So I haven’t been posting as often as I should. I wanted this to be weekly, but it has become biweekly. You can attribute it to weak willpower, or excessive travel and socializing, (certainly not burdensome studies), but for whatever reason I have failed to update for the past two and a half weeks. Of course, I now have a lot to talk about, so I’m going to start with my trip to Lapland (2/24-2/28).
According to my mother, my heritage is largely dominated by Swedish and Norweigan roots- a bit from Poland, a bit from Scotland, but essentially a Northern European mutt. When it comes to my Scandinavian side, I hail from a particular region- a sizable northern area referred to as Lapland, which stretches from Norway in the West, all the way to Russia in the East. Included in it are northern sections of Finland and Sweden. Sweden is not a particularly wide country, but traveling to Lapland showed me that what it lacks in girth, it more than compensates for in seemingly unending length.
We boarded the train at 3:00 pm here in Linkoping toward Stockholm, arriving at Central Station at 5:00 pm. From there, we boarded an old, tinny, noisy train that would be our home for the next twenty hours as we traveled to the northern urban hub of Kiruna. I would like to make the geographic aspect of train ride interesting, but I really can’t. Traveling north is consists of a vast expanse of flat, snowy, wilderness. Loosely strung together by a series of increasingly isolated villages, the first fifteen hours of the train ride were made interesting only by the hilariously diverse group of fellow travelers (my travel group was only the start).
My companions were a motley, vivacious crew that represented three different continents, four different countries, and two rather different coasts of the United States. There was Florian, our alternately stoic and nonchalant friend from the northern tip of France, Evan, Noelle, Kate, and Catie, hailing from West Virginia University in Morgantown, Jess of Australia, and the aforementioned and excruciatingly polite Welsh mate Jethro. Our car was almost entirely composed of students; a raucous group of Spaniards and Germans, some Italians, and a few very disoriented Singaporeans who were in the wrong seats.
Several hours into the train ride, night fell, yet the train became, by no one’s measure, calm. The Spaniards and Germans took to playing some sort of drinking game with a deck of cards, consuming half a cardboard flat of low-quality, tepid beers that still seemed to get them quite drunk. Around one in the morning the train staff instructed them to put their brews away, and a pleasant silence fell over the train, which was now in the depths of a dark forest coated with white snow speckled under the insistent moonlight.
E.E. Cummings wrote the words “may came home with a smooth round stone, as small as a world and as large as alone”. Whatever you make of the words, their sounds, their verbal aesthetic is intoxicatingly pleasing. Once I read this line, I feel as I must repeat it incessantly so as to shake some pleasing wetness from my lips; it’s pacifying. When I woke at seven in the morning, I saw a sunrise that had a similar effect. A milky concoction of cerulean, cracked alabaster, and wet citrus rolled over the small hills in the distance. The hills were covered with thousands of short trees, which conducted the radioactive warmth of the morning sun like lightning rods. I stared for an hour, unable to let a moment of this escape me, pretending I was the only one on the train up early enough to witness it. It was easy enough to conjure this small fantasy; the only noise was the barely audible sound of hungover Spaniards, their lispy tongue easily reduced to sleepspeak by the willing mind.
We arrived in Kiruna around noon, a place that looks and feels like the top of the world. Not the Frank Sinatra “Top of the World”, but the raw, savage point where earth is entirely undressed and unabashedly emotional. Massive ice cliffs uncomfortably drilled into by rigs mining some deep ore, small, mild buildings that exist in denial of their surroundings, and an unflinching brightness that could not be attributed to any single source. Looking in the distance was mythically precious, but not so manicured as a cutscene from the visualization of Tolkien’s misty mountains; these were the real battlefields, stained beneath the powdered surface in dwarf and orc blood.
We went into a peculiar but cozy restaurant, with an hour to spare before our bus to Junosuando arrived. A pint of Mariestad’s brought some flavor to the bland, yet thick burgers we consumed as we looked out over the vast expanses of Hoth (the ice-world from Star Wars for you people pretending not know). The bus to Junosuando was another hour and half ride, topping off our travel at around twenty three hours, but it conveniently dropped us no more than fifty feet from our hostel door. A faint blue door marked the lobby, where a pleasant, small pale man named Mikael greeted us and showed us to our cabin.
The accommodations were better than expected- a large living/dining room with two couches, a love seat, armchair, and small but well-stocked kitchen. The bedroom held four bunk beds, and the living room couch had a hide-a-bed. By the time we were settled in, the sun was setting (approximately four o’clock), inviting a beauty equal to the sunrise described earlier. This time, I took a picture.
Despite mutual exhaustion from travel, with only three nights in Lapland we could not afford to waste an opportunity to see the Northern Lights. The hostel was just across the street from a massive frozen over river, which Mikael had told us was a good place to start searching. We explored the perimeter of the river for a while, riding these push-ski mobiles that I am not sure what to call. If anyone knows what the hell this thing is called, please let me know, because they’re awesome.
After scouting out entry points onto the river, we naively set out in our boots alone. The river was indeed frozen over, but the three feet of snow layering it proved highly permeable. To stay on solid ground we followed the snowmobile tracks, but even then every few steps or so resulted in a limb vanishing several feet deep. Perhaps this sounds a little dangerous, but honestly the worst consequence of the activity was snow covered thighs. After realizing the impracticality of venturing about without snowshoes, and seeing nothing in the sky, we went home and slept.
We woke early the next day to grocery shop, again taking the foot-ski apparatti down the main road to the local grocery store. After purchasing the requisite pasta, eggs and cereal we returned to the hostel to check out snow shoes. An English fellow working at the hostel fitted us all for snow shoes, and we took off on a hike loosely inspired by some words he murmured at the map. Perhaps Jethro understood.
We traveled along the river until we found a path going up a hill, which we followed into the forest. The mid-afternoon sun cast a warm shade of yellow over the dripping pines, lending the afternoon an eclectic energy that kept us hiking for hours. Strings of lakes, rivers, and tributaries all frozen over gave us bearings as we navigated through the trees. The natural beauty was striking, but even more attractive was the absolute lack of noise. When the group fell silent, it was easy to feel as if you had finally come across some of the last uncharted earth in existence.
We returned home and cooked a copious amount of spaghetti to the tune of Sublime and Modest Mouse. I scarfed down at least three servings before we head out on the officiated Northern Lights tour with our guide, the British guy who fit us for snow shoes. We took a creepy white van about a mile and a half out of town, and hopped out directly into a fiercely dark forest. We snowshoed through, every member of the crew sinking into a snow pit at least one. The forest broke into frozen swampland, which slowly transitioned to the riverside. At this point, our guide asked use all to fall silent and experience the silence; it was, indeed, a mystical quiet, until it was broken by an unmistakably low growl. I don’t know why, by this bearish sound could induce nothing from me but a terrible fit of giggles; while I’m sure some individuals were terrified at the prospect of being torn to shreds by one of the last remaining megafauna on earth, the irresistibly cliche essence of the moment got the best of me. After waiting several moments for the unnamed beast to disperse, we continued out onto the river. While it was a beautiful walk, we did not get the fortune of seeing the northern lights our second evening, and settled for hot cocoa and green tea under the glistening star scape.
Our final full day, we woke early to tour all the best sledding spots surrounding the town. There wasn’t anything particularly gnarly, but I found ways to make the somewhat timid hills seem more bullish.
That evening was our final opportunity to witness aurora borealis. My American friend Evan and I had been particularly determined all week, even setting out a second time the first night, but continuously to no avail. Lappland was gorgeous, a frothy white spectacle of what life is like in the forgotten corners of earth, but ultimately, leaving without seeing the northern lights would be like devouring a fluffy Angel’s Food cake and being mercilessly deprived off a tall glass of milk. No, failure was not an option, so I donned two pair of long johns, an underused but highly valuable pair of J-Crew flannel lined jeans, a thermal top, dress shirt, wool sweater, fleece, gore-tex jacket, cashmere scarf and sherpa hat and headed out into the wilderness for a third and final time. Aided by our snowshoes, we made quick progress across the lake; our determination to arrive somewhere where the lights were visible clumsily tied our sight to our feet, while overhead, the object of our desire slowly began to appear. Jethro was the first to notice, calling out as he stretched a brightly sleeved,lanky arm to the sky. The lights were truly a show- they began as a faint murmur of muted orange and gray, sheathed by a thin textile of black. After a few moments, the colors became more brilliant. We all lay down, eyes glued to the sky, as a series of red, green, blue and violent threads were spun through the black blanket of sky, guided by invisible needles. These emergent swatches of color would then hang there in the air, like shredded psychedelic curtains blowing in a cosmic wind.
The lights danced for a good forty-five minutes, leaving everyone satisfied, mystified, glorified, and undeterred by the creeping cold. When we finally returned to the cabin, a warm aura hung about the crowd as we traded experiences over rich Irish Coffees and under fleece blankets.