This is the chronicle of the odyssey of a middle-aged Viking Grandson (20th century American Midwest branch) as he made his way through the Scandinavian lands of his forebears late in the sullen winter of 1970. It is a modest work.
The classic chronicler of Vikings was Snorri Sturluson, a 13th century Icelandic scholar who spun out tomes about the mythical and historic deeds of gods and kings and bloody warlocks. Snorri collected long and chilling tales of Odin, the cunning lord of dead warriors who sometimes led good men to undeserved death so they could spend eternity with him in Valhall ("slain-hall"), fighting like lunatics by day and feasting like hogs by night. Snorri wrote at length of the fates of such royal persons as Eirik Bloodaxe and Halfdan the Black, of Harald Fine-Hair and Harald Blue-Tooth and Harald Grey-Coat and Harald Hard-Ruler. He preserved the verse of such heroic poets as Thorarin Praise-Tongue. He told of dwarfs' curses and of toasts quaffed in eagles' blood, of dead men's skulls silver-plated to make banquet goblets and of swift swords with names of their own such as "Lightning Flash of Blood" and "Icicle of the Baldric."
Nothing in the saga of the Viking Grandson 1970 will approach Snorri Sturluson's grand narratives, you can be sure of that. If you fancy eagles' blood, this is not your kind of chronicle. The Viking Grandson is native to the pasteurized Velveeta cheeseburger and the cherry-flavored Coke. He is not so long ago removed from cornfield towns of Minnesota where there are no swords, only plowshares which carry no name but that of Deere or Allis-Chalmers. Even his claim to a Viking heritage is dim: all of his ancestors migrated to America from meager farms in southern Norway, except for his paternal grandfather, a Swede, who had sailed aboard the Clipper ships of the mid-19th century before settling in the American Midwest as a farmer and a writer of devout Lutheran tracts. It did not seem likely that Odin had held a reserved seat in Valhall for the Viking Grandson's kind (although one could never be certain, since Odin was famed for his mercurial changes of mind).
Nevertheless, whatever the legitimacy of his claim to the bloodlines of the likes of Eirik Blood-axe, you can be sure that it was a strange and bone-chilling trip he took, entirely arbitrary in its preparation and all but aimless—even antic—in its direction. He went to such disparate spots as the Lofoten Islands, the Swedish tundra near Abisko, the lamplighted ski trails in the hills above Oslo, the eerie Arctic Highway in Finnish Lapland. He traveled by jet plane, coastal steamer, speeding train, cross-country ski, rowboat and Hertz rental car. He feasted upon codfish tongues, reindeer steaks and sheep's head. He drank homemade beer, heimebrent, which is Norwegian moonshine, and kaffee kark, which is a Norwegian form of sweetened dynamite with only slightly less mystical qualities than eagles' blood.
Let it be said at this point that the account of the Viking Grandson's tour will, of necessity, be chronologically disconnected. It may even have tones of surrealism on occasion. That cannot be helped, for that is the way I conceived of it in retrospect upon my return to the New World—a disjointed, kaleidoscopic looking glass of memories, many vignettes clearly recalled, oddly unrelated, yet surely all occurring within the same brief context of this single tour—1,000 miles over 10 days or so—through the Scandinavian Arctic in the late winter of 1970.
It was all alien, icy, bleak. Yet I found it all to be idyllic—particularly the very nearly supernatural silence and prehistoric purity that prevailed over the haunting terrain. One afternoon, aboard the train that runs daily between Narvik, Norway and Kiruna, Sweden on Scandinavia's northernmost railway line, I was gazing out the window at the low marshmallowy mountains of the Norwegian Arctic. Idly I wondered if perhaps this desolate section of the earth had once been cursed by dwarfs, earmarked for eternity as a wasteland where in winter only the tough Arctic birch could thrive, gnarled and mottled trees that have grown for perhaps 100 years and yet stand scarcely 25 feet tall. It occurred that maybe the dwarfs had in fact laid on a blessing rather than a curse, for such "wastelands"—vast empty acreage scorned by industry and commerce—were really now becoming the planet's rarest treasures: they were among the last, the only, areas left unstained by civilization's pervasive progress. Then I felt a tugging at my sleeve. I turned in the train corridor to find a very pale, very short man (well under five feet tall) gazing up at me. The tiny man smiled and said in Swedish-accented English, "I see you are admiring the scenery. Nothing grows big in the north, but what grows is very strong."
I gulped and could find nothing to say except, "Who are you?" The tiny man replied quite pleasantly, "I am a sailor. I have been everywhere on earth. Nothing is so beautiful as seeing the Arctic here in winter. Not so many people know that."
The little man then ordered two bottles of Top Ol beer from a lady vendor who came through the car. He gave me one and we looked out together at the round-shouldered mountains which were now turning peach-colored in the nearing sunset. The little sailor said, "If you had come a few weeks ago it would have looked like this at noon." Then the train stopped at a quaint and lonely quasi-Victorian brick building labeled Vassijaure, which is the northernmost railway stop in Scandinavia. The little man picked up a seabag and departed, saying, "Be thankful you have missed the dark months. Some say there are phantoms...."
Well, it was mid-March when the Viking Grandson made this trip, a remarkably good time to travel above the Arctic Circle, as it turned out. Though it is bitterly cold, it is light for perhaps 12 hours a day. The sun is pale and chill and by no means a constant comfort, but the darkest season has passed. From mid-November to early February it is midnight black almost all day long; it is twilight at high noon. I had wondered how it would be to spend weeks in an endless night. One evening, over Scotch at the Turiststation at Abisko, Sweden, I spoke with a woman who had just completed her first winter of darkness.
A cheery, sturdy person of middle age, she said she had long been an ardent cross-country skier, perhaps having traveled 20,000 miles or so on skis since childhood, and that the trails around Abisko were among the best she had known. Yet, she said with a puzzled expression, she had scarcely skied at all during the winter darkness. Why? Was it the cold? Was she afraid of wolves? Of bears? Of getting lost in the night? "No," she said, "I was afraid of the dark. I do not know why because I had never been afraid before. But when it is always night—without a ray of sun in all the hours of a day—strange things happen. In every shadow I saw things that were not there. I could not bring myself to ski." Her face was quite pinched.
To drive the Arctic Highway through Finnish Lapland, the Viking Grandson rented a Hertz car at the airport at Lulea, Sweden, one dim and snowy Saturday morning and departed in rather a dispirited condition. The night before I had spent in Kiruna, Sweden, the iron-mining capital of Scandinavia. I had skied, briefly and not well, beneath an orange full moon on a floodlit mini-mountain slope that rose improbably in the center of downtown Kiruna. Then I had drunk wine at the sleek new Ferrum Hotel, slept badly because every miner in Kiruna seemed to be at a party in the next room, and risen at a stupefying early hour to catch the SAS flight to Lulea. I had no idea what I would find traveling over something called the Arctic Highway in the dead of winter. Snowdrifts? Reindeer traffic jams? Dogsleds? Rich Lapps in Jaguars? Well, I did not know, but I had gotten it in my mind—somehow—that I wanted to celebrate a Saturday night in Lapland. Saturday night in Lapland. It had a surprisingly pleasant ring to it, a poetic logic that was appealing. So I set out in this gold Volvo sedan, and in the thin morning light, while a gauzy curtain of snow drifted over Sweden, I drove quite easily into Finland, through Haparanda and Tervola and Koivu and Rovaniemi and past Kumputunturi.
The road rolled out in magnificent condition, a wide ribbon better kept than, say, in Nebraska or Maine or even Minnesota during a hard winter. Snow had been cleared, gravel laid over icy spots. Traffic was almost nonexistent. Occasionally a gigantic truck, hauling huge double-trailers heavy with fresh-cut logs, thundered past, a great plume of snow powder rising in its wake. A few people appeared along the road, most of them dressed in funereal black clothing and some gliding along on little kick-sleds. There were small gray farmhouses scattered along the way and an occasional store.
Mostly there was nothing but that strangely delicate-looking black pine forest, the snow, the red-and-yellow signs warning that reindeer may appear at any time. The light was oddly evanescent, uncertain, almost eerie in its changing effects. For at any time it could subtly shift from an opaque winter gray to a kind of luminescent shimmering green or to a promising pale gold, as if the sun were about to burst out, or to a cold twilight blue, as if night were nigh. What made it so peculiar was that all of these light changes occurred while a steady film of snow was falling. The shiftings kept up, morning, noon and afternoon, until it suddenly fell dark—as if a shutter had slammed closed.
Just before this abrupt dusk, the Viking Grandson arrived at Laanila, which seems on the map to be a town but is actually only a ridiculously modern lovely lodge set in the frosty forest primeval 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. I went to the bar, a gleaming plastic surface attentively served by a maid in a miniskirt, and ordered a Scotch on the rocks. But despite the slick and familiar look of things, English is not so readily handled in Finland as in other Scandinavian lands, and the barmaid looked sad and puzzled. A man one barstool down made the necessary translations, then leaned over and introduced himself—Valttori was his name, he said; air traffic controller at nearby Ivalo, the northernmost airport in Finland, was his game. I asked Valttori if many Americans visited here and Valttori replied, "Negateef! Negateef! No! Normal systems here for tourist business is other Finns. Sometime Germans, Belgians, French." Then his eyes grew red and his nostrils flared. "Never Russians! Never! They closest neighbors, but negateef!" His fist crashed on the bar. The Viking Grandson soothingly changed the subject and asked Valttori about Saturday night in Lapland.
The air traffic controller rolled his eyes, grinned widely and said, "Biggest parties always Saturday nights. All systems normal on Saturday means we celebrate!" But first, said Valttori, it was "normal system" to take a Saturday-night sauna.
During the sauna, Valttori entertained with stories of people who had died in saunas because they had not known how much heat their bodies could take. "Heart stops when sauna too hot," he said. Yet he insisted a "Real-Finn" (it was said as if it were one word) had to withstand certain high-level temperatures to be a man. He kept pouring dippers of water on the rocks; each raised the temperature of the sauna noticeably, until Valttori peered at a thermometer on the wall and cried exultantly that it had reached the proper level for a "Real-Finn"—120° centigrade. Suddenly, the meaning of the number dawned on me—and I noticed at the same instant that my skin had turned approximately vermilion. On the centigrade scale, water boils at 100°; 120° was—good God!—I leaped frantically out of the sauna, giving up all claim to Real-Finhood.
Once I had stopped tingling, I asked Valttori if a "Real-Finn" would now do the post-sauna act of rolling in the snow or dropping through the ice into a lake. Valttori barked: "Negateef! That is for tourists. Real-Finns take cold shower."
Saturday night in Lapland proved to be vaguely similar to Saturday night in, say, Laramie, Wyoming. The lodge was obviously the swinging spot for the immediate Arctic. The single girls, heavily made-up around the eyes and given to shiny ruby lipstick, arrived in small coveys—without dates. They sat together in groups at tables around a small dance floor. The men, both young and old, arrived in pairs or trios. They swaggered about poking each other in the ribs and guffawing among themselves over jokes. Their hair glistened with oil. Of course, there were several tourist couples who were staying at the lodge, but mostly, Valttori said, the crowd had drifted down from Ivalo.
The music was from a jukebox—a Rock-Ola 440 Stereo. Even though there were some solid Finnish tunes—Markku Aro belting out Taken Yli and Olavi Kivikoski with Pitkin tai poikin—there were also some hot items by the Rolling Stones, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Engelbert Humperdinck. A drink favored by the barmaids was a mixture of vodka, gin, green cr√®me de menthe and a cherry. It was not very Real-Finn; its name was La Dolce Vita.
About 9 p.m., when there was a lot of dancing under way and most of the town girls had had at least one turn around the floor (Valttori was very chivalrous), there suddenly appeared in the doorway a small, bald, rather elderly man. The Ivalo girls applauded and the Ivalo men shouted lusty greetings at him. "Oh," said Valttori, "it is Jussi. He is chief reindeer herder." Jussi was dressed in a black tunic with a hood, knee-length trousers, heavy woolen socks and pointy-toed moccasins made of reindeer hide. Looped tightly over one shoulder, across his chest and under the other arm, was a lasso.
Jussi the old reindeer herder beamed around the room, his face pale but reflecting a kind of cherubic glow. Then he went to the first table of Ivalo girls, made a stiff little bow and stood silently aside. One rose and danced quite amiably through one tune, then Jussi returned her to her chair. He kept on with the same routine, the stiff bow, the dance, then on to another girl. Soon perspiration was dripping in rivers from his nose and his chin, and the fringe of gray hair was plastered wet around his glistening pate.
Finally, Jussi had danced with every woman in the lodge, including the tourists" wives and the barmaids. About midnight, still grinning and still having uttered not so much as one syllable as far as the Viking Grandson had seen, Jussi bowed at the doorway and departed into the night.
"He rises before the sun to care for reindeer," said Valttori. "Only thing Jussi likes more than reindeer is dancing with Ivalo girls on Saturday night. He is Real-Finn."
One morning I took an SAS jet from Oslo to Bodo, a small port on the Norwegian Sea, perhaps 50 miles above the Arctic Circle. Around noon I found myself standing upon a dock in Bodo that smelled strongly of raw fish, and I clasped my arms tightly about myself to keep warm in the relentless freezing breeze that howled in from the harbor. A woman from the local tourist office said, "The wind in Bodo does not ever stop blowing in winter. Some say it is like a crazy man humming the same tune over and over and over. You get used to it eventually."
The sun sparkled upon the sea, but I shuddered as I thought of how the shriek of the crazy wind would come to sound during those long weeks when it was constantly night.
The lady from the tourist office hunched her thin shoulders in the wind and said rather sadly, "Up here we say that travelers who come to the north of Norway in summer—and there are many—are doing an individualist's vacation. In winter, it is a triple individualist's vacation. Almost no one comes. Americans almost never come at any time."
Given the routine issue of Scandinavian tourist brochures one could easily come to believe that in winter the country is fit only for wolves. Most of the photography published to lure tourists consists almost entirely of candy-coated Kodachrome scenes of summer. These pictures are used so frequently that they would have us believe the place is in a constant state of bloom, rampant with hollyhocks and limpid pools and barbered parks where gentle cellists play Sibelius all the livelong day. Almost no snow is shown—and certainly none is forecast.
Well, hell. No flower child's garden could have nurtured such noble louts as Snorri chronicled—the likes of Sven Forkbeard and Olaf the Stout and Magnus Bare-legs and Ivar the Boneless. Of course not. Nor could Ull, noble god of skiing and hunting, thrive in such an Easter-basket land. Nor could The Rodoy Man—the celebrated stick figure of a Stone Age man on skis, crudely etched upon a rock near the Norwegian region of Rodoy to prove to archaeologists' satisfaction that the sport of skiing did in-deed exist in Scandinavia 4,000 years ago. Whatever the brochures showed, the Viking Grandson felt rather smug about being classed as a "triple individualist" and he decided that the essence of Scandinavia definitely lay in the bitter gales of winter. It was good I felt that way. God knows there were no hollyhocks in Bodo and snow was forecast for that night in the Lofoten Islands.
At the Bodo docks I boarded a coastal steamer, the Haakon Jarl, one of a small fleet that makes voyages up the coast of Norway far into the Arctic all year round, offering a magnificently civilized form of daily transportation even between such frigid outposts as Bodo and Stamsund in the Lofotens and Narvik and Tromso farther north. The boat was serene and gently lighted in its interior, warmly appointed with yellow carpeting, a great deal of tan and sepia woodwork, shaded lamps and overstuffed furniture in the lounges. In the dining room there were fresh carnations on the tables, and the cuisine—beer, boiled beef, boiled potatoes, boiled custard—was hearty and filling if not very delicate.
In its voyage from Bodo to Stamsund, the Haakon Jarl consumed about four and a half hours. The boat rolled and pitched as it plowed through choppy dark waters flecked with white cakes of ice. Not many miles away, at the end of the Lofoten Island chain in the Norwegian Sea, was the legendary Maelstrom current, a vile stretch of water which was the setting for one of Edgar Allan Poe's darker tales of mystery and imagination. But there was no danger, of course. The steamer plowed ahead, past magnificent saw-toothed stone islands that thrust violently out of the sea. Eventually, the sun slipped close to the horizon and it spread a shimmering reddish-gold channel upon the black waters in the ship's wake. On deck icy spray ran in rivulets down the glassed portholes, and the wind moaned louder as night fell.
Snow was drifting through the night when I departed the steamer in Stamsund. I boarded a bus, which lurched almost immediately away from the dock and began bucking over a narrow, ice-covered road, past snow banked as high as a house and along unfenced chasms that fell many feet to booming sea or snowy rocks below. A fellow passenger, a thin young man carrying a bulky briefcase, leaned across the aisle and said, "The roads here used to be much narrower. But people still agree that bus drivers in Lofoten are the craziest on earth. They all drive as if they have just seen a troll chasing behind." In a rather desperate conversation constantly threatened by the swaying and snarling of the bus (and what might have been the cackling of a troll behind but was in reality only the rattle of a loosened tire chain) I learned that the young man was bound for the tiny fishing hamlet of Nusfjord. He planned to visit one Bernhard Dahl in an attempt to sell him a $35,000 earth-moving machine. Coincidentally, I was also bound for Nusfjord, also to the establishment of Bernhard Dahl, for I had contracted to rent briefly from Dahl a rorbu—a bare and homely little hovel of the kind perched along the stony inlets of the islands since the dark ages of the 11th century for the use of the small navies of cod fishermen who labor in the Norwegian Sea off Lofoten. Rorbuer are rented to tourists in the summer and to fishermen in the late winter and early spring season when the torsk (cod) are running. Now and then a triple individualist slips in for a winter night or so.
The bus flew for several miles past endless wooden racks where rows of torsk hung to dry in the sharp, pure air. At last the bus careened onto a ferryboat that churned slowly across the tiny channel between the islands of Vestvagoy and Flakstadoy. The Viking Grandson and the earth-moving-machinery salesman watched the roiling water at the ferry's stern. The salesman said that Bernhard Dahl's family had held economic reign over this section of Flakstadoy Island for several generations, that they owned the fishery, the single general store, the docks, the rorbuer, many fishing boats, as well as a number of the homes inhabited by the 70-odd citizens of Nusfjord. It did not seem very removed from plain old medieval feudalism, he said.
We stood in the snow by the side of the ferry slip to await the arrival of someone from Bernhard Dahl's establishment. A Volkswagen bus rolled out of the night and a plump, jolly little matron, Bernhard Dahl's wife Judith, climbed out. "Call me Yoody," she caroled. "What you do in Nusfjord?" she asked. I said I wasn't sure. I said I thought I would try to fish for cod and perhaps do some skiing. Yoody said, "Yah, sure, but is busy time for Bernhard Dahl. We let the boy Hans lead you, yah. He is not 11 yet, but is good hunter, good fisker don't worry."
No lights shone anywhere along the road to Nusfjord but the notorious Lofoten mountains loomed all about like unfathomably big beasts. Their jagged snowy stone precipices were probably no more than 1/50th the size of the Alps, yet they seemed exactly as overwhelming as they were described by Poe—"outstretched like ramparts of the world, lines of horridly black and beetling cliff." Even in miniature they were no less breathtaking than the Alps or the Canadian Rockies.
Soon a few lights twinkled ahead between two grand crags. "Nusfjord," said Yoody. The Volkswagen cruised between several pale, plain houses and stopped near a pier. It was perfectly silent. Not a soul was to be seen. The air, biting and cold, was fragrant with the smell of salt and of fresh fish. Snow had stopped falling but there was a powdery accumulation perhaps four inches deep upon the properties of Bernhard Dahl. In the dim light of bare electric bulbs shining here and there along the docks, I saw that fresh snow lay upon the fishing boats tied up for the night and upon the narrow plank-walks built on stiltlike pilings above the water. The plank-walks led to a quaint and random jumble of tiny wooden red-painted huts along the pier—the rorbuer of Bern hard Dahl's fisker (fishermen).
"Come," chirped Yoody. Her feet stamped large prints in the untouched snow as she led me to the lodging. Waving her arm toward the darkness beyond the boats, Yoody said, "Torsk far out there in sea." She gestured at the silent row of shacks. "Fisker all sleep." She strode along the snow carpet of the plank-walk, and at a wooden structure, approximately the size of a refrigerator carton and built overhanging the water, she waved and giggled. "Toilet. Fresh-air toilet." A few yards farther, she held up a small black hose from which clear water spurted and said, "Running spring water for guest." She flung open the door of a rorbu, ushered me through a rough-lumber space that was filled with drying nets and floats and fishing lines, then opened another door and a warm light beamed out. "This your home wit' us," she said. It was a single wooden room, about 12' by 12', immaculately painted white and pale apple-green, furnished with a wood stove (which was ablaze), an electric burner, two benches, a table, a washbasin, a bucket and a metal pitcher. About seven feet above, nailed to two facing walls as if they were large shelves in a closet, were four wooden ledges—the bunks. A crude ladder led to the ledges and each was covered with a thin mattress and blankets. I put down my suitcase and looked out a window. A rack of drying cod stood just beyond the rorbu. I asked Yoody about the process and she smiled broadly. "That is Lofoten magic. There is no bacteria in air here. And for two, t'ree months long these stock fish work with the wind and the sun on the rack and the sun and the wind work with the fish and they become full of rich strength. We take them down in Juni [June] and they good for many years. Come to Bernhard Dahl's store now. You want to eat, yah?"
It was an establishment suspended in description somewhere between Grandma's attic and Flem Snopes' general store in Yoknapatawpha County. The good citizens of Nusfjord and the seasonal fisker alike had nowhere else to trade, so Bernhard Dahl had stocked up for most contingencies. On shelves that rose to the 14-foot ceiling along every wall he had hairbrushes and wool shirts, felt hats and nylon yarns, fishermen's boots and fishermen's clogs and heavy rubber gloves and rain slickers, floats for nets, nails, Thermos jugs, wristwatch bands, tiny china cups and hammers and shovels and skis. He had plastic yo-yos and razor blades and water tumblers and jars of deodorant, and block-and-tackle rigs. He had cans of herring and slabs of brown goat cheese and Ritz crackers and heavy black bread and rings of bologna and cans of Del Monte fruit cocktail and bottles of Coca-Cola.
I bought some goat cheese and herring and black bread and asked Yoody if they had any wine in the store. She raised her eyes to the ceiling, then opened a door at the rear of the store and spoke in Norwegian. Then she beckoned and said, "Here is Bernhard Dahl."
I shook hands with a tall man, thick-featured and floury-skinned and rather dour-looking, wearing a green woolen cardigan fully buttoned. Bernhard Dahl said in a deep, portentous voice, "I sell you wine, yah. We do business in what we can." He left the office. I looked about. There was an ancient typewriter, its ring of type exposed like grinning teeth, and there were many deep stacks of black ledgers on the shelves. There was a calendar with large, unmistakable black numbers, and a rather old oil portrait of a shrewd-eyed fellow who strikingly resembled Bernhard Dahl himself. The centerpiece of the office was a bulky black box of steel, not quite as tall as Bernhard Dahl—a fireproof safe with a dial the size of a dinner plate and a hefty brass handle that seemed well polished from being used often. The earth-moving machinery salesman sat in the office, too; he looked as if he were being held prisoner. But the next day he said that he had made the $35,000 sale.
Bernhard Dahl returned with a bottle of wine and said, "I would talk with you tonight but there is much work. Much work. Good night." The office door closed the instant I stepped out and Yoody Dahl said, quite suddenly, "Have you had codfish tongues? You cannot see Nusfjord without codfish tongues." The Viking Grandson had not bargained for this, assuming that goat cheese and black bread would be about as exotic as he needed to be in Lofoten. Yoody would have it no other way; with matronly dispatch she filled a plastic bag with thick white torsk tongues and walked to the rorbu. There, while the Viking Grandson nibbled goat cheese and drank wine, she breaded the tongues, sautéed them in butter, salted them and served them. She sipped wine poured into a tumbler packed with fresh snow from the rorbu roof. The Viking Grandson ate and found the codfish tongues superb (they were richer and juicier than butterfly shrimp, but vaguely similar in flavor), and Yoody left.
I might have slipped under some 11th-century spell then. In this rorbu, sipping wine cooled in snow and chewing the succulent torsk tongues, I felt the spirits of fishermen past closing in. But then Yoody, ever the effervescent hostess, knocked and announced that I could come and watch television with the Dahls if I wished. Perhaps, she said, Gunsmoke or the cartoon family Flint (The Flint-stones) would be on. They were the No. 1 shows in the Lofotens.
That night, the padded board bunks felt like goosedown. I slept as if dead until 5 a.m. when the first cod-fishing boat started its engine, then fell asleep again until 8:30 when the slip was empty.
Young Hans Dahl took over now. In an ancient wooden dory, with hand-hewn oars and two whittled pegs stuck in the gunwales for oarlocks, the 10-year-old took me out to sea to fish for torsk. It was gray and snowing. The flakes felt sharp when they hit the skin. There was a stiff icy wind. The waves rose to six-foot crests, especially in the narrow, choppy channel that lay between two black mountain slopes marking the line between the open Norwegian Sea and the snug cove at Nusfjord. But Hans was a doughty lad, apple-cheeked and perhaps a trifle large for his age. He gave me a hand-reel of heavy line with a large and lethally hooked spoon at the end and rowed out into the teeth of the wind. For an hour, while the dory tossed and broached in the waves, I held the line overboard, pumping it occasionally. Nothing happened. Young Hans spoke no English and seemed to understand it only spasmodically. The conversation was reduced generally to the Viking Grandson smiling stiffly and saying, "Torsk?" and Hans replying with a shrug. At last, I said quite firmly, "No torsk!" and pointed commandingly over a mile of dark water and blowing snow to shore. Hans shrugged, said, "No torsk" and rowed home in a gallant struggle with the elements that took slightly more than an hour.
Later, Hans and the Viking Grandson tried skiing in the grand silence behind Nusfjord. There was quite excruciating exertion involved in climbing the low slopes to get above an idyllic valley flanked by ragged alpine crags. Huffing and puffing, I herring-boned up for all I was worth, and finally perched upon a sort of hummock. I had borrowed skis of the narrow, long, wooden cross-country variety and if they were waxed at all it was with library paste. Fine for climbing. However, for the pleasant schuss I anticipated down the hummock they were quite hopeless. So in a Chaplinesque burlesque of a skier I was forced to make a clumsy clopping walk in order to get down a fairly steep incline.
Throughout the trek, young Hans kept stopping short in the snow, rasping out in a loud hoarse whisper, "Sporer! Sporer!," which means he had seen a spoor—or track—upon the snow. Then, holding a chubby finger to his lips to keep the Viking Grandson silent, he would step out of his skis and spring ahead in a flailing charge through the snow and suddenly begin digging beneath a black boulder or a stunted evergreen. Twice a startling flurry of wings sounded as a black and white quail-like bird—a rype—flashed low across the snow. And once a huge hare went desperately clambering from beneath a tree down through the valley. Each time he flushed something, young Hans would rise, hold a rigid statuesque pose as if he were aiming a rifle and make the shooting sound that is used by all children in the world: "Kkkhhhh! Kkkhh! Kkkkhhhh!"
Bernhard Dahl charged $2.80 for the rorbu and a really exorbitant $10 for "taxi service" to the bus stop by the ferry. He refused to take money for the guide-work of his son, so I slipped a 10-kroner note ($1.40) into the pocket of Hans' jacket. I did not know it if would end up in Bernhard Dahl's big fireproofed safe or not.
In Sweden, people talked quite casually to the Viking Grandson about March as being a time to grubbla—to "push out lower lips," as it were. Which means a sort of seasonal mood of grim depression sets in, a wallowing in the exquisite melancholy of the north, a time to meditate on the futility of a life spent in ice and snow and night. I did not take it too seriously, since I did not expect to be in Scandinavia long enough to grubbla.
One Sunday afternoon I was strolling in Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland, a determinedly up-to-date town filled with glass-walled hotels and boxlike insurance offices set amid black-green pines. I walked into the dining room of one of the more sumptuous hotels and ordered lunch. The colors in the room were cheery; the crystal gleamed; the waitress smiled, and the plates were heaped with thick slabs of cheese and cold reindeer steaks. There was crisp Finnish beer on hand and there were many people in the room, dressed in their Sunday clothes. Outside, the sky was gray as stone and it was snowing over the plain behind the hotel, but then a man and a little boy glided by the window on skis and they were laughing.
Soon the hotel musicians, four men dressed in gaudy vests and rich blue breeches, assembled on the bandstand, tuned up quite jauntily and then swung without warning into a song that was so morose that I simply stopped eating and listened. The clarinet wailed and the chords of the piano were deep sobs. The violin wept openly and an electronic zither sounded hysterical with grief. Visions of deep snow and broken hearts, intimations of mortality lay heavy on the room. It was music to grubbla by, and spirits of the diners were visibly lowered. Yet the tune, some kind of Finnish lament, went on and on and on. The Viking Grandson soon discovered himself dwelling on thoughts of empty rooms, foggy nights, endless roads. The depressing music lasted for many minutes and when the band finally switched to something light and swift, a shroud lay over all of Sunday. Slowly the people recovered. Eventually, as the happier music went on (it was, I noticed, an unlikely '40ish American medley of To Each His Own, That Lucky Old Sun and Zip-a-dee-do-dah), beer glasses were raised again. Somewhere a voice said, "kippis," which is a traditional Finnish toast, and somewhere, someone said "holkyn kolkyn," which is the traditional Finnish reply to kippis. Soon people were laughing, and the Viking Grandson, feeling for no real reason at all that some deadly heavy stone had lifted from his heart, not only ate all of the cheese and reindeer steaks on the platter before him and drank all of the beer, he even ordered more of everything.
Later when I asked a Finn I had gotten to know about the doomed way I had felt amid the music in Rovaniemi, the Finn, a cynical fellow, laughed and said, "You felt better when the sad music stopped than you had before it started, did you not? And you ordered more food and drink, did you not? Do not underrate Finnish hotelkeepers. They know what is good for business and what is not."
In the Norwegian ski resort of Voss, the Viking Grandson met up with Trygve, a tall, lean, terribly pallid fellow with protruding eyes. Trygve was an original hail-fellow-well-met and, as such, was an excellent director of the Voss tourist office. Perhaps it was the first item of discussion, perhaps the second, but very early on in our acquaintanceship Trygve suggested the subject of a smalahove dinner. I knew not of what Trygve spoke.
So, over a bottle of Linie aquavit (a brand of the Norwegian national drink which is always aged by the romantic process of gently rocking in the hold of some ship bound on a voyage of several months' duration) Trygve explained about eating smalahove. Not so many years ago—perhaps even back in 1888 when Knute Rockne was born in Voss—the villagers existed in a state of poverty so desperate that they were often forced to find nourishment in the meanest edibles around. One, it turned out, was smalahove—the head of a sheep, which is ordinarily discarded after the animal is butchered for mutton.
"Given the way life changes," said Trygve, "what once seemed a stark necessity to avoid starvation sometimes becomes a delicacy. Such as snails or calves' brains. And now Voss is the world's Number One importer of sheeps' heads, perhaps. I say 'perhaps' because we do not know for certain. Worldwide statistics are not kept of such information."
Trygve went on to say that in Voss a sheep's head now costs about $3.75 and that, as a rule, one must order one from a local meat market or hotel kitchen several days in advance. Trygve had good connections, however, and the very evening after the subject of smalahove was first broached, I found myself seated at a candle-lighted banquet table, awaiting the specialty of Voss. Before the meal there was much quaffing of aquavit in small glasses, followed by tumblers of homemade beer (an oddly sweet stuff with a truly impressive orangy-golden color). Trygve explained that to prepare smalahove one first singed off the wool, then soaked the head in brine for three days. Then it is placed in a smokehouse filled with the smoke of birchwood for two more days, and it is taken into a kitchen and boiled for three hours just before it is served upon a large platter.
Given Trygve's rather impersonal description of the culinary process, I was not fully prepared for the arrival of a smalahove. But there, upon the prescribed platter, it lay—eyes gently closed, an innocent and friendly turn to its mouth. If it was not actually Mary's lamb then it was just yesterday being addressed from some nursery as Bah-Bah Black Sheep.
The Viking Grandson found himself able to eat with fair gusto. The jowls were juicy and tasty. Not so strong as mutton. Other parts were tougher but quite enjoyable. Then Trygve rose again and said quite seriously, "The eyeball is considered the best of all. And any good host must offer it first to his guest before he takes it for himself." The morsel was placed quite carefully upon the Viking Grandson's plate.
At first I was silent, then I remembered my Midwest manners and said, "Takk, mange tusen takk, Trygve," which meant "many thousand thanks." Then I ate the eyeball of the sheep and thought no more about it. What was good enough for Knute Rockne was good enough for me.
Heimebrent, the Viking Grandson learned in Narvik, Norway, is what Norwegians call their moonshine. A ship's pilot named Jon, who was driving a cab for a while in Narvik during the town's annual celebration of the railroad being finished to Kiruna, told me, "This week people get drunk all week. Mostly on heimebrent. To make heimebrent you take one kilo of yeast, 10 kilos of sugar and 25 liters of water. You let it set for two weeks in gallon jugs, then distill it by burning it hot enough to boil, and, of course, condense the steam. It is 94% alcohol and to drink it without dying you must mix it with something."
Later, a woman with many gold teeth told me that the best way to enjoy heimebrent was to make kaffee kark. Her recipe: take a china cup and put a silver kroner piece in the bottom. Pour coffee over the coin until it disappears. Then pour in heimebrent (which is colorless) until the coin is visible again. Add a spoon or two of sugar and you have kaffee kark. After tasting it, the Viking Grandson told the woman that he was surprised she still had the gold in her teeth. Then he declared it was the perfect apéritif before dining on eye of smalahove.
Oslo in March was dank and chill and the city snow was turning the color of city soot. The harbor water seemed grimy and the ice cakes floating there were gray. One early evening I walked through the slush of Studenterlunden Park, past the National Theater where King Lear was playing in Norwegian, and down the steps to a subway station where I boarded a train bound for Oslo's outskirts. After a little more than half an hour, covering 19 stops and about 12 kilometers, I got off the train at the Voksenkollen stop (not far past the Holmenkollen ski-jump station). There I rented a pair of langrenn (cross-country) skis and the light, low boots required. The sky was lavender with a star or two showing, and as I put on the skis I could see the lights of Oslo speckled upon the land below. Ahead stretched a wide, white ski track, cut deep in a double row and worn smooth by dozens of skiers. It led into the tall and ancient pine trees: the woods seemed black and thick even though the sky was not yet entirely dark. Along the track, perhaps every 200 feet, were lights—friendly yellow globes mounted on lampposts to illuminate the trail. The Viking Grandson, though new to cross-country techniques, attempted to emulate the sweeping, graceful strides—those seven-league glides across the snow—that he had seen various Olympic skiers use. Of course he fell. He cursed. He broke into a terrible sweat. His skis slipped and would not stay in the ruts. Yet, eventually, it began to make sense as he labored through the woods. At times he glided nicely down the descents, and occasionally he trekked quite steadily, though puffing mightily, up the ascents. The air was so clear it snapped in his nostrils. When he became unbearably thirsty, he simply ate the snow, pure as it was. The trail lamps made strange shadows and unreal shapes among the trees. Gnomes, trolls, dwarfs, the very ski god Ull might have watched from there. A good moon turned the snow silvery and luminescent among the black tree-columns. Tiring, I struggled on.
At the end of the trail I was delighted to discover I had traveled just about three miles in just under two hours on this night. I felt exalted, purified, even redeemed, and I boarded the train back to the city slush of Oslo with the heady yeast of accomplishment rising in my soul. When I reached the National Theater station I went to Blom, a fine restaurant across from Studenterlunden Park, and ordered a smorgasbord dish which included six different kinds of herring. I found I could not stop smiling.
Ah, but Abisko, yes, Abisko. There was the truly superlative place for langrennski. To ski alone into the wastes of the Swedish Arctic—even for a few easy level miles—was to approach some kind of cold, very personal ecstasy. The difference, I decided, between cross-country skiing and the fashion-heavy downhill resort sport that Americans consider the apex of the game is approximately the difference between Thoreau strolling the untrammeled acres of Walden Pond and Johnny Carson marching down Fifth Avenue in an Easter Parade.
Abisko is a national park, with rather rigidly enforced rules that keep it in an unchanging natural state. Although the Svenska turistforeningen (Swedish Touring Club) was allowed to build its abrupt brick dormitories, as well as a small ski lift, nearby, it is said that the government will now not allow even the club management to move boulders from its downhill slope for fear of disrupting the ecology, geology or topography of the land. Of course, the Narvik-Kiruna railroad line runs through there, 130 miles above the Arctic Circle, and each day at least one enormous train rattles past, an endless string of ore cars filled with iron from the mines in Kiruna and bound for the docks and depots of Narvik. But, full or empty, the ore trains are gone quickly, and as a rule Abisko is a place unreal in its isolation.
The Viking Grandson skied out on one of the Touring Club's well-embedded trails one brilliantly sunny morning. After I had gone for a mile or more, skiing quite smoothly since the terrain was reasonably flat, I paused to take a breath. When my own hoarse panting subsided, I was astonished and, being a modern man with a modern man's conditioning, perhaps a trifle uneasy at what I heard.
It seemed to be perfect silence. Perfect. No distant air hammers or horns honking or tires squealing. No mile-high airplanes or echoes of barking dogs, no rustling leaves or whispering grass or chirping crickets. For a moment the quiet was so overwhelming that Abisko seemed a frost-bitten dead spot on the planet. The Viking Grandson poised motionless upon the bright, barren landscape; the stunted trees, the low ice-cream mountain humps, the vast sparkling expanse of snow on Lake Torne Trask; his skis, his very life—all seemed suspended in some unearthly vacuum.
Then, gradually, the real sounds of the land began to seep into his consciousness. There was no wind at all. Somewhere a tree branch creaked in the cold. Something, a bird perhaps, made a gentle sound way off that he heard as ppp-l-l-uu-hh. Then, out of the corner of one eye, he saw a movement. He turned, and far, far across the sparsely treed snow plain he saw some creature running, probably a fox, and the Viking Grandson raised one arm, pointed a finger and shattered the natural mystical silence of the Northland. "Kkkkkhhhh!" he said. "Kkkhh! Kkkhh!"
Among the visitors at Abisko with the Viking Grandson was a contingent of cadets from the Swedish Air Force Academy, an erect and proper bunch who wore uniforms to meals, refused to discuss politics and had brought all manner of survival equipment along for their sojourn in the Arctic. One day the cadets were assembling in the snow outside the dormitory, each dressed in a baggy white arctic windbreaker and pants, with hooded cap and black goggles. On the tundra, they looked like some ungainly militaristic race gathered on another planet. Or perhaps some of the rejects from Odin's crowd at Valhall. But of course I knew they were only boys, teen-agers mostly, who had been taught to make war (admittedly only defensive, given Sweden's neutrality), so I wandered among them and conversed about the beauty of the day. They were about to participate in an unusual recreation—being towed on skis behind a snowcat on a journey out into the hills and tundra that would cover nearly 12 miles.
To see the land farther out, I decided to go along—but inside the snowcat rather than strung out behind on a rope. As I waited among the milling troop, I was startled to hear a male voice behind me say, "Hey, man, you American? That is motherin' groovy." I turned and saw a young man, sharply featured and remarkably fair, his mane of hair shaggy and corn-yellow, his eyes a striking pale blue. He wore a thickly knitted woolen cap, seaman's pea jacket, dungarees, cross-country skiing boots—clearly a young Harald Fine-Hair reincarnated. But, of course, when he spoke, it was plain that he was a child of the American '60s. "I'm from San Francisco, man," he said. "I blew the country because the motherin' draft board pulled my number. I can't get back in the States no more. I'm a man without a country." He laughed and said he was working at Abisko's little ski lift for a while. "My old lady and our kid—he's 18 months and speaks Swedish like a native—and I are living in a little pad here, a cottage with one room. God, man, it's a fantastic trip up north. Fantastic."
Young Harald Fine-Hair (his real name does not matter) was to ride along in the snowcat. He was going to check the supplies at a shelter used by langrenn skiers who travel the celebrated King's Road Trail which starts at Abisko and goes 270 kilometers into southern Sweden. The Swedish cadets lined up on a rope behind the vehicle, and the driver, a canny young Swedish mountain man named Leif, yodeled to signal the skiers that the machine was about to lurch into motion.
As the snowcat bucked and rocked and snarled along the trail the Viking Grandson sat on a bench behind the cab and listened to the story of the American Harald Fine-Hair, a classic tale it seemed, of a boy who was a product of almost everything that the last chaotic decade had meant to U.S. youth. "Man, I had convertibles, sailboats, lots of bread, all the broads I wanted. When I got into college, I took the motherin' business-administration trip—bread was my thing. But then, after a couple of years, man, I didn't dig it anymore. It just didn't make sense, so I dropped out." He was a member of the first really celebrated hippie commune, the Morning Star settlement in northern California—until it was ruined in the wake of blazing publicity. Then he bummed around the nation, an early-day Easy Rider, and more than once wound up insulted and summarily arrested by small-town policemen.
Behind the snowcat the queue of Swedish cadets looked imperturbable hanging on the towline. A dwarfed forest of arctic birch streamed past them. The American Harald said that he had wearied of the hippie transience and he enrolled at San Francisco State College to get his degree in economics. Then came the revolution at S.F. State and the young man did his share of rock-throwing and barricade-charging and bellowing epithets at the police. But he got his degree, then left the U.S.—through Canada—when his draft number came up.
"I'm out of it now, man, long gone. My trip is simplicity. All you straight cats can do anything you want. Hell, I'm no motherin' moralist. But me and my old lady and kid are where we want to be and I've got a little bread of my own. We might head back to the coast of Norway and buy a little farm, on some fjord—you can get it cheap. We might stay up here in the Arctic. Man, you ain't made a trip 'til you've lived in this place. Oh, you should see it in the summer, man. This ground is alive with berries and fruit and wild-flowers. Hey, and just look out there...."
He waved a mittened hand toward the glistening expanse of the uninhabited shores of Lake Abiskojaure and toward the endless sunlighted spaces and toward the perfect transparent blue winter sky. "I dig it," he said softly.
The Viking Grandson wondered: Yes, perhaps it would have been differently put, but really could it have been said more clearly by Snorri Sturluson—or even Thorarin Praise-Tongue?