Racing the Midnight Sun
THE sun had turned us into lemmings as we spun it in our fragile spokes bicycling to that last cliff, the North Cape. We had followed the coast all the way after Trondheim, and it was now our last chance to detour inland to ``see'' Lapland, that vast, borderless, mysterious territory across Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Soviet Union, where roads often turn into thin dotted lines on maps and disappear along tracks of stream beds.Skip to next paragraph
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``Are you up for it tonight?'' I asked my friend, sitting in a restaurant by the sea in Alta, Norway, 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
The vitality of the costumed north bustled around us. In the smoky place in summer, wolf-ruffed parkas hung in the entryway and Lapps themselves walked about in sky-blue flannel with wildflower-embroidered backs. Outside, in the bay, people were unloading a cargo seaplane. Horses and wagons went by, to be passed by a Mercedes or an army vehicle. We were the only people, I was sure, to have reached the top of Norway on two precariously thin wheels.
``Sure. Let's see what Lapland looks like.''
``We won't have anything, if we don't have geography,'' I said, paraphrasing Hemingway on making a story.
We were looking at a map spread over our bread-sopped plates. From Alta, the northernmost point of land in Europe lay due north on the island of Mageroya.
How often in my daydreams bicycling at night had I seen us roaring up to the North Cape, then off the cliffs into the shining Polar Sea, two shadows of bicycles in the dusk, packs, panniers, flying - because we'd been unable to stop pedaling. We'd join a hundred million lemmings swimming out to an island where the great men of renown of Scandinavia still lived.
We'd paddle, peddling like paddle boats into the sunset. The glory of our battle won would have been against sheer geography, spurred on by the light. The fact of the matter was, we couldn't stop. Not since the fabulous all-night sunsets we ran into halfway up.
After supper we often broke a well-set camp and bicycled again half the night. The night sun was pink adrenalin to our lust for accomplishment to be the first to bike Oslo-Nordkapp. The pink spell was a hoary mist rising at 2 a.m. out of the banks of cold rivers, while everything else slept: The old farms and timbered churches that escaped the flame of German invasion, the birchwoods, dew-dripping berries, northern birds, all were still. The only other time I'd seen the nocturnal secrets of the countryside revealed was in Vietnam by silver flares on parachutes that spelled out clearly the eerie lay of the land. The cold light worked on us with the craziness of lemmings.
``What are we doing?'' I'd say to lemming Phil, my friend.
``Can't stop to talk,'' he said, pushing his gear up another pass.
``And when we get there?'' I asked.
``We'll know what to do when we get there.''
``Let's do it next time on motorcycles,'' Phil said, at the table, as we plan the evening's detour south to look into Lapland.
I thought, no. Motorcycles would sink, fall on us in the water, no getting out to Valhalla. My exhaustion and the light had made me believe my daydream.
``A Mercedes,'' I said.
He laughs. We've been edged off the road and hit by gravel from racing tourists, on the main north-south route, sometimes single-laned with branches. Once we'd been spattered with mud so badly we'd stopped in the high lake country before the nights had completely slipped away.
The youth hostel lady had had mercy on us. After hosing our bikes down and collapsing 24 hours after hot showers, she had us to dinner in the private quarters of the house. She introduced us to her nieces, Synnove and Star.
They were dressed in Norwegian costume for Fire Night, Midsummer's Eve. A date. We rowed around a mountain lake, surrounded by fires along the shores. We were tired and pulled easy on the carved oars and laughed joyfully at the girl's mispronounced literary English.