Anybody that knows me knows that I believe travel is a transformative experience meant to indulge all five senses, an experience that makes life richer and fuller. I really do love every part of the travel experience, but there are some moments experienced while travelling that stand out above the rest. I recently experienced a number of those “stand out moments” while in Kiruna Sweden chasing the Northern Lights with my youngest Son Noah.
Any Northern Lights (aka Aurora Borealis) hunter knows that to see the Northern lights you have to go….well, you have to go north. Now technically, you can also see the Lights in the southern hemisphere (where they are called the Aurora Australis), but to see these you have to be in Antarctica, a continent that I would one day like to visit but a place that has a decidedly under-developed tourist infrastructure. So, north it was for us. For many years, my son and I had wanted to experience the Northern Lights and the year prior we actually took a trip to Tromso in Norway where we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the lights through it was very faint and short lived. We left Norway happy that we had at least seen the Northern Lights (albeit for only 15 seconds) but we were also disappointed that we really didn’t get that full Northern Lights experience.
No parent likes to see their child disappointed, it just runs counter to our inner drive to make sure that life brings them nothing but the best at every turn. My youngest son however has Aspergers Syndrome and rightfully or wrongfully I have always felt just a little bit more protective of him. I’ll admit that this is probably my way of trying to make right some perceived cosmic wrong, my unconscious over compensation for a world that doesn’t always see him or treat him the way that it should. Now, for those of you that don’t know, many children with Aspergers (and other Autism spectrum disorders) tend to fixate on random things (for years Noah’s fixation was tornados and storms), so when my son began to fixate on seeing the Northern Lights, I really wanted to make that happen for him. Sure, we had a great time in Tromso but I still felt like fate and I had been unable to deliver what he wanted.
So fast forward one year and here we were standing on at least three feet of densely packed snow in the literal middle of nowhere. It was the middle of February in the arctic circle so you can likely imagine that the weather was shall we say a wee bit nippy (and by nippy I mean well below zero and we are talking Fahrenheit NOT centigrade!).
We were part of a really cool photo tour that provided each of us with professional cameras, a quick tutorial on the essentials of night and specifically Lights photography and a warm traditional Sami overcoat.
As we stood with about ten other tourist (mostly Japanese) in this desolate wide open field all we could do was wait…..and wait …….and wait some more. Our guide kept us all entertained with traditional stories as we sipped hot chocolate and nibbled on warm cookies in the warmth of a warm traditional Sami tent when the weather got too cold to be outside for extended periods of time.
The night was definitely enjoyable but as the hours waned on, I began to feel a heavy sadness with the thought that once again fate was not on our side. Tired of sitting in the tent, the group decided to head back out into the open field to once again scan the vast dark sky that was in such stark contrast to the white landscape. As my son and I stood once again in the dark night starting to shiver, it happened. A faint but distinct green halo started flickering erratically across the sky to our left. The entire group erupted in excitement as we pointed our ready cameras towards the developing light show. Though the lights were not overly bright, they were definitely there.
My excitement (hey, I’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights too) was magnified a hundred-fold when I saw my sons face. His eyes were as wide a saucers and he had a smile bigger than any I had seen in a long time. He was clearly happy (which of course made me happy) but still I wanted more. More for him. Deciding I better memorialize this moment on film, I turned to my camera and started clicking away. After a few minutes and literally hundreds of photos, I heard my son give a huge gasp as I felt his little hands tugging at my sleeve. Dad look! he said with a tone that let me know there was either something really good (like more Northern Lights) or something really bad (like a mountain lion perched and ready to strike). I will grant you that northern Sweden probably does not have mountain lions but hey, I’m a dad and all parents are allowed to have totally unrealistic fears when it comes to the safety of our children. As I pulled my head away from my camera, I could see that the previously white blanket of snow was now a very distinctive green. As I looked skyward, I witnessed a lights show more spectacular than anything I ever imagined was possible.
For anyone that has not experienced the Northern Lights (and if you haven’t you must put that on your bucket list), the lights look like a dancer whose movements are perfectly choreographed in an ironically erratic un-contained way. There were colors of green, yellow and purple moving across the blackness of the sky like silk sheets blowing in the wind. Unlike our previous experience, this show went on and on and on as I alternated between snapping pictures and just holding my sons hand as we both gazed towards the heavens.
So, why was this a travel moment that changed my life? Well, on a very basic level, the Northern Lights are one of God’s and nature’s most spectacular displays, hands down! Being a part of something so phenomenal fosters a feeling of oneness with the universe that you just don’t feel on a Wednesday afternoon sitting in your cubicle waiting for your Hot Pocket to cool down. On a deeper level however, for those twenty or so minutes, my son wasn’t the middle child with a condition most people can’t even spell much less pronounce. He wasn’t the kid with a future many consider uncertain. He wasn’t the boy who has a hard time socializing with other children and he wasn’t the child who sits on the stoop watching his siblings play games and sports that his poor muscle tone and lack of coordination prevent him from playing. No, in that moment he was my bright, beautiful middle son who for once was getting exactly what he wanted from the universe. In that moment neither of us had a care in the world, all of our problems were problems for another day. In that moment my beautiful baby boy had finally been allowed to pull one of life’s long straws.
Of course like all the nights that preceded this one and all the night since, that night too came to an end. Though the night ended and we eventually flew back to all the problems and worries of our daily lives, the memories and emotions of the night he won will forever be fresh in my mind and heart. This is why that cold night in the wilderness outside of Kiruna, Sweden is one of the travel moments that changed my life!