A Brief Disclaimer
While what I did in Norway may categorically be defined as research, namely, a systematic investigation based on fact-finding, the reality of the matter is I spent my time reading books on my subject, talking to people about it, and doing a lot of observation. All of this took place over a very short period, and while I feel personally as though I have collected quite a bit of data, the sample size remains small indeed. I am no Norway expert, nor do I claim to be. This blog post is to give anyone who’s wondering some insight into how Norway’s very geography has shaped its people and their attitudes, as well as some general observations.
Norway’s vast mountain ranges are not simply a geographical feature. They affect how people make a livelihood, and how they connect with one another. The presence of mountains doesn't just mean an overabundance of natural beauty - it means that if people want to live in Norway, they also have to deal with the difficulties that come with being near mountains. Because of Norway's mountains, less than 10% of the country is actually arable. An overwhelming amount of bedrock (i.e., granite and gneiss) that is relatively resistant to erosion means, in many cases, very little viable soil that’s not in a thick enough layer to work with, in addition to the scarcity of flat land. The mountains I hiked through had little to no trees, maybe a few shrubs, and the most popular sight was hardy, spongy moss covering old granite landslide debris. Norway is gorgeous – so gorgeous that my words can’t do it justice – but it is hard as hell to live there. Or at least it seems that way to someone who’s used to driving through flat farmer’s fields for hours, wondering when they’ll give way to something interesting.
In addition to making life generally difficult, the mountains have also been the traditional divisions between Norwegian districts, since even in the southern parts of the country road passes across the mountains may close for the winter. I drove the Trollstigen in early June, when it had only been open for a few weeks; roads close for the winter in the mountains, where snowfall can be meters thick. The proliferation of local flights is the easiest way to get around quickly – driving the roads can take over three times as long, easily.
Cities are clustered on the flattened sections of coastlines and strewn across fields of islands wading out into the Atlantic, and subsequently population density takes a hit going inland. I didn’t really get it until I went there, but Norway’s incredibly low population density (14 people per km2 as of 2014 compared to the US’s 35/km2) makes quite a lot of sense once you realize a) how much of the country is taken up by mountains so harsh that they’re unlivable and/or for the average person, and b) most people cluster on the coast but Norway has hella coast so they end up spread out anyway. So much coastline.
Related to the challenges Norwegians face with the mountains is a less tangible concept – how Norwegians view hiking. There are hiking trails in Norway, and plenty of them at that, but I would caution anyone accustomed to hiking in the Alps or in American national parks to prepare themselves, because the trails are very sparsely marked. Moreover, many hiking trails run over granite massifs, where there is no footpath at all to follow. Trail markings often consist of red spray paint and logically-placed cairns, which are easy enough to follow but require much more attention than blindly following a well-worn path. You don’t zone out while hiking in Norway – not if you want to get where you’re going.
Norwegians, or at least the majority that I talked to, believe that hiking is more of an individual thing – if someone wants to go hiking, they go out and do it, with or without a trail. Going into nature is considered a solitary endeavor, something people will expend the effort to do regardless of whether many people have done the same thing in the same place before them. I respect and appreciate this state of mind, largely because it dovetails with how I think and feel about mountains and my experiences in them. There’s also just not that many people hiking in the same places as a result and, on the flip side, suddenly every mountain I see becomes an option if I want to climb it (and if I think it’s safe).
I’ve always believed that each person’s experience when they see and exist in the mountains is unique, and cannot be duplicated or understood fully by someone else. What you feel in the mountains is something that’s entirely you, and even when we explore the mountains with other people our journeys are ultimately very personal. Hiking without the sound of other people’s footsteps carried on the wind took getting used to, but in many ways heightened the experience for me. While I’m not saying that the Norwegian perspective on hiking and nature in general is inherently better than the American, I do think that it was a very nice change for me and could also be a positive experience for other people.
An additional tidbit – Norwegians, contrary to some other cultures I’ve traveled in, are not very responsive to strangers and rarely greet or acknowledge people they don’t know. This doesn’t mean they don’t like people – it’s just not a thing they do. Hiking is one of the few exceptions to this – while I didn’t see very many people on the trails with me, when we did meet in passing we did a traditional hiker’s greeting – “Morgen,” plus an awkward smile and head nod. The hiker greeting has followed me to every country I’ve hiked in, and it always makes me happy to see it transcend language and nationality.
It’s hard to explain just how weird it was to go from somewhere like Texas, where almost every lake is man-made, to Norway, where I was surrounded by water every single day (and not just on the islands, either). There’s the Atlantic ocean looming in the distance, the clear lakes dotting crystalline mountaintops – in one day of hiking I saw FIVE lakes, no joke – and, of course, the fjords themselves. In the days of driving through Møre og Romsdal, with my home base in Molde, almost every road had water on one side and mountains on the other. Water is ubiquitous; it’s everywhere, and it defines how a Norwegian (or an American geologist) gets around.
The Norwegian coastline is not a clean, neat thing like the Gulf of Mexico (my frame of reference for all coastlines ever thanks to the oil industry) or even the sinuous east coast. Glaciers and a unique geologic history involving the overwhelmingly crystalline rock and several different uplifts have created a coastline that has ranks upon ranks of islands large and small, and fjords stretching inland like innumerable watery tongues. Norway meets the sea in increments of smaller and smaller islands before yielding to its continental shelf, and people have colonized basically every island that they could. I was both impressed and astounded at the houses dotting the rolling granite mounds of the coast, more like rocky sand bars than real islands. Buffeted by winds, terribly cold in the summer, have to take a boat just to get groceries…. And yet they were beautiful, and people lived there.
The incredible amount of islands, and the people spread across almost all of them, has necessitated ingenious solutions for relatively easy island access, and for island hopping. Getting around on the Norwegian coast involves a combination of tunnels, ferries, bridges, and driving on some very windy roads. You haven’t lived until you’ve driven through a 3-km tunnel that the Norwegians built that goes underneath a fjord. They’re crazy, and they’re pretty common. Maintaining Norway’s infrastructure isn’t cheap – ferries run across major fjords for 20-ish hours every day, but there’s still a built in wait time, and the potential that the captain could accidentally run aground or otherwise damage the ferry. Massive ferries run from major cities, but slower, smaller ferries connect smaller towns and more sparsely populated areas. It’s exciting and different, until you ride five in one day and you have to wait 20 minutes if you’ve just missed one and all you want to do is go home. The alternatives of massive bridge and tunnels are incredibly expensive to build. The end result involves using all three, sometimes in the same commute. It’s not perfect, but it’s still incredibly innovative, really cool, and very impressive. And I’m kind of jealous of how well it works. The Houston buses don’t even make all their stops sometimes.
How does the Norwegian government afford all these cool tunnels and bridges? The answer is taxes – the best (and worst) parts of Norway. Because I come from a country where at least half the people are focused on avoiding taxes/making taxes as low as possible, it was fascinating being in country where taxes are a commonly used state tool. I’m not saying there’s a tax for everything… but they are well-used, and very effective. For example, there’s a tax on so-called “junk food,” there’s toll roads everywhere, and speeding tickets can take up to 10% of your income if you’re particularly egregious in your speeding. Honestly, it’s amazing, and pretty effective. Except for the junk food tax – lots of Norwegians just drive over to Sweden to buy massive amounts of chips and drive back, much to the chagrin of the Swedes.
Having such high taxes and a very involved government is another huge factor of Norwegian society, and I definitely found it interesting. For example, there’s tons of Teslas in Norway. There’s Tesla dealerships! I had never seen one before. They’re huge in Norway because the government offers tax breaks and free access to toll roads for Tesla owners, which has been incredibly effective in converting people over to electric cars. This would never, ever work in the US but I found it amazing. It makes quite a lot of sense when you’re confronted with multiple toll roads on a daily basis, as well as government-subsidized charging stations at gas stations and hotels. Norway is also… kinda rich in general, with an $18 billion state fund from their oil success that they’re mostly just sitting on to keep from flooding the market with cash (or something). Lofoten in particular is home to some of the richest villages in the world, accessible only by boat and private plane, populated by people driving Teslas. It’s surreal!
The flip side of the system delivers some pretty predictable problems, though. Because university is basically free (and I am so, so jealous y’all), pretty much every Norwegian youth goes to college, and not a lot of them are willing to do traditional blue-collar jobs as a result. In a fun parallel to the US, immigrants often fill these blue-collar positions instead, though the EU system with relaxed borders it much easier to work in a country other than one’s home nation. Swedes and eastern Europeans make up most of these workers, and while no one would say it’s outright an issue, it certainly raises tensions that an American might be familiar with. University might be free in Norway, but the cost of living remains high thanks to the high taxes, and for a visitor or a temporary worker who pay the taxes but can’t reap the benefits, it can be hard to afford a place to stay.
No country’s system of taxation (or government in general, for that matter) is perfect, but I found it fascinating to be in a country that takes such a different approach from my own. I’m certainly not qualified to discuss the pros and cons of each side here, but I certainly learned a lot about what taxes can accomplish with a government dedicated to enforcing them, as well as a much smaller populace (makes giving everyone healthcare/free tuition much easier).
Just kidding, but actually not. Try aquavit! I didn’t have time to talk about it here because this blog post became a monster.
I loved being in Norway, I really did. Basically everywhere I went was beautiful, and I very much identified with their approach to hiking. I miss seeing water every day, and I miss not seeing billboards because they don’t have any. Norway’s history is incredibly rich and long, and intimately tied to their environment. I recommend learning more about it in whichever way you choose, though I personally suggest not just reading the Wikipedia page but maybe finding an actual book or something. This blog post only scratched the surface of a fascinating place, and I hope that it inspires you to look into it more!
p.s. if you are under the age of 26 the Scandinavian airlines sell youth tickets, which are cheaper and 100% worth it. Check it out.