The Hidden Pilgrim

sunset in Budsjord
Our first night in the mountains of central Norway, we found ourselves in the absolutely idyllic Budsjord Gard, a small farm converted into a pilgrim and traveler centre. Centre is too grand a word: one of the buildings is a former horse stable where five beds are lined up in the five stalls. The night we stayed there our eldest traveling companion was put up in one of the former granges, where even short people have to stoop to go in the door, there are holes in the walls (a temperature problem on a very cold June night) and there is a nearly-foot wide gap between the entrance and top stone stair, a hole through which it would be a 2 meter fall to the ground below. The common bathroom is a renovated interior in an old building entered through a hobbit-sized door, where a bedrock piece of granite sticks up through part of the floor in front of the wash basin. Several of the buildings have the overgrown turf roofs typical of old Norwegian farm out-buildings. I absolutely loved the place.

Add to the charm of the scenery a wide-eyed young Norwegian woman who with breathless sweetness told us that it was her first day on the job and we were her first pilgrims, and a one-armed and grizzled German pilgrim who arrived mid-way through out meal, asked for food and lodging and told us, wiping the sweat from his brow with his stump as he ate his supper that he was a former marathon runner and on the St-Olaf way was averaging 25 miles a day through the mountains. Especially impressive given that the range is traversed with swollen spring streams. Between the German’s lively and intelligent face and the almost unbelievable open-eyed innocence of the hostess it was all I could do to wait until the poor man had eaten to pull out my camera and ask them both for interviews.

I asked all the usual questions of the German pilgrim. Despite his obvious intensity and the wonderful character evident in his face, I was a bit disappointed with what I got: a listing of distances, mostly. I put away the camera.

Later, I bumped into the German outside the washroom. He motioned to me. “Listen,” he said to me in his half-English, half-German. “I didn’t say this inside. But I have another reason for going on this pilgrimage. I am walking 500 km to find out if God exists.” What I was thinking was: why does this always happen? But I fought the urge to go get my equipment. Not entirely happy, I just stayed put and listened. “34 years ago,” he said, “there was a young man – me – who had an accident and was – how do you say it – not with it, with life I mean. Out of life for three days. I was between death and life, and somehow I came back to life. Now I want to know why. Now I walk to find out if there is a God and if God brought me back as an accident, or for some reason.” “Do you want to tell me that on camera?” I ask him. “No.” he says, “But I want you to know.”

At Norwegian Customs

When it’s my turn at the customs booth the uniformed official in the booth asks why I’m visiting Norway. “The Saint-Olaf trail,” I say. Then, when her face registers nothing, I add: “I’m going to walk on the St-Olaf way from Dovre to Trondheim.” I’m careful to pronounce the “h” in Trondheim as a “y”, the way I’ve heard it done. “So you’ll be coming back to Oslo?” she asks. She’s not looking at me, making a point of it, flipping through the pages, checking where I’ve been on this passport. “No, flying out from Trondheim.” I get to say that “y” twice, a secret pleasure. “When do you leave the country?” This still looking at my passport as if it contains some secret unknown to me but that she has to discover.
She’s about my age, I realize, or only very slightly older, in her mid 50s, maybe. I think I see in her face the same kind of lines I know from my childhood among the Scandinavian settlers in the Canadian west where I grew up. But maybe that’s the romantic part of me, stretching to make some connection in this land whose people and language seems so foreign to me, even though half my genes come from this soil. “In 13 days” I answer. I wonder if there’s a problem. Then, because my default is always to try to make contact, even when I shouldn’t, I add: “I hope, at least. Depends on how it goes on the Way.” She reaches for her stamp without any indication that she’s even heard what I’ve said. Then, as she pushes the official imprint of Norway down onto the paper, she looks up and, almost unbelievably, smiles, a big broad smile. “So you’re a pilgrim?” she asks. Despite my attempts to introduce just that subject, I’m caught off guard. “I guess so,” I answer awkwardly. “Enjoy your time in Norway. Have a good trip.” She hands me back the passport, the words “Canada” on the top, facing me. Then when she looks up at me, I hesitate in place, wondering if there’s more of this conversation to come, until I realize she’s actually looking through me to the person behind me. “Next,” she calls out.