A SHORT CYCLE TO THE ARCTIC CIRCLE
In 2014, I fled the stress, depression, and panic that had defined my first year at university. The need to escape had become so urgent that I flew to Norway on a flight booked less than 24 hours before, with no bike and no route. I spent the following month cycling 1300km through fjords and forests, from the city of Bergen to the Arctic Circle. The majority of the cycle was solo, but Nico thankfully joined me for the final week.
Published December 14, 2018
I groaned awake to the penetrating buzz of the digital watch tucked beneath my pillow. It was 05:30. Approximately 12 hours ago I had decided to cycle the length of Norway. 10 hours ago I had booked flights. 8 hours ago I had packed. 6 hours ago I had started planning a route and 4 hours ago I had given up. The previous night had been a blur and the blur was ongoing. I boarded a train and then another train and arrived in London. A third train deposited me at Stanstead airport. Last night’s adrenaline had been replaced by bemusement at my situation and the residual euphoria of reckless decision-making. The ridiculousness of my decision was not lost on me. I did not cycle. The furthest I had ever managed was 38km and this was some years ago. Last night, as the distance of my proposed route slipped past a thousand I had stopped counting or caring. At security I was told that my camera’s lithium-ion batteries would not be allowed on the flight. A security officer searched me and then my bag and then me again. I was allowed to keep the batteries. The flight cost less than a hardback book and I was in Norway in barely an hour. This is witchcraft beget by capitalism.
The coach to Oslo gave me my first glimpse of the terrain to come. From the plane Norway had looked mostly flat, but when I got closer I understood that this was because the hills were so dense that they had blurred together to produce a deceptively level horizon. From Oslo coach station I followed a list of unpronounceable street names to the home of a friend, brushed my teeth and collapsed. My last waking thoughts were of how incredible Oslo’s tap water had tasted.
Morning arrived and rain was falling in freezing sheets and sluicing off the steep roofs of the townhouses. I had stayed the night at the home of Nico Fatras’ family. Nico is a friend from university and had kindly lent me a bike. The rain dissipated and I set off for Oslo’s train station, almost managing to end the journey before I started it when a near collision with a tram sent me over my handlebars and into the pavement.
The train took me west to Bergen, passing up and over the intimidating Hardangervidda, one of Europe’s highest plateaus and thick with snow even in June. A student I met on the train gave me directions to a football pitch in the city suburbs and I pitched my tent between the goalposts. Mountains surrounded this new city and in the distance the crest of the sun was peeking over the horizon, I checked my watch and saw that it was 1pm. I was already further north than the Shetland Islands and would not see a dark night sky until I returned to the UK. I wormed into my sleeping bag and pulled my beanie over my eyes.
The tent was hot with sweat when I awoke. I struggled out of this portable sauna and stuffed it into a tattered bike sack. I was alone on an empty football pitch with Norway in front of me. I ate a celebratory banana to mark the journey’s beginning and freewheeled down to a harbour where live lobsters bubbled in glass tanks under strings of dried cod. I had only packed one map and this map covered the whole of Northern Europe, details such as city streets were absent. Resorting to a compass bearing I began to climb north-ish. I had no food with me and by mid afternoon I could barely move. 20 Krone (£2) bought me a loaf of bread from a dreary petrol station. I sat by the roadside and ate the whole thing with marmite. The afternoon was miserable. Heat and pine forests gave way to a thin invasive rain and a landscape of quarries. I set up tent in a lonely field with the sound of engines echoing through the earth.
The following morning I cleared the pale rocks and bleached pines that surrounded the quarries and arrived at a shallow fjord with a bottom of red shale and empty mussel shells. They crunched under my bare feet as I shuffled out into the deeper water trailing a halo of shed dirt in my wake. I floated cold and weightless, and made a solemn oath to swim whenever possible.
The afternoon was hot and I was out of food again. I had stopped to refill my water bottle from a roadside stream when I was approached by the first person I’d seen all day. Ingrid was old and plump and healthy from a lifetime inhaling fresh sea-air blown in along the fjord. She was the matriarch of an extended family of large men and women and slim elfish children, all with white-blonde hair and cheerful blue eyes. I was invited to a lunch that did justice to such a robust family: a traditional broth of salted lamp and root vegetables was followed by a heaped plate of pølse, the ubiquitous modern icon of Norwegian culinary culture (a pølse is a hotdog wrapped in a lompe (a Norwegian potato tortilla) with ketchup, mustard and crunchy fried onions). Waffles with jam and whipped cream concluded the feast, which haunted my waking dreams for weeks after.
After lunch, the village got together to sort any jobs that required the input of the entire community. The men and boys set about constructing benches for an upcoming local gathering that dated back to the Vikings. The most skilled sawed the logs into planks, whilst we others stripped the bark from the raw planks with peeling irons. The sky had turned a deep blue and the air had the sharp scent of sawdust as we hacked happily away at plank after plank.
When the work was done I said my goodbyes and began the long climb up the flanking mountains. The sun had dropped behind the peaks but it was not yet cool, for the pine trees that loomed beside the road kept the air still and stale. I was soon speckled with sweat, which drew biting flies by the dozen. Clearing the pass was ecstasy. I had chased the sun back into the sky, climbing out of the shadow of the mountains and into the eternal sunset of a northern summer night. The sea lay still to the horizon, daubed gold by the evening light and speckled with dark islands. My bike flew from the pass to the shore, and I set up my tent on a mossy headland, the lapping wavelets slapping a cheerful rhythm through my tent flap.
On the evening of the twelfth day the conifers crowded high and close as I searched for a site to camp. The wind breathed among the pines, but there was no warm scent of pine needles in the air as it grew blue and hazy with the first particulates of evening mist. With the mist came an intense fear, and it was not the fear of known danger, which feels like a sudden tight nausea and can be thrown off with a what-the-hell rush of courage, it was the slow building dread of an unknown unseen presence that lurks and observes but is itself unobservable. Somewhere deep in our DNA lurk the ghostly ancestral genes that cause modern humankind to be bewitched by the sight of lapping flames and filled with unconscious terror by certain grey places on certain grey days. Trolls have haunted the minds of Norwegians for over a thousand years, and it was to these ancient stories that my mind attached this new terror. My body was stiff and there was a ringing in my ears as the sky faded into half-light and I shuffled down the heaped pine needles to gather water from a black stream. As I knelt exposed in the open, a tree fell with a screech and a crack in the forest behind me. My subconscious, certain that death was on hand, jettisoned every drop of the fight-or-flight hormones from my glands and into my blood and brain. I had flung myself across the stream in a stricken heartbeat. My conscious mind fought long and hard to wrestle back control of my prefrontal cortex and my screaming nerves gradually toned down to a low hum. The claws of a troll had not seized me. I was simply alone and lost and tired between dark trees on a dark mountainside. I lay there a long time before I mustered the resolve to fumble my tent up and collapse into a half-sleep.