Gumption in the Forest?

A new day

Whilst in Sweden visiting family my wife planned to visit a relative in another town, Ulricehamn. It is situated at the north end of Åsunden lake, about 100km east of Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city. The idea popped into my head that rather than jump in the car what about running there instead and then get a lift back. 

Up to the day before my plan had been to follow part of Sjuhäradsrundan, the cycle route along the disused railway. However it would mainly be covered in tarmac. I didn’t like what would effectively be a road run. A last minute suggestion persuaded me to instead join part of Sjuhäradsleden, a long-distance forest trail. It would make it easier on my feet but not for navigation. I have got lost in the forests of Sweden several times before. It was difficult to ascertain the distance on this new route but it looked like marathon distance which turned out to be right. 

So last Monday at 0630 I set off from where we were staying in the forest. Initially on a gravel road to Gånghester, a village on outskirts of Borås town. Plan was to join the former railway track there and then link in with the forestry trail from Dalsjöfors.

A short way into run I passed a place where several years ago I bumped into 2 elks whilst rounding the corner. All 3 of us were equally surprised. Despite them being strongly associated with Sweden they are elusive creatures and I have only seen a few times. On that occasion I carefully backed away. They are big and not to be messed with. Had I been running a few weeks later in October the elk hunting season begins. Then it wouldn’t be elks but people to watch out for. It is not advisable to enter deep forest when groups of hunters are out and about.

On this occasion I was thinking not so much of elks but more of elk fleas (‘älgloppa’). They are hard to get rid off once on your skin but thankfully don’t bite. Same can’t be said about the ticks. Nasty, infectious bites with even nastier potential disease. Plenty of them especially in long grass. In this there was some similarity to Scotland! 

Known to me as elk corner.

On the former rail track from Gånghester to Dalsjöfors I met a few early morning cyclists on their way to work. Also a guy running much faster than I at about 10 km/hour pace pushing a child’s buggy. I was not going to be tempted to keep up and kept to my modest 8km/hr as he moved ahead.

Runner and buggy receding into distance.

Arriving Dalsjöfors instructions from family were ‘turn right and join the forest trail when you see Toarps State church up on hill to the left‘. I couldn’t see church for trees but thankfully saw the sign. Interesting that all over rural Europe directions to finding your way are often given in relation to the church of a village or town. Maybe a message there. Eventually after gaining some height I did see the church.

Toarps church peeking through the trees

The route I was now on was Sjuhäradsleden which I would follow all the way to Ulricehamn. Where I joined it was well marked and was so for most of journey. An orange diamond or painted line seen clearly on trees, poles etc. The only gripe I have with Swedish orientation signs are that there are often markings 50m or so after a fork in the trail, rarely at the fork itself. For me, it can mean carefully checking some way up each arm of the fork. However I think Swedes know what they are doing as orienteering is very popular with all ages in Sweden. They are very good at it. On second thoughts maybe looking some distance ahead rather than focussing close at hand gives better awareness of where you are. There might be a life lesson there. You the reader can decide.

Spot the sign!

Terrain was frequently changing from gravelled roads to thick forest. The latter required concentration and awareness of where I was. Also the occasional meadow but the overall sense was of trees everywhere. At more open farm steadings the route would often deviate from the farm road to make a detour into a field. I guess the farmer wanted privacy. That said one landowner told me enthusiastically that I go through her house front gate as that was the route.

Field detour

A few times the trail was ‘booby trapped’ with electric fences requiring an inelegant sliding along the ground. I guess the safety of grazing animals takes priority over the ease with which two legged travellers can pass through.

Over, in-between or under?

Mostly it was quiet and at times even felt lonely. For about 25km think I only met one person and quite a number of contented horses and sheep.

The final 10km or so of the route felt hard. Few pictures of this last section, too pre-occupied. I was getting weary and adopting a run-walk strategy. The forest terrain was more difficult to traverse, the trail underfoot becoming fainter and mixing with other tracks. However what made it most difficult was that suddenly the trail stopped being marked. No more welcome orange diamonds or lines giving reassurance of progress. I now had to follow the map downloaded the night before and which I had not studied. Ended up getting lost.

This is what lost looks like!

When lost on a trail my usual experience is of mild panic and a sense of wasted time and energy. I blindly strike out in whatever direction seems best. This time I decided to be calm, go slowly and patiently retrace my steps back to where I last knew where I was. No second guessing my location and trying to make up time with ‘shortcuts’. 

My strategy paid off and gradually I was ‘free’ of the last forested area. I now had the wider perspective of lush fields. A few more km of this and I was on a cycle path leading to Ulricehamn’s town centre and my destination.  

Cycle track into Ulricehamn.

42.3km, 640m climb, 693m descent. 6hrs 2mins.

To Be or Not To Be

Pastoral scene

The other day I sat outside for a couple of hours and just enjoyed being. The late summer sunshine was warming but not so much that it became uncomfortable. There was a freshness to the little wind that there was which gently made it’s presence known in the rustling of the trees. There was no electronic gadgets or books to hand that could distract. All very pleasant yet tinged with some disquiet. A voice in my head said I was doing nothing. 

I was in the countryside and my only companions apart from my thoughts were the sheep in the adjacent field. They were busy. Sheep seem to want to frenetically eat every bit of grass as if it were their last. 

Especially interesting to sheep is the grass on the other side of the fence. In fact 2 years ago when staying in the same place one job was watching out for one sheep who would regularly jump over the fence. Short-term she might enjoy it but after a while would start to feel lonely and desperately try to get back over or through the fence. Outside the fence there was also the danger of getting lost or becoming prey. 

Plums tastier than grass

Sheep also know when to sit down, relax and chew the cud. They have a good work/ life balance. 

Chewing the cud

The drive to keep busy is not healthy. Being at peace and content with myself is far more challenging. One of the most precious yet elusive things in life is to savour the present. Each day I am challenged to live in the here and now. It seems to me contentment lies in the present moment, whether it is busy or not. It is a life’s work but the tools are always there. The way I regard my memories (good or bad) and think of my future directly influences how I view the present.

My culture gives value to being busy. To admit to others I am not doing much implies some kind of failure. Also when told someone is busy implies he/she is unavailable. It also conveys that whatever they are doing is more important than giving me the time of day. Their time is more valuable than mine. A world filled with busy people is a lonely one. 

Writing this I am conscious of those whose days are filled providing food, clothing and shelter for themselves and their families. For many it looks like being busy is not a distraction but a necessity. However being busy ‘for busyness’ sake’ is not something I ought to strive for. I’m told that boredom is a sign of questioning the meaning of doing certain things. It is not having nothing to do. I can be very busy but also bored because I question the value of what I am doing. 

There is a healthy ‘busyness’ that comes from  being engaged in something absorbing. It probably involves interacting with people, nature or things in a creative way. Such times are a blessing. Instead of a tiring activity I am refreshed and experience a sense of fulfilment.

Someone has been busy
Picking mushrooms

Like sheep I am tempted by what I think is greener grass. Not content I wish to move outside of the fence and away from the fold. 

“Come to me, all you who are weary and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”

Matthew 11 verse 28.

City of Many Faces

MV Logos berthed in river Hooghly, Calcutta.

There are many great world cities each with their own character and peculiarities. All shaped by its history and people. To spend several weeks or months in any metropolis leaves a lasting impression from the particular time visited. One such place for me is Calcutta (now named Kolkata) in West Bengal, India. 

My first visit was for a few weeks on board the vessel MV Logos in Feb/Mar 1978 (see my bio or another post here for more background if interested). I was working as a seaman and our ship was berthed at the ‘man-of war’ jetty on the river Hooghly which runs through the city. The river as an arm of the Ganges has religious importance to Hindus. It was a strange experience to watch garlanded dead bodies on rafts floating up and down the river on the fast flowing tides. The crows sitting on them were doing more than hitching a lift. On one occasion a body got wedged by our vessel. As a deckhand it was not a nice experience to dislodge. 

My second time in the city was to prepare for a visit of the said MV Logos for about 3 months at end of 1981. The work involved getting permissions from government and port authorities for the public to visit what was then the ‘world’s largest bookship’. It also included publicising and organising many types of events both on board and on shore such as conferences and meetings with churches and civic organisations. With the ship’s crew of 140 from about 25 nations there also were a lot supplies also to arrange. It called for interaction with a wide range of people at all levels of society.

Actually living in the city instead of on board a ship meant you experienced life as a local. My accommodation was in the grounds of the Carey Baptist church and Calcutta Bible College. Both were in the same compound in the heart of the city. Initially I stayed in the church manse and later got a room in the Bible college. The church was named after William Carey, said to be ‘the father of modern Protestant missions’. A one time shoemaker from England he went to West Bengal in 1793 where he had enormous influence as a Bible translator, educator and social reformist. His life example subsequently inspired many missionaries to go to far flung places. In the Carey church is a plaque stating that Adoniram Judson was baptised here on his way to Burma (Myanmar). Like Carey he was a pioneer, one of the first American Protestant missionaries. Anyhow enough church history. Suffice to say that living there almost 200 years later impacted on me. 

The church pastor and his wife were very hospitable. As well as leading a busy church with many programmes and outreaches they also hosted a constant stream of visitors to the city for both meals and accommodation. In addition they had a radio programme broadcasting in Bengali which generated interest in Bible correspondence courses.  

In my Bible College accommodation the principal asked if I would do Bible studies with a Thai Buddhist monk named Pariyat. Thus began several weeks of studies in the gospel of John with this man who was on a pilgrimage to find the truth. It was a special time exploring the Bible with our very different backgrounds and worldviews. There was something very challenging and sincere to me about his forsaking everything to travel in search of the truth. I pray he found the ‘Word made flesh’. 

When I moved out of the manse of the Carey church I had to fend for myself much more as far as meals were concerned. My favourite was a Tibetan restaurant a short walk away from the compound. Not too spicy and with more Chinese type food it suited me. At times I was the only customer in this small restaurant which also appeared to be home for the family who ran it. It made for familiarity. Having a fixed menu and becoming a regular customer for evening meals helped both the family and me.

Aside from buses the main public transport around the city was the trams. I don’t recall using trains in the city, only out of town. The trams were a carryover from colonial times. In ramshackle condition it was amazing that they lasted so long in a bustling city of then 9 million. During my time there a metro underground was being built. It took many years before completion. It was disconcerting to see major infrastructure projects like that where the excavation was being done by hand. A human chain of women carrying soil in baskets on their heads.

If needing private transport it was either by taxi or by rickshaw. India’s economy at the time was quite closed to the rest of the world. This included cars and so taxis were nearly always of one type, the ubiquitous Ambassador car. Indian made and based on a 1950s style Morris Oxford. In Calcutta there were no cycle rickshaws which was common elsewhere in India. Instead it was men running barefoot pulling the rickshaw by hand. Sometimes with two passengers and trips could be for several miles. The rickshaw pullers who did this gruelling work through the choking fumes of grid locked traffic did not live long. The cost for taxi or rickshaw was roughly the same. Due to that I preferred to give custom to the rickshaw wallah as thought they were the neediest. After a while I was convicted when one fellow couldn’t pull me over the long Howrah bridge that crossed the river. Hopping off I walked alongside and didn’t take them any longer.

The tension of living with the injustices of poverty was not easy to adjust to. I would carry coins and give to the continuous stream of beggars that a foreigner attracted. The margins between life and death for many were wafer thin. At times the sheer desperation of people affected me. The following is an extract from a letter I wrote at the time…

It’s  10pm  as  I  sit  here  in  my  room  in  Calcutta  Bible  College  –  all  day  it  has  been  raining causing  the  streets  to  become  more  chaotic  than  usual.  If  one  wants  to  study  humanity  or 
different  social  conditions  then  Calcutta  must  be  an  ideal  place. The  other  day  a  small  boy and  his  mother  were  crying  out  in  the street  and I was moved  to  give  them  something. I hesitated and  when  eventually I  reached  their  area, they  had  gone. The  Lord  seemed  to  say true  charity  must  be  spontaneous, without  reasoning.  Who  should  one  give  to  if  confronted by a dozen beggars daily  from  the  deformed  and  limbless  to  tiny  children?  My  observation  is that  most  foreigners, myself  included, after  a  few  months  develop  an  insensitivity  to  our environment. The  majority  of  us  live  our  own  lives  oblivious  to  the  real  needs  of  those around.  In  many  evangelical  circles  social  action  is  not  a  very  popular  word  but it  seems  to be  a  desperately  needed  element  in  our  gospel  message  and  witness. These  issues  I  share  with you  as  they  weigh  on  my  heart  at  the  moment.  (How  do  you  respond  to  a  ragged  man  with one  arm  and  no  legs  rolling  along  the  street?).”  10 Dec 1981

The city’s needy has inspired many works of compassion with the best known being Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity. During my time there I also encountered some less famous but just as worthy charitable works. Years later I found reading ‘City of Joy’ (by Dominique Lapierre)** helpful in describing the city’s economic and social conditions.

During the day I was based in the magnificent offices of the esteemed shipping agent Mackinnon, Mackenzie & Co. It was built on a grand scale with cavernous high ceilings. It felt like working in St. Paul’s cathedral. One of many beautiful buildings in the city that were a legacy of fine, yet usually crumbling, colonial architecture. Calcutta was the capital of British India till 1911.

I had a big desk in the open plan ‘cathedral’ area as it was deemed to be safer from theft. Without my arranging I seemed to have been appointed a dedicated ‘chai’ (tea) wallah. Unlike the normal sellers of chai on the streets these men were dressed in finery appropriate to the office surroundings. Elaborate turbans and bright uniforms with lots of braid. My appointed man stood at a distance along with others but would often be looking my way. It made me nervous as the slightest expression on my part would instigate action. He would then appear with a tray to serve chai. If I had visitors that of course necessitated chai without any prompting on my part. His aim was to wrestle as much tips from me in the day as possible. That was his job and I had mine. 

Preparing a visit of MV Logos to a port or country was at times high profile. To gain maximum publicity we would try and invite some VIP to officially inaugurate our visit at an opening ceremony. To this end one of our local committee arranged for he and I to have a half hour audience with the governor of West Bengal. It felt intimidating being escorted in a golden lift by another resplendently dressed individual. The governor put us at ease in the sumptuous surroundings and was happy to officiate at our opening on board ship.

It was not all work and it was good to find places to relax. One such was the Maidan. A large green park space near the river where cricket mad inhabitants would practice and others like myself stroll. Away from the heaving humanity of the built up areas. To watch cricket as the day cooled provided a haven. 

Kolkata, city of many faces.

** There is also a film of same name, based on the book.

*** If on Instagram you can see more of Elisabeth’s work at elisabethgrant.art

Valley Thoughts

Aiguille du Midi

Over almost the last decade my wife and I have made several visits to the lovely French town of Chamonix and the valley named after it. Situated at the foot of Mt. Blanc, the Aiguille du Midi at 3,842m towers over the town. You need to crane your neck to see it. The valley on its eastern side is created by the Mt Blanc massif. Mt Blanc itself at 4,809m is Europe’s highest mountain and straddles France and Italy. Switzerland is also part of the massif. Country borders seem influenced by the geography of the mountain passes.

Our visits to the valley have been for a few reasons. One has been my taking part in the Ultra Trail du Mt. Blanc (UTMB) series trail races** and on other occasions to be a spectator cum tourist at said races.

It has been a wonderful experience to participate in these events that, like the massif, cover 3 countries. Despite my being just an ordinary ‘back of the pack’ runner it is great to be at the same start line as the world’s best mountain and trail runners. During the week of races there are approx 8,000 ultra runners taking part from 80+ countries. Here in Scotland ultra running is a niche activity. In Chamonix for a week in late August it is mainstream and I feel normal. The French fete their top runners in a way you don’t see anywhere else. 

My three races there have probably been the toughest physical experiences of my life. The unrelenting steepness of the mountains and the thinner air see to that. The occasions have also been life affirming. For me running long distances provides opportunity as a Christian to challenge both body and spirit. The truth is I need at times to step out of the comfortable routines of life. In ways that can’t be described in words God nourishes, blesses and equips to continue to live the much longer and more challenging race of life. We exist in a physical world but it takes spiritual resources to truly live.

All UTMB races end (most also start) in Chamonix in front of St. Michel Church in town centre. A few times I have sought solace from tension before races by sitting on the steps in front of the church. From there I ponder the massive cathedral of the Mt. Blanc massif that looms in front of me. Sandwiched between two silent but potent symbols of God’s love, power and presence.

St. Michel Church, just before starting the 2012 UTMB
Cross, overlooking Vallorcine at north end of the valley.

The visits to Chamonix in more of a tourist capacity have obviously been more relaxed. That’s when either I have not competed by failing to get through the ballot process or felt unable to muster the mental or physical resources to take part. Then I have simply enjoyed being a spectator cheering on others as they strive to achieve. Also taking time to hike and enjoy the spectacular vistas.

Chamonix of course is home to many other sports; hiking, the home of alpine climbing, rock climbing, mountain biking; skiing; para gliding and wingsuit flying to name a few. I have met young people who are enthusiasts willing to forego studies or career, live simply and realise their adventures. Working in hospitality, as taxi drivers or as guides they pay for their outdoor passion in climbing, skiing or whatever. Elite trail runners who train there year round are often sponsored by big name outdoor gear companies. The place is also a magnet for tourists. These different types of people are exemplified in my journal entry of 2 Sept 2015…

We have got in the habit of having breakfast in a small cafe which wasn’t far away from the chairlift to Aiguille du Midi. The cosy premises seemed to comprise of 2 types of people. One group were relaxed chair lifters out for the day and dressed in the latest fashionable ski and outdoor wear. Another group had the business air of serious mountaineers or rock climbers laden with safety ropes and equipment. Of this latter group I observed one wizened figure who seemed to be a mountain guide. He looked like he was waiting for his clients for the day. His face seemed to show a man used to being in the high mountains and who lived an intensely physical life. I imagined his trade reflected a nobility missing from much of modern life; that of making a living from a rugged life of outdoor adventure. I never talked to the man but sometimes a face inspires a story.

Chamonix as a town is not that remarkable. At the beginning of the 20th century it was largely unknown. At times the Chamonix valley was even cut off from the rest of France during bad winters. Now it is a mixture of adventure playground and expensive tourist magnet. The people who have come to make a living there and those who have come to enjoy it’s beauty as tourists or sports enthusiasts made it what it is. The same forces may change it for the worse as the stark, wild and pure beauty of the mountains are made accessible to more and more. 

Other changes in the environment of the region may have consequences further afield. The glaciers that used to encroach on living areas have now receded far up the mountainsides. Even in under a decade you notice the difference. 

This is not an advert for the town or the valley. It became special to us due to spending time there and doing things we enjoyed. I’m sure you have places equally special. 

Coffee table inspiration!

** A series of several different races around Mt. Blanc, varying in length and difficulty. You can read my experience in these races here.