Cross-Country Nation

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, November 1996

Cross-Country Nation

A report from the tracks in Oslo, capital of the land where to be Nordic is to ski nordic
By Bill McKibben

Warning! as you read this article, remember that Norway is not the kind of place where you'd want to live. Extremely High Taxes! Big Welfare System! Very Nearly Socialist!
Besides, unless you happen to be a political refugee, they're not going to let you move there anyway.

But you can visit, as I did. On my last night in Oslo, I dined on arctic char baked in sesame seeds, followed by filet of reindeer in lingonberry sauce. Then I walked out the front door of my hotel to meet Liv Arnesen, who in 1994 became the first woman to ski solo to the South Pole. We snapped on our skis and set off on the lighted tracks of the Oslomarka, the great forest surrounding the city, and soon we were deep in the woods, alone, flying along through endless spruces. Every once in a while a high ridge would show us the city, spread out in lights below, and then we'd make another whistling plunge into the woods. It was crisp, silent skiing, very nearly like a dream.

The tracks finally led us back to town, to the Holmenkollen, site of a mammoth ski jump (the world's oldest, built in 1892) and spiritual center of Norwegian skiing. A floodlight shone on the statue of the late King Olav V, at age 80, clad in an anorak, skiing with his poodle. (As a young man, His Majesty jumped off the big hill. Later in life he and his dog would take the streetcar up from the palace many afternoons and ski off into the woods, unencumbered by bodyguards or paparazzi.) On a knoll above the statue, we could hear music coming from the chapel. Inside, in a candlelit sanctuary of carved wood, the Oslo Chamber Choir sang Norwegian folk hymns--sang them angelically, to an audience whose skis were stacked by the door.

Oslo, a city of 480,000, maintains nearly 2,600 kilometers of groomed cross-country ski trails, all ten minutes by tram from the center of town. Some 1,600 miles of trails--why? Why do kindergartens in Oslo have a ski day every week? Why does every taxi in Oslo have a ski rack? Not just because it's cold and snowy--after all, it's cold and snowy in Buffalo. No, Oslo is something else: a city where music lovers ski to hear a choral concert, the capital of a country whose national heroes are the likes of Liv Arnesen and whose octogenarian head of state would blithely check out for the odd afternoon of diagonal striding with his pooch. It is no mere ski town.

No--the answers lie deep in Norwegian history, so deep that you have to come in out of the cold and snow, take a shower, and sit down over a glass of Ringnes beer with Tor Bomann-Larsen, the author of a book whose title translates, more or less, as The Everlasting Snow: An Ideology of Skiing. Tor may be the world's only ski intellectual--his most recent work is a massive biography of Roald Amundsen, who skied across Antarctica to plant Norway's flag at the South Pole--and he's eager to talk.

Skiing is an ancient Nordic pursuit--the museum beneath the Holmenkollen jump houses a 4,000-year-old rock carving depicting skis--but its modern form began in 1868, when a group of farmers from the Telemark region came down to the capital to give a ski show. They jumped, they slalomed, they...they telemarked. And they took the city by storm: "It became nearly a religion for the leading people of Oslo," Tor told me. After that, "You learned to be a Norwegian here," pointing to his brow, "and here," pointing to his heel.

Cross-country skiing was literally an expression of Norwegian nationalism. Since the fourteenth century, the country had languished under the domination of Denmark or Sweden, but in the late nineteenth century its blood, like that of much of the rest of Europe, was starting to stir. Norwegian writers began to evoke the Viking past, and Fridtjof Nansen, the explorer and statesman who was born in Oslo and learned to ski from the Telemarkers, began to evoke a new Viking future. In 1888 he skied across Greenland, the first man to do so, and came home to incredible fanfare. "It was the first time in modern history that Norway had made something in the world," said Tor. "We saw that we could be like the Vikings, only this time we would do it on skis." Greenland, the Northwest Passage, the North Pole, the South Pole--after each conquest, there were great parades and rallies. In 1905, like some skinny teenager redeemed by a few years in the weight room, Norway felt strong enough to strike out on its own. Nansen, a key player in severing the ties with Sweden, went to Denmark and recruited its Prince Charles to serve as king--and one of the first things he taught the new King Haakon VII was how to ski.

Thus cross-country skiing transcended ordinary sport in the national consciousness, and in fact Norwegians resisted the idea of the first Winter Olympics, in 1924. "Skiing had to do with the landscape," Tor explained. "You couldn't do it just anywhere. You had to do it in Norway." Nonetheless a Norwegian team went to Chamonix and cleaned up in the nordic events, taking gold in the 18- and 50-kilometer cross-country races, the 90-meter jump, and the nordic combined. "And so," Tor concluded, "we liked it." As an Oslo newspaper put it at the time, "We Showed the World the Way of Winter."

Now, fast times in the tracks are at least as important as polar explorations, and Bjorn Daehlie, the Olympic king, stands on Nansen's pedestal--though even he is perhaps not as popular as Vegard Ulvang, "the Viking," who has combined his Olympic exploits with skiing across Greenland. Even when a Swede or an Italian wins, Tor said, it's OK: "We just think he's learned to be a Norwegian. We're the winners anyway."

To be a Norwegian means to ski--a pair of Epokes carries as much psychological freight for a Norwegian as a set of car keys does for a suburban American--and to ski by a particular code, first laid out by Nansen, in which being out in nature is the most important thing. And, according to Tor, it's vital to ski up as well as down.

A corollary, explained to me by Liv Arnesen when I asked her why I hadn't seen a single pair of no-wax skis in the entire country: "Waxless is for Danes."

Trails twine everywhere through the Oslomarka. You come to intersections where signposts point in a dozen directions, sending you off to one of the dozens of lakes that dot this boreal spruce forest or to one of 70 "warming huts," which turn out to be restaurants, full of red-cheeked skiers downing fresh pastries and big mugs of chocolate. (I saw nary a PowerBar and not a drop of Gatorade, but I did ski past a place called Orange Hill, where for generations skiers have stopped to rest and to impale their fruit peels on a particular tree.) Two-thirds of this forest land is in private hands, but under Norwegian law, anyone can go anywhere outdoors--as long as they're on skis.

My guides here, both of them charming and capable, illustrated two sides of the Norwegian skiing character. I will call them Wool Guide and Lycra Guide, partly because that's what they wore and partly because their actual names involve an o with a / through it that doesn't appear on my computer keyboard.

Wool Guide told me he'd been camping in the woods since he was 11--"I was reading very much Jack London," he revealed--and now made his living mostly by running corporate "team building" outings: canoe trips in summer, ski and camping expeditions in winter. (At one point we stopped at a lake that he and his colleagues had cleared for skating parties. In the middle of the rink, they'd built a huge mound for a large band of accordionists. Nearby they'd set up a Lappish tepee 30 feet tall.) He used marvelous old gear, including wooden skis with cable bindings, and offered me the tin of wax that he'd been using all winter, apparently without regard to temperature. When his skis caked up, he scraped off the ice with his hunting knife. He smoked while he skied. Whenever we stopped to rest, he set to work cutting down boughs and making fires. For lunch he fried up some bacon; for dinner he proposed roasting a lamb. We skied for hours, across deserted stretches of lake, past cliffs turning purple with day's end. He took me to a 400-year-old cabin he knew about, and past a small inn that a 90-year-old woman ran by herself, and down a slope of trackless powder deep, deep in the woods. And he never put gloves on the whole damn time.

Lycra Guide--well, Lycra Guide was training for a race the coming Sunday. He had a typically Norwegian percentage of body fat, which is to say that in the United States his doctor would be asking him some pointed questions about eating disorders. He talked a good deal about various girlfriends on various national teams. And he'd read a copy of Outside that some of his clients had given him, so he was convinced that I was here to go fast. And we went very fast, for about 30 kilometers, back and forth from one of those "warming huts" that resembled rustic versions of highway rest stops. At least it was very fast for me--as I kicked and panted my way up the hills, he maintained his effortless lead by double-poling, using nothing but his arms. "You are in very good shape, yes, for an American?" he asked me at the end of our ordeal, a punch line that I'm sure he'd been working on for the last 10k.

Despite their overt differences, however, my guides loved Oslo for strikingly similar reasons. Wool noted that beginning at age ten, city schoolchildren can choose "outdoor living" as an elective and then spend much of the year learning how to construct snow shelters and the like. Because of this upbringing and such easy access to the Oslomarka, he said, "People who live in Oslo don't look entirely on themselves as city people." Lycra said it this way: "I put on my very strong headlight and go out on a very nice tour at 6 p.m., come back and take a shower, and go listen to Eric Clapton at 11 p.m. Or Joan Armatrading. First I have a very nice tour in middle of nowhere, then I am listening at a very jazzy club."

Oslo, in other words, is one of the very few places on the planet where the ancient urban-rural bipolarity doesn't arise, a place where the full range of human possibility is allowed, at least as far as cross-country skiers are concerned. And everyone here is a cross-country skier. But the taxes are quite high.

One reason to travel is to think about your own country from a slight distance. This gets harder and harder for Americans, because our country leaks out into every other country. At first that's how Norway felt to me. I passed the requisite KFC on the way in from the airport; at the hotel, a sign directed me to the helsestudio for a swim; at the snack bar, another sign urged me to try an iskald Coca-Cola. One night, TV presented The Ricki Lake Show, with Norwegian subtitles. Ms. Lake was interviewing extremely rude Americans: One, for instance, had had sex with her boyfriend while her roommate was trying to sleep in the same room. Another had sent back her french fries three times the night before at McDonald's because she thought they were underdone. Eventually she cursed out the server something fierce because "I thought she brought me the same fries." ("Jeg trodde hun ga meg de samme pomme frites.")

But after just a few days in Norway, it all seemed jarring, alien. I thought of the old king, who used to ski with no entourage but his dog--he started using the tram during the oil crisis in the 1970s and never stopped. "Maybe you would see him skiing and just say, 'Hi,' or 'Nice weather,'" Tor told me. "He would just say hi back."

Now Olympic greats Daehlie and Ulvang often train on the same tracks, weaving in and out of the crowds of people with pulks and dogs and wool knickers. "Don't people bother them for autographs and pictures?" I asked Wanda Wiberoe, the editor of the magazine Sno & Ski.

"A Norwegian," she said, "would rather die first."

In the Oslomarka, skiers and hikers still occasionally find canisters dropped by American planes to resistance fighters during World War II. The Germans occupied downtown Oslo, but not the surrounding woods. "They weren't very good skiers," Tomm Murstad told me.

Murstad, "Onkel Tomm" to the 165,000 Norwegians who have come through his Oslo ski school over the years, is 81, born in the early years of Norway's ski craze. His father didn't ski--he was a doctor who specialized in setting broken legs, of which there were many. "My father said I didn't have the brain to be a doctor," Murstad said, "but I decided that I could help him in his work. I started my school so people wouldn't break their legs in the first place." For quite a few years, though, teaching was a part-time job; mostly he was working as one of the world's first professional skiers. His great specialty: a forward somersault off the ski jump. When he went to Madison Square Garden to do an exhibition for the first time, in 1937, the promoter had heard about the trick. "I told him it was much too dangerous to do it indoors, that I'd break my neck," said Murstad. "He told me a broken neck would be great publicity and that he wouldn't pay my ticket back to Norway unless I did it." So Murstad somersaulted, two shows a day for two weeks, on shaved ice trucked into the Garden. He was the toast of the town--the papers printed schematic diagrams of his loop-de-loops, and Jack Dempsey insisted that he come to his restaurant for lunch every day. Soon Hollywood called: Murstad showed me pictures of him teaching starlets to ski on Pacific sand dunes. Tomm Tracy, they called him, because he looked like Spencer.

Those were the days when skiing was a novelty--and you needed a Norwegian to show you how. (And not just on snow. Murstad won the first water-ski jumping championship, held in France in '37--his first time on water skis. He was also the first man to ski behind a plane.) Lowell Thomas had him up to a Lake Placid club to do a demonstration, and they became fast friends. "He asked me to a dinner he was giving at the Waldorf Astoria to honor Madame Chiang Kai-shek, and he sat me next to Eleanor Roosevelt," Murstad recalled. "And we had the best time talking. At dessert, all the men were supposed to move down one seat so they would be talking with a new companion. But Mrs. Roosevelt wouldn't let me go."

After the war, back in Norway, Murstad devoted himself to his ski-school business, and it flourished. Soon he had 20 instructors. "I wanted all children to come up to the nature around here, not to stay stuck in town," he said. "The mothers were so thrilled--we had a special tram bringing kids up, and we built seven different chalets." The first lesson: "To be happy. Not to have the best ski outfit, but to be out in the nature."

Murstad himself had been out in the nature the morning I met with him, one of the many elderly men and women, physiques like car antennas, striding through the woods. In fact, he'd gone with a 92-year-old friend who had been one of the first men to ski across Greenland. "He stumbles a little bit in the parking lot," Murstad told me, "but once he's on the skis, he's fine."

It's possible that skiing is losing a little of its hold on Norway. Wiberoe had just interviewed King Harald V--who is reportedly more interested in sailing--and he'd said, "You don't have to go skiing to be a Norwegian."

"That," Wiberoe told me, "is a little like swearing in church"

On the other hand... One foggy day I was skiing in the tracks above Oslo, and each time I turned a corner there was another ghostly figure, clad in white camouflage, submachine gun strapped to his back, skiing like the wind: the palace guard, out for its annual 50k challenge.

And the sports page the day I left--every story dealt with nordic skiing.

And on the way to the airport, the bus passed the Holmenkollen jump, which is also the start and finish for the World Cup cross-country races. And there, in tracks set ten wide, 300 little kids were skiing away under the watchful eye of Murstad instructors, learning to be Norwegians. By the time they're grown, they'll ski like angels.

But they will pay very high taxes.

Bill McKibben is the author, most recently, of Hope, Human and Wild (Little, Brown). He lives and skis in New York's Adirondack Mountains.

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