Travel and Sports—Silver: Lovely Crinkly Edges

by Melissa Larsen

“Are you trying to tell me,” said Arthur, slowly and with control, “that you originally … made the Earth?”
“Oh yes,” said Slartibartfast. “Did you ever go to a place … I think it was called Norway?”
“No,” said Arthur. “No, I didn’t.”
“Pity,” said Slartibartfast. “That was one of mine. Won an award you know. Lovely crinkly edges.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

She tottered toward us like a koala on hind legs. This is not to say she was cute, so much as she was stocky and rotund, and had about her an air of harmless curiosity that concealed an underlying brutal nature. Only when she was within striking distance did we notice her clawsclaws of boredom, with hooked nails made of pointless, inane stories. Once she sunk them into you, you could only pray for death to save you from the conversation equivalent of Chinese Water Torture, as she clung hungrily onto your personal space, and dragged the talons of her painfully-uninteresting observations about life and the weather across your soul.

The problem with guided tours is that they appeal to the worst kind of tourist. It’s impossible to take one without being plagued by a few colorless stereotypes with bellies overhanging un-ironic fanny packs, and digital cameras forever poised to snap yet another random, halfhearted and poorly-framed photo of nothing in particular that will one day get saved to a cd and thrown in a junk drawer, never to be seen again.

But sometimes the only way you can see certain sights of a country is to give in and jump on a “sightseeing” tour. Since Norway is famous for them, my friends and I decided to take a break from our snowboarding trip in order to check out the “king of all fjords,” the Sogenfjord. Besides being one of the deepest and longest fjords there is (extending more than 200 km inland from the sea), an arm of it is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. (A list that includes the Great Wall of China, Galapagos, Machu Picchu, and the pyramids of Egypt, among others.) In other words, it’s a particularly lovely crinkly edge. So we played travel Russian Roulette: signed up for an all-day, multi-leg bus/boat/train excursion through one of the most beautiful geographical zones in the world, spun the cylinder, and pulled the trigger of chance… and promptly had our afternoon shot by a chatty remora fish who wouldn’t stop calling us “skiboarders,” no matter how many times we corrected her.

We didn’t have to ask where she was from; no creature is more obvious than an American on vacation. But I wanted to clarify. So I inquired. “I’m from Texas,” she replied, puffing up in that proud-for-no-goddamned-reason that Texans do. “What brings you all the way here,” I wondered aloud.

“Oil.”

This is supposed to be a story about snowboarding. Snowboarding in Norway. And I will get to that, eventually. But first, let us all just get some clarity on this one thing: Unless you are independently wealthy, an industry lackey traveling on a company expense tab, or just really, really good at saving money, you are never going snowboarding in Norway. Why? Because Norway is the second-most expensive country on Earth. Only Japan tops it, and not by much. And Oslowhere, incidentally, we started our triphas beaten Tokyo out of the “most expensive city in the world” title the last two years in a row.

So unless you’re the kind of person who routinely throws down 200-plus bucks a night for (cheap) hotel rooms, and thinks nothing of paying 6 dollars for a cup of coffeeor, more importantly,14 dollars for a pint of beer (no, seriously), you’re going to find the prices somewhat difficult to handle. In the two weeks we were there, I don’t think I paid for one thing without shaking my head in shock and cussing.

Of course, none of us had any idea what we were in for when we planned the trip. Our motivation to travel there was provided by Mother Nature: With the notable exception of western Canada, resorts worldwide were posting record-high temperatures and record-precipitation lows that winter. In Europe, the situation was particularly dismal. Austria experienced one of its warmest early seasons in over 1,400 years, and few countries fared much better. Though we all had a number of other spots on our list of snowboarding spots we wanted check out, Scandinavia was one of the only zones on that side of the globe reporting anything good in their weekly snow reports. So we went. Without looking further into other travel-planning factors. Like the cost-of-living index. For example. Oops .

This brings us back to the Texan, who shall henceforth be referred to as Snoozy. Snoozy McFlinder. Now, at the point that Snoozy entered the picture, we were at the tail end of our trip. We’d already been to the much-respected Arctic Challenge contest, where Norwegian hero Terje Haakonsen set a new world record for the highest quarterpipe air. We’d already braved the sketchy (as in, so ridiculously windy, narrow, and filled with fast-driving, lane-hogging semi trucks, you seriously run the risk of dying) Norwegian highways in order to check out Hemsedal, the site of the other mind-boggling snowboarding world record: local boy Mads Jonsson’s 57-meter 360 over a 40-meter table top.

We’d already come face-to-face with the childish naiveté of our pre-trip assumptions about Scandinavian riding conditions, and discovered that the mountains there have a lot more to offer than parks, halfpipes, and hardpack. At Hemsedal, in a region aptly-named “the Scandinavian Alps,” we’d not only already clocked some serious sunny, powder-day fun time, but gotten in a few awesome “I’m 15 all over again” stormy, night-riding sessions as well.

And then, I’d already stupidly talked our crew into driving away from powder into a rainstorm in the name of adventure and exploration. My friend Phil had already plowed our rental car into a snow bank in a moment of high-speed, mid-drive narcolepsy. And thus, he and I had already survived our first road-weary almost-fight.

Of course, one of the main reasons we’d decided to forgo one day of snowboarding in order to see what kind of picture some glaciers and a couple of Ice Ages could paint on the canvas of a coastal mountain range was because a sudden change in weather had severely decreased the amount of snow that we could ride onteaching us a hard, valuable lesson about the fickle nature of Norwegian snow gods in the process. Nevertheless, by the time Snoozy rolled up on us, with her veneer smile and backpack full of ceramic troll and plastic Viking hat souvenir-shop impulse purchases, there weren’t very many breezy, “Gosh, isn’t this all so pretty,” observations that she could utter that we hadn’t already thought of ourselves. To say we were enraptured with the place would be an understatement.

Phil and I were, at least. The other snowboarders in our crew, maybe less so. I don’t really know. I was inside sipping coco by the fire while they were all out trying to get photos in the rain at the end there, so it’s hard saying. There is a good chance that the weather, no pun intended, somewhat dampened their spirits. I was afraid to ask.

To be honest, though, I loved the country before we had even arrived, for reasons almost entirely unrelated to snowboarding. Because I am a malcontent, always moving about, searching for the perfect place to live like some people search for the perfect mate, I had been devouring news and stories about the place for months prior, and worked myself up into a veritable frenzy of admiration. I carried a stat card of facts and figures in my frontal lobe, and would whip it out for a quick recitation when in the presence of anyone who showed even the merest hint of interest.

*cough* For example … Did you know that Norway:

– Has universal healthcare and free education for all of its people?
– Everyone gets six vacation weeks a year?
– Created the Nobel Peace Prize, and is home to the committee that awards the prize each year?
*She says breathlessly, swooning.*

– Has NO Wal-Marts. None. And probably never will.
– Subsidizes its small, local farms in order to keep regional, traditional crafts, like hand-knit wool sweaters and sweet goat cheese, alive and well.
*Hot flashes. Fans herself with her hand.*

– Is building a “doomsday vault” inside of a mountain on an Arctic island roughly 600 miles from the North Pole in order to preserve the (non-GMO) seeds of all of the world’s current agriculture crops, in case global disaster and/or Armageddon wipes our food supply out, and we need to start all over again.
– The possibility that the world’s temperature may rise, and Greenland’s ice sheet, and all of Antarctica may some day melt due to global warming, raising the sea level by 68 meters, has been taken into consideration in the design of the vault.
*Loses consciousness, falls to floor. Has to be revived by medics with a cold towel.*

These are the things that start to turn you on when the country you live in has a short-sighted global embarrassment for a president, and the culture it’s set on exporting seems to be comprised of mass-produced junk, made out of non-biodegradable parts in environmentally-unfriendly, ethically-dubious factories by impoverished children in “developing” nations for .08 cents an hour. Or then again, that could just be my thing… Anyway , suffice it to say that if Norway was a pop star, and I a pre-teen given to obsessive fascinations, there would have been posters of the placeshirtless, brooding, in various poses of devastating gorgeousnessplastered all over my bedroom walls. To me, it was just that perfect. And, alas, that unattainable, as well.

As with any crush, though, I’d overlooked a couple points. Like, the whole whaling thing is kind of difficult to get behind (they’re not only aggressively for it, they officially call it a “green” industry). But then again, all my attempts to engage a Norwegian on the subject were met with a good-natured smile and an amicable, “Well, you have your opinion, and I have mine,” dismissal of argument.

It’s hard to judge a thing like national character in a two-week trip through a tragically small part of a country, but were I pressed to make one blanket statement about Norwegians that may or may not be true, I’d say it’s maybe impossible to engage them in a verbal spar. I watched my friend Andrew try his hardest to get punched in the face by some random, drunken beefcake at a wedding party in a Voss hotel bar that we unintentionally crashed. His strategy was to ask what the guy was into, and then vehemently shout his complete opposition to whatever he said. Instead of a bar brawl, the nearly 10-minute confrontation ended with Andrew wandering away in a bewildered daze, muttering repeatedly, “I can’t believe he wouldn’t fight me…”

And were I pressed to make a blanket statement about Texas oil industry executives, I’d say they were greedy and slightly amoral. Of course, that’s silly, but still. I don’t see the profits pouring out of the oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico being channeled into a government pension fund for the countrya “rainy day” savings account for it to fall back on for when the oil wells, and the oil profits, inevitably dry up. Norway has that. Norway started putting its oil profits into a global investment fund in 1990. Today that fund is worth over 300 billion dollars, and is predicted to be worth over 800 billion in a decade. And not only thatas of this year, the fund no longer invests in multi-national companies like Wal-Mart, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, among others, for what they deem to be ethical failings. (Many companies involved in making cluster bombs, nuclear weapons, or weapons parts have been blacklisted from the fund.)

Can a Texas oil industry person even relate to that? That was my real problem with Snoozy. Before her intrusion into my perfect fantasy world, I had been standing, awe-struck on the deck of our fjord-tour ferry, as it chugged up a valley floor of sea water, surrounded by 1,000+ meter mountains with huge, booming ice/waterfalls breaking off from them everywhere, happily weighing the pros and cons of living in Norway.

There’s the euphoric midnight sun of the summer vs. the oppressive, near-perpetual darkness of deep winter. (As my fatherwho is descended from Norwegiansalways says: There’s a reason their most famous painting is The Scream. ) There’s the genetic homogenous… ness of Scandinavians in general vs. the fact that, well, its not as if many of them carry the DNA code for “ugly” in their blood, now do they? There’s the fact that since a good number of the 4.6 million Norwegians live near the country’s major cities, it would be possible to “get back to nature,” in the countryside in a very real way vs. the possibility that that might get really, really boring after awhile.

So, one moment I’m contemplating the possibilities of living as an ex-pat in some quiet little fjord village on the western coast, the next I’m contemplating the possible future repercussions of the U.S. oil industry’s involvement in the country. Not an easy track for a train of thought to jump over. The revelation that this picturesque Scandinavian utopia was infested with Texan oil tycoons was like finding out your sweet, loving child is falling in with a meth-peddling biker gang. There’s no way to get through that experience at least a little corrupted, is there? Plus, if you leave a country, for real, you don’t want the people you’re trying to get away from waiting for you in the place you’re running away to.

What I’m saying is, she tainted my dream. And it was a good one. But I’ll tell you, it was a pretty nice fantasy to hold onto for awhile.


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