On walking : the norwegian fjords


It was an impulsive decision to jump off the train and walk the rest of the way. The train was not scheduled to stop at the little station in the middle of nowhere; the train conductor asked me twice if I was sure. It was a strange moment of time travel – in my mind, I felt that I had already begun the long walk down the valley from that station up in the mountains.

I responded, Yes.


Walking through a landscape tears it apart. It is no longer a flat, curveless thing, but a living world with depth. The pace of walking is just right for alert intimacy. It allows the world to unfold at an unhurried pace that accommodates both prolonged introspection and sudden discovery. It lets you simultaneously encounter, hold, and archive space.

 Riding on that old Norwegian train from the hilltop village of Myrdal to the valley town of Flam, I was struck by the inadequacy of my interactions with the mountainous space around me. The train’s windows framed the world sparingly into ever-changing little vignettes, two-dimensional and detached in their cinematic splendor. My eyes were greedily absorbing the views in quick succession, but I wanted to see with my feet. My feet could help me feel--for myself--the continuous contours of the fjords. They could help me linger with the pebbles kicked up by the water. My feet could run off frame, into the distance, in a way that my eyes could not that day on the train. 


As I walked down the Flam valley, my senses were accosted by a riot of diverting stimuli - the rush of the Flam river far below on my right, the scent of wildflowers dancing along the trail, the light touch of the gentle breeze that accompanied me, the haunting mesh of chiaroscuro cast by the shifting clouds on the grass-covered slopes. And always in the distance - the gentle, ghostly presence of snow-covered peaks smiling over the valley. I was alone and content, up there at the top of the world.


The Norwegian fjords are characterized by interwoven patterns of land and sea. The North Sea carves away at the continent until the landscape becomes a large network of alternating rivers and cliffs. Walking along the Flam river, surrounded by soaring cliffs, I would only have to turn around a corner to be confronted--unexpectedly--by a wide, open valley. The valley would close into a gorge just as suddenly as it had opened with another turn in the river’s path, following the ebb and flow of the water’s force. 

This frequent transformation of the landscape from valley to gorge and gorge to valley had the effect of dislocating the viewer continually. As my feet carried me further into the valley, I felt that I had stepped into a realm where land and water fluidly merged and transformed into each other.


My journey was made in solitude, with the exception of the odd passing cyclist or two. It was the kind of solitude that is expansive and freeing; the kind of solitude that gives you the peace and quietude that are required to welcome the present moment in with open arms. Walking alone in a new place is both exploratory and meditative - you are protagonist and observer, absorbing and recording to the rhythm of your feet.


About two-thirds into my walk, I encountered a medieval church in the middle of a wide valley. It was small and simply built, without adornment and pomp. As I entered the empty church, I was struck by its bright cheeriness, a result of its large, well-placed windows. They revealed the babbling Flam river and the surrounding mountains beyond in high relief.

It was almost possible to recall memories of attending service there as a restless child, gazing longingly outside at the infinite playground of the mountains.  It was almost possible to recall memories that were not mine to recall in the echoing warmth of the late afternoon sun.

The second hour passed into the third, which--sooner than expected--passed into the fourth. The faint ache in my feet was gently lulled into silence through constant encounter with the world surrounding me.

But it was this ache that recorded the events of that day most keenly, as my feet followed the old Viking trail down the hills. Every slip on a rock, every step down a slope, every jump over an intervening stream had happened before, with different feet, and would happen again.

It is this connection through time to my walking forebears that I felt on my feet as I gently eased my hiking shoes off late that night.  In their aching, my feet contained proof of a palimpsest traversed and revised; proof of a new, stumbling discovery of old truths.