Within days of finishing the Camino de Santiago, or perhaps while we were still on the way, we plotted our next pilgrimage (for those wanting to join the Mormon Society of St. James’s pilgrimage next year, it is already decided: Canterbury).
St. Olav’s Way in Norway is the obvious second pilgrimage in Europe, not necessarily because of Olav’s importance (at least outside of Scandinavia), but because of the popularity of the path and the way it is organised: like the Camino, Olav’s Way is signposted and has pilgrims’ lodgings along the path. (Not to the extent of the Camino, mind you, which is in a league of its own in this regard.)
Walking for 100km over five days towards a pilgrimage spot will need no justification to those who understand the joy inherent in such things. In that sense, walking again was a given. We have an added poignancy this year in that our friend and Camino brother Jordan Fowles is no longer with us. We will think of him all the way.
Olav Haraldsson was the first king to Christianise Norway and was martyred at the battle of Stiklestad in 1030 for his troubles. The church raised near to his burial became Nidaros cathedral in Trondheim, and it is to there where we set our feet.
We are: Ronan (England), Peter and Beate (Austria), John C, Tana, and Gabe (Germany), Martha (USA), and John F. (USA). We are believers and non-believers. We are Christians, Mormons, Mormon-Christians, Anglo-Mormons, and “other”. We are pilgrims.
UPDATE: Day Five: Sundet Gård to Nidaros (Trondheim)
Gabe: The only thing that could possibly be missing on this great walk was Jordan Fowles. On the last coupla’ days along our hike last year (the Camino de Santiago de Compostela) Jordan decided to take a plastic bag with him to pick up trash along the way, talking about how if every pilgrim along the way would pick up the trash that he/she saw, than the way would be perfectly clean and more enjoyable. Ideas like that showed how positive and cheerful Jordan was. So when I stood in front of Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, I just thought of what great ideas he would’ve had.
John C.: The last three days have been interesting. On Wednesday, we walked in heavy rain and traipsed through a bog, sinking to the ankle in the peat. Yesterday was just about perfect weather and the day ended with a traditional Skandinavian meal, served by our hosts at a Norwegian farm. Today began in rain and ended in sunlight. It was a miniature of the trip. At the end of the day, after receiving our pilgrim certificates and participating in the pilgrims’ service, we ran into two LDS missionaries, on their way to some appointment. Then we attended evensong. We were all handed hymnals as we walked into evensong and then we were all expected to sing along. In Norwegian. To songs based in Gregorian chants. In non-familiar notation. Ronan turned to me and said, “We’re dead.” Luckily, there was a ringer in the row behind us, a strong-voiced older woman who knew all the words, rhythms, and tunes. The priest (a woman (the second to lead us in pray at the Cathedral)) sang the call and we sang the response. Badly. But with some feeling and with good effort. It struck me, while we stood there, facing a foreign altar, singing in a language I didn’t know how to pronounce, that we were all trying to worship God. As one (a broken, badly-tuned one), we were striving for the divine in the song, in the moment, in ourselves, and in God. Paul spoke in an unknown tongue and so did I today. It was beautiful.
Day Four: Skaun to Sundet Gård
Beate: Today was a day with many different impressions. Contrary to yesterday, the sun was shining and rain was nowhere to be seen. We started off by paying a visit to Skaun kirke, which dates back to the 12th century. Our Swedish friend we had talked to the previous night was kind enough to translate information about the church shared with us by a local Norwegian, and Martha uplifted our spirits by playing a few songs on the organ. The trail was already very pretty yesterday, and today we were rewarded with equally stunning views. It led through some more bog (much more pleasant without the rain), we paused for a nice shared lunch, then we walked through a forest straight out of a fairy tale, then along a road back to civilization, and eventually to the beach by Trondheim Fjord. Tonight we are staying Sundet Gård, an incredibly beautiful farmhouse that can be reached by crossing a river at the end of a fjord. Jon Wanvik, the owner, picked us up in his row boat and made no fewer than three rounds to get everyone across the river. The little house with our rooms for the night displays a great mixture of pictures, books, trivia about the place, traditional Norwegian farm equipment, and a great attention to detail in putting together all those things. It is a cultural heritage site, one appreciated by a Norwegian princess and her husband on two occasions. Day 4 has been the day I liked best so far. Walking is a lot easier than on the first two days, and I have started to really enjoy just starting off in the morning and continuing all day. There is great companionship in the group, and conversations as we walk are both inspiring and enjoyable. Tomorrow is our last day and we will have an early start to walk the last 20 km to Trondheim. The thought of it is a bittersweet one- I will be glad to have made it to the end, but at the same time I am a bit sad the walking St. Olav’s Way has almost come to an end.
Martha: One thing I have appreciated on this pilgrimage has been Mother Nature’s bounty to us. We have enjoyed wild raspberries every day, and then yesterday, brightening our day of slogging through bog, wild blueberries joined the menu! The raspberries are all sweet and ripe, and the blueberries are refreshing, though tart. Yesterday, as we were treading the last few km to our destination at Skaun kirke, we started to fear we wouldn’t make it to a store before it closed. As it was, we were blessed to make it with a few minutes to spare, but even when we considered fasting, the fear of starvation was staved off by the thought of delicious berries. There is always something for a pilgrim in Norway to eat, at least now, during the first week of August. The flowers have also caught my attention. They are everywhere! Not only are wildflowers plentiful along our path, but most people decorate with flowers outside their houses and in. Even small apartments have flowers in the windows or on the balconies, in brightly glazed pots, usually blue. Geraniums, petunias and fuschia are popular choices. The people here know the importance of making their homes and lives beautiful. This land is breathtakingly lovely. From the emerald green grass to the wheat fields white and ready to harvest, to the hills so steep that we marvel that the sheep and cows can stand without falling, to the brightly painted houses and barns, to the low-lying clouds over the landscape during the rain, to the smell of the rich black earth, to the pieces of rose-colored quartz on the gravel roads, to the wildflowers, berry bushes, and thickly-clustered trees, to the mountains and cliffs, to the giant fir-needle anthills half as tall as I stand, to the wide rivers, to the bubbling streams running under, through, or by our path, to the numerous shells on the banks of the fjord, to the cries of the birds in the air, and to the sapphire blue of the open sky, Norway opens my senses to the wonders of the world. It is good to be here.
Ronan: Those who know me best know that no trip into the countryside is complete without a “plunge” into cold water. So, as Olav’s Way crossed the Djupdalsbekken, buttocks were bared, shrieks were heard, and bodies were cleansed.
Day Three: Svorkmo/Gumdal to Skaun
Ronan: It rained, we walked through bogs, and I don’t believe in indulgences anyway.
Peter: Today was epic, though it wasn’t supposed to be. While preparing for the trip, we went through various iterations of various itineraries with the 30-odd km of the third day of our last pilgrimage still in painful memory in order to avoid such surprises this time around. And so I proposed a longer hike on Monday in order to walk 10 km fewer today while still arriving in Trondheim on Friday. The day started off fine; after a relaxing night on a Norwegian farm, we got underway under an almost blue sky. An hour later, however, it started to rain, and the moisture became our constant companion for the rest of the day. And not only that from the sky. As we gained in elevation, the ground turned soggy. It would have been easy to complain, but this is one of the last untouched moor landscapes left in the world, and for my part, the cool water flooding my shoes was refreshing, and many MB were written in photographic data. This was a truly stunning landscape worth the price of admission all by itself. A German couple who has been on the trail for three weeks and 400 km said that today’s stretch was one of the most scenic on the whole trail, second only perhaps to the Dovrefjell mountain. At any rate, we came down the mountain and instead of beating a path to tonight’s stop at Skaun kirke, we tried to shave a few meters from our trip and left the trail. We thought we knew where we were; how often could the trail leave a road, head right over a bridge and continue north? Well, it turns out it does that twice. We left the trail the first time when we should have waited for the second. That fatal decision lead to an epic bushwhack, which was only partially compensated for by a few more stunning views. We finally straggled into camp 20 minutes before the first store we’d seen in two days of hiking closed. Supplies were procured, and beds were set up in the cultural hall of the local church. Tonight it’s crowded–13 pilgrims have wended their way to Skaun. Two more days remain, and I’m almost sad that the big adventures and potential for “exploring” off the beaten path are pretty much over. From now on, civilization will draw nearer.
Tana: I’m sitting in the Skaun church cultural hall kitchen, listening to Peter talk with a Swede who does monthly three-day Olavsweg pilgrimages. He’s told us about the Samis in the north, cloud berries in the bogs, and giant windmills in the Trondheim fjord. We are all exhausted, as would be expected, and Germans, Swedes, Brits, Americans, and Austrians sit or lie on mattresses scattered on the floor of the cultural hall. Some tend blistered feet, others are already ensconced in sleeping bags, trying to rejuvenate in time for the morning slog. Kristin Lavransdatter, the main character of the eponymous trilogy, lived in this area, and this was her church. She lived in the farming village of Husaby, which will be the first village we’ll walk through in the morning. This is also a literary pilgrimage of sorts. In preparation for this adventure, I read up on medieval pilgrimage commonalities, and learned that an average pilgrim covered between 30 and 40 kilometers per day. They walked on difficult trails through dark woods, trying to find other pilgrims they could trust, all while fending off brigands, seeking shelter and food from kind strangers, wildcrafting in the wilderness, and trying to get to whichever shrine they fervently believed would save them in some way. So, yeah,… each time I imagine them up here with wolves and thieves and hair shirts, I tell myself to buck up and carry on. It’s a nice mantra to carry home with me. During one of the hardest rainstorms today, as we shivered in what looked like a horror film farm shed (what WAS in that locked closet?), Ronan started singing about Tom Bombadil, the menfolk harmonised a version of “Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy”, and Martha and I started harmonizing on several folksongs. We shared our peanuts, raisins, Norwegian lumpa potato bread, and the last of the butter. Then we walked out into the rain, the bogs, the forest, and tromped all the way to the 12th century church at Skaun, walking through the landscape of Kristin Lavransdatter.
Day Two: Meldal to Svorkmo
Ronan: Now that all my companions have blisters and sore feet from the first day, it seemed some sort of parity had been reached and so I ventured out with walking stick and a relatively pain-free foot to begin my own pilgrimage. The countryside is as one would expect — beautiful — although Norwegian prices remain shocking even after a few days in the country. We laughed for much of the day about the improbability of the $80 pizza at Oslo airport. Our lodging for the night is in some farmer’s pilgrim cabin in Gumdal near Svorkmo. The farmer is very friendly but also seems, like many Norwegians, somewhat bemused by why foreigners would be walking Olav’s Way.
John F.: The idyllic Gumdal farm with perfect pilgrim accommodations where we’re staying gives us a snapshot of modern Norwegian country life. The proprietor is, as Ronan mentioned, the very definition of formal hospitality. Traveling in the Gudbrandsdal, however, has set my mind to medieval Norway and the many pilgrims who walked this way in much different times and under much different circumstances.
Sigrid Undset provided a rich description of some of the conditions and characteristics of the society and political landscape traversed by medieval pilgrims walking St. Olav’s Way in her Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy. I couldn’t help but think of it as we came across the Rennebu church in Voll, one of the many local settings of the epic novel. The trilogy revolves around the thirteenth-century fictional Kristin Lavransdatter and exposes her inner religious life as she transitions from childhood to adolescence and then to betrothal, marriage, child bearing and rearing, and great changes in her own personal circumstances. She walks St Olav’s Way to Nidaros Cathedral — our destination as well — twice as a pilgrim in the trilogy, once shortly after the birth of her first (of 8) sons and then near the end of her life once her children are all grown and on their own. Her spiritual reflections are shaped by her much changed circumstances each time she walks — at the beginning of her adult life and then again at the end — but are united in their sincere desire to touch the divine. This has provided a good example for me as I walk, though as of yet I don’t have much to report as a result! But as a group we have had many fascinating and lively discussions about everything from Goethe’s Gingko Biloba poem to Skandinavian Janteloven.
Ronan mentioned that we are all also walking in memory of my brother, Jordan Fowles, who accompanied us when we walked The Way of St. James in Spain last year. We have told stories of that pilgrimage with him and had a number of good laughs about some of the fun memories we share of him on that occasion. Tana even mentioned this morning as we planned out the day’s route that something was missing in our discussion — after a pause in which she tried to identify it, she said that it was Jordan’s cheerful energy in such discussions. He always had a positive contribution to make as we did this last year in Spain.
Yesterday, by complete coincidence, I read Matthew 2, in which the wise men travel to find the Christ child. Also, I read 1st Nephi 2, in which Lehi is called to go out into the wilderness, along with his family. I’m lucky, in that this year (and the year prior) my family (or, at least, most of them) has been able to come along. It is interesting to walk with them in pilgrimage, to consider how it affects our interactions, and to ponder the twinges of jealousy when my son leaves me behind in the dust during every stretch.
The truth of any sort of extended exercise is that you can always quit. Today, and every day I’ve done this, I’ve asked myself, “I don’t have to do this. I can quit and call a taxi.” This is why we do things like this in groups; peer pressure finishes more marathons than training does. I’m not entirely certain why I am committed to this, just that I am. That might be enough. In any case, if people try to tell you that a race, a competition, a contest, an exam, or some other thing is “just like life” or is in some way indicative of an approach to life, remember that it isn’t so. All these things you can quit; life will continue. Life must be endured or celebrated until it is over. I’ll likely be doing the same as I walk, but I doubt that reveals anything about life.
Today and yesterday, I walked because it was what I choose. I imagine the same will hold tomorrow. It is enough.
Also, Ibuprofen really helps.
Day One: Voll to Meldal
Ronan: We took the night train from Oslo to Berkåk. John F and I shared what was a very comfortable cabin but neither of us slept well. The motion of the train was not the gentle clickety-clack I am used to in England but an ascent/descent over hill and down fjell. The conductor’s wake-up call at 5am was thoroughly unwelcome. We then took the bus from the station; the fellowship alighted at Voll but I carried on to Meldal as my foot (recovering from being pierced by a nail on Thursday — no, not as some bizarre pre-pilgrimage ritual but as the typical DIY accident that befalls idiots) needs another day of recovery. We are staying in a pilgrims’ hut at the Meldal Bygdemuseum with a beautiful view over the valley and mountains beyond. I saw few people all day. A friendly gardener opened up the beautiful Meldal church for me, but other than that it was a day of sitting barefoot in the sun grazing, reading, and thinking. I also managed a quick “bath” in the Orkla river. The solitude of the area, plus the Mogwai Les Revenants soundtrack I listened to while waiting for my friends, had me wondering when the undead might appear from the woods surrounding me. That, plus my reading material — George Macdonald’s Lilith — contributed to a splendidly arresting day on my own in the Norwegian countryside.
Peter: I type to the pitter-patter of rain on the sod roof of the aforementioned outdoor museum, kind of like Pioneer Village in Bakersfield but with more grass and fewer people. St. Olav’s Way is just outside the door, and we have had an opportunity to shower and eat in exchange for a modest, by Norwegian standards, contribution to the box on an honor system. It was a long day, 24 km, but well worth it in light of the accommodations we managed to secure, which, unlike along the Camino, are few and far between. We left Ronan on the bus and disembarked at Voll, just over 100 km from Nidaros Domkirke. We stopped at a pilgrim information booth and ate breakfast we had brought from Oslo. The Rennebu Stavkirke was just around the corner, so we stopped there and had a look, but it wasn’t open yet. By 7 a.m. we were on our way under mostly cloudy skies. But contrary to the weather forecast, it didn’t rain, and we arrived in good time, defined as less than an hour after we ran out of water. I was pleasantly surprised with the scenic route taken by the Way; we followed a combination of dirt roads and forest paths, well marked and easy to follow for the most part. A particular highlight was a recently installed sign explaining the origins of a nearby hole in the ground, a so-called dead ice pit. John F and I plan to adopt the name for a metal-rap crossover that will set Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra to music, so you heard it here first. So far, Norway and the Way have exceeded expectations, and I am looking forward to the rest of the trip.