Kindness

the Tweed day one

“We’re here on this earth to be kind to others. What the others are here for I don’t know” (Auden)

Tuesday turns out much hotter than I’d thought: by midmorning I’m already out of water. The path has been one long riverbank meander, common sandpipers calling and flitting through the low branches, a lone grey heron loosing itself awkwardly from its perch as I passed, and a series of wooden steps with wire mesh tread, forever up and down, up and down over eroding dirt banks and muddy tributary creeks and cuts. Finally the path turns right. It climbs steeply uphill through tall grass and buzzing wildflowers that make me dizzy.

Sweating and out of breath, I follow the way-markings into the village of St. Boswell’s. At first I’m relieved. But no stores are open and the doors are shuttered against the day. There’s a Scottish flag on a pole in the middle of a field of overgrown weeds. My feet immediately dislike the sidewalk. They yearn for a return to the shade and the cushion of the forest floor, but I know this may be my one chance to replenish water. When I dig it out, the guidebook says to be sure to stop and look at the stained glass in the parish kirk. The church door resists a pull; like everything else in this town, it seems permanently locked. For a while I peer at what I think may be the glass through the dark windows, but I can’t tell if the colours I see are real or my imagination. This is my one chance to see the work of Liz Rowley, an artist I cared nothing for nor knew anything about until I’d opened my guide. Traveling is about glimpsing what we have just missed. For a while I sit on the low stone fence outside the church until a tall, slim man with a pack approaches. He must have been behind me on the country trail. He’s walking fast.

I say hello. He seems reluctant to break stride, but does. A walker. He introduces himself as Chris. We talk for a moment and for a few blocks I join him and try unsuccessfully to match the speed of his long legs. We come to a junction where the path turns left and back out of the village. There’s an historic municipal water pump here, with a Bible verse in stone: “Jesus said whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again, but whosoever drinketh of the water I give him shall never thirst.” “Alleluia,” I respond, reading it aloud. I give the handle a tentative pump, and when that doesn’t work, a firmer go. Nothing. The well is dry. I’m not quite sure what that does to the verse, but my mouth is parched and I’m disappointed in more than a spiritual way. And, although I don’t admit it to Chris, a little worried.

At that moment there’s a shout from across the street. A young woman, the first person we’ve seen in the village, is waving at us. “Are you thirsty?” she calls. We gratefully accept the two glasses of water she offers, and she takes my plastic backpack bladder into the house to replenish it. I notice that she closes the gate, leaving us on the outside, before going in. In a few seconds she’s back. Chris nods his thanks and bids farewell. Before he leaves he tells me that his wife meets him at points along the trail and perhaps we can all have tea together sometime and I can interview him then. I say sure, thinking it’s the last I will ever see him.

As I hand back the glass, the woman begins an incredibly long and convoluted story of angelic visitation and mystical paralysis in answer to what I thought was a quick question about whether she has ever helped other pilgrims. Eventually, despite her initial kindness, I become edgy. When she appears to be beginning to talk herself into joining me on a spiritual pilgrimage I repeat my thanks, say a hasty goodbye and turn my back to the town.

Hours pass. After the manner of distance walking, all thoughts of St Boswells, the woman, Chris, and the well – all thoughts of everything, in fact – elide into the rhythm of my steps and the vague pains –  left big toe, right heel – where sensations, like blisters, are growing. I traverse golden forests of beech and oak, and rejoin the river, still there, waiting like an old friend who has decided after a lovely morning to take the afternoon off as well.

Eventually the path turns up a country lane-way. It runs along a stone fence bordered by purple strife and daisies. At the top of the gravel way I see two figures outlined against the sky, the first human beings since St Boswells. A woman is talking to a man, gesturing. He shakes his head and walks out of my sight to the right. I wonder if it’s a dispute of some sort. She remains standing at the head of the path, hands on her hips. What happens next is like something out of a dream.

She looks at me as I reach the top of the rise. “Are you Matthew?”

I’m startled to hear my own name. “Yes.” “Oh good,” the woman says. She introduces herself as Clare. “I have tea for you. Follow me.” On a patch of grass between roads are two blankets. There’s a thermos bottle and a padded lunch bag. Two cups are set out.

As I settle, not quite believing, she pours me tea and informs me that her husband told her to expect me, but that I’d taken longer than either of them had imagined. The tea is delicious, the sun is warm, there’s a light breeze. I sit on a blanket, in Scotland, with someone I have never met. After a while I realize that the grass looks cool and inviting. “Would you mind if I took my boots and socks off?” I ask.

“Not at all,” she answers, smiling. “Would you like a scone? I have some of those, too.”

tea and cake first day

Leaving Kongsvold

alpine pond near Dovre

For most of the morning, despite the signs saying otherwise, there really is no trail, just the steep side of the mountain. The grass is thick and slippery with overnight rain. The going is difficult: two of our group fall, one badly, somersaulting down the slope and rising painfully with an egg-sized bruise on her shin. We struggle along, unusually quiet. There are two more falls before lunch. No one says anything but I’m sure I’m not the only one worrying there will be an even more serious accident if the trail doesn’t soon improve. We’ve only gone two kilometers out of 25 planned for the day. Later, we find out that many pilgrims just skip this section of marked trail because their German or Norse guidebooks suggest going by the highway. We have no book.

“The best maps are conveyed orally and by gestures, occasionally with a pen and a scrap of paper…just where the road makes that imperceptible fork, that difficult turn” (Tomas Espedal, Tramp). But there was no informal guide to show us the secret, safe path. We are alone, six Canadians under a Norwegian sky. We manage in the only way, the old way, step by step.

When it’s safe to lift our heads, there’s a beautiful pass stretching before us. The trail, such as it is, perches us high above the highway, which is itself above a train track, all three thin parallel lines etched like afterthoughts into a narrow notch between steep granite. On breaks to catch our breath or adjust our boots, we scan the rock-face across from us, and especially the meadows between rockslides. If you want to see muskoxen look for boulders, said one of the Norwegians. Boulders that move.

It’s the end of June and there are still banks of snow on the upper flanks. Every hundred meters or so we meet another rushing mountain stream. Is there a bridge? Someone calls out from behind. There is? Thank God. Pilgrim prayers are increasingly simple. Thank God for goretex boots. Here there’s a larger stream, jumping and frothing and swollen with spring run-off. No bridge, but fortunately there are flat rocks and A moves a few into place to stand on. Two of our group take position, mid-current, to help support the others across, water coursing and spraying around our ankles. Crossing water has become routine. No one thinks much more about it until we round a switchback and come face to face with the fact that the gushing current we just traversed flies out the side of a cliff and drops fifty feet through empty space, only yards after our fording. Later that day a Norwegian pilgrim falls and manages to get out, but loses items from her backpack over the precipice.

There’s animal dung of every variety on the path. At first it’s a game to try to imagine the various creatures who have passed. But at one point just before a steep ascent it’s so thick we have to make a detour. The sheep and reindeer are smart, smiles G grimly, as she pushes up the incline; they know how to drop weight when a hill is coming. Yet climbing is easier than a descent. Your heart hammers and the moisture pools at the base of your back where most of the backpack weight sits. But there is none of the shock to your knees, the chance of slipping. And anyway, climbing is hopeful; it means going somewhere.

Eventually we emerge onto a huge flat table-plateau, where we’re rewarded by the high Norwegian landscape: moss-covered rocks and grey-green lichen stretching out in all directions to a treeless horizon. Without a mid-range, distances are deceiving. We see a cabin in the distance, perched on a giant, solitary rock. It takes forever to walk there. In front of the door is a grey mass that turns out to be a waist-high pile of reindeer antlers. We look around but there is no sign of human life, no one to explain the carnage. A flock of sheep approach and retreat, wheel around us in a spiral and disperse, alternating between curiosity and fear. For a few seconds we are two groups completely still, examining each other across the divide of species, before one of us makes a sound and they bolt away again.

After another hour or so under the huge vault of sky, someone calls for a stop. We find spots in the lee of boulders, sheltering from the increasingly cold wind. K pulls her hood up around her ears and falls back into the pillow of lichen. S, who was busy picking greenery in the lower altitudes now adds garnish from the wilderness to our bare sandwiches: leaves and flowers and herbs, edible evidence of where we’ve been. It’s late and there are still many kilometers to go before we sleep. But we pull our hats over our ears and pass the sandwiches and the tea. How long have we been walking? Four days now? Five? No one seems to remember. We lean back into the lichen, and enjoy a view we cannot name, looking out over this strange world like house-guests who are lost but can’t yet admit it.
Hjerkinn Fjellstue to Kongsvold Inn