This past weekend had been marked on the calendar for a year – well, actually, for two years. I have been adamant about making my foray into the Nordic ski racing world at one venue and one venue only: the Stowe Derby. After the race was postponed and then called off last year, I geared up for an extra winter of training and improving my skate technique. As February dumped snow across the northeast, it seemed a sure thing that the Derby would take place.
Now, on a Monday morning with my weekend plans gone awry due, I prepare for a week of theses deadlines, variable weather conditions, and no Stowe Derby to get me excited. Sure, there are plenty more adventures in the near future, but I had built all of my skiing up as “training” for this race. Yesterday’s 6:30 AM email reporting ice, poor snow coverage, and downed trees on the race course prohibited me of pursuing my novice ski racing career. I must wait to check that one off of my “Before Moving to New York” bucket list. Perhaps the race will be rescheduled for a later weekend, but I know that chances are now low.
Yesterday instead became a day of reflection, of planning, of setting my sights on new goals. I am beginning to feel my relationship with my critical thesis material – the stories of Alistair MacLeod – growing stronger than ever. I’m loving my woodworking class, and it’s changed the way I explore. Now, when I’m out trail running or even driving, I key in on impressive trees and fallen logs, and I’ve noticed so much already. Lastly, I love that I can turn to my poetry whenever I need an escape. I am still formulating the way I want my collection to come together, but some of the individual poems that I have written are my favorites to date.
Drawing on the disappointment and optimism of this past weekend, on my recent interests, and on human issues I notice and engage with through thought, conversation, and action, I wrote this poem that I share today.
The brush pile was twisted
and resinous. Wet smoke
seeped upwards through
boughs that pricked
as they fell, and the heat
from meager embers
was too low to melt more
than a small radius in the snow.
Shoulders slumped, toes frozen
in wet boots, eyes fixed
on the dark spaces—
green and brown curtains
shrouded in smoke.
Once, the grain had run true—
blinds flung wide open,
gaze set on the horizon—
but in this particular time
of this particular year
the saw blade’s teeth grew dull,
ground down upon knots
and burls and barbed wire,
and despondent attempts at progress
were met with a shiver.
But still, the brush
needed to be cleared—
to burn and return
in simpler form
to the ground.
So the evergreens
and there was no better course
than to wait in the periphery
for that inner glow
to come again.
I fear this winter will not again reach the heights of this past week. The warm temperatures and rain forecasted for the next few days won’t make it difficult to spend time getting to better know my thesis carol, and while I’m there, I can draw inspiration from my recent adventures to Mad River Glen and Craftsbury – cumulatively, my best week of skiing in the past two years.
Blue skies and deep snow made for excellent photo opportunities. Above: riding the single chair at Mad River Glen, February 14. Below: the barn in Murphy’s Field at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, February 17. This one is perhaps my favorite I’ve been able to share on the blog thus far.
How is one supposed to feel when commencing his or her final semester of college?
Today was truly my last first day as a Middlebury student, although I certainly didn’t spend it doing typical first-day-of-classes types of things. No bookstore visits or dropping off “add cards” to the registrar. Instead, I battled the snow day crowds at Mad River Glen and found the best powder turns and tree skiing of the season. The East has been getting hammered with snow recently, and this storm was the icing on the cake. 14-18″ of fresh, fluffy white stuff at the best ski mountain anywhere. I was fortunate to have a few friends join me, and we quickly concluded that it was the best first-day-of-classes ever.
The reason I was skiing and not inside listening to a professor? I have only three courses this semester, two of which are theses, and the third being a woodworking class that meets on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. I take independent work seriously – (see the athletic nutrition guide that Maddie and I made during Junior year) – but I trust myself enough at this point to know that I won’t procrastinate away my time. As I set aside wide open blocks of time each week, I know that if I can use these hours productively, I can afford myself timely adventures. Taking advantage of the best skiing conditions of the year was an adventure of which I wholeheartedly approved. So will be midweek overnights in Westport, hikes in the ‘Dacks, a few more powder days (hopefully!), and random excursions with close friends.
Now as I ponder the magnitude of launching a semester that I have anticipated so eagerly and for so long, I realize my biggest challenge and priority will be to carve out space. I’ve given myself time and trusted myself to use it productively, and to do so, I’ll need to do my best to find spaces that encourage creativity, eliminate distractions, and allow for sustained focus. These spaces are physical – establishing a thesis carol is high on my to-do list – and temporal – creating routines that give me the best chance to think clearly and operate efficiently. Keeping a daily “theses grind” journal of morning check-ins will be a way for me to stay on track, and dedicating my “20% time” to this blog will also give me purpose and opportunities for reflection. And if I stay on it, that will mean a comprehensive critical thesis, wild and poignant poems, more time in the wood shop, and the freedom to take adventures.
I remember a reoccurring internal struggle when I was keeping my gap-year blog over whether, after completing a noteworthy travel expedition, I should pen my thoughts as soon as possible so as not to forget any of the details, or let the experiences and memories simmer for a few days to allow for a more distanced, thoughtful reflection. Both types of writing inevitably produced successful and unsuccessful posts, so I remain undecided on which side to take.
Today, after returning from Norway fewer than twenty-four hours ago, I feel that same debate pulsing in my fingertips – both urging them to write onwards and pulling them back from the keyboard. But the decision to write, in this case, is in part made for me already. In the next two days, I will travel from New York to Pawling to Williamstown to Middlebury, I will sort out my life when I return to school, I will catch up on emails ignored while abroad, I will (most likely) ski if Sunday evening’s Nor’easter brings snow to the Green Mountains, and I will commence my final semester at Middlebury – the fifteen weeks between now and graduation that I have prefigured as the ultimate culminating experience of my college experience. The unique (and now imminent) nature of this time excites me in a way that prohibits me from allowing this Norway blogpost to linger.
Of course, I’m contradicting myself. I want to share all of my recent travels, to unload my thoughts and photographs, and to happily share my reflection with any who ask, “So how was Norway?!” And yet, I’ve spent these first paragraphs writing about a topic that has little relevance to that ski trail I discovered, that cup of coffee I sipped, that piece of fish I tasted. Perhaps it was my subconscious attempt to allow space for reflection, even if it was only half-an-hour instead of half-a-week. But now, I really must begin.
I’d never traveled to Europe in the winter, or for such a short trip. This made the trip feel very different than anything I’d previously done, but having Maddie traveling with me made the whole thing comforting and exciting. The compressed timeframe allowed us to push through jet lag, plan specific adventures each day, and not feel bad about missing out on some of the more typical touristy sights and activities.
Cross-country skiing was the priority, and we departed content and thrilled about the three mornings of skiing that we completed. It was an inspiring feeling to be dressed in full ski attire waiting for a tram in the middle of the city and not get looked at as if we had three heads. Everyone skis, and we were especially inspired by number of young kids and elder folks we saw out on the trails. They were well prepared for the cold and eager to be skiing. We found that most people were friendly, engaging, and excellent at English, but they were not at all sympathetic when we got cold. And it was quite cold. The forests surrounding the city received an inch or so of snow to refresh the trails each night, and we were often skiing through a mix of flakes and sun.
We based ourselves out of Frognerseteren on the first and third days that we skied – a train stop at the end of the metro line overlooking the city and the Oslofjord. There we found numerous trails, frozen lakes, and a handful of ski huts interspersed throughout the Nordmarka forest. We got first tracks (occasionally), got lost a few times, got passed by old women, and got to know some unique, fun terrain.
Our best day of skiing came in the middle of the trip, when we navigated an A-to-B route from Fossum to Sorkedalen west of the city. We passed through a multitude of different landscapes: dense forests, frozen lakes, open farmland, forested hillsides, mountain streams. It was both a test of navigation abilities and endurance, but we made it to our destination proud of and exhausted by our efforts.
I realized two things about traveling during the trip: first, taking photographs in cold weather is hard, and second, mustering up the energy to sightsee when it’s cold outside and we’d already skied for a good part of the day is also hard. But the city exploring that we did do was exceptional. We listened to our bodies as best we could, and in the instances that we did get out and about around Oslo, we found coffee shops at every street corner, many unique secondhand stores, and Scandinavian design shops. What impressed us the most was the city’s cleanliness and punctuality – though waiting for busses and trams in the cold was never pleasant, at least we knew that the public transport system operated on schedule, without fail.
We stayed in the hipster neighborhood of Grunerlokka with Roy, who hosted us in his apartment. (Side note, although I haven’t used Airbnb often, every experience I’ve had with it has been positive and so much more fulfilling than staying in a hotel). Roy was happy to answer questions about Norway, give his opinions on American politics, and share his space with us. We found the kitchen was a great place to experience authentic Norwegian cuisine. Though we ate out very little, we found great fun in picking up an interesting piece of fish from the local fish market and cooking it ourselves. I even tried a cod roe dish that looked like a mixture between liver and tongue. It was fantastic fried up with onions and mushrooms.
The gastronomic highlight was the coffee. Oslo’s coffee culture is perhaps the city’s most striking feature. We couldn’t walk a block without finding a coffee shop, and even the chains served drinks that were much better than your average Starbucks. Decaf was non-existent. We tried to make a point of visiting the most authentic, single location shops, and at these we were served some of the best cups of coffee that I’ve ever tasted. I particularly enjoyed Henrix Ibsen, Supreme Roastworks, Fuglen, and Java, but the best shop by far was Tim Wendelboe. This tiny but elegant shop had two seats, roasting machinery right in the middle of the room, and a menu of six different single-origin coffee beans, which would be ground and hand-brewed right in front of you. The caffeine kept us going, but the quality of the coffee was what kept us coming back for more.
A few inches of snow in the city greeted us on our final morning. Walking the city streets reminded me of my final days in Germany during my gap year, when I was forced to ask myself: when will I be back to Europe? This trip was much, much shorter, but the excitement I felt was the same. And it’s nice to know that I won’t have to wait four+ years before I again make the trip across the pond. But more on that later.
I think there’s a lot we can learn from a country like Norway, especially at this hyper-political time. America does not have a relatively small, relatively homogeneous population, and Norway isn’t void of issues, either. But it was nice to see a place that seems to run smoothly, where the kids are all happy and bundled up in their full down winter outfits, where there is cleanliness, punctuality, and quietude, where people are cheerful even in the cold, dark winter months. We left with all smiles, knowing that we’d discovered a place that aligns with so many of our passions, interests, and opinions. Perhaps we’ll return down the road and travel even further north, skiing under the northern lights or running in the midnight sun.
Tomorrow, Maddie and I will depart for a week in Norway. It is now officially our February Break, and we will soon be five time zones away. This is by far the biggest trip we’ve taken together. I’ve had my fair share of adventures during my college years, but this is my first time returning to Europe since my gap year. All of my travels have been memorable, trips I would gladly take again – Florida, Colorado, and Cape Breton Island to name a few – but there is something irreplaceable about navigating a European city, deciphering a foreign language, and experiencing a place where everything is new and exciting.
Though we probably won’t see the Northern Lights, explore the furthest reaching fjords, or backcountry ski in the remote and rugged Norwegian mountain ranges, we look forward to cold days of outdoor adventures and cozy nights with good food and world-class coffee. As we discovered when looking into a Norway trip, the country is known for two of our favorite things: cross country skiing and coffee. Perhaps no where else in the world is there such an accessible location that offers such an ideal combination of urban and rural. We’ll be in Oslo most or all of the trip (our flight is direct from NYC), and from the city center, we’ll easily be able to take a train or bus up into the hills, where there are miles upon miles of cross country skiing trails. It’s Norway’s national sport, and subsequently, all of the trails are free to access and maintained regularly. There is even night skiing if we’re feeling up for it. Daylight is scarce this time of year, so we’ll have plenty of time in the mornings and evenings to visit cafes and food destinations.
I’m still coming to terms with the idea of taking a “quick trip to Europe.” The last time I was there was for five months, and the only other time was for four weeks. This will feel very different, but it is equally exciting. Hopefully we have smooth travels, an easy adjustment to the time-change, and a week of unforgettable days. No matter what, it will be an adventure, and I look forward to posting a recap upon our return.