Wednesday , August 24 thru Friday, August 16 – Travel Days: Eldora —> Denver —> Munich—>Oslo—>Odda
Traveling from Eldora, Colorado to Odda, Norway is not an easy or quick affair. We left on a crisp Colorado, late-August, Wednesday afternoon from our little cabin in the mountains. On that cool morning, I saw the first dusting of snow on Bald Mountain, an annual ritual of change. The first snow of the year heightened the happiness level on an already very exciting day…we were also going to Norway! I finished packing and went for a quick roller ski to offset the effects of traveling for the next three days.
And then it was the last minute debates over what to bring, the final lock-up of the home, the drive down the canyon with the last minute chores, dropping Stella off with Jenny and finally the “everything is done we can just enjoy it now” drive down E-470 to Denver. Found parking with ease, took the shuttle to the airport and checked in at Lufthansa.
Lufthansa! This is no run-of-the-mill airline. This is not Frontier. This is German efficiency, professionalism and high quality. For folks like Elaine and I, who scored these tickets at ridiculously low prices the day after Brexit, it felt like a major coup. As trans-atlantic flights go, this one was maybe the best I’ve ever been on. The plane was quiet, the food good and best of all I managed to sleep for 4 hours! That never happens for me on a plane. I admit however, part of the cause of that may have been the Lufthansa stewardesses almost insistence that passengers take free wine and brandy. For lightweights like ourselves, that was plenty to make sleep a desired option. Even better was waking up somewhere over Holland, being served warm cocoa and croissants, and knowing that in less than one hour we were going to be touching down in Munich, Germany, home of Bayern Munchen, BMW and beer.
Germany is known for its efficiency, which is a good thing, given our modest five-hour layover and a 45-minute train ride each way to get from the airport to the city center and back again. In our pre-trip planning, this was a silly, off-the-cuff idea I proposed to Elaine. Lo and behold, she was all in. Honestly, there was a side of me that just wanted to sleep, but that’s not the Dan and Elaine way. We followed bright yellow signs shouting “TRAIN TO MUNCHEN” through the ultra-clean, somewhat sterile airport tunnels. We cleared customs and were blasted by a very warm, late summer day as we entered a huge outdoor atrium with five BMWS and five Porches parked outside.
Off to the train station. We almost got stymied right off the bat. Tickets are purchased on a machine that takes bills up to 20 Euros. We only had 50s. We decided we’d pay with a credit card, but as is always the case every single time we come to Europe, our bank put a stop on our card as soon as it read a foreign transaction for security reason. Easy enough to deal with, but we were in a time crunch. I was about to give up, but Elaine solved the problem, heading up to well-dressed German Herr, asking him if he had change for a fifty. He did, and we were in business. We managed to buy the tickets and hop on the train to Munich (we hoped) about half a second before the doors slammed shut.
We passed through lush farmland dotted with meticulous German homes and cottages. And then it was into the industrial part of town, passing the factories of BMW and Porsche and giant images of Bayern Munchen football (the real football) superstars. Our destination was Marienplatz, which I believe means town square or something similar. Upon train arrival we emerged out of the Subway hole into a new world. A cobblestoned square, thousands of people, a massive cathedral, stores selling fancy clothing and a completely different language. That type of moment is why I love travel, the initial shock to the system, the feeling of newness, of adventure.
We didn’t know where to start, so, like many before us, we headed right to church. Elaine and I are hardly the religious types, but European churches draw you in. They are massive, austere and overwhelmingly gaudy on the inside. You can’t help but look. We headed back out and decided to turn right. It was a good choice, as we soon found ourselves at what must have been the equivalent of a farmer’s market. Only this was not your typical farmers market. Hundreds of vendors were selling luscious fruit from Spain, fish from the Mediterranean, mushrooms from the Black Forest, lamb shanks from northern Germany, cheese from France and wine from Spain. This was not the outer-regions of the continent that we always go to. This was definitely not Tromsø. This was a hub, a cross-roads of sorts, a big city in mainland Europe.
After an obligatory walk through the empty and depressing Hofbrau Haus, we decided to eat lunch at the farmer’s market. We ordered two sausages (Elaine never eats hot dogs, but she said, “when in Munich!”) and two very large steins of a beer that somewhat resembled Budweiser in appearance but tasted much better. We were not alone – this is apparently the customary drink of choice in Munich at 11 am. In addition to hordes of adults enjoying sausages and beer for brunch, we noticed a number of children who couldn’t have been more than ten years old being given a stein for sipping from their parents. They start ’em young in Germany.
We have a co-worker named Zach at Neptune who is a big fan of Austrian schnapps. We spotted a small bottle of something called Pear Obschler with the distinctive Tyrol logo, and seeing how it only cost five Euros, decided to buy a bottle for Zach. We momentarily debated whether we could even get it onto the plane, but then came to the alcohol driven decision that if a country lets 8-year olds drink beer, surely they will allow you to take a bottle of sealed authentic Austrian schnapps on a plane
Our time in Munich was up. Just two hours in one of the greatest cities in the world, but at least it was two hours where we went it for it and squeezed every little bit out of life we could. That’s a good thing to do…our time here is too short. Back on the train to the airport, into the atrium with the Porches and BMWs, through a breezy customs and security (everything is efficient in Germany) and it was onto our next Lufthansa flight.
Except for one little hiccup: that bottle of schnapps. Being an honest American type (just ask our presidential candidates), I told the woman working security that I had the bottle and wanted to confirm it was OK. Very nicely she said, “oh, maybe not…can I see”…trailing to…”this is very good…I don’t think you can take this on the plane…too bad.” What the hell! Sorry Zach, I guess the baggage security crew in the Munich airport had a fun night.
Frustrations like that die quickly when you are on a plane to Norway for two weeks of backpacking in the Norwegian wilderness. As we flew north, the sky got cloudier, and by the time we descended into Oslo we were in a downright fog. It was pre-cursor for the adventure to come.
The next hours were a blur. Checking into the Anker Hostel. Wandering the rainy streets of Oslo looking for food. Trying to sleep and jet-lagged badly. Up early the next morning. My first breakfast at McDonalds in a decade. And then it was off to the DNT office.
The DNT office in Oslo is a gem. It’s a government run group that basically promotes hiking, skiing and huts in the country. Pay your membership dues and you get a key for all the huts. They have maps for every region of the country, books galore and all the last minute equipment you need, including fuel, a necessity for people flying into Oslo to begin their adventure.
When we told the clerk of our plans we were met with skepticism. We mentioned we hoped to hike 30-40 kilometers a day and she told us rather matter-of-factly that we would “kill ourselves.” Nevertheless, you can do what you want in Norway, however stupid, so she pointed us to the right maps, and Elaine and I formulated a plan. Basically, a hike from Odda, through the western fjords, across the Hardangervidda to the Jotunheimen Mountains, our exact exit point very much dependent on pace and where the bus happened to be when. Between the Hardangervidda and the Jotunheim was an area called Skarvheimen. We knew absolutely nothing about Skarvheimen, but assumed it would be smooth sailing. We were also told that it is customary practice to drink all water in the mountains without filtering because, “there are no small animals this year.” This was shocking news, as this is never the recommended practice in the U.S.
We would deal with all that later. It was time to catch the bus to Odda. Before boarding, we went to a sandwich shop, where we had a very interesting and entertaining experience with the girl making sandwiches. She was almost a caricature of the typical blonde and blue Norwegian and ended every sentence with an inquisitive sounding “ya?” Except it wasn’t really a question. “You want butter on both sides of the sandwich, ya!” “I love America, ya!” “Do you want a cinnamon role, ya!” It was a great experience that had Elaine and I chuckling for days. We mimicked that interaction quite a few times over the next week, particularly when the hike got heinous!
And then it was an endless, nausea inducing 8-hour bus ride to Odda on some of the most twisting roads I’ve ever been on. It was a beautiful ride, and the weather at Haukeliseter on the Hardangervidda was ominously cold and rainy.
There was a major revelation on the bus ride that impacted the entire trip. I was surfing the web, checking out the countrywide bus schedule. A day earlier I read a prominent announcement on their homepage that stated “bus service to the Jotunheim will continue throughout the fall.” But I failed to read the fine print. Upon clicking the link, it actually said “bus service to the Jotunheim will continue ON WEEKENDS thoughout the fall.” We had planned to use 11-days to hike our already ambitious route, ending on a Tuesday. It turned out bus service ended on Sunday afternoon, forcing us to pack 11-days of hiking into nine. There was really nowhere to get out before, and we were in Odda, unable to switch course without losing at least another day or two. We were going to have to hustle and hope the terrain allowed us to move efficiently. Remembering the skepticism of the girl in DNT office, I realized this was no sure thing.
In addition to this problematic news, I made the mistake of eating my food too quickly and almost paid the price on those curvy roads. I managed to keep it down, but by the time we got off the bus in Odda, rain beating down and the day darkening to night in this town in a deep fjord, I could barely stand up.
We didn’t have a place to stay, but we knew there was “Odda Campground” about two miles away back up the hill from where we came. I felt terrible – probably the worst of the entire trip – on this walk, still very car sick. We staggered into a very busy campground, paid our Kroners to the disinterested counter girl, and found one of the few remaining flat spots that wasn’t in a mud puddle. About a 100 meters away, Norwegian teens raced up and down the nearby dirt road on 2-stroke motorcycles. We skipped dinner, and settled into a restless, uneasy sleep. The rain began to beat down, muffling the voices of the lonely campers next to us. It was an odd, wet and unglamorous spot to begin our hike north across the Norwegian wilderness.