The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 25: The Sun Always Rises; or, When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
New birds:1, Journey to date: 74, and a correction
Svarthvit fluesnapper (Ficedula hypoleuca)
The Uke 23 entry noted the Varsler, I was mistaken. I did my due diligence uncovered the true identity, the habitat and warning call were the keys to the mystery.
Møller (Sylvia curruca)
Varsler (Lanius excubitor)
The Sun Always Rises; or, When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
As I held out my hand a tiny gray flake alighted. Even for Oslo, a snowflake in June is a rarity. Ah, but this was no snowflake. This was Sankthansaften – Saint John the Baptist’s Eve.
My time in Norway was getting shorter, just like the nights. Sunset at this latitude and month is so slow, the angle so oblique, that the transition from direct sun to twilight is unnoticeable. The light of the just hiding sun lingers, as if the sun feels there is too much living to be done. I go to bed late, with visible light and wake to a sun that has been up for many hours. The analogy to my time in Norway has been obvious.
I have no personal tradition of celebrating Sankthansaften. My Midwestern summers accepted earlier and complete darkness in comparison to the high latitudes, perhaps in exchange for unrelenting heat. But when in Norway…
Sankthansaften also marks the end of the school and anticipation of summer holiday, the 5-6 weeks in Norway when EVERYBODY is on vacation, preferably at a coastal or mountain cabin. Side trips to America are allowed. For Scandinavians, the evening is properly observed with sea-side bonfires, maybe a speech, and revelry. I went fishing.
My catch in Norway has been zero although my satisfaction has been great. Remember, it’s called fishing and not catching for a reason. Tonight seemed like a fitting reason to whet a line – it’s nice to invent a special reason – and give it one last go.
The species of interest now in Norway is Atlantic Salmon. The mighty swimmers are coursing from near shore feasts to natal rivers. Their transformation from saltwater creatures to freshwater fish is nothing short of amazing. Their transition back to saltwater following the spawn squares the wonder.
I would not be fishing for salmon. To fish for salmon would require a car and a special fishing license, and probably a trespass fee. I fished the sea, a free right to all in Norway.
I expected nothing in terms of a piscine catch based on previous attempts, this was no different. Contemporary fishing is about the effort, the experience; I was really trying to catch a future memory. For that that there is no daily quota.
There is nothing odd about riding the bus in Oslo with fishing gear. I like Oslo. My ride on the trusty #32 Kværnerbyen dropped me adjacent to Lysaker Brygge, it was a short walk.
Merrymakers were visible in their preparation throughout the day. I saw an unusual abundance of shopping bags marked with the distinct logo of the state liquor store, the night demanded provisions. Others disembarked the bus with me, much better dressed and destined for an overtly social occasion. I headed for the docks.
Brethren with rods in action preceded me. Long rods were their symbols of legitimacy and purpose. My kit revealed my status as an interloper, but also as no threat to their efforts.
These anglers favored floats and live bait. They seemed to me like non-native Norwegians and truly interested in catching supper. A family left with a bag of fish. I found a solitary spot and cast.
Two days earlier was the Summer Solstice. I marked the low sun of the evening with a last photoshoot of the new US Embassy and birdwalk along Lysaker River. The meteorological differences between the Iowa home and Oslo were more striking than simple statistics suggested.
Daylight in Linn County was 15 hours, 15 minutes; Oslo logged 18:50.
Sunrise CR, 5: 31 am Sunset CR, 8:46 pm
Sunrise Oslo, 3:54 am Sunset Oslo, 10:45 pm
But the truer measure went beyond the gross metrix of sunrise and sunset. Dawn awakened at 2:10 AM in Oslo and dusk at 12:29 AM. If there were stars over Røa, then I missed them.
With the abundant light it was difficult to make out all the fires that I knew ringed the fjord. The ubiquitous smell of smoke confirmed to my nose what I eyes couldn’t see. Clearly, Ola Nordmann across the bay from me was no master of a healthy flame. That “bonfire” finally smoked me out and caused my retreat.
A new location, closer to the hungry anglers and a couple of last casts for good measure. A man hauled in mackerel, scrappy and lean they were soon brained and in the bucket. I took down my pole and pit stopped at the corner market on my way to the bus. Instead of fish, I would be headed home with mineral water and candy. I was sure Meghan would be happy with my catch.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 14: Long Water Brought Low
Thanks for your patience, another late entry. A joy of spring is flowers. In particular, the little flowers that dare to risk the frost. They are not too fragrant or fancy but they are courageous. Maybe we should all strive to be spring flowers.
New birds: 7, Journey to date: 59
Gulerle (Motacilla flava)
Fjæreplytt (Caldiris maritima)
Stellerand (Polysticta stelleri)
Lunde (Fratercula arctica)
Lomvi (Uria aalge)
Alke (Alea torda)
Polarlomvi (Uria lomvia)
Long Water Brought Low
The Niagara Falls are famous, of course they are. Geology and promotion cooperated to make the sight familiar to every American whether you’ve been there or not. The volume of water is astounding at Niagara. However that is such a nebulous idea that the height of the falls are the most important. How tall? Like a mountain scorecard, the height is the key. There are higher falls. Bridalveil Falls in Yosemite is three times the height of Niagara. Thursday I traversed my tallest water-fall to date in Norway, and you’ve never heard of it. In fact no one has.
Sea level, the great equalizer of the world; the standard. In Alta Norway you are at sea level, 0 M.O.H. in Norway. That is zero Meter Over Havet, “Havet” meaning “the sea.” At almost 0 M.O.H. I unwittingly started my experience with this most tall movement of water. In fact I didn’t realize I surmounted the great height until after my journey.
Alta is connected to the inland town of Kautokeino with the Alta River. It’s a world famous destination for summertime anglers seeking large salmon that are searching for their natal sites. My destination was Kautokeino. It is a Sami-centric town deep into the Finnmark plateau, closer to Finland than the coast. Kautokeino sits at 306 M.O.H. My journey on the road upriver would follow for the most part the intended path of those piscine athletes.
You see, it is a waterfall. The water does fall from the highlands to the sea. But instead of a dramatic crash over some precipice this descent is attenuated, almost unnoticed. If you choose to, then you can notice all sorts of new things.
Finally, after three hours of cooling my heels in the Alta airport, the bus to Kautokeino was away. The estimated time was two hours and 15 minutes, about 185 kilometers, they failed to advertise the elevation. The middle of April in Arctic Norway means there is still snow, plenty of snow. But there is also the sun. The sun now has enough height and strength to melt the drives and raise the temperature. The snow puts up a fight about the temperature, it melts, slowly; it shrouds the land with vapor, a shield against solar missiles. According to the bus monitor, the water closet was open and the external temperature was 0 centigrade.
Like any respectable river the Alta forms a delta where it reaches saltwater. Here, that means the Alta fjord, the roiling waters of the Norwegian Sea wait in the distance. I find the playful bends of a river slowing delightful. Maybe the river is trying to be coy, or play with the ocean. Does water flirt? Thank you Google Maps for indulging my imagination.
It doesn’t take long to leave Alta sentrum, however I wish I got more than a glimp of the spiral-staircase spired church. We are three, two mature men, friends, sitting at the front and me, amidships and port. The surface was Highway 93, but this would be no drive from LaCrosse to Eau Claire. Time was 15:10.
In Arctic Norway there are birch and pine trees in some combination. Of course there are other genera present but your line of sight is dominated by birch and pine; usually Scots pine (pinus sylvestris) and Silver birch (Betula pendula). At 15:25 the bus was paralleling the river, only a few kilometers from the confluence. The surrounding land was covered in trees, pine and birch that reached for the sky, looking like perfectly normal second growth forests.
This highway is a major road, but even in a prosperous land it is but two lanes, today it’s mostly snow covered. The low leaden clouds have been spitting all day, mostly drops but sometimes flakes. There is little hope for photography.
Mountains hulk over road the road, were they sirens for the engineers? Perhaps, Norwegians love their mountains. The road leaves the main river for a branch that winks upstream through cleavages. 15:42, the canyon is tight and twisted, borderline claustrophobic. Icefalls cling to the cliff faces. Many are blue, in bad light they look good, to think what they look like in good light.
The driver and riders are talking freely. Earlier I was sure they were discussing me, the driver and I shared an amiable conversation before the ride. If not their conversation then it’s the hum of the bus or the radio, there is no silence within to match the silence without.
15:49, we are out of the tight canyon and in a defined valley, still with walls but not confining. The trees have changed, the pines have become few to none. Birch covers the land, dull gray limbs on white snow. The birch are curious in that they are short and thin, as if malnourished.
I learned that the birch are indeed malnourished. 16:00, we are in a land of barely rolling hills, the plateau – Finnmarkvidda. Two forces are afoot, conspiring against trees: elevation and distance. The elevation is of minor concern, but when leveraged with distance from the warming water of the coast, then trees struggle to survive. The lack of enough days above 10 centigrad condemns trees, even the hardy birch and aspen yield.
60 kilometer from Alta and about 70 to go. The stunted forest is spread thin as far as the eye can see. Time, 16:15.
The fish migrating this far would have to be strong and committed. They love “the motherland” and are fanatical about their mission to spread their seed. I wonder if the creators of the Netflix show, “The Americans,” liked to fish?
The star of the Norwegians rivers, and the star of the star river, is the Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar). For over one hundred years this muscular beast has enticed anglers to venture north. Connecting with a brute fresh from the sea must make one forget all about the cloud of mosquitoes and gnats that are attracted to the tourists. The Alta River is highly regulated, the Gallatin River is a free for all by comparison.
“Uurr,” that feeling in your gut when a vehicle lurches. The bus caught another pile of slush on the starboard side. The resistance slowed the right tires and made the bus groan.
“Salmon” is a name that invokes wonder. It’s a fish that occurred outside the centers of civilization. A food stuff reserved for the affluent, a sport controlled by the kings. Growing up, the idea of eating salmon was something reserved for the most special of occasions. Plus, I don’t think anybody dared cook it at home. A salmon fillet isn’t something you deep fry.
The men have been silent, 16:20. Perhaps they are tired? Maybe the vastness of the landscape finally caught them? Here one is really alone, there is no need to speak.
The trees are shorter and more narrow, still thinly spread to the horizon. These little birches appear darker. The snow covered landscape is covered by the dark pricks, in the low light it reminds me of an ostrich skin cowboy boot.
The coach leaves the main road to swing through the settlement of Masi. No one waits for the bus. A good number of the homes here have large animal hides tacked to their sheds and small skins hanging on porches or roofs, protected from crows and stray cats by fencing and mesh. Just driving through this land it would be easy to dismiss that much wildlife lived here, clearly the locals have found otherwise. My eyes were peeled to the windows but only crows betrayed their presence. If crows were tasty or had a good skin, then they would be hiding too.
Atlantic Salmon are a curious fish. As a Midwesterner, my idea of salmon was totally formed by childhood lessons and TV shows about the heroic salmon of the West that fought 3,000 kilometers of elevation and thousands of river kilometers only to die. If only Homer knew of this fish. But Atlantic Salmon don’t die! Their bodies change to survive in the freshwater so they can return to the ocean to gorge again. Several years later they can make another run.
The driver broke the silence. I guess he couldn’t take it, the silence from an audience. The three resume their discourse on the all the world’s problems. 17:06, on of the passengers asks if there are always so few riders for such a large bus? Yes, plainly responded the driver. The rider had a follow up question, “Why not a minibus?” This must have been an assault on the obvious and a breach of the cultural norms because the driver gave a verbous and emotional lesson as to why the large coach. He talked so quickly all I made out was something to do with having a toilet onboard.
We dropped off of Highway 93, a one lane road through the outskirts of Kautokeino. 15:13, the men leave, loaded with backpacks they walk up a side road towards some adventure. The driver beckons me to sit up at the front. I oblige, how could I resist?
We wait and watch the men walk away. Then the driver confided in me that they were from the city, he felt obliged to talk to them, to tell them about the area and make them feel at home. Lonely cultures have strong hospitality rituals.
My journey ended at the Thon, I was greeted by a fleet of hotel snowmobiles for rent. I was too tired to be interested. Little did I know I traveled a water-fall of 306 M.O.H. Such a stand alone thing would be famous throughout the world. The Finnmarkvidda in general, and Kautokeino in particular are hard places to get to, harder still to live. Here, so far and so high from the sea, the fish are visitors, the trees are unwelcome, and people do what they must.
Distance and elevation make for water to fall. With a little creativity, you can see the wonders of water-falls most anywhere, even in a place like Iowa. Let’s share stories when I move to America.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
Scotland: “eye” is for what one can see
Brand (he comes up the track, starts to descend, pauses halfway on a projecting crag and looks down into the depths)
Now I recognise the spot!
Every boat-shed, every plot,
land-slip bank, the fairway birch,
that brown pile there, the old church,
elders by the river-side, —
childhood memories that abide.
But I fancy it’s more grey,
smaller, too, than in my day;
and the over-hang, protruding
more than it had ever done,
shaves another sliver, gaining
on the strip of sky remaining,
leaning, threatening, dark and brooding, —
stealing yet more of the sun.
(sits and scans the distance)
The fjord. Did that seem, to my mind,
quite so ugly, so confined?
Patch of rain. A yawl ahead
running on a homeward reach.
South, the part the outcrop’s shading,
there’s a shack, a quay for lading,
then a farmhouse, painted red.”
From “Brand” by Henrik Ibsen, Act I.
If you like Norway then Scotland’s not too much a stretch. Pines, cold lakes, and small fishing villages hugging the rocky coasts, so much was familiar. In fact we took an epic one day bus tour (12 hours) and got to see pretty much the representative sample. Perhaps it was akin to the Norway in a Nutshell? The different was that in 12 hours you could drive over a remarkable breadth of Scotland that I don’t think would be possible in Norway. However, the payment was a thorough lashing of the kidneys on roads so rough they would be unacceptable in the Kingdom of the North.
Our small coach held about 30 passengers. The driver, Kenny, was also host, tour-guide, mascot, and hall monitor. Don’t be the last to board! Traveling North from Edinburgh we quickly bid adieu to the lowlands and began to climb. Our international party went higher and deeper into the Highlands, west of Cairngorms National Park. I was surprised how quickly most signs of human habitation atrophied. The customary cabins of Norwegian wilds were absent in like terrain; the difference between a landholding nobility and not.
The River Sprey was a welcome sight, not as visually impressive as the mountains but more famous. Scotland’s highest distillery straddled the river, like so many others that turned the swift water into spirited water.
Loch Ness lived up to its reputation. The sky was mostly cloudy though the sun managed to sneak in a ray here and a beam there. The effect on the vistas was delightful. The 90 minute stop facilitated a 60 minute ferry ride; 30 minutes to Urquhart ruins and back. A monitor in the cabin showed the depth and sonar images. Only the incredibly deep bottom with a few blips of salmon registered on the screen. Later, Kenny lamented that we were but six minutes late in seeing the monster. I’m sure he always says that.
Paralleling Loch Ness, towards the southwest, I could have been forgiven if I thought I was back in Norway, driving along the lake Mjøsa. However the absence of tunnels to smooth the route reminded me I wasn’t home in Norway. Perhaps evidence of the Scot’s legendary thrift?
On to the sea we drove. Another lake, Loch Lochy, a scale model of Ness. As we lost elevation so did the cloud deck. At the rain capital of Scotland, Fort William, we stopped for a break. In the mists hid the upper reaches of the tallest mountain in all of Britain, Ben Nevis. A formidable hulk, the mountain recently claimed two experienced climbers. Their bodies were recovered during our stay.
Refreshed and back aboard the coach, we climbed again, to the famous Glen Coe. A valley famous for epics sights, of crying mountains, beasts, and of backdrops for Harry Potter. But also infamous for the Campbell massacre. No place is fitting for a slaughter, yet the horrors of that winter morn seem too fantastic were not they true.
Climbing more, we reached the plateau and an alien world of peat and heather. The earth protested human incursions by wrinkling the road so as to rattle my teeth and test my spine. And finally as the sun fell behind the mountains so did we. Kenny steered down the river valley past Tyndrum and eventually back to the lowlands.
It was a rather melancholy ride from the lowlands to Edinburgh. The music selection was mornful; darkness fell over our route. Few of the riders were chatting, many appeared to nod off. The culprits were weariness, a smooth road, and stimulation capacity. Sad too was the end because it was over; that is, my stellar views and experiences with the family had just become memories, the past.
Scotland: “i” is for imagination
“And the fleet of little boats moved off all at once, gliding across the lake, which was as smooth as glass. Everyone was silent, staring up at the great castle overhead. It towered over them as they sailed nearer and nearer to the cliff on which it stood.” (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Chapter 6)
Scotland is layered with human history atop human history. I have joked with Norwegian teachers that in Iowa if a building is 100 years old we consider it ancient, and they think it’s relatively new. Some added to that play by noting that when they travel to the UK they might mention to new colleagues that their school in Norway is over 100 years old only to be told by their British hosts that this school is over 500 years old.
My holiday to Scotland was centered in Edinburgh, a most fabulous city. Arriving to Edinburgh airport my first introduction to the city was thoroughly modern. The conspicuous air-traffic control tower announced a commitment to high technology and progress. The double-decker express bus to the city center was then a journey back through time, 30 minutes to travel over 1,000 years.
An interstate highway pierced the first layer, post-war modernity. We cruised past dull buildings that passed for businesses. Too typically festooned with garish signage to attract attention that the architecture could not. LCD displays relayed GPS information, we neared the Gyle Shopping Centre.
Continuing forward to go back in time, turn-of-the-century row houses lined the way. The homes were tidy and compact stone or brick structures with ad hoc parking for cars; satellite dishes hung like peculiar and forgotten christmas ornaments. Edinburgh was a working city, a destination for displaced farmers from the Lowlands and crofters from the Highlands. People moved here to continue life, to move forward. And so did our bus.
Harry Potter was born in Scotland, Edinburgh specifically. J. K. Rowling took inspiration from her surroundings and experiences to create that most magical world. We ate at the cafe where she wrote the first book. Like Scotland, Rowling wove a story that wed the ancient, the fantastic, and the modern into a compelling tale. As it did for Rowling, Scotland invited me to do the same.
Our bus entered Shandwick Place circle and another era, Georgian Britain. The German-bred kings of Britain reigned over a period of industrialization and wealth. New cities were plated to both capture and reflect the prosperity and philosophies of the day: right-angle city streets and uniform architecture. The West End and New Town of Edinburgh exemplify the ambitions of those long since passed Scots and their wisdom; the old buildings still stand and thrive in a modern world.
Owen and I took a walk through New Town later in the week. The straight streets and din of traffic were familiar but the aesthetics of the buildings were not. I could imagine the wide streets free of autos, and instead traversed by horse drawn carriages. The sound, and certainly the smell would have been different. I didn’t ask Owen what he imagined, I regreted that.
Cruising east on Princes Street we passed the Scott Monument. It was a fitting transition between the New Town and the Old Town to which we were about to enter. Bus #100 reached the end of the line on the bridge and our journey back in time was nearly complete. We crossed Market Street with our backpacks to ascend Cockburn Street. The curved and climbing street took us back in time further still. The twists and turns, nooks and crannies of Rowling’s Diagon Alley were here. Cars were clearly out of place yet had muscled their way onto the street through brute force and threat of violence, taking cues from the countless public hangings in the neighborhood.
High Street, also known as the Royal Mile, denoted the journey’s end. The route was a riot of architectural splendor. Our apartment on the street has hosted souls for hundreds of years. And at the end of the street, actually the beginning, rested Edinburgh Castle. It was perched on a crag and protected the Chapel of St. Margaret. The diminutive house of prayer was built in the 12th century, the oldest building in Edinburgh.
From the ramparts of the castle all of Edinburgh was visible. Our visit was extra special in that the sun was present, illuminating a city that needed little help to amaze. The view from the primordial rock went back again through time: from Old Town and a Royal and Independent Scotland, to New Town and the cusp of the industrial revolution, and on to the horizon where a new bridge over the Firth of Forth will commemorate the 21st century.
Inspiration for the imagination, is that the old Celtic meaning for Pictland? It has inspired so many authors, Rowling most famously as of late but also Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alan Ramsay, and Elizabeth Melville. We agreed that Scotland in general, but Edinburgh in particular warranted a return visit. Who can resist a place of such creativity that made the unicorn its official animal?
An Unexpected Award: the gold I earned at the back of the pack
I followed the arc of the sun over the day while outside, it was a long day. Nearing four PM many things were clear. One, my body was suffering. Two, the sun will set. Three, I was determined to finish. And four, I was trying to enjoy my gold at the back of the pack.
“Dear Dr. Hanson, It is a pleasure to inform you of your selection by the Board of the Fulbright Foundation in Norway and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board for a grant to teach in Norway. This grant is made under Public Law 87-256, the Fulbright-Hays Act, the basic purpose of which is to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries through educational and cultural exchange.”
This letter set into motion the fulfilling of dreams. Among the many dreams to be realized with a year in Norway was the opportunity to ski in the Birkebeiner, the “real” Birkebeiner that is. As a boy I dreamed of the birkie since I first read about it in an old copy of Wisconsin Trails magazine from the mid-70’s that my grandparents had (I have it now). I skied the Kortelopet (half-Birkie) first, because of my age, and then skied the full race several times. But the lore of the American Birkie in Wisconsin was tied directly to the legend and race in Norway, so naturally I pinned for the original.
Within a fortnight of arriving in Oslo I was registered for the Birkebeinerrennet, 19 March 2016 couldn’t come fast enough. We had brought our skis so I felt confident that I would get enough on-snow training to be ready. The goal of the Birkebeiner also sharpened my ambition to run, and run, and run all over Norway, wherever my travels and teaching took me.
I was excited and apprehensive that Saturday morning. The thrill of joining the ranks of finishers got me out of bed at 4:29 AM with ease. The concern that my shoulders would give out and general skiing readiness clouded out excessive optimism. Plus, it was dark and early, there is no sense in being too happy at that time of day.
The dark morning was mild. By 4:41 I was awaiting the taxi for a 4:50 pickup. A white Prius from Norges Taxi arrived at 4:49. As I got in, another taxi, a navy wagon from the same company, pulled up. They double booked, not me.
At the Oslo Bus Terminal drop off I was happy to see many fellow skiers, just follow the herd. The locals led me to the bus and by 5:10 I was seated, port side against the window and amidships. There were a lot of middle aged white guys aboard the coach. When did I become a middle aged white guy?
The driver did a silent head count at 5:21, the sky was inviting a blue suggestion of sunrise into the dark heavens. In addition to the usual suspects there were 4-5 women aboard. Among the riders there were eager conversations, quiet routines, and bodies trying to get just a couple more minutes of shuteye.
The cabin door closed at 5:29 only to reopen for a man rushing in with a coffee and the grin of a cheshire cat. The lights went out and we pulled away. 5:30 AM, right on schedule.
An early morning bus ride awakened memories of college band trips and drill weekends in the Marines. By 7:12 AM there was a steady parade to use the toilet across from my row. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
“Good morning Rena, Norway,” I thought as we stopped to unload. A stream of contestants coursed towards the welcome building. It was like a large pole shed that housed the race packet pick up as well as a small vendor fair and cantina. I passed on an early morning hotdog.
I weighed my backpack at the hall. All racers must carry a 3.5 kg pack to mimic the weight of the baby viking king carried by the original warriors. I boarded the shuttle bus to the starting area, a 3 km journey. We left at 8:46 AM.
The sky was overcast but the mood was merry at the start. The portajohns were aplenty and the wave-by-wave starting zones well designed. Ebullient commentators broadcast enthusiasm and well wishes and for all the intrepid. I just wanted 9:35 AM to hurry up. The temperature was hovering at the freezing mark, we were burning daylight and Wave 18 was chomping at the bit. “Boom!” went the starting gun, finally.
I predicted a demanding day, the warm and course snow would be a challenge for glide and grip. But I didn’t predict the condition of the course would be so bad. In classical skiing, the track is the key to happiness. The tracks for Wave 18 were in sad shape where they existed at all.
I passed the sign, “53 km to finish” and knew I was in a for a long hard day. My skis defied physics, they had neither glide nor grip. The worse was the lateral slipping. I fought and fought to keep my skis underfoot. Soon my adductors were burning and my feet were getting bruised in their boots.
The clouds thinned and the breeze increased. The atmosphere of the event was a fusion of RAGBRAI and a Big Ten football tailgate party. The river of brightly clad skiers flowed through the woods and up the first mountain pass. Along the way, hearty revelers who camped in the woods were now basking in the sun atop their sofas of snow. A fire to grill meat and warm the spirit was ubiquitous, as were the spirits. The Norwegians make up for their work-a-day sobriety on vacation, today was the start of the Easter Holiday. I seemed to notice a bias towards Carlsberg for beer and Jagermeister for liquor. Aside from being happy to be on vacation in the glorious nature I think most of the spectators were pleased they weren’t skiing.
I got a reprieve at 10 km, the groomer made a pass and laid 4 new tracks. My stride was still labored but at least I wasn’t fighting the splits. The gift was temporary though, after about 4 km the groomer doubled back and we were all forced back to the trampled tracks of thousands.
It was a beautiful and sunny day. I managed a moment or three to shed my backpack and take pictures. There was an invisible force that none of my photos captured though, the constant headwind was an unwelcome companion.
The Birkebeiner in Norway differed from the the American copy in several ways. One, this race was classic technique only. Two, the climbs and descents were sweeping and long. Three, most of the route was over three mountain passes and quite exposed.
Some people from later waves passed me. I passed some from prior groups. But generally I found myself skiing among an increasingly familiar cadre. But I wasn’t the only one suffering. The lack of banter was but one indicator of the demanding conditions. The long lines at the aid stations were another.
Oh, the aid wasn’t for thirst or hunger, it was for skis. Techs from SWIX worked feverishly to treat the skis of the needy to give them some traction. I paused once to apply a little klister; in a battle you make arrows from any wood.
By the highpoint of the race I was two-thirds to the finish and approaching Sjusøen and the complex of trails spreading from Lillehammer. Relief. I had been on these trails before and the course would lose about 400 meters of elevation to the finish; that is, mostly downhill.
Relief soon gave way to panic as the descents at Sjusøen were steep and curved. Compounding the treacherous course was the windrows of loose snow over an icy surface, the result of thousands of snowplowing skis.
I survived the hills and I do mean survived. At this point in the journey I was not sure I would be getting up from a hard crash. And then back into the deep woods and silence as there were no spectators. Just the weary and the goal, and the gold.
Skiing into the lowering angle of the sun gave us slow movers a gold medal of our own. The solar angle was 16º The snow absorbed the warm energy and reflected a most wonderful color, a very bright and yellow gold at the edges. It was like Mother Nature and Father Time conspired to reward the back of the packers with a visual prize commensurate with our persistence.
I shuffled into the stadium grounds, 1 km to go. On the last little descent I fell for the third time, this time with a full face plant in front of a couple of ladies. Only my pride was hurt. If the announcers called my name, I didn’t hear it. I just needed to finish, I was done in so many ways.
Time! 5:03 PM. I crossed the line and managed a smile as I accepted my finisher’s pin. My official time was 7:28:31 I had hoped for five hours but I was very happy I just finished at all.
Off came my skis, uff! Somehow I managed to touch the klister and then wipe my mouth. Don’t ever let klister touch your lips! My attempt to quench the burning with a hotdog in lefse was unsuccessful.
The stadium shuttle took the smelly and bleary-eyed to Håkons Hall. I changed, retrieved my finishers diploma and wolfed down the bag of cookies I carried on the race. At 6:22 PM my bus to Oslo was underway. Too tired to rest, I watched the countryside fade away into nightfall. My mind replayed the day, all the ups and downs, but most especially the gold I earned at the back of the pack.
There is a High Price to Living By the Roads
8:28 Resistance to motion sickness nearly exhausted, I feel like I should apologize ahead of time to the girl next to me in case I have to make a dash for the door. But trapped against this window in a moving bus my options are limited. Hold on.
The bus ride from Fredrikstad to Moss was only 60 Crowns, less than $8 dollars, pretty cheap. But like so much of our modern roads and highway culture, the costs are really high. No one really likes the bus, but I don’t see how we can afford our cars. The thought of society without them makes me as unsettled as this umteenth speedbump does another number on my belly.
I rode into Fredrikstad on the train. Trains, even slow trains, I think are probably the only truly sustainable way to move about on land. Railroads and the Industrial Revolution are two heads of the same coin. They were born and grew together, often with speed and change like a matastisizing cancer.
Trains were energy suppliers of people and goods into our town and city centers. Cinders and smoke be damned – the train needs to stop downtown! I romantize that trains helped stitch together provincial settlements and regional cities into a greater national tapestry and respected the distinctions of each town to their neighbors. Not too far from the central station, the city stopped and a clear transition to rural, maybe discivilized, lands occured. Then nothing, until the next town.
Paved roads, then highway culture upset the order. The car meant the more power you had the farther you could live from the center. Free of the stations, one could get on and off the road at will. And developments of a house here and a subdivision there blurred the lines between communties, blurring their distinctions, robbing some people of their identities, and freeing others from any responsibility to any one place. Everyone who was anyone could be anywhere and nowhere at the same time. Our car culture’s genesis coinsided neatly with Heisenberg’s Nobel winning uncertainty principle.
7:30 I decided to ask for help. Google Maps had me waiting at a stop across the street from the hotel, but it just didn’t feel right. The man at the desk didn’t know for certain either but he said when in doubt go to the main stop at the shopping center. I walked a couple of icy blocks for certainty.
7:39 I expected to wait about 10 minutes for the bus to come. To my horror, there it was, waiting. If I had waited at the stop near the hotel I would have frozen to death for nothing.
7:50 We roll on schedule. The bus is almost full. Norwegian full that is, which means there is one person to every pair of seats. The next sad sack aboard the bus is going to have to ruin someone’s solitude. Radial roulette.
7:53 Another stop, more frosty passengers. This is an intercity bus but with stops liberally sprinkled along the route. By car this would be about a 30 minute drive, I’m planning on an hour.
There’s a reason to pay more for a train, LOTS of stops on this route, will have to fight the motion sick, like riding a camel.
Traffic flowing into Fredrikstad, looks like any US city, we love our cars, we can’t afford them. We hate busses, but MAYBE we can afford them.
7:55 A large backhoe digging a hole. Artificial lights frames the scene. The earth is giving up its heat, the pile of spoils is steaming like a fresh dog dropping in the snow.
In the east there is a suggestion of the approaching dawn, mostly clear skies again.
The bus is 2/3 full.
7:58 Out of town, cultivated flats covered in snow, wrapping around the woody hills gives me a double-take of the Coulee region; maybe Viroqua or Decorah will be the next stop?
I had stowed my bags out of respect, people who set their bags and kit in the seat next to them on what they know is going to be a crowded bus is a universal yet boorish move. Buy a second ticket! A young woman took the seat next to me, she’s since moved, that’s okay.
I’m reminded a little of my trip to Farsund, lot’s of highway stops.
A gaggle of kids just got on, rosy checked and about 10-12 years, they were waiting for a while.
8:03 Trying to read the papers online while riding, but it makes my head spin and stomach queazy, need to take breaks to look out the window.
Sunrise comes slowly.
8:12 Råde. Now this route rides the break between the hills to the east and the lowlands west towards the sea.
Råde, your speed bumbs are numerous and really quite the experience on a long bus, once will be enough.
Homes lines this road, a half acre here an acre plot there, not in town but clearly not farming either. A problem with paved roads is ironically the open access and freedom, gives to “takings,” something elese we can’t afford. “Takings,” is what I call the conditions when an individual leverages the public in such a way as to drain, rather than add, to the society. I choose to believe it is mostly an innocent action but the consequences last and compound beyond the original actor or intent.
I think I just got a glimpse of an inlet from the sea off to my left.
The consequence of building homes is that one person’s temporary dream and ambition becomes a permement obligation for society, think institutional raced-based housing patterns in American cities, or demands to support an expensive road for a small number of people who live there.
8:22 6 board: mother and toddler, some kids and a woman.
8:27 Full pre-dawn. A low current of clouds parallel the road to the left, maybe an indicator of the fjord?
8:28 Resistance to motion sickness nearly exhausted, I feel like I should apologize ahead of time to the girl next to me in case I have to make a dash for the door. But trapped against this window in a moving bus my options are limited. Hold on.
8:36 Stamaad car dealship, there are snow covered cars on the lot. It snowed two day ago and they are still not cleared off. I’m not in Kansas anymore.
8:39 I asked the girl next to me if she’s getting off at the Malakoff school stop? I think she said yes but then she said a school name I didn’t recognize. I’m confused, which mixed a standard dose of anxiety, and stirred by motion sickness has got me on the total edge.
8:40 A stop, I think we must be close. Lots of teens pile off. I go for it. Of course I’m the last off the bus with all my luggage. No jacket on, I just drag everything off in a huff because I don’t want to delay the bus and draw anymore attention to myself that I already feel. Plus, the frigid temps will hopefully be a balm.
Where’d all the kids go? By the time I got all my gear together and dressed, they had disappeared across the street and into the neighborhoods. Here goes nothing. I cross the street and disappear too. There is a high price to living by the roads.
The Wheels on the Bus
9:38 “Now that’s a lovely sculpture for such a remote village,” I thought as my bus rounded yet another bend. “How many bends is that?” I lost track because I never bothered to start counting. Look there, another sculpture, big and grey…and a lot like that first one I saw. Pattern.
No, these were not isolated oddities of sculpture but part of a larger display. Now I wish I had taken a picture of the first one. Alas, an iPhone picture though the window of a moving bus is such a disappointing artifact. It’s much better to just watch and enjoy. Maybe on the return trip I can be better prepared.
Destination Farsund, about as far south in Norway as you can get. And it’s not too easy a trip for the carless. Monday afternoon was a 151 kilometer train ride from Drammen to the airport. A 280 kilometer flight to Kristiansand and then a 45 minute indirect route bus ride to the hotel. The route was my error, don’t diss the bus! Tuesday morning was #900 bus from Kristiansand to Farsund to teach at Lister Vigergaenda Skole – Eilert Sundt. Got all that?
7:56 I am out the door of the Thon Hotel Kristiansand. The air was crisp, the Christmas season lighting was ablaze, and a gaze of ice coated the walks and the streets. My destination was the transportation hub, just a couple of blocks. But new territory in the dark is a recipe for unplanned detours.
7:57 An old man is in a parking lot to my left. He has a cane and is testing the patch of ice he has found himself on. I wonder if he’s stuck. I walk and watch. He shuffles a little here and a little there. It’s not locomotion but he’s not static either. I’m getting to the point of losing sight and then he makes it to the handrail. I’m relieved. Do old men on the ice ever believe they were young?
7:58 The Color Line cruise ship is leaving port. As an inlander from America, the sight of large ocean-going vessels at all, let alone so close to shore is captivating. They light my imagination.
8:00 The depot. I didn’t walk the most direct route here but I made it and it wasn’t raining: victory. The depot is old and worn. It is not old and interesting, not historically old. Just old and run down. A city as beautiful as Kristiansand deserves better. An unpleasant companion in the depot is the sound of the floor sticking and then giving way to the soles of my shoes. I don’t want to sit and I can’t stand still. So I noisily pace.
The fellow inhabitants seem to be emotionally mediated by the depot, such a quiet and sullen group. The most disheveled among us intermittently sleeps on a bench. Others take turns going outside for a smoke.
I spend my time walking amongst the self-promotional posters for the bus service and anxiously awaiting the 900 bus. It leaves from station #1. Nothing yet, I walk back into the depot.
Ah, there it is. I see it approach the other side of depot so I gather my things and head out into the chill. Nothing. It doesn’t come. Pangs of panic begin; I go back into the depot.
The bus is parked. The driver is taking a break before his scheduled time to arrive.
8:24 The driver exits the restroom and heads to the bus. I hear it rumble to life, on my way to station #1.
8:25 My debit card is good. 186 crowns and I take my seat, port side and amidships.
8:30 Without fanfare or really even a warning, we are off.
8:32 First stop, “Bellevue.”
8:37 We are eight passengers and the driver. Highway E39 winds through the west of Kristiansand. The road lies between sharp cuts in the rock. It is really like most any divided, two-lane highway in the Midwest. The bus stops that line the road are the difference.
8:39 The guy behind me moved to the back. Good. I can’t understand why he’d sit RIGHT BEHIND me in the first place.
8:40 Entering Songdalen Kommune. In America when you enter a new town you get a sign with letters. In Norway you get the letters plus a large picture of community’s symbol. It is more inviting and memorable. You can look up Songdalen’s symbol on the internet, I’m not going to tell.
8:45 Three middle school-aged kids get off. The local bus also serves as the school bus, seems like a pretty efficient system.
8:50 Pockets of flat land parallel the highway here and there. Reclaimed from road building, now repurposed as hay and grain fields. The bounty lies wrapped in white.
8:57 A saltwater inlet, deep into the forest. Cottages and boathouses are speckled about the shores. It is the quiet season, the boats wait. People have lived here for a hundreds of years. Are they ready for the sea level to rise?
8:59 Mandal Kommune, another sign, another pretty picture. The speed limit is 70 km/h. The road is a serpentine ribbon. I bet in America you could drive faster. To date, there have been no, none, ZERO child fatalities in automobiles. I’m not sure what’s more amazing: zero in Norway, or that we accept that “x” children in America will die in cars.
9:04 A raft of ducks on the small lake to the left. They are dark blobs on the water. The grey skies deny me identification. A Goldeneye duck is alone in the water near the road. A brace of swans flies overhead.
9:06 Pop radio is ubiquitous. The driver is in his 60s, does he like it or does he use it for noise? Something is playing that sounds like a bad copy of Rhiana. Maybe its just actually her without the autotuning.
9:13 A city, Mandal. We pass a car dealership, it looks like any such place in the States. The rectangular building, glass walls, agents at desks under very bright lights trying to look busy.
9:15 We are actually stopped in Mandal, I guess this is evidence of the city’s status. We are parked outside the knitting shop, “nille.”
9:18 Rolling, farewell to the bundles of yarn arrayed on the walls. So many colors, so many possibilities. I don’t have a real Norwegian sweater, but I don’t want to buy one of the commercially-made ones. I need to find a little old lady.
It should be sunrise by now. It is light enough now that you can see pretty clearly. But there is a heavy overcast. It is dim and there are no shadows.
9:29 Tiny farms, homes and cottages here and there, the work of a surveyor must be steady employment.
9:34 We pass “Tredal” factory, a manufacturer of trailer for cars. Here they are called hangers.
9:36 Hokkah Minnesota? Was that the Root River? And all these statues, clearly there’s a theme. Eureka! I spy a name on a building, Vigeland. Ah, one-in-the-same no doubt. But that’s it and we are through the town, back on E39.
9:44 A hint of blue in the sky. The overcast is thinning in spots.
9:50 A slow climb up a steep hill. More signs warning of moose, still no sign of moose.
9:53 Picked up an older lady, now we are four and the driver. We all sit in the front half. Our location is just east of Rom, along a little branch of the Lygna River.
9:56 We added a father and a young daughter at the stop in Rom. She might be four; she wants to sit ALONE!
9:58 Check, a young boy with ginger hair.
10:03 “Yeah,” yells the boy when the bus stops, they exit. Lyngdal, a big stop and exchange. We are 10 now and I’m the oldest person on the bus. The driver is new too, clearly younger than me. We pass a sculpture, a grey concrete-like rectangle, open with silhouettes for sides. What is it? I first saw this sculpture in Stavanger, then other places, now here. Do you have an answer? The road crosses an expanse of flats, atypical. An ancient flood plain?
10:09 I now imagine I’m on the road from Centerville to Arcadia Wisconsin, Highway 93.
10:10 A tunnel, 940 meters.
10:12 Tunnel number three, this one is short. Signs for Farsund camping and Farsund resorts dot the road, not long now.
10:15 Farsund, I leave the bus. The buildings are mostly white, the clouds have reclaimed the sky. Now I drag my luggage to the school. I’ll try this street.