The overnight train from Stockholm has already passed the Arctic Circle when I wake up in my bottom bunk at two o’clock in the morning. I immediately notice the soft light from the midnight sun filtering through the crack between the blackout curtain and the bottom of the window frame. Outside, an inaccessible world of pine trees and endless bogs pass by, as the train takes us deeper into ever more remote areas. Maya, my 8-year-old daughter, is sleeping soundly on the cot next to me.
We are on our way to a small town in Swedish Lapland called Björkliden, population twenty-nine. Farmor and Farfar, my paternal grandparents, used to come here every summer to hike, back when the town’s only lodge was owned by the state railroad company that my grandfather worked for his entire life. When I was three, they brought me and my parents along, and I created some of my very first and most vivid childhood memories here.
During this seminal trip, my father would carry me mile after mile on his back into some of the most epic wilderness in Sweden. We would stay up to watch the sun that never fully set and take countless pictures of Lapporten, a valley shaped like an enormous half-pipe carved out by a glacier during the last ice age. We would cross ferocious whitewater rapids on rickety wooden bridges and skip smooth, round stones in Torneträsk, a long, 550-foot deep lake.
Most of my original memories from this trip are hazy at best, but Farmor and Farfar infused them with new life every time they brought out their old projector for impromptu slideshows in their basement. Through the projector, their stories became mine. Even though I had only been to Lapland once, by the time I reached adulthood, the barren mountain landscape of northern Sweden that had spellbound my grandparents had become an inseparable part of my fabric too. To paraphrase Richard Louv, author and champion of the children and nature movement, it was one of those places that I would carry in my heart for the rest of my life.
If Lapland would forever stand out as an almost mythical touchstone of my childhood, my memory is virtually littered with many more seemingly mundane, yet extraordinary, moments with my grandparents that collectively shaped my childhood. Farmor and Farfar were neither expert outdoor adventurers nor hard-core environmentalists. They didn’t own any advanced gear and neither one of them was particularly athletic. But they appreciated nature and found joy in the little things; feeding the birds in the backyard, growing their own wild strawberries and going on road trips to different nature areas in Farfar’s yellow Volvo 240, always with a picnic bag packed with coffee and cinnamon rolls in the trunk. Most of the time they had me, their only and much adored grandchild, in tow.
Farfar passed away when I was in high school and after that there were no more slideshows in the basement; whether Farmor found them too painful or I had lost interest, or both, I don’t remember. But after she too passed away in 2013 I went through the entire stockpile of old slides that she had stored on a shelf in her closet for years. There I was, skiing down a tiny hill in my grandparents’ backyard. Sitting in a sea of blooming wood anemones with Farmor while taking a break during a hike. Eating cheese sandwiches with Farfar on a big boulder at a local nature preserve. As I was looking at the speckled frames, it dawned on me that my grandparents had taken me to just about every forest, historical monument, cultural heritage site and national park within a two-hour drive from their home.
Just like with Lapland, each of these places remains more than a geographical location to me. When my grandparents showed me the world through their eyes, they also gave me the gift of what environmental psychologists call a “sense of place.” In short, having a sense of place means being emotionally attached to certain locations where we spent time in childhood, often with loved ones. And because nature stimulates all the senses, many of us remember places in the outdoors that made our childhood special – a creek where we looked for frog spawn, a hill we sledded down in the winter or the neighborhood streets where we used to ride our bikes until sundown. Over time, our memories and stories not only anchor us to certain places and people, but also help us create meaning and connect one generation with the next. Or as famed American poet and writer Wendell Berry put it, “you can’t know who you are until you know where you are.”
“Is this it?” Maya asks as the train pulls to a stop at the station in Björkliden. We grab our backpacks and get off right across from the small general store that still hasn’t opened for the season, then follow a quiet gravel road toward the lodge where we will be staying. When we reach the top of a long hill we turn around to soak up the scenery. To the east is Tornteräsk, stretching so far it has no visible beginning or end. To the west, the gently rolling mountains. And straight to the south, towering on the horizon, we see the snow-capped, upside-down arch of Lapporten.
For years, I had come back to this place in my mind’s eye and after Farmor passed away I knew in my heart that I had to return, both to honor my grandparents’ legacy and to find closure. Now it all comes back to me. The stunted birch trees, the magical light, the monumental silence. Farmor chasing me in her clunky rain boots and both of us laughing hysterically.
We stand around for a while and gaze at the landmark valley in the distance. “I want to hike to Lapporten,” Maya says suddenly, breaking the silence. Our journey is only beginning but I can already sense that it will leave an imprint on her, just like it did with me all those years ago. As we start walking again I snap a picture of her, but what I really see is a speckled image of myself from my grandparents’ slideshows, some thirty-five years earlier. Past and present in perfect confluence. And deep inside I find myself hoping that the image on my phone will help my daughter remember our stories, long after I’m gone.
This essay was adapted from the parenting memoir There’s No Such Thing As Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids (from Friluftsliv to Hygge) by Linda Åkeson McGurk.