The Man Turns the Corner
The man turns the corner, puttering towards the desk. He is wearing small, round nutty professor spectacles and a vest over a casual dress shirt, the universal uniform of the fastidious regional clerk. His puttering suggested that he never had or might never move quickly. Sure, he might have leapt about in his youth – he was capable of moving his limbs at more than librarian speeds – but his bearing seemed to preclude surprising movement. Regardless of how fast his limbs moved, an observer would never be taken aback. He is a person I fundamentally cannot picture jumping. Even in sport, for as a Norwegian he was surely involved heavily in sport of some sort, one could imagine him residing within his own force field. Perhaps he played contact sports, perhaps he was even a competitive, physical athlete. In an imagined memory, he tangled with his opponents, kicking, checking and battering them, but remained self-contained and separate. Or perhaps he was a vicious competitor, grinding his rivals into the dirt as his perhaps Norse ancestors did. His is a life I can only speculate upon. He is quiet and unassuming and measured.
He smiles as he sees us, a warm, service-industry smile. The small bell that summoned him lingers in my mind; the sound suits him. He putters up to the desk, which appears firmly integrated into the building’s structure. The lounge contains maybe a dozen people chatting, reading, occupying space, but there is an academic serenity to the conversations. His smile reignites as he reaches the nipple-tall counter, and he asks our names. My mother, bless her, responds in her normal voice, breaking the hushed din. The man’s eyes smile, explaining to us the workings of the Hjelle Hotel; he is proud. He walks away, and though he delivered instructions on meals, the room, the sauna, a rowboat, local sights and I’m sure something else, it is surprisingly difficult to reconstitute his voice in my mind. My mother observed on a surprise ferry ride that many machines in Norway are quieter than their American equivalents. I find that most things in Norway are conducted in sottovoce.
The room, as with almost every physical object we encountered in Norway, is immaculate. The roads, the buildings, the cars and the people all look freshly ironed – starched and spotless. Even dead end one way roads connecting are perfect and plush and clean. The ferry that brings traffic across the Sognefjord looks brand new. Most things in Norway look brand new.
The taxis in Oslo are Mercedes. Most farmers, even the hardscrabble, broken-down-barn-in-the-middle-of-nowhere farmers drive Audis and BMWs and Mercedes. Most communities, no matter how small, have a shiny something. None of the cars need a wash. Even the gross sticky nightclubs – I’m looking at you, Downstairs – are clean and clearly a step above the shitholes I’ve seen elsewhere. Gas station bathrooms are fitted with interior-designer grade fixtures. The bathrooms smell good.
And yet a beer costs 110 Norwegian Kroner ($13.92, $17.50 CAD). A hotel dinner rings in at 380 Kroner ($48.11, $60.46 CAD). A postcard 10 Kroner ($1.27, $1.59 CAD). Appreciably little goes on in this country of 5.233 million people. Sheep and the occasional audacious ruminant graze most of the arable land outside cities. Work benefits are generous. Paternity leave is commonplace. People seem to have money to spend. And when you rib them about how expensive Norway is, they laugh but can’t be reached for comment. The government recently announced plans to build a 8,000,000,000 billion Kroner ($1,016,518,420, $1,256,084,160 CAD) bicycle ‘super-highway’ to reduce car traffic.
Norwegians, it has been said, are a particularly fit, beautiful, polite and hard-working people. Norwegians, it has been said, do not believe in switchbacks on trails. Perhaps there is a causal linkage. Prince, when asked why he continued to make his home in Minnesota, a known emigration center for Norwegians, replied, “I like the cold. It keeps the bad people away.” Perhaps this idea also immigrated from the Scandinavian peninsula. Perhaps the cold makes them more. Harsher farming conditions produced farmers capable of working harder. Small, isolated communities fostered stronger conflict-resolution and social skills. Perhaps having to wear bulky, cable-knit Dane of Norway sweaters upwards of 200 days a year forced people to become more attractive in order to secure a mate. Or perhaps they did it all to make the rest of us feel less than.
Setting aside the ‘why’ question for a more intrepid and confident researcher, it can certainly be said that Norway is populated by an astonishing number of good people, people who care about their communities, their bodies, their environment and their guests. And, with notable exceptions, most people seem to be happy in a smiling-while-they-work, uncanny way.
Norwegians don’t seem to gloat much, at least to slack-jawed, clearly-lost tourists, but they will revel in the rain and the darkness that envelops their country for much of their waking lives, in the fundamentally unimaginable circumstances that their lives play out. I’m not sure I have a great handle on Stockholm Syndrome, but it seems relevant somehow.
Much of the country is mountainous and countless fjords wander inland from the North Sea, working and worming their way into the land. Having spent years in the Land of 10,000 Lakes®, I thought I understood living in place with an inconvenient amount of water. The lakes in Minnesota are a part of the environment. Of course, people often drive around them, but, inarguably, Minnesota is made of dirt and is covered in puddles. Even 100 miles off the western coast, Norway feels like an island. The hills and mountains intrude, rising up from the sea and leaving precious little space for anything else.
The country is famous for its hundreds of miles of rail and auto tunnels, the longest of which tops out at 22 kilometers (13.67 miles, 13.67 miles CAD). Getting anywhere is challenging, even when the sun is shining. A car might need to drive for an hour at breakneck speeds on single-lane, cliff-side roads to reach a destination four linear miles away. Many places are unreachable most of the time.
In the valleys of Gundvagen, Lom and Stryn, a casual observer might notice how remarkably steep the mountains, valleys and towns are. The buildings and people stand level, but they are steep. Human settlement seems to only happen in the margins, spaces where the rock has relented a few feet, just enough for a turf hut. In this part of the country, the valleys are small, and often frustratingly full of water. The mountains, if they were of the mood to, could altogether too easily nudge whole communities into the waiting lakes, rivers and fjords. When you do find a sliver of flat land, it’s on an improbably steep grade.
I had never wondered what it felt like to be water, to always seek the core of the earth and worm towards stasis. There is a strong gravity towards the centers of these valleys. Gravitationally preposterous ramparts enclose the valleys and provide strong encouragement for the contents of the valley – water and otherwise – to stay right where they are, thank you very much. Even in moments of evening stillness, the sun slowly falling below the ramparts and igniting, I feel a constant sensation of about-to-tip-over-and-roll-down-the-slope, so I lean into the slope.
Exploring further afield from the valley floors and up into the mountains reveals a landscape that rapidly becomes impassible and unfathomable. The high shoulders are thoroughly inescapable, except back towards the slivers of ‘flat’ land. Miles of uniformly steep, avalanche-prone, unclimbable canyon wall on either side and at the far end a glittering white glacier that melds into the horizon, not a speck of rock in sight. Ah, but an intrepid scrambler might spy a scalable ledge farther up on that wall! Several – let’s face it, many – minutes of scrambling later, our resolute scrambler attains the ledge, only to be granted a view of several sizable drops, a few starter-home sized boulders stymying further inadvisable progress and a waterfall. At least the boulder-field trails are well-marked. Every 10 to 300 feet (10 to 300 feet US, 10 to 300 feet CAD), a rock of seemingly any size is spray-painted with a ‘T’ to indicate the path. No need to get too caught up with route finding.
Naturally, these inaccessible landscapes are dotted with decaying turf huts, emergency shelters and suspiciously anthropogenic piles of rocks. Local historians and enthusiastic guides point out these artifacts of human habitation in the mountains date back to 2000 BC. The Sami people in the north have been skiing in Scandinavia for at least that long. These were hardy peoples, evidenced by the traces and whispers they left, scattered across places inconceivable for modern habitation, let alone for Stone Age peoples. How they managed to get around before the government built all those tunnels is beyond me, but they are some of the same people who made it to Nova Scotia in an open boat via Greenland. The gods of those peoples, some of whom have had their brands re-launched in recent years, are mysterious to us and reaped blood sacrifices, among other inconveniences.
Summer farms are the modern relics of Norwegian hardiness and bull-headedness. As the day grow longer and warmer, the farmers and herdsmen march their livestock up the valleys, sometimes into the uplands, until the process reverses and they dutifully trudge back down. Naturally, the summer farms are, to put it charitably, difficult to get to with a herd of animals that a dog can control.
In the valleys, the uplands seem unreachable. I struggle to imagine what lies there. The view from Galdhøpiggen over its environs yield only glacier after ridge after glacier after peak. Glaciers once towered 3 kilometers (1.8 miles, 1.8 miles CAD) over most of Norway, carving deep gouges out of flat land to create the fjords and frustratingly vertical valleys. But now those lands lay scraped bare and wholly inaccessible. I wonder what goes on up there. What do the lowlands look like? Are they full of miniature towns populated by miniature people?
The uplands feel profoundly separate from the Norway that keeps fit, drives BMWs and embraces the Nordic Model. I can only imagine it as a wild land, unconcerned with the comings and goings of the valleys, but then I think about how strange that business is in the valleys. Nothing seems to add up in the valleys. How do farmers afford their shiny saloon cars and ruddy complexions? No one talks about the uplands. Norwegians shrug off questions about the uplands like they shrug off questions about their magical realist society.
Hjelle Hotel, run for four generations by same modest, predictable and bespectacled clerks, exists in its own reality. It does not seem to belong in the world of K Mart, Walmart and Kwik Mart, yet it persists. It strikes me as odd, that all the servers are women in traditional dresses are educated, beautiful, polite and young. They could be off pursuing their dreams, but they’re serving salmon and potatoes to tourists.
Driving through this country, things seem too right and ordered and clean. People seem too agreeable. It seems too good to be true. Perhaps I did not spend enough time or look closely enough to see the wrinkles and stress marks, but perhaps not. Perhaps a king long ago made a Faustian pact with whatever resides in the uplands, that used to hold sway over it all. Perhaps there is some magic left in this land, driven into the hills, and marching the herds to the summer farms is the pilgrimage traded for prosperity.
Or maybe I’ve been reading too much Neil Gaiman. A boy can wonder, can’t he?
 At any one time there are four ferries making the fifteen-minute voyage.
 Bergen did receive 28 days consecutive days of rain in June.
 After a brief but vigorous study, I can confirm this. Norwegians do not seem to understand switchbacks or feel any need to create a trail network that does not put its users in at least moderate physical danger.
 I will, for the moment, neglect the Norsemen and their famous tempers.
 Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote a 6 volume autobiography which focuses on his failings as a son, husband, father and writer, titled – you guessed it – My Struggle. Norway also lays claim to the highest suicide rate in Europe.
 The Norwegian trail-building ethos (or lack thereof) is thoroughly refreshing, coming from the land of dirt causeways and tourist conveyances in Our Natural Heritage.