Racing the Midnight Sun

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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.

``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.

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``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.

``He vas en eld mann, end vent many days vidout taking a fish....'' We were playing famous first lines of books they had read in English. We walked them home through leafy silent woods to their summer hut. We talked about them often, on the road. Until the midnight sun became an afterburner for our fierce goal to get there.

``Fourteen more days and it will be night again,'' Phil had been counting our days. He, too, had the embedded dazzle of no nights in his mind. Then, he had meant eight to the cape. Four down in the boat to Bergen. Two into the dark calming of night again in British waters.

``You'll long for these lengthy days, at 3:30 on a winter day in Colorado,'' I reminded him.

We left our campsite bags in our room at Alta (first room since Midsummer's) and biked out of Alta and turned south. There we crossed railroad tracks, puzzled as to where they came from. Norway's railroad, which we had followed and waved to trains, ended 200 miles ago.

``From Russia,'' said my friend, guessing.

``Yup,'' I said, agreeing now with anything that coincides with my romantic vision of the trip.

Twenty miles down a road that looks like any other we've been on, empty, winding through mountains, the shadows of eternal evening across it from sweet pines - why should it look different? Because the road sign says ``Kautokeino,'' the center of the Lapp kingdom itself?

Suddenly, I have an attack of homesickness.

Homesickness? I feel like Huck Finn in his low times, when he's isolated on an island, having run away from his crazy dad, fishing lines down for dinner.

It must be my lightheadedness and tiredness. My imagination's been working overtime, without sleep, like a man in love. I am in love, I know it. I'm in love with the muse of the Scandinavian peninsula, with its soft and watery valleys, its hard high rock, with its legends of field and brook.

I feel lonely. I am tired tonight of the long wooing of a country on thin rubber wheels. This muse is an exacting and beautiful princess. She demands rugged action; but also poetic patience. We have not been patient. We've been too eager to seek her, too fast. What to do? It's too late to slow down.

At 25 miles south, we stop. It was the edge of forest before the greatest wild river valley I had ever seen. Lapland. Eighty or more miles in front of us were low mountains darkened momentarily by evening clouds and coming up from them is the Atlaelv River, as big as the Yukon, in meadows of lichen, rock, and wild grass.

I knew then why I felt homesick. Here, it seemed, was the beginning of everything. The top of the world. The valley in gold evening light was an indescribable home to my spirit. It was the homeland of an intelligent living nomadic people. I wanted to go with them ... throw down my bicycle and walk into it ...

Back at the restaurant and rooms, the desk lady had sorted through a bag of mail that had come with the seaplane we'd seen in the harbor. There was a letter for us with Norwegian stamps. It was from the girls of the lake. Synnove, who was ``mine,'' with braids banded to soft brunette brushes, who had read ``The Old Man and the Sea,'' wrote in block runic-like letters:

WE SHALL COME ON THE SHIP TO HONINGSVAG TO GREET YOU ON YOUR SUCCESS TO NORDKAPP. WE SHALL BE THERE AUGUST 4. BE CHEERFUL.

SYNNOVE - STAR

Three days away. We had coffee; paid for our room. The lemmings were off.

On the way up that night, we met a boy from northern Sweden, with his sleeping bag, no fancy gears like ours, straight handlebars, on the lonely road north. He was merrily biking along at 3 a.m.

Where else could a fellow lemming be going at such a time of night? He joined up with our pack.

Here now was proof that roads from here on led to that last cliff over the sea. I looked at him, tall, strong, a blond crew cut. I didn't need to wonder what he'd done to deserve the sea-ride out to Valhalla. Would there be a girl waiting there for him too?

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