July 27, 2018
There’s this picture of me that I love. I’m seventeen years old and holding a battered copy of Les Misérables in my hand. It’s battered because I’ve been throwing it around the backseat of a van, kneading its pages with sweaty, road-trip-snack-stained fingers when I read, and also because at some point, I’ve dropped it into the toilet. I’m fresh out of the shower, my hair is stringy and wet, parted severely down the middle. I’m wearing brown stretch flares, a Twister graphic tee, and a maroon zip-up hoodie so worn-out it’s lost its shape. Leaned up against a cabin doorframe, I look every bit an ill-dressed, awkward teenager, unsure of how to move inside her own body. But the expression on my face, half-turned away from the camera, is dreamy. I’m somewhere else, but perfectly at peace. My eyes look to the horizon. All around me are massive mountains, glacier-scarred rock whorled with strange shapes that seem to come alive when you stare long enough. It’s like looking at a Magic Eye print. Below, green-tinged water surges over rocks, in a canyon it carved out over ages. I am in Norway, and the look on my face is the one I always seem to wear when I’m here.
Norway is my soul’s happy place. There’s something about the briskness of the chill air carrying that tinge of salt, the soft, mossy ground, the mountains of bald stone bursting above the dark green tree line, the fjords that turn Colgate-colored when they churn and glint like raw malachite where they are impassive and deep. This landscape was made long before me. It will be here long after I am gone. I am insignificant beside it, and that is a comfort to me.
Two years ago, when we hiked the Preikestolen, Elli and I kept saying we’d have to come back for Trolltunga, which is how, not long ago, we found ourselves living in a small white house right on the Sørfjorden, where we woke to the sounds of waves lapping up against the dock and almost-midnight-sun streaming in through the curtains. Before breakfast, I’d walk to the water and do yoga. There were bright red cherries to pick off the trees in the backyard and a sprawling currant bush speckled with fruit. Every morning was an experiment in mastering the ancient Moccamaster, but for every questionable attempt, there was warm toast with sweet, caramel-colored brown cheese and strawberry jam.
Not long ago, we found ourselves living in a small white house right on the Sørfjorden, where we woke to the sounds of waves lapping up against the dock and almost-midnight-sun streaming in through the curtains.
The Hardanger region is known for its rainy weather, but for the week we were there, there was nothing but sunshine. Uncharacteristic, everyone said, but that was fine with us; we were still pulling on fleece after letting the icy cold fjord massage our hiking-sore legs.
Trolltunga is a magnificent hike. The trail starts in Skjeggedal and meanders some 1,000 meters up, past rubble-strewn moon landscapes and placid lakes. The rocks have grip here, microabrasions rubbed into their skin by the slow sandpaper lurch of glacial ice, and the pure white stripe of the Folgefonna glacier scrapes along the sky like a lazy brushstroke. Each view is more breathtaking than the last. At some point, the beauty is exhausting. How is the water so blue, the grass that ethereal shade of emerald? Near the top, patches of snow slowly melt, the water feeds the small purple and yellow flowers creeping through dusty cracks in the rock.
It takes about four hours to get to the eponymous rock formation that looks like a troll’s tongue wagging out over the lake below. We’d set out on our hike early – awake by four to hit the trail just before seven. Long stretches of the route we walked alone, and still, at Trolltunga, there were people waiting to step out on the tongue to have their pictures taken. Worth it. For the drama. But we soon decamped to a little pool for lunch, where there was not another soul and the sounds of cameras snapping was lost over the boulders behind us. We unwrapped our sandwiches and stuck our toes in the cool water.
Food tastes best when you’re really hungry. And better than best when you can rest your aching body in the sunshine, when the cool breeze is like a salve on your sweaty back.
We’re good at finding lunchtime spots. Of course, we’re also good at pushing ourselves on the hike, which helps make the lunchtime spot so much sweeter. On our waterfall hike through the Husedalen Valley, we’d reached the fourth of four waterfalls, and yet the trail looked like it kept going. The horizon seemed so close, and though the trail was steep, we thought we’d just keep walking to the top of the ridge, for the view. The trail, which had been inclining gently over the course of two hours, suddenly veered to a sixty degree incline up a massive boulder. One foot in front of the other, we kept walking, now at level with the top of the waterfall and still no closer to the horizon. Now we were out of breath, but stubbornly setting one new goal after the other. That cairn. That trail marker. Those two strange stones. Higher and higher we climbed, but like an elusive rainbow, it seemed we never got closer to the sky, until finally, after an hour of scaling the sheer rock face, we burst over the ridge and dropped, exhausted, to the ground. Our lunchtime pool was waiting for us.
Now we were out of breath, but stubbornly setting one new goal after the other. That cairn. That trail marker. Those two strange stones.
But food is also good when you’re not exhausted from a hike, when you’ve done nothing all day but kayak leisurely down the fjord in front of your house, read a book in the sun, scribble silly nothings in a notebook, and pet the gentle gray-haired goats.
One evening, we grilled on our backyard dock in the early evening sun – skin-on salmon filets, peppers, zucchini, leek. Lighting the grill was an adventure. I’m sure an observer would have laughed at us wildly fanning the briquettes with an aluminum tray, getting smoke on our skin and in our hair. We ate dinner at the massive stone table in the fading light, the meal so perfect in its simplicity, seasoned with nothing more than salt and pepper and oil, because that was all we had.
Neither the Germans nor the Americans are the happiest of people. We spend a lot of our time thinking about what could be better. What haven’t we accomplished yet. What’s lacking. What we have too little of. I’m guilty of this. I’m always trying to be better, never resting on one achievement before charting out the next.
But I’m different in Norway. I take time to enjoy simple pleasures. The flit of a bee in and out of a cupped flower bud. A piece of green glass smoothed by water and sand. A rushing waterfall, nature’s own eternal white noise machine. The fizz of seltzer on my tongue that quenches my thirst. And of course, those mountains, that water reminding me that my problems are so small, that for every not-quite-optimized thing, there’s also a whole lot of just right.
It’s my favorite souvenir.
*Thanks to Elisabeth Mielke for some of the photos used in this post.