The Accidental Tourists: Off-Roading in Fjord Country
For the international traveler, getting past the city-limits sign is bound to deliver surprises. But if you really want to know an area, get in a car wreck.
The roads in Norway can be narrow, especially the skinny byways the government calls “scenic routes.” They curve over mountains and cling to the hills above the fjords. Mostly, they are one lane, no shoulders, with turnouts every so often.
We had been driving these roads for about three days in June and were making our way along the edge of the Hardangerfjord when we hit a long, narrow straightaway. Five cars were coming down the hill. We were going up, on the fjord side of the road.
Bill was driving and pulled over to the edge. The lead car coming down didn’t budge. Julie warned, loudly, our car was too close to the dropoff. Bill clicked the little Renault into reverse and began backing down the hill.
The best Bill can figure is that when he tried to pull the car back into the center of the road, the front right tire hooked over the road’s abrupt edge. The car began to slide sideways. The back tire dropped and everything tipped.
That began a rolling tumble down the side of a Norwegian mountain. We thumped down on the passenger side. Bill thought the car would end on its side in a ditch. Julie saw us splashing into the huge fjord below. The car continued its clockwise turn, then dropped over a three-foot stone wall and kept cartwheeling, a carnival-like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride but loud and with a lot of broken glass.
City vacations are a predictable trek from museum to cathedral to shopping district to historic site. Global cities are alike. A coffee shop in Copenhagen looks, feels and tastes like a coffee shop in San Francisco. And do you really want to travel for a couple of days to see a milk carton upside down in a fish tank or a two-by-four leaned against a wall, the latest acquisitions in a renowned museum of contemporary art?
While we were planning our trip to Scandinavia the New York Times ran a travel story about Gothenburg, Sweden. Great, we thought. Gothenburg was on our route. What could you do in Gothenburg? The newspaper went on and on about jazz music, street murals and brew pubs. In other words, we could fly 5,100 miles to find the same things that are on every hipster corner of Austin, 70 miles down the road.
If global cities are generic, vacations to Yonder guarantee surprises. We ate from an apple tart the size of a basketball backboard and cooked on an open fire in a little French town. An Italian who’d learned his English in a World War II prison camp introduced us to the town’s richest man in a Sardinian village. (“He has many mistresses,” our guide informed.) We ate breakfast with dozens of firefighters in Northern California.
A few days before we reached Hardanger, we had gone on a beaver hunt with some young people from the Netherlands along a river in Sweden. And talk about exhibitions! We saw a whole wall of chain saws in a forestry museum in Elverum, Norway.
You see and learn things in small towns that you’d never find out in cities. Always. But if you really want to know a place, get into a wreck.
People streamed down the hill. A woman on a Harley had bandages for our cuts. (She said it was illegal in Norway to drive past an accident without offering aid). Another woman was on the phone to the car rental company. As we began picking up Bill’s stuff that was strewn down the hillside (lesson: always zip your suitcase), a woman told us not to fret. “This is Norway,” she said with Scandinavian assurance. “The people who are coming will take care of everything.”
She was right. The police arrived and so did two ambulances, his and hers. The authorities insisted we go to the nearest hospital, which was about an hour away. (Rural is rural everywhere.) Before we left, one of our new friends chimed, “You’ll never forget Norway.”
Bill rode with a young woman who had grown up in the area and didn’t want to leave. She said she had no interest in living in Oslo. “I want to be outside — I want to live in a place where people know each other and wave,” she said.
Bill’s driver said the police had called a “car rescue” guy to take care of the smashed Renault Capture. “Don’t worry about anything,” the driver said. The car rescue man was a “miracle worker.”
We arrived at the hospital in Odda, a mining town (titanium and zinc) of about 7,000 people. The story we heard was that the government wanted to close the century-old hospital but had been defeated by local protests.
Dr. June Grimstad, fresh out of medical school, gave us the most thorough going over either of us had had in years. There was some minimal talk of insurance but nobody asked for a credit card. A nurse brought a dinner of bread and cheese.
Then Thord arrived.
Thord Paulsen was dressed in the Norwegian worker uniform: button down work shirt, tie-up boots and baggy waterproof pants with lots of zippers and neon green. Thord was the miracle worker our ambulance driver had foretold. He is also the star of a National Geographic television show Ice Road Rescue, a series that “portrays a group of heroic tow truck rescue workers.” (The first three seasons are available on Netflix.)
Thord brought his young son and sat peacefully, Bluetooth in ear, while we ate brown cheese and all watched the World Cup football game, waiting for Julie’s x-ray results.
Thord said he had worked out a deal with the car rental company: he would loan us a car for the rest of our trip and the company would pay him back. And he had advice for Bill. Don’t wait after a wreck. Get back behind the wheel and start driving. Then he tossed Bill keys to an old Saab.
We finally picked up our new car at Thord’s garage about 22:30. (That’s Norway time – 10:30 pm with the sun still up.) He was eating grilled ham and cheese sandwiches with his wife and son in their apartment over the garage. His phone would buzz every few minutes with requests for more miracles. He later told us his day would end about 3 a.m. after he and his wife had retrieved some bikes at a nearby lake in the mountains.
There are still Vikings. Thord is one. He recounted the time two men had robbed his shop. Thord saw them escaping and gave chase, finally pulling them over after a 100 mile an hour rampage through the tunnels that are everywhere in this part of Norway. (By the way, Thord never wears a seatbelt.) Did they resist, we asked? One of the thieves calmly sat on the curb after Thord had blocked their way, he told us, but the other had put up a fight. “He was a wild man,” Thord said.
After a tussle, Thord hogtied the two with some rope and waited for police.
We went back to see Dr. June the next day. (“Here are my favorite Americans,” she beamed, wearily – near the end of a 20-hour shift.) She handed us release papers. We exchanged addresses. Nobody at the hospital presented a bill, but we received one in the mail just last week: $1,200 each for two 55-minute ambulance rides, an x-ray, and a medical exam.
We whiled away a day in Odda. Julie bought a wristwatch and we noticed that children were helping their parents in a number of small town Norwegian businesses. (Thord’s daughter was washing cars at the service station he owns across the street from his garage.) A young woman told us she had come to town as a member of a small Christian community that had decided to leave the city and establish themselves in a small town. In the barren land northeast of town we happened on some Lions Club members who were hosting a camp for a group of young women from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia.
We saw Thord again a couple of times. He gave us some black gimme caps from his television show. One of his fellow Ice Road Rescuers told us we needed to come back next summer and spend a few weeks in Thord’s mountain cabin.
We never signed anything for the new car Thord gave us. Before we left Odda, he said we should leave the car in a parking lot at the Oslo airport. Just let him know where we stashed it. He’d pick it up later.
It’s the Viking way.
Thank you, Thord and Dr. June. Thank you, Odda. Thank you, again, Yonder.
Bill Bishop and Julie Ardery founded the Daily Yonder in 2007 and edited the publication until 2012. They live in La Grange, Texas.