Henrik Ibsen uses the word "Bergfaest" in his last drama, When We Dead Awaken. The term describes a mountaineer trapped on a slope, unable to climb higher and, yet, afraid to descend. In Ibsen’s 1899 play, an old and famous sculptor is haunted by a woman who once served as his model. The sculptor is unhappily married to a younger woman engaged in a flirtation with a crass, and sexually aggressive, bear hunter. The two mismatched couples ascend into the high mountains, climbing a precipitous and icy trail. The sculptor’s model, now a wraith, says: "When we dead awaken, we will realize that we have never lived." The sculptor and the model agree to elope together. But they are "Bergfaest" – that is, trapped on the steep mountain side. As the bear hunter and the sculptor’s young wife climb down from the heights, a great avalanche scours the mountainside, hurling the sculptor and his model into the abyss.
On a steep slope above Flam, climbing to a waterfall, I became Bergfaest. I could go no higher and, yet, feared that descent would plunge me headlong to the foot of precipice.
Bergfaest is a word in the Norwegian language. James Joyce’s first published work was a paean to Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken, an essay by the 18 year old Irishman published in The Fortnightly Review. Joyce revered Ibsen and was deeply moved when the great Norwegian writer acknowledged the young man’s review. Joyce wrote to his hero and said to him that he would "keep his words in his heart forever."
His biographers tell us that James Joyce taught himself Norwegian in order to read Ibsen’s works in their original language. This assertion begs an interesting question: what language did Joyce actually learn?
The train from Oslo to Bergen was almost an hour late, stranding crowds of tourists on the platform in the chilly shed. Groups of Japanese travelers stood in small, tight groups, backs to the cold wind blowing across the platform, encircled, as if defensively, by heaps of black luggage. I approach Norwegian through German and, inaccurately, attempted to translate an advertising logo plastered across a kiosk. A blonde girl with a backpack sitting next to the kiosk corrected my errors in a good-natured way and so, we began to talk with her. The girl’s name was Astrid and she told us that she was traveling to Gul, a place in the mountains, where her famiy had inherited a lake cabin. She explained that it was a cold summer and that the mountains were snowy. She had just graduated from High School, probably some form of Gymnasium, and was planning to take off a year so that she could surf – apparently, there is fine surfing in the Baltic Ocean. Astrid’s father was an economist accustomed to spending one month a year teaching at Stanford and, so, of course, she was very familiar with the States. (She had lived for a year in Australia as well when her father was on Sabbatical.) Astrid told us about prostitution in Norway, politics, and the oil economy. She also said something that puzzled me: "In Norway, you have to take two exams to show proficiency in Norwegian," she advised, "one for ordinary Norwegian and one for Book-Norwegian. They are two completely different languages." Astrid said that Norwegian children learn English from kindergarten and that, in 8th grade, they are required to elect another language – in her case, Astrid had learned German. "But it’s hard," she said, "because we, also, have two kinds of Norwegian."
The three Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway have a common origin and, apparently, Swedes can understand Danish and Danes can understand Norwegian – that is, the three languages are sufficiently similar that the speakers of any of these tongues can decipher what is being said in any of the other languages. Icelandic is too remote from modern Norwegian to be intelligible – it is the form of Scandinavian language that people spoke in the tenth century. Because Denmark was the predominant political power in Scandinavia during the Enlightenment and 19th century, Norwegian is sometimes called "Dano-Norwegian" – that is, the Danish dialect was decisive in establishing the form of language spoken in Norway (and throughout Sweden).
By the middle of the 19th century, Norwegian had divided itself into two forms – Bokmal and Nynorsk. Bokmal means "Book-Tongue" ("mal" is cognate with the German word "Maul" or mouth, itself cognate with English "maw"). Nynorsk means "new Norwegian". The two variants have different spelling rules and different grammatical constructions. Bokmal, as the name suggests, is the language used in written discourse, although Nynorsk can be written as well. At the time that Joyce taught himself Norwegian, an effort was underway to combine the two dialects into a single language, Riksmal ("National-Tongue" with Riks cognate with the German "Reich" or "Kingdom.") Riksmal purified of solecisms and loan-words from other languages was distilled and upper-crust dialect called Hognorsk – that is "High-Norse," a sociolect. This confusing linguistic situation was further complicated by advocates for something called Samnorsk – that is, "collective" ("Sammlung" in German: "together") Norwegian, a language called Dano-Norwegian koine. Today, Riksmal and Bokmal are, more or less, identical. The newspaper with the greatest national circulation in Norway is the Aftenposten , or "Evening Post". This newspaper is published in Riksmal to the extent that if a letter is sent to that journal written in Nynorsk, the editors will translate the text into Riksmal.
"Norway in a Nutshell" is the name given to a well-organized, if a bit frenetic, tour of some the country’s Vestlandet mountains and fjords. The tour begins at the central railway station in Oslo and a five-hour ride to a station high in the mountains, Myrdal. At Myrdal, tourists disembark the train (which continues on to Bergen) and board the famous Flambanen – this is a narrow-guage mountain train that descends from the peaks to sea-level, a forty-five minute ride terminating in Flam at the head of the Aurlands valley, a part of the immense Sognefjord. At Flam, tourists are hustled onto a ferry boat that conveys them down the Aurlandsfjord to its junction with Naeroyfjord. Cruising up the Naeroyfjord to the head of the canyon, the ferry docks at Gudvangen. At that village, tourists are crammed into buses that make their way through scenic gorges to Voss, a small city along a long narrow lake, apparently, a freshwater fjord. From Voss, tourists travel either back to Oslo, completing a loop, or to Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, where international flights will whisk you away from the Land of the Midnight Sun.
"Norway in a Nutshell" is a demanding itinerary, but it can be completed in one day – the distances aren’t great in absolute terms, although the landscape traversed is almost impossibly declivitous. My impression was that the Japanese tourists hustled ashore in Oslo from their Baltic cruise ships undertake the expedition in a single day, sun up to sun down, an interval representing a great span of time in this northern country. Leaving Oslo at 8:20 am, the train reaches Myrdal about noon. The Flamban drops the travelers at the fjord by one-o-clock and they are at Gudvangen by 3:30 pm. The bus to Voss takes another hour and so the Japanese tourist boards a train around 5:00 pm, reaches Oslo at 9:00 pm and is comfortably resting in his stateroom on the Regal Princess cruise ship by 10:30. Of course, the itinerary is exhausting, with scarcely time to eat let alone go to the toilet, but the day is action-packed and provides a thousand opportunities to pose in front of waterfalls or enormous cliffs and Japanese tourists seem indefatigable in any event – perhaps, the next day their cruise ship is at sea and the tourists can sleep in, gently cradled in their little bunks by the calm waters of the Baltic Ocean.
In no particular hurry, Angelica and I made the trip as a three-day half-loop, ending in Bergen. Our itinerary allowed us to stay for a night in Flam, the place where I found myself Bergfaest.
At the Oslo train station, Angelica wanted to buy candy for the ride. She is interested in the varieties of candy available in Norway and, of course, wishes to compare and contrast those sugary confections with her favorites at home. The study of comparative candy is important to Angelica and, perhaps, one day she will write a book encompassing her findings in this discipline. Sweet-tooths vary from place to place and the density of sugar and its refinement is also highly variable. And, of course, chocolates run the gamut from intolerably sweetened and laced with soothing milk through semi-sweetened species, some of them flavored with vanilla or cinnamon or jalapeno to savagely bitter blends that smell like coffee and the tropical rain forests that engendered them. Gummi treats also occupy a spectrum from scarcely annealed sugar syrup to rigid, chewy confections that stick to the molars and will disassemble your fillings and capped teeth and that taste like rubber bands.
Narvesons is a ubiquitous c-store in Norway. (Other convenience stores encountered on every street are Seven-Eleven and Deli de Luca.) At the train station, three Narvesons kiosks face one another across a concourse. Angelica picks the Narvesons closest to our route to the train platform for the Express to Bergen. Unfortunately, a nook-shotten Norwegian hill troll, most probably one-headed (although he has a hump between his shoulders that might represent a nascent second head), is ahead of us. The hill troll is belligerent and seems to be hard of hearing. Conch-like hearing aids decorate both of his hairy ears which are flat and close to his head like the ears of a beaten dog. The hill troll is also myopic – he wears filthy spectacles that crush the fat of his head as if by a vice. The glasses can not be supported by his nose for he scarcely has a nose, rather, just a crushed protuberance above his furry nostrils. The hill troll is buying Lotto tickets and he mutters imprecations to the clerk, a slender Pakistani lad with skin the color of milk chocolate. A line assembles behind us with people gawking at the hill troll and the troll making unintelligible threats to the Pakistani and groping his Lotto tickets that he holds close to his barrel-chest. Angelica thinks the entire charade is wonderfully comical and she laughs merrily as the hill troll berates the clerk and dallies at the head of the queue while people in a hurry to make their trains, shrug their shoulders and, then, cross over to the identical Narvesons across the concourse, a shop where an identical milk-chocolate colored Pakistani stands guard over his wares.
At last, the hill troll is satisfied with the transaction and he ambles off, bow-legged, a ursine gait like a bear only haphazardly taught to walk upright.
"Hill troll," I say.
"Funny," Angelica replies, sampling her candy.
"To thine ownself be... sufficient," I tell her quoting the troll’s credo from Peer Gynt.
The train to Bergen is seriously delayed and this gives rise to our conversation with Astrid, the Norwegian surfer-girl. She tells us that her family’s cabin on the Hardanger plateau has no electricity. "It will be cold there," she says. "This is a very cold country."
Astrid says that the economy is poor. Oil prices are low and people are frightened that Norway’s petrochemical prosperity will be compromised. After all, once this was a poor country – a mere 4 % of the terrain arable. She mentions the terrorist attacks committed by Anders Breivik and says that there is considerable distrust of immigrants. "Many people here thought that an exception should be made for Breivik and that he should be executed," she says.
"That’s a slippery slope," I tell her. "You go down that path and next thing you know you’re Texas." Astrid says that she has traveled in the Lone Star State. Angelica is also happy to say that he visited Galveston last year. "They execute a lot of people in Texas," I say. "Well, Texas is Texas," Astrid replies. She tells me that the last person to be executed in Norway was Vidkun Quisling. "There are two names forbidden in Norway," she says. "You can not name your child ‘Quisling’ or ‘Jesus’."
During the Second World War, Quisling lived in the Villa Grande, a large mansion on Bygedoy. (The Holocaust Center that I was so anxious to avoid is housed in that structure.) Quisling didn’t subscribe to German notions of racial purity – in fact, he thought the Norwegians racially superior to Germans and believed them to be a degenerate form of Scandinavian. Shortly before he was shot by a firing squad, Quisling told his friend that "in ten years I will another King Olaf."
Heinrich Himmler agreed with Quisling’s racial theories – it was his view that German genetic stock could be revived and improved by breeding Aryan children with Norwegian women. To that effect, Himmler instituted policies encouraging German troops in Norway to fraternize with the local girls. Women who gave birth to children with German fathers were provided a subsidy and guaranteed child support. The Wehrmacht even established Lebensborn birthing hospitals throughout Norway so that women from that country would have an inviting and supportive environment in which to give birth to their half-German offspring. Since more than 350,000 German troops were stationed throughout Norway, there was plenty of opportunity for fraternization – ultimately, about 12,000 Lebensborn children were born in Norway. (It is seductive to correlate the relative success of the Lebensborn policy in Norway with the sexual liberation of Norwegian women – but, in fact, German troops were sexually successful in many of the countries that they invaded. On the Isle of Man, on British territory, the German occupying forces, said to be accommodating and "very friendly," fathered 900 children.)
Of course, German policies encouraging liaisons with Norwegian women turned out to be catastrophic for both mother and child. When the Germans retreated from Norway, the women involved in the program were castigated for "horizontal collaboration" with the enemy, rounded-up and either beaten or gang-raped. Their more "virtuous" sisters shaved their heads bald and dragged the Lebensborn women through the streets so that they could be pelted with stones and garbage and spit upon. The children born from intercourse with German troops were denounced as "Nazi-kids" or tyskejunger – that is, "kraut bastards." In many instances, these children were forcibly separated from their mothers and raised in concentration camp-like wards. Evidence shows that the United States collaborated with the Norwegian government to undertake medical tests on Norwegian tyskejunger – the children were dosed with CIA-compounded LSD to test the effects of that drug. Periodically, the children were paraded through the streets so that other children could scream insults at them. By the mid-fifties, the term tyskejunger became politically incorrect and the children were characterized as "war-children." Nonetheless, these children were denied education with other Norwegian youths and stripped of their civil rights until the early sixties. It is interesting that the most famous of the Norwegian war children is Anni-Frid Synni Lyngstad, the lead singer in the band Abba – Lyngstad’s mother gave birth to the girl at a Lebensborn clinic in northern Norway. After the war, mother and child fled Norway to live with a Swedish grandmother.
Lest we be too harsh on Norway, it is well to remember that the country leading the world in the production of war-children is the United States. In 1946, the United States adopted a policy of punishing German civilian populations by systematically starving them. In that year, rations allotted to German civilians in the US-occupied zone were limited to 1250 calories a day. An adult can’t live on 1250 calories and, in most cases, the actual rations were less – probably around 700 calories a day. Of course, German women had one commodity that they could exchange for rations – and they seem to have done this enthusiastically. In American GI parlance, food was called "frau bait." The result was that 36,000 German women became pregnant with the children of American soldiers. The United States Army published an encyclical in 1946 called "Warning to Pregnant Fraus" – in that text, military authorities indicated that soldiers were forbidden to pay any form child support to German women. Payments of that sort were regarded as "fraternization with the enemy" and could subject the soldier to a risk of dishonorable discharge. Furthermore, the Warning advised German women that no attempt would be made to establish paternity and if a soldier denied paternity that denial would be deemed conclusive. In addition, military authorities stated that they would not release any information as to the whereabouts of any American soldier to any German civilian regardless of claims of consanguinity.
An hour out of Oslo, a distant hilltop shows bands of snow. The day is grey and where the snow crowns the rounded top of the hill, it is impossible to distinguish between sky and ice. Below the train, trees cling to a steep hill dropping to a lake full of black water, a sort of tarn ringed with low basalt cliffs. Another tunnels darkens the train – someone says that we have already passed through 25 tunnels. Outside the window, lights at intervals whip by. The train glides over the rails soundlessly, like an exquisitely skilled dancer skimming across a polished dance floor.
For the first twenty minutes after departing from Oslo, the train slid through a long tunnel and was, in effect, a subway. Emerging from the darkness, we saw small villages, all of them identically neat and well-groomed standing on hillsides in evergreen forests. Sometimes, rivers white with rapids poured down from the hills. Sullen-looking lakes filled valleys, bodies of water that seemed to me similar to the lakes of northern Minnesota by Ely or the Boundary Waters, rock-girt pots of still water in the dark woods. Sometimes the valleys were broad and the water in them was dammed beside hydroelectric plants; rows of transmission towers stalked up and down ribbons of pale cleared land on the hillsides. The Japanese tourists crowded in the train stand in long lines outside the toilets in the cars. The toilets have sliding doors and are spacious, decorated inside with photo-murals showing lake landscapes like something you might see near Bemidji. In the dining car, you can buy a sandwich made with salmon or a banana or bottles of beer and wine. Between cars, the train sways like a girl spinning a hula hoop around her hips.
Beyond the tunnel, the train climbs along long ridges covered in evergreen. Sometimes, ribs of rock reach down onto the right-of-way and, then, the train passes through tunnels. The cliffs seem higher and the lakes are now tilted downhill, breaking into white waterfalls. The sun is wan, its light clogged by clouds and fog. The trees beside the rail shrink to small, crouching courtiers, beaten down by the wind and the cold and the heights. Tilted slabs of stone incline upward.
The train stops at Geilo, a small, rustic-looking city filled with wilderness outfitters and guide agencies. A ski area, still dusted with snow, rises a few hundred yards above the city and there is a wild and desolate ravine through which a big river pours downward. On the platform, I see an old man, stolid, wearing a plaid shirt – he leans forward to shake hands with a big, heavy-set boy. The boy is carrying a suitcase and a backpack and seems to be a student – Astrid has told us that the universities in Bergen, the train’s destination, will commence their Fall semester next week. "Students," she said, "will be going to college to get ready for school." I assume that the boy is the old man’s youngest son, the last to depart the family home, on his way to Bergen where he will attend classes. Before the boy departs the platform, the old man impulsively grabs him, drawing him to his chest – the big, heavy boy is impassive, but the old man seems appalled and fearful. The boy climbs into our car and sits apart from the happily chattering Japanese tourists. He has very long eyelashes and extremely pale, snow-white skin and he sits alone, stoically ignoring the landscape passing outside the window. I feel an urge to commend the boy for his courage or say some kind of encouraging word to him, but, of course, remain silent.
The next stop is Gul, a tiny station overlooking a treeless valley where people are hiking or riding small shaggy ponies in a landscape complex with miniature waterfalls and tiny lakes inset among bowls of lichen-colored boulders. A jagged black cliff hangs overhead sealing the valley. I say to Angelica: "This is where Astrid gets off," and we look onto the platform and see her departing and she is looking at the train, apparently searching for us as well and, when Angelica waves, she smiles and waves back.
Above the tree-line at Ustaoset: the train stops next to a motionless lake ringed by barren rocks hills speckled with snow. People disembark carrying skis and backpacks. The wooden outposts along the right-of-way look shabby and battered. At one end of the lake, the water divides into a dozen lagoons, split by small islands like tortoise shells, some of them drifted with snow. Among the lagoons, many small wooden cabins have been built and, because there are no trees at this altitude, each cabin looks naked and exposed, glaring at its neighbors across the stony ravines over clenched masses of krummholz. A radio tower lifts a beacon above the lake and the lake seems to stare with indignation up at the wet and dark skies. We are only 1000 M.o.H. (that is, "meters above harbor" – about 3000 feet) but at this latitude, the elevation is Alpine.
The landscape disappears into another tunnel from which the train emerges dripping wet, surging slowly up naked inclines toward Finse at 1222 M.o. H. Finse is apparently the crest of the railroad line, another grey lake, dimensionless because there is nothing from which to measure distance, dull-looking, icy water surrounded by ramparts of mountain top all iron-grey except where the snow simulates the washed-out grey cream color of the sky. On the stony beach, a bright red canoe imparts a speck of color to the vast and empty panorama.
Now, the train starts to descend and the landscape is, apparently, very spectacular, but, also, mostly invisible. The Japanese tourists have all risen to their feet and are crowding about the windows to take pictures, blocking the panoramas that I can glimpse, only between shoulders and heads. Then, the train slips into a tunnel and the Japanese withdraw a little from the windows so that when it is bright again, I can see a black escarpment very close to the track from which water is pouring down in bright white ribbons. Then, the train enters an avalanche shed and, through perforations in the wall, I can glimpse lakes full of icebergs and more ragged black cliffs. The avalanche shed opens to a momentary vista of an abyss into which a river hurls itself, then, there is another tunnel followed by an avalanche shed, and, then, a series of avalanche sheds that make the interior of train flicker stroboscopically – as if looking at still frames in a movie, I can see cliffs, snow-fields, torrents of water.
The train pulls into Myrdal and the Japanese throw themselves frantically against the doors to escape from the car. We step off the train and sleet is falling from the cold skies. Big pillars of black rock rise overhead into the fog. Across from the tiny crowded station, another black tarn laps against a barren cliff, the folds in the rock and its crevasses streaked with mist-colored snow. On the station side of the track, the wooden buildings are perched on a nightmarish ledge high above a vast bathtub-shaped abyss. Shreds of fog are drifting above the abyss but I can look down into the huge cavity to see another green lake a thousand feet below, a carpet of disheveled looking pines in the depths of the canyon. It’s like a bathtub in which someone has left running the spigot – waterfalls foam down the sides of the amphitheater but the cascades of water don’t seem to disturb the chill impenetrable green of the big lake below.
The Flamban rail-line is located on an adjacent siding, an old narrow-gauge train with elegant-looking teakwood cars. The platform is slippery and the Japanese are running in all directions, some of them seeking toilets, others cramming themselves onto the Flamban. The train has been held for the "Norway in a Nutshell" tourists, but the schedule is tight, and girls with signs in English and Japanese are herding people through the cold, falling sleet into the cars of the Flamban. The ominous mountains overhead and the fragile-looking avalanche-sheds clinging to the naked rock cliffs and the shouting and sleet and haste all combine to create an effect of frantic hysteria. Angelica and I drag our luggage across the platform, haul ourselves up the steep and wet metal steps onto the Flamban and, then, take the first seats available, rickety-looking cast-iron and wooden chairs, all of th is complicated by the fact that both of my New Balance tennis shoes are untied. In the corner of the car, something like a woodburning stove squats. The windows are streaked with rain and the throng of Japanese in the railcar block most of the vantages looking down into the valley.
The train lurches forward and a narrator recites some facts about the Flamban and its construction, the steepness of the grade, the number of tunnels – the recorded voice speaks in Norwegian, English, Russian, German, Japanese, French, Italian, and Chinese and says that Myrdal is famous because of its trolls, enchanted creatures that appear among the caves and cascades, sirens in the form of beautiful women who lure mountaineers to their deaths. Some goats pour down through a rift in the cliff like a wooly waterfall. The train enters in avalanche shed, appears for a moment in the fog of falling sleet and, then, zigzags downward through a series of tunnels and wooden shelters. After a few minutes, the train comes to stop at a concrete platform cantilevered over a river. An enormous waterfall is churning among the jagged rocks overhead and, as the tourists emerge from the train to take pictures, a girl appears atop a nearby cliff and we can hear some recorded music. The girl, who looks cold and miserable, does a brief seductive dance, lifting her arms to open like petals to the icy sleet. She beckons to us from atop of stony pedestal next to the ruin of an old mill. The Japanese tourists are delighted.
We board the train and descend by switchbacks another thousand feet to Flam. After another fifteen minutes, the sun breaks through the clouds and the train rolls down a long, gentle slope among flowery meadows and bright evergreen forests to the blue-green tongue of the fjord.
When the train stops, the Japanese tourists make a mad dash to disembark, knocking one another over and plunging wildly down onto the concrete jetty. A ferry boat is waiting for them and, of course, they are anxious to continue their tour by water through the scenic fjords of Norway (and concerned as well to commandeer the best seats with the finest views of the ferry). The result is a Godzilla-style panic, people shoving and pushing to reach the head of lines already patiently queued-up to board the ferry. There is momentary flurry of chaos, samurai-voices booming in the air, and the Japanese tourists waiting to ascend the valley on the Flamban, also lined-up in a long phalanx next to the souvenir shops, look on with mild disapprobation. Everything is running behind time, an affront to well-organized people like the Japanese and guides are scurrying in all directions, poking their umbrellas in the sky and bellowing. Then, the ferry begins boarding and, a few minutes later, chugs out onto the placid waters of the fjord and, so far as I can see, no one has been left behind. The Flamban starts its steep climb out of the fjord valley and the docks and platforms are deserted. The harried cashiers in the souvenir shops come out to smoke cigarettes in the bright sunlight. A few backpackers from Germany and Italy who have hiked into the valley debate where they can buy a beer. Suddenly, it is preternaturally quiet.
Flam, of course, is absurdly, ridiculously, excessively beautiful. Around the time of Shelley and Keats, an English lord discovered the excellent salmon fishing in the valley’s river and purchased all the terrain from waterfront to the pass at Myrdal. He built a lavish manor for his use and that of his cronies, the predecessor to the hotel where Angelica and I are staying. The hotel is built on a stony shelf of land overlooking the rapidly flowing river. Behind the hotel, the fjord’s cliffs rise in sheer majesty 1500 feet to snow-crested ridges. The great amphitheater enclosed by the precipices is lush with meadows and shadowy green glades and a big waterfall decorates one of the cliffs distracting the traveling admiring the view from a half-dozen smaller, thread-like cascades dancing down from the glaciers overhead. Words don’t suffice to describe the place and pictures are incomplete, incapable of conveying the electrifying presence of the sheer stone walls and the peculiar density and coolness in the air.
Its only mid-afternoon and so I ask the kid at the front desk if there is a place that he would recommend that I go for a walk. The kid has extravagant Ibsenesque whiskers. He shows me several paths and suggests that I walk up the valley a couple kilometers to see the waterfall plunging down from the heights. "Just cross the bridge, take the road along the river, and, then, veer up past the hostel," he marks the path on a map. "It’s level all the way to the path up to the waterfall, then, it gets a little steep."
I thank him, put the map in my pocket, and set off on my stroll.
The day is sunny and cool. The village seems deserted and silent. It’s odd to see the waterfalls marking the heights, but soundless, no roar of water falling, just the faint whisper of the breeze. The river runs shallow over stony flats and I follow it along the highway to a gravel track that leads up toward the waterfall, the big white plume hanging immobile over the valley. The path passes a grim, barn-like hostel, a big square building painted red with elk horn over the entry. Some girls are sitting at a picnic table behind the youth hostel, drinking beer, and sunbathing. Across the meadow, by the river, a couple of young men are fiddling with sea-kayaks in the shallows of the stream.
I find a gate that opens onto a steeply inclining meadow. Some small cattle, covered with shaggy red fur like mastodons, loiter nearby. I recall Oliver Sacks nearly fatal Norwegian adventure recounted in the great neurologist’s memoir, A Leg to Stand On. High above a fjord, while hiking, Sacks encountered a huge bull. The bull turned its face to Sacks and terrified him so that he ran headlong down the hill, a slope very similar to the one now facing me. In the course of his panicked flight, Sacks fell and badly disarticulated his knee – he had to crawl down from the mountain and, probably, would have died of exposure if some hunters had not happened upon him. I have always regarded Sacks account of the bull at the top of the mountain as metaphorical, an image for something that the writer has suppressed from his account and, so, I tell myself that there is likely no bull awaiting me here in this half-vertical pasture, although the cattle nearby, all of them ignoring me, induce a vague sense of dread. Perhaps, Sacks account of the Norwegian bull and the wild panic that it engendered in an otherwise sternly scientific, if romantic, sensibility was not merely a poetic image – maybe, there is a bull concealed somewhere, a wild creature embodying all the horrid dangers of cliff and glacier and icy cisterns of water overhead. Wasn’t the Myr valley (dal means ‘vale’) reputed to be the home of dangerous trolls and beautiful troll-wives like sirens luring travelers to their death? Hadn’t I glimpsed one of those troll-wives on the mountain top above?
Occupied with these thoughts, I pick my way through the boulder-strewn meadow, climbing steeply to a place where the trail inclined upward, a muddy furrow in the side of the hill lined with ladder-like roots and extruded rocks. Presumably, this excessively steep patch would be short and, above, the trail would revert to switchbacks to ascend the 150 yards up to the waterfall’s plunge. Some people come down the mountain, nimbly stepping from stone to stone in the vertical chute of the path – they had made it, not encountered a bull, and so, I presumed, that I would be successful in my hike too. But both of my shoes are untied again, something that annoys me because there is really no convenient place to stoop and retie the loose laces.
I continue upward. Every twenty feet or so, I stagger a little to the side of the clogged chimney of the trail to perch on a rock or fallen tree so that I can rest. A thought reassures me – the altitude is affecting me, tiring my muscles unexpectedly, confounding my thoughts. I clamber up another twenty feet and, then, it occurs to me that this is not some hillside scramble near Ouray or Santa Fe; rather, I am the precise height of the hill above sea-level, now about 100 m. o. h. The snow slumped in ravines across the fjord and the sheer rock walls oozing waterfalls have confused me – my present elevation is, probably, about a hundred feet below Austin. It doesn’t matter. This ascent is simply too difficult, too exhausting and complex for me particularly with both of my tennis shoes untied.
I pause, a half-yard from the ladder of boulders and roots that I have been climbing. Above me, I can see that the chute twists into some trees, rising out of sight, but not leveling in any way and, perhaps, becoming even more perilously vertical. Looking down, I see that it will be terribly difficult to retreat from this aerie – the path poses too many perils. I am now about 300 feet above the valley floor and places that seemed distant to me when I traversed the flat meadows appear now directly underfoot, the battered roof of the hostel at a location so close underneath that it seems that I could pelt that place with stones and the river braided among its gravel channels below as well and so near to the base of this sheer escarpment that, it seems, that were I to trip I would fall from ledge to ledge and end up smashed in the shallows of the stream. The effect is like climbing a pyramid at Chitzen Itza – it’s easy enough to get to the top but when the full effect of the height is splayed out beneath your toes and you can see that a stumble or a trip would be lethal, then, it is not so easy to go down, indeed, not even possible to descend except by scooting downward on your rump over the ancient stones.
At this moment, someone whistles above and I see a Norwegian woman, middle-aged and fit skipping down the hill, foot-sure, finding each pebbly ledge and root to hold her feet as she swiftly descends. A Norwegian family is behind me and the father mutters something to the woman who makes a cheerful sound – the family steps to the side of the vertical groove in the hill so that the woman can continue her progress, hopping from ledge to ledge. I turn and look upward and understand that surely it can’t be so hard to climb higher and reach the waterfall, but a great and desperate weariness has now overcome me and I am fixated on the dangers of descending the slope – how in the world will I get down? The Norwegian family surges uphill, passing by me effortlessly – I can see that they are well-hydrated, each of them carrying a spritz-bottle of mineral water.
I try to bend to tie my muddy shoe laces but my body isn’t hinged where it is supposed to be hinged and I can feel that if I twist wrong or turn too quickly, I will lose my balance and topple down the slope. I reverse my position so that now I am tying my shoe facing uphill, the idea being that if blackness seizes me and I faint, I will somehow fall in the direction of my head and not plunge down the deadly slope. It takes me a long time to tie my shoes and I am chanting curses all the while and panting loudly and, then, I hear another whistle and I see an old Norwegian man, fucking Peer Gynt himself descending from his fine Norwegian waterfall that I will never reach -- the man, older than me, dressed in tennis shorts, blithely descends the slope, leaping from toe-hold to toe-hold, no problem it seems. As he passes, the old Norwegian mountaineer, presumably a bear- or chamois-hunter or some kind of hill troll, gives me a contemptuous look. He descends the slope in a kind of controlled free fall, little avalanches of pebbles and dirt sliding under his nimble feet.
There seems no way that I can ascend and no way that I can go down either to reach the level valley basin. I am trapped. I take one exploratory step and feel gravity tugging at my calves, trying to upset so that I will fall head over heels into the gorge. The step has unsettled the laces on one of my tennis shoes and it is flopping in an unsightly way next to my ankle.
This is impossible, simply impossible.
An hour later, I am at the hotel. To encourage belief in my strength and competency, I decide to take the stairs up to our second floor room, avoiding the elevator. But the steps weigh heavily on me. Each riser afflicts the back of my legs with a gnawing cramp. I reach our room and use my key to enter. We have a small balcony overlooking the fjord and snow-capped mountains, probably one of the most beautiful views in the world, but Angelica ignores the spectacle in favor of watching The Simpsons subtitled in Norwegian.
I peel off my trousers and sweat-sticky shirt. Just at that moment, the door to the hotel room bursts open and the desk clerk is standing there, staring at me. He raises his cell phone to record my amazement and discomfiture. Then, apologizing profusely through his Henrik Ibsen muttonchop sideburns, he shuts the door quietly and I hear his footfalls walking away down the hall.
Flam is too small to support restaurants and so over-night visitors eat in the hotel. The dining room on the second floor has a million-dollar view of the fjord and snow-capped peaks. Guests can select the buffet or a choice of several three-course meals. The waitresses are solicitous – their main task is to promote the consumption of alcohol since drinks are not covered in the room-charge.
Of course, Americans opt for the buffet as do the Japanese. People from more intensely civilized countries, unwilling to be seen scrambling for the chocolate mousse, select one of the meals served in slow-motion to their table. Seatings for the meals continue until nearly 10:00 but the dining room is crowded at this early hour, nonetheless, with Japanese tourists, packs of them hungrily circling the buffet table.
Near our table, a couple from New Zealand have seated themselves close to the window with the extravagant view. The New Zealand couple are in their mid-sixties, fit and handsome, and we have overheard them discussing their travel itineraries with others during much of the last day – like Angelica and I they are taking "Norway in a Nutshell" at their leisure. The couple are mildly adventurous, cosmopolitan, tolerant, and hedonistic – they survey the wine list at length, settle upon a bottle, and, then, after tasting it, pronounce the vintage "very nice, very nice, indeed." They toast one another and, then, besiege the waitress with questions about her home town, her college aspirations, and the local economy. The woman responds in a friendly, if remote, manner.
The Kiwis have been everywhere in the world. They are indignantly enthusiastic, as if daring others to not enjoy the delightful food and cultural traditions on display in various places that they have toured. For years, Asia has been their playground and they announce to the waitress (and the world) the number of places that they have explored in China and Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. They have been to every beautiful place imaginable and, then, return to spend half of the year in New Zealand, a place that is also absurdly beautiful and blessed with fjords possibly even more impressive than those extending away from us into the white night.
The couple moon over the spectacle outside the window and drink some more toasts and the Japanese, once they have been fed, are now quiet, even, pensive. The waitress would like to pull up a chair and chat with the Kiwis, but she has tasks that must be performed. Angelica and I rise and go to our room. The couple from New Zealand are lingering over dessert and aperitifs. The mountains across the sound catch the sun and the snowfields high overhead shine brightly. The shadow of the thousand-foot cliff behind the hotel extends far across the still, dark water and dims the steep escarpments on the fjord’s opposing side and I can see that there is a highway on that stony incline, built along a terrace above the small fishing village facing the water and below the high pastures where some barns are perched improbably on narrow green ledges. When the cars encounter the shadow cast across the fjord by the amphitheater of cliffs behind us, they engage their lights and I can see those headlights probing the greyish gloom a mile and a half away. It is a lonely sight and I am glad to be in the shelter of the hotel.
In the morning, it is gray and brisk, droplets of water sometimes sieving down from above. The ferry is moored at the dock and, after breakfast, the Japanese hustle out to wait in line to board. Japanese like to wait in line; they find queues sociable and comforting, an orderly way to meet (and make) new friends. Of course, Japanese are also concerned that resources might be scarce aboard – after all, they come from a small island – and that the rule of the world is "first-come first served" so that, therefore, it is prudent to be the first on the train or the first on the boat so that you can be assured of your proper share of the amenities available.
The boat is a car ferry and we enter through the whale-gut hollow where vehicles would ordinarily be parked. Luggage is deposited on a pallet and, then, we climb up the narrow steel steps and hurry through the gangways onto the several decks where the Japanese have already commandeered all of the most favorable vantages and overlooks. Outside, there is a chill wind fraught with moisture but the interior galleys of the vessel are oppressively warm, over-heated, it seems, and the air smells of bacon and sausage and coffee – you can buy food from a cafeteria-style counter in the center of the deck.
The ferry is heavy and moves without seeming to move and the landscape glides by, a succession of towering cliffs adorned with immense waterfalls. After a half hour, the spectacle is so gratuitously beautiful that it becomes tiresome – you have to force yourself to keep looking, craning your head up to see the tops of the cascades billowing out of the snowfields and, then, tracking the falling water down channels and grooves in the escarpment to where it vanishes in big rock-falls, cairns of gravel and boulders on the edge of the fjord. The Japanese occupy all advantageous overlooks on the ship and do not yield to anyone. Japanese girls, are uniformly petite and cute, use selfie sticks to take innumerable photographs of themselves with the fjords in the background. After an hour some of the Japanese have lost interest in the landscape and so they are feeding the seagulls that attend upon the ship, an ripped umbrella of fluttering wings and glittering eyes and sharp beaks hovering over the moving vessel.
The ferry passes some small towns, each notable for a "fine 12th century church," and a recorded voice, reciting in polyglot, draws our attention to some of the small farms peering down on the fjord from tiny tilted meadows high on the cliff-face – one of the farms is so difficult to reach that it is called "Steps," the Norwegian word "for ladder," after the path that accesses it. The polyglot narrator doesn’t name the innumerable waterfalls – perhaps, they don’t even have names. There is no moment during the 2 ½ hour boat ride when, at least, two or three waterfalls are not dramatically present and the cascades present themselves to the eye with bewildering variety – there are white columns that seem strangely static, waterfalls comprised of veil-like shrouds of water that succeed one another in a pulsing jet down the wet cliff, vertical rapids in a vertical river thundering down from the glaciers, a silver thread glinting in a gloomy black slit canyon, shredded bridal gown, bits of white billowy fabric plastered here and there, almost at random on the slick cliff, Book of Exodus-style springs: sprays of water spurting from stone. And there are waterfalls like shattered white ladders, waterfalls made of drifting fog and mist, waterfalls that are pale, thundering apocalypses, or riders of the apocalypse confined by walls of black rock, an upside-down thunderstorm, and a pale Greek temple quivering as if in an earthquake, high above, a puppyish white tail wagging under the hindquarters of a glacier, the spurting, spouting arteries of the mountain, waterfalls that seem made of white thread stitching the cliffsides together, water-mountain striations, stretch-marks, stillness in complete motion and motion in stillness...
The New Zealanders are delighted to find a Chinese tourist among the scores of Asians standing at bulkheads to overlook the water. They have traveled much in the realms of gold that are China and so they speak familiarly to Chinese tourist and he tries to answer their questions in his halting, polite English. A Japanese man showing facility for birds has lured five or six seagulls onto the deck – the birds sit on the emergency equipment like furry pistons, arrayed in a row with eyes unblinking and folded wings and heads bobbing. The ship’s captain announces that some seals are visible, small graceful-looking animals the size of otters, only about 18 inches long and sunning themselves on some flat rocks at the base of a waterfall.
The boat cruises from Aurlandfjord into the more narrow and jagged Naeroyfjord and, then, docks at Gudvangen. This village is basically a bus terminal with some rustic-looking kiosks where people can wait for their rides. The place has some of the ambience of a national park concession, dark log buildings concealing toilets and vending machines, souvenir places where you can buy tee-shirts marked with runes, troll memorabilia, sweaters knit with copulating moose and elk, jars of honey and gift boxes containing small, picturesquely labeled bottles of aquavit.
After the tedious spectacle of the fjord, the tourists spend their time shopping or eating hot dogs, paying no attention at all to the fantastic beauty around them. It is, after all, just more of the same. But, in fact, Gudvangen stands at the center of a vast and towering ring of cliffs, many of them two-thousand feet high, extending upward into granite domes surrounded by slouching fields of glacier. The sun hangs over a high cirque filled with luminous mists from which rainbows constitute themselves, shimmer for a moment, and, then, dissolve. At that height, a big waterfall, like the famous plunge in Yosemite valley, hurls itself off the top of a cliff and drops in a vertiginous freefall hundreds of feet, the white surge of cascading water caught by the wind and deflected, a stream of particles twisting in a field of some kind, and, then, shattered by ledges into clouds of turbulent spray. Elsewhere overhead, I can see creamy brinks of falling water slipping soundlessly over the rims of stone a thousand feet overhead, the bottoms of the glaciers leaking water like the icing on a wedding cake, white slivers that slip and slide over the rocks and, then, combine into another Yosemite-style waterfall jetting off a moss-green ledge eight-hundred feet above the village – as if in commentary on the aggressive, freefalling plume of water, another series of cascades stands alongside the big jet, a filigree of dozens of small waterfalls that refuse to coalesce and that, instead, cover the cliff-side with silver lace, a dozen or more parallel strands in a frayed silver cord sliding suavely down a thousand feet of stone to vanish amid green pyramids of mossy talus alongside the river in the valley floor.
A bus hauls us from Gudvangen through a narrow canyon where waterfalls thunder on both sides of the road. By this time, no one has eyes for the waterfalls, they are just apparatus standing nonchalantly at the sides of the canyon. Just before entering a long, dark tunnel, at the head of a valley, I see an immense fog of mist pouring from a tear in the rock – this must be the largest waterfall of them all, but it is invisible from the highway, just the cold breath of a monstrous dragon exhaled from the black gorge.
On the other side of the tunnel, the bus takes a turn and travels up some serpentine switchbacks to the top of the mountain. Coming down from the ridge, the landscape looks familiar to me – I have seen these place and can recognize the vista but, at first, my sense of deja vu seems misplaced and uncanny. Although I know this vantage, and have seen these wild plunging gorges before, I have never been on this hillside and so, of course, the feeling that I have been here before makes no sense at all. Then, I recognize the great bald tumor of granite sealing off the narrow and deep valley, the huge dome of bare rock that looks something like the excrescence head of a hill-troll, not the primary head, but a secondary or tertiary skull growing out of the clavicle, all bone and gnashing jaw. The big mountain blocking the valley is like the rounded, billowing form of the hill troll dogging the steps of Ibsen as he marched down Karl Johan Gate, setting his watch by the clock on the National Theater, and, then, making his way to the Grand Café for his morning pastry and beer and shot of schnaps.
Of course, this is the valley of Stalheim and I recognize the vista from the painting by J. C. Dahl in the National Gallery. The bus is traversing the exact ridge from which Dahl painted the valley’s portrait and I can see the sloping lush meadows, the groves of trees in the wrinkled folds of the mountains, the little village atop an opposing bluff, and, of course, the troll-like mountain in the distance. The only difference between Dahl’s painting and this vista is the presence of a large, chateau-like hotel in the foreground, a big lodge where a half-dozen tour buses are parked, and, then, on the narrow 20% downgrade, long rows of hiking Japanese tourists descending the steep asphalt lane to a vantage over a huge waterfall, the thing growling in the canyon that I couldn’t see as our bus went into the tunnel below. After making a couple of seemingly impossible turns, the bus stops so that we can take pictures at an overlook on the waterfall. The Japanese descending in single file along the edge of the road, obviously fearful that our bus will nudge them over the side and into the abyss, have congregated at the balcony-like overlook before us. They block the view.
This is the fate of the world, I suppose, and the future destiny of all travel. At great expense, and with some difficulty, you reach a sublime and beautiful place. But when you get to the vantage from which the marvel can be glimpsed, the Japanese will be there before you. The precious view will be blocked and occupied by Asian tourists, crowds of them, gaping with wonder at the spectacle: small family groups comprised of an elderly, bulbous-looking grandma with complexion and face like a potato, a few crying babies, some preternaturally skinny and cute girls wearing tightfitting black leggings and ballerina-style tutus, men barking commands in samurai-voices, subservient grinning housewives and their grinning boys in North Face windbreakers and, behind them all, a half-crippled grandpa with his face covered by an anti-viral mask.
There are two waterfalls in Stalheim canyon and they rage like caged beasts.
At the foot of the mountain, the bus turns back onto the main road and the people applaud the skill of the driver in navigating the impossibly steep and winding road and, then, we are on the way to Voss, moving through a landscape that becomes increasingly placid and domestic. A big lake stands next to the highway and, across the water, I can see bales of hay neatly shrinkwrapped in white plastic, heaps of them like white marshmallows on the grassy shore. From time to time, the bus stops at the side of the road to pick up dowdy-looking older women, apparently chambermaids in the motels and resorts that line the highway – the scenic tour of Stalheim canyon has become part of the domestic bus service for the city of Voss.
We pass two big, but dilapidated ski jumps. The New Zealand couple issues an obligatory "ooh and ahh," pointing up to the curved wreckage, something like the prow of foundered Viking ship, atop the hill. One of the maids who has just boarded the bus shrugs. She sits alone holding a romance novel in English on her lap. The maid says scornfully: "Those ski jumps haven’t been used for 30 years." The tone and accent of her voice is unmistakable: she is from the suburbs of Minneapolis, specifically, if I hear her correctly, from Richfield or northern Bloomington. I see that she has a Minnesota Vikings pin on her purse. This is the sort of nondescript, cheerful, dimwitted woman that you might find at David Fong’s at 93rd and Lyndale eating egg rolls and chow mein on a Friday night. After dinner, she will go to the Legion Post to play bingo. I wonder what she is doing here, working as a chambermaid, on the outskirts of Voss.
Voss is a genteel-looking city of beautiful chalets posed against a long green lake. The lake is a fjord, presumably isolated from the sea by a prehistoric avalanche and the headwaters of a turbulent spectacular river that flows downhill toward Bergen, plunging between house-size boulders and little stone islands split by the roots of battered-looking pine trees. The bluffs rising four- or five-hundred feet above the lakeside estates are decorated with frothy waterfalls.
At the Voss train station, the toilet costs 10 Kroner and I am carrying in my wallet nothing but 100 and 500 Kroner notes. Angelica has no change either and so there is no way for either of us to use the facilities. The train is delayed for a half-hour and I observe that there is an ESSO station across the highway with a Kwik-Trip style convenience store. I go down to the gas station and find the toilet on the back side of the ESSO where there is a small parking lot next to the grey-green waters of the lake. I return, climbing uphill to the small Victorian train station. Angelica goes to use the toilet as well and comes back with some Norwegian candy and a large bottle of soda pop.
The train is delayed another 15 minutes. The locals apparently know somehow that the train to Bergen is not on time – they don’t start showing up on the platform until the signs show the train to be only five minutes away.
A hill troll darts up from the highway, running from the ESSO station to the old waiting hall painted a glossy and vapid daisy yellow. He looks around in dismay, then, finds the subway to let him cross under the tracks so that he can wait on the side of the platform where the train to Bergen will arrive. Angelica and I are sitting on a bench with a seat open between me and a pretty Norwegian girl with long blonde hair and ghost-white skin. Of course, the hill troll is interested in the girl and he plants himself next to me, muttering a few endearments to the girl. The girl says something soft, but decisive and so this one-headed hill troll, a bit disappointed it seems, turns himself to me. He peels off his shirt, revealing a very handsome and lean torso with no evidence of any extra heads at all, a taut and pleasing physique. Then, the one-headed hill troll reaches into his backpack, pops a beer and takes a long and refreshing draught. "You must forgive me," the troll says politely, "I have had to run all the way, many blocks, and I am, I’m afraid, rather overheated." He shakes his white tee-shirt and, then, wrings it out in his hands. "The beer will cool me down," the hill troll says. He swabs at his underarms with his tee shirt, drinks the rest of the beer in a prolonged, melodious guzzle, and, then, crushes the can neatly to put in his backpack – in Norway, even hill-trolls do not litter. A bee appears, buzzing close to Angelica. Angelica is afraid of being stung and so she leaps to her feet, frantically batting away the bee. But the bee is persistent and it pursues her. The hill troll dances to the side, gallantly placing his sweaty torso between Angelica and the bee. With lightning rapidity, he flicks his hand at the bee and knocks it out of the air.
"They will not harm you," the hill troll says, "if you remain motionless."
"I was afraid it would sting me," Angelica says.
"Not at all," the hill troll says. He stoops over and, with his fingers held like forceps, picks up the bee by his shattered wing. I expect him to pop the bee into his mouth, but, instead, he walks to the edge of the platform and, then, deposits the dead insect on the gravel and sleepers of the railroad track. Smiling with satisfaction, the hill troll puts on his tee-shirt just as the train to Bergen roars up to the platform.
On the train, we see him again, restlessly pacing through the cars, looking for pretty girls to pester.