Sometimes a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single Skype call. In this instance, the call was with my fake fiancé, Avery. He and I like to be different; our story is one of reckless decisions after spontaneous adventures. We decided during that fateful call instead of going somewhere warm during the cold days of winter break, we would journey to the tiny archipelago of Svalbard.
Svalbard is located 819 miles away from the North Pole (1,318 km for you Brits); it is the northernmost settlement in the world with a permanent population, though the population of polar bears still outnumbers that of humans. During the week in January when we visited, Svalbard would be experiencing 24-hour darkness, a phenomenon called polar night. Essentially, the sun would not rise for the entire week we were there. Utterly convinced Svalbard was suitably insane enough of a location to add to our crazy repertoire, north we flew. Though there are countless tales that could be told involving me sinking waist-deep into a snow bank, us venturing out to walk on the frozen fjords before realizing we were in potential polar bear territory, eating plates of reindeer, whale, and seal, and more shenanigans involving sauna rooms and massage chairs, the most awe-inspiring moment was one of silence.
Avery and I booked a guided hike up the glaciers to descend into an ice cave. Bundled up in snow pants, Eskimo-inspired hats, and thermal jackets we saved from our trip to Alaska two winters ago, we were greeted at the foot of the hills by our adorable Norwegian guide who had snow shoes in hand, ice picks to distribute, and headlights to fasten on. The trek up the glaciers was like nothing I had ever experienced before; it was like walking on rolling hills of crunchy cotton or wading through extra-firm pillows with a biting polar wind stinging my eyes. The weak lights of the smattering of houses in town faded quickly away into the background, leaving us alone in the glowing silver light of the moon. In the valleys between the glacial peaks, we paused to savor our momentary respite from the wind and with it, the descent of absolute silence.
Craning my neck back, I savored the feeling of calm as it swept through. All of my muscles loosened. In that moment, my mind was finally free of all the background chatter, from the emails to be answered, the texts to be read, and the essays to be written. I thought, if only everyone in the world could come out here and stand still for one second, there would be no need for wars or conflict. How could you fight when there exists such a place of pure, untouched beauty?
My startled gasp broke the silence as dancing lights slowly leaped their way across the heavens. The Northern Lights that had long eluded us finally showed their celestial colors in a breathtaking recital accompanied by feather-light whispers. I’m not a spiritual person, but even I could understand why Native Americans once believed that the lights were ghosts of ancestors, souls that lit the skies to guide others towards heaven. The haunting sound like wind through weeping willow branches questioned me gently about who I was and what I wanted to live for, questions I didn’t have answers to. I contemplated my options as we climbed closer towards the painted sky. The ending to our arctic climb came when we descended into the ice caves with kneepads to help us scoot under dangling icicles. Settling in a tiny, frozen corner, our guide broke out mugs of tea and packs of biscuits, exactly what I needed after the exhausting climb. Munching away, I soaked in the feeling of wonder in my little piece of the universe, promising that even when I returned to the deadline-dotted, hectic world outside, I would take a few moments to sit and remember what it felt like to be at peace and to ponder questions asked by the dancing, Northern lights.
Photo credit: Jessica Yin