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An American Pilgrim in Valdres
Sist oppdatert 08.01.2008 22:41

Written by Neil C Souther

The beginning, preparing and arriving
As a member of the Sons of Norway in the U.S., I receive monthly the magazine called "The Viking". In the January 2007 issue of this magazine was a short letter from Jahn Børe Jahnsen announcing the 2007 Valdres pilgrimage for July 6.–14. Mentioned in the letter was the fact that 40 people participated in this pilgrimage in 2006. Thinking that that number would quickly fill up, I called Mr. Jahnsen in Norway and asked him it he thought that a 68 year old could make the "pilegrimsreise" (pilgrimage). He thought that I could do so.

I first saw Norway (namely Bodø and Neiden near Kirkenes) in 1956 when I was 17. From that sojourn with two Norwegian families, I became an ardent Norwegophile and returned to Norway in 1963, 1968, 1985 and 2003 to see more of the country. The pilgrimage in Valdres looked like my kind of tour since it involved visiting five "stavkirker" (stave churches) and other medieval structures. The stave churches have always fascinated me with their
mysterious presence so close to the time of the conflict between the old pagan religion and Christianity. Also, since it had been decades that I had seriously studied Norwegian at the University of North Dakota, I thought the pilgrimage would be a great impetus to revive my Norwegian studies.

Furthermore the prospect of actually interacting with Norwegians instead of merely looking at beautiful sites was a real draw.

In order to be in good shape mentally and physically for the pilgrimage, I increased my physical exercises, especially lifting weights. During May and June, when the fine weather finally arrived in North Dakota, rather than walking 2 ½ kilometres daily through my city of Mandan, I walked 8 kilometres a day, hoping that would be adequate preparation and it was for me. As I walked those daily kilometres in Mandan, I would memorize  Norwegian conversations, phrases, verb conjugations, vocabulary, not really caring whether passers–by thought me odd. I had a premonition that I might be the only native English speaker on the pilgrimage and I was right. Two months was not enough to learn Norwegian, but I did learn a few things.

Arriving Norway and Hedalen
I arrived in Norway on July 2, stayed overnight in Oslo, and flew to Kirkenes on July 3 for the sake of nostalgia and remembrances of things past, and secondly to obviate the inevitable jet lag by visiting Kirkenes before tackling the arduous walks of the "pilegrimsvandring" (pilgrimage).

After a short sojourn in Kirkenes, back to Oslo on the 5th of July. On the sixth I took the bus to Nes i Ådal and from there a taxi to a small inn called Ildjarntunet which was just downhill from the Hedalen stave church. That evening there was an organizational meeting where we pilgrims, about 16, met the "prost" (dean) of Valdres, Georg E. Johnson, the priest Tordis Ødegaard, who would accompany us, and Jahn Børe Jahnsen, the organizing force behind the pilgrimage. The meeting was all in Norwegian of which I caught fragments. After the meeting a copious meal and a visit to the Hedalen stave church where a short service was held and a blessing by the priest for those pilgrims desiring it. I accepted with gratitude in this magnificent church, which had just received back from the restorers in Oslo the magnificent medieval gilded stature of the Virgin and the Child. To be inside that large lovely church still in use was an indescribable thrill.

Next morning we started our first walk from the Hedalen church to the Hølera river area. It was the only truly sunny day of our truncated pilgrimage. The scenery on this long trek was stunning with lakes, mountains, treacherous bogs, waterfalls, and two brooks rendered dangerous because of the recent massive rainfalls and flooding. The sound of water could be heard virtually everywhere. Like most days there were longs ascents and seemingly shorter

Dining that evening was completely al fresco. Dessert was a curious hot rhubarb soup surmounted by heavy cream. Delicious! With all the walking appetites were not feeble. That evening we pilgrims shared our goals for the pilgrimage and sang a few songs. Especially the one we sang every day: "Må din veg gå deg i møte" (May the road rise to meet you).

The next four days when we walked from our camp area near the Hølera river to Fossheim made me thing of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales", since we pilgrims of Valdres shared our lives and experiences with each other while we walked along. We were supposed to observe silence while walking and save talking for the breaks. But the lives to be shared were too interesting to observe the silence all the time. I met an opera lover, a veterinarian, a museum director, a choir member who had been to Estonia, the wife of a dean who knew from which town in Norway my great–grandfather emigrated, people who had travelled to fascinating areas in Europe and also the U.S. It was sheer delight for me to hear every one's story, in effect.

While we marched during the next four rain–filled days, we would stop at the stave churches, stone churches, historical sites, and listen to Jahn Børe Jahnsen explain in Norwegian the significance and history of each stop. Although I understood only words and the odd phrase, I was moved by his discourses because they were delivered with such passion, such force,  such
interest and love of the country. After each discourse, I would usually later ask one of the kind Norwegians to give an ultra–brief summary of what I should know. Since all the Norwegian pilgrims spoke English in varying degrees, that was not a problem.
It should be mentioned that we became a close cohesive group because of the wonderful leadership of Mr. Jahnsen, and also because of the excellent religious direction of Tordis Ødegaard who led the hymn singing for short morning and evening services. She gave short sermonettes on what we were experiencing as pilgrims. I cannot praise these two people enough.

Bad weather stopped the pilgrimage
Alas, after five days, four of them with rain, it was decided to stop  the pilgrimage at Slidre because the forecast for the next three days was of heavy rain making walking in the upper sections of the mountains extremely hazardous. A long meeting was held to decide this and to determine what to do with me as the sole American in the group. It was decided that I  would stay in a small apartment at the Valdres Folkemuseum for two nights thanks to the kindness of the museum director. On what would have been the sixth day of the pilgrimage, the kind minister, Tordis Ødegaard, took me and another pilgrim in her own car to all the other churches which we would have seen in the walk of the last three days. Such kindness is remarkable and I will always be grateful to her. Another pilgrim took me to his home town of
Gol and drove me through the Hallingdal area for one day. A great excursion amid amazing beauty.

Walking those five days was a sheer delight. The verdure of the countryside and the puffs of clouds on the hillsides verged on the Wagnerian. On the upper reaches of the mountains, one could almost see the Valkyries in the lambent air overlooking the magnificent scenes of the valley. I'm certain that the days would have been more enthralling in the sunlight, but I would not have missed a minute of this rainy pilgrimage. I remember the haunting song we sang frequently ("Må din veg gå deg i møte" – "May the road rise to meet you"), the imposing stave churches, the beautiful service in the Slidredomen stone church, the tasty and delicious dinners in small country inns, receiving the St. Thomas cross, certificate and staff, but most of all the kindness and helpfulness of my fellow Norwegian pilgrims. One sight that remains fixed in my mind is that of tulips blooming on July 12 in the doorway of a remote "turisthotell" in the Jotunheimen mountains.

For those pilgrims interested in the 2008 pilgrimage, the dates are now set for August 2.–9.

Please direct your inquiry to:
Mr. Jahn Børe Jahnsen, museum curator
Valdres Folkemuseum, Tyinvegen 27, 2900 Fagernes, Norway
Email: jahnbore.jahnsen@valdres.museum.no/
Eivind Luthen,
Pilgrimoffice,Kirkegt 34 A 0153 Oslo, Norway 

To finish this last account, I recommend the following to future American pilgrims:
- Exercise very much, months beforehand
- Walk every day for at least five miles for one or two months
- Find a back pack which straps around the chest and waist
- Find a water bottle which is easily got at while walking
- Find a pair of walking boots which are water proof since you will be walking in water through some mountain bogs. Break them in at least three weeks beforehand.

Above all start learning some Norwegian since the most historical and cultural presentations will be in Norwegian. Even though most Norwegians know English in varying degrees and will help you comprehend, it is too much to ask kind participants to continuously translate for the English–speaking pilgrim. One good book accompanied with compact discs is the "Teach Yourself Norwegian". Even that should be begun several months before the pilgrim's tour. If you have the fortitude, the "Norwegian in 10 Minutes a Day" book is helpful, but is not as methodical as the afore mentioned book. The "10 Minutes" book needs to be started months before a contemplated tour.

Because of the changeable weather, bring enough clothing so you can dress in layers when need be. In 2007 only the first day of the five days finished was warm enough for only one T–shirt.

By Mr. Neil C. Souther,
610 4th Ave NW, Mandan, North Dakota
58554–2908, USA

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