When the stale orange of the streetlights reflecting off the stamped and frozen snow of last week’s fall finally gave way to a gentle blue glow of the nearly full moon, the sensation of leaving the safety of civilization became palpable. Though I followed the tracks of many a hiker and their hardy hounds, each step took me further into isolation. The swish of my waterproof pants and thick down coat dominated any other vibration reaching my ears through the winter cap that felt thinner than ever as the temperature dove farther below freezing. My feet tread firmly and steadily along the single-track path that cut along the natural cleavage of the thin Swedish forest. At ground level, the moonlight illuminated fields of white, peppered by the narrow trunks of the towering firs. Though the light revealed all deep into the woods, a slight anxiety perpetually brought my eyes to look around, leaving my feet to find for themselves the trail of pocked snow. Overhead, the clear sky opened to a smattering of the boldest planets, stars, and galaxies that shone through the thick moonlit atmosphere. Looking up at the tops of the trees reminded me of my vulnerability as I tread defiantly among the sedentary giants.
As I reached the top of a gently sloping ridge, the trees gave way, and a sheet of snow opened before me. The trail split: straight to the north along the forest edge toward another city whose glow could be seen on the horizon or right to the east across the field and underneath two trios of power lines topping the wooden frames that stood among the forest timber. I chose to go right, keeping my view to the north open.
As I passed under the power lines, I stopped to listen. I had to settle my breathing that had become heavy with my rapid steps. But the ceasing of my own disturbance allowed the open world to flood in. Far to the north, the rumble of a jet engine cut across the sky, telling only audibly of the travelers’ presence. The power lines above crackled with barely audible electrical shiver.
I turned to the north where the twinkling lights of the next down lit a thin cloud layer that had covered the city. Above it, the night sky faded from soft gray to the black of vast space above. The wide horizon stood open, empty, still. The stillness began to pervade as the sound of the jet engines faded away, and the night air stood quietly in the tops of the trees.
The first to move was not the animated beings of the Earth but the energy of the sky. In a pair of smudges just above the northern horizon, the atmosphere began to glow a faint green. As the nebulous shapes grew in intensity, they grew in size and connected in a wide band that became more defined as it became larger. The upper edge grew sharper and then began to dance. It rippled from west to east like a curtain pulled rapidly aside by some invisible celestial hand. When it rippled back again, it spread to the west, growing there and fading on the opposite side. In a powerful curl, it darted across the distant sky, covering leagues in one effortless stride. The shape burned in a vivid display, but only for a moment. The ribbon faded from the east, and the thick haze of the atmosphere swallowed it up almost as quickly as it had appeared.
I stood beaming at the empty, still scene. I smiled brightly and fully, consumed by the joy of catching this fleeting glimpse of the aurora. The knowledge of being completely alone, kept company by neither man nor beast, amplified the passion of the moment. I smiled and I laughed. I laughed loudly and heartily, sincerely and unafraid. And then I began to sing.
Waves crash down upon our minds,
like the steady rhythm in our hearts,
That keeps us alive so we may find,
Where it is that we belong…