Several hours into the hike, with my heart feeling it was going to explode right out of my chest, I stopped once again at the side of the trail to let a wave of people pass me by and tried to slow my breathing down, which was coming in huge, embarrassing gulps and wheezes. “For God’s sake,” I told myself, “this isn’t frickin’ Tibet. Get a grip. What the hell?? Why can’t you do better than this?”
Everything hurt. Old hiking aches and pains I thought I’d put behind me years ago had resurfaced like the original insult was yesterday—my right knee from that steep descent in the Cascades more than 20 years ago, the arches in my feet from developing plantar fasciitis, my lower back from a blown disc (the pain of which never really went away), and even my neck from the weight of my camera that now felt like an albatross. I looked miserably up ahead at the trail, which wound ever upward, hoping for some sign of a change in terrain or that I was getting close. And I felt humiliated—hikers of every size, shape, and age were passing me by, and seemed to be racing up that mountain, making me feel like I was a 90-year-old lady with a walker who had no business on a trail like this. I finally asked a fellow hiker who was passing me in the opposite direction, already on his way down, “Can you give me some idea how close I am to the top?” He slowed down, gave me a pitiful look, looked backwards up the trail, and said, “Sorry, you’re not even halfway yet.”
Sometime in the early 1990s, I was dating Bill, the man who would become my second husband. He was also a geologist and working for ExxonMobil, and he made an enviable business trip to Stavanger, Norway, where EM had offices. Stavanger was Norway’s equivalent to Houston, Texas: their nation’s oil and gas capital (and still is today). All the major oil and gas companies had an office there, and their own national oil companies also had their headquarters in Stavanger. I don’t remember the specifics of the reason for the business trip—Bill must have been assigned to some project having to do with the North Sea. But, being no idiot, he arranged to take a few vacation days after his official duties were over with to do some hiking in the famous region around Stavanger, and specifically to climb to the top of Preikestolen, or in the English translation, “Pulpit Rock.”
Preikestolen is considered the most iconic natural landmark in Norway, and at the end of 2020, the trail up to the top was certified as a Norwegian Scenic Hike, giving it certain distinctions and protections in Norway. From the top of the bluff straight down to the fjord waters below (and it is straight down) is 604 meters (0.375 mile) and the web site says that “the moderate-difficulty trail is 8 kilometers (4.97 miles) long and takes 4 to 5 hours, round trip.” More on that later.
When Bill returned from his trip and showed me his slides of this glorious hike and the fantastic views from the top of this cliff, I was beside myself with envy! I truly had never seen a place more beautiful and I was SO jealous that he got to do such a thing without me—indeed, that he worked for a company that would send him to such amazing places. I remember him telling me how his vertigo had gotten the better of him at the top, and he didn’t dare walk right up to the edge and look over the cliff like a lot of the other tourists were doing, that he had to get down on his belly and literally crawl up to the edge and peek over. And still I was envious—absolutely, totally, positively green with envy. Someday, I vowed, I would take that hike.
As life would have it, Bill and I did get married and took a lot of fantastic trips together, but Norway was never one of them. After being together a total of about 14 years, we split up and went our separate ways. We both continued our love of travel and adventure, we just weren’t doing it together anymore.
Fast-forward about 25+ years and I’m seeing 60 directly in my headlights. I was living alone down in Rockport, Texas and wondering how I should celebrate this huge milestone bearing down on me. I had a ton of frequent flier miles saved up and decided I should do something special with them, maybe go somewhere I’ve never gone as a birthday present to myself. I had been part of the Home Exchange program for almost 10 years and that really helped enormously with travel expenses as well—when you don’t have to pay for a place to stay, wow you can save a ton of money, especially overseas. So early in 2017, I decided on a week in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and a week in Norway, two places I had never been. In Amsterdam I would try to find a place in the city center so I could be as close as possible to all the cultural and artsy things I wanted to see, and in Norway, of course, I wanted to be out in nature, touring their fantastic countryside and fjords, first and foremost being the Preikestolen hike.
My research told me that August was a great time to travel to both places because the weather would still be warm, and if I aimed for the last two weeks of August, it was likely that summer vacations would be winding down and the natives would be heading back home to get kids ready for school. So that’s basically what I planned: I would leave around August 15 or so, spend a week in Amsterdam, then travel to Norway to spend the last week of August there. I had so many frequent flier miles that I was even able to get business class tickets for the overseas portion of the trip, both going there and coming home!
However, finding home exchanges that fit into these plans proved to be extremely difficult, as it turned out. Time and time again I got turned down in Amsterdam; simply no one wanted an exchange for Rockport, either in the same time frame in August or in a future time slot (they did not have to be simultaneous exchanges). In Canada or other parts of the US, Rockport was an easy sell, being a quiet beach town on the Gulf Coast. But maybe, because Amsterdam was already surrounded by water…? I just wasn’t sure, but that might have been part of it. For that leg of my journey, at any rate, I ended up having to purchase a hotel/B&B, which turned out to be very nice, so I was not that disappointed. (More on my Amsterdam trip in another story.)
In Norway, I couldn’t find an exchange directly in Stavanger, but I did find one in Sandnes, which was a smaller town near Stavanger. In fact, this was not a true exchange where I would have the house to myself, but a hosting situation. A lovely family responded positively, who told me they couldn’t leave because their children were in school (they had two high-school age boys) but they had an extra room and they would be happy to host me, if I would be comfortable with that. Well, I had never done that before but I was certainly willing to try it. I ended up staying with them for a little more than a week and it turned out to be a wonderful experience.
The couple’s names were Inger and Sigurd, and they told me that after my plane lands in Stavanger on August 23, they instructed me as to which bus to take to Sandnes, and that they would pick me up at the bus stop when it arrives at Sandnes. They said, “one of us will be there in our gray Tesla.” I remember my eyes popping open a bit when I read that: “A Tesla! These people are doing all right!”* I thought. It turned out to be Inger who picked me up and I liked her immediately—her warmth and graciousness made me feel so at ease.
When we arrived at their home, I was stunned at how well-mannered and polite their teenage boys were. When her husband opened the door to greet me, the boys were also there waiting. He introduced himself and then each boy introduced themselves, shook my hand, and said “So very nice to meet you,” before bouncing off to another part of the house. I go, “Wow, very polite!” and laughed. And Inger goes, “Really?” I just said, “I guess I’m just used to American teenagers…that wouldn’t have happened at home!”
That first night they showed me around the house, where my room would be and the bathroom I’d be sharing with the boys downstairs, and the kitchen where I’d have free reign to eat or cook anything. Then we sat down and they asked what my plans were and what I wanted to see, and what they could help me with. They already knew from the emails we had exchanged that Preikestolen was at the top of my list, but they gave me some helpful advice regarding that. Because I would be staying in Sandnes and not Stavanger, and I needed to start that hike in the morning so that I had time to make it to the top and back down before dark, the best thing to do was to go the day before to Stavanger, and stay the night at the Preikestolen Hotel, which is right near the trailhead. That way, right after breakfast, the bus drops the group of hikers off right at the trailhead in the morning and you are perfectly situated to spend your day on the trail. At the end of the day, it picks you up and brings you back to the hotel. Sounded perfect! So before I did anything else, I made that reservation, making plans to do the hike on the 25th.
Then we discussed other potential fjord tours and train tours, both one-day and multiday tours, as well as some of the famous beaches in the area, and they helped me try to figure out what I had time for. All of a sudden, a week didn’t seem like very much time at all.
I mentioned to my hosts that I was seeing some troubling news notifications pop up on my iPhone—a weird new reality traveling with a smartphone. Used to be that you could go overseas and really feel disconnected for a few weeks; it seems those days are over. CNN, Apple News, NY Times, and the Washington Post all had news posts flash on my phone that a hurricane had formed in the Gulf of Mexico—they were calling this one Hurricane Harvey. While I always took these things seriously (living in Rockport, I’d evacuated twice before, for hurricanes Rita (2005) and Ike (2008), but both turned out to be false alarms); 9 times out of 10, they seemed to go somewhere else. I wondered out loud whether I should abort the trip early and return home. They looked as deflated as I felt at that suggestion. We all decided to take a look at the situation in the morning.
Well, things change fast in hurricane-land. By the time morning had arrived, the news notifications were twice as alarming and made my decision easy in one respect. The hurricane had indeed gathered steam and was indeed making a bullseye for the Corpus Christi-Rockport area, but a mandatory evacuation order had been extended for the coast extending from Port Aransas to Palacios, Texas, and Rockport was in between the two of those, so I could not, in fact, go home if I wanted to.
My anxiety level was starting to spike. I had a house/pet sitter who was staying at my home the entire time I was gone, not only guarding the home but taking care of my Chihuahua and my seven cats, some indoor and some outdoor. What on earth was she going to do, and what would happen to my pets? My house was three blocks from the Gulf of Mexico; if there was a storm surge of any kind, it would surely get inundated. I didn’t have a calling plan that would allow me to call back to the states, so I tried texting her. The time difference between the two countries was making it doubly hard. I finally heard back from her and she said a policeman was going door-to-door through the neighborhood, and knocked on the front door and talked to her. When she told him she was house-sitting for a client and couldn’t leave, he said “I’m sorry ma’am, you’re going to have to. We could get up to a 9-ft storm surge here and you won’t survive that. You’ll have to take the pets with you and go.” So she told me all she could do was take Rhoda (my dog) and would have to leave the cats. She said she’d leave a lot of food for them and as soon as this was all over she’d come back and care for them until I could return.
I can’t even write how devastating it was to read that text message. To know that in the worst-case scenario, I could lose all my precious kitties because she didn’t have a place to take them and I wasn’t there to protect them…it was a horrible thought. That they would only know fear and abandonment in their final hours. I couldn’t bear it. I felt so useless, half a world away.
Another text message came through, from an old boyfriend I hadn’t heard from in months. He knew I was out of town, and said he was going to go by my house and take down the porch swing on my front porch, “…otherwise you’ll lose all those big windows, ‘cuz the wind is going to whip it right into those windows.” When I realized he’d be over there, I told him I’d pay him to board up all the windows on the main floor of my house, and told him where he could find the precut plywood that I’d used on the two previous evacuations.
All these communications were going back and forth during the day of August 24, and then it was time for me to board the bus and head to Stavanger and the Preikestolen Hotel. It felt almost surreal to be preparing to go on this gorgeous nature jaunt when back home, they were preparing for disaster to strike. I was on Facebook at the time, posting a travel journal of my trip every day for family and friends, so of course I expressed my worries. And people were posting back, “Don’t worry! You’re on vacation! There’s nothing you can do anyway, so just enjoy yourself!” I wanted to say, that’s a pretty damned impossible thing to do, when you understand how devastating these things can be, and you have no idea what you are going to go home to. Or whether you will even have a home to return to.
The news notifications the morning of August 25 stated that Harvey made landfall in my hometown of Rockport as a Class 4 hurricane** (a minimum of 120-mph winds). I’m texting Cindy, my pet sitter. I’m texting my friend who boarded up my house. I’m texting other friends who live there. I’m emailing people. Getting no response. Then I realize: the cell towers are out. The electricity is out. I don’t know if they evacuated, or where they evacuated to. All I can do is wait.
Thus was my state of mind when I started the hike up Preikestolen. The breakfast at the hotel was great and the bus took us right to the trailhead as advertised. About 30 people were dropped off with me and we all did our final preparations before we started up the trail. This included the last-chance bathroom breaks, as there are no bathrooms whatsoever on the trail. The web site emphasizes this point and asks hikers “Please do not relieve yourself off trail. If you simply must, do not leave behind any toilet paper.”
I tried to be excited. Finally, here I was after all these years! I would finally stand at the top of that glorious bluff and see those wondrous views for myself. I started out and tried to establish the slow, steady pace I learned in the Sierra Club that had never failed me in the past, especially on steep climbs. 10 paces, then rest. 10 more paces, then rest. I could do this.
The trail started out reasonably, a wide asphalt path that almost looked wheelchair accessible. Only a slight incline. OK, no worries. Then before you knew it, a series of steep, rocky stairways presented themselves, which I learned later were built by Nepalese sherpas. I will let you in on a little secret: If you ever see the words “built by Nepalese sherpas” and “moderately difficult” in the same sentence, I can guarantee you THEY ARE LYING; go climb something else. Because that was the most difficult hike I have ever attempted in my life. It seemed to go straight up, and then up some more, and after that, it had its way with me by going up.
I started the hike at about 10:00 am. At noon I paused by the side of the trail somewhere and had a brief lunch. I had been told once already by a returning hiker that I “wasn’t even halfway yet.” I hoped that by replenishing my energy stores, that would make all the difference and I would fly up the rest of the way. I knew I was making progress, because every now and then I could see the fjord down below through a clearing in the rocks and trees, and it was so gorgeous, and it gave me some perspective on how much elevation I’d gained.
But it didn’t get any easier. It was like my lungs just wouldn’t open up, as if I were at high altitude, which I wasn’t. After each break, all the aches and pains would come back with a vengeance. I berated myself mercilessly for being so out of shape and so ill-prepared for this challenge.
Many of the Norwegian hikers were quite friendly and would stop and chat with me for a while when I was marooned by the side of the trail. First, out of concern (are you hurt? do you need anything?) (yes. a stretcher). Finally, about 3:00 pm, I recognized a family of hikers who had passed me on the way up and had chatted with me, and they were now passing me on the way down. That was embarrassing. I said to them, “Please tell me I’m close to the top.” They looked back up the trail behind them and said, “I’m afraid you’re not even halfway.”
That news stunned me. “Surely that can’t be right. Someone told me that just before noon, and now it’s 3:00. You must be joking.”
They looked at each other for confirmation, nodded, and said, “Yes, I think that’s about right. You’ve got a way to go to reach the halfway point.”
I knew right then and there that I wasn’t going to make it. Devastated, I slowly turned around and started walking back down the trail. If I was lucky, I would make it back down before it got dark.
It was a crushing defeat for me. People chided me later: “Oh my God, Gail, it was just a hike.” But it was more than that for me. For 30 years I dreamed of that hike, of standing on the top of that cliff, overlooking that stunning glacial landscape. It was my sole purpose for traveling to Norway. I’d wanted to start my 60s with a bang, with this triumph of feeling like I was standing on top of the world, in one of the world’s most beautiful places. I had failed at a lot of things in my life: three failed marriages, and most recently, a failed business back home. I had wanted this trip to be a turning point, a new series of successes. But my failure to reach the top of Preikestolen devastated me that day and continued to eat away at me for years. For some reason, that simple hike got to me and undermined my self confidence for years to come. Clearly, it was a very hike-able trail, as the hundreds of people who were my companions that day showed me. But not by me, or not on that day by me, in the physical and psychological state I was in.
Of course, when I made it back to Inger and Sigurd’s home, and I had to admit to them that I didn’t make it up to the top, they were so surprised and then disappointed for me. They both had hiked it several times, even with their young boys, which made me feel even worse. They were leaving for the weekend on a prearranged family event, so they got me situated, then packed up and left for the next two days.
As a consolation prize, that weekend I took a boat tour of the fjord Lysefjorden, which travels directly underneath Preikestolen bluff and gives you quite a different perspective. From the water, it is just a miniscule speck, one of many jagged rock outcrops rising as sheer cliffs on either side of the deep fjords that slice up the Norwegian coastline. It would be easy to miss if you didn’t know it was there. Hardly worth traveling across continents for.
[*Epilogue. My hosts told me that Norway was so environmentally conscious, and trying so hard to get petroleum-based vehicles off the roads, that they were offering huge incentives for Norwegian citizens to adopt electric vehicles. Inger said, “They practically pay us to drive this Tesla! Yes initially the car is expensive, but they waive the sales tax, and all charging stations are free to use. So we essentially refuel it every time for free. The government has installed charging stations everywhere, so they are readily accessible.” Once when Sigurd was driving me to the bus station, he cracked, “I won’t say I love it, but we’re very close.”]
[**Hurricane Harvey was the most damaging hurricane to hit the Texas coast since Hurricane Carla in 1961. It literally flattened Rockport, where it made landfall. 66% of the homes and buildings in the city were either completely destroyed and made uninhabitable or severely damaged; nearly all lost some or all of their roofs or shingles. We lost much of our downtown area, most of our government buildings including our courthouse and tax offices, our art center, and our local Little Bay/marina was contaminated by the sinking of more than 50 boats. We were without power for the next 2 weeks. After the storm moved ashore, the Houston area experienced catastrophic flooding after more than 40 inches of rain fell over a 4-day period, causing an estimated $125 billion in damages.
My personal home in Rockport was an historic home, built in 1906. Well, it was eye-opening to drive through the town after I returned home, because it was Rockport’s many historical homes that were still standing after the storm. These homes were built with pier-and-beam foundations and shiplap-constructed walls…and it was a sight to see. There they were, proudly standing, and often surrounded by rubble that was once a home. I lost most of my shingles so I did have water damage inside my house, and I lost a few windows on the second floor, so water and wind got in there as well. But because my friend boarded up my first floor windows, and because my home was strongly built, I had a place to go home to. I also lost all my fences and had about a 5-ft-high pile of twisted metal debris, someone else’s roof, and tree branches in my back yard.
And…when I opened the door and called out for my kitties…they came running!! They heard my voice and oh, what a reunion we had! I was never so happy to see them in my life. By some miracle the ones that had been outside had found a safe place to hunker down and rode out the storm and ALL had survived.
My final order of business was to pick up my pup from Cindy the pet sitter, who by this time had grown quite attached to Rhoda. “You can’t have her back, she’s my little hurricane buddy now!” But Rhoda about jumped out of her skin when she saw me, as dogs do, so poor Cindy didn’t have much of a choice.
Now that I had my family back together again, I had a huge job ahead of me. Nothing like a hurricane to completely erase that post-vacation high. 😊]
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