The first time I went to Ã…re, Sweden, it was springtime, and I took a taxi from the airport in Ostersund, an hour south. The driver, a large man with a red nose, was nice if somewhat eccentric. As we drove the shoreline of StorsjÃ¶n – the Great Lake – he told me about fishing and growing up on an island in its middle. He also told me a giant monster dwelt there, and that he had seen it several times. I was new to the area and ready to believe anything. I nodded, smiled, and stared out across the cold, steely surface.
There was a womb-like comfort in the lapping waters, the surrounding sweep of birch and pine, and a land that rolled to the horizon like a carpet bunched in the hall. Signs warning of marauding moose picketed the roadside, and tidy red cottages in countrified Scando style rose and fell from view. There was a creeping familiarity. As we drove into Ã…re, I saw the ski runs gathering the mountain’s upper reaches into the village square and remember thinking, “I could live here.”
Nothing I experienced that visit did anything to change my mind: skiing soupy May snow and gazing out over the snowy highlands to the west; watching a big-air contest under a molten late-evening sun; raccoon tans and smiles in every quarter; outdoor parties, good food, crazy drinks, welcoming people; life as simple celebration. It was the ski town I knew in a country I didn’t. That was a teaching moment.
I could live where ancient and recent hold hands around every corner. Where culture and tradition have a place in the march of a modern world. Where people aren’t shackled by history, but acknowledge it with every nod and action. As if they’re part of something bigger, something great, something that can only get better.
I could live where the sky holds the mountains in its hands. Where storms come in low and black, pressing you to the earth and making you wonder aloud what’s going on up there. Where you can tramp through wet autumn woods while a brisk northerly tears clouds from snow-covered peaks like presents being unwrapped. Where one sunny day can make up for weeks of darkness, and clean air and fresh water are a right not a privilege.
I could live where people laugh and smile not because they feel the need to, but because they can’t help themselves. Where people live a little outside of the world not because they reject it, but because they care so passionately about it.
Ultimately, the lesson of Ã…re was that I could live where people might be uncertain about everything else, but very certain about why they were there: to be part of a family sharing a to-do list of endless possibility.
I’ve visited many times since and always think about the taxi driver. His monster wasn’t real, but it had meaning. An expression of humanity’s most deeply cherished ideas: the unknown, wilderness, possibility. There’s something in these words we need to believe. Because if we ever actually found that monster it would be over – no more unknown, no more wilderness, no more possibility.
Some people invent monsters because they want to believe anything is possible; the rest of us, to make it simpler, move to the mountains.