The Something Else

“It was not a bad highway, as highways go—long and flat and lined with evergreens and small houses—but it was a far cry from the serenely wooded trails of my imagination. Yet, Highway E75 was what I had. On my map of Finland it was a red line, pointing straight north. My head ached from the smell of exhaust and the roar of semi trucks. Curious faces peered at me from the windows of passing cars as the Finns, resigned to the politeness and anonymity of their national identity, blew by me in gusts of warm, diesel-scented wind. I measured the speed of cars in the pressure of air on my skin, the flapping of my shirt, the hairs pulled down from my ponytail with their passing.

It felt like a test, and maybe it was. The gold miner named Aki had sent a message with directions to a private festival in Lemmenjoki National Park at the end of July: Cross the Arctic Circle. Take a bus five hours north of Rovaniemi to a town called Ivalo. Transfer in Ivalo, get off at the grocery store in Inari. Wait there for the mail taxi, and when the mailman comes ask him for a ride to Njurgalahti Bay. Find a boat driver who will take you 25 kilometers upriver to Kultahamina. Gold Harbor. With a map and compass, walk twelve kilometers into the wilderness to a place called Pehkosenkuru. If you can get yourself to Lemmenjoki, the gold miners seemed to be saying, you might be tough enough to stay.

I stopped walking. I rolled up the sleeves of my father’s plaid shirt and held out my arms, turning slowly in a circle. The mosquitos spun with me. I took off my baseball cap, waved away the mosquitos, and placed it back on my head. My arms were red from the sun, and I felt the telltale prickle of heat on the back of my neck. Looking back the way I’d come, I allowed myself a moment of wishing that I hadn’t followed whatever foolishness had led me to be standing in the middle of Finland on a hot, flat highway. Yet deep down I knew that the night I met Petronella van der Moer, I had found something worth risking everything for; that what I was doing was not for her, but for me. Something had happened in Lapland that changed her forever. I needed to know what it was.”

– Jenny O’Connell, Finding Petronella

I am of the opinion that some wisdom does not come with age, but that a good number of our wisest, purest parts are youthful. These younger selves plant seeds that grow later into something we need. When I walked and hitchhiked across Finland in 2014, I was a planter of seeds. Tonight, I fly back to see what has come up.

It feels like I have lived several lifetimes since my last update just under a year ago. Six of those months, I wrote in a large, bright retired schoolroom at Lincoln Street Center in Rockland, Maine, as an artist-in-residence with the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation. How clearly I recall the way the dust motes caught the light in the old stairwell, the groan of floorboards, the smell of sawdust. The parking lot, blanketed in snow. My wet footprints on the wood floor, the hiss of steam radiators cranking out heat. The stars above the old brick school, bright and sharp in the frozen sky. Many of those winter nights I squeezed my eyes shut against potential ghosts, slept on a blow-up mattress thrown down on the floor. Woke up, made coffee, kept writing. Sometimes I didn’t leave for days. It was my home, for a while.

Out of that residency (alongside two new publications, which I wrote for distraction when I could not stand the book any longer) came the revised beginning of Finding Petronella. Not exactly as I wanted it, but closer. Before I could lose my nerve, I sent it out to a few agents. What has been happening since is an invaluable back and forth. I will be forever grateful to two agents in particular who have spent chunks of their valuable time on the phone with me. Where I wanted an easy yes, there are questions. But these are questions that push me deeper into the core of the story; questions that demand I be the story. They do not allow me to hide behind Petronella’s legend, interesting though it is. These are questions that ask of me: Who was she to you? What possesses a woman to walk across a country? Why is this the story you must tell?

The thing is, I have a distinct memory from the first hour of the walk after I set off with a giant red backpack from my host family’s house in Helsinki. Only a few kilometers down the road I stopped, looked around, and said out loud: “Why the fuck am I walking across Finland?” Petronella, for me, was that unruly idea that we all come to and we all fight, whispering in our ear that everything is about to change. I was seduced by her boldness and celebrity; inspired by the way she took up space in the world as a woman. I was so caught by her story that it took me a year to ask that question, and by the time I did, I was already on my way. But as the stories around her unraveled in Helsinki (spoiler alert: Petronella did not actually walk across Finland), as what I knew to be true about the woman I was following came into question, I was forced to walk my own path. To seek something else.

That something else is why I am flying back to Finland tonight. This is a story of transformation. I need to return to feel what has grown up in me. To reflect on what this journey means to me now. I need to hug my friends in Finland. To stomp around the Finnish National Goldpanning Championships in borrowed rubber boots. To remember the smell of late summer up on the fjelds of Lemmenjoki. To visit Petronella’s rock, where we scattered her ashes. To listen to the old stories. I am not returning to examine my journey as if it were an artifact. I am returning to be an active part of its continuous unfolding.

I booked this ticket on a whim, when it made no financial sense. It still makes no financial sense. But I must ask myself: What kind of life am I living if I do only the sensible things? If I never reach beyond myself?

“Like a walk, this book is an exercise in presence,” I wrote in my proposal. “Like a walk, it is a journey.” I had no idea when I left Finland one rainy night in October 2014 that my story would keep living beyond the moment the plane back to San Francisco lifted off the ground. I supposed it would stop there, or at least sit still. But the thing about stories is that they don’t sit still. It has been growing in me since that moment. 

With gratitude to my 26-year-old self: it’s harvest time back in Lapland and I must go. 

 

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