Finnished: Diary of a Solo Journey
Fall 2014, second year in Warsaw rising up before and heady recollection of a visit home to New Jersey collapsing behind. Three weeks rushing between loved ones, treasured haunts and autumnal events left me in a breathless trance upon returning to work in full swing of Halloween madness. Fresh off a delayed flight to Warsaw, I fought with airport agents desperately trying to explain my missing luggage. That’s when the itch began.
Namely, I thought: never trust a damn suitcase. Proudly a backpack girl, I stubbornly plod along to the principle I refer to as “Law of the Fatass” wherein you may only have what you can carry. Perhaps in supermarkets, arms quaking with groceries, this rule is cumbersome, but within the scope of travelling, nothing is more freeing. Anyone who has tried (and certainly failed) towing a 20-pound rolling thunder across the cobblestones of Europe or flowing, muddy fields of a countryside, can attest.
By November’s end, post-Halloween and pre-Christmas pageant of my students, the itch became a grip. Machinations of that bone-crushing mill we sometimes regretfully label life had me eager to throw a wrench in the cogs. I began researching the best wintry locations, immediately deciding snowbound, declining an invite to Thailand for a tropical getaway. No. I’d be cold, surrounded by blank, blinding snow and utterly, enamoringly alone. This Christmas all I wanted was solitude. No hometown churning up precious nostalgia, no adventurous companions goading me into the thrilling irresponsibility of drunken nights and fated love affairs, and no children.
Finally, I chose the perfect Christmas reclusion, the origin of Santa Claus: Lapland, Finland. Two Christmas pageants, one bout of conjunctivitis, and three recurrences of vomiting in public later I was eyeball deep in message boards, railway websites, and hostel leads.
The escape was begrudgingly unsimplistic: a flight to Helsinki, 10-hour stopover (you know, to see the sights), hop on an overnight train up to Kolari and hope that a local bus would bring me to a miniscule town, Äkäslompolo, situated just above the Arctic Circle. The newly established eco-hostel, 7 Fells Hostel, awaited.
When leaping into the pit of the “unknown location,” I’m both terrified and elated. Just prior, my mind is wrought with excuses to cancel the whole venture and sleep for 10 days. Travel is exhausting. Pain grows with each plunge, yet I’m called back into the mystery of exploring constantly. Everyone cleaves to certain addictions, we’d scarcely live without their promised succor. Mine is falling into that strange newness of every foreign destination conquered.
Ignited by the fire of passion, I flew into the alluring aloneness of a solo trip. The encounters wherein you travel through physical space and the mind, accessing channels never before ridden, another human or obligation always happily blocking that path. Sans distractions, one becomes untethered and swims into full cognition of a constant inner monologue. I breathed maybe three words for 24, or more, hours. Ensconced in introversion, the stresses of months of gnawing social and professional obligations faded. My actual self took possession of the meat and bones it had been trapped within, mouth creaking into smile after smile mindlessly for weeks upon weeks, pushed past the limit. But she understood, and was there to greet the freedom eagerly, languishing in every fucking moment of it.
Aboard the overnight train, I realized with ashamed horror that I’d mistakenly booked a passenger seat instead of a bunk. It’s a common theme among self-planned expeditions: mistakes that make you curse yourself. Oh well, another story to tell friends upon return, another lesson to be stored in the book entitled: Things My Backpack Taught Me.
I slept anyway, like one who has trained herself to sleep in all positions and locations; even in a small, freezing, upright passenger chair with those hideous, buzzing fluorescent lights casting their death rays upon me. When I woke, darkness permeated the windows, huge swirls of eerie, silent snow cascaded about on polar winds. I felt like “the boy” in “The Polar Express.” Would I see Santa and receive the first gift of Christmas?
Disembarking at Kolari Station, my stomach gurgled with trepidation. Finally I’d come to a situation where I couldn’t rest on my electronic laurels. Now I must speak to locals. I found less humans meant less anxiety, though. In a crowd, people are pushy and careless. In sparseness, I can see them for their individuality and be at peace with myself and others.
I found the bus easily and slipped inside. As the sun brightened, the only color aside from pure, blank white was the deep green of slender pines. The total lack of pigment was jarring: a wispy sky flowed into an ice-capped two-lane road, neatly framed by those sentinel pines, horizon hidden in nuance.
Two weeks of white wilderness allows the term “quiet” to form its own persona. Not merely the absence of sound, but the hush of chaffing anxieties and clean, cold scent of standing snow drifts and imprecise periwinkle purple that never shows up in all 148 pictures of twilight you’ve taken. You have no proof, but it’s there. The sun glanced up around 11 every morning, only to stumble back below the horizon two hours later. I’d spend these hours layering myself in as much clothing as possible to trudge through 20 minutes of −28 degrees, which was the path into town. My hair froze, my phone refused to operate, the exposed skin on my face numbed, and it was incredible.
The gem of Äkäslompolo’s magic lies in the night, though. By town mandate, lights must be extinguished by 10 p.m. The entire settlement finds itself glued to trackers, just waiting for that perfect magnetic, cloudless swoop to usher in what we’ve all come so far to see: The Lights. I cried the first time I saw, hugged strangers, let out a wild whoop of astonishment, sang long-forgotten hits of the ’80s. You think pictures will prepare you, but the reality is much more elusive and overpowering. It was as if the sky became another plane of existence in which strange entities rippled the fabric of space with incandescent waves. From pearl to emerald to ruby, treasures danced across the cosmos.
On Christmas Eve, the hostel inhabitants joined forces under the instruction of a Romanian couple to produce a feast. I chopped and mixed a salad with a Serbian snowboarder. Two Australians and a Chilean prepared the soup. The owner of 7 Fells set off to greet the sacred darkness of the night, joining local proprietors in lighting the road to town with hundreds of flickering candles. Her Finnish friends readied us for a traditional sauna. A Chinese astronomer gave us hourly updates on flare projections. All the while, our Romanian chefs slaved over two mouth-watering lasagnas.
Dinner in the oven, we toppled out into the sub-zero night, towel clad and sauna bound. The hostel held two external saunas: male and female. After considerable encouragement by the Fins and a few bottles of wine, none of us wanted to break up the party. Nudity, they explained, was never considered shameful in Finland. It simply did not occur to them to feel embarrassment. Dared by a fervent lack of inhibition, the rest of us followed suit (or absence thereof) and disrobed in the woody steam of the sauna.
Baring one’s body in a dark, clouded box is actually quite modest. Most of the crouching and shadows veil what you wish to remain a mystery. As the humidity consumed, we were taught another of Finland’s proud traditions, though. How does one cure burning claustrophobia of the sauna? Naturally, burst from its confines and leap stark naked into the awaiting snow drifts. With a raucous roar, we stampeded into the night and dove spirit-first into the glistening snowfall. Billows of vapor stacked high above our wriggling bodies, and as I cast my gaze to the stars, livid streaks of neon green broke out against the sky as if a giant had raked her claws across it. The group noticed the event as one and, abashed modesty windswept away, stood and jumped in ecstatic appraisal. So I found myself: nude, dripping with a cocktail of sweat, steam and snow, proudly howling with a pack of strangers beneath a nocturnal rainbow of solar flame.
I witnessed the Aurora Borealis several times, but none so freeing as on Christmas Eve, where I shed not just the constrictions of clothing, but all regard for civilized judgment. That animal adrenaline which filled my blood still flashes back to me, and I’m glad for it because that is the woman of my dreams: a wild-eyed goddess glowing with the green fire of a midnight sun.
The transition from a solo journey continually depresses me. Stinging reality rubs its grime on me in waves, and I become civilized again. It brushes its hair, it wears makeup, it shaves its legs: it lives. That thing that isn’t me, she’s the actual fantasy.
This article originally appeared in the Wild issue. For more inspiring stories by women, check out Overcoming Ecophobia: Environmentalists Battle the Existential by Getting Their Hands Dirty and How Learning to be Mindful Can Change Your Life.