September 05, 2006

Stuck in Norway

It was our last day in Norway. Over the course of a week, my mother, sister, Linda, and I had covered 1,700 miles of the country’s back roads, negotiating scores of twisting, high altitude, hairpin-filled routes that brought us through some of the world’s most pristine landscape.

I drove, Linda rode shotgun, and my mother camped out in the back seat, crouching on the floor with her eyes closed whenever we found ourselves clinging to some piece of precariously pitched gravel or asphalt with a 500-foot drop just outside the window.

I’m pretty good at mountain driving, and had a blast with most of it, but there were patches, like the thin, nailbitingly vertical stretch of Route 13 just outside Dale on the way to Voss that forced me to keep reminding myself that if I lost it, if I panicked for an instant, we’d plunge over the edge. Sobering. (For some reason, my mother didn’t crouch on the floor during this stretch. She took this one sitting up. The pressure! My mother’s petrified face staring at me in the rearview mirror.)

So, our last road trip, a flat little jaunt from Oslo to Frederikstad on the Swedish border seemed, at its outset, to be a motoring piece of cake. We’d been through the tough stuff and had conquered Norway’s peaks and valleys from the North Sea to just shy of the Arctic Circle. What could possibly happen on this happy little traipse to old Frederikstad, a remarkable and remarkably preserved walled city that dates from 1567?

From Frederikstad, we followed mild-mannered Route 110, the Oldtidsveien, or Highway of the Ancients, a road that links a chain of Bronze and Iron Age archaeological sites. We took in Hunn, a massive prehistoric burial site with some dozen stone circles set on a hillside, purple wildflowers growing between the graves. At Solberg, we walked among boulders etched with 2,500-year-old carvings, many of ships.

There was one more site I wanted to see, so I turned off the highway onto a farm road, following the sketchy directions in my guidebook. A bus came roaring down the road in our direction, and I pulled off to the shoulder to let it pass.

But there was no shoulder. The right side of the car sank into a drainage ravine that ran alongside the road. The locals know the drainage ditch is there, so there’s no need to advertise it, nor is there any need to mow the high grass that hides it from view. Only the clueless get stuck.

We heard a crunch, a break. I’d split a plank that was laying down there in the gully. My mother jumped out of the back seat, exiting via the right side. The open door wedged itself into the grass and muck and stuck there, open. The car’s left wheels were off the pavement, and Linda and I gingerly catapulted ourselves from the vehicle, exiting stage left.

A fine kettle of fish. What should have been the trip’s most uneventful excursion had suddenly become drama-filled. How would we get out of this? Would we make it back to Oslo in time to catch our plane home? How ugly – and expensive -- would my encounter with the rental car people be?

Within a minute, a car pulled beside us. In perfect English, the farmer behind the wheel said he couldn’t stop – an agrarian emergency demanded his immediate presence – but he pointed to his farmhouse and said, “Get one of my boys to pull you out with the tractor.” He drove away. A bus stopped to have a look at us, and the driver appraised the situation. He confirmed that “you will not get out without a tractor" and drove away.

My mother and I walked to the farm, and Linda stayed with the car. As we entered the farmyard, the world erupted into a cacophony of mooing. The dozens of cows in the barn burst into wild moos that scared and delighted me. Had we tripped some invisible bovine-warning wire? Had these cows been trained as guard cows? The air was swirling and swelling with raucous, graceless moos. Those girls were loud!

Then the dog went wild. He was tied up to the front of the farmhouse, and he let loose, as if he’d saved all his life’s barking for that single moment. A barn full of bovine wildwomen and a canine wildman at the front door. What would the farmer’s sons be like?

We called, “Hello! Hello!” We saw people inside the farmhouse looking at us from the windows. We waved to them. We pointed to the stuck car, looking silly and sad with its right flank kissing the dirt and its left flank airborne. The people watched us, but didn’t come out.

We couldn’t get closer to more thoroughly explain ourselves because the dog was in the way. He wanted to eat us. The cows wailed in the barn. The dog growled maniacally. We had raised the decibel level at this farm by major degrees. (Linda later told us that as she waited with the car, she heard not only the barnyard riot at our savior farm, but at other farms down the road. “They were all bellowing! All mooing!”)

Finally, after we’d stared at this family for what seemed like an uncomfortable and humiliating hour but was likely five minutes, the door opened and the farmer’s wife came out, smiling, flanked by two unsmiling teenage sons. She looked up the road at our car and laughed. The serious boys readied the tractor, gathered up a huge chain, and sputtered off to the car. We walked.

“Do you do this often for tourists?” I asked the farmwife. “In winter,” she laughed, amused that I’d managed to stage our mishap in the dry, unslippery, hazard-free off-season. Unlike her cows and dog (and sons), she enjoyed visitors and said she was having a group of 4-H kids, some from the U.S., stay at her farm over the upcoming weekend.

When we got to the car, some farmers were discussing the boys’ skill in hitching our vehicle and towing it out of the ditch. The boys had clearly done this before (in winter).

After the car was resurrected and righted, I handed the boys some money. That made them smile, but just barely. We tooted, waved and drove off.

Tricky little road, that flat stretch out of Oslo.