Pilgrimage Stories From Up and Down the Staircase

How do you walk a pilgrimage during these months of restricted travel? I’ve been walking up and down my staircase in Nottingham England, and dreaming of pilgrimages past! To share those stories I’m releasing my first-ever podcast, “Pilgrimage Stories from Up and Down the Staircase.” Each episode features a different trail, or a different character I’ve met. psuds logo finalI’ll introduce you to enthralling paths in Norway, Scotland, England, Iceland, Canada and Indigenous territories, and provide some of the resources you’ll need to walk them. All the while I’ll be telling the stories of the fascinating individuals I’ve walked with and met along the way, and sharing snatches of our conversations, songs, and experiences.

Alpine shelter

Thursday, July 30, 2020, at 5 pm Montreal time, I’m releasing the first episode: “Walking the St Olav Way.” In the 17-minute episode you’ll hear snatches of our struggle up and down mountains and jumping late-spring run-off streams and boggy marshes. You’ll meet a friendly Norwegian border agent and a marathon German pilgrim struggling to understand his life. You’ll sit with us in rustic Budsjord Gård and hear fellow pilgrim Kathryn singing as we walked. I hope you’ll listen in to this first episode, and to the others as they come out every Thursday! The series “Pilgrimage Stories from Up and Down the Staircase” will be available wherever you find your podcasts.

To find out more about St Olav before listening to the episode, why not check out some of these resources?

  • The official St Olav website, which you can find here, is a wealth of beautiful images and practical info (look for the English-language option)
  • In 2011, Alison Raju wrote The Pilgrim Guide to Trondheim, available at this website.
  • For my article about the history of the Trail and its modern-day recovery as well as some photos of our 2013 trek, see the International Journal of Religious Tourism and Pilgrimage, here.
  • For an article about the health benefits of walking the St Olav Way, written by a Norwegian scholar of pilgrimage in the same journal, see this link.

I’m looking forward to sharing my experiences with you on the “Pilgrimage Stories From Up and Down the Staircase” podcast!

The St. Olaf Way Norway

Allen pondering

photo by Matthew R. Anderson of Allen Jorgenson, 2013

I’m SO happy to see this article finally in print! In May 2013 we began walking this incredible trail only weeks after I had had surgery for prostate cancer in Montreal, and so soon after Norwegian spring thaw that the train to take us to the trail head was washed out, and we had to ford more than a few run-off streams on our way! Find out more here about the extraordinarily beautiful St. Olaf Way, as told from the perspective of a group of Scandinavian-background Canadians who walked a long portion of it in 2013. Pilgrimage, diaspora, national memory, political sainthood, therapy walking, history, church-state relations, and stunning views of mountain-top Norway….they’re all here!     https://arrow.dit.ie/ijrtp/vol7/iss1/7/

A Five-Minute Cooks’ Tour

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on the subject of – what else? – western Christian pilgrimage (clink on the following link) https://vimeo.com/183303404

The Way is Made by Walking

field of stones

Bare details don’t tell it all: Bær to Lundur, 17 km, Oddsstadir to Fitjar, 12.2. There is a map, but no obvious trail. Elínborg, Hulda and Floki, with few others, dream of a trail walked by Icelanders and others, to mark faith, and history, and friendship. They have planted posts over the years to help guide the way. But unlike the Camino, unlike even St Olaf’s, here there is rarely a visible path. A Spanish poet wrote that “the way is made by walking”. And isn’t that the way it is with life? The way is made by walking. And so is the trust, and the faith, and the community, and the hope. And the pilgrim.

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fording the stream

map of route

Norwegian Prairie Reunion

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One of the pleasures of this North West Mounted Police Patrol trail walk was that I had the chance to do the last section of it in the company of some of the same folks who walked the St Olaf trail in Norway with me in 2013. Pictured are Allen Jorgenson, Kathryn Scott, and Gwenanne Jorgenson. The Jorgensons and I caught up (Gwenanne was a little less camera shy) and Kathryn and I got to sing and walk to our heart’s content. And Allen and I shared poetry. Mostly, the walking and lack of paper led to Haiku. Here’s one:

Listen! the trail says,         While you pilgrims toss and dream     Night’s creatures walk on.

fencepost on the Frenchman

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

The birthing of a pilgrimage

Allen ponderingThis hostel is accredited, begins the promotional blurb for Meso Gård , and recommended by the National Pilgrim Centre. It has met the same requirements, and holds the same standard, as the pilgrim accommodation along Camino de Santiago. But a Spanish pilgrim who comes to Norway will find themselves, not in a bunk room in barren and dusty Castrojeriz, but in a typical sod-roofed, log-cabin style Norwegian hostel in the Rennesbund district along the St-Olaf’s Way, where a river rushes by, birds are singing, mountain flowers bloom around you and everything is green. Meso is a world away from a Spanish albergue. And the differences aren’t just in the lack of Rioja and dust (the first to better deal with the second).

Those who planned the St-Olav Weg have tried to make it familiar. The elements are as standardized as the boarding procedure at airports. There is a passport, obtained from an official pilgrim centre and sized appropriately for tucking into a backpack, local business stamps validating one’s walk along the trail, trail markers along paths and roads and paint slashes on rocks to guide the way, ‘pilgrim meals’ offered at some local restaurants, and several revitalized ancient routes (traceable on a smart-phone app) toward a cathedral city celebrating a medieval saint.

Yet the similarities between the two pilgrimage routes are overshadowed by differences as high as Norway’s mountains. The mountains, in fact, may be the most obvious initial difference, at least from the Camino Frances part of the Spanish trail. It’s been less than two weeks since I walked with five other Canadians from Dovre, in the Dovrefjell district of Norway, 250 or so kilometres to Trondheim. As far as I know, we were the first group of Canadians ever to walk this way as pilgrims. Unlike my experiences on the crowded Camino Frances, there were very few others we met. Those we did echoed our experience of a satisfying but extremely tough walk through conditions more like the high Rockies than the Meseta. In part because of an unusually late, cold and wet spring, we forded swollen mountain streams, jumped from hillock to hillock through kilometres of bog, and in sections of the trail found ourselves going days without seeing other human beings, much less a store to purchase supplies. We fell down, we froze, we saw incredible beauty, one of our group broke her ankle among the endless tree roots. It may be ancient, but it was not an urban walk. Café con leche? Forget it, unless you have a thermos, some farm experience and can catch one of the abundant sheep or goats.

Because it is still early in the redevelopment of the St-Olaf Way, one of the most fascinating parts of the walk, for me, was how we met those still trying to put their mark on how the trail will develop. I felt like we were there at the beginnings of something important. We met chapel builders who want to make sure there will be a spiritual component to the walk, officials who seek the ‘new spirituality’, walkers interested primarily in ecology and environment, and others who are developing their businesses in hopes of increasing numbers of high-tech backpackers showing up at their doorsteps.

All of which raises some interesting questions. What gives a particular pilgrimage its unique character? Is there such a thing as a more or less authentic pilgrimage? It seems to me that the inevitable conflict of values in this birthing of a European pilgrimage route is useful, because it helps bring about something that, however it borrows from the past, is new. As my friend Allen Jorgenson noted, the role of land, and of landscape, is more important than some of us have realized. Maybe we should be talking about pilgrimscapes, and how the outer journey influences the shape of the inner one.

Whatever the medieval St-Olaf route once was, there is now a struggle for its modern identity. It is definitely not the Camino. What it will be remains to be seen.
Alpine shelter

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.

Those Surprising Vikings

At the Anderson family reunion I attended years ago, when the heavy-set, ruddy blonde prairie farmers I’m from passed me a 24 of beer and told me I have Viking blood coursing through my veins, I don’t think they realised how confusing that could be. Now, having fought my way through several books and a couple of BBC documentaries on the subject, I’m less sure than ever.

 

What’s a descendent of those who were the scourge of Europe through the not-so-dark Dark Ages to do? We’re having a full-blown identity crisis. The wonderful, recently released History channel series “Vikings” takes some of the usual turns (rough and ready adventurers with lots of facial hair – at least, the men. Blood and gore. Plenty of sex). And yet, despite some caricatures, the greater truth the series portrays is this: it turns out that being a Viking meant above all being, believe it or not, complex.

 

If only we’d thought about it, we’d have suspected the former “pillage and plunder” paradigm too simple to be true. How could a small band of tattooed berserkers really be responsible not only for the sack of monasteries and cities all over northern Europe (and as far as Byzantium), but also for positive changes: the design of beautiful and advanced sea- and river-craft, the exploration of waters as far as North America, a fashion craze in costume jewelry – then, not now – the minting of coinage, and a process of urbanization that led to the establishment of quite a number of NEW cities? And why should small farmers who only wanted gold and slaves have become quite so good at setting out grid-lines and building churches? It may be a surprise to the neo-pagan “revivalists” to find out – should they ever care to – that the various hyphenated Scandinavians of the British Isles and Normandy were in part responsible for the 11th century re-flowering of Christianity.

 

My Norse relatives will hear more about this as I travel through Ireland and Norway on pilgrimage this summer. But the first to be surprised is me: I thought I had my ancestors pegged. It turns out they were more than just a hardy lot. They were often violent warriors of fortune, yes. But just as often, many of them were travelers and settlers, artists and urban planners, the pious and the pilgrims of their days. Learning as they traveled. That latter part doesn’t just sound like a heritage. That sounds like a plan.

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