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Tölt as it Moves You: Swedish Lapland by Horse

At both the Stockolm and Umeå airports I'm greeted with a cordial "Hey hey (hej hej)!" like by an old friend. It's a standard hello; Swedish is immediately kinder to my ears than certain Germanic languages (ahem, Dutch). I leave Umeå behind me and point the car north. The traffic thins. The lady at a tiny supermarket doesn't mind a big bill for a small purchase and smiles easily when I tell her why I've come. Ah, horses, Ammarnäs. Yes. You won't want to go home. How this stranger knows me already.
I stop partway to sleep in a barn-turned-b&b. The roads are unpaved and the house numbers difficult to find. At first, the quiet is unnerving; it throbs like a phantom helicopter oscillating overhead. Then it becomes a comfort, something I want to bottle and later uncap in the most chaotic of moments, when the children are clinging to my legs and batting at each other, complaining in dueling pitches.
In the morning I awake to dense fog and postpone my departure by a couple hours. There is a fly in the room; its buzzing leaves a snail trail of noise in the quiet air of my room. The drive is delightfully long and uneventful, outlined by a snaking, wide river dotted with huge, smooth boulders like turtle shells to my left, blue skies overhead, and ever-yellowing birches and pines parted by the road ahead of and behind me. Autumn is in full-force by the time I reach the thin mountain air. I switch on the radio. Easy listening and 80s seem to be the thing here. I flip it off and revert to silence. The car, at high speeds, makes a noise like crickets.

I get to the farm in Ammarnäs early. No one is there so I explore a bit; the property ends at a rocky beach on a glass-smooth lake. I sit for a while, turn small stones around in my hand, then go for a drive and end up at the solitary supermarket in town. The shopkeeper knows who I am already and more about my itinerary than I do. The girl from Holland, yes. His wife's family owns the plot of land and cabin I'll be sleeping in the next night. He points out the coffee machine, then pulls out an ancient Nokia to show off photos of his most recent hunt. A glassy-eyed elk, a neat line of large, shiny fish. I drive around town a bit with my coffee sloshing dangerously close to the cup's edge. Back to the farm. Still no one here. I read, watch the horses chomp loudly on greenery. Icelandic horses are neither elegant nor immediately striking; their bodies are clearly made for function. Close-up, though, their faces are charming, a bit mischievous. They do not appear to spook easily, and their short legs look able and slightly goat-like. The leggy, nervous thoroughbreds I'm normally smitten with would be outdone in this terrain. A German Shepherd-ish dog yaps at me from an outdoor kennel.
After father and daughter arrive home, I am invited in for dinner. Sausage, pasta, ketchup, raw vegetables from the garden. I help the girl with her English homework. Vocabulary for the day: J-Lo, liposuction, boob job, surgery, talk somebody out of something. Lots of giggles. The dog's name is Sita. I walk her until dark, towards a noise that sounds like traffic. It's the river, rolling and vicious, inky black. We jog home. I help shuffle bridles and saddles around, watch the horses for a bit, then retire to my micro-cottage to pack saddlebags and read. The sky is a multidimensional navy, reflected in the lake, with a strip of black land and trees in between. Symmetry. 
In the morning we groom, saddle, depart. The first time my horse Hrekkur breaks out of a walk, I weep, am prepared to blame the wind for the tears. The Icelandic horse's tölt is in between a walk and a trot, a rambling jog, dancing. 
Lunch is salmon soup, black coffee, freshly baked hönökaka, butter. My horse keeps tangling his bridle on the birch he's tied to. He stands and stares sidelong at me eating, puts on his best attempt at a sad show, foot stomping and pouting abound.
The moss is as thick as my thigh, interwoven with delicate-looking plates of mint-green lichen. When the horses lift their feet from the earth, the earth springs back. Everything is damp, smells fresh. Yankee Candle don't got shit on the scent gods of Sweden. At night we sleep and wake in an unplugged cabin, listen to the fire crackle, eat reindeer in various forms. The horses roll furiously, shake bits of ground and grass from their bodies, roll again. The homestead butts up to a sandy riverbed dotted with animal tracks. Moose, bird, dog. 
In the morning, we ride through dense forest into sparse birch stands, and finally into reindeer country. The ground is covered in scrub brush in every shade of green and delicate plants turning red with the season change. Stocky sage green bushes are alight with the beginnings of dusty yellow. The landscape opens up, and we can see for miles and miles. No one in sight. No roads, no manmade anything, save for a cairn the size of a car designating the sole place to get cell phone reception. A string of reindeer slides along a hill nearby and disappears like smoke. We see the rest of the herd in the distance. I drink in the scenery, let the relentless wind wash over me in one perpetual wave. I am neither hot nor cold, neither human nor animal. I feel invisible. Rooted to the ground. Part of this place. On this horse, here, now, I am envious of no one. In my chest, I feel the antithesis to anxiety, a flutter that spreads to my fingertips, toes, face. Joy. The feeling lingers. 
My Swedish may suck, but I can say my horse's name, gnat, hi, a few village names, gallop, horse, tölt, exactly, and thank you. It's a start. I overcame two of my fears: driving in the fog, and leading a horse on foot down a ski hill. Okay, the second one wasn't a pre-existing fear, but I was gripped with terror that the horse would slip and I would be squashed. The horse slipped many times. I was not squashed. Not once.

I came to Sweden with the intention of finding peace in the context of nature and horses, believing that the only path was via near-absolute solitude and very limited human contact. And then I found myself surrounded by a circle of warmth, humor, humanity, in the form of a father and daughter who invited me to their dinner table, two mother-daughter duos with faces full of laughter, a guide who pointed out the beauty in everything. Contact info was exchanged at the end, and I found that I could, in fact, have it all. 
After the others leave for home and the sky darkens, I open the barn door one last time. I'm hoping Hrekkur will be there behind the door. He's not. I walk through a door, walk between the empty stalls and breathe deeply in the shadowy quiet. I grudgingly return the way I came, swing open the door to the barn. Standing there, long forelock off to one side, is the horse who galloped under me on open tundra, kept me safe through river and forest. I'm sure he came expecting nothing more than a snack, but in the dark, in my suddenly emotional mind, he'd come to say goodbye. The thirteen year-old me instructs me to fling my arms around his warm, thick neck. And sob. It was straight-up Flicka shit. I have nothing else to blame my behavior on other than a childhood horse craze that has only gathered momentum over time. 
Four days ago, I drove fast on the way up. Now I balk, let my speedometer needle falter. I cringe at the idea of returning to the noise of the city. I practice rolling my r's, listen to some melancholic tunes. The cloud cover parts and leaves me with brilliant sunshine to drive in. The melodrama trickles out the cracked car windows, and I feel the chest flutter again at the prospect of returning to Ammarnäs, to collect the chunk of my heart I've left behind. And maybe the horse, too.


p.s. Interested? Email Helena Ifrig for more info on her tours, which are a far cry from a canned, cheesy tourist non-experience.


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