"This morning I am at low ebb. I did not sleep well last night, waking, tossing, and dreaming sordid, incoherent little dreams. I awoke, my head heavy, feeling as if I had just emerged from a swim in a pool of warm polluted water. My skin was greasy, my hair stiff, oily, and my hands as if I had touched something slimy and unclean. The thick August air does not help. I sit here lumpishly, an ache at the back of my neck. I feel that even if I washed myself all day in cold clear water, I could not rinse the sticky, untidy film away; nor could I rid my mouth of the furry unpleasant taste of unbrushed teeth." — Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
My eyes fluttered open as the trans-Norwegian train shuddered to a stop. Bright lights, the backside of cushiony seats, parka-protected passengers bustling up and down the aisle. My lenses focused, pupils narrowed, eyes widened. Beyond all that, there was window, and beyond those windows, oh my: I was in the land of the fjords.
There's nothing quite like seeing new terrain for the very first time. Not new land—we see new land often—but new types of land, novel and unseen ways for terrestrial turf to present and adorn itself. I had the pleasure of that particular awe for two straight months the previous summer: great rocky mountains, highland meadows and ghostly forests, ghastly badlands and deep black chasms and monumental sand dunes and, above all else, the unbelievable and unsurmountable red rocks of canyonland. I knew this pretty planet had more surprises for me—has more surprises for me still—but I hadn't yet unearthed those of-earths on European earth (European nature was pleasant and gorgeous and welcome, just familiar). The fjords, then, were that surprise I'd been waiting for, that breathtaking moment of, well, oh my.
The fjords are mountains of a different creation than the mountains we know. The fjords were once plateaus, gargantuan slabs of stone, since racked and wrecked by glaciers that etched deep grooves in their crevices, melted and froze and turned those little cracks into big cracks, repeated the practice for millions of years and turned those big cracks into lush valleys. And so the fjords rise sharply, and they stand jagged, and they hold up little fragments of those once-great glaciers on their peaks—behold that which did this to me—and between them, between the cleaves, the canyon walls, meadows stretch out in tranquil glory, bits of stone the size of buses just strewn about, relics of the wreckage.
The train dipped between the fjords; it followed the valleys as a snake slithers through the sunken sands of the joshua trees. I did my best to stay awake—the excitement of the fjords made easy work of that—and arrived exhausted but ecstatic at the coastal town of Bergen by mid-afternoon. I wasn't really sure where I was supposed to go from Bergen, clueless as to how I could get closer to those magical mountains, but I hadn't the energy to figure it out at the moment. I found a nearby park; I fell asleep on its sunny grass.
I woke a few hours later feeling ever so slightly closer to the land of the living. I walked across the pretty town toward the harbor; I found a tourism agency and peeked inside. Pamphlets and bulky brochures lined the wall, advertising elegant cruises and fun-filled ferries to Norway's best-known fjordlands—day trips, night trips, weekend excursions and week-long holidays. I flipped through one of the smaller booklets and stopped at a neat little itinerary, a multimodal journey that brought the visitor closer to the fjords by train, by foot, by boat, and by bus. The photographs promised unspeakable beauty. I was intrigued.
The price tag for the trip was roughly two hundred dollars, which seemed reasonable, but I loathed this type of vacation-in-a-box business and hated to throw two hundred dollars of monetary support behind its success. I pulled out my phone and queried for reviews of the excursion: "Beautiful" said Cheryl; "Some of the most incredible scenery I've ever seen," wrote John. And then: "A great trip!" Sally concurred, "But note that this is really just a collection of reservations to get you onto Norway's public-private transportation system; the tour from there is on your own."
Public transportation? I thought. I have a pass that gets me onto that for free. I did a little more research, and sure enough, all the tourism agency did was package up a number of transfers neatly, print the tickets, and sell it to you at a hefty surcharge. Granted, a few of the legs would require a supplement even with my interrail pass, but that could all be handled onboard. Pleased, I hurried out of the dark little building and reemerged in bright Bergen sunlight.
On returning to the station, I discovered the next fjordbound train wouldn't leave until morning, which was just as well as the excursion would take a full day. Bergen, of course, was even more expensive than Oslo, so I kept frugal by merely walking about the city. I found a lovely park, then another; I wandered through a gorgeous Viking village and the grounds of a well-preserved castle. I crossed the street, was nearly run over by a driver who wasn't looking, tapped gently against his rear window twice as an unspoken "hey, be careful where you're driving." The driver stopped, threw his car into park, angrily opened his door and stormed toward me. He had an angry face and a mean energy. "What'd you hit my car for?!" he demanded.
"I tapped your car because you almost ran me over. Just be a little more careful when driving, okay?"
His angry face became angrier, uglier. "Maybe you shouldn't be in the street."
I sighed. I was too tired for this, of this. "I was crossing the street. I was at an intersection. Maybe next time you look where you're going when you plow through a crosswalk."
He neared me, all puffed-out chest and glaring eyes. I chuckled, walked away. I heard the angry man with the mean face get back in his ugly car, slam the door and dash away with a cloud of exhaust in his wake. Off to run down another pedestrian, I'm sure. So it goes.
I found a little shop selling falafel sandwiches to go—only seventeen dollars!—got one wrapped and brought it back to those castle grounds. There was a small amphitheater and a large troupe practicing for an upcoming performance, so I sat against the tree and listened delightedly as lovely opera wafted through the evening air, no cars to spoil the moment with their loud smoky motors.
It had become five, and then seven, and then eleven, and still the sky looked the same. Brightness be damned, I needed sleep; I had fjords to see the next day, and there was no way I'd allow myself to be tired for those. I left the castle and walked across town to the city's central park, a magnificent fountain with a little grassy ring, and laid down lakeside for a try at slumber.
It was a good try—I got a little sleep in—but I woke just an hour later with a shiver; hot as the day had been, the night was a little nippy. I stood, brushed myself off, and walked about looking for somewhere sheltered to sleep, but the train station was closed and the ATM lobbies wouldn't admit me with my American card and everywhere else was locked and shuttered. I shuddered again as a biting breeze blew by.
I collected sleep like coins on the sidewalk: I'd see something that looked promising, stoop to pick it up, a nickel's worth of sleep here and a dime's there, a bench here and a step there. Five minutes, ten minutes added to the piggy bank of rest I'd surely be smashing to pieces the next morning—I'd need every last cent. As one became two and two became three and the sun changed its mind in the southern sky—actually, I think maybe I'll rise again—I wandered downtown and hoped for an unlocked hotel lobby. No luck, of course; I'm sure I wasn't the first to try to steal a little sleep at the expense of the great multi-billion dollar hotel chains that erect their hideous edifices in the world's wealthy cities. Luxury, the ritzy towers promised in sharp neon, and I pictured the only luxury I could muster at the moment, a dark unlocked linen closet with fluffy carpet and—dare I even imagine it—a spare duvet.
I waited by the door for an early-morning exit, a hotel-goer taking off for an early flight. No one came. There was a TGIF next door with a wicker couch on the patio and I settled for that—wicker had never felt softer! Thank god for Fridays.
The sun was up, so it could have been nearly any time of day, but I checked my phone and it was almost six; I had a train to catch in an hour. I returned to the station, which had reopened its doors, and laid down on a bench as I waited for the train. A security guard came by. "No sleeping!" he shouted.
"Oh, I'm sorry; I'm just waiting for a train. I'm not sleeping; just resting."
I looked around at the room full of empty benches. I rolled my weary eyes, got up and sat on the floor. He walked away, and I stole some sleep while he wasn't looking.
The train came and I got onboard and slept once more; I was going back the way I'd come, so I was fine missing the sights a second time around. I woke outside the tiny fjordtop town of Myrdal, stepped off the stale train into the crisp mountain air. The place felt otherwordly, all misty clouds and white sky and foggy peaks, snow caps and countless crags and, ah, the sweet smell of fresh pine. I couldn't see much of the town, just tracks wandering off in either direction, and I crossed the platform toward the northbound tracks and awaited my first transfer down into the fjords.
The Flam Railway is a marvel of engineering. Built nearly a century ago to connect about a dozen Norwegian towns, the rail carries passengers alongside and over and through the magnificent face of the Naeroyfjord, passing little villages and great big waterfalls and deep valleys as it descends from the heights of Myrdal to the depths of Flam some several hundred meters below. The trains are kept in the old style, with comfortable couches and sliding windows and maroons and maudes just everywhere. It's a slow train, too, which is good for both enjoying the scenery and not crashing into it as the locomotive careens around the fjord face's tight corners and hairpin turns. One hour, eighteen kilometers, six stops, a thousand vivid memories of lovely landscape. Though it was built for commuting, its beauty has turned the Flam Railway into a tourist train, so there was plenty of camera-snapping, too. The coach stopped dead on the tracks at a few points for passengers to take photos of this-here-valley or that-there-glacier, and at its wider berths, we were actually welcomed to hop off the train and get up-close-and-soaked by the fjord's mighty waterfalls.
I forgot to mention the waterfalls, the way the indescribable beauty of the fjords is absurdly accentuated by dozens of fat and skinny and long and short wisps and veils of glacial waters fluttering and flying clean off the peaks and precipices of those majestic mountains. At the mightiest of those falls outside Flam, the train stopped and we all hustled toward the drizzly base, close enough to hear the thunderous crashes, and then: the waterfall sang to us.
Beautiful music could be heard amidst the water's rushing roar; it got louder, clearer. Suddenly, the whole side of the mountain was singing, and its echo across the valley sang back. A woman draped in a flowing orange dress stepped out from behind a rock on the face of the fjord, just meters from the fall's midriff. Arms outstretched, head to the heavens, it was her singing. Her blond hair whipped around with the winds and the waters, she raced along the rock and leaped at its height, Norwegian folk music now reverberating all around us with ample amplification. Another turn behind the rock and she disappeared.
And then no less than a moment later, there she was again fifty meters away, now literally underneath the waterfall, standing solidly on an island of stone in a river of whitewater. The music continued and the dance continued and she glowed golden as the sun and the mist cast a flurry of rainbows around her. Again, behind a rock; again, she teleported to afar, now once more at the midsection of the mighty fall. Seamless, effortless, gorgeous. They were doubles, of course, well-trained and well-choreographed after years of rehearsing this routine for ten passing trains per day, but the effect was still something glorious.
The show ended; once more all that could be heard was the roar of water, now too the roar of applause. We headed back to the train, back to our seats; onward to Flam.
The town of Flam consists of the following: bus station, cruise port, ferry port, grocery, three restaurants, convenience store, souvenir shop, bridge, access road, four hiking trails, beach, banking curve of one wonderful fjord.
I was tired, and much as I wanted to climb the fjord we had just descended, I needed rest. I walked across town—a sixty-second endeavor—to the pebbly beach, sat on my scarf. I stared out at the azure waters and the lush forests, yearned to swim in the river and wash the filth of train stations and parkland and city benches from my body. I stood, dipped a toe in the water, pulled it out in a flash. The river, fed by the runoff of glaciers, was glacially cold. I retreated back to my scarf; I laid down and read in the type of reading nook that dreams are made of, fjord wrapping around me in all directions.
Morning became afternoon even if the sun didn't know it, even if the sun still hung around in the south like a lazy lightbulb. I stood up—this standing thing was becoming difficult—and walked to the ferry port, bought a ticket for the 1:15PM ferry to Gudvangen, boarded the ferry and got a nice seat on its upper deck as it tooted its horn and pulled away from the dock, from pretty little Flam, and deep into the watery valley of the Naeroyford. Oh my.
I can't say I've ever seen anything more unfailingly and blissfully beautiful what I saw from the deck of the Flam-Gudvangen ferry that midsummer's day. Blue sky, big blue sky that seemed to wrap around the unseen earth in its weighty magnitude, deep jade river across which we floated like a quiet glacier, giant island of purple rock that rose from river and reached for sky, tiger-striped rock and cleanly cleaved rock and rock stained by waterfalls now fallen. Gulls followed our boat like pterodactyls through a prehistoric lost world, they dipped and dove and glided with us for two perfect hours. All along the way, we passed villages of five houses, ten houses, a single dock and often a single family eating peacefully on that dock; they'd lift their heads and wave to us as we passed, and we'd wave back, and I'd wave back, and I'd wonder what life must be like in a place like that, so removed from the dirty ills of the great big world, just community and heavenly vistas and the occasional floating ferry to pass the time.
The Naeroyfjord banked like the giant footprint of a godly horse, it curved north and then curved back south and the scenery never faltered, not for the slightest second, and then we were experiencing the fjords under a new sun that cast gentle shadows on the eastern face and dark shade toward the west, and we all oohed and ahhed and sometimes just sat in silent wonder, and after a long afternoon that was still too short, the motor cut with a huff and we sidled up quietly at the port of Gudvangen with a simple splash.
I didn't stay long in Gudvangen; I caught a bus that puttered along the valley floor and slowly climbed its twenty hairpin turns, each corner the coach took bringing us higher; first we were within the fjords, then we were along them, and then we were once more atop them, rolling along the cliff's edge into the fjordtop town of Voss. Once again, I didn't stay long. Weariness had caught up to me, and I knew it was too cold to sleep outside at that altitude, so I caught the last train of the night back east, slept as much as I could on the way back to Oslo.
I emerged from the Oslo train station once more. The sky was the same as I remembered it: bright, wisps of pink scrawled across it, deciding if it felt like sleeping that night. I was deciding, too—though not if I'd sleep, but where. The opera house was still crowded, and the train station would close in a few hours, and downtown was busy and loud. I ventured east, found a nice patch of grass outside of a church, began to lay my scarf out when an armadillo-sized rodent scurried into the bush. I moved on.
It got a little darker, and the quieter parts of town became a little less quiet once the working girls went to work. They'd call at me from across the sidewalk, and I'd hurry on, but unlike in Hamburg, I had no refuge: the hookers owned the parks, the streets and the sidewalks and the benches, and any time I stopped they'd flock toward me, hungry for a dollar. No thank you, I'd say, but no thank yous were useless. What I should have said was "smell me," for after three days of sleeping outside, three days of sweating in cities and not finding a shower, no price could be worth getting to near my rank odor, or so I thought.
I was too polite, I suppose. I got up, walked on, was offered cocaine for the millionth time that night by a man in the shadows. "Oh, no thanks!" I smiled, "have a good night, though!" Maybe I wished him the best of luck with his enterprise; I can't remember.
I passed by a fifty-floor Radisson; the lobby was lit and open. I wandered inside, made for the elevator, was disappointed to find that it required a room key to work it. I returned to the lobby, stretched out on a long leather couch, put an open book in my lap and closed me eyes—oh, silly me; I must have dozed off while reading.
I was woken up four minutes later by a pretentious manager with an upturned mustache and an upturned nose. "Excuse me," he said with long fingers coming to a point at his chest, "are you a guest of this hotel?"
"Uh, my girlfriend is," I lied, "I'm just waiting for her to get back." I didn't really say from where, didn't really care to build out the lie. He seemed to accept my answer, walked away but forgot to take his musky cloud of cologne with him. It lingeerd. I could have lingered too, tried for sleep again, but I knew he'd be checking on me in fifteen minutes, so I grabbed my things and left.
I needed sleep. I could have easily bought it, I knew. I had found a hostel with a spare bed on my phone, only thirty-four dollars, an incredible bargain for a place in Norway. But it wasn't about the money—it never was —it was about the victory, about the assurance that I could, had I none of it, make do on my own for that Norwegian night. And so I continued on, past the road with the hostel and back to the train station, onto a steel bench outside, a little sleep, a shuffling inside with the other vagabonds once the doors opened at 3:45AM. Another uncomfortable steel bench inside, but warm; I stretched out and closed my eyes.
I opened my eyes; a man with a shiny yellow vest was rattling a stick against the edge of the bench.
I looked around. The station was nearly empty. I would be taking an early morning train. Why did he care if I was able to get some rest before it?
I looked at him with a gentle loathing. I sat up and he walked away. From afar, I watched the minutes wind around the clock.
I opened my eyes; the man with the shiny yellow vest had returned.
"Um, I'm sitting up. My eyes were just closed"
"You must keep them open! No sleeping!"
Are you kidding me?
I left them open. The sleep police wandered away to make someone else's morning an unfortunate hell. I closed them again.