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Chasing Aurora

02 February 201809:23PMviking-raidtravel

Why do we travel?

When I told work I wouldn't be available from the 27th of December 2017 until the 20th of January 2018, I said - and I quote - "I'll be in the frozen north, chasing the Aurora Borealis." Above everything else, that was what I wanted to see.

The surface of our planet is wrapped around a magnetic core, six sextillion spinning tonnes of iron engine, converting the slow burn of nuclear decay into heat, motion, and a sprawling tangle of magnetic fields.

Separated by six thousand kilometres of rock and metal, and another hundred and fifty million of open space, is our sun. That's a different kind of nuclear engine, one powered by creation rather than decay. Deep inside the sun, two atoms become one - well, one and some change - and that stream of leftover particles is our light, our heat, our solar wind.

Across the gulf of space and through an entire planet's worth of mass, these two engines lock together at our planet's poles. No - that's too mechanical. They dance together. The interaction of the impossibly deep and the unimaginably distant sets the the sky between them on fire.

A pilgrimage to the sublime

Every journey, I would argue, is about looking for something. Seeking something. In this case, I think I was travelling to feel humbled. Maybe even insignificant. To feel awe, and a little dread. Also, arguably, to feel cold. The Northern Lights were my shining example, but they weren't the only big impressive thing I sought out there.

Which is probably for the best, since I didn't see them. Not for lack of trying, either. Every clear night I got, I stayed up past my bedtime. I set alarms for midnight and went outside in subzero temperatures. It was never a sure thing - we were waiting for earth weather and space weather, two notoriously chaotic systems, to align. And this time they didn't.

So does that mean I failed?

I mean, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little disappointed. Especially since Lochie stayed up there, and saw them about two weeks after we got home. But that doesn't mean I didn't find that thing I was chasing. I found it in the mountains and the glaciers and the mist-shrouded geothermal vents. I found it in the rugged highlands of Skye and the winding roads threaded through them. I found it in an astonishing variety of waterfalls, lagoons, lochs, and other large bodies of water. I found it in the age of dying ruins and the vitality of living cities.

Travelling To or Travelling From?

Our Viking Raid didn't bring back treasure. It didn't bring back astonishing new discoveries. It didn't even bring back stunning pictures of the Aurora. But it did bring back the most important prize of all: Perspective.

Hold on, let me remove my tongue from my cheek.

Let's not labour under the illusion that this was anything more than a holiday. I've been trying to avoid that word, substituting 'trip' or 'travels' or 'adventure' - but that's what it was. A burning desire to get away from it all and feel dwarfed by the majesty of nature is just as much a holiday as getting away from it all and watching your troubles drift away on the beach. Wrapping it up in the trappings of adventure makes it more palatable, and it's an essential part of the illusion, but it doesn't change the nature of the thing. It's all escapism. This is just escapism with a Romantic twist.

I chased this particular brand of escapism because, after four years in the same job and two degrees at the same university, I wanted to be reminded that the everyday bullshit doesn't matter. Which is absurd. I'm so lucky to be able to do this. I have a job that won't mind me just not showing up during one of our busiest times. I'm lucky to live somewhere education is accessible enough for me to casually pick up another degree. There are people for whom comfortable stability is the thing you chase, and change and 'adventure' is what you desperately want to escape. Everyday bullshit isn't a curse, it's a blessing.

One day, I'd like to travel with purpose. I'd like to travel in a way that I can legitimately call it 'travel', maybe even 'adventure', and not 'holidaying'. I'd like to be making something, or learning something, or discovering something, or sharing something.

Until then, though, comfortable stability plus adventurous holidays is still a pretty freaking awesome thing to be able to do.

This has been Viking Raid. Thank you for joining us.

northern lights over a frozen lake. photo by lochie

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