In 2015 I fell in love with cycling. Since then I have gone on trips across most of the southern part of Norway, preferring the narrow mountainous roads, but never straying too far away from civilisation, as I enjoy stopping along the way at the small country supermarkets and gas stations. I admit having a vague fascination for the Norwegian countryside vernacular. Little traces of people and history are found everywhere, littered like crumbs.
Traversing these mountains is sometimes like passing through a romantic nationalist painting from the 19th century. Mighty mountains cleave and scatter the clouds; a lonesome white horse appears out of nowhere in the forest; some creature breaks the still water of the lake at dusk. The romantic aestheticization of nature was central to the building of a Norwegian national identity in the 19th and 20th centuries, and is still a potent force today.
But it wasn’t always so. The mountain farmers interviewed by Aasmund Olavsson Vinje in his book Ferdaminni frå sumaren 1860 do not find the sight of the mighty mountain pleasing. On the contrary, they find it ugly. It is a dangerous and arid place, not practical at all. One farmer intentionally blocks his view of the mountain with an outhouse (stabbur) for curing meats: at least the outhouse brings food to the table. The same cannot be said of the mountain.
I read Vinje’s book on the train up to these very mountains some 150 years later and am baffled by the proposition. I thought all Norwegians agreed upon the splendidness of our mountains. But as I cycle up Aurlandsfjellet some days later, I start to understand what the farmers meant. Although it’s the middle of July, the temperature is barely above freezing; the wind stings my face and howls around me. As I approach the top at 1300m, my feet start feeling numb, and not in a temporary way. I struggle across the summit and start the descent in the rain, shivering. I turn a corner and the clouds break up before me, spilling its shreds onto the sides of the mountain. A cluster of cottages on a pasture appear in their midst, as if magically summoned.