MY FIRST JOURNEY TO NORWAY BEGAN WITH AN ACCIDENT that almost killed me on the deck of a deep-sea fishing boat.
It was the summer of my first year at university. I had traded my Harris Tweed jacket, the musty smell of Sterling Library, and the sound of the Whiffenpoofs crooning at Mory's in New Haven for jeans pockholed with welding sparks, the reek of gutted fish and the constant rolling hammering of diesel engines.
The boat was a scallop dragger; a ninety-foot Western rig out of Wanchese, North Carolina, which came up to Newport, Rhode island, every summer. The captain was a balding, round-faced man named Billy, whose temper was so fierce that he had a reputation for losing half his crew every time he came back to port.
It was my third trip. We were two days out on a ten-day voyage, working five hours on, four hours off, without a break to this routine. After a while, you lose track of how long you have been gone. You learn that time runs differently when you are out of sight of land. The quicker you settle into a routine, the less punishing it becomes. You wander through daydreams so intense that you wake up surprised to find yourself out on the water.
Besides cutting out the scallops, which we hauled up in two huge steel dredges, my job at the end of every watch was to go below deck to the freezer room. There, I would chop out slots in the ice for the linen bags in which we stored the rubbery scallop meats.
It was hot up on deck. If you left your rubber boots out in the sun, they would stick to the iron deck plates. Whenever someone had to go down into the engine room, another person had to stand up at the top of the ladder. This was to make sure the one who went down to deal with the monstrous Caterpillar engines did not pass out from the heat.
I was always glad to get down into the ice room. The first thing I did was scoop up a handful of the near-freezing water that sluiced back and forth across the concrete ice room floor and wash the sweat of my face. This was about the only chance I had to be alone, and the cold would jolt me from the waking dream that filled my days when I was out to sea.
The ice room was my own tiny kingdom. I had chopped a seat into the wall of the ice, and when the work was done I would sit there for a while, like an emperor on a throne, surveying my frozen domain.
If it was stormy, waves would sometimes spill into the ice room. Then the place would fill with condensation and I would find myself enveloped in a fog so thick I could not see from one end of the room to the other. I had been warned by my watch mate, a veteran fisherman named Arneson, always to wait until both of the dredges were on deck before climbing back up the ladder. The dredges were sixteen feet across at the base and weighed as much as a small car. In rough weather, they would swing across the deck and crash together like giant cymbals.
On this day, I had just finished bedding down the scallops in their cocoons of ice. The boat pitched and rolled in the swells of an oncoming storm. I stood at the base of the ladder, hearing the whine of the winches as they hauled up the dredges. They had been down deep. There were rumors on our watch that we were out by the continental shelf, but we never really knew where we were. The captain liked to keep it secret where we fished, so he could keep his prized scallop beds to himself.
I heard the dredges clank against the side, then a rattle as the hooks were set to lift them onto the deck. I waited for the crashes as the both dredges came to rest on the deck plates, then climbed quickly up the twelve rungs of the ladder. I stuck my head up out of the hatch. All I can remember thinking is, "Where is the sky?"
The next thing I knew, I was back down in the ice room. I was on my hands and knees, spitting out sand. I had no idea what I was doing there and could not understand why I wasn't up on deck. I felt as if someone were playing a practical joke on me. As I was trying to get back on my feet, I noticed that the inch-deep water which covered the ice room floor had turned pink. Looking down at my chest, I saw that I was covered in blood.
Only then did I grasp that something was wrong with me, but I had no sensation of pain. My body hummed the way a sewing machine does before the needle jabs. I started shaking. Slowly, I lifted up my T-shirt. There was a bruise on my right side, the skin blotchy from blood vessels burst beneath the skin. But the skin itself was unbroken. I began to explore my arms, then my legs, hunting for the source of the blood.
When, I touched a hand against my face, my right index finger went straight through the lower part of my cheek and touched the hard, slippery surface of my jawbone. Then I realized it was not sand I had been spitting out. It was my teeth.
When Arneson came to find out what had happened, he found me crawling around and trying to gather up the fragments of broken bone. He came down the ladder and tried to get a look at the wound in my face, but I pushed him away and told him to help me find my teeth. I must have fainted then, because the next thing I remember is Arneson trying to carry me up the ladder. Then I fainted again and woke up in my bunk with Captain Billy breathing in my face.
He asked me how I felt and I said I was fine. When he asked me if I could still work, I told him I could. I said all this because I wanted everything to be back to normal. If I went back to work, it would be a sign that things weren't serious. Also, l was new on this crew, and knew that injuries were common among fishermen. I had been shown the scars of everything from bullet holes to shark bites to the marble-smooth bumps of places where fingers had been. I didn't want to quit.
I asked Arneson what the hell had happened to me. He explained that one of the dredges had been safely on the deck, but the other one had bounced and was still swinging through the air when I stuck my head above the hatch. The corner of the dredge hit me in the face, shoving back my jaw and shearing off my rear teeth. Later, a dentist told me that my jaw had probably been dislocated, but that striking the floor of the ice room must have relocated it.
It took two days for the sewing machine hum to leave my body. By that time I had learned that only my back teeth were broken. I could not close my mouth, or a feeling exactly like biting a piece of tinfoil when you have fillings would jab into my brain. I could find no way of bandaging the hole in my cheek, so I just dabbed it with iodine every time I went out on watch, staining my face jaundice yellow.
The biggest problem was that I could not chew my food. The cook, an old black man named Carlton, fixed me grits for every meal. I found that if I mashed cooked vegetables with a fork and stirred it into the grits, I could get it down.
We stayed out for another week, and I had all the time in the world to think about the damage that had been done. Running my tongue along the once-smooth line of my back teeth was like licking the rim of a broken pottery mug.
At first I tried to convince myself that it wouldn't cost much to put me right. The more times I played it over in my head, the less of a problem it all seemed to be. If I had gone on dreaming like this, I would probably have broken down completely when it came to learning what was actually required.
It was Arneson who kept me sane. He told me it looked bad. It would take surgery to fix me up and the fact that I was not in a lot of pain meant that some of the broken teeth were dead. They would have to be root-canaled. He quoted Nietzsche, saying that what had failed to kill me would only make me stronger. Initially, I took this for nothing but cruelty, but slowly I began to understand that he was helping me. Once he felt sure that I had faced the facts, he worked to keep my mind off' my troubles. We would lie in our bunks, which were like coffins with one side pulled away, and he would tell me about his childhood home in Norway, in a place called Andalsnes.
Arneson had emigrated with his parents in the late 1950s, but had never been back. When I asked him why, he had trouble finding an answer. He knew the reason well enough, but was nervous about putting it into words. For him, the whole of Norway had settled in his mind into a place of such fantastic beauty that he was afraid to return, in case the reality turned out to be a sad departure from the dream he had made for himself. It was as if the real Norway of his childhood had sunk beneath the strange green water of the fjords and a new, magical world had risen in its place. Out here on this floating slaughterhouse where he made his living, the magical place was worth more to him than what might be the truth.
I understood exactly how he felt, and told him about my own family, who are all from the southwest corner of Wales. They live scattered among the windswept beaches and purple-heathered hills of places with names like Abergwaun and Dynbich-Y-Pescod. My parents emigrated from there around the same time as Arneson's, and although I was not born in Wales I visited there often. In between visits, I felt the almost tidal pull of a bloodline woven into the fabric of all things Welsh. The longer I spent away from Wales, the more beautiful the place became in my mind. How dreary it was on those occasions when I visited, as the westbound train trundled in the rain through Cardiff station, to feel the dream made ludicrous. Eventually, the dream would return. It always did. But each time it was more of a dream.
I could not blame Arneson for keeping such a fantasy alive. His descriptions of the mountains rising thousands of feet sheer out of the fjords removed me so completely from the clamor of the engines and the dangerous monotony of dredges and knives and my staggering path across the storm-pitched deck that I promised myself I would go there. To Andalsnes. To see for myself.
In the meantime, with thoughts like this out in the open, we had no choice but to laugh at our confessions. We called ourselves the Deep-Sea Dreamers, and looked with quiet pity on the men whose minds and bodies remained anchored to this unforgiving iron boat.
Almost every night, just as I was drifting off, I would be jolted awake by the sensation of something lunging at me, as if I were being attacked. I had no idea what it was or what to make of it. I told myself I was just tired of being out on the water.
The same day Captain Billy headed south, I boarded a plane bound for Oslo. From there I'd make my way to Andalsnes.
By then, most of Arneson's predictions has come true. Surgery. Root canals. Porcelain and gold crowns. Thousands of dollars in medical bills. During all those hours in the dentist's chair, through the sound of drills and the bitter taste of novocaine trickling down the back of my throat, the promise to visit Andalsnes had glimmered in front of me with the holographic vividness of a Holy Grail. I hoped Arneson was as right about the beauty of the place as he had been about the damage to my teeth.
I'd had no time to read up on Norway, and what I already knew wasn't much. In between fishing trips, my time on land had usually been spent asleep, with the ocean still rocking like a ball bearing in the white dish of my skull. I didn't mind that I knew so little about where I was headed. In fact, it seemed better not to know. It was like walking toward a mirage, which was exactly how my time on the boats had begun to seem-a flicker of images fragmented by the smashed-glass glitter of light on water. I was leaving one dream and heading toward another.
TWO MONTHS LATER, with a few weeks still to go before the start of the new school year, Captain Billy told us he was heading back to the Carolinas. The hurricane season was coming. Soon it would be flailing at New England with its dreaded nor'easters, and a few boats always went down this time of year. That meant the end of work for his Newport-based crew. For me, it came just in time. Since the accident I had not been sleeping well.
THE GLASS AND STEEL and blonde wood structure of Norway's Gardemoen Airport seemed to radiate a sense of calm. Airport personnel rode up and down the concourse on two-wheeled scooters. They moved with the dignity of swans across a lake, aloof and detached from us travelers, who blinked the jet lag from our bleary eyes.
I stepped off the airport express train at the Oslo Sentralstasjon just in time to board another bound for Andalsnes. I barely had time to notice the city as our dusty red wagons clanked out into the countryside. It was a bright morning as I traveled up the gently rolling Gudbrandsdal valley, skirting the jade green water of Lake Mjosa. The fields had already been cut, and the honey-colored stubble took on an almost liquid quality in the late summer light. For the first time in as long as I could remember, my mind was at peace.
The closer we came to Andalsnes, the more the gentle ground gave way to steeper slopes as mountains closed in on the valley. The wide, still water of Lake Mjosa was replaced by the whitecaps of the River Lagen. In place of the modern buildings I had glimpsed as we passed through Lillehammer and Hamar, I now saw farmsteads with turfed roofs and tarred-log walls. Waterfalls plunged out of the rocks, haloing us in rainbows.
I thought, No wonder Arneson didn't come back. It would be all too easy to persuade yourself that you had imagined a landscape like this. I found myself trying to memorize the names of places we passed through-Otta, Vinstra, Dombas-as if to fend off' a lingering uneasiness that I might blink and find myself back on the boat, with nothing more than a strange dream to tell Arneson when we next went out on watch.
It took almost six hours to reach Andalsnes, by which time the vertically rising mountains of the Romsdal valley had split the landscape between daylight and the dusk of shadows.
Everything I had brought with me was jammed into an old canvas rucksack, including a flimsy one-man tent, too many books, and a mess kit dating back to the First World War.
Descending from the train, I shouldered mypack, whose once-brown leather straps were stained almost black by the sweat of previous travels. I asked a sleepy stationmaster how far it was to the campsite.
He was sitting on a bench, arms folded across his dark blue-uniformed chest, thoughtfully twitching his mustache as if trying to dislodge it from his upper lip.
"Perhaps half an hour?" I asked, hoping to jog his mind into action. His chin jerked upward. "No," he said decisively, but that was all. He aimed his arm toward the river, looking like the ghost of Christmas Yet To Come showing Scrooge his own gravestone.
Andalsnes was smaller than I'd thought it would be, and more modern in its appearance. I wondered how much it had changed since Arneson's time. Hiking toward the edge of town, I passed rows of unimpressive, functional-looking houses. This architecture seemed almost an act of surrender-as if the mountains were so overshadowing that nothing could be done to compete with their presence.
I crossed the Rauma River to the Andalsnes campsite, which fanned out across a field at the edge of the water. After pitching my tent and crawling into my sleeping bag, I was suddenly exhausted. All the energy I had saved up to reach this place had been spent, leaving me with nothing to continue. The truth was, I had given no thought to continuing. I had only wanted to get here. Now that I had arrived, with only a day or two before I had to turn around and begin the journey home, I felt a great emptiness inside.
Even though I was too tired to read or to eat, my thoughts still rattled forward without direction. Through the mosquito netting, my head propped up on my books, I watched evening fill the valley with a brassy light, which turned to copper, then to poppy red, and finally only the mountains in the distance held on to the glow of the sun. Far above in that other world, tiger stripes of snow filled the gullies. I wondered how it might be to climb them, and if it could even be done.
Finally, just as I was about to fall asleep, that thing lunged at me again. It startled me wide awake, and I lay there for a long time, trying unsuccessfully to figure out what it was. I had clung to the belief that quitting the boats and traveling here might rid me of the problem, like a cripple on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Now I saw
how mistaken I had been.
The sounds of the campground-the softly played radios and purr of languages I did not understand-all faded away in the dove-gray twilight. Soon the valleys grew quiet. No cars or trains. No sound of birds or barking dogs. Only the rustle of water, and mountains breathing from the granite vaults of their lungs.
THE NEXT DAY I CLIMBED the Aksla mountain, which rose from the eastern edge of town. It formed one edge of a range of hills, whose blunt-topped peaks snubbed the sky like a row of huge, bared teeth. A few houses clung precariously to its lower slopes, which almost gave the mountain a sense of movement, as if it were rising from the ground, shrugging off' the luminous green grass of the valley below.
The path zigzagged crazily up through groves of spindly pines, gradually thinning out until there were no trees at all, only moss-patched stones and beds of pale green lichen spreading out across the high ground. Snow clung to the shadowy places, chilling the breeze that blew across its dirty back.
After months of stilted walking on the deck of Captain Billy's boat, the pain of climbing, particularly in my thigh muscles, was so intense that the only way I could convince myself to continue was to take a kind of perverse pleasure in the agony.
I had used up the water in my canteen before I was even out of the poplars. As soon as I reached the first patch of snow, I filled my canteen from a tiny stream that plipped from the ice. I drank and drank until my thirst was finally quenched, then sat back with a bloated stomach on a bed of lichen, feeling it crackle beneath me.
The town below had been reduced to a cluster of Playmobil structures, and the train trundling back toward Oslo looked like a string of red licorice in the distance. Beyond stood the Trollveggen mountains. Unlike the sheared-off hill that I was climbing, the Trollveggen spiked the horizon with the jaggedness of waves in a Hokusai painting. I wished Arneson could have been there, so that he would have known that even his dreams did not match what I could see before me now.
I could not linger, either on the mountain or in Norway. With only two weeks to go before the start of the new school year, I began my journey home.
It took me all day to reach the town of Otta, which lies about halfway between Andalsnes and Oslo. I planned to travel on from there the following morning, and spend a few days roaming around Oslo.
The path to the campsite led through a sour-smelling lumberyard, where sprinklers chip-chip-chipped back and forth, keeping the logs damp. The campsite itself had been reduced to mud by a summer of rain and car tires. I rented a small wooden cabin and installed myself in one of the two bunks. I thought about heading back into town, just to sit at the station cafe or maybe find a movie theater, but it had begun to rain and the town had not looked promising, so I stayed put.
Lulled almost to sleep by the patter of rain on the roof, I was suddenly jolted awake as the waking nightmare lunged at me again. Suddenly the cozy bunk became claustrophobically small, reminding me too much of the bunk room on the boat. I slept with the door open, rain blowing in, darkening the chafed bare wood of the floor. The next morning, while I waited for the train to Oslo, I picked up a brochure for hiking in the Rondane mountains, for which Otta was apparently the central jumping-off point. Suddenly the thought of heading into a city, when I would soon be surrounded by the urban chaos of New Haven, seemed far less appealing than a walk up in the hills.
After changing my train reservation, I boarded a bus heading up into the Rondane. I was the only passenger. This did not surprise me, since the road was suicidally dangerous. If this driver as much as sneezed, we were both bound for glory. Clearing the tree line, the bus roared in a cloud of dust past a collection of huts. Grass and dandelions grew upon their turfed rooftops. Beyond the huts we emerged onto a plain of tundra, and the road ended in the middle of nowhere at a small parking lot called Spranget. That such a place should have a name seemed strange to me.
As soon as the driver opened the door, I scrambled off the bus. A sound of rushing water filled my ears. Above, the vault of the sky was unobstructed by the horizon and it seemed to me I could read in it the actual curvature of the Earth. I found myself at the beginning of a long path. It followed the course of a fast-running river that wound toward the distant round-topped mountains. Their snow-capped tops radiated the sun's light across the tundra's greens and browns. At the foot of the hills was a lake so perfectly sapphire that it appeared to be made not of water but the jewel itself. By the edge of that lake stood a fairy-tale house, dwarfed at the foot of a mountain called Storronden, which itself lay in the shadow of an even bigger mountain named Rondslottet. My ability to gauge distance was baffled by the lack of trees. I didn't know if it would only take me a few hours to get there, or the rest of the day.
This path, and the way it stretched toward the horizon, empty and without obstruction across ground whose merging colors glowed in this high-altitude light, had the appearance of a causeway between heaven and Earth. Its effect on me was similar to when I visited the Alhambra palace in Granada. I remembered seeing, on the walls of the mosque, an impossibly tangled ornamentation of design that
instantly gave me a headache. I stayed and listened to the tour guide only because I thought it would be rude not to stay. He explained that my reaction was not uncommon, indeed not unintended. If you try to take it all in at once, you simply get dizzy. However, if you focus on just one part of the wall, you cannot see the whole. So it is, the Muslims believe, with the presence of God, which is too great, too overwhelming, to be grasped by the mind. All we can do is study the details, knowing that the whole is more than we can fathom.
I felt the same here in the Rondane. My first glimpse of the place had stunned me into a silence deeper than words. This was an old, old landscape, and my body and my mind responded to it with ancient instincts, sparked to life out of a slumber that was older than myself. Suddenly I felt so awake and so aware of everything around me, that it seemed as if the rest of my life had been spent sleeping.
WITHIN A WEEK, I had returned to the merciless early September heat of New Haven. I tried to forget about the summer, about the fishing boats and Norway, too. But time and again in the months and years that followed, bright pictures of my time in Norway would reappear, bursting like fireworks in my head. They were like what Robert Graves, in his World War I memoir Goodbye to All That, described as "caricatures." He would see himself at frozen moments in time-climbing from the trenches into No Man's Land or stuck in a Cairo brothel that had been converted into a school where he was teaching after the war. I would recall myself in places I had barely committed to memory at the time.
I became like Arneson, uncertain that I had actually seen the things I remembered. I wondered if those mountains were destined to become for me, as they had done for him, a place which remained forever beyond the horizon.
I knew I had to get back there someday, to understand what cast this spell on me.
In the meantime, I began to read about Norway, studying its history from the days of Viking raiding through the complicated periods of subjugation by Sweden and Denmark to its oil-rich present. In particular, I latched onto anybooks I could find by people who traveled in the same area I visited. Of these, there were only a few, and most long since out of print The earliest, titled Through Norway with a Knapsack, was written by W Mattieu Williams and published in 1876. The most recent, Walking Trips in Norway by N. Tjernagel, came out in 1917- In between were the bizarrely-titled Three in Norway by Two of Them, (1882), Norway-The Northern Playground by W C. Slingsby (1904), and Rambles in Norway by Harold Simpson (1912).
These travel memoirs, and their long-deceased authors, were to become my companions. Despite the relatively narrow band of time in which they traveled in Norway, they seemed not to have known of each other. Even if they had crossed paths, I was not sure they would have chosen to travel together. Although these men showed no signs ofbeing reclusive, theywere nevertheless loners. More precisely, perhaps, they were lone travelers. Traveling alone is an art form in itself.
Anyone who has done this knows that the experience, particularly the inner world one inhabits on a solo voyage, is entirely different from one undertaken with companions.
I grouped these men under the general heading of "practical eccentrics." They certainly were eccentric, but they had to be in order to travel through the wilds of the Rondane, jotunheimen, and Dovre ffell mountains, which form three separate but closely situated knots of mountains in the central part of the country. What is an eccentric anyway, but a person who has made a separate peace with the world? To make a separate peace, you have to walk a different path, which is what these travelers did.
As a result, they sometimes found themselves standing before people who had never seen a foreigner before. At other times, they hiked out of the trackless mountains and knocked on the doors of mountain huts, whose occupants had never received visitors of any nationality. It was their eccentricity that made the journeys possible.
I decided that I would see it as they had, at least as much as was possible with such an interval of time between my trip and theirs. This meant going alone and shunning the creature comforts of more popular tourist routes.
The solitary nature of my journey became apparent long before I set out. In my part of the world, to begin a conversation on Norway is to invite total silence. The country, and most everything to do with it, is simply not on people's radar.
I had really no idea what I was getting into. So far I had only seen the Rondane, and even "seeing" was too much of a claim. Until I returned, I had little more to go on than guidebook photos and litho drawings that illustrated the older texts. The conclusion I reached from these memoirs was that illustrations, photographic or otherwise, would not be much use anyway. One trait these men shared more than any other was an inability to frame within the scaffolding of words the overwhelming impact the Norwegian mountain landscape had worked on them. It is not that they were unable to find the right words. The conclusion they reached, each in his own way, was that the words do not exist. Neither was it possible to do anything more than hint at it through pictures. In my first glimpse of the Rondane, I too had reached that same speechless conclusion.
Speechless or not, I decided to begin this second journey where I had begun the first-in Andalsnes, refuge of the deep-sea dreamers.