This is a long post, be prepared:
I am back in Oslo, after having spent seven days backpacking from hut-to-hut in the Hardangervidda with the DNT. I should note that I have never backpacked before—save for one fairly soggy trip through Point Reyes—and my inexperience showed. The entire hike was 106.9 km (about 66.5 miles) of up-and-down terrain. Many of our days hiking were 5 hours or longer. One day, the trip to Litlos from Sandhaug, took eight hours of walking. My pack was too heavy—around 28 pounds—as most of the other hikers informed me.
I was the youngest in our group of 11. The average age of the group I’d say would be mid-50s, through several were in their sixties, and all of these folks were extremely fit. Much more fit than I think I will ever be in my life. They also had the lightest and most efficient gear, stable jobs, were all married, and often waxed nostalgic about their backpacking throughout the world over a couple beers at the hut. For the most part, the group was very international. There were a handful of Norwegians, a Dutch guy, a few Swiss folks (from the German speaking part of Switzerland), a Danish woman, and strangely enough, a couple from Menlo Park, California. But everyone could speak English, as did our guide.
The group dynamics that surfaced were interesting to me. On one hand, I knew (mostly) everyone was acting their absolute nicest—no one wants to be the dick that ruins the trip—and avoiding confrontation of any sort, sticking to inoffensive small talk. As someone who doesn’t really engage much in small talk, I felt like the quiet one of the group. And, on the other hand, despite everyone’s kindness, I was still reluctant to open up to them. I didn’t feel safe talking about my gender and so I was misgendered constantly. There was too much of an age, language, and sociopolitical barrier between them and me.
Being on a hike makes one much more relaxed with the body, though there is still the rigid binary system keeping assigned men and women apart. Maybe these relaxed attitudes are specific to European hiking, I’m not sure. When on the trail I noticed the women wore just sports bras and shorts, especially the older women, which I thought was pretty cool. Women were also pretty blasé about squatting down behind the same rock at the same time to pee. In the shared bathing rooms, if there was a bathing room, women would just engage in conversation with me, completely naked, about how to work the showers. At first this was very strange for me, I didn’t want to make eye contact because that would be rude in the U.S., on the other hand I didn’t want them to think I was being rude by not engaging in conversation…it was an interesting cultural clash.
We hiked in a single file line, often my eyes were glued to the ground to make sure I didn’t stumble over a rock and break something. I’m extremely klutzy, even with hiking poles to help my balance. The mantra, Don’t be an idiot! was repeated several times in my head throughout the day to make sure I stayed focused on the trail. Every once in a while, the trail would be smooth enough that I could look up and see the Orca Whale-like mountains, thick clouds, vibrant flowers, Day-Glo green lichen, goofy sheep, the faint petal of the moon stuck to the blue sky. Everything was achingly beautiful: aching because I knew I’d never be there again; aching because I knew I wasn’t really there most of the time, but lost in my head; aching because I wanted to be there, but wanted to be home, too.
The Dutchman, (who had done around 50 of these week-long tours through Norway, and was in his 60s), and I talked after dinner one night about what we think about as we walk. He works for the Department of Defense with computer science, and liked to hike as a way to Not Think. He called this way of thinking “sort of like a trance.” This is the complete opposite of the way my mind works when hiking. When I wasn’t repeating Don’t be an idiot! to myself, I was either unsuccessfully trying to get The Smiths’ “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” out of my head, or trying to compose haiku. This man was often in front of me, and I thought about his Not Thinking and my Thinking as existing in a symbiotic relationship, like a the binary star system Cygnus X-1, and how all of the metaphor my imagination projected onto our brief friendship was building up like an accretion disk around the absolute unknowable black hole mind of him.
I couldn’t fit all of that into a haiku.
The huts were often serviced, meaning that there was a cashier selling goods and hiking supplies behind a counter, and they would then help with the kitchen to serve us, and other hikers not in our group, dinner. Most of the people working with the kitchen were young Norwegians perhaps trying to earn some extra cash during the holidays. Strangely enough, all of these huts in the middle of nowhere could take credit card. One hut we walked to, Torehytten, was self-serviced, meaning it had a small kitchenette and a pantry full of canned food stored in the same room as the bunks.
Stigstuv, the first hut we made it to, and the first hut I’d ever been in, felt like it had been transported straight out of a folk tale. Everything was wooden and spare, there were reindeer skins hanging up on the walls in the common room along with an acoustic guitar. Stigstuv was made up of two cabins, one for eating and talking, the other a dorm room with wooden bunk beds and blankets, and an outhouse. This pattern repeated itself in many of the other huts we stayed in. The folks working the kitchen had cooked pork, potatoes, peas and carrots for our dinner.
Being a vegetarian in this context, and also a lay-practitioner of Buddhism, made these meals very interesting. On one hand, I did not want to participate in the suffering of slaughter, on the other hand I wanted to practice the tradition of accepting what is offered without discrimination. I resolved that if there was only meat offered that I would take it. My dinner diet for the first couple of days was potatoes, peas and carrots smothered in lingonberry jam. There were generous helpings, which was great, and I had enough to eat. My guide, upon finding out I was vegetarian, was astonished the DNT hadn’t informed her of this, and she called up the other huts we would travel to and informed the kitchens that I was vegetarian, so that they could provide specific meals for me. I felt guilty for this extra treatment, but also thankful for her kindness and concern. One of the other hikers had Coeliac Disease, and so the huts had to bake special loaves of bread for her for breakfast and lunch.
My mantra helped: I made it pretty much without injury through most of the seven days. But then, Torehytten happened.
I had hit my stride, I was walking in the front of the group. I was using my poles to propel my strides forward, instead of just using them to keep balance. My pack wasn’t feeling as much of a burden as it had been, the hut was in sight, though it actually still took about an hour of climbing over rocks and walking up and down hills to get there. And the weather was nice! At one point, feeling particularly confident, I propelled myself too forward too quickly, misjudging the angle of the hill in front, and faceplanted straight into the granite path. As my mouth hit the ground I felt, in exquisite slow-mo detail, a crack grow vertically in my right front tooth. Blood was pouring from my face, and since I had no mirror, I couldn’t tell where the blood was coming from. Primal fear ingrained in me about my teeth from an early age (my mom is a dental assistant, and I’ve heard way too many horror stories about accidents and tooth trauma) felt like lead in my stomach.
I sat on the path, absolutely horrified, it was like so many teeth-falling out nightmares I’ve had in the past. I was worried I’d cracked it in half, that I’d have to be helicoptered out and flown home to get it pulled. I tried not to keep sticking myself with the Second Arrow. I tried to stay with what I could feel: I ran my tongue over it, it still had feeling, my lip was what was bleeding. I was happy it wasn’t loose. As my guide said, there was little we could do about it, and we had to keep going. And so, in a terrified and pissed off mood, I made the rest of the 20 minute hike over rocks and waterfall to Torehytten, where I miserably packed snow onto my face. Later, I checked out the huge white crack in my enamel by taking selfies, and hoped to God I hadn’t killed the root. Sometimes it takes a while for a tooth to show signs of death…and even though lately I’ve had nightmares of waking up to find it discolored and falling out, it hasn’t shown signs of death yet.
The emergence back into civilization was a bizarre one. The feeling of estrangement and bewilderment was similar to what I had felt in the past coming back from meditation retreats, only stronger. I had gotten fairly used to the quiet, the lack of technology, the lack of convenience, and so blundering out of the Hardangervidda into the village of Stavali felt like being spat out of a wormhole into a new strangely confusing, and yet comfortable, universe. There were so many people as I wandered through a Spar grocery store, looking for food and beer. Tabloids screamed at me from the cash registers. I felt dazed and lost.
We ended the hike by staying at the Utne Hotel, which was pure luxury. I had my own room. I had wifi. I had the most delicious shower of my life. The water was hot and didn’t cost 30kr for three minutes. I sat on the floor of the shower and just let the water run over me, indulging for 20 minutes. I did not realize how much I needed the alone time until I had it. My bed sheets were white and soft and I had a full sized bed all to myself. I laid on the bed and stared at the ceiling for a long time, trying to absorb the past week. I realized how gross everything of mine smelled. It was amazing.
The group dynamics and talking at the last dinner seemed strained to me, now that the hike was over and we would be saying good-bye forever, being in the group did not make sense to me anymore, but we also clung to the shared experiences, the feeling of pride of having accomplished a long journey.
This hike emphasized for me how much I need love and trust, how much I need close friendship, space, creativity—how much I need to be understood by people, and how weirdly detached from people in everyday life I have been despite these all these needs.
I’m headed to Iceland tonight, which may or may not be a completely different experience.
Dark water filling
up the land: a brick thrown through
my tinted window.
White quartz: whole ‘til our
boots rend it into petals
of mountain avens.
Snow’s a blank canvas.
I fill in the space with my
yearning for moonlight.