Follow the adventure from the beginning

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Lights in the Night: Part Two

Above the Arctic Circle

“G’morning! This is Stockholm calling!” It’s Andreas. He’s phoning to check that I’ve arrived safely and to let me know that he’s been in touch with half of Kiruna. And that half of Kiruna is ready to find me and take me skiing, and to their homes, and later for lunch.

“But first,” he says, “my dad wants to take you snowmobiling. And it needs to be before he goes ice fishing with a friend over the weekend,” Andreas explains. “Dad called me this morning to have me translate since Mom is at work. He’s ready as soon as you have some breakfast – deli meat, cheese, and toast (with fish paste). And coffee. ‘Cause you’re going to need to be very awake.”

I hang up with Andreas, and as Anders takes the phone from my hand, his face says everything I need to know. It’s a comic book, and a thousand-page novel, and the exact same grin I saw from his son just days before. It’s a semicircle keyhole to a world of happy thoughts, harmless pranks, and good ol’ fashioned fun.

I’m already dressed, but Anders begins to toss me new clothes, Sara’s I presume, and points to the bedroom. Special windproof ski pants, three pairs of very heavy wool socks, a fleece pullover and a windproof Helly Hansen shell to wear on top.  Plus thick leather, Sami mittens that reach the middle of my forearms (fingers need to work off each other’s heat – in this way, gloves are counterproductive). And a big motorcycle helmet. And a pair of boots that feel more like moon shoes. Like extraterrestrial footwear that is about to help me defy this earth’s hold on everything. Up, up, up and away!

Anders rents a 3x2 meter space in a large warehouse to park his snowmobile. It costs about $260 for a one-year lease. Before mounting the vehicle, he revs its engine in order to pull the traction band and front-runners onto the snow. He motions for me to put the helmet on, pull the face shield down, and climb on behind him. Grab the heated passenger bar. And try not to let go.

In Kiruna, you are never farther than five meters from a snowmobile path. They run parallel to every major road, and operate their own tundra traffic system, with underpasses, stop signs, intersections, and everything. From the warehouse, we ride just a couple of meters and we’re in the woods. The snow is perfect for making our own trail today. And then Anders kicks the engine a little harder, and I’m pulled back into my seat, trying to see, but I’m laughing so hard that it fogs my face shield and I’m dewing my chin and cheeks with drops of spittle. Happy, rabid spittle.

A moment later, Anders pulls off the gas for just a second. He turns halfway around, takes one hand off the handle, and draws a fast circle with his forearm in the air. We are co-stars in a Los Angeles western and Anders’ only line comes easy as pie.

 “Just like Texas!” he yells. Let it all out now, “Yeeeehawwww!”

Oh, I am totally not in Texas. But I am galloping across the wild frontier. And so I think silently to myself, cowgirl let’s go hogwild, and then I think less silently to the world, one arm over my head, “Yeah!” Again. “Yeeeehawwww!”

Woah baby. We’re zipping left and right. I bend my body like a cardboard poster, leaning into the curves so that I don’t fall against this tree or that shrub. So much snow. And in just five minutes I can’t see anything. No sign of civilization. Nothing, except exposed bushes that look like treetops, buried trunks, and yellow stains from the sled dogs. We whiz past an occasional red tag tied around a tree branch to mark the different paths. Then I see a sign. This way to Finland. This way to Norway. And this way to Russia?! It’s true. I’m so far north, that I can look over the edge of the world and almost see you in your kitchen. This way to Kiruna. This way to whatever it is you're looking for.

When even the trees disappear, Anders speeds up. 90 kph. 100. 110. We reach 115, and I’m heaving with laughter between the “Oh my gosh’s” and the “We’re gonna die’s!” And once we’re in the middle, right in the middle of this white wide-open space, Anders drifts to a stop.

“Ok,” I say. Then I tap Anders on his shoulder and ask, “Now what?” still laughing.

“Now you go,” Anders says with an expression that is amusingly stiff from the cold, like someone has locally anesthetitized his jaw and lips. He pushes himself off his seat and helps me to slide forward. “I wait,” he says. His face, though red and weathered from 55 years in the arctic tundra, sparkles brighter than the snow beneath us, like, go get ‘em girl. Here’s the gas. Here’s the brake.

Nothing to lose, I realize, because Anders has brought me to a place where it’s impossible for me to crash. He has put me on top of a giant, snow-covered lake. You’d never know though, because frozen water and solid ground blend seamlessly together in the arctic. One minute you’re on earth, the next you’re not, and the only way to know is by listening to the trees’ whisper, or absence thereof, around you.

Driving a snowmobile is like managing a wave runner, only much more stable. It’s like handling a car, only much more wobbly. It’s like testing the temperature of anything before you eat it, accelerate just a little, now a little more, and voom! I’m flying (but without the jet fuel), and it feels like an earthquake, and giant waves, and good vibrations. I drive in big circles. On lap three, Anders is far away, out of sight, and I am totally alone at the North Pole. I see sun-stained mountains in the distance and pull the throttle just a little tighter, push myself and this bike, I mean scooter, I mean snow horse just a little harder. And then, in the middle of no man’s land I’m surrounded.

I’m racing the final stretch and they’re all here to cheer me on. My parents are waving their arms like maniacs, screaming and shouting and telling me to go! Go! Go! And my sister is laughing from her belly and her lower back and running and pushing me from behind. And Gabriel is on the megaphone to assure me that I’m almost there. Everyone – the Westerbergs, my friends in Stockholm, my friends from Mexico, they’re all jumping and hoot-hoot hollering with water in case I get thirsty, and blankets in case I get cold. Yes! Two milliseconds pass… and swoosh! I’m crossing the finish line.

Of course – this isn’t the end. Nor is it the beginning. It’s just one more stitch in the pattern, one more patch for today's sewing project. I know I won’t earn any blue ribbons here (thank God elimination charges are irrelevant as well). Because like always, I’m somewhere in the middle. Of an arctic lake. Of something bigger than me that I’ll never really understand. However, it feels like a victory. A small one, but important nonetheless. And Lord, it’s sweet. So, so sweet.




Footnote I: Don’t worry! I didn’t leave Anders behind…

For three hours we weave our way through the arctic forest. And then we’re on another lake. And then I’m the driver, he’s the passenger. And now we’ve reached a place where men are cutting huge blocks of thick blue ice from the river. And then we’re behind a dog sled and Anders tells me, “Go slow now,” (take it down a notch to show your respect for the dogs and keep a safe distance – these huskies are very special).

By the time we finish, my face is swollen and my eyes are puffy. I haven’t even realized, but my temples are stained with tear tracks from the cold wind (I may have forgotten to wear my face shield while driving). I’m exhausted. When I finally step off the snowmobile, my legs start to shake. Like I’ve spent all day galloping on a horse, or skating with rollerblades.

Anders struggles a bit to get snow mobile back into the warehouse. I watch him and understand how the simple freedom of racing through the forest on this machine (catch me if you can!) could keep a person happy despite such wild winters.

I am so grateful for this day. I want to tell Anders. I want to thank him for his time and for helping me to cross the finish line. Also for his big Texas “Yeeeehawwww!” and for helping me create a day, a memory that I will have for the rest of my life. I offer to pay for the gas we used and he lifts both his hands in the air. As he throws his palms down (like, ah! It’s nothing!) he pulls a smile up. And you know what he says? Seriously, I’m dying to tell you… he says:

“You happy?”

“So happy!” I say. Arms spread wide to show just how much.

“Good,” Anders says, shiny as the sun storm I’ll look for tonight. “Then I’m happy too.”

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