It was my husband who nudged me out of bed at 4:30 a.m. on a chill June morning, the sun already shedding a gray light over the tops of the fjord walls, striking the waters of the Naeroy Fjord a deep metallic blue, the goats (or sheep as our host called them) neighing already, the low tinkle of their tin bells rousing ravens from rest, who came, as they had each morning of our stay here south of the famous Sogne Og Fjordane, to beat their wings against the glass of the kitchen door. They ensured, along with the never darkness, that I would not sleep this whole visit. But it didn’t matter because I was endlessly awake—the persistent daylight keeping me roused, this strange Norwegian landscape that let me read books till midnight by the light of a window.
Something made me not want to get out of bed, uncomfortable as it was this narrow cot in an old farm cottage. Perhaps it was the desire to perpetuate a little longer the sense of not quite being there yet, not quite being in the place where history for me began.
But I knew I had to rise. We had a roundtrip journey of some 700 kilometers ahead of us, a five-hour drive just to get there…to the little village below Naerem Mountain where my great-great-grandfather was born, the same village where his future wife was baptized, she who would cross the ocean four years after him, carrying a folded wedding dress in her trunk, waiting to start life anew. And they never came back, never looked back. I was to be the first—the first in our family to come home and see the graves of their fathers and mothers, my ancestors, the ones who, no doubt, had prodded them to go.
Knud Knudson Nerem, the man I knew only from yellowed black and white photographs, with the dapper handlebar mustache, straight white hair poking out from under a driver’s cap, and that always near mischievous smile, came to Anne Township, Minnesota, in 1884, when he was 31 years old. When he died at age 82, escaping the Great Depression that would test the mettle of his American-born sons and daughters, he was a prosperous landowner and farmer, celebrated in his obituary as one of the community’s first pioneers. Yet back in Norway, he was only a simple cotter’s son.
I think of him and of his wife, Locina Andersdatter, and how brave they must have been to leave their families, cross the Atlantic, knowing there would never be any coming back, not for them anyway, and enter a world as foreign as is Norway sometimes to me. Yet what it must have been to see that black soil of southwest Minnesota and the endless flatness. No, not beautiful as was the place where they were born, which must be one of the most beautiful places on earth, but rich, as rich as anything they ever could have imagined even from all the letters that came across the water claiming here was a land where all men had a chance. No mountains, no cliffs, no rocks—just acre after shimmering acre of flat ground rife with some of the world’s most fertile soil and waiting for a willing man and a willing woman to take a plow to it, carve it open, and unleash the generations that would follow, each one standing a little higher than the last.
And today, today perhaps, I thought, as I lay blinking into the silver light streaming in the window over the bed, staring quietly at the steel and shadow dappled walls of the fjord walls outside, will be the day when I can stand before my great-great-great grandfather’s grave and say, “Thank you for sending your son across the sea.”
Stay tuned for a full recounting of my 24-hour road trip through the fjord country of west-central Norway, including visiting the Boyabreen Glacier, Romsdals Fjord, the Trollstigen, Geiranger Fjord, the stave kirke at Lom, Jotunheim, the Tindevegan, and famous Laerdal Tunnel. Think it can’t be done? You just haven’t had enough caffeine….