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 November 23, 2014
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 Last night’s adrenaline had been replaced by bemusement at my situation and the residual euphoria of reckless decision-making.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 insane.
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 eleventh day the conifers crowded high and close as I searched for a site to camp at. The wind breathed among the pines and the air 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 unseen presence that lurks and observes. Somewhere deep in our DNA lurk the ancestral genes that cause modern humans to be both calmed by the site of a healthy campfire and filled with unconscious terror by certain grey places on certain grey days. The sky faded into half-light and I shuffled down heaped pine needles to gather water from a black pool. I was forced to kneel in the open with my back to the forest. I felt alone, watched and vulnerable. There was a ringing in my ears and I was acutely aware of my breathing. A branch cracked in the forest behind me and caused my subconscious to jettison every drop of fight-or-flight hormones from my glands into my blood. I had sprinted twenty metres before I realised what I was doing. My screaming nerves toned down to a low hum. There was nothing hunting me in the forest. 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.
Nico joined me the following morning. We cycled out of the city through hail and rain. At noon we foraged some mussels from the underside of a ferry pontoon and cooked them over silver birch branches from the tideline, which burnt even though they were soaked with saltwater. The mussels grinned with orange lips as they boiled. I watched them as they died and felt numb. I once killed a month-old rabbit with a plank. It had been hiding in the pile of cleared branches that I was burning, and by the time I pulled it out it’s back legs where blackened and it’s fur was almost gone. I killed it immediately, and in that short life I was the final horror in a brutal and incomprehensible world.
The mussels were done and so was the rain, although a few drops still whistled and spat as they hit the embers beneath the pot. We each scraped the meat from a dozen shells and sandwiched it between thick slices of white bread, then we topped the lot with the last squeezing from a tube of dried tomato paste. We ate, not for pleasure’s sake, but for hunger’s, and it was all the more pleasurable for it. It was a truly happy moment, Sitting in the drizzle at the edge of a grey flat fjord, watching the fire splutter out with drifting minds and warm full stomachs.
On the morning of the final day we followed a road that undulated with the bays and headlands of the coast. The wind hurtled in across the foaming sea and slammed onto land in a shrieking, unseen torrent. The rain and salt-spray mingled into a solid sheet of horizontal water that struck us broadside and soaked us to a point beyond caring. We whooped at the storm as we pedalled, one more day until the Arctic Circle and it seemed that Thor himself was cheering us on.
It was evening, we had arrived in the Arctic and the storm had passed. The day’s wind was spent and the water was set as still as glass. Ten meters below the surface the sloping fjord wall curled into a broad ledge, where a scattering of pastel creatures clung to the dark stone like sweets spilled on a pavement. Spiny starfish studded with white thorns, seven-armed starfish with tangerine skin, sunstars as large as car tyres, some red as tomatoes, others purple as aubergines. At the edge of the ledge the wall’s descent resumed, but now it dropped vertically and without a visible end. As our eyes adjusted, we saw a rising speck: a solitary cod propelling itself upwards with a calm, ponderous motion. It cruised to the surface, rolled on to its side to peer at us with a bulging eye, then righted-itself and drifted back to the gloomy depths.
We stayed up to watch the midnight sun and plunge and scramble in and out of the fjord’s numbing water. The following day we left our bike and climbed a nearby mountain, up past boulders and waterfalls to the last of the snow. We ate the last of our biscuits at the top, and then we headed back down, and, more importantly, back south.
I had set out because I was miserable. On the journey I had also been miserable a great deal of the time, but that was only because there was a great deal to be miserable about. When my clothes were not wet they were damp and when I was not sweating from exertion I was shivering from the cold. I had to choose repeatedly between lonely backcountry roads with little food or chance of company, or busy intercity highways that forced me to cycle through tunnel after tunnels, praying that vehicles would see my feeble rear light as they approached. On one occasion I was knocked of my bike by an overtaking timber lorry. These miseries occurred in the present, and it was the present that my mind slowly began to prioritise. The spectres of a tedious near-future and an uncertain far-future that had crowded my thoughts at university were forced to make way for the solid and definite fears of hunger and speeding vehicles. Physical miseries dragged me out of the tangled timelessness of depression and into the tangible world of sensation and immediacy.