Travel!

Confessions of an Urban Nature Lover

By Dave Fox
Bergen, Norway

“Mommy, I don’t want you to die.”

Kaisa uttered the words with the sweet, naïve worry of a nine-year-old.

I looked at Kaisa’s mother, Kari. “Did you hear that?” I said. “She doesn’t want us to die. You should listen to your daughter.”

But Kari was having none of that. She laughed, the way mothers laugh at their children’s sweet naïveté. “Nobody’s going to die, Kaisa. We’re just going for a little hike.”

I didn’t believe Kari — about the “little hike,” or her promise of survival. Norwegians, I had learned 20 years earlier as a foreign exchange student, love their “little hikes,” which invariably become death-defying polar expeditions.

Now, my host brother, Marius, and Kari, his wife, were taking me on “a little hike” atop Mount Ulriken, Bergen’s highest peak.

I’m one-quarter Norwegian by ancestry, but apparently, my nature-loving genes are recessive. My idea of exploring the outdoors involves sitting by my fireplace as a program about Mount Everest flickers on TV. If other people want to attempt oxygen-deprived death marches, more power to them. I’ll watch their video on the Discovery Channel if they make it home alive. I seek thrills in other ways. When it comes to slogging through wilderness with burning leg cramps to look at tree after tree, rock after rock, no thank you.

Granted, Mount Ulriken isn’t exactly Everest. It’s summit is only 642 meters. Nevertheless, I was praying for rain. “If it rains, we won’t go,” Kari was promising.

The next day, it was not raining. I pointed out, however, that the sky was swirling with menacing clouds.

“You’re right,” Marius said. “You can borrow a jacket.”

A bright yellow cable car carried us to the summit. The view was spectacular enough that for a brief moment, I forgot my impending doom. Beneath the canopy of clouds was a sprawling, panoramic view of the surrounding fjords and mountains.

Other hikers were riding up, outfitted with high-tech clothing and expensive hiking poles. I was outfitted with jeans and worn-out walking shoes. I envied the other hikers’ survival gear. They might make it home alive.

We started along the trail.

“I think I just felt a raindrop,” I said to Kari.

“Me too,” she said. “We’d better hurry.”

The first hour of hiking was easy. Then, the trail began wearing thin, until eventually there was no trail. Marius and Kari traversed impeding boulders with the prowess of mountain goats. I flopped over the same boulders with the prowess of a salmon.

“You’re doing great, Dave,” Kari lied to me at one point. “I had these two friends visiting from England one time – typical macho English blokes – but I took them up here and they turned back way before now. You’re tougher than them.”

“Wait,” I said. “How come they were allowed to turn back?”

Two hours later, we stopped to rest. Kari had bread and cheese, salami and chocolate. We spread out a picnic on a flat rock.

That’s when the thunder began – followed by rain. And not rain in the conventional sense. Bergen rain does not fall in drops. It falls in giant globs, as if some jerk is spilling pint glass after pint glass of frigid water on your head. We packed our soggy salami and continued.

“How much farther do we have to go?” I shouted above nature’s din.

“About two more hours,” Marius said.

There was nowhere to hide and wait out the storm. Mother Nature seemed furious, unleashing her wrath. The rain turned to marble-sized hail stones that bonked me hard on the scalp – bonk, bonk, bonk – over and over. Oh, how I longed for a remote control. I wanted to change the channel.

And then… a miracle occurred. In the middle of this torrent, hours from civilization, as lightning flashed and threatened to electrocute me before I even got the opportunity to tumble to my death on a jagged rock field… my phone rang.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, but I assure you I am not one of those people. I am a sensitive mobile phone user. I always turn it off in restaurants and cinemas. I talk on my phone quietly when walking down the street. But out here, who would have thought there would be a signal?

It was my girlfriend calling from America. “How’s it going?”

“I’m stranded on a mountain in a severe thunderstorm. If I don’t come home, tell my mother I love her.”

“Dave? What are you….”

Lightning zapped in the distance. A burst of static splashed against my eardrum and the phone went silent.

We trudged two more hours across a soggy landscape. Electric flashes illuminated a cloud-black sky. I began to fear our hike would never end. Perhaps I was already dead, having some lightning-induced, welcome-to-death hallucination. Maybe this was my afterlife – a never-ending trudge through a pounding downpour.

Then, just as I started resigning myself to my new fate, a town appeared below.

That was it! The end of the journey! All we had to do was walk 20 more minutes on a marked trail where a dry car would protect us from further pint glasses. With renewed optimism, I quickened my pace.

Here’s a helpful hiking tip: When experiencing renewed optimism, do not quicken your pace if a trillion hailstones have fallen. The ground becomes slippery. The rock beneath the hailstones is hard. When you fall, and land squarely on your right hip, you will not be greeted with a cushiony landing.

Marius and Kari were too far ahead to see me go down, but they did hear me scream.

“Ouch,” I moaned. Marius pulled me to my feet.

But we survived. Kari kept her promise to Kaisa that we were not going to die. When we got home, I gave Kaisa a big hug and promised that next time her parents wanted to go hiking, Uncle Dave would stay home and play video games with her.

The next day, as I lay on the sofa, recovering, Marius retrieved a couple of beers from the fridge and flipped on the television. The Tour de France was on. We watched as cyclists pedaled their way up the Pyrenees.

“What beautiful mountains!” I sighed, admiring the French landscape as I sipped my beer. “Ahhh… nature!”

Published on Thursday, May 8, 2008

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