Lofoten: Insomnia

Snow white clouds. A cover hiding the world below. Like snow it looks pure, clean. The tops bubbled like a fountain filled with washing up liquid. Where the clouds broke, the black ground beneath was pitted with even whiter snow. The plane drifted into the clouds, sinking into the water below. Underneath is bleak, grey and wet. Jon and I had landed in Bodø. Passing over the Arctic Circle for the first time, this marked the furthest north I’ve been. We still had further north to go. We gathered our belongings and headed off to find our hire car.

Driving makes me anxious. The thought of driving on the wrong side of the road from the wrong side of the car caused my anxiety to peak. Jon, being one of the nicest people I know, was patient and supportive. I think it is important to ride these crests and come out the other side. Once I curbed an alloy, I had learned how big the car was and felt more comfortable. This was good, because a few days later I had to drive 200km on my own. We grabbed some supplies, dropped our bags at the hostel and head into town for some dinner. Bodø isn’t charming. The waterfront is dominated by office blocks and car parks. There doesn’t seem to be much going on. It makes sense, as one of the landing points for the Lofoten archipelago there doesn’t need to be much here. There are some cool murals on building walls, a few well reviewed restaurants and approximately 40 minutes away is one of the biggest maelstroms in the world. We didn’t have time to confirm this claim.

We hadn’t planned much for this trip. With the exception of Jon riding in the Lofoten Insomnia event we were free. This meant I hadn’t bothered to look into Norwegian culture and customs. Everyone tells you Norway is expensive and I believe them, but I didn’t think it would be that bad. Jon and I did some rapid research and headed to Hundholmen Brygghus for dinner. We bluffed our way through the Norwegian menu and successfully ordered some beer snacks, a fish soup and a beer each for the sum of what I might expect for one of my kidneys. The beer snacks consisted of the local delicacy; tørrfisk, the fish hung out on racks to air dry. We had two balls of fish fried in batter which wasn’t anywhere near as pungent as expected. Then there was the cured ham from Tromsø, which I declared I could live off for the rest of my life. This was but a starter. The fish soup is reigning contender for the best soup I have ever had, easily a 5/10. We agreed that the main ingredient was butter, along with shrimp, chunks of indeterminate white fish, and root vegetables. Based on this offering, we would be willing to argue that actually it was well worth the money. If you ever find yourself in the area, I’d recommend taking out a loan to try it. Full of fatty liquids, Jon and I headed back to the hostel.

In the morning we were at the ferry terminal. With the exception of the actual children on the boat, we were seriously dragging down the average age. Maybe it’s only people of a certain generation who feel they can afford to travel in Norway, and those of us who don’t care about the financial impact. The ferry pulled out of Bodø, turning between the rocky islands, passing towering mountains that rose like giant fins straight out of the sea. Light and shadow danced across the islands. Clouds lingered in the summits. On the horizon dark clouds and walls of rock merged. Jon and I debated how far we could see. As we drew closer the clouds rose higher and separated from the sharp edge of the mountain summits. White capped grey sea. White tipped grey mountains. White topped puffs of grey cloud. Our first view of the Lofoten archipelago. Colours emerged, green and more shades of grey. Tiny red and white box houses nestled on the shore. Thin white waterfalls crashed out of the peaks.

Jon and I checked the weather forecast on as many as six websites. Will it rain, won’t it rain. If it rains, will it rain for long? If became when. We went to bed early with the intention of getting up at midnight to climb our first Norwegian mountain. We struggled through patches of sleep before waking up to the rain. The sky was still as bright at 2am as it had been at 2pm. We were hesitant about hiking. We decided to drive out to the trail head. Clouds sat on the mountain tops and water continued to fall from the sky. The weather was supposed to clear in the morning. We went back to bed.

In the morning we filled up on bread and bad coffee before returning to the trail. The clouds were high, blue skies hugged the coast. The conditions were in our favour. We started to climb. The coastline stretched out and rose like stacked shards of broken glass. Behind every summit, higher peaks reached. Waterfalls spilling out of one lake into the next . The trail offered a choice; mud or rock, wet or dry. Maybe you’d like to try them all at once. Open mouthed gaping at the landscape. Grinning madly into the wind. Swearing at how unbelievable our surroundings were. We rose over hills and ascended a gorge, climbing beyond the snow line and scrambling up the ridge between two valleys. Below the town of Å looked insignificant. A cluster of houses, a car park full of camper vans and busses. Beyond, we could see the endless pillars and walls that form the Lofoten archipelago. Day one on the island chain and our expectations were already smashed. We raced the rain back down to sea level.

Jon had 12 hours until he started riding. 235km along the length of the Lofoten island chain. How people find out about these events I’ll never know. Why they think it might be fun to have a go, I’m starting to understand. The suffering is easier to remember. You have a story to tell. I kept mostly out of the way while he rested, built his bike and got ready. I was asleep when he left but got up at 1am to see him start. The weather remained poor. The racing party left, those doing it for something more than just the fun of it. Then came the tourers, those doing it supposedly just for fun. Rumours were already circling about a high number of drop outs. The forecast did not look good. I waved Jon across the line and promptly returned to bed.

I woke up again in the actual, normal morning to a message from Jon. He’d stopped a little over half way. High wind and sideways rain had driven more people to drop out. He was talking about quitting. What was I supposed to say? Talk him up, tell him it’s fine, get on with it. Tell him it’s ok, it wasn’t to be. There’s always next year. Only Jon knew how he was feeling, I could only imagine being wet and cold. I started packing up. I wouldn’t want to be kept waiting long. Soon enough I was in the car, cruising along the coastal road. The landscape taking my breath away. I regularly reminded myself to concentrate on the road. We had to come back this way, I didn’t have to stop and see it all now. I had to get to Jon as soon as I could. The last message from him said the rest stop was being closed, he was going to cycle on to the next one. After another half an hour my phone rang, he was feeling good, the sun had come out. He was going to keep moving, I didn’t hear from him again. 

I drove along white sand beaches, through deep glacial valleys, beneath colossal spires of black granite. Huge tunnels swallowed the car and spat it out into a new valley. The rain started up again. I stopped briefly to stretch my legs before the damp wind pushed me back into the car. The views continued to amaze. I joined a trail of traffic, the first I’d encountered, to see the safety car for the tourers. Two cyclists were plodding along. I hadn’t seen Jon yet but I didn’t have to wait long. 10km from the finish I passed a lone biker in a blue jacket, seeing just enough to know who it was. I had the briefest of emotional experiences. Pride, relief, elation. He was going to do it. I got to the finish line not long before him. I followed his location on GPS, the little dot moving closer and closer. I layered up and headed to the finish line. The support crew were soaking wet, cheering on everyone who crossed the line. He rounded the final corner, a grin on his face, a fist pump across the line. Cold, wet, tired and complete.

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