The countryside of Estonia

I’m in the little-known town of Rakvere, Estonia, about an hour east of Tallinn. With four hours until my bus to Kärde, I’ve already walked around the castle, eaten a dill-laced lunch on a sunny patio, and played FreeCell on my phone in the bus station to kill time. So in case you’re wondering, no, it’s not a stop I’d particularly recommend unless you really, really love castles with workers dressed in period costumes. Maybe I should have paid the money to go in; after all, it is a pretty cool castle. See? But I’m just eager to be on my way to Kärde.

What’s in Kärde that merits a 4-hour stopover in Rakvere, you may ask? Well I’ll tell you: I’m going for a camper. A 14-footer, just like the one I used to own in Santa Fe. I loved my camper so much; I hauled it all over the American West before I sold it along with everything else for this overseas adventure. So when a camper photo appeared in my AirBnB search, with its own little patio complete with bean-bags and a tiny lantern-topped table, it made me all googley-eyed: I knew I had to stay in this camper on a farm outside the little town of Kärde.

But first I must buy my bus ticket.

Back at the ticket window, I hold up one finger to indicate one passenger while saying the name of my destination — Kärde — just like it looks: “Car-day.” The woman at the counter looks at me blank-faced, as if I’d just asked her for a trip to outer space. I try again with a slightly different e sound: “Car-deh?” and she regretfully scrunches her eyebrows and shakes her head. After a few moments of thought, she rummages on her desk for a slip of paper and a pen that she pushes across the counter, miming: write it down. I happily comply: K-a-r-d-e. No dice.

A colleague arrives to assist; they stand in front of the computer shaking their heads like hapless magicians failing to conjure my desired destination. I feel a slight stirring of anxiety — why don’t they know this town? Did I get my directions wrong? — but now I let my good friend Google Maps attempt to clear things up. As I show my phone to the nice bus lady, her concerned face relaxes into a smile: “Oh, Karrrrrrrde!” she exclaims with a rolled-r flourish.

The bus driver squints at my ticket as I board a few hours later. “Karrrrrde?” he asks, moving his eyes to my face and back at the ticket as if he’s a) never heard of it, or b) can’t quite process the fact that anyone would stop there. I nod, he shrugs as if to say ok, it’s your funeral, and I find my seat. I start to wonder what I’ve gotten myself into.

Paying close attention to the route seems unnecessary since the bus is stopping in town squares. I’ll just check Maps on my phone as we approach each town, I decide while settling in to read a book. Which is why I nearly miss my destination: we roll to a stop smack-dab in the middle of rural farming area with nary a building in sight. An elderly woman climbs aboard carrying a fabric shopping bag; I glance out the window and see the sign: Kärde. Crap. I quickly gather my things and make my way towards the door. The woman and the bus driver both dish out the are you sure you want to get off here? expression; no need for translation. “Karrrrde?” I ask with the proper R roll. Yes, they nod.

The bus rolls away, leaving me standing by a lone bus shelter and endlessly rolling pasture. I close my eyes, smile, and breathe in the clean scent of earth, sunlight, and the color green. A curious bee bids me welcome as I strip off my vest, sweating, and check my phone. Yay for GPS in middles of nowhere, I whisper the technology gods, rolling my grey carry-on suitcase 1.2 miles — along a side road through a tree grove and past a few houses, a boarded-up shop, a crumbling historical building where the Treaty of Cardis was signed in 1661, and more rolling fields dotted with plump cows — until I reach my destination: Sunwell Farms bed & breakfast.

It’s perfect. I just wish they’d told me ahead of time that the nearest grocery store was three miles away. I drop my bags in my little camper and set out on another long walk.

It’s here that I realize how essential it is for me to dip into nature on a regular basis; wide-open space is like medicine, a balm for an overactive brain that can easily feel overwhelmed. With a few exceptions, the cities are all starting to blend together; it’s the smaller towns and the out-of-the-way places that are beckoning me. I remember escaping to gaze at the corn fields when I was in high school in Fort Worth, Texas, grateful for the newfound freedom of a drivers license. And now I find myself doing the same thing: relaxing on my bean bag chair, watching the sun set over fields of lavender, allowing the sediment of thought to settle and drop away. Only stillness and clarity remain.

Lest I forget the other reason I came to Karde: the nearby Endla Nature Preserve and Männikjärve bog study trail. It took a couple hours to walk the full trail one morning, appreciating the golden light and shadow in this northern latitude in mid-summer.

I spent four days in this quiet refuge around Karde, refueling before my journey to Tartu, Estonia.

Tartu

Tartu, a charming university town in the southern part of Estonia, was simply a place to rest my head en route to Riga. I was delighted to find a few spots that captivated me beyond the lovely town center. It’s worth paying admission to climb the stairs of the 13th century Tartu Cathedral for both the history and the views.

I also spent a couple hours wandering the extensive grounds of the botanical gardens. A good chunk of that time was spent determinedly trying to get an action shot of the bees; below is my best attempt: a bee butt. Better than nothing.

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