This page is in progress; soon there will be wonderful things here, the likes of which neither you nor I can even imagine. Until then, would you like to follow along on my Norwegian bike tour? Read some longer-form creative writing? Listen to some of my audio work on yeast and Nicaraguans? Hire me to write for you? See who’s behind this business? You’ve come to the right place, then – welcome!
You wouldn’t know it from reading these updates, but I made it to Tromsø today! It’s been tough to keep the writing coming as fast as I can pedal, but there are many more stories to come – fishing in the maelstrom, companions and hosts on the road, and the troll-infested wilds of northern Norway; I’ll get to them all soon. But I couldn’t leave you hanging after accomplishing the goal: 3000 kilometers from Amsterdam to Tromsø. I’m going to take a nap – see you soon,
There’s not too much to say about Trollstigen, the Troll’s Highway, really. It’s billed as Norway’s most impressive road, with its dozen twists and turns laid out across a mountainside. It’s a silly place, with a modernist visitor center at the top. The designer of this center made the bathroom sinks look so much like urinals that they’ve since had to post signs that say “Don’t piss here.” That should tell you something.
As fun as it was to ride down, I couldn’t help but think that this road, open for less than half the year, prone to rockslides and closures, is as excessive as third houses or gold-plated braces. Quite nice to look at, but really, why? I’m sure there’s more to the story (there always is), but I’m glad that the Troll’s Highway is one-of-a-kind – the world can’t handle too many of these places, and I prefer to wash my hands in a sink, not a urinal.
BUT, it should be said, it was really quite nice to ride down.
Nothing says Norway like a Russian tourist straddling a troll statue in a rainshower. That’s my entry for the new national anthem (it’s ‘yes, we love this land’ right now; mine wins hands-down, yes?). Troll-straddling was the most popular activity I witnessed in my short stay in Geiranger, a tiny community supported by the cruise ships that sail into its fjord. The particular troll in question was a little sheltered from the rain, maybe explaining its popularity.
The rainstorm came in at exactly the minute it was predicted to – Norwegian weathermen must have a closer connection to the sky controls than American ones. I set up a small picnic camp on a covered patio, right in the stream of cruise-ship travelers under umbrellas, who were ogling the diverse troll statuettes and jewelry in the windows behind me. I caught a fair amount of their ogling, too, but they were probably just jealous of my lunch of bread, jam, and Norwegian brown cheese…
Even with precision rainshowers and a crowd of cruise-shippers, Geiranger is a breathtaking place. The mountain road plummets down switchbacks to reach the water; from there, you can see that the town is an anomaly – a slightly flat place in a vertical world.
I opted to take a 3-hour ferry through the fjord, cutting out another big climb up the Ørnevegen (Eagle’s Way) – I left it for the birds and stuck to fish country. The ride was unbelievable, with the rain lifting just as we set sail. Along the walls of the fjord (and they felt like walls – impenetrable at most points), we passed countless waterfalls. The pre-recorded audio guide tried to keep up with our pace, but with Norwegian, English, and German to go through, it lagged behind at times.
As each new language started up, different clusters of people would lean into the speaker to hear about “The Devil’s Hideaway” (a crack in the fjord-wall so deep that he can always stay out of the sunlight) or “The Seven Sisters” waterfall, or the abandoned farms we began to see.
These farmhouses hung onto the tiniest scraps of hillside. Almost all of them relied on goat-paths or cable-lifts to access the fjord. Some had no water in winter, or were built under rock outcrops to protect them from landslides; all of them were extremely beautiful. Also a little terrifying to think about ekeing out a living in such an inhospitable environment. How desperate for land/subsistence must people have been to choose these places to make their stand in the world?
All these farms on the Geirangerfjord were abandoned between 1950 and 1960, when the economy was stirring, cities were growing, and the oil boom was on the horizon. Children began to see life more horizontally, spreading out and away instead of shuttling farm goods up and down, watching out for rock slides and tidal waves. It’s a trend that spread throughout the country, but was especially visible here in the most challenging growing environment in the country.
After the ferry ride, there was just one climb between me and the Troll’s Highway, Norway’s silliest road.
P.S. sorry for the lack of formatting on these photos – haven’t found a good way to stick them into the post from the road.
Want to start at the beginning? Good call.
“A seed hidden in the heart of an apple is an orchard invisible.” – Welsh proverb
The story – our story – begins and ends with a seed. Planted long ago in the then-fertile soil of the Near East, it contained a new idea. Hitched to these miniscule things, the story went, we will build a different future. While before seeds dwelled on the periphery of our lives, now we will build our settlements around them. Our future will have permanence and grandeur, bread and barley beer – we will put down roots and thrive in place; we will raise up granaries and monuments to our gods and give thanks for the blessing of a seed; our children will disperse through the land and create their own prosperity. We will become seeds and, by doing so, we will share in their power.
As stories go, it was a powerful one. But, as the stories of the powerful so often do, it left out all the details and skirted over the realities of a sedentary lifestyle. When people settled down into agricultural life, their nutrition declined; inequality increased, the religious monuments built on the backs of an underclass; and these first agriculturalists of the Near East so abused their land that it utterly collapsed and has never recovered.
The seed’s own cycles of creation, growth, dispersal, decay are echoed throughout human history. One group of seed-people emerges and grows strong, spreading widely over the land, only to collapse and leave room for the next. Is societal failure inevitable, then, just a misnomer for
decay, one part of a cycle that continues forever onward? Can we see ourselves as the equivalent of annual plants on a different scale, dying away regularly only to slightly rearrange the information of our predecessors and start again? If this were so, shouldn’t we have learned something of ourselves and our environment by now? Perhaps we have. Perhaps we haven’t. Seeds are the story, but we never have grasped the whole story.
The paradox of seeds – both resilient and fragile, reliable and fickle, lasting and ephemeral, they embody the complexity necessary to exist in and understand this world. From the founding of our culture, we have expected too much and understood too little of them. Of human existence, seeds speak volumes – both of our past, and our potential futures.
As for pasts – to me, every backward-looking what if question is gratuitous. Those with the most to gain from rewriting the past usually have the least time to consider what could have been, struggling just to deal with what is. That being said, I have my own what if, though I know it is unanswerable: what if seeds as we know them had never developed? Would anyone be here at all?
The more interesting what ifs, the ones worth more of our time and energy, are the forward-looking ones. The future is wide open, limited only by the gaps in our imagining. From the rooftops of the Welsh coast to the Norwegian arctic expanse, from the Near East to archaic Greece to Walden Pond, from the first settlers to discover Hawai’i to their descendants striving to enliven their culture, humans are, and always have been, trying to shape the future in their own terms. Some are explicit about it; some less so.
After millions of years together, the past few thousand in close quarters, we are irretrievably dependent on the awesome design of seeds. This is not a bad thing, necessarily – they are graceful, unique, and engaged, qualities worth striving for in our own lives. The lessons they can teach us – to contemplate before taking action; to break free of the soil and change the world when conditions demand it; to know and hold sacred the things that sustain us, protecting them from harmful manipulation; to work in tandem with the environment and all it contains – these lessons are equally important. We haven’t learned them yet, but it’s only been some ten thousand years. The wisdom of a seed works on its own timescale. Our futures unfold together.
This is the conclusion of A Creation Story, but there will be much more in this vein, published regularly in this space. If you’d be willing, I’d love to hear what you thought about this, or where it helped your thoughts to wander.
I had no plans to go up over Norway’s highest pass on my bicycle. I didn’t even know it existed – I had some nice ideas to hug the coast, bike along the fjord, then turn north when I ran into the ocean. When I did hear about the Sognefjellet, though – a steep-grade climb from sea level to 1434 meters (4500 feet), I knew I could never do it. Why would anyone choose that way?
This feeling of certainty that I wouldn’t take the Sognefjell contradicted all the stories I tell about myself. I say I’m flexible, up for anything, looking for the best experience possible I can get out of this trip. But then, when everyone I talked to suggested this different route, I kept throwing up resistance. Is it really that beautiful to go through the mountains? Wouldn’t it be nicer to stay by the water, even if there are a few impassable tunnels I’d have to catch a ride through? Am I fit enough to climb 4000 feet, just like that, then go back down and do it two more times? Or will I wind up on the side of the road, pushing my bike (which, in this vision, has become a twisted metal scrap-heap) uphill forever, butt of some Norwegian engineer’s cruel joke?
The point here, maybe, is that on a solo bike tour, I’m finding lots of time for internal dialogue, to wrestle with my own thoughts and ways of viewing the world. I’m learning that while I think of myself as flexible and ready to choose the best way forward, I can also get set in one way of thinking. It’s freeing to be able to see that more clearly – when I can see it, I can move around it.
I took the high road. It was awesome, full of mountain camps, ancient churches, and challenging rides. I met other bike-touring folk along the way and shared the experience with them. I learned that I can, in fact, bike up 1434 meters, and that I’m capable of more than I sometimes give myself credit for. I know more about myself, how I think, what I can do, and where I’m going. And I saw where Ron Weasley made his most recent movie, about a World War II fighter-plane battle. Wins on all counts.
It rained, of course – that’s what it does in Norwegian mountains. But the ride down from Sognefjell was lovely, and then, after another pass came Geiranger, home of cruise ships, Russian tourists, and the most beautiful fjord of them all. That story comes next!
But I’m curious, too – what stories do you tell about yourself, and when have you felt them called into question?