I Drove to the Ends of the Earth (A Marriage Proposal)

In honor of Valentine’s Day, an epic love story — I think. Either that, or an epic tale of misdirection involving 4,500 kilometers, five boats, three flat tires, a few naked men, some drunk Swedes, one very important question…and a surprising response.

Going the distance: 4,500 km to propose.

June 1999. I was a consultant living in San Francisco, Audrey a Peace Corps volunteer in Estonia.

I set off on a mission: meet Audrey in Stockholm, make our way to Estonia, celebrate the Summer Solstice, and ask her to marry me somewhere along the way. I carried a “fake” ring, a photograph of the real ring, a ticket from SFO to Stockholm and back home from Tallinn, and two overthought marriage proposal plans.

I had about ten days to get it done.

I also carried with me a truckload of bad karma, apparently.

Plan A: Parry on the Ferry

My first marriage proposal vision: on the boat from Stockholm to Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city.

Balloon over Stockholm - Stockholm, Sweden
Balloon over Stockholm, Sweden

In an episode of gross travel naiveté, I harbored visions of a romantic cruise across the Baltic Sea. You know, just me and Audrey taking a late night stroll on deck, the soft evening breeze lapping us on our love boat as I work up the nerve to propose under the gentle light of a Scandinavian white night.

The reality: it was a ferry, a multi-stage party boat complete with a disco mobbed by scantily clad Russian high school girls and a performance hall featuring a busker with an acoustic guitar singing “Alice, Alice. Who the f*ck is Alice?!

Our Love Boat was a booze cruise chock full of raging Scandinavian, Finnish and Baltic partiers. Everyone drank like fish.

Oh yeah, the marriage proposal. My best chance was on patch of bright green AstroTurf-y carpet on the upper deck.

I should have laid a knee to that patch of putting green and called it a night. Instead, I frantically searched the boat, nook and cranny, for somewhere appropriate.

The whole scene was preposterous.

It’s one thing to have a plan and just miss your mark. It’s another to end up in the wrong solar system. I attempted to soar like an eagle, instead I gaggled with the geese. Bottom of the 9th, bases loaded. Tee up whatever metaphor of gross misjudgment and disappointment, and you’d have captured where I’d landed.

This was not to be the vessel from which we’d launch the rest of our lives together.

Out with Plan A.

This is why you have a backup plan.

I had a backup plan.

Plan B: The Boy, The Girl, The Blossoming Fern

I got burned by romance in Plan A. So I picked myself up, just like good young man might. My fallback was all about thoughtful symbolism, cultural and contextual. I couldn’t join Peace Corps and go off to Estonia with Audrey, but I could certainly co-opt her host country’s folklore as a backdrop when I proposed to her.

We made our way from northern Estonia across to Saaremaa, Estonia’s island of windmills.

My plan was rooted in an old Estonian Midsummer’s folk tale that tells of a boy and girl who go off into the forest to look for a blossoming fern. The thing is, everyone knows there is no such thing as a blossoming fern so it’s just an excuse to go off into the forest together…for a long, long time.

In the spirit of Estonian boys and girls past, I would find an excuse to lure Audrey into the forest, place my knee upon a suitable patch of moss, catch the light, and pop the magical question.

Instead, it rained, the bonfire almost went out and everyone piled into the sauna.

My goal: Propose to Audrey in the forest under the soft light of a midsummer’s night.

The reality: I found myself in a hot shack surrounded by drunk naked men.

After sauna, everyone consumed large amounts of alcohol, sausage, and potato salad while dancing to bad Euro trash tunes. I learned the hard way that this was Estonian midsummer.

Stymied once again, I put my hand into my pocket and fingered a packet of folded white paper into which the ring was tucked.

Time was running out, but I was undeterred. One of the naked men had raved about a road trip to the very north of Finland. This gave me an idea.

Hey Aud,” I said. “How about we take a drive to the Arctic Circle?

You must have determination.

I had determination.

I also had a flight back to San Francisco in four days.

Plan C: Above the Arctic Circle

The following morning, hangovers be damned, we hit the road. We caught the ferry in the wee hours to the Estonian mainland back to the port in Tallinn, and hopped another ferry to Helsinki. At that point, we were roughly 800 or so miles from some unnamed destination on the shores of the Arctic Sea.

Oulu, Finland. If Finland has the last bastion of civilization before Lapland, it’s Oulu. On this midsummer night, it was engulfed in drunk Finns celebrating at our hotel disco. The door would open, belch cigarette smoke and spit out a Finn or two who’d consumed too much vodka.

I didn’t get a chance to party. I picked up a flu, felt feverish, began hallucinating, and swooned like I was going to pass out.

Maybe this whole proposal thing wasn’t a good idea after all.

The next morning, a miracle. The fog of death hanging over me cleared. I was ready to go. Unfortunately, our car wasn’t. As I opened the trunk, I noticed the right rear tire: flat as a pancake.

Fortunately, the spare was a real tire instead of a donut. I jacked up the car, removed the flat, replaced it with the spare, and said to myself, “We are headed nowhere and we have no spare. We are in deep shit.”

Did I mention that we were driving an old Ford Escort?

As we continued north, our path began to fill with reindeer (they are slow to move), and starving mosquitos (extraordinarily fast). The road seemed never-ending.

Reindeer - Lapland, Finland
Reindeer in Lapland, Finland.

Sure enough, as we closed in on the top of the earth, we stopped for a break only to find out that the right front tire had also begun to go flat.

Is this a sign?

We’d rationalized that at the rate of tire deflation, we could make it to civilization somewhere in northern Norway. We’d have to. We were plunk in the middle of nowhere and of the few gas stations that existed, only clerks were on duty. Everyone else was recovering.

We crossed the Arctic Circle, passing Rovaniemi, the purported home of Santa Claus. (I was always under the impression that Santa lived AT the North Pole, not NEAR the North Pole, but that’s for another discussion.)

Let’s keep driving until we reach the Arctic Sea,” I suggested. Just above the Arctic Circle would not be sufficiently dramatic. Audrey was game; she didn’t suspect a thing. So we pressed on.

Then, a third tire began to go flat. It was clearly time to stop. We found Skibotn, a small village with an auto repair shop. The mechanics were so amused by us — crazy Americans driving a puny car in the middle of northern Norway en route to the Arctic Sea — that they plugged all our tires for free.

Every cent we saved on the tire repair was paid to an extortionately expensive guesthouse and for the world’s most expensive fish sandwich.

But we were alive, and so were our tires.

We took a walk along a nearby fjord shoreline and marveled at the sunset. It was 2:00 A.M.

Sunset at 1 AM - Norway
Sunset at 1 AM – Norway

My luck was going to change. I could feel it. Sort of.

One Last Chance: Are You Serious?

The following morning, I surveyed our map and noticed the Arctic Sea was quite a bit further than I expected. This trip is going to kill me. I had to be back in Tallinn in two days for a flight. Maybe we could just return to the home of Santa Claus and wrap this thing up?

I imagined the scene of proposing to Audrey at the home of Santa Claus.

Nope. To the Arctic Sea, it is.

I just drove and drove. I didn’t really know where I was going. One of the tires had begun to go flat again. I used this as pretext to stop at every station and ask, “Can you tell me where I can find the Arctic Sea?”

Who says men don’t ask for directions?

Eventually, the sea, and a clear line of sight across the water. A cute fishing village named Grotfjord. Of all the beauty we’d consumed, this was the place. On the map, the body of water read Norwegian Sea, but honestly I didn’t care. I would always refer to this moment as having taken place on the Arctic Sea.

I might even throw in a few polar bears in the next telling of the story.

Stop stalling! It’s now or never.

Sleepy Fishing Village on the Arctic Sea - Norway
Sleepy Fishing Village on the Arctic Sea – Norway

Audrey and I walked out onto a rock jetty. I shook like a schoolboy. Thankfully, Audrey busied herself with a sea urchin shell as I fumbled with the ring in my pocket, a $5 silver stand-in that I’d purchased at a San Francisco street fair.

I bent down, pretending to find something amidst the rocks and unfolded the fingers of my right hand, “Look what I found.

Then, the ring fell in the water.

OK, I’m just kidding about that last part.

Oh,” Audrey said. “What is it?

It’s the ring I’m going to ask you to marry me with.”

Audrey: “Are you serious?

Hmmm. I was the one who was supposed to be asking the questions. I mean, here we are at the ends of the earth.

Um, yes, I’m serious.” (I was also as white as a sheet and still shaking, I’m sure.)

Amidst the rocks, I got down on one knee, ring in hand: “Do you think you can find it in your heart to spend the rest of your life with me?

A woefully long silence, which in fact was only a second or two.

Yes.”

A Few Lessons

After I began breathing again, I came to: “Wait! I can’t believe you asked me if I was serious!

Audrey had a point. “It would have been a long ride back if you weren’t. You would have teased me the whole time.

True, I was a joker and this was the payback. To pepper the story with some more credibility, I pulled out the photo of the real diamond ring.

We high-tailed it out of Grotfjord, back through Tromso, rewound our trip — the same reindeer, the same long roads, the same slowly deflating tires, the same light unbending. Mosquito carcasses piled up by the pound on the car windshield and grille.

Back in Tallinn, we inflated the tires (the spare, too!) one last time and returned the car to the rental car counter.

How was everything?

Great!

We were engaged. And that’s all that mattered.

—-

Happy Valentine’s Day!!

When have your “perfect plans” gone completely awry?

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Comments

  1. Tynchtyk Chorotegin says

    Now I understand, why the Arctic Sea’s ice is melting faster since 1999 summer time. It is because of energy of love of both of you during this trip closer to the Arctic Sea.

  2. Olivia says

    I love this story! My (now) husband’s proposal plans were also foiled, though only twice. But when his dad’s girlfriend congratulated me before he’d proposed…he was, needless to say, not pleased. (I, on the other hand, was relieved it was going to happen soon!)

  3. says

    This post made me smile today! :) Really!!! You 2 are such an amazing couple! An INSPIRATION. Not only are your travels, but you guys as human beings! :) Love love love

  4. Colleen Setchell says

    Beautiful, beautiful story. I am sure this will be forever etched in both your memories. I wish you both all the happiness for your life together…

  5. Sutapa says

    And the fact that Audrey was willing to go to the ends of the earth with you should have been an indication that she would say yes!

  6. Valerie says

    I truly enjoyed this story and I sincerely hope you will write a book about your lives together, your travels,your good and bad moments… The list could continue but I’ll just say that, apart from your being an exceptional couple, Dan has a way of narrating that makes him very special.By the way, I mean a Book with a cover and pages to turn;not a digital Ebook,PLEASE!! Any hopes? I hope you’re continuing to enjoy Mexico.Where after that?
    P.S. Audrey, you’re a very lucky girl!! xx

  7. says

    Now THAT is an amazing love story and probably one of the cookiest engagement stories I’ve ever heard! I second the commenters who said that Audrey probably wouldn’t have gone all the way up there with you and said no, but of course, how would you know that?

    Congrats!

  8. says

    What a SWEET story! Reminds me a lot of how my husband, Justin, and I got engaged. Poor guy had planned everything and had so many backup plans, but everything kept going wrong. I, however, was clueless, and was just enjoying our day exploring together. It’s sad there’s so much pressure on guys to “get it right.” When it comes down to it, usually we woman are just like “oh, ok, sure! this is fun!” and don’t even notice the flaws in the story. But yours, I do say, is hilarious. It’s great to see you still enjoying traveling the world together.

  9. says

    First off, thanks everyone for the very sweet comments and well wishes. Some very touching sentiments.

    @Amanda: It was great. We laughed so much, actually. When I could finally reveal the madness behind it all, we really laughed. Am still laughing to this day.

    Reminds me of a Carl Sandburg quote I invoke way too often: “Nearly all the best things that came to me in life have been unexpected,unplanned by me.”

    @Skott and Shawna: [Trying to take a bow.]

    @Stephanie: :)

    @Zoë: You are a sweetheart!

    @JoAnna: A million times, I love this comment. The Peace Corps bits probably ring a few bells, too!

    @Jeff: Thank you. Really glad you enjoyed it!

    @Kim: I like “Yay”s :)

    @Tynch: That is very sweet. Great to hear from you!

    @Anna: Thank you. Before we visit the Philippines, you’ll be getting an email from me, for sure.

    @Olivia: Oh gosh. A spoiler. Glad it brought you relief, though. All’s well that ends well.

    @Margaret: Thanks!

    @TinTin: And your comment made me smile :) And it made our day!

    @Colleen: Very sweet. Thank you!

    @Tony: So true. Back to the C. Sandburg quote I refer to above.

    @DJ: I love the emphasis on GOT. Funny.

    @Lane: Now that’s funny. To think that I take the prize for worst proposal. I’m laughing.

    @Akila: Glad you enjoyed it!

    @Sutapa: That was the idea. (It really, really was astounding how absolutely everything seemed to get in the way.) In the end, a worthy journey.

    @Valerie: Let’s hope we can get our act together to do so. I’m blushing, by the way, and very flattered by your comment. Would it make it any less if I told you that I find writing to be profoundly difficult?

    “Book…with a cover and pages to turn” — I love that. OK, that’s what we’ll aim for.

    After Mexico…we’re working on it. Stay tuned.

    @Aaron: “Cookiest” — I like that. So I’ve succeeded. I suppose I was certain enough that she’d say “yes” — at least certain enough to drive to the middle of nowhere to ask.

    @Alexa: Loved this comment. I’m glad that the piece made you laugh from the start. “Such a fun way to propose to your love.” — Now I love that sentence!

    @Jeremy: Estonia is for lovers. There, I’ve said it.

    @Eric: Glad you liked it. And I’m glad it all worked out in the end, too.

    @Ellen: I’m actually very lucky in that Audrey does not (and did not) place any undue pressure on me to “get it right.” Having said that, there’s a lot of pressure-filled nonsense circulating in the this-is-the-way-it-should-be narrative of weddings and engagements.

    Like anything, I think it’s good to back up from it all and enjoy the ride. Sounds like you’re inclined that way, too.

    In that vein, I find that the “flaws” are usually the most fun bits. They also make the best stories.

  10. says

    @Bret: It goes to show that a relationship can withstand a comedy of errors. Some might even argue that a relationship requires it!

    @Alexandra: I’m sorry, but your comment made me laugh. Tears of joy, I hope :)

  11. says

    @Vicky: Thank you. Glad you enjoyed it. I don’t know if it’s any more memorable than anyone else’s proposal escapades, but I certainly haven’t forgotten any of it. It’s one of those experiences that stays with you.

    @Susan: My pleasure. Thanks for stopping by.

  12. says

    @Eurotrip: Wow, bitten by a squirrel. Looking up a list of bad omens to see if that’s in there…

    @Mike: Am working on a script at the moment.

    @Ivy, Kya, jade, Sabrina, Sarah, Ali: Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. Was definitely designed for laughter.

  13. says

    I know i’m late to the party, but — wow, such a well written piece.

    Glad that, despite the obstacles, everything worked out. If you want something bad enough, you’ll find a way to make it happen :)

  14. says

    I’m always a sucker for a good engagement story and this is a good one! I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone run up against so many challenges, but glad it all had a happy ending.

  15. says

    @Brandy: I could only imagine losing the real ring. Outside of that, it didn’t seem particularly appropriate for Audrey, as a Peace Corps volunteer, to be wearing a diamond ring. So fake ring, with a good story, it was. Glad you enjoyed it!

  16. says

    @Mindy: Thanks, that’s so sweet. We’re blushing. As compliments on writing go, this is one of the greatest one can receive: “I love your voices”. Finding one’s voice is tricky, but with this escapade it actually felt easier than usual. Glad you enjoyed it!

  17. says

    Greetings from Cajamarca, Peru–on Valentine’s Day, 2013!!!

    It’s a great story–and a funny story, too! I stumbled across it as I searched the web for … small-beach-cities-in-Chile-where-a-weaver-might-find-some-seafood-and-solace, for, oh, 8 months of every year. LOL It’s true. When I read that months of projected travel had turned into years and years, I thought, Huh; they’re just crazy enough to have insider knowledge!! Ha!

    So, kudos. Kudos on the proposal–and the blog, the traveling, and sheer spirit.

    While I’m here, though, I’ll ask you a question if I might. I’ve been living in Peru for about 2 years now. And the other day I saw a young local woman in my neighborhood pushing a wheelbarrow–and she had her baby in it! Along with several small things she was transporting, there was her swaddled baby, riding along quite comfortably. Sooooooooooooooo, the question is this. I have a blog and I think she, the wheelbarrow, and the baby would have made a WONDERFUL photo!!! But I didn’t take one. And I didn’t ask to take one either. I seem to have an inordinate “respect” for people in that situation, and/or … I don’t want to be the gross, pushy, obnoxious gringo snapping photos of the funny-looking locals. What’s YOUR take on this dilemma? Ask politely? Be sincere? And if they say yes, just go ahead and shoot? (Maybe it’s MY problem. That is, perhaps I need some attitude readjustment!?! LOL)

    ‘Safe travels, you two!!!!!

    Sincerely,

    Michael
    Arequipa, Peru
    Cajamarca, Peru
    Missoula, Montana

  18. says

    @Michael: Gotta love the internet. Go searching for one thing and find something completely different. Sounds like searching for love on Valentine’s Day, now doesn’t it?

    Thanks for the kudos.

    You didn’t take the photo. That was probably the right decision of the time. The fact that you thought about it, the moment gave you pause to put on the “respect” brakes.

    My advice: always be sincere, no matter what. Ask politely. The worst that someone can say is “No.”

    Oh, by the way, we wrote an article devoted to the topic of taking photographs of people, with an expanded thought on engagement, which is the most important dimension in our opinions:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2009/05/10-tips-for-great-street-and-market-photos/

    Thanks for your comment!

    @Reg: Thanks. Not exactly what I was aiming for at the time, but I’ll take it. That you smiled through this story: that was my goal. Just recounting the story made me laugh.

  19. Violeta says

    What a sweet story ! I made my husband propose 3 times! First time, he got the location and the staging right, but I did not like the ring. The second time he got the right ring, but the rest of the proposal left much to be desired. Thankfully, the third time was a charm, he got everything right. We were dating/living together for over 15+ years, so it was surprising he had to work for it so hard :-).

  20. says

    That is some determination. After the second time I definitely would be thinking that maybe this wasnt meant to be and somebody is trying to tell me something!!

  21. says

    @Ross: We all have different thresholds of persistence. That’s what helps make the world go ’round. Not to mention, I was probably a little young and foolish, lending more fuel to the determination fire.

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