The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 9: Signs and Trails
Top of World! I’m writing these words from our planet’s most northern city, Hammerfest. This is my new record for latitude and longitude. Sun had set by the time I landed so the wonders of this oasis in the arctic will have to wait another day.
New birds: zero
Signs and Trails
Whoosh, I’m trying this at home, err…on my skis. I suppose I feel at home on my boards. The speed, the wind in my face, the sights flashing past my eyes, and the occasional rumble of my skis. I feel so free.
But upon reflection, I was not free. No, not barreling down that hill, not at any time during the entire jaunt, never free. As testament to how contrived my run down the hill was, this was actually my second run. During my first descent I realized this would be cool to film skiing down past the Olympic stadium, so up I climbed to run it again (note, the “short” video was too long to load).
The Friluftsliv beacons me as a concept; it’s an ideal. And yet, the pursuit of Friluftsliv probably isn’t attainable for me. Perhaps it is more analogous to a journey than a destination. Yet, pursue I shall, mediated by signs and trails.
I dragged my skis along on this trip to Lillehammer. This visit was much anticipated. One, I would get to give lectures to education students at the local university. Two, I would give the lectures with my friend, brother-from-another-mother, and fellow Rover, Andy. Three, I was glued to the television in 1994 watching the Olympics and eating up everything Norway that NBC was willing to dish out. My heros skied in Lillehammer, and now I would too.
For 30 kroner I caught the city bus up the mountain, I think that’s pretty good as lift tickets go. My destination was the Birkebeineren stadium, but in true Norske fashion, the bus doesn’t actually take you there. Too decadent perhaps. Rather, you literally got dropped off on the side of the road, at a seemingly random blue sign, into a snowbank. Next, clamber over the bank onto a trail, and then to ski to the stadium. Still a small price, and frankly a much more romantic way to get to the stadium and the faded echoes of olympics past.
My arms were still killing me from last week but Lillehammer called and I was damn sure gonna answer. The sun had fallen behind the mountain but there was plentiful light to take a small lap around the Abbortjernet lake loop. I just had to get back to the road in time to make the 6:30 bus or it would be a very dark and long walk to the hotel.
People were skiing but not too many, just the way I liked it. I skied out of the stadium area and onto the Birkie trail. Let’s chalk this up to research. A familiar “Powerline” stretch and a series of right turns took me back in due time. Homework complete, I only had to wait for Thursday for my longer effort, and hopefully with more functional arms.
Later than intended but outfitted with spiffy new skiing glasses with the tilt-up lenses, I paid my 30 kroner and ascended to the stadium again. We were three on the #6 bus, I was the only skier. What do the locals who don’t ski do during the winter? The noise and vibrations from the chains on the tires were comforting, a bus on these roads demanded confidence.
The heavy overcast probably looked flat and especially cold, unless you were on skis and reveling in the surroundings. A couple of young men were practicings biathlon. There was no special fencing or warning. In Norway they trust you to make good decisions and then live with the consequences; i.e. if there are guys shooting guns then keep your distance. There would be no one to sue if you got shot.
My new app, Skisporet, helped me plot a reasonably adventurous course up and around a mountain. However, my ability to read maps (when you’re out of cell-phone range) has been found to be God awful in Norway. My apologies Senior Drill Instructor Sgt. Dominguez.
Despite my effort to read the signs, the trail seemed to take me where the trail wanted to go. On I skied. A light snow of large wet flakes hushed the woods and gave me a sense of solitude to a greater degree than was accurate. Within 20 minutes I had stripped off my windbreaker and heavy wool sweater. Without wind, a wool undershirt sufficed to keep me warm enough.
The signs pointed me towards Sjusøen and I followed. I skied at Sjusøen in December, I didn’t realize how close it was to Lillehammer. On this side of the valley is a world of well-groomed and interconnected ski trails. My head spins at all the possibilities of adventure, I lifetime might not be enough.
I stayed on the trail. I kept to the right side of the wide groomed surface bordered by parallel lines for traditional skiers, coming and going. Frequently I met a senior citizen from the other direction, I always gave a smile and I always got one in return. Several times I was passed by a silver-haired streak, that made me smile too.
The trail split, to the left was towards Sjusøen, higher and farther from Lillehammer, but with an aura of mystery and potential. Right was clearly a more direct path to my starting point. Discretion being the better part of valor, I skied left. The signs and the trail were clear.
I was lucky I missed my turn for the higher mountain because this area of trails rested on a shelf. So while on a mountain, the trails were paradoxically level. The trails were well marked and I supposed if you had to ask for help then it would come freely.
There were signs and trails that contrasted with the manicured scene. On occasion a narrow path darted into the woods, a sign to seemingly nowhere: an ungroomed trail.
While Ola Nordmann may have a reputation for taking to the wilds, at least here those side trails were usually covered with untrammeled snow. Are they really trails if no one takes them? Do the signs matter?
Another sign that caught my attention was a antler rubbing on a young pine. The orange of the bruised tree called out amongst the common backdrop of evergreen and white. This was a sign, but to where? The trail had long since been covered with snow. Did the perpetrator stumble upon this opportunity for dendographic violence or was this tree on a path, its destiny decided?
Trails in the woods, paths for exploring, and accompanied by signs, do they set us free? Thousands of people will pass point X on this trail this year. But how many people will ply the snow just 10 feet off the trail? Probably none.
Norwegian language has a wonderful way of combining words rather matter-of-factly to create a new word. So, Friluftsliv was created from three words: Fri, free; luft, air; liv, life. The Free Air Life was an apt neologism, and spoke to the ideal and ambition of people to live large in nature. But the word hides in plain sight a limitation, the impossibility as a mortal human-primate to achieving the goals of Friluftsliv. The air is the domain of birds, and we are stuck to the ground with our feet. In three dimensions and without trails or signs birds alone may come the closest to living Friluftsliv, the rest of us will continue to dream and to rely on signs and trails.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.