John Burnside

Quite early one May morning, in the last days of a subarctic winter, I strayed from a marked trail I had been walking for just under two hours and discovered I was lost in the north Norwegian tundra. It was something that never should have happened: 99 times out of a hundred, I am a sensible, even cautious wanderer, but that morning, in an odd mood I couldn’t explain other than to say, lamely, that I was sorry to be leaving Finnmark, I had left the borrowed lakeside cabin where I’d been staying and decided to go for one last walk along a not at all hazardous eight-mile trail about thirty miles east of Kautokeino. I had all the right gear, or most of it – layers of thermal clothing, a good map, a pocketful of energy bars in case the walk took longer than expected – but, really, this wasn’t one of those serious, adventure trail, orienteering-type walks. It was just a last wander to say a mental goodbye before driving my hire car back to Lakselv and taking the shuttle plane down to Tromsø to spend Grunnlovsdag (Norway’s equivalent of Independence Day) with friends.

Harald Sohlberg, ‘Lillegaten Røros’ (1903).
Harald Sohlberg, ‘Lillegaten Røros’ (1903).

I said goodbye to my host – an elderly woman with a broken leg, a friend of a friend of a friend who had agreed to let me use one of her holiday cabins for a week, though it was out of season and, as she said, ‘the stove was cold’ – and didn’t worry too much when, going over my things, I discovered I had lost my compass. I didn’t even bother to check the forecast. I just headed out. I’d had a fine time in the area around Kautokeino, walking each day on set trails over empty tundra or along the river, the last snow still glittering in the sun at midday and not dirty yet, though the night skies were already white, a thin, grey twilight settling over my little lake in the wee hours and every sign that the big thaw was on the way. It was the thaw that I had come north to see, or rather, to hear: I’d been told about the odd sound that came when the snow finally loosened its grip on the Finnmarksvidda – a sweet, musical sound that, if you could be quiet and still for long enough, you might sometimes hear quite clearly – and, though it may seem eccentric to travel thousands of miles to hear snow melting, this sound was the real, if secret, reason for my journey. By then, I had been to the north several times and I knew that, here, what began as silence was really a nuanced fabric of faint or far off murmuring: inhuman voices on the wind; the soft, far pulse of something I couldn’t pin down coming through a stand of birch woods near Karasjoka; the cries of a drowned girl from centuries ago calling through the moans and rumblings of the Alta River at Pikefossen. This time, I was hoping to stand out on the high plain and listen to that thaw water music, but the hard cold had returned unexpectedly and, less than halfway through my walk, it started to snow, slowly at first and then, quite suddenly, in thick, quick gouts, so when I finally realised I’d somehow strayed off the trail – that I had, in fact, probably left it some time ago – I couldn’t follow my footprints back to safer ground.

For several minutes, the idea that I was lost was so absurd I didn’t quite believe it. Even when the knowledge sank in, I experienced just the briefest sensation of panic, and not for any sensible reason, but because I was supposed to be returning my car the next morning and if I didn’t get back and call home, my wife would worry. After that, I became quite calm and, though I am all too aware of how odd this sounds, I have to confess I felt something close to happiness. I was lost – though surely not very lost – on the high tundra, with snow falling around me and visibility about half what it was when I set out, and I was happy. It was only hours later, when I found myself sitting in the car, numb with cold and aching with fatigue, that I realised how scared I should have been. At the time, however, my first recognisable emotion was a quiet sense of actually being in the world, a thread of its fabric, stupid and vulnerable perhaps, but alive and more alert than I had been in a long time. Certainly, I felt more real than I ever felt at home. I was a lost creature, happily coming to his senses, even though I was in a place that I didn’t understand in the least and into which I might, quite literally, disappear. Needless to say, that exhilaration didn’t last and it really was a matter of luck that I eventually got out of there.

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