A trip to Norway introduces faraway family and a wondrous land | Magazine
The real function of man is to live, not to exist.
I won’t waste my days trying to lengthen them.
I will use my time.
– Jack London, “The Call of the Wild”
Life in 1872 must have been horrible enough for my great-great-grandparents, Hans and Anne Larsen, to leave their farm near Oslo, Norway, and move to the desolate, rocky fishing village of Langenes, hundreds of miles north above the Arctic Circle lies.
By 1900, one of their 17 children, my great-grandfather Oscar Larsen, had had enough of fishing. At the age of 22 he left Eli (Ella), his pregnant wife and his extended family in Norway and went in search of a better life in the United States. In order for Oscar to make the trip, he had to write his uncle in Wisconsin in advance to fund his immigration and pay for his passage. He probably took a horse and buggy to Sortland, where he boarded a boat to Trondheim, which took him to Liverpool, England, where he caught a larger steamboat bound for the United States. After more than two grueling weeks at sea, Oscar docked in New York.
Despite missing the first Klondike gold discovery in 1898 by two years, Oscar caught gold fever. He made his way from Wisconsin to Seattle, to Skagway, Alaska, to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, via the White Pass Railroad. Eventually he worked his way down the upper Yukon River on a paddle steamer to Dawson City where he ended up working on several gold claims. By 1904, Oscar and six other men filed their own claims to Deadwood Creek, about 135 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska, where I was born and raised.
Fast forward 115 years to 2019 when my husband Dan, an English teacher at Yakima Valley College, saw an opportunity to teach as a roving scholar in high schools across Norway through the Fulbright program. Dan applied to the program and was accepted in January 2020. Finally, after enduring 21 months of pandemic-related anxiety, we were granted special permission to enter Norway, where Dan and I are residing with our daughter Ella, 18, and son Whit, 16, for the remainder of the 2021-22 academic year.
Almost two years of waiting and planning was redeemed in a weekend in January 2022 that truly summed up our Norway adventure. Thanks to connections with Harry, a second cousin on my great-grandmother Eli Solbjørg’s side, a meeting was arranged at our family’s ancestral home in Langenes, Vesteralen, on the northwest coast of Norway. Our trip included a flight from Oslo straight north to the 68th parallel to Bodø – the farthest north I had ever seen. Upon arrival in Bodø, we drove our rental car onto the ferry for an approximately four hour trip to Moskenes, on the west side of the world famous Lofoten Islands.
There is something humiliating about docking in the dark at 10pm in the middle of winter in Norway. Adding to even greater disorientation was feeling seasick and not knowing the language, the roads, or who we would end up meeting. We had little more than a vague idea of the road ahead: a windy, two-hour, snowy night drive before finally stopping to sleep in a cozy, bright red fisherman’s hut (rorbuer) in the town of Svolvaer.
The popular saying “No bad weather, just bad clothes” spills over into many aspects of the Norwegian lifestyle, akin to the “Ready for anything” mantra that our family grew accustomed to over and over again on this trip. Just a few minutes into the final leg of our ride, the ghost in the sky took our breath away. Emerald green northern lights dancing across the starry blackness appeared at every corner of our snowy journey, urging us to move on. We stopped the car several times, got out and stood in icy silence to watch the colors undulate, intensify, disappear and reappear. For a moment our heads pointed skyward, then everything fell away. We had received an unexpected gift at exactly the right time.
The next morning we woke up groggy but ready to make the final push home. After another 3 hour drive on lonely snowy roads to Myre and finally another 40 minute drive to Langenes we met relatives on both the paternal (Larsens) and maternal (Solbjørgs) sides of my Norwegian family.
All the challenges of the past years, months and weeks seemed irrelevant now as I bonded with second cousins on the other side of the world. The experience was unexpectedly overwhelming.
How deep it was to see my grandma’s blue eyes in the faces of my relatives. Her mannerisms and often choppy speech patterns finally made sense to me after we immersed ourselves in this particular weekend. We touched the wooden foundation of the house where my great-grandparents and grandmother once lived. Finally, we entered the small, 700-year-old church where my great-grandparents were married. I pictured my grandmother here as a little girl sitting during the service, amusing herself reading simple scripture offerings from 1602 on the wall. Brass lamps, a gift from a wealthy local family in 1778, still shine their light on the parishioners. Wooden buckets of water hanging over the church entrance like sentinels have kept the pot-bellied stove in check for decades. Immersing yourself in this sacred place felt like a flood of ancestral memories brought to life.
I was constantly reminded of my grandmother’s warmth and hospitality, imparted to her by Oscar and Eli, which still burned brightly in the hearts of Norwegian relatives. I realized that the harsh elements that drove Oscar out of Norway pulled me back. And I realized that even though our travels took place under very different circumstances, my great-grandfather’s spirit of adventure lives on in me.
Although Oscar left Norway out of necessity, our trip was a pilgrimage to his homeland. “Adventure Travel” means being unsettled and challenged, living outside of your comfort zone and sacrificing great things to get there. Travel writer Anthony Bourdain encouraged travelers to sleep on the floor because it’s the best way to get to know places, people, and most importantly, yourself. If that’s the case, Oscar must have known himself very well.
While our family didn’t sleep on the floor, we experienced many uncomfortable and challenging moments while traveling in Norway. Those times have taught us all that we are capable of much more than we realised. And none of this would have been possible if Oscar had not bravely followed his dreams on a great adventure that began more than a century ago. His sacrifices ensured prosperous lives for the four generations that followed, which in turn inspired our family to come full circle on his 122-year journey.
Sometimes it takes a journey to the top of the world to find your way home. Despite the fear, ignorance and hurdles our family went through to say yes to a year in Norway – we would do anything again.