A participant in the Start & End at Home course drew a very creative multisport route (hike, packraft, paraglide, climb) through Lofoten, Norway. The route passes through the region where I spent a month doing geology fieldwork for my undergraduate thesis. The route brought up memories—foremost the ‘gift from god’ song that played on the radio just when I needed it.
But it will take some background to get there.
In January of 1999, I flew to Longyearbyen, Svalbard, to finish my junior year studying arctic geology at the University of Norway in Svalbard. The sky was pitch black, a new moon, and it was pretty freaky, even coming from a childhood in Alaska. During the next two weeks, the landscape slowly revealed itself through moonlight and aurora. Surreal.
The academics were easier than what I was used to at Carleton College, which gave me a lot of time to play. This is where I started to learn about (self-powered) winter travel and camping. I was also very lonely. I was younger than the other students, the only native English speaker, and had a huge unrequited crush the entire time.
Carleton’s financial aid policy was that a portion (one third?) of the aid could be applied to semesters abroad. Because Norway’s universities are free, the support from Carleton was more than I needed to cover my travel and living expenses. I splurged on the purchase of a used ‘scooter’ (snowmachine).
My first outing was to a glacier east of town. Heavy snow was falling and the powder was deep—fun but challenging. At one point I lost control and tipped the scooter. Tipping isn’t usually a big deal, but in this case, the scooter righted itself and kept going! I waited for my partners to circle back and then we followed the track of my machine through the whiteout. The track worked its way across the glacier, climbed a few slopes, turned back down, caught a little air, and then … disappeared into a meltwater channel. The far side of the channel revealed an impact site, and the broken machine sat 20+ feet below the lip. I caught a ride back to town with the unrequited crush, which didn’t help. I assume that the throttle cable was packed open with snow; I wasn’t wearing the kill leash.
I did form some amazing friendships in Longyearbyen, they just didn’t involve making out. Annette, Atle, Ivar, Bjørn Terje, and Ola went out of their way to include me in their shenanigans. They taught me enough Norwegian to cuss and say that I would wash the dishes (“Jeg skal vaske opp!“). After an impressive series of breaking things, they gifted me a shirt that said, “Been there, wrecked that.”
The cereal and candy, two of my staples, were shockingly bad. I bought a bag of granola, “müsli” in Norwegian, and was disappointed to discover that the oats were raw, not cooked. I assumed that the bag slipped through quality control by accident, so I bought a second bag. Raw again! Clearly, the entire batch was bad. I waited several weeks for new stock and purchased a third bag. You know how this story ends.
I sent a letter to General Mills asking for a Cheerios sponsorship—I’d provide photos of the cereal box in Svalbard. When I didn’t hear back, my grandma sent a care package of Cheerios and candy bars. My parents sent a tape-playing alarm clock so that I could listen to my tapes on more than my walkman. Neither care package included a note or letter.
I enrolled to spend the next semester at a geology observatory in Italy, and with the loss of the snowmachine (I got $100 for scrap), I couldn’t afford to fly home to Alaska for the summer. A professor in Svalbard arranged for me to assist three University of Alabama grad students in their summer fieldwork in mainland Norway.
The UA guys were bad eggs. They maintained a constant barrage of insults about the people around us (“fat,” “ugly”) and I was like … you know that everyone under 30 years old understands English, right? I was disappointed with their work ethic, embarrassed to be near them, and terrified of association. I had to cut loose.
I reached out to the helpful professor from Svalbard. Arild suggested that I go to Flakstadøya, an island near the end of the Lofoten archipelago, to study the exposed eclogites (rare high-pressure rocks) and shear zones. I caught a bus to Nusfjord.
I set up my tent on a large moss-covered rock in the middle of a stream uphill from town. I went into town every few days for a shower, bread, jam, and noodle mixes.
The research was awesome. The rocks were interesting and I came up with a cool story about how the rocks might have been exhumed up to the surface. The story was probably wrong, but I loved the sleuthing.
Coming from a lonely semester in Svalbard and now being completely on my own was tough. To make matters worse, I took a few scary falls while scrambling through the steep alpine terrain. I recognized that no one would know if I broke a leg, etc. The lichen on the rocks was slick from the fog and rain—that’s what kept knocking me off my feet.
One night, at my loneliest, I curled up in the tent with my walkman, listening to one of my precious cassette tapes. On a whim, I flipped to the radio. The radio hadn’t been of any interest to me before, but I recognized a song by Pavement, my favorite band at that time. It was like settling into a warm bath—deep medicine. I hadn’t heard the song before. Apparently, they had a new album!
Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, and other indie rock bands filled out the rest of the hour. I tuned into the same station at the same time every remaining day but never heard similar music. Somehow, these tracks reached me right when they could do the most good. Cosmic support.
After a month in Lofoten, I worked my way to Italy for the fall semester. I caught an underground train in Milan and thought, “Wow, this is a long tunnel!” The tunnel kept going and going. Then I thought I was smelling fresh air, and that didn’t make sense. Then I noticed stars. We were outside and it was dark! I hadn’t seen a dark night in three months.
I was early for the Italy program so they put me to work painting, welding stair railings, and cleaning. I was gifted a particularly fast foosball and a bottle of grappa for my 21st birthday. I poured the grappa into my ear hoping that the alcohol would help get the trapped water out—I was learning to swim in a nearby reservoir. The other students arrived and our time together was extremely social. Magical. I thrived.