Europe N to S: Sometimes you have to Dance (9/1/16-9/4/16)

​Today’s Miles: 0

Total Miles: 1,353.8

Trondheim, Norway – September 1-4, 2016

I walked up a thin, dark staircase. Music filtered in through the walls. Drum beats, trumpets, piano, the clave, and singing voices mixed together and swirled through the hot air, breathing life into the building. I climbed slowly, my heart pounding in my chest, my breath short, not from the steps, but from fear.

I thought back to the end of the Continental Divide Trail, to those last seven hundred miles or so when my ears picked up every sound, my eyes every movement, because I knew grizzlies walked the same trails I did. I knew at any moment, I could turn a corner and face a thousand pounds of muscle, brown fur, claws, and teeth.

“So why does this scare me more?” I wondered as I lingered on the last few steps.

At the end of that trail, I didn’t want to stop traveling, but the three thousand miles along the divide left me worn out and near broken. I needed a place where I could rest and still feel the excitement of adventure so I moved to Buenos Aires, a single city where I could stay in one place and work on my broken Spanish.

Through a door at the top of the stairs, a man danced in the corner as he fiddled with a stereo. His feet moved as he adjusted the volume, his toes tapping out the beat as if he were powerless to stop as long as the drums played on. 

In front him, lines of students waited, some moving, some as still as stone. He called his hands and jumped to the front of the class.

I watched for a moment as fear rose up in my stomach and I wanted to flee, to retreat back down that dark staircase. I took a deep breath and stepped into the room.

It took me a month just to find the beat.

The clave is the simplest instrument in the world, nothing but two round sticks held in the hand and hit together.

“Ba-ba-ba, ba-ba,” it calls. “Ba-ba-ba, ba-ba.”

And all the instruments answer.

Drums, trumpets, pianos, cowbells, singers, they all build off those two simple sticks, that call of ba-ba-ba, ba-ba. The other instruments rise from it like trees rise from the earth with their roots digging into the soil of the clave to hold them steady.

Ba-ba-ba, ba-ba.

Now, six years after I stood in that dark staircase in Argentina, listening to the Cuban music flooding out of the room, feeling my heart pound against my ribcage, I can’t hear the clave without wanting to move, to dance, to add my footsteps to the instruments soaring into the air. It’s what I miss most in the mountains, in the wild open spaces under the sky. The chance to dance.

Ba-ba-ba, ba-ba.

I stare at my phone and don’t quite believe it. Trondheim, Norway has a Cuban dance festival. That it has one at all stuns me. It’s five thousand miles from Cuba and Norway doesn’t strike me as a Latin crowd. I look again. My eyes weren’t lying. It definitely exists and I walked right into the beginning of it.

“You have to go,” Stian tells me. “It’s fate.”

I stare at the dates. I calculate miles and think about winter chewing up the north, eating its way down from Nordkapp and Kinnarodden, chasing me, swallowing my footsteps as I race south.

My first zero day was in a rainstorm. My second I spent hitchhiking across northern Sweden to find new shoes. My third was the day a thief stole my charger. My fourth was in Tärnaby looking for packages. That is all. I don’t take days off lightly. I know I have to keep moving.

Ba-ba-ba, ba-ba.

Anja holds up a shirt and I shake my head. Too expensive. I can’t take any of this with me so I don’t want to waste money on nice clothes.

“It only has to last one night,” I tell her.

When we’d met at Nordkapp, I would have never thought we’d be searching through the discount racks of H&M together. I’d never even been in an H&M other than once when an ex-girlfriend dragged me there to look for dresses. Anja shrugs and puts the shirt back. I grab one and hold it up.

“Too much black,” she says. “You’ll look like you’re going to a funeral.”

I put the shirt back, glad she is with me. I have no eye for this. She keeps us moving from store to store until I find a couple of simple shirts and jeans, enough to make it through a few nights of dancing.

“What does it matter what I wear, really,” I think. “I look like a caveman with this beard.”

Ba-ba-ba, ba-ba.

The clave calls and everything answers. I set the trail aside. It can wait. Winter can catch me some other time. I need to dance, to clear my head, to soak my ears in Cuban music until I want to be in the mountains again.

I feel my heart in my chest walking in. It reminds me of that staircase in Argentina, that day I stared in confusion as the Cuban guy teaching the class laughed, encouraged, and shouted out instructions in Spanish that I didn’t understand. I just watched his feet and tried to copy them, confused beyond the first step every time, tripping over myself even as I fell in love with the music and came back day after day after day. 

Cuban drums fill the air and a singer calls out. I ask a woman standing nearby to dance. She looks skeptical, but gives me her hand. I smile and take it in mine as we step onto the floor.

I think of Finnmark, the north of Norway, those wide open spaces, all silence and sky, of staring from horizon to horizon and seeing nothing, feeling like the last person in the world.

It made my heart sing, those lonely moments in the Arctic.

I feel her hand in mine and stand there for a moment, waiting for the music to catch us, waiting for the drums to seep into our feet, waiting for the clave to carry us forward.

Ba-ba-ba, ba-ba.

One of her hands is in mine and the other rests on my shoulder. We’re inches apart, spinning and twirling across the floor, talking, not with words, but slight movements, pulls, pressure on a finger, a nudge on a shoulder blade. A hundred people dance around us. Music fills the air. How different this is than the lonely Arctic and yet my heart sings just the same.

Ba-ba-ba, ba-ba.

The third night is when it happens, when my mind shuts down and I lose myself in a song. The music washes over me, drowns my mind, and I stop thinking. There is no trail, no rain, no problems to solve. Nothing. There is only the rhythm and my partner, her steps and mine. We disappear into the music, turning and spinning as if we have only one mind and it is no longer our own. It is wholely given away. We move and breathe and step and sweat and live only for the music pouring through us.

It’s drums and trumpets in our legs. It’s piano across our arms, the singer’s call in our chest, the chorus responding with our shoulders. It’s the clave holding us all up together.

It’s joy.

Ba-ba-ba, ba-ba.

The last night is bitter sweet. Strangers became faces I recognized then friends and it feels too soon to say goodbye as each peels away into the night. I linger until the music stops, until the air falls dead, until it’s just me and the three Scotts as they smoke down their last cigarettes at the door and we give each other a last hug goodbye.

“If you’re ever in Scotland,” they tell me.

I nod and smile.

“Be careful,” I warn. “You know I have a habit of showing up sometimes.”

“I wouldn’t offer if it weren’t a real offer,” Pauline says. “If you do come you better stay with us or we’ll be offended.”

I nod, adding another trip to the list.

Then there’s a second last hug goodbye and I walk away with a smile on my lips, my heart flowing over with life, ready to return to the trail.

7 thoughts on “Europe N to S: Sometimes you have to Dance (9/1/16-9/4/16)

  1. Daniel, I can’t say enough about how well you wrote this post.
    Connecting all the various experiences that led to this moment of bliss…you share so much of yourself with us in this and give us an understanding of this connection with Cuban music which many of us have no personal awareness…Just beautiful.

  2. I agree totally with your Mom, reading this post brought tears to my eyes. I could just feel how magical it was for, medicine for the soul. Hope you found your batteries, not sure if I missed a post. We are back from Scandinavia, and loved it, mostly Sweden. Love their social contract. Norway was breathtaking. Sending you a warm hug.

  3. First heard you on The Trail Show. Then in their post-Thanksgiving heard about Theodore Jones, which lead me to your wonderful videos – excellent choice of music. From there I found your blog and have enjoyed following you on your journey, racing to catch up. Beautiful writing, wonderful stories. My wife asks me why I hike and last year I decided that it wasn’t the mountain tops, the passes crossed, the high alpine lakes, the beautiful meadows full of flowers, or the wildlife. It’s the people you meet. The smiles, the helping hands that remind you that there are good people in this world. Your journal has helped to remind me of this fact as I wait out the winter and plan next year’s hikes, waiting as the snows shroud the mountains in white, waiting for them to awaken in the spring. Thanks for the salve for my soul.

    1. I still remember stepping on the AT for my first long hike and expecting to fall in love with the woods and then falling in love with the people even more. It really is a wonderful world!

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