City vs. Country: Norwegian Edition

I made up my mind soon after arriving in Norway for the second time. The sparsely peopled, rugged nation simply couldn’t be understood—or fully appreciated for that matter—by exclusively observing life in its urban centers. I had to ditch the traffic, skip the shopping, and head for the hills.

Not wanting to go it alone, I began to mentally scroll through the names of people I might persuade to join me. Almost immediately my friend Cathrine came to mind. Which makes sense I guess, given that I was sitting at her kitchen table when the idea hit me. So, breaking the ice with an idle comment about the favorable weather, I then suggested a hiking trip as we took the last bites of our breakfast one morning. “Are you sure you don’t want to see anything else in the city?” she asked skeptically.

A lover of restaurants, nightlife, and motorized transportation, I could see why Cathrine might initially be reluctant to trade these things for the pleasure of shivering next to me in a nylon tent. I let it drop. But at the end of an evening in which her drinking companions regaled us with tales of hunting moose and scaling peaks, she agreed that a woodsy weekend could be a nice change of pace. Especially after several aimless afternoons wandering the streets of Oslo. I have since decided to float all future hair-brained ideas across the seductive tides of a whisky snifter. A coffee mug only brings folly into sharper focus.

Discussing our adventures-to-be on the way home from the bar, we finally settled on Jotunheimen, a national park about 165 miles north of the capital. Home to the two tallest mountains in Northern Europe, it promised forbidding glaciers, punishing climbs, and the outside chance of spotting a frost giant. Fortunately she knew an actor who spent lots of time in higher altitudes and could lend us equipment, a good map, and his skills as an outdoorsman. Things we didn’t have, but might want to bring along—at least in her friend Haakon's opinion anyway.

Piling into a borrowed station wagon on an overcast afternoon, we sped north and westward, intending to set up camp that night and get an early start the next day. It wasn’t long after we awoke, shouldered our cumbersome packs, and set out however, that Cathrine and I came to the realization that we were in way over our heads. As in several feet. The pained look of concern we both wore on our faces became easier to read by the hour.

The day had begun with bright sun, hot food, and a brisk pace, but after a long morning of laboring across a field of car-sized boulders, my fondness for Mother Nature was flagging faster than my stamina. Pausing to catch my breath for the umpteenth time, I listened to Cathrine’s boots crunch against the smaller stones behind me and wondered where all the other hikers were. We hadn’t seen so much as a trace of another person since we broke camp, let alone evidence that anything living had come this way in a long, long time.

Another hour or so passed without much conversation, eventually delivering us to the day’s first real obstacle. As we paused at the edge of a steep snowfield, Haakon nonchalantly announced that the next step would be ascending a twenty-foot rock face without the aid of climbing gear. It dawned on me then that to your average Norwegian actor, the verb “to hike” bears virtually no resemblance to the definition commonly used throughout the rest of the world; i.e. a long walk, especially in the country, for pleasure or exercise.

Where I come from, a typical summer weekend is more likely to involve feats of eating than a test of anyone’s physical fitness. Not so in Norway. Calmly talking us through the handholds, he called down from the relative safety of the ledge above with a very matter-of-fact warning: “If you slip here, you’ll die.” Stupidly, I glanced down. While I stood there contemplating the likelihood of surviving a fall, I could feel the sweat pooling in the crevices of my waterproof clothing. The altitude amplified my exhaustion, and at that instant, my mind understood but one thing about Norway: the view from 7,000 feet can turn you into a city person very quickly.

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