Act I: Karoline
LATE LAST AUTUMN, having found myself desk-bound and bereft, I clicked on a Salomon TV short, “Karoline,” about a Norwegian skijorer. The scene opened on a track sliced through a snowy steppe laden deep, the narrator — presumably Karoline herself — kicking and gliding in the middle distance as the risen sun reposed on a distant shield of snow.
You could tell it was fresh and cold, the snow, by the crisp splines of the track. You could practically hear the squeak of pole plants, feel the bite of wax, sense the spray of cold wind on cheeks and nose, and there she was, Karoline, skiing flawlessly in Salomon gear, from head to ski base.
“My name is Karoline Conradi Øksnevad,” she said, the words devoid of much inflection. But then, with greater emphasis: “You don’t know me. I am both no one and everyone.”
No one? In what sense? Everyone? I was pretty sure “everyone” wasn’t capable of skiing like Karoline. Was she invoking Heidegger, who wrote, “Everyone is the other, and no one is himself”?
“If I could live anyone’s life,” continued Karoline, single-kick double poling now, the camera closer, “I would still choose mine. Maybe it’s because where I live the sunrise is incredible,” she said as she strode across the aforementioned sun-kissed plateau. “A cold beauty. I know these colors by heart but it still amazes me every time,” referring, presumably, to the tangelo-colored sky. Then the music surged, and you just kind of knew that someone was going to break into song, which is precisely what happened next.
“I just can’t seem to come close,” crooned a male vocalist in a reedy tenor, as Karoline continued to ski.
“Been working so hard, I’m down to the bones
Still, I lose sight every day
Of a new sunrise, and another chance to change
Just trying to find my way…”
An interesting call and response, this. First, Karoline’s plainspoken declaration of purposefully lived existence. From the vocalist, a wheezy dirge of longing and spent dreams and a search, perhaps, for love, spiritual succor, or VC funding.
It went on like this for another three minutes, with Karoline alternately striding, and now skating, and now tucking down the combed snowfield as she continued to talk to the camera. She said, “You might find it weird, but nothing can replace the feeling of the fresh cold air in my face when I’m gliding through the beautiful winter landscape.”
“Hell no,” I said to no one in particular; “I don’t find that weird at all.”
Snow and rime flocked the stunted spruce. Amber dawn cast the drifts alongside the track a dusky magenta. Drone footage revealed the most immaculate unspooling of corduroy I’d ever seen, and Karoline was saying things like, “Where I live, there is not a lot of people, and that’s the way I like it.” Meanwhile, the background music welled, the raspy singer intoning what was now unmistakably a Christian rock ballad: “All of my senses give way; Heaven is all I can taste.” And then there was Karoline shoveling snow from her rural hilltop cabin, throwing another log on the fire, avowing that she wasn’t inclined to question her motives or to perseverate about the small stuff. “I just want to take the time to live – to enjoy life with my friends, my dogs, and my skis.” And sure enough, there she was, skiing with her dogs, which, it turns out, are German Shorthaired Pointer mixes in far superior shape than most North Americans. The vocalist, his senses now fully gone, droned on until Karoline, freshly returned from quaffing cocoa in frosty Lillehammer, said,
“I am nobody and everybody at the same time because I am sure there are many like me. Happiness is my way of life.”
The gestalt of this lost-found dialectic — the virtues of the outdoor life described by an outdoor athlete — versus the plangent wheeze of the spiritually dumbfounded singer — sank its little fangs into my nucleus accumbens. In short, it slew me. Oh yes, Karoline, I wanted to say: I am like you. Or was. While I had once cobbled together a life atop the Sierra Nevada’s mountains, rocks, and groomed xc trails — wooed there, in fact, by Allan Bard and Tom Carter’s multi-projector odes to the Range of Light’s high and wild back bowls — now I languished indoors, substituting Vitamin D for sunshine. If Karoline eschewed thinking for doing, I angsted about everything. If she lived the simple life, mine was freighted with a midden of emotional and physical furniture. If Karoline skied every day, I made only the occasional foray each winter. In short, my life looked a lot more like the crapped out vocalist’s than Karoline’s.
Here’s what I figured: Karoline’s tale was part of a bigger picture, a sort of Norsk version of how life should be lived, what with that rapturous and idiomatic notion of friluftsliv, the joy found in an outdoor lifestyle, and allemannsretten, the ability of every Norwegian to free-range across the land, fences be damned. But in pursuit of what? Their bliss, apparently. And what of langrenn, cross-country skiing, Norway’s national pastime, obsession, source of identity and national pride, home to the Real Birkebeiner and the town named Telemark; the birthplace of Norheim, Nansen, Amundsen, Heyerdahl, and Naess; the Olympians Daehli and Northug; Bjorndalen and Bjorgen; the ski gods Ullr and Skade, and some of the oldest glide-related archaeological finds on the planet. Was there something more going on here than mere kick and glide? Was there a hidden narrative in Karoline’s libretto which, once deciphered, might point the way to a more satisfying there, there? There was only one way to find out. I’d ask Karoline herself.
When the video ended, I scrolled back to the beginning. And when it ended the second time, I watched it a third.
Act II: Norge
On some level, I understood my brain (and soon my wallet) had been hijacked by an outdoor manufacturer’s native ad feed. I wondered why. I sent the link to “Leif”, who produces big-budget content marketing videos. “The goal with any good branded piece,” Leif explained, “is to make the viewer feel something—anything. The key is a nice mix of honesty and vulnerability without getting too purple,” he continued and then averred that with an evocative drop-needle track paired with the voice of, say, the late philosopher Alan Watts, you can milk tears from an alexithymic. While “Karoline” hadn’t brought me to tears, it had left me thoughtful and even wistful in the ways I’ve described, perhaps made aware of something precious I once possessed when younger but somehow lost. Leif found the video facile and forced. “But whatevs. That’s just me. If the XC ski world loved it, then more power to them.” I couldn’t speak for the community writ large, but I suspected that most would appreciate the snowy medium if not the message.
I also emailed my friend Nik Sawe, a Stanford environmental neuroeconomist who invites folks into MRI machines so he might peer at their brains (and philanthropic impulses) as he flashes images of iconic natural landscapes in front of them. Nik was struck by the video’s sense of scale, with the closeups of Karoline skiing followed by the panoramic drone shots. He surmised that prospect-refuge theory might be at play — the notion that humans gravitate to vast landscapes as long as they have a protected spot to view them from — and although he said that snowy scenes don’t evoke as strong a response as other kinds of landscapes, he thought that those depicted in “Karoline” would appeal to skiers like me.
I circulated the “Karoline” link pell-mell to determine the video’s location. Former USA national team sprinter Andy Newell recognized the landscape as the Ringsaker region, which lies athwart a resort area called Sjusjøen, about fourteen kilometers northeast of Lillehammer. “Most people in the skiing world know this place as the home of xc skiing,” Newell wrote me. “This is where it all started….the Norwegian Birkebeiner.” Newell hooked me up with his friend Petter Skinstad, an elite distance skier whose father, Åge, once chaired the Norwegian Skiing Federation’s langrenn division and whose godfather happens to be Bjorn Daehlie. The Skinstad family owns a hytte or cabin in Sjusjøen, and that’s where Petter and his younger brother, Mårten, can be found when they’re not off skiing some loppet somewhere. Skinstad, whom I’d eventually meet in Sjusjøen, made some inquiries. And suddenly I had a hytte of my own for a week.
I pinged Karoline through Facebook. Would she be willing to meet in Sjusjøen?
Her reply: “Sure.”
Act III: Holmenkollen
It’s early March in Oslo. No hint of buds on the espaliered trees set against quaint row houses in the Frogner District; just scant patches of brownish turf poking out of the skiff of icy snow otherwise blanketing Frogner Park. A group of kindergarteners and their instructors from the Fridheim Barnehage are treading Professor Dahls Gate in cross-country boots, the adults with ski bags slung over their shoulders. Yet little sunshine lights the faces today of the stolid, somber, well-built folks straight from the pages of Ibsen or Hamsun, their cashmere scarves tucked into trim navy and charcoal sport coats. No fluorescent “Look at me” fabric in sight, except perhaps on the many lycra-clad runners plying Oslo’s streets in the dimming snow-spitting day, or the ones kitted out in their Swix and Daehli and Odlo, wearing their racing boots on city streets and carrying their racing kit on the metro trains. Here in Frogner Park and the sculpture garden, the array of Gustav Vigeland’s nudes contorted into the various forms of flesh our molecules assume, all of them exceedingly powerful and uncannily pliable: did they hint at some national trait? Down on the Oslofjord sat Nansen’s Fram in the museum of the same name, along with the paeans to Amundsen and Heyerdahl, all three among the pantheon of explorers whose names conjured past glories: Ullr, Skade, the Vikings, the birch leggers, the berserkers.
And yet, at the annual Holmenkollen Ski Festival just up the hill, the nation’s flag painted on their cheeks and waving in their hands, the same Norwegians are partying hard on what is called Norway’s “second national day,” this one the Festival’s 127th anniversary. Up to 150,000 revelers have been known to spectate the three-day World Cup competition. Many make a weekend of it, pitching their lavvus in the Nordmarka woods. They wear plush Viking hats and clang cowbells, toot their mini vuvuzelas, spread their reindeer pelts on the snow, build campfires for their sausages on sticks. And yes, they imbibe mind-blowing quantities of alcohol. The Norwegians have a name for binge drinking: helgefylla. The prior year, in 2018, the press blamed helgefylla for the public brawling, the torn fences, the trampled gardens, and the shit show at the Holmenkollen train station — which would explain this year’s formidable police presence. An enormous sound system belts out American R&B, Euro electronica, and vintage pop (think the Village People).
The crowd in the ski jumping arena goes utterly batshit as the Norwegian Robert Johansson, aka The Flying Mustache, vaults 144 meters to set a new record on the Holmenkollbakken, one of Oslo’s most prized and visited structures (From a certain angle, the in-run looks like the growth curve of the country’s oil-based national wealth.) In the forest and the cross-country arena, tens of thousands cheer Sundby, Krueger, and Røtha during the 50k classic only to see the Russians sweep the podium.
The next day, in the pressroom, I hoovered the gratis spaghetti and ungulate balls while occasionally glancing up as Therese Johaug easily won the Ladies’ 30k: by nearly two minutes. No one else was watching intently either, and only a handful of reporters — I was one of them — attended the presser, because Johaug couldn’t possibly say anything that she hadn’t already said twenty times during a season in which she serially demolished the world’s best distance skiers. In fact, between Johaug, the young phenom, Johannes Høtsflo Klæbo, Sundby, and the rest, Norway’s team would handily take the points competition, beating second-place Russia by 4,000 points, and Sweden by 5,500.
Returning to my AirBnB by train later that day, I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged householder from Lillestrøm. I told her about Johaug’s victory. She shook her head and clucked her tongue. “It’s not good for the sport,” she said, explaining that Norway’s World Cup dominance made for boring spectating. Why watch when you know that your team will take the top five slots of any given World Cup race? I’d had a similar conversation the day before about the men’s 50k with a former member of Norway’s Nordic combined team. Rather than gnash his teeth about Russia’s sweep, he lauded the Russian’s victory for the same reason.
Was this an especial Norwegian attribute, this inclination to belittle that which they loved the most? Or was it faux shame regarding their embarrassment of langrenn wealth? I couldn’t see a diehard Patriots fan begrudging the Detroit Lions a Super Bowl victory because the loss made for a better football league. Or whatever.
Act IV: Petter Northug Jr. Meets the Law of Jante
Let’s not make more of this than necessary, but yes, there’s a strict Scandinavian moral code that disses the vainglorious. It has a name: The Law of Jante, or janteloven. The concept comes from Danish novelist Aksel Sandemose’s 1933 roman à clef, En flyktning krysser sitt spor (A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks). Indulge in self-aggrandizing, boastful behavior, perceive of yourself as worthy of special treatment, flout janteloven in other words, and brace yourself for censure. Some deny janteloven’s existence but still fall prey to it; others blame it for damping Norway’s greatness. Still, Scandinavians either deny it or acknowledge it, so janteloven, on some level, is alive and well. Just ask the country’s most famous — and unabashed — cross country skier.
On March 2, 2007, in Sapporo, Japan, a 21-year-old Norwegian by the name of Petter Northug Jr. was poised to ski the anchor leg of the 4 x 10 relay at that year’s world championships. Northug was on the cusp of being the next big thing but was vexed to learn he’d been passed up for the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics. Norway competed atrociously in those Games across all Nordic disciplines, and in cross-country, the team placed a mortifying fifth in the 4 x 10 — a national disgrace — and they took no golds. Northug was furious for being jilted, as were Norway’s rabid fans – especially after Northug podiumed post-Olympics, taking first and second in the pursuit in consecutive World Cup races. So both Northug and Norway had something to prove coming into that year’s championships. Still, sticking a kid on the anchor leg of Norway’s most beloved event in the world’s most important biennial cross country ski race, seemed an act of faith.
To cross country national teams, the World Championships, which come around every two years, are every bit as important as the Olympic games. And the 4 x 10-kilometer relay, with its two legs of classic and two of freestyle, demonstrates the fitness of an entire nation’s program. So it’s no small thing, the 4 x 10, and it’s a matter of national pride to win it. Especially when it comes to the Norwegians and Swedes, whose athletic antipathies border on the pathological. For a stateside analog, take the Michigan vs. Ohio State football rivalry, say, cast it back 500 years or more, and blow it up to Super Bowl proportions, and that’s not even close to being the equivalent.
I recall watching a YouTube of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) call of the Sapporo 4 x 10. Jon Herwig Carlsen and Kjell Kristian Rike were at the mic, with Carlsen’s gravelly bass and Rike’s nasally tenor, their fricatives and retroflex flaps crisscrossing and caroming off the glass of the broadcast booth. I hadn’t a clue what they were saying, of course, but the musicality of their duet had the effect of quickening my pulse as I watched what was about to unfold.
At the first switchover, Finland and France were in the lead, with Norway lagging by four seconds. By the third leg, Norway and Sweden were running neck-and-neck, with Russia two seconds back. By the fourth exchange — Northug’s leg — it was clear that Sweden, Russia, and Norway were racing for gold. In what would become a signature stratagem, Northug hung back, alternately poling and tucking behind Russia’s Yevgeny Dementyev. By the kilometer and a half mark, Northug had slipped around Dementyev and was dogging Sweden’s Anders Södergren. Then, at the end of the final technical downhill, Northug turned his head not once, but four times to check on the Russian. Apparently satisfied that he was in the catbird seat, Northug launched the kind of kick rarely seen in the history of the sport. After passing Södergren on the inside with four mighty V2s – dobbeldans in Norwegian -he tilted into ferocious V1 (padling), perhaps best described in Northug’s case as a berserker plunging a spear repeatedly into the mail jerkin of an enemy who had bled out long before. “Oy yoy yoy yoy,” the agitated Carlsen commenced to bellow, and more than once — rough translation, “Holy shit!” — and when Northug rounded the bend to the finish, with maybe 100 meters to ski, now quite alone, he raised both arms in triumph and pointed to the stands. As he approached the line, Carlsen, whose voice was whittled to a rasp because of all of those oy yoy yoys, screamed, “Du er i mål, du er i mål, du er i mål – AKKURAT DER!” rough translation, “You are crossing the line, you are crossing the line, you are crossing the line…RIGHT THERE!” meta translation, “Vindicated, vindicated, vindicated…REDEMPTION!”. Northug crossed RIGHT THERE and, according to the Norwegian daily Dagbladet, yelled, “Og æ ska itj til OL!?”, rough translation, “And I’m not going to the Olympics!?” meta translation, “Satisfied, beotches?!” It is said that most Norwegians can recite that minute-long interlude on command. Go ahead. Find that clip right now. And just for kicks, check out the Swedish broadcast of the same race. You’ll hear “Oy, yoy, yoy on that one, too, but in a completely different timbre.
Four years later, at the 2011 Worlds at Oslo, having lost the 4 x 10 to the Swedes in the 2010 Vancouver Games, Northug, now having achieved superstar status — he’d picked up a sponsorship from Red Bull in one of the richest deals in Norway’s sporting history — skied the 4×10 anchor leg again. Marcus Hellner, Northug’s bete noire, would ski the anchor leg for Sweden. Coming into the final hill before the finish line, Hellner and Germany’s Tobias Angerer on his heels, Northug launched another berserker attack. Skiing into the final stretch, trailed by Hellner, Northug would raise his left arm, turn his head right and left with his index finger across his lips in the universal shushing sign — meta translation — “Quit yer whining!” — and with Hellner bearing down on him, Northug hockey stopped in a fuck you gesture to Hellner before hopping across in first. Four years later, a year after Sweden humiliated Norway at the Sochi Games, Northug would drag race Calle Halfvarsson to the line in the 4 x 10. He’d take four golds that week. It was his last standout performance. He retired from World Cup competition in 2018.
Those were swell moments, Northug igniting an entire nation like that. And I rather doubted that he viewed himself as everyone and no one.
Seen through janteloven, the Lillestrøm householder’s demurral emanated from janteloven, and Karoline’s “no one and everyone” a concession to the same; Northug’s “Og æ ska itj til OL!?” an outright rejection of it. This year Red Bull and Northug, who is still a celebrity, debuted a race he calls the Janteloppet. The logo is Northug giving the raspberry to janteloven…and his haters for flouting it.
Act V: Sjusjøen
Tone Altersjkær, Visit Sjusjøen’s executive director, apologized in advance for her slow driving, and then hauled ass out of Lillehammer on frosted roads. I struggled to keep her in sight in my rental car. Altersjkær, a 49-year-old mother of five, moved with her family from Oslo to Sjusjøen for the small-town life, but she’s logging big city hours to promote the region — 5,000 hyttes and growing — and the sporting life that centers around langrenn, biathlon, and Sjusjøen’s 350 kilometers of groomed trails. A vitrine adjacent to Altersjkær’s office holds Martin Johnsrud Sundby’s 2016 Tour de Ski trophy. Sundby, apparently, is a Sjusjøen habitue and hytte owner.
I followed Tone uphill — Sjusjøen is about 2,000 feet higher than Lillehammer — to the front of a cedar-cladded cube: my hytte for the next five days. She opened the door to a 400-square-foot studio, the room paneled with blond wood — each end flanked by two ladders climbing steeply to separate sleeping lofts – plus a small wood stove, a compact gourmet kitchen, and a picture window facing southwest, toward the Sjusjøen Skisenter, one of two cross-country/biathlon venues. I hopped into Tone’s car for a quick tour of the resort community: a restaurant or two, a couple of inns, a small downhill ski area, a large supermarket, and sporting goods store, the last two just downslope of the Sjusjøen Langrennsarena, the town’s main cross-country trailhead. The closest thing to Sjusjøen I’ve seen in this country is the Methow Valley, but without the bulwark of a Cascadian range as the backdrop: the mountains here are rounded, the inclines gradual. And there’s no main lodge in Sjusjøen because most Norwegians ski out of their homes.
After Tone dropped me at the cube and told me to call her if I needed anything, I changed clothes, grabbed skis, and walked a couple of hundred yards to the track system. No trail pass required here — or anywhere else in Norway.
The air was still now. No sound save the chirping of jays in the frosted conifers, the scene backgrounded by a steel wool sky. I sighted up a swath of immaculate track and clipped into loaners from Madshus. I skated uphill slowly, trying to find the internal 2-1 time signature the Norwegians call padling, and we call V1, and realized I was gliding on storied ground, the birthplace of modern skiing. And just for a moment, before being subsumed by the blissful rhythm of padling, I remembered that somewhere back home there was a gold cross-country pin, courtesy of the Professional Ski Instructors of America, which might have signified, I don’t know, my devotion to the sport years before. But here, in the geography owned by the world’s greatest free-heel athletes, I felt self-conscious and unworthy. Whoever groomed this track, whoever occupied these hyttes, were, after all, descended from the Vikings — the former worshippers of Ullr, the god of skiers, and Skade, Ullr’s female counterpart — whose fellow countryman, Fridtjof Nansen, traversed Greenland on skis in 1888. Nansen’s crossing coincided with the country’s need for a Norwegian paragon who embodied the national character — a latter-day Viking — at a time when the country yearned to self-govern and was mining every conceivable example of the nation’s distinctive culture to differentiate Norway from Denmark, and especially Sweden, its then occupier. Even Nansen’s account of the expedition, Paa Ski over Grønland, promulgated skiing not merely as a sport but as a folkway: a kind of elixir for body and mind. An ideal called ski-idrœt. The ideal took, obviously. That was Karoline’s heritage. Could it be mine for the taking, too?
I came to a fork. One branch sloped steeply toward the old farming community of Romåsen, now a cluster of vacation homes and ski trails bisecting a mist-wreathed moor. The other one pointed the way to Birkebeinerløypa, the Birkebeiner trail. I took that one.
The 54-kilometer Birkebeinerrennet Trail traverses two low mountain ranges, from Rena in the east to Lillehammer in the west, and cleaves Sjusjøen in two. It’s the same one that is skied by 16,000 mostly Norwegian ski runners each March. That race, the original Birkebeinerrennet, is more a national ritual than race — not only because it commemorates a legend pivotal to Norway’s heritage — the rescue of the infant Prince Håkon Håkonsson in 1206 by the birch-legged skiers, Torstein Skevla and Skjervald Skrukka — but it also serves as reminder each spring that cross-country skiing – once a mere mode of transportation over snow, is a folkway that reveals the national character. There’s no recreational analog in America’s creation myth. Hunting bears, maybe, or lumberjacking, or driving from New York to California real fast.
After 20 minutes of skiing, the clouds lowered and I turned tail. When I reached the junction, my up-tracks had been smoothed by a machine that had not so much dragged but extruded the snow. The smoky blue rails shot up toward Romåsen and then disappeared into the gloaming.
Act VI: Karoline Redux
At 11 am the next morning, the gray Peugeot from the “Karoline” video hove into view. Then I heard the crunch of its studded tires on snow, the killing of its engine, the rasp of hinges as the car door opened and a thwump when it closed. The scritch of boots on shoveled snow. An assertive but not overly forceful rapping on the cube’s door. On the other side of it: the video’s protagonist, presumably.
I’d come to think of the video as a fiction, more to defend myself against disappointment than anything else. But I’d discerned something of Karoline through a flurry of introductory and prefatory IMs and emails, which led me to believe that the Karoline depicted in the video might not be too far from Karoline herself. She had demurred, for example, when I offered letters of introduction, writing, “I generally trust people are who they say they are.” (Her command of English, like most Norwegians, is excellent.) She readily agreed to hitch me to one of her dogs so I might give skijoring a flyer. And yep, no problem: we could ski some of the same terrain featured in the video. Meanwhile, I made excuses about my sorry physical fitness, warned her that she’d have to wait for me on hills, and made gratuitous mention of my quite happy 21-year marriage. But I’d noticed that a week or more would go by before Karoline responded to emails.
Now she’d fulfilled her end of the bargain by showing up on time and knocking on the cabin’s door.
“Hey, how are you,” I said, flinging it open, as though I were the local and she the out-of-towner. As I motioned for Karoline to take a seat at the cube’s sole table, I detected something in her bearing, her smile, as if she were saying, hey, I get what you’re doing here and I don’t judge it. Then I thought of the line, “I could pass many hours playing with my dogs, shoveling snow in front of the house after a big snowfall, put a log on the fire, or drink a cup of tea….”
I threw no log into the woodstove. I had no tea, so I offered coffee. And then, nursing a couple of mugs, we fell into a conversation like a couple of kindred spirits who happened to have the weird good fortune to be traveling the globe during the same chronological hiccup and simply needed an excuse to connect. Karoline is 32. Her longtime boyfriend is Lucas Chanavat, the twenty-five-year-old French sprinter. She lives in Lismarka, a small village just downslope from Sjusjøen. Between the European and World Dog-Skiing Championships, she’s medaled eight times, twice on the topmost podium, and has won many more She’s also a former world champion in bikejoring. dog-skiing medals She is finishing a master’s degree in leadership. She is writing a thesis about sustainable business practices. She told me that school occupies 150 percent of her time, and I observed that was impossible unless she was living in spacetime. She stuck to her guns: 150 percent studies, 100 percent training and dogs, 25 percent paid work, and another 25 percent unpaid work. I suggested she attempt to work this out on a pie chart. She laughed.
We talked until the sun dipped into the picture window. We decided to ski. There was a dog in Karoline’s van— a mauve, muscular guy by the name of Arnold — so while Arnold keened and yipped, I loaded my gear into the Peugeot, and we drove to the Langrennsarena. We clipped in and skated off — sans Arnold — up the wide Birkie trail thick with coaches and athletes testing kick waxes for the upcoming Birkie.
It was afternoon, not dawn, and it was nearly spring, not the thick of winter, but here were the same snow-flocked trees, the same distant domed summits, the same concatenation of perfectly groomed track I’d seen so many times in the video, and I sort of deja vued right there, because I’d already occupied those scenes in my mind’s eye. And Karoline’s skating was lovely, not in a muscular, forced way, but as second nature; something she had done, after all, since she was two.
I needn’t have worried about my fitness. The skis were fast, the terrain was mostly gentle, and Karoline waited as I gasped up one named promontory, Mostfjellet, and once on top had a drone-like view of the same snowy countryside from the video, the same imbrication of one forested fjellet giving way to another. Storied geography. Birch legger country. We took selfies and tucked and poled back to the busy Birkebeinerrennet trail. She dropped me at the cube. I wished her luck in an upcoming race — Norway’s national skijoring championships — and we agreed to meet up in a few days. Barely four hours in, I felt I’d known Karoline for a lot longer than that.
I didn’t race the Birkie that weekend; instead, I watched as a steady stream of mostly Norwegian citizen racers wearing the required 7.7-pound pack — a stand-in for the corpus of the baby prince Haakanson — as they kicked and glided west toward Lillehammer, most of them with the style and grace of teaching pros. Here, in little Sjusjøen, a miniature Holmenkollen Festival had sprung up trackside. Onlookers poised on their reindeer and elk pelts, same campfires, same sausages, same cheering (Hi-ya hi-ya hi-ya), same rowdy tunes, same party atmosphere.
Act VII: In Lismarka
A few days later, at the selfsame adorable cottage I’d seen in the video, this time sipping chamomile and munching homemade brioche, I would read Karoline the video script nearly sentence by sentence, and ask “What precisely did you mean when you said…” and so on, not attempting to entrap her exactly, but also trying to detect maybe a skosh of artifice. Missing from the video, of course, were the bits not in keeping with flogging ski gear, like how despite being a champion musher, Karoline works three or four odd jobs to make ends meet. Or how she was felled by chronic fatigue syndrome in her early 20s. Or of how she lost 18 pounds off of her slim frame in the three weeks as she endured and then ended an abusive relationship.
“The video represents a big part of my life but not all of my life,” said Karoline, who co-wrote the script with a French videographer. “Of course I have stress in my life with the studies and exams and things like this. I feel like this is one of today’s problems with social media. That you always see the perfect side of people’s lives and then you’re ok, why is my life not like this?”
Karoline told me that she’d received plenty of comments on social media from viewers moved to imitate her life. (“That’s it folks. I’m moving to Norway,” wrote one. “Yearning for this kind of existence,” wrote another. “Omg, can I marry her?” wrote yet another.) But she was also dissed by viewers who suspected marketing legerdemain. “Karoline looks like she’s well looked after, somethings missing [sic], who pays for the house and hot chocolates… Lottery win or a nameless benefactor maybe!?” Karoline replied to that one. “I’m what you can call a semi-pro athlete, which means 100% of the effort and 0% of the money.”
It’s true. Despite the country’s obsession with the Nordic disciplines, skijoring doesn’t come close to attracting the same kind of following as the others. The rewards are slim. So she lives penuriously. “I barely shop for clothing or these kinds of things,” she says. She pointed to her furniture, what there was of it, which she told me either came with the house when she purchased it, or she bought used. Her oven was broken. Her car needed repair. She gets help from a few sponsors — Rossignol and Non-Stop Dogwear the most significant of them — but she gets by, thanks largely to Norway’s social safety net, funded in large part by oil.
As for the Salomon video? Karoline received nothing, aside from the clothing and skis she wore during the shoot. “I think I got ripped off there,” she says with an embarrassed laugh. She says she’s not good at advocating for herself when it comes to money. She sold the schwag for kroner. She did one more modeling gig for Salomon in Annecy, where she lives part of the year with Chanavat.
Of her relationships, one of the most significant was with a non-human animal, her first real racing dog, Pluto, whom she buried in 2016 after raising him from a puppy. “People talk about soulmates,” she tells me, “but if that’s a thing, then he was one of my soulmates, yeah.” She adopted Pluto in 2004. He was skittish, not easy to train, but his potential as a skijoring partner was evident. Karoline and Pluto began to rack up medals: She says that Pluto’s athleticism led to podiums, starting with three in her first year of racing as a junior. In fact, the great majority of her podiums came during the Pluto years. Pluto died a few months after the video was made. “I knew the time was coming and everyone knew that when that day came I would bleed inside.” She shuttered herself inside her home, alone, for three days.
Karoline spends a lot of time alone, she and her “four-legged children,” as she puts it. One of the video lines had her saying, “Where I live, there is not a lot of people, but that’s the way I like it.” I joked that Norwegians were notoriously insular, inclined to keep their own company, preferably far from others. Karoline laughed, affirming the truth in that. “But once we know you, we’re really friendly.” I asked her how I’d do in that department: would I be accepted were I to relocate to Sjusjøen? “You love skiing, you love the outdoor life, so you fit right in; you’re one of us,” she told me.
And then, “I don’t ask myself too many questions,” went the script. “I just want to take the time to live, to enjoy life with my friends, my dogs, and my skis. I don’t want to waste time on things that don’t matter, but rather focus on the things that make my life complete.” Sure – I got it: Karoline invested her life energy into what mattered most and didn’t second-guess her priorities. As a serial neurotic prone to overdoing everything, that notion appealed to me. A lot. But taken another way, those lines suggested solipsism, narcissism or both — which effectively undermined the video’s thesis: that happiness derives from living a simple but rich life built around a cross-country trail system. I shared the video with a friend, the take-no-prisoners environmental writer Christopher Ketcham, who wrote, “This is also, as it happens, the message of corporatocracy: don’t think too much; don’t ask questions; retire into your private satisfactions and focus on your navel; forget about the larger ‘things’ that ‘don’t matter’— namely the power structures around us that are leading the fucking planet and our society to suicide.”
Norway’s wealth, of course, is courtesy of the same substance that not only fueled my airliner to Oslo but also is leading to the diminution of snowpacks everywhere. But to the Norwegians, ski idroet, friluftsliv, allemansratten: all are cultural ideals, folkways, that suggest the primacy of human-in-nature. When I asked Karoline about those lines, she simply said, “I try to use the money on things that make my life better, not stuff that you don’t need to have.” This was an exceedingly millennial-esque (and classically Norwegian response with respect to frugality, although Karoline reported that some of her friends have become as enmeshed in the rat race and material culture as any Type-A American): to invest in experiences — friluftsliv — rather than on things. Writ large, that’s a powerful prescription for the physical and mental health of a nation, along with the health of that upon which friluftsliv is built: natural landscapes. To a certain extent, that’s true. Norway ranks first among nations when it comes to renewable energy production. And according to the Good Country Index, a measure of a nation’s overall efforts to “harmonise their domestic and international responsibilities more effectively,” Norway is first out of 153 countries in its contribution to Planet and Climate. (The U.S. ranks ninety-fifth.) Still, when it comes to the natural environment, its abundant oil reserves translate into “It’s complicated.”
After a few hours, Karoline’s doorbell rang. “That’s unusual,” she said. It turned out to be a door-to-door fish salesman whom Karoline had never seen. She didn’t buy any, but she liberated her dogs from the house. From behind a door labeled Om hunden angripper — ligg stille til hjelpen kommen — rough translation – If the dog attacks lie quietly until help comes — out scrambled Skurk, a piebald male, Marley, a female, and of course Arnold. We watched as they romped in the snow. Afterwards, I suggested that we grab a bite in Lillehammer, so we drove into town and resumed the conversation in a beer cellar. Still, I wanted to ask Karoline about the one line from the video that had poleaxed me from the start: “I am both no one and everyone.” I loved the hint of the phenomenological in that sentiment, but seen through Norwegian cultural norms, I wondered whether it served as an escape clause of sorts, thanks to the janteloven. When I asked Karoline this, she laughed and admitted that janteloven was “in there, sure,” but also because she knows many who live as she does: simply. And outdoors. Mostly.
Act VIII: Friluftsliv
The next morning, my last in Sjusjøen, I drove to the Lansgrennarena, where Karoline was waiting with Marley and the monstrously muscular Arnold. We clipped into skating skis and she hitched me to Arnold, whose initial lurch had me on my ass. But then we were off, cruising down the Birkie trail at 20 miles an hour in a confluence of human-canine gearing that resulted in a 15k personal best by, I don’t know, 15 minutes?
Karoline and I hugged. I wouldn’t be seeing her again. At least not soon. I wished her the best, told her I’d be in touch. I retreated to the cube, and later, to my home.
Burning precious airline miles, cadging a hytte, adding the indentations of my loaner skis to Sjusjøen’s trails, torching hard-earned money on exorbitantly priced chicken nuggets: had I found anything remotely friluftslivian in Norway? I’d seen the national ski team kicking and gliding and ski flying to the Village People’s Y.M.C.A.; I’d seen thousands of fans weaving in and around the forests of Holmenkollen, ribbons of wood smoke rising from their lavvus; I’d seen the pellucid blue eyes of Therese Johaug at close range, as she told me, “They say Norwegians are born with skis on their feet,” and then, when I wondered why Norwegians spend so much time outdoors, said, “I think Norwegian people are better than that than people from the U.S., maybe;” I’d seen the perfect classic technique of thousands of Birkebeinerrennet campaigners, and, after an hour of waiting for the also-rans, realized they weren’t coming; I’d seen Osloans boarding trams in their ski attire, heading for the Frognerseteren trailhead; I’d seen enough of the expressions of pure animal joy on the faces of Karoline and other Sjusjøenites, most of whom have made a life on ski trails and wouldn’t trade their lives, as Karoline said in the video, with anyone.
So. Had I acquired anything friluftslivian in Norway? Returned to the dark office where I had discovered Karoline’s manifesto, eyes gone dim and neck and shoulders regressed to their former kyphotic slump, I concluded that I had, although the half-life had been short. Apparently, I am nobody and everybody at the same time, because there are many like me. Indeed, there are.
A shorter version of this story was published in the Autumn 2019 issue of Cross Country Skier Magazine.
Many thanks to Petter Skinstad, Andy Newell, Tone Altersjkær, Madshus skis, and of course, Karoline Conradi Øksnevad.
A longtime habitué of the Sierra, Sustainable Play’s founding editor, Brad Rassler, enjoys writing about the science and sociology of adventure. At home in the foothills of Nevada’s Carson Range, he and his partner, Jane Grossman, raise neither children nor chickens.