24 February 2008

finding the soul

I have been coming to Norway now for several months and have felt that I never quite "got it". The Norwegians I work with are all quite pleasant and polite but keep their distance, and the explorations of Oslo have been pleasant but not astounding or recommend-to-others fascinating.

However, this time my trip has involved spending a weekend here, and one of the Norwegians I work with, B, invited me to her house last week. Over a reindeer Stroganoff laced with juniper berries, we discussed my desire to ski while here, and since our snow-scouting in the area had shown nothing but thin icy cover to the fields, I decided to go to Lillehammer.

B headed to the basement to dig up the skis, the wax kit, the coat and ski pants, the gloves and boots. Everything fit me perfectly, so after an evening spent swapping stories of lacemaking, the Norwegian traditional costume, and old movies, B sent me off with her gear and wishes for a properly good time skiing.

On Saturday morning I woke early, and walked to the train station with my skis over my shoulder, the low morning sun streaming through the cross streets on the way. On the platform, I knew I had the right train when I spotted another man with skis and a big bag of gear, who turned out to be on his way for a multi-day ski trek. The train itself had a special cupboard for skiing equipment, so I set mine in and settled in for the 2 hour train ride with a cup of tea from the dining car.

The ride goes along a long narrow lake, past farmhouses and very little else, but soon I was deposited at the Lillehammer train station with all the other people carrying snowboards, skis, and snowshoes. After being informed that I probably did not want to ski the 900 meters of altitude gain on icy tracks to the x-c ski area, I decided to wait for the bus that goes to the skiing areas of Sjusjøen (a lovely sibilant word that sounds like swishing skis when Norwegians say it) and Nordseter.

In the meantime, I abandoned my skis at the train station and went to explore the downtown. There was a Saturday market in one square where I sampled reindeer salami, cheese curd, and traditional cheese, then wandered the icy streets, admiring the old buildings and the tremendously beautiful weaving in the classic shop, Husfliden. Then, time for skiing.

The bus went straight up the hill from the train station, a 20 minute ride along hairpin turn roads edged with colorful slate-roof houses. I made friends with two Dutchmen who were heading for a multi-day tenting adventure on skis, then talked to a woman and her husband, both in their 70s, who made the 22 kilometer ski from the mountains down to Lillehammer once a week. She gave me advice to ski up to the top of Nevelfjell, and when we arrived, he crumbled a bit of snow with a practiced hand and said it was a day for blue wax.

So on with the wax and on to the skis I went, stepping out into perfectly groomed triple-wide trails. This is the kind of skiing that you'd expect to have to pay for somewhere else. Sure, x-c skiing is the cheaper choice when compared to alpine, but you still usually have to pay. Not here- this is the one free thing to be found in this land of $20 hamburgers.

And everyone was out taking advantage of it- majestic old men in handknit cabled socks and knee britches, whole families with the infants in sleds with ski tracks on the bottom, and everyone in between. There were fast skiers and slow skiers, but the trail manner so courteous that there was space for everyone on this highway network of ski trails. For the first time since I've been here, people I didn't know at all were beaming wide grins at me, saying hello, and offering all the advice I could want. This is their place, these Norwegians.

Most people had a backpack from which they'd produce coffee, snacks, and seat cushions, so at every crossroad there would be clusters of people, their skis stuck in the snow like a forest of slender birches, the fat snowsuited kids rolling about in the snow while everyone ate sandwiches. I'd also packed open faced salami and cheese sandwiches, and in my borrowed authentically Norwegian clothes, I appeared so much "one of them" that people were trying to start conversations with me about the weather and the day. When I reacted with perplexity to one pair, the response I got was "ah, we didn't expect foreign people so far up in the mountains."

The landscape there was made for skiing (or more accurately perhaps, skiing was made for terrain like that), with just enough contour to keep things interesting, but no hills impossibly high. I'd also unintentionally chosen the area high enough that the trees were sparse- pinetrees sprinkled sporadically, like a teenaged boy's first attempt at a beard, so the views were quite dramatic.

My destination was fully above the treeline though, where the wind had scraped the snow into fantastical shapes around the boulders, and the trail ceased to really exist. So I alternately trekked and stopped, trekked and stopped, pausing only long enough to avoid getting cold, but wanting so very much to do nothing but stare at the huge view of nearly the entire lake I'd come past by train, and mountains spread in every direction.

The wind got so strong that by the time I'd finished the scramble up the hill it was good to see the small ice-encrusted hut at the top. Inside were sleeping platforms, a wood stove with a stack of logs nearby, and a guest book. I signed the book, had a sandwich, and tried to see if I was indeed spotting glaciers as well as Norway's highest mountain. The sun was so dazzling that I was a bit sun-blind and the wind so peppy I couldn't stay long, so I followed the scratchings of a trail down the opposite side and into gentler terrain.

I skied until the clouds rolled in and it began to grow dark, then returned to the bus stop area for the proper post-skiing drink, steaming hot chocolate, which I accessorized with some kind of cinnamon-wheat-raisin bun, still oven-warm. Then it was bus and then train, where I was whisked back south in the deepening gloom, my limbs lazy with contentment and exertion.


cK said...

Awesome trek! And that shot of the ice-encrusted hut is a gem.

Angel said...

We may need a resumption of the cross-country ski lessons that you gave me in college- I have a job interview now for a one-year position at a school that is right up against the Adirondacks in NY. (Skidmore)

Lovely passage- so evocative of the skiing culture of the place.

tsduff said...

Your adventurous journeys are so well detailed that it would encourage any reader to attempt them on their own. Your skiing chronicles bring back memories of cross country skiing adventures I had with my Dad in the California Sierras - nice memories.

Jess said...

You can keep the tape player, you'll need it for next year! If I could have your votes in the next few days that'd be great. Thanks so much. x

The Lone Coyote said...

Wow, you made me almost miss snow/ winter for a minute there as I read this. That's saying a lot :) Nice entry.

SOe said...

Looks and sounds like a great trip! I heard before that you have to pay for cross-country skiing in some countries but in Germany it´s free(very few exceptions).

ECS said...

ck: it was such a blast that I volunteered to come work aaany time they wanted, as long as I get to ski!

angel: I need to hear how things WENT on this trip. You haven't been on skype lately.

tsduff: skiing is one of those things that one never forgets once you know how to. It's a handy skill to have, like horseback riding :)

jess: I hope you got my email about my poor performance in this last round of voting. I'm sorry!

coyote: I think even the most winter-averse person would have found the magic in that place. It's perfectly engineered for maximum enjoyment.

soe: There are places where you have to pay in the US, and places like my high school where you don't. However, usually when you have as nicely groomed trails as I had in Norway, you have to pay in the US.