It is early Sunday morning. It is going to be a fine day for surrealists. The snowy flats along the Dal�ven River in central Sweden are eerie today, the glum color of cooled lead. There is a thick white mist about. It obscures the rolling black forest above the river. It obscures the narrow brown road leading to the village of S�len. It obscures rectangles of pale light that glow from timber cottages strewn about the hills. Seeing this Swedish winter land through this mist is like looking at a stark, black and white woodcut through gauze: there is more to be imagined than there is to see.
One can wonder if the frozen black roots of the pines guard the graves of medieval Danes. One can wonder if the topmost branches of the forest, invisible above the fog, may be thronged with brooding flocks of albino eagles. One also might wonder if perhaps beyond the dark and the haze on the road to S�len there are trolls hitchhiking.
But no, the gloom and the mist of this morning conceal stranger things. For in the bleak beauties of the Dalarna region of Sweden, this Sunday in March is known as Vasaloppet P�s �ndag—the Sunday of the Vasaloppet. And the Vasaloppet is one of the most bizarre, most foolish, most excruciating, most exalted human events of our time.
At its simplest denominator, the Vasaloppet is merely a painfully long cross-country ski race, run for 49 years now over a narrow trail that has been delicately peeled like a thin strip of apple skin from the black forest pines between the ancient village of S�len on the Dal�ven River and the ancient village of Mora on the shores of Lake Siljan. The Vasaloppet is a mighty race, named for Sweden's first King Gustav of the house of Vasa, and it runs a mighty distance—8.5 Swedish miles which equals 85.8 kilometers which equals 53.5 miles in American measurements. It also attracts a mighty crowd of competitors. More than 8,000 men enter the race.
This makes the Vasaloppet a larger participant event than the Olympic Games. Unlike the Olympics, however, by far the greatest number of men in the Vasaloppet are enormously ordinary mortals. They are butchers and salesmen and bellhops, and welders from the Volvo factory in Stockholm. Many are from the Dalarna region and they work in the knife factory, the bathroom accessories factory or the ladder and TV antenna factory in Mora.
Except for an elite hundred men of world-class caliber, the thousands who enter the Vasaloppet each March are the stuff of which commercial bowling leagues and office football pools and volunteer fire departments are made. On the blue Monday following this Vasaloppet P�s �ndag, they will pick up dear, dented lunch buckets and drive off in a car pool to put hubcaps on Volvos or spray chromium on water-faucet handles. Indeed, it is said that a great many—perhaps 2,000—of the men who will gather this dank Sunday on the flats of the Dal�ven River are there only because they played the fool on New Year's Eve, drinking so much aquavit that they eventually blundered into making a wager that they would, that they certainly could and should, by God, run the Vasa race this year.
Sadder but wiser, and bundled now against the chill dawn, some come to make this agonizing trek to save a few Swedish kronor bet in the flush of drink. Some do the race simply to prove they are in good enough condition to do the race. Some come merely to halt for an instant the treadmill routine of the Swedish workingman in winter. Some come to make a stubborn pilgrimage, a private journey through cold and fatigue to show that a man is more than spraying chromium on water faucets.
As the sky lightens and the mist rises, it is obvious that this March day is a remarkably fine day for surrealists.
Out of the haze on the road to S�len, come—not trolls, not gnomes—but two men wearing paper bags, large white paper bags that cover them from neck to ankles. Their arms are free to carry their skis. They look like two huge soda crackers in their paper bags, but they do not seem to care. They are conversing soberly in Swedish, their voices raised slightly to carry over the crackling of their paper bags. They stroll out onto the snowy river flats and stand there casually as if they were wearing fine woolen coats instead of white paper bags. They have taken their place in a small teardrop of men which now suddenly begins to flow like a large stain over the gray snow as more skiers arrive.
The road is streaming with men carrying skis as the day grows lighter. Most of them are really ragged. They look like refugees from one of Goya's paintings of desperate crowds fleeing from war. Here is a man wearing a torn, yellow rubber raincoat, buttonless, its sleeves too short by one-third the length of his arm, a plaid bathrobe belt about his waist. Here are three fellows swaggering along abreast, each wearing a full-length gray greatcoat with tarnished silver epaulets, wide military lapels and brown leather belts cinching warlike waists. Each coat seems more tattered and stained than the next; the belts are scratched and soft. The shortest of the three men wears the longest coat; it is dragging on the ground. The lining droops in ragged grace out of the tail of another. Scarecrow soldiers lining up for a forced march, they carry their skis and their ski poles as if they were spears, their eyes fixed like heroes' eyes on the river flats where the great race will start.