Michael Shearer, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Artikkelen er hentet fra Confraternity of Saint James, Bullentin, June 2005
Many writers have commented that one of the differences between a pilgrimage and a long walk is the sense of being called. It`s like a temporary vocation and not just a mild case of itchy feet. The need to go on pilgrimage often announces itself through a series of chance meetings and synchronicities. Circumstances seem to be rearranging themselves and ganging up on you. The feeling is not so much one of choosing but of being chosen. The commitment to go is not so much a decision as an acceptance.
When I first walked the camino in 1985 that sequence of events and feelings was a bit of a shock. I didn`t have the vocabulary of synchronicity and vocational feelings. It`s a curious thing but it is perfectly possible, and not uncommon, to have a feeling and not to recognice what it is. Feelings are rather like tastes and a new feeling, like a new taste. is not classifiable in terms of past experience. I didn`t understand what was going on.
Well, I`ve walked the camino eight times now and know the various distinctive feelings associated with it very well, from the dawning news that I`ve grown stale and must go again, to that piercing nostalgia, usually midt-winter and late at night, for the intense and simple clarity the camino yields. "Ah, there it is, the camino calls".
So, when I felt that sense of magnetic pull of pilgrimage at the end of last year, I knew what it was alright, but it had an odd thing to it. It wasn`t the camino calling. Something like that, but not quite that.
I had walked the camino in 2003 and the old magic still worked, of course, but the crowds made it harder to hear. There is always a personal learning, but to hear it was like trying to listen to Scubert by a motorway. So much distracting noise muddying things. And there was something lacking. Several things lacking.The powerful camaraderie had weakened; it was still there but watered down by the sheer pressure of numbers. I recall the surly and selfish crowd outside the refuge at Rabanal. I had arrived hot, tired and thirsty and slumped down on a rare patch of clear ground, only to be told that I couldn`t sit there as it was someone`s place in the queue. I got up and carried on up the mountain.
In `85 and `86 I had packed my watch at the bottom of the rucksack in St. Jean and hadn`t needed it till catching the train home in Santiago.
We lived by the sun and how we felt. There were very few wardens and hardly any rules. We got up when we woke up, walked till we were tired, and went to bed when we felt like it. This allowed the camino to work its temporal tricks. Odd and important things happened because there was space for them to happen.
Now in 2003, most people were up at dawn to catch the 7.32 footpath for Leon in perpetual fear of finding no bed at the terminus. It was like commuting without a train.
The camino has lost its innocence. Where were all the ordinary Spaniards I could recall? Plenty of Spaniards of course, but no farm workers, road-menders, fruit-pickers, semi-tramps. The camino had become middle-class and had imported middle-class values and expectations. The camino now included many of those qualities and habits, all the social padding.
I was trying to escape from. The whole thing has become more self-conscious and more commercial.The dirty bar in the back street where you once tried to talk to the locals has now become a posh bar with a pilgrims`menu where you talk to other pilgrims.
So then yen for pilgrimage in the winter of 2003 was not a yearning for the Camino but for something similar. But what?
I toyed with the idea of the Northern route across Spain but it felt all wrong.
Then gradually, by the usual mechanism of hints and coincidences, books and people turning up, odd comments and asides came the word: Norway. The possiblilty of walking St. Olavs Way crystallised out into reality.
So it came to pass that I walked from Oslo to Trondheim in the summer of 2004.
And now, it occurs to me, that there must be others like me who walked the camino and say "now what"?
And perhaps, eventually, may come to think that the next might be Norway. So, I thought that a few practical comments might be useful.
The first thing, then, is to get some idea about what it is that you are letting yourself in for. Well,on the positive side, Norway is a stunningly beautiful country.Take a look at a relief map. Hardly anywhere is flat. The place is mountainous and seriously crinkly. Glaciation has meant high-level plateaux, steep-sided U-shaped valleys and deep and sharply cut river valleys. The sense of space is exhilarating. Views are gorgeous.
Secondly, there`s no-one there. Well no-one to speak of; or so it feels. Norway has about 125.000 square miles with a population of 41/2 million. The UK has an area of 94.000 square miles with a population of just under 60 million.
So Norway is a third much bigger than the UK with a population half that of London. Add to that the fact that most Norwegians live in the towns and you get some idea how empty the countryside is. If you want solitude, and nothing but nature, this is your place. People are scarce and more valued.
Thirdly, although used as a medieval pilgrimroute, the Way has only been revived and marked on the ground since 1997.
It is unspoilt. Pilgrims are rare. I asked at Engen Kloster (a Lutheran convent that will put up pilgrims) how many pilgrims stayed there. The reply was a bit vague, but I gathered perhaps one or two a year. I asked the same question at Skåden gård. They said I was the ninth that year, this was in the middle of August. There`s a priest in Trondheim (Rolf Synnes) whose job is to care for pilgrims. He tries to meet each one personally. I met one pilgrim on the Way and another in Trondheim who had arrived the day before me. That`s all. Mostly people don`t recognice you as a pilgrim; you are a walker, someone on a camping holiday. Attitudes toward pilgrimage are ambivalent. But there is no commercialisation, no dumbing down, no hurry, no rules, and no wardens.
Fourthly, it`s like going back fifty years in terms of social attitudes. Norway is refreshingly sane in the manner in which people treat each other. They presume that the overwhelming majority of people are normal and decent, and they treat strangers accordingly. There`s not a smidgen of the paranoid stranger/danger syndrome in which most population are known to be weird nutters ready to slit your throat for your dirty socks. One way in which I coped with getting lost was to make my way to a road an wait. Then I flagged down a passing car to ask where I was. I did this frequently.The first car (it was sometimes a long wait) always stopped, often driven by a lone woman. It was obvious that none of them saw a hairy, dirty, possibly dangerous male but just someone lost in the mountains who needed help.
So much for what I think of the positives, there are also intrinsic problems.The greatest of these is that the Way is much harder than the camino (despite being shorter; 643 km compared to around 800)
Why is it harder?
Well, first there`s the terrain. Even a straight road is liable to unduate considerably. You are going up and down all day, most days.
There are no long, flat stretches. If you are crossing the corrugations of the landscape, walking against the grain of the ground, then the pattern is to climb the side of the valley, go over the top, cross the valley, climb the side of the next valley, and so on.
If you are going down the length of a valley, then, because the valley already contains a river, a road and a railway, there`s no room for a footpath, so you will be going up and down the side of the valley as you go along it. Either way there`s lots of ascent and descent. It`s gruelling.
Then there`s the pattern of settlement in Norway. The towns are small by British standard. You reach somewhere like Otta or Oppdal, regarded as a big deal in Norway. Is this it? Is that all there is? Most town are considerably smaller than Brentwood. Otta is not big enough for a hotel. You can walk right around it in 20 minutes. And there aren`t many towns. Villages scarcely exist at all. There are a few. The social unit in the countryside is the farm. So, there`s a ame on the map you are following and you think it`s a village, when you get to it, it`s a farm. Six or eight kilometres further on there`s another farm. No villages mean no supplies: no shops, no bars, no cafès, and no fountains.There`s a supermarket at Dovre. The next shop (of any kind) is at Oppdal 100 kilometres further on ( which is 4 or 5 days walking). No public water supplies (and no bars or cafes) means there`s a drinking water problem if it gets hot. You have to anticipate your needs and carry enough to cope with all this.
It is also hard because there`s no infrastructure for pilgrims. I found 3 refuges in the 30 days it took to do the walk. You`re on your own. Accommodation is awkward. There are hotels and B&Bs but at inconvenient distances. Prices varied for accommodation from 16 £ /- 40-50 £ was more typical. I used the method Alison Raju recommends in her excellent guide for using towns as much as possible; walking to a bus-stop and then getting a bus to the town and a bus back the following day to where you stopped walking. Then, after passing through the town, getting a bus back just for accommodation, again to return to where you left off in the morning. I tried (twice) just telling people that I was a pilgrim and needed a floor to sleep on, anything would do. It worked in Skaun (a pilgrim church) but not in Brandbu (a town with no accommodations). Camping is an option and there are many camping sites (where you can often hire a wooden cabin) but every square inch of flat land is taken up with cultivation in the valleys and in the mountains the soil is to thin to take a tent peg. Then there`s the mosquitoes...
Part of the lack of infrastructure is the patchy waymarking. There are yellow arrows only from Oslo to Hamar and then a sprinkling of them over the last two days. You can`t rely on finding your way using the marks on the ground.There are posts with arrows but they are sporadic, often absent at critical places, up-rooted so you can`t see which way the arrow pointed, over-grown, even (once or twice) pointing in the wrong direction. Alisons guide and its sketch-maps are invaluable, but you should still expect to get lost half-a dozen-times a day. It`s common to dump the rucksack and wander around, up here, down there, looking for a marker. Sometimes you find one, if not you have to be prepared to strike out across country in what you expect is roughly the right direction.
There is a factor which makes the Way hard which borders upon the incredible and constitutes a major bit of govermental incompetence. When the Way was laid out it was done on the assumption that no-one would walk the entire route: a pilgrim`s way with no pilgrims. So it was designed for day-trippers and short trips. This has huge and serious consequences. Most walkers, out for a day`s recreational enjoyment, would approve the idea of a few climbs just to see the view. Not so the pilgrim. The pilgrim wants to get on down the way. The pilgrim avoids roads if possible, but a nice country road is fine. The Way as marked goes up and down quite serious hills for no other reason than to see the view at the top or visit some ancient site of Norse mythology or history where there`s nothing to see now. So here`s a footpath to place X and it`s 5 kilometres, but no, the Way scoots off of that nice footpath, on a appallingly steep slope up 2000 feet, over the top and down the other side, crosses the road and then does another climb and descent to reach place X.
The diversion adds an extra six kilometres and takes three hours more. That sort of thing is daily experience.
Some of these sight-seeing trips up mountains are very steep. In bad weather they are dangerous; they are lethally slippery and there are problems with finding your way in heavy rain, low cloud, snow even.The day-tripper takes one look at the foul weather and stays indoors, but the pilgrim, with a long way to go and a tighter scedule, walks the bad days as well as the good, and in a innocent trust of the authority who set up the markers, plods, and slithers up and down hazardous paths. If this continues, it is only a matter of time before a pilgrim is seriously hurt. Be warned: keep low in bad weather. Don`t follow the markers where a pefectly good lower path or road is available.
Before the Way is designed for short recreational trips, it avoids towns. Who want to go through a town when you are to see the countryside? So the route goes near Vingrom without going through it, passes above Kvam, brushes Otta, skirts Oppdal and so on. Unlike the camino, you are to leave the route to go through these and other towns. Similarly; because the route regards all roads as sources of some foul plague which must be avoided at all costs, the pilgrim often misses this one shop around for 50 miles which is at the petrol-station down on the road.
Water can be a problem. It can get hot in summer. It reached 28 degrees in 2004. With nowwhere to fill up water bottles, or to buy water or soft drinks dehydration is a danger. This problem is not sufficiently appreciated by those involved in the Way in Norway. I know what it`s like to get dehydrated and had problems several times. It`not so bad in the mountains provided you drink from the streams knowing what you are doing. Below the mountains things are more difficult. Treat every habitation as a resource. Knock on the doors. Ask for water. People don`t mind. All water is good in Norway.The stuff they drink is the same as what they use to wash their cars. So, if no-one is in and you need water, look around for an outside tap. Churches often have a tap in the church-yard.The water will be fine if you run it for a while.
So, you`ve got a better idea of the wrinkels and the attraction and you still want to try it. The next thing is to decide on which route you take.There are two. They both start from Oslo, but soon diverge to pass on opposite sides of Norway`s biggest lake,Lake Mjøsa. They converge again just North of Lillehammer.There`s just the one route for the rest of the way. (two-thirds of the distance). So the question is which route to take for the first third of the trip.
The two routes are known as the Western via Gjøvik, also called the Cultural route and the Eastern (via Hamar - also called the Historical route).
The Western route is also referred to as the Cultural route because it was laid out by the Department of Enviroment deliberately to go past places of cultural, historical or aestetic interest. There are more churches this way. It get more quickly into the rural countryside beyond Oslo. There`s only one town this way. No yellow arrows. Fewer people take this route and hardly any Norwegians.
The Eastern route is called the historical route because this is the traditional way taken by medieval pilegrims. It goes through the industrial area of NE Oslo and the more built up region towards Hamar. There are two towns this way.
It is way-marked by yellow arrows between Oslo and Hamar. More people take this route and almost all the Norwegians who walk the way go via Hamar.
I took the Western route.
I found that every Norwegian who knew anything about the way preferred the Easten route. Some were dismissive of the Western Way and a few were scathing - "a mistake" - , "a freud". Eivind Luthen, who runs the Pilgrims Office in Oslo and deals with all matters concerned with the Way and is passionate about it, is determined that the Western Way will wither away, untended and unloved. He is a man of strong views.
Well, there it is, thirty days of hard walking with stupendous views in an unspoilt social context amid good generous people. Provided you already have some pilgrimage experience, try it. Let me know how you get on.