The pros and cons of the nomadic lifestyle
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make,
of hammered gold and gold enamelling,
To keep a drousy Emperor awake
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come...
The traveller is a solitary animal. He or she makes a journey alone. Sometimes others tag along for the ride. They come and go. To be a traveller you must expect the unexpected. You are never entirely on home turf. Your goals are temporary; they come to reflect the passage of the journey. There are no rules: for one moment you do one thing, and when it no longer appeals, you do something else. Then there is your baggage: possessions, friends and relatives. Do these control your life? If so, you are a settler---you abandon your freedom for continuity and security. So then, for each of us it comes down to a choice, which is it to be, my Lords and Ladies: traveller or settler?
The decision to travel
Taking the initiative---overcoming the mental barrier and getting started---is about the hardest part of any venture. Once underway, things get easier. You get used to the idea of where you are going, you begin to see how things are turning out, and the mental preparation to continue is forged automatically with each step. Sometimes it helps to have done the thing before...sometimes not. You might think, then, that this letter would be no major undertaking, having `done' one before, but nevertheless it has taken me two years to even think about starting it and could well take me several months to complete---a task which I am neither looking forward to, nor confident that I shall complete to satisfaction.
Following my previous letter (the trip to Thailand etc) I have been asked many times to write a `sequel': instead of putting out the fire, it only seems to have made it worse! Well, I am not a conversational animal, and certainly have no exciting news to deliver, so that means that I have to produce some sort of train of thought in my letters so that I don't dry up after the first sentence. Hence the form of the previous letter, hence the form of this letter. It's not so much that Burgess takes himself particularly seriously (if you know me, you should be able to detect the ever-present tinge of self-irony in these ramblings, which is always getting me misunderstood and into trouble!), it's more a question of not knowing how to do it any other way. This---if you like---is just the way my mind works (or doesn't, if you prefer that). So to confirm the extent of my dementia......where to begin?? Yup, here's the button which empties my head...beep!* * *
Oslo in June is a temperamental mixture of hot and cold. One moment the air shimmers with the stifling of hot-asphalt driven convection; the next moment, blackness creeps up from behind the hills in the form of thunderclouds and blots out the sun. A few moments later you will know if they if they were just teasing or whether you're in for a drenching. June and July have been even more like this than usual. The temperature has risen to 36 degrees (Centigrade) one moment and then fallen to 14 the next, perhaps with just a few hours in between, and an endless profusion of hot and cold fronts has been throwing the weathermen into disarray the whole time. Oslo in June is usually a lazy time for me. If the sun is shining I can forget about work. The sun is a magnet which draws my concentration outdoors and trying to work through it is a waste of time. But the last two summers have been different. Since I started my lectureship at the college of technology, there hasn't been time for such delightful irresponsibility. Deadlines have forced me to work, preparing lectures or setting up the computer system from scratch, so that it works right. These are not jobs that I like doing, but they have to be done. In August I was planning to travel to China to attend the `4th international workshop on thermal fields and their applications', but exhaustion and a conspiracy of flight times ended with my cancelling the trip. Too much stress for too little reward. Instead I wrote the paper which I have been trying to write for almost year, but for interruptions.
1995 has been an unusual year, compared to the last five. I published my first paper in a refereed computing journal and have had a lot of trouble with referees in physics journals. I have the distinct impression that the computing community is far more friendly and less self-important than the physicists. I released my computer system (the fruit of my research), the `system configuration engine' to the world and have had a lot of pleasant mail from places and people around the world who have begun to use it---everthing from universities to a chain of supermarkets in Australia!! Life has degenerated into a routine of getting up somewhere between six and seven in the morning, cycling to work, fixing some silly problems with computers (or people!), answering mail, doing a little real work and then going home to begin again. About all this, there is precious little to say. Too much work and too little play have definitely made Mark a dull boy. Then there is the backdrop of low spirits: funds are cut (making work difficult), the college/university administration grows (making work excruciating) and the work we do is constantly being devalued in favour of the filling out of new and ever less meaningful forms and reports. How shall we report on our work, kind sir or madam, when we never get a break from you long enough to do any??
There are many conflicts along the road to paradise. That is not bad in itself---without conflict life and death are just formalities---but certain obsessive behaviour (of administrators, kings and other megalomaniacs) could well be eradicated along with the accompanying desperation (of researchers, innocent bystanders and other humble servants) for my part. We choose the opponents we wish to do battle with, and these are not on my list.
And so it comes to a decision. Time for a rest. Time to cleanse the mind of all the nonsense. Enter the form-free zone, the administrators' never-never land. A new opponent is required. The age old opponent, beside which everything blanches into mediocrity: run to the hills.
The Mountains is one of the few places where I can relax. In the mountains, all questions of formality and all matters which others might tell you are important must be reevaluated. The key questions becomes those of survival and a strategy for getting from A to B. All other considerations are rescinded. Beside a two thousand meter peak, dressed with plummeting white-water streams, glacial debris and the remnants of pulverized rock, all things pale into insignificance. The awe of existing amongst such a natural force is enough. I laugh at your forms. This mountain doesn't care who is boss. In the mountains, everyone is equally humble.
Norway's Jotunheimen national park is parallelled only by the Canadian rockies in its diversity of terrain. It stretches from sea level, in the west, to two and a half thousand metres above sea level---about twice the height of any mountain in Britain---at its highest point. Amongst the obstacles along the way are alpine peaks, glaciers, two hundred meter vertical waterfalls and narrow and wide rivers. Faced with such adversity, it is not easy to summon the will to begin a journey in these mountains. But then taking the initiative is often the hardest part. In this case, the need to escape outweighs the reluctance to begin many times over.
Each journey has a beginning. This one begins with a bus. Three friends (let us call them Nils, Elizabeth and Anne-Katrine---mainly because those are their names) and I show up at the bus station to catch the express bus to Oevre Aardal. Rucksacks on backs, boots on feet, we catch the luxury bus and are soon underway, out of Oslo, heading north.
Oslo lies in Norway's broadest, flattest fjord. The land is flat over large areas (though there are still hills which challenge most of England and Scotland's finest) and much of it is used for agriculture. It is a far cry from what we are heading towards. As we motor out of town, the road takes us through many grades of scenery. The straight roads begin to wind around lakes and mountains. There are many tunnels blasted out of the rock since Norway is domainated by huge lakes and endless rows of hills and mountains.
Norway is a confusion of profusion: it is a masterpiece of nature's hand which has been brutally altered for the business of Man. The austere background has its own sublime existence, while the people defy it in all imaginable ways. Along the road to the most dramatic and unaltered of Norway's scenery are many sights, some of them wonderful and some of them tragic. Small villages of wood, strong in the vernacular traditions, blend idyllically into the background of rich greenery on the one hand. On the other, abandoned machinery rears out at you, strewn haphazardly around in open sores on the landscape showing that the locals are just as blind to their environment as everyone else.
Norway's most striking problem seems to be visual pollution. Take Oslo, for instance: it is a haphazard mish-mash of colours and styles, placed at random. It has the annoying feeling of the work of a child who builds a house of Lego, but doesn't bother to use bricks of the same colour. Day-glo Posters and pictures are pasted up everywhere over the most attractive of buildings and shop signs advertising ice cream, lottery tickets or one of the tabloid newspapers poke out at you whereever you look. There are many beautiful things in Oslo which are ruined by what is next to them. But also, out of the town, an unusually beautiful countryside makes the equally extensive violations seem all the more serious. No worse than any other country, you might say, but in practice the contrast makes it a much more criminal deed. Rugged grey rocks sprout up in all directions, tall pines rest upright on their mantles covering them with a dense, green fur; every plant is in bloom, every square centimetre is alive, all the way down the near vertical bank to the wide, blue river---and there, on the valley floor: a shabby line of rusty caravans and an unseemly variety of tents nestle under an advertising banner. Who on earth could conceive of building anything as trivial as a campsite in the midst of such magificence?
Let me not be too harsh. After all, it is hard to find a better place when the entire country is equally spectacular. But then I can't help wondering whether it wouldn't have been possible to do it with a little more thought...* * *
The bus ride takes us through all kinds of terrain. In the low lands, much of the land is made up of steeply rising, almost parabolic valleys, with wide rivers or lakes at their bases. The hills are, more often than not, thick with green treecover, but for bulges and mantles in the grey volcanic rock which loom over the valley. Later, as we approach the higher land, we ascend about the tree level and a more barren terrain sets in, not unlike the moors of Yorkshire, in its way, but for the scale of the mountains which begin to raise their heads. And what mountains! Taller, more singular things than the long lines of rocks hills in the low lands. Not concave like alpine mountains, more like the jigsaw pieces of the Grand Canyon. Flat topped, misshapen hulks, standing alone--mountains which got trodden on. They could almost be the petrified trolls of Norwegian mythology. As the journey to our starting point ends, we descend perhaps a thousand metres down hairpin bends into the mouth of Norway's longest fjord.* * *
As you travel through the hills it is easy to be nonchalant about the scale of things. The paradox of the explorer is that, as all things get scaled up in size together, everything looks exactly the same. It is easy to be deceived that nothing has changed at all---after all, the overall effect is the same. (Physicists know this sickness by the name of `scaling' and deal with it by recourse to a self-help scheme called the Renormalization Group). But now look for a landmark: a house or a telegraph pole---something which doesn't scale. If you do this, you notice something shocking. All the time you have been sitting on the bus, houses have been shrinking. Now they are just tiny specks on the far side of a valley which has been growing just as surely as time has been passing. Whereas, at the start of the journey, the hills were perhaps ten times the hight of a house, suddenly they are a hundred times the height of a house and still growing! But it is so easy not to see it, when everything on the surface looks the same: lakes get wider, mountains get bigger and still the green fur is green fur.* * *
The bus stops in the centre of Årdal. From there we catch a taxi to the top of the valley where the journey on foot will begin. Down in the valley, out of the town it's just bushes and fields. Had it not been for the steep sides of the fjord rising visibly up on either side of the road, this could well have been any other country or place in the world. But those walls which blot out all but a strip of the sky identify our location pretty uniquely.
The taxi dumps us at the end of the road and it's on foot from there, along a gravel path built for the passage of tractors up to the Vetti homestead. It's now uphill all the way. At first the climb is quite shallow, but the steepness increases steadily and when we reach the homestead it will straight up the valley' steep walls.
On the way up, we meet the Three Billy Goats Gruff, standing passively on one of the several wooden bridges over the river. The troll is long gone and they stand passively, like us, and peer contemplatively down the thirty odd feet to the rushing of the river past boulders and rocks. The water is turquoise here, coloured by minute particles from the glacier way up in the mountains---and the foam, of course, is white as it smashes its way throught the rocky channel on its way to the mouth of the fjord.
We pause at the homestead for a rest, and to dry off some of the sweat. It's about 30 degrees and the sun is hot. They serve soggy waffles and offer beds to travellers, but we're not stopping that long. The fields stop here, and from now on its forest all the way to the tree line. A trail up leads the way to a hut on the top of the valley where we have planned to spend the night.
We ascend the trail through the forest, almost vertically zig-zagging up the wall of the valley. The intertwining of roots and stones forms a natural staircase, perhaps as steep as the domestic variety but around three hundred times longer. This is hard work and the way is veiled by a dense swarm of tiny insects and mosquitos. Usually the mosquitos keep a low profile, coming out mainly at night or living only in the shade. Today they seem to be having a carnival, and a field day with bare legs and arms. Actually, it's worst at night when you're trying to sleep. That's when you hear them best, buzzing past your face like microscopic kazoos---just to make you sweat so that they can smell you better. It wouldn't be so bad them sucking your blood, if they didn't inject you with an anti-coagulant which itches like hell for days afterwards.
At the top of the valley, we are rewarded with a view down the near-vertical valley wall, out into the forest at the base. It's marshy up here.
Can't be long since the snow melted. Not far away, we pass Vettisfossen---Norway's highest freely falling waterfall, which falls from a narrow stream of glacial water, 270 metres down a sheer rock face to the valley floor. That's the quick way down. From a suitable viewpoint it is a phenomenal sight as the water runs unsuspectingly out into a void, pauses in shock and then begins to fall in turbulent plumes towards its splattery death at the bottom. Nils speculates on how long it would take to hit the bottom, screaming. "Arrrggghhhhhhhh....... (breath) Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh........... (breath) Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh........... (breath) Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh........... (breath) Arghh........ oops." Along the edge of the drop, a band of ex-representatives of Norway's famous personality race The Lemming lie in decay. These bizarre hamster-like creatures wind themselves up to such an extent, when frightened, that they literally burst and perish. Their dead remains are to be found all over the mountain areas. It's remarkable that they have survived at all in the run of things, but evolution seems to have granted them a four year cycle of growth and suicidal destruction. At the end of their time, the remaining ones commit mass suicide, hurling themselves into the sea. You've all seen the cartoons.... The waterfall never loses its fascination, but at some point to have to tear yourself away. Besides, it's getting late and we have to reach the hut if we want to have a bed for the night.* * *
The hut lies in a marshy clearing where several streams meet. There are several huts here, all of them private but one. Members of the turist association can use the remaining one for a small fee. With a key you can enter and use the beds and the living area to sleep and make food. It's all beautifully decorated with modern furniture and constructed in the old-fashioned way from wood, with a stone chimney for the fire.
There is already a group of ten people here, so two of us will have to sleep on the floor. Still, better the floor than the marsh.* * *
Part of the reason for travel is to escape. This summer has been the most trying in a long time. In the road outside my office (which is on the first floor) they have been digging up the road to lay new tram lines for the last two months. Banging and scraping and pneumatic drilling the whole time. On the inside of the building, the other side of my office door, they have been tearing down the roof in order to install a new ventilation system, banging and drilling in the brick, sawing through metal pipes, and so on and so on. But, if that's not enough, to cap it all two of my neighbours have also taken it upon themselves to rebuild their apartments, so that---if I can escape construction work at all---it is never for more than a few waking minutes at a time.
In the mountains, the most oppressive noise is the roaring of a waterfall, or perhaps the wind in your face.* * *
Ahhhhh, feel that mountain air in your lungs! Rise up out of the lowlands and the air becomes clearer: no longer the thick, humid mixture of the valley, but a thinner elixier which smells of cold, fresh mountains and snowy wastes. Yes, air can smell of ice. It really does. Breeeaaathe in.... (cough and splutter--darn, it's no good living in the city!) and breathe out again.
We ascend further up through the forest, heading for the hills which were visible from the window of our overnight inn. It's not far to the tree line now and the vegetation is thinning, from trees to bushes and shrubs, eventually to grass and mosses. Up and up the rocky staircase, the scene is barren but no flatter for it.
It rises in deceit, one hill after the other. To the left (the North) we can look out across the valley we have been following to the other side. The world is starting to lose definition; scale tricks the eye into believing that nothing special is happening. It's them scaling daemons again, me hearties! Tricky little devils. Only the thin ribbon of water at the base of the valley brings back the scale back into conceivable proportions. Suddenly it is apparent that, the small hills on the other side of the valley are removed from us by miles of empty space. They are not small at all, but huge features rising (suddenly ominously) out of the Earth. Enormous spurs, carved by the winding of the river, gouged out by the glaciers of the Ice Age, interlock from North to South in a spectacular handshake which stretches as far as the eye can see. It is not so much what is there that is shocking, as the emptiness of the space in between what is there: you have never seem so much empty space encapsulated in such a vast container before, because---in the day to day run of life---there is always something blocking your vision, or perhaps there is simply nothing on the other side of the space (the sky?) which permits you to grasp the scale of it. Here, you have both clarity of vision and a bird's eye view. It's huge, it's empty, it's magnificent...
Perhaps you think that a simple photograph could capture this scene better than my rambling words---but, no. A simple, still two-dimensional image conveys nothing of the feeling of standing in these hills. The hills are alive ("...dum dee dum... with the sound of music...."), the wind blows, the water flows, crashing thousands of feet down into the valley. It's all so big. It's all alive. Walking in the mountains is something to be done with few companions.* * *
After following the valley, losing as much height as we gain, we come to our next hut. Past some the rubble screes and a few more marshes, sitting in a clearing, on a rock by the side of a river, here is Skogadalsboeen. This is almost a hotel by comparison, with three or four long, wooden buildings, each roof turfed with fresh green grass. It is one of the most inviting places to stay, on the edge of the "serious mountain ranges". Renouned for good food and a cosy atmosphere. Looks good to me---my legs are giving out and my cold is brewing up a treat. Just what I need.* * *
Mountain huts are a meeting place for all manner of travellers (from our galaxy -- and who knows....). Some are simply out a-wandering; others no doubt are there for a deeper purpose, perhaps on the run from something -- or someone -- Jabba the Hutt, or perhaps Pizza the Hut. They arrive in merry troops of babbling friends; they arrive in ones and twos, all leaden down with rucksacks on their backs. Some arrive in bright dayglo fashion, propping up their credability with ski poles (in the middle of summer!), cool sun glasses and a "why couldn't I come in my Ferrari" attitude. Others arrive in a more sober collection. Everyone comes for a bed and a hot meal. The yuppies usually sniff out the beer (if the establishment is equipped with helicopter-lifted beverages of the more potent kind). Some just retire with a book and rest. There is no electricity here, but the nights are light and candles suffice even for reading. So why not relax and tend your sores, perhaps plan the next day after your meal. Take a rest. Everyone needs a rest.* * *
Every traveller needs to rest. Time to stop and breathe, stop and think. The question is only how long? If you stop, there is always the fear that you might never get started again---and you do have to reach your destination, don't you? There are then some who daren't stop, or cannot stop, caught in the inexorable flow of their journey, perhaps not even aware of where it is leading them. They neither stop, nor make contact with their surroundings, they cannot enjoy the journey or savour its passage, they are just swept away to be hurled onto the rocks somewhere downstream... For others the pressure to move on is not so strong, the way forward is not so clear. There is something out there, but what is it? Well, traveller, why not just go and look? Too much baggage? Or have you lost your way? Ahh-- you're going for the magic lamp to bring all your wishes true, well ... if I was going for a magic lamp, I certainly would begin from here!
Once upon a time there was a traveller called Rumplestiltskin. Everything was going fine and then, before he knew what had happened, ten years had gone by --- had he been sleeping or what? As he looked around for his friends, he found that they had all gone away. Darn! He couldn't understand it, because they had always said that they would be there for ever--and he had believed them. But now they were gone. How could they change their minds with such a casual disregard for his feelings? Or had he just not seen what was going on? Anyway, now they were gone, which just goes to show that you can't trust any of yer cottonpickin' friends! Who would have been so foolish as to believe them but him? Jeeze, tough world. Better to stay asleep, maybe...but nope, not much point in that? So Rumplestiltskin decided to go on a long journey himself. Determined to stay awake this time, he vowed never to stop---for if he stopped he knew that his time would be over. There would be nothing left. So be it! He would boldly go, to seek out new life and new cerebral ablation... He would stay young, keep busy. Better this way than to grow old and become bitter at the passage of things? If he could pass everything faster, or the very least keep up...!! He wasn't sure he could do it, but maybe he could fake it awhile to see what happened...
And so he began a journey to meet new people and to see new places. But in his searching for a new life to be part of, he found that the very stability which he sought despised him for his weakness. He would just have to keep up the pretence even longer... and that was how people liked him: strong and distant: a figure receding into the sunset, on a great adventure. Rumplestiltskin would wave to the beautiful people as he passed, thinking them well and daring to long for their life (the very life he had escaped) and would head on into the sun, where at the very least he could shine in his own special way.
A temporary goal
On the third morning of our trip, my cold is brewing up nicely. Anne-Katrine has discovered that a parasite which she picked up in the forest a week ago has spread blue rings throughout her body. In just a few hours she will be an alien, releasing horror upon the world and dooming the future of the planet to a servile existence. In view of this new development, she has decided to stay at the hut today while we make our climb of the the summit of Jervasstind.
The journey should take us ten hours according to a local guide we have spoken to at the hut. He cannot come with us, but assures us that the way through the glaciers is easy and that there should be no problem in getting up to the top, despite the fact that there is a possibility of snow and hail later in the day. At this early hour the sky is clear and blue, with no sign of the high rippling cirrus clouds which signal the change to bad weather. But we know that they can arrive suddenly... Jervasstind looks like the Matterhorn, with a sharp summit which drops thousands of metres into oblivion on either side. In spite of distant appearances, the narrow edge which leads up to the summit is really much wider than any person and the danger of ascent is far less than you might expect (provided you're careful). Well that's the theory anyway... Our journey begins with lighter backpacks than usual, a pleasant trek through a rocky path in the forest. We must first go down to river level to cross to the other side of the valley we have been tracing, and then climb almost 1500 metres (about five thousand feet) to reach the top. It will be a long day. The initial stretch through the shady forest is an important time for psyching oneself up for the climb to come. As the three of us plod over the bridge and admire the icy turquoise water sloshing underneath, our minds are empty of the distant life in the city. The chief concerns are of the task ahead. Now looming up ahead of us is the first hill of many on the way to the top. It looks daunting enough in itself, even though it is not even half way there. The scale daemons laugh as we walk on and on to that tiny little hill, every minute dwarfing us more in its presence. We keep walking and we don't any closer, it just keeps getting bigger!!
And so to a new beginning, wherein the hardest part is beginning: it's time to go UP. No putting it off any longer, this is where the climbing begins.
* * *
Once upon the hill, thre protagonist becomes obsessed with the conviction that the only relief from (his) cerebral ailment is the perfunctory ascension to the highest point, whence he will look down upon the extent of his achievement and gloat incorrigably. Wind, rain, snow and hail shall be endured for the briefest moment of satisfaction. For any truly satisfying experience requires a period of suffering.The trip begins in the lower regions, trudging through swampy grasses and brambles---the distingiushed inhabitants of the foothills. Then vertically upward: slippery grass banks, stacked one upon the other, in a muddy wall. A thin and treacherous pathway meanders its way up mansize steps. Hands and feet are equally important here.
Damp air feels somehow colder than the icy blast higher up, and thicker. Each breath is an effort during the steep climb. The tired lungs dredge up a bloody taste fro the effort. Body sweats---hot on the inside, cold on the outside. The pace slows to a steady trudging, pumping lungs, pumping legs---daren't stop in case they won't start again. Pounding head, freezing air, buffets the mind into a mechanical stupor. Step, breathe, step, breathe, step... No room for conscious thought, just a dreamy blurry vision of the path upward. Slipping in and out of daydreams. Breathe, step, breathe, step.... This backpack isn't getting any lighter.
A devils trick: as each new peak in the mountainside seems to be reached, it is replaced by a new one, far higher, much farther up, just out of sight. And endless plodding, hour after hour....
Then suddenly a freezing wind hits from the north, as if to waken us. Here the air is suddenly thinner. It glides in and out of the lungs like a silky aether---no longer a struggle to breathe, but a relief to inhale deep breaths of frosty oxygen. An air so pure that is tastes like nectar.
At this hight, the buffeting of the wind makes a sheltered path favourable, but not always possible. In addition to gravity, we must now also fight off the wind. At times the gusts would pick up a body and hurl it back into the valley from which we have laboured. A moment's respite, a pause for water (now steadily turning to ice) and a bite to eat: we can turn and view our progress---the panorama of mountain tops stretching off into the distance, and the microscopic valley down below. We have already reached about the height of our nearest neighbour peaks. But it is better not to rest too long: the body freezes quickly and the legs should not taste sweet rest for a good eight hours yet. The satisfaction of having achieved a minor goal sits well in combination with the exhaustion it entails. It would be all too easy to pat oneself on the back and bask in the false euphoria of achievement, having come perhaps half the journey. But that would not do. The self-induced toil is not only necessary but compulsory for the traveller who intends to arrive at the final destination---so one must not sit so long that the magnitude of the full task fades from memory, to be replaced by the illusion of a satisfactory termination of affairs at this half-way point---for if the journey must resume in the manner of a new undertaking, then all of the attendant pains of initiative must be overcome once again. And so we rise again, before the compulsion is lost.
After hours of plodding through a self-induced euphoria, the landscape widens to flatter, more rounded forms. It is wilder here: the steps are no longer orderly but have the appearence of broken slabs which we thrown aside by some powerful force and left to lie. Snow fields creep in between islands of rock. The largest of these conceal glaciers. These must be avoided since they conceal cracks just under the thin crust of snow, cracks which would consume a body and plunge it tens of feet into an ever narrowing chasm, to be borne by the glacier and perhaps discovered in the melt-waters in a few hundred thousand years. So we walk the rocky islands, mounds of glacial rubble, strewn randomly. Boulders, small as pebbles, large as giants. Conscious that the rock has character (be it dark, angular and sinister or light smooth and inviting) it is impossible not to be awed by the pure desolation. This place is cold from the heart. Step, breathe, step, breathe...
And then a change. Smoother slabs at the glaciers edge, imprinted with long straight scratches. This is the footprint of the glacier, which has scraped smooth the sharp edged angular fragments to sea-side humps. On these friendly looking slabs, we have a new enemy: an impossibly slippery veneer of almost invisible ice. The ascent, although no longer impossibly steep, has turned into a new puzzle: a dance around intractable pathways, avoiding the glacial patches and the deep cracks where ice the snow/ice fields meet rock.
As we proceed, the cathedralic peak appears for a moment from behind the clouds. We are perhaps only an hour or two away, but then the very possible happens. At the end of this long dream quest, we meet a wall of rock which must be climbed. In fair weather, with a better understanding of the way ahead, this would not present such an insurmountable obstacle. But in our present state it reaches up before us, obscuring itself at such close quarters. Discerning the way up is like trying to gaze into the eyes of the liberty statue while standing at her base. The mountain does not bend to our needs. The way forward is no longer clear, and the cloud is thickening.
Suddenly a siege of wind and snow assaults us. Hailstones begin to sting and it is too cold to stand still. The wind is too strong to climb to the top, where a single slip would plunge a body two-thousand metres into the valley, down a single glacial field. Ahead the impossible, behind us, is four hours of descent back into the valley to where we started. We are faced with a decision: ahead the improbable and the rising danger of the elements, to the rear a plaintive descent back into the valley. A chilling wait, a conversation tainted with frustration. And a decision to turn. The only decision possible.
And so it is down again---new muscles, new pains. New puzzles to be solved. And a new dream of pondermotive reflection. But not before being greeted on the mountain. As if to complete the dream quest, an animal guide appears: a spindley spider creeps from between the ice blown rocks at this two-thousand metre altitude, just to prove that we are no great climbers. An ironic farewell, and we begin the journey down to the valley.
An eventual return?
Returning to Oslo is a mollifying anti-climax. Now past the time of 24-hour light, the overcast sky is almost dark at 23:00. The lights are on and the city goes about its business as usual. People hang on corners, the trams trundle through streets which suddenly seem unfamiliar. From the flamboyant wilderness of the Jotunheimen mountains to the square boxes of Oslo. And the boxes seem pretty insignificant now, the people superfluous. Tomorrow, my eyes will have become accustomed to the banality. Tonight I can only mourn the dichotomy.* * *
It is now 4 months since the events which I recount above. And I am no closer to finishing this letter. I have been stuck in the city ever since returning and its post-autumnal monochromaticity has dulled my senses and propensity for work to the point where any diversion seems attractive. Somehow the challenge of adventure does not lie within the usual scope of things. And so it is, to paraphrase Eco, that: as all his illusions collapsed, Roberto fell prey to an amorous obsession, from the island of the day before. A futile obsession with an unattainable goal. And I am in need of a break more than ever.
Another month in decay, and I can watch the flakes in January dusting the streets outside my flat with icing. I do not believe that I have had anythiung useful or interesting to say to many months. Thus, with the threat of a new semester looming, our traveller sinks into a darker mood. Pretty soon it will be back to the usual routine of pointless meetings, the process of democracy ensuing for hours at a time only to result in the eventual confirmation of what was already patently obvious.
* * *But, enough now. I can stand no more. I cannot drag out this nothingness into anything more interesting than it is. I am tired and have almost come full circle, in preparing for the next undertaking.
So here we are at the abrupt end of this particular journey, perhaps none the better off, and not having achieved the friendly greeting which was the original intent of this letter---instead a catalogue of the state of dementia of the author. But at least there is a partial illusion of completion, if not a curiosity of what is to come. Despite the present blackness of my humour, I must engage myself in new things and set new goals, for this is the only way to escape the present, and remain bouyant in the face of a rising tide of obligations. So let me return from this role as a Grecian vase, to a more natural form and see what can be done and not merely told. In any other mood, I would have to say that this is not so much the conclusion of this particular journey as the the beginning of the next. Until the next time...