Today’s sun has yet to appear, and a light drizzle falls from the sky's grey blanket. Maybe it was true yesterday when every person I spoke to told me what a fantastic day we were having weather-wise (fantastic day = sun is out, regardless of temperature).
Riding shotgun in Stellan’s car, we pull into a McDonald’s parking lot next to the highway. He looks at me with a face that says, “this is where you want me to leave you?”.
From my current location, just north of Stockholm, I plan to hitchhike 2,600 km (1,625 mi) to Kiruna in the north of Sweden. I have zero idea what to expect (but my money is on moose and reindeer).
Thanking Stellan for graciously dropping me off in seemingly the middle of nowhere on the side of a freeway, I grab my pack and head to the on-ramp where I begin the tedious task of exercising my thumb to the beat of J-Pop blasting in my ears.
Long story short: the next three days were quite the adventure. I would receive a total of nine hitches between Stockholm and Kiruna, and every one was equally exciting (spoiler alert: no murders). Want to meet these kind people of the Kingdom of Sweden?
If not, now might be a good time to stop reading.
After only ten minutes of standing in a cold, borderline rainstorm, Carl, a retired Swedish truck driver pulls over to lend me a hand.
“Swedish Swedish Swedish Swedish Swedish Swedish Swedish,” he says to me.
Naturally, I respond, “Hello!”
“You are American?” he asks, “where are you going?”
“Kiruna!” he laughs, “I'm only going to Uppsala.”
“Is that north of here?” He nods, “then that's where I'm going too.”
About an hour later we arrive, and he bids me farewell in the direction of the city center. I spend the day exploring Sweden's biggest college town and end up spending the night with two Belgians.
In the morning, my hosts offer to give me a lift to the highway to resume my hitching adventure.
Despite not having made it very far, I am optimistic in regards to hitchhiking in Sweden (contrary to the opinion of every Swede I spoke to prior to beginning this journey.
You do a lot of profiling whilst hitchhiking, but no matter who I think will or won't pick me up, people always manage to surprise me.
Take Lilliby for example, a single female in a well-equipped Audi.
Initial diagnosis: no way in hell this car is stopping – until it does (however, I am still a believer that cars with children in them will never stop…except for that once…when someone did).
After two hours of standing on the E4 on-ramp I welcomed my ride as the Audi pulled to a stop and invited me into her horse with wheels.
She is heading to the town of Gävle an hour north of Uppsala. Slowly but surely, I am making my way north (still no snow, though).
“Where are you going?” She asks.
“Kiruna,” I tell her.
“Kiruna!” She laughs. That is far from here” Everyone feels the need to remind me of this fact.
Lilliby – a fan of both hitchhiking and the nomadic life in general – not only takes me further north, but she also takes me out to lunch, gives me a driving tour of her town, brings me back to the highway, and even offers to let me stay at her apartment if the rest of the day’s hiking on the hitch proved unsuccessful.
With a full belly and a new friend, I have a nice hitching spot next to a gas station by an on-ramp. Today is looking good.
Lars pulls over and informs me that he is going around 40 km north (after laughing at my telling him that I intend to get to Kiruna – seeing the trend here?), but then turning off to head west at a truck stop.
I ask what he thinks my chances at the turnoff are compared to my current position and he say “pretty good”, I get in.
A Harvard educated Swede heading to visit his dad, Lars provides good conversation, but more importantly he also provides chocolate (and if life has taught me anything it's that you should always take candy from strangers – especially Swedish strangers.
Our drive is brief and eventually we arrive at the interchange.
Remember the part where Lars said that he thought it would be a “pretty good” hitching spot? Turns out that Lars is a liar.
Every single car passing this stop was turning to go west.
As I watch cars on the E4 head north without pulling off to this obviously forsaken truck stop, the sun (along with my chances of soliciting a ride) begins to sink behind the horizon.
UNKNOWN SINGLE MALE
After spending half an hour at the on-ramp, watching all but three cars turn ahead of me to head west, I decide to walk up onto the highway to hitch (pedestrians on the highway are illegal in Sweden, but it is my only option at this point).
Cars fly past me at high-speeds as I dance along the narrow line of making myself visible to motorists while maintaining a safe distance from the passing cars (although being hit would likely result in my being given a ride). My optimism quickly fades and I begin to scope out my campsite for the night (a nearby lake should do nicely).
I change my position on the shoulder a few times to give myself the illusion of control, but cars barely seem to notice a lonely hitchhiker on the side of the highway.
However, as we have learned hitchhiking is full of surprises, and just before I decide to call it a night, small blue sedan comes screeching to a halt a few dozen yards past my post – in the middle of the lane.
I run to the passenger door and get in.
A single, male in his fifties (whose name I failed to get), he stopped because he thought it was dangerous (and knew it was illegal) for me to be standing on the side of the highway (so I guess my plan worked).
His English is so-so and I tell him that we can talk in Spanish or Portuguese if he prefers. He does not prefer. However, it turns out that he has just booked a flight to the Canary Islands (a popular vacation destination for Swedes), and he cannot read the confirmation email as it is in the Español.
I translate the email for him and register him an account on the airline's website using his iPad (I suppose those things are useful for things other than taking obnoxious photos). Maybe this act of knowing Spanish will provide me with a place to stay tonight? Keep dreaming, me.
The sun sets and soon we arrive at his turn-off. He leaves me on the side of the road, indicates that a nearby bus stop may be a good place to sleep, as he drives off towards the distant lights of his village.
Again alone, in the dark, on the side of the E4 somewhere in the Kingdom of Sweden, I am now certain that I will be spending my first night camping in the cold. At least I will have the hum of a nearby streetlight to lull me into frozen hibernation.