It was 10 p.m., a time when many people are thinking about going to bed, and I was putting on my hiking boots. On the other side of the metal walls of my yellow truck was the island of Magerøya.
I slung my backpack over my shoulder (peanuts, chocolate, coffee jar), opened the door, and stepped into an impenetrable world. It had been light 24 hours a day since I crossed the Arctic Circle two weeks ago. The enveloping mist reminded me of the darkness I had left behind.
Magerøya is 300 miles from Norway’s border with Russia, connected to the mainland by a tunnel. Norway is divided in two by countless fjords that reach inland and cause major headaches for civil engineers. I had gotten used to waiting in line for vintage car ferries or crossing fjords through tunnels and bridges, feats of engineering paid for with tolls and oil money. The Nordkapptunnelen (North Cape Tunnel) to Magerøya is one of the deepest in the country. It dives 2 km below sea level.
I made a detour to the small town of Honningsvåg in search of fuel and drinking water. There didn’t seem to be many stores or gas stations on Magerøya. There didn’t seem to be much of anything, other than the cotton of the swamps dancing in the endless undergrowth and the occasional reindeer roaming the one-way road. There were no cars or camper vans, just two motorcycles with German plates, speeding toward Nordkapp.
It was Knut who told me that Nordkapp, despite being known as the northernmost point of continental Europe, is not. The true northernmost point is the Knivskjellodden promontory, a couple of kilometers to the west. Only there is no road to Knivskjellodden – getting there involves an 8km hike over the tundra made up of lakes, swamps and willow thickets to the arid, windswept edge of the Arctic Ocean.
The trailhead parking lot was a small patch of gravel, and my truck was the only thing parked on it. It was a 3.5 ton Iveco Daily, with a double axle, a three liter engine and 150,000 miles on the clock. She had seen him on the side of the road on his way home to Cornwall, with a For Sale notice taped to the windshield. I paid £ 1,350, with the cash I saved by collecting daffodils. Despite everyone’s tongue clicking, I had already taken 3,000 miles.
I closed it, kissed the rusty paint, and looked around for the trailhead. Knut had told me that it was marked by piles of rocks with painted red arrows. He didn’t tell me that he couldn’t see the arrows because of the fog.
I met Knut in Tromsø. I was part of a group of drunks at a bachelor party who had paid me to play my cello at the Ølhallen pub. Tromso was supposed to be the Paris of the North, only instead of the glass towers of La Défense there were jagged mountains covered in snow. I remember the blind white angles of the Arctic cathedral, like a caterpillar made of white triangles. I remember Sydspissen, where an abandoned building covered in graffiti looked out onto a rocky beach by the fjord. I sat on the rocks with a bottle of Arctic beer, watched the mountains change color, from pink to yellow and orange, and I cried as if my heart was going to fall.
I’d been away for almost two months, sleeping in my truck by the side of the empty highway, chasing the midnight sun north, foraging for food and diesel, washing and washing in frozen fjords. It was the year Myspace was invented, although I didn’t find out until after I got home. The world was about to change, but that year few had smartphones and social media was in its infancy. He was far away, out of touch, and completely alone.
I set out on this trip after two things in quick succession it turned my world upside down. A man I loved with the raw passion of youth left me for someone else, and a different man than the one I knew from childhood died in a strange car accident.
I boarded the ferry in Newcastle (a route that no longer exists) with little money, a surfboard I barely knew how to use, zero knowledge of car maintenance, and a cello. I had learned to play the cello as a child and had been good, but had barely played since I left school. I gave up because I hated playing in front of people. My parents lived from day to day, with no savings or assets. They couldn’t rescue me if everything went wrong.
Looking back, I am amazed at my courage or my recklessness. I was not, I am not yet, a carefree person who navigates through life taking everything in stride. I was anxious and broke. The thought of driving an old van to Norway and back made my heart race and my stomach churn. On the other hand, he also had him call for car insurance. Maybe when everything it’s scary, it gets to the point where there’s nothing. Or maybe something changed the night my friend was killed. I remember feeling liberated, as if death itself was now a friend. I remember feeling strangely, strangely safe.
This feeling lasted until I met Stan at the ferry bar. I told him about my plan to go to the midnight sun and come back and he laughed.
“You have a lot of dosh, right?” he said. “It’s not cheap there.”
I parked on what I thought was a quiet street in Bergen. All night people huddled, leaning on the van, rocking it from side to side. I woke up to find empty beer bottles on the back step and broken glass next to the front tires.
I drove to Oslo, which was 300 miles in the wrong direction. I was putting off the dreaded moment when I would have to take out my cello and busk. I remember empty roads, Norwegian spruce forests, the road tunneling under the mountains for 30 km. I slept on the outskirts of the city, in what appeared to be an informal camp for migrant workers.
I left my truck at camp and dragged my cello, in its heavy wooden box, toward the center of town. I settled on a boardwalk next to the crystal clear waters of the Oslofjord, which was dotted with yachts and cruise ships. It was hot. I longed to be one of the normal people who sit with their cold beers in one of the cafes with colorful umbrellas. It took me all day to earn the equivalent of £ 20. I was packing my bags when a middle-aged man with a gold tooth and a beer belly came up and invited me to spend the night with him on his yacht, in exchange for 10,000 NOK.
I gave up my dream of seeing the midnight sun. It was too far. I went to Kristiansand, a city on the south coast, with the intention of returning to Bergen and saving for a return ticket. It would be an adventure more than enough. By the time the police transferred me I had made about £ 40. Enough to get to Stavanger, I thought. He hadn’t bargained for the ferries, three of them, each costing between £ 5 and £ 10.
I find it difficult to trust people and my insecurity can make me seem distant. I struggle with asking for help. I am afraid of rejection. But this time I had no choice. I explained my situation to the man next to me in line, whose name was Jan Erik. He didn’t just pay for my ferry ticket. He offered me a bed and a hot shower, took me sailing and kayaking, told me I was brave and free, convinced me to keep going.
The trail became a scramble. I slipped and fell, landing on rocks. The rocks were strewn with what looked like telegraph poles, giant matches blown away by a storm. I found my way again and crawled up to a small grassy headland. There was a flagpole stuck into a piece of wood. Knivskjellodden, it said. 71 ° north.
I climbed to the top of the promontory. Reindeer emerged from the mist, antlers first, like wandering tree branches. I made my way through hundreds of cairns, carefully constructed rock towers, left by others to mark the end of their own long journeys. I climbed to the highest point and sat on the soft, fluffy grass. I looked at my watch: 11.30pm. The fog was still so thick that he couldn’t see the sea, though he could hear and smell it.
I leaned back, closed my eyes, let my thoughts roll back through the days, weeks, and months. The roller coaster of pain and fear, the moments of liberation, the moments of pure joy. I stopped on the side of the road to stand naked under a waterfall and wash my hair. Lying on my back in a shallow river, letting the sun-warmed water ease the strain on my cells. I had seen musk oxen and walked to the edge of a glacier.
I thought of the countless people who had dropped coins, and even bills, into my hat. The cop who had persuaded the security guard to let me play in the appropriately named Hell mall. Jan Erik and his sailor friends. Henrik and Knut. Over and over, strangers had caught me before I fell. Shaken by death, I had taken the first step on an unknown path, and the path had carried me forward. The impossible had become possible, dreams had come true. It seemed truly magical.
The fog was dissipating. I sat down and gazed, hypnotized, at the horizon. The sea was calm, like the surface of a mirror, like the stillness of the end of the world. I could hear reindeer teeth tearing through the grass. The cairns were an army of soldiers marching victorious over the cliff. I checked my watch. Midnight. The sun was a disk of fire on the horizon. In front of me, a sunset sky with red and gold stripes. Behind me birds, singing the dawn.
I was buoyed by relief and a sense of accomplishment. I imagined going back to the south, coming home, telling my friends and family (and my ex-boyfriend) how I had harnessed a superpower that I didn’t know I had, I had found a freedom that I never knew existed. I had traveled 2,000 miles, just playing my cello on the street. I thought my journey was over. I had no idea that it had just begun.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism