SI Vault
William Johnson
November 16, 1970
The silence is supernatural. The days are dark and bitter cold, with an eerie twilight at noon. A relentless wind screams off the Norwegian Sea, inducing the melancholies of March. It is too frosty to fish, the drinks are overpowering and the food is weird. Having wonderful time. Wish you were here.
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November 16, 1970

Icy Adventures Of A Viking Grandson

The silence is supernatural. The days are dark and bitter cold, with an eerie twilight at noon. A relentless wind screams off the Norwegian Sea, inducing the melancholies of March. It is too frosty to fish, the drinks are overpowering and the food is weird. Having wonderful time. Wish you were here.

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To drive the Arctic Highway through Finnish Lapland, the Viking Grandson rented a Hertz car at the airport at Lulea, Sweden, one dim and snowy Saturday morning and departed in rather a dispirited condition. The night before I had spent in Kiruna, Sweden, the iron-mining capital of Scandinavia. I had skied, briefly and not well, beneath an orange full moon on a floodlit mini-mountain slope that rose improbably in the center of downtown Kiruna. Then I had drunk wine at the sleek new Ferrum Hotel, slept badly because every miner in Kiruna seemed to be at a party in the next room, and risen at a stupefying early hour to catch the SAS flight to Lulea. I had no idea what I would find traveling over something called the Arctic Highway in the dead of winter. Snowdrifts? Reindeer traffic jams? Dogsleds? Rich Lapps in Jaguars? Well, I did not know, but I had gotten it in my mind—somehow—that I wanted to celebrate a Saturday night in Lapland. Saturday night in Lapland. It had a surprisingly pleasant ring to it, a poetic logic that was appealing. So I set out in this gold Volvo sedan, and in the thin morning light, while a gauzy curtain of snow drifted over Sweden, I drove quite easily into Finland, through Haparanda and Tervola and Koivu and Rovaniemi and past Kumputunturi.

The road rolled out in magnificent condition, a wide ribbon better kept than, say, in Nebraska or Maine or even Minnesota during a hard winter. Snow had been cleared, gravel laid over icy spots. Traffic was almost nonexistent. Occasionally a gigantic truck, hauling huge double-trailers heavy with fresh-cut logs, thundered past, a great plume of snow powder rising in its wake. A few people appeared along the road, most of them dressed in funereal black clothing and some gliding along on little kick-sleds. There were small gray farmhouses scattered along the way and an occasional store.

Mostly there was nothing but that strangely delicate-looking black pine forest, the snow, the red-and-yellow signs warning that reindeer may appear at any time. The light was oddly evanescent, uncertain, almost eerie in its changing effects. For at any time it could subtly shift from an opaque winter gray to a kind of luminescent shimmering green or to a promising pale gold, as if the sun were about to burst out, or to a cold twilight blue, as if night were nigh. What made it so peculiar was that all of these light changes occurred while a steady film of snow was falling. The shiftings kept up, morning, noon and afternoon, until it suddenly fell dark—as if a shutter had slammed closed.

Just before this abrupt dusk, the Viking Grandson arrived at Laanila, which seems on the map to be a town but is actually only a ridiculously modern lovely lodge set in the frosty forest primeval 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. I went to the bar, a gleaming plastic surface attentively served by a maid in a miniskirt, and ordered a Scotch on the rocks. But despite the slick and familiar look of things, English is not so readily handled in Finland as in other Scandinavian lands, and the barmaid looked sad and puzzled. A man one barstool down made the necessary translations, then leaned over and introduced himself—Valttori was his name, he said; air traffic controller at nearby Ivalo, the northernmost airport in Finland, was his game. I asked Valttori if many Americans visited here and Valttori replied, "Negateef! Negateef! No! Normal systems here for tourist business is other Finns. Sometime Germans, Belgians, French." Then his eyes grew red and his nostrils flared. "Never Russians! Never! They closest neighbors, but negateef!" His fist crashed on the bar. The Viking Grandson soothingly changed the subject and asked Valttori about Saturday night in Lapland.

The air traffic controller rolled his eyes, grinned widely and said, "Biggest parties always Saturday nights. All systems normal on Saturday means we celebrate!" But first, said Valttori, it was "normal system" to take a Saturday-night sauna.

During the sauna, Valttori entertained with stories of people who had died in saunas because they had not known how much heat their bodies could take. "Heart stops when sauna too hot," he said. Yet he insisted a "Real-Finn" (it was said as if it were one word) had to withstand certain high-level temperatures to be a man. He kept pouring dippers of water on the rocks; each raised the temperature of the sauna noticeably, until Valttori peered at a thermometer on the wall and cried exultantly that it had reached the proper level for a "Real-Finn"—120° centigrade. Suddenly, the meaning of the number dawned on me—and I noticed at the same instant that my skin had turned approximately vermilion. On the centigrade scale, water boils at 100°; 120° was—good God!—I leaped frantically out of the sauna, giving up all claim to Real-Finhood.

Once I had stopped tingling, I asked Valttori if a "Real-Finn" would now do the post-sauna act of rolling in the snow or dropping through the ice into a lake. Valttori barked: "Negateef! That is for tourists. Real-Finns take cold shower."

Saturday night in Lapland proved to be vaguely similar to Saturday night in, say, Laramie, Wyoming. The lodge was obviously the swinging spot for the immediate Arctic. The single girls, heavily made-up around the eyes and given to shiny ruby lipstick, arrived in small coveys—without dates. They sat together in groups at tables around a small dance floor. The men, both young and old, arrived in pairs or trios. They swaggered about poking each other in the ribs and guffawing among themselves over jokes. Their hair glistened with oil. Of course, there were several tourist couples who were staying at the lodge, but mostly, Valttori said, the crowd had drifted down from Ivalo.

The music was from a jukebox—a Rock-Ola 440 Stereo. Even though there were some solid Finnish tunes—Markku Aro belting out Taken Yli and Olavi Kivikoski with Pitkin tai poikin—there were also some hot items by the Rolling Stones, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Engelbert Humperdinck. A drink favored by the barmaids was a mixture of vodka, gin, green crème de menthe and a cherry. It was not very Real-Finn; its name was La Dolce Vita.

About 9 p.m., when there was a lot of dancing under way and most of the town girls had had at least one turn around the floor (Valttori was very chivalrous), there suddenly appeared in the doorway a small, bald, rather elderly man. The Ivalo girls applauded and the Ivalo men shouted lusty greetings at him. "Oh," said Valttori, "it is Jussi. He is chief reindeer herder." Jussi was dressed in a black tunic with a hood, knee-length trousers, heavy woolen socks and pointy-toed moccasins made of reindeer hide. Looped tightly over one shoulder, across his chest and under the other arm, was a lasso.

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