When the Northern Lights Don't Come Out to Play

We've flown to Norway. We're miles outside of town. We've checked the cloud patterns and the moon phases and the solar flares and THEY. SHOULD. BE. HERE.

Kyle and I lay side by side on the caribou skins, our faces looking up to the night sky as if we’re front row in a movie theater. It is negative four degrees Celsius in Tromsø, Norway, and at 11:30 pm we have found ourselves in the middle of a frozen marshland, a short trek down a hillside from our camp. Our snow shoes are still fastened to our feet, and they lay propped up in the snow like miniature cross-woven tombstones erected for the California life we’ve left behind. We are lucky that it isn’t snowing, and only a few thin wisps of clouds streak the firmament. The conditions are not perfect, but they’ll do. We wait for the show to begin.  

            Ten minutes pass. Then twenty. Thirty. Nothing.

            “Is that one?” Kyle says, finally breaking the silence. He points down towards our toes in the direction of town. There’s an orange glow coming from the buildings.

            “No, I think that’s just the street lights,” I say.

            “Oh.” We are wrapped in silence again.

            I look at the darkling sky and am slowly blinded by the blackness—it’s like when you stare so long at something that you can’t tell what it is anymore.

            “Wait. I think—yeah, that’s gotta be one…” Kyle whispers beside me. He points a finger straight above him and then slowly draws it across until it is pointing directly above my nose. I follow the line he’s drawn on the sky and sure enough, a faint fissure of green appears out of the abyss. Soon it widens and stretches so that almost the whole sky is split by this murky streak of green. It’s like seeing a ghost—it is silent and incredible, and it takes no notice of you, you who are just there to witness, and then, once it has disappeared, to wonder if you had really seen it at all.

            “I think there’s some over there, too,” I say, gesturing towards the mountains.

            “Oh…yeah…”

            They’re dim and feeble and barely visible, but I know they are the real thing. Yet I thought I’d see something spectacular, some dance of lights and bright neon colors, that I’d experience the sublime and that my vision would be so overwhelmed with ribbons of green and pink and orange that I’d collapse into an epileptic seizure and forever be blind, or else may as well be because I’d never see anything quite as divine for the rest of my life.

But that's not what we get. Here we have travelled thousands of miles to the Arctic Circle in the dead of winter, and for what? To see this sickly shade of putrid green that may or may not be the aurora borealis? Yet I’m never one to show disappointment, and perhaps out of a desire to not hurt nature’s feelings, I say, “Amazing.”

But we know I’m not talking about the Northern Lights tonight. Those are lackluster at best. No, what really is amazing is us, the two humans who have braved the biting cold to trek out into this frozen marshland, to lie alone upon this vast expanse of sparkling white, enwrapped in caribou skins and the darkness.  What is amazing is how quiet it is, how I can hear the rise and fall of his chest as his heart beats against his coat, as if wanting to escape upwards into the sky. How I can feel on my lips bits of ice stirred up from the ground by the wind. How I turn my face to him and he turns to me too, how time has aligned our faces like this as if it were meant to be, how we have promised wordlessly to follow each other here, to journey across the globe into the north, into the night, into the frozen night. What is amazing is how a disaster can be avoided just by being with the right person.

The lights have faded back into the darkness and the clouds are beginning to prevail against the stars. Kyle asks if I want to go back to our tent, but I am thinking of a night back home in Santa Rosa, California, four years ago when we were first in love, 1:00 am and we were alone on the main street that runs downtown. We were walking to the car after catching a late movie at the cinema when we came to the intersection of 4th and B Street. There were no cars and the night was silent, and Kyle grabbed my hand and pulled me to the very center of the four-way stop. We lay down in the middle of the road on our backs, watching the green and red traffic lights change above us. It was beautiful then and it is beautiful now, except neither time is it because of the lights. I am thinking of this and so I do not answer his question, and instead I wonder aloud through the dark at him, “How did we get here?”

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Joanne Howard

Leave only footprints, take only photos. I left my heart in Yosemite.