Going North, really, really far North, doesn’t rise to the top of the glam vacation pile for most. It’s understandable, really. On paper, the whole proposition seems like a bad idea. Summer = too much light. Winter = no light at all. In general, the weather can be characterized as really “fucking cold.” Margaritas are scare. It’s hard to look good in your Instagram pictures if you’re wearing a fur hat, sealskin gloves and all the clothes you’ve brought with you.
North — despite these obvious challenges in attaining status as a stop on the Grand Tour — has always been riveting as a stop in my personal geographic imaginary. It sits there comfortably with my other iconic geographies: France, Buenos Aires, Egypt, Mongolia, the Sahara. I’m drawn to its enormity and sublimity…the gorgeous minimalism of the landscape coupled with its lack of sentimentality and ferocity. “Real beauty is so deep you have to move into darkness to understand it,” argues Barry Lopez, author of the seminal Northern book, Arctic Dreams.
I’ve spent time on Svalbard, an archipelago that is technically part of Norway, but is also shared with coal-mining Russians. It’s not a place where you “relax” in any boozy, beach-front sense of the word. Rather, it forces a very pleasurable, but intense self-interrogation. Dog-sled across a glacier with a bad-ass woman named Berit carrying a shotgun to scare away the polar bears and you’ll begin to understand what I mean. It’s eerily quiet. The sheets of white that seem to stretch to Greenland are impassive. Like looking at the night sky from the desert, or sitting on the edge of a continent and contemplating the ocean, North dispassionately reminds you about human fraility. Human inconsequence.
Canadian pianist Glenn Gould produced a small set of radio shows, one episode of which he titled The Idea of North. There, he plays with an idea he calls “contrapuntal” radio, wherein two speakers are heard simultaneously, much in the same way that two melodies could be heard intertwining in Bach’s work. Says Gould, in 1967 “…I made a few tentative forays into the north and began to make use of it, metaphorically, in my writing. There was a curious kind of literacy fall-out there, as a matter of fact. When I went to the north, I had no intention of writing about it, or of referring to it, even parenthetically, in anything that I wrote. And yet, almost despite myself, I began to draw all sorts of metaphorical allusions based on what was really a very limited knowledge of the country and a very casual exposure to it. I found myself writing musical critiques, for instance, in which the noth – the idea of the north – began to serve as a foil for other ideas and values that seemed to me depressingly urban-oriented and spiritually limited thereby.”
My sister and I spent a week dogsledding through Lappland. Hours would pass with the most notable activity being the sounds of the dogs breathing and the feeling of the sledge passing over snow. Our guide, Rune, would smoke cigarettes insistently and impassively as he balanced on one foot on the sledge’s runners, looking vaguely bored as the dogs ran across Finnmark. It was incredible.
Incredible because of our proximity to our own oblivion, really, and as bizarre as that sounds. Incredible because each night we found ourselves at a different hytta, run by the Sami. There, we made whipped cream in a Nalgene bottle to eat with freshly-picked cloudberries, or we sat in a sauna before rolling naked in the snow under the aurora borealis. Incredible, too, because it made visible the usually invisible border between existence and its opposite. It pointed to the absurdity and luxury of being alive.