“The bright side of the planet moves toward darkness
And the cities are falling asleep, each in its hour,
And for me, now as then, it is too much.
There is too much world.”
— Czesław Miłosz
At first, I don’t see it. It’s hard to see anything in the polar winter, even though it’s barely two in the afternoon. I hear it before anything else, shuffling around in the snow at the end of the bird-watching peninsula I’m walking down—a reindeer, as startled of me as I am of him. We look at each other a few moments before I look away, embarrassed that I interrupted whatever he was doing. I try to focus instead on the harbor around me, abandoned for the winter. The darkness stares back at me, surrounding the faraway glint of houses across the channel, the outlines of fishing boats bumping quietly against the docks.
I sneak a glance back at him, and he’s still watching me suspiciously. Flurries of snow are falling around us. I take a few steps forward and he twitches his ears, wondering what I’m doing here. I could ask myself the same question. We begin edging around each other on the narrow stretch of rocks leading out to the sea. The next time I look away, he gallops past me toward the mainland and disappears. Silence again. I stand in the wind a few more minutes before I begin my slow journey home, careful to avoid glassy patches of ice.
It’s December, and I’m in the northernmost part of Norway with a bad pair of shoes. The soles are slippery against the ice that permanently coats the roads during this season, so it’s like learning to walk all over again. In a way, I’ve been trying to find the right footing all winter—several months prior, I moved out of my house in Oregon, scattered my belongings to friends and family, and took a backpack overseas. And now I’m in Vadsø, a small Arctic town, trying to keep myself upright in a landscape that will stay in shadows for the rest of my visit.
This time of year, there’s a part of the afternoon where everything is washed in an ethereal blue. The horizon bruises and swells for an hour each day before darkening again, closing in on itself. It’s a muteness that gives me the urge to hibernate, to stay in the apartment all day and burn candles while listening to depressing music. Everyone else in the town seems to be doing this—most of the small stores are closed for the winter, and the roads are silent except for the snowplow that passes by every few hours in a whirl of flashing orange lights.
The harbor is skeletal as I pass through it, the snow on the wooden docks like one expansive rib cage. It’s quiet, but there are sounds below the surface—the wind, the diamond dust blowing across the roads. When I begin walking up the hill leading away from the center of town, I slip on the icy slope and manage to break my fall by grabbing on to a railing. I feel ridiculous, like the word “foreigner” is glowing over my head, and I wonder if anyone is watching this from their window. When I look down the hill toward the main street, Christmas lights zigzagging across the buildings in spider webs, I feel like I’m suspended in a snow globe.
Finnmark County is land and land and land, with small towns scattered in between. Everything I see here is both with and without distance. It’s impossible to tell how far the fjords and mountains are when I look at them. There’s something about the extremity of space and light this far north that can make a person turn inwards. Or maybe it’s something like a mirror, where it makes you question which side is the reflection—yourself or the landscape? I came here to be submerged, to fall in to a place after months of passing through cities I never called home. Whenever I see the constant blend of sea and sky and land painted by shadows—time no longer a concept up here—I feel a new sense of being lost.
I think of Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, where he talks of a distant landscape’s ability to provoke thoughts about one’s own interior landscape. A million thoughts can be projected on to the surface of snow. It’s like being on a blank sheet of paper compared to other cities or parts of the world, and that feeling of emptiness ignites a part of the imagination that I’m not used to. Space and light and ice as narrative. The quietness makes me want to listen more, the shades of the land—as if from a black and white photograph—make me want to look closer.
I’ve spent the majority of my time here alone, aside from the evenings of drinking cheap beer with my neighbors at the only bar in town. But even those experiences have been isolating, in a way—allowing me to fall into a hum of surrounding conversations in Norwegian, into the social dynamics of people who have known each other their whole lives. It’s a different level of solitude, one that straddles the border of loneliness and liberation. One that has pulled me further into my mind and memories of the past few months. When I think of where I belong now, it seems like an idea that gets blurrier with time. I have a longing to go back to the feeling of being home, but the actual place fails to materialize in my mind. It hasn’t been long since I left Oregon, but I cut every connection to it except for the people I know there. I feel weightless.
The snow is at least a meter deep by now and still building. As I walk, I try to step only on packed snow while avoiding the black ice that sends me stumbling for balance like a graceless penguin. I reach an empty lot between the library and service station overlooking the channel, the dark smudges of fjords standing like a silent audience in the background. I imagine this place in the summer, the transformation from shadows to a sun that never dips below the horizon. From nature’s version of a silent treatment to an open heart. Constant light, glowing midnights. This Arctic winter takes my sense of isolation and beams it back at me. A shared axial tilt between the Earth and a mind.
The topography of Vadsø tells a story of abandonment. Along with the rest of Finnmark, the town historically relied on fishing as an economic resource. The industry shrank as soon as Norway found oil, and isolated fishing villages mummified the coast. As I walk, I see it in the gutted boats resting on the shore, the empty houses. Half of a leftover ghost town before the government jobs and oil. But looking closer, this is also a story of mankind’s desire to conquer, to control, to tame.
It’s a book that goes back thousands of years. This part of the world captured the dreams of countless explorers. Maybe it’s the mystery that pulls people in, the apparent emptiness that makes people dream about glacial crevasses and ice of a dense, brilliant blue. Think of the race to the North Pole in the 19th and 20th centuries, the winners of which are still debated to this day. The men with frozen beards and “Arctic fever” who had embellished visions of heroism and fame—the same men whose conquests often ended in starvation, scurvy, death. The North was a Siren. If they were lucky, they abandoned it before it broke them down.
In 1897, the Swedish balloonist Andree and his two crew members aimed to fly over the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon. The idea was beautiful in a way, but the journey itself was short—they floated north and crashed two days after departing. They disappeared for over thirty years before their bodies were found, along with exposed rolls of film that documented their time on the icescape. One of the photographs shows the explorers contemplating their crashed balloon, collapsed against the ice like a strange and fallen planet.
In the North, the landscape has all the power. It is sublime, brutal, and majestic. It can both captivate and destroy, beckon a person closer and then spit them back out. And while I’ll never be faced with the hardships of the explorers in the history books—I have food, I have shelter, I’m not in the exposed wilderness—I can still look around and feel small. This place belongs to no one but itself. Maybe this is why my heart so often points to the Arctic.
The snow pants I borrowed from the neighbor are at least one size too big, but I’m able to walk down the roads without slipping or over-thinking my steps. It has stopped snowing for now and the clouds are yawning, opening up to hundreds of stars and a faint smudge of the aurora borealis. I move north, toward the edge of town so I can feel closer to the awoken sky, away from the harbor and shops and streetlights.
Eventually I reach a field a ways out from the school, and the snow is uneven, formed into large drifts from the wind. I stand in front of one, close my eyes, and fall backwards. After catching myself from falling all afternoon, it turns out that it’s easier to beat gravity at its own game. My limbs spread out like starfish, and I keep still until everything starts to tingle with numbness. It’s like sitting in the living room of the cosmos and watching the sky unfold. The northern lights ripple across the curve of the earth, ripping it apart in slow motion. It is all at once beautiful and too much, and I suddenly feel the size of this world, of this landscape, of all these places I can touch but never truly know.
What is the force that pulls people away from stability and into the unknown? We crave discovery, but we want the option of turning back to where we came from. I think of how I felt when I left Oregon—ready to get out, but afraid that I would miss out on everything I left behind. I want to be everywhere and nowhere at once. I want to stay in this pile of snow. Maybe this is what the Arctic is—place and placelessness. Not a destination, but an ongoing element that evolves and then turns back to its own beginning.
And then I think of Nansen, the 19th century Norwegian explorer who spent a large portion of his life longing for the undiscovered North Pole. He planned an expedition that was driven by the same curiosity as the other North Pole-enthusiasts of his time, but he also followed poetry. A romantic who grew up on skis, he had the idea to follow the East to West current of the drifting icescape—to not only follow it, but to become it. All of the previous treks to the North Pole had approached from the West, and all of them had ended in failure.
When Nansen built the ship he would use for the journey, he designed it to get stuck in the ice. He decided to follow the natural movement of the land, and his home became the ice for three years. The ship was named Fram—or “Forward” in English. And in that sense, he knew it was the only direction he could go. He was different because, unlike other explorers, he let go of the idea of being in control. His movement became tied to the world around him. Photographs of the expedition show the infinite blue of glaciers and icebergs curving into the distance, and in the corner of the frame: Nansen, held by all of it. A dark shadow, his back to the camera, mid-step.
I’m miles and years away from this expedition, but I feel closer to it, lying in a random pile of snow in Vadsø. Maybe the best way to feel at home is to literally fall into the landscape. I am self-conscious and invisible at the same time. Unknown to most people in this town, just some crazy American who is lying in a bank of snow and listening to it melt against her body heat. A dog starts barking in the distance, and the aurora stretches thinner across the sky. Half an hour goes by before I get up from the ground to walk the few remaining blocks home. I stand up carefully to preserve the imprint my body has made in the snow, leaving behind a lunar crater that will be covered up by morning.
On the way home, I occasionally look up from my feet and into the houses around me—some darkened, others illuminated, all of them their own separate corners of the world. Clouds begin gliding in like ships from the coast. Maybe it will start snowing again. Maybe the universe will keep expanding.
A snowstorm hits Vadsø later in the evening. I borrow my neighbor’s spark—a Norwegian kick sled—and a dog, a Rottweiler named Tassen who bounds into the snow and wind and darkness like a blizzard himself. I put a harness and leash on him that wraps around my waist like a belt. I picture myself slipping and being dragged through the snow by this crazy dog, but I try to take solace in the fact that a majority of my trip has been me on the ground.
I stand on the sled and Tassen leads the way, blending in with the darkness except for the blinking blue light on his collar. We are northeast from the town center, trekking up roads that are unplowed and generally closed for the winter. It seems like the two of us are the only ones outside, the only ones up here. This feels like meditation, wandering through a haze of falling snow in the house of my mind.
Eventually we get to a clearing near the prison yard. I unclip Tassen from his leash and we venture into the field. Lampposts illuminate the fence surrounding the prison, the light softened by the clouds and flurries of snow filling the air. Tonight is grey and grey and grey, and I feel like I could disappear. I could dive headfirst into the waist-high snow and keep falling forever. I look over at Tassen, swimming through the snow, everything around us muted by wind. What a strange place to become.
The explorer Nansen made it further than any of his predecessors, although he didn’t reach the North Pole. When the ice wouldn’t take Fram as far north as he hoped, he took a team of dogs and left the ship with other members of his crew. He kept going north, hit the 86 degree mark, and then decided to retreat in fear of draining food and supplies. I think of him before he went back South: looking into the eye of the North and the chaos of ice beyond him, stuck in the amber moment before yielding to the wildness and heading toward everything he knew. The view must have been beautiful—he was stuck perfectly between a place untouched by anyone and the place that carried him there. Between the mysterious and the familiar.
I stand in the field and watch Tassen move through the snow and sky. I’m unsure of the time, unsure of where I’ll be in the next month after I leave this place. Right now I only want to be warm, and to be able to feel my feet again. I whistle and he comes running toward me, fur glinting with snow. We make our way back to where we left the spark at the mouth of the field.
On the way back, I stand on the spark and ask Tassen if he’s ready when we approach the hill down to where we started. It’s a pointless question—he’s already racing away and all I can do is go with it. Snowflakes are hurling themselves from the sky and I close my eyes against them as they fly towards my face, and it makes me laugh, and now I’m swallowed by wind, tunneling straight toward the center of something bigger than me, and the wind will not stop, but maybe it never does on the edge of the Earth.
Kelsey Camacho is currently writing, roaming around the forest, and caring for 28 sled dogs in Northern Norway.