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Oslo in March was dank and chill and the city snow was turning the color of city soot. The harbor water seemed grimy and the ice cakes floating there were gray. One early evening I walked through the slush of Studenterlunden Park, past the National Theater where King Lear was playing in Norwegian, and down the steps to a subway station where I boarded a train bound for Oslo's outskirts. After a little more than half an hour, covering 19 stops and about 12 kilometers, I got off the train at the Voksenkollen stop (not far past the Holmenkollen ski-jump station). There I rented a pair of langrenn (cross-country) skis and the light, low boots required. The sky was lavender with a star or two showing, and as I put on the skis I could see the lights of Oslo speckled upon the land below. Ahead stretched a wide, white ski track, cut deep in a double row and worn smooth by dozens of skiers. It led into the tall and ancient pine trees: the woods seemed black and thick even though the sky was not yet entirely dark. Along the track, perhaps every 200 feet, were lights—friendly yellow globes mounted on lampposts to illuminate the trail. The Viking Grandson, though new to cross-country techniques, attempted to emulate the sweeping, graceful strides—those seven-league glides across the snow—that he had seen various Olympic skiers use. Of course he fell. He cursed. He broke into a terrible sweat. His skis slipped and would not stay in the ruts. Yet, eventually, it began to make sense as he labored through the woods. At times he glided nicely down the descents, and occasionally he trekked quite steadily, though puffing mightily, up the ascents. The air was so clear it snapped in his nostrils. When he became unbearably thirsty, he simply ate the snow, pure as it was. The trail lamps made strange shadows and unreal shapes among the trees. Gnomes, trolls, dwarfs, the very ski god Ull might have watched from there. A good moon turned the snow silvery and luminescent among the black tree-columns. Tiring, I struggled on.
At the end of the trail I was delighted to discover I had traveled just about three miles in just under two hours on this night. I felt exalted, purified, even redeemed, and I boarded the train back to the city slush of Oslo with the heady yeast of accomplishment rising in my soul. When I reached the National Theater station I went to Blom, a fine restaurant across from Studenterlunden Park, and ordered a smorgasbord dish which included six different kinds of herring. I found I could not stop smiling.
Ah, but Abisko, yes, Abisko. There was the truly superlative place for langrennski. To ski alone into the wastes of the Swedish Arctic—even for a few easy level miles—was to approach some kind of cold, very personal ecstasy. The difference, I decided, between cross-country skiing and the fashion-heavy downhill resort sport that Americans consider the apex of the game is approximately the difference between Thoreau strolling the untrammeled acres of Walden Pond and Johnny Carson marching down Fifth Avenue in an Easter Parade.
Abisko is a national park, with rather rigidly enforced rules that keep it in an unchanging natural state. Although the Svenska turistforeningen (Swedish Touring Club) was allowed to build its abrupt brick dormitories, as well as a small ski lift, nearby, it is said that the government will now not allow even the club management to move boulders from its downhill slope for fear of disrupting the ecology, geology or topography of the land. Of course, the Narvik-Kiruna railroad line runs through there, 130 miles above the Arctic Circle, and each day at least one enormous train rattles past, an endless string of ore cars filled with iron from the mines in Kiruna and bound for the docks and depots of Narvik. But, full or empty, the ore trains are gone quickly, and as a rule Abisko is a place unreal in its isolation.
The Viking Grandson skied out on one of the Touring Club's well-embedded trails one brilliantly sunny morning. After I had gone for a mile or more, skiing quite smoothly since the terrain was reasonably flat, I paused to take a breath. When my own hoarse panting subsided, I was astonished and, being a modern man with a modern man's conditioning, perhaps a trifle uneasy at what I heard.
It seemed to be perfect silence. Perfect. No distant air hammers or horns honking or tires squealing. No mile-high airplanes or echoes of barking dogs, no rustling leaves or whispering grass or chirping crickets. For a moment the quiet was so overwhelming that Abisko seemed a frost-bitten dead spot on the planet. The Viking Grandson poised motionless upon the bright, barren landscape; the stunted trees, the low ice-cream mountain humps, the vast sparkling expanse of snow on Lake Torne Trask; his skis, his very life—all seemed suspended in some unearthly vacuum.
Then, gradually, the real sounds of the land began to seep into his consciousness. There was no wind at all. Somewhere a tree branch creaked in the cold. Something, a bird perhaps, made a gentle sound way off that he heard as ppp-l-l-uu-hh. Then, out of the corner of one eye, he saw a movement. He turned, and far, far across the sparsely treed snow plain he saw some creature running, probably a fox, and the Viking Grandson raised one arm, pointed a finger and shattered the natural mystical silence of the Northland. "Kkkkkhhhh!" he said. "Kkkhh! Kkkhh!"
Among the visitors at Abisko with the Viking Grandson was a contingent of cadets from the Swedish Air Force Academy, an erect and proper bunch who wore uniforms to meals, refused to discuss politics and had brought all manner of survival equipment along for their sojourn in the Arctic. One day the cadets were assembling in the snow outside the dormitory, each dressed in a baggy white arctic windbreaker and pants, with hooded cap and black goggles. On the tundra, they looked like some ungainly militaristic race gathered on another planet. Or perhaps some of the rejects from Odin's crowd at Valhall. But of course I knew they were only boys, teen-agers mostly, who had been taught to make war (admittedly only defensive, given Sweden's neutrality), so I wandered among them and conversed about the beauty of the day. They were about to participate in an unusual recreation—being towed on skis behind a snowcat on a journey out into the hills and tundra that would cover nearly 12 miles.
To see the land farther out, I decided to go along—but inside the snowcat rather than strung out behind on a rope. As I waited among the milling troop, I was startled to hear a male voice behind me say, "Hey, man, you American? That is motherin' groovy." I turned and saw a young man, sharply featured and remarkably fair, his mane of hair shaggy and corn-yellow, his eyes a striking pale blue. He wore a thickly knitted woolen cap, seaman's pea jacket, dungarees, cross-country skiing boots—clearly a young Harald Fine-Hair reincarnated. But, of course, when he spoke, it was plain that he was a child of the American '60s. "I'm from San Francisco, man," he said. "I blew the country because the motherin' draft board pulled my number. I can't get back in the States no more. I'm a man without a country." He laughed and said he was working at Abisko's little ski lift for a while. "My old lady and our kid—he's 18 months and speaks Swedish like a native—and I are living in a little pad here, a cottage with one room. God, man, it's a fantastic trip up north. Fantastic."
Young Harald Fine-Hair (his real name does not matter) was to ride along in the snowcat. He was going to check the supplies at a shelter used by langrenn skiers who travel the celebrated King's Road Trail which starts at Abisko and goes 270 kilometers into southern Sweden. The Swedish cadets lined up on a rope behind the vehicle, and the driver, a canny young Swedish mountain man named Leif, yodeled to signal the skiers that the machine was about to lurch into motion.