my own travel plans had been cancelled as a result of the pandemic – flights, accommodations, rental cars and commuter trains – refunds received, some forgone, airline points reinstated and turned into cash. From a traveller’s perspective, things looked dire, other than a pleasant but fleeting debit balance on the credit card. So, along with a stack of travel-lit, -logues and memoirs, I was doing my best to quell wanderlust as best I could. And for a jonseing dromomaniac, Monisha’s globe-spanning lecture was an ideal, albeit temporary cure. When we eventually swapped messages, I was pleased to learn one of her favourite experiences on that expansive journey had been her travels in western Canada, specifically through British Columbia and the Canadian Rockies. Interestingly, the same pockets of planet a globetrotting friend from Greenland described as her favourites as well.
When I rode a similar route aboard Via Rail, I felt much the same. Even as a local, I was awed, slicing through mountains of sandstone, limestone and shale, a route I’d bisected many times in a car, but somehow from the sliding perspective of a train the same land’s renewed. Invigorated. Old stone reborn. It was a rail-bound journey across half the country, skirting the American border with a northerly lilt, a sharp jog north, then a gentle traverse south, returning to the Pacific. On the map our route was an ECG of enthusiasm, adrenaline spikes of exhilaration with the reaffirming baseline of exploration. While the beauty of that ongoing journey, individuals met and windows onto life’s meaning remain ajar, I believe this viking voyage, shared space and travel, resonates now more than ever.
Bill Arnott’s Gone Viking II: Beyond Boundaries was one of The Miramichi Reader’s “Best of 2021” in the Non-Fiction category.