Arrant Nonsense, Art, History, Removing Statues, Revisionist History, Sculpture, statue, Waterloo, William Seward

Learning All About History by Looking at Statues. Chapter VI. A Hometown Hero.

Chap VI.

Our next statue was chosen because its sculptor was from my hometown.

I wanted to discuss the intellectual and aesthetic question “Why is this artist’s most famous work, the most-replicated statue by an America sculptor, during the 19th century, like a chronic sinus infection?”

The answer to the question:  Drip, drip, drip.

I’ll explain the dripping in just a sec.

I am from Waterloo, NY.

If you ask people in my village, the only famous person from here is a football coach, named Coughlin (pronounced just like you’d think, like a cat with a hairball).

Runner-up for local history buffs, is a guy named Gridley, who invented an improved washboard (not kidding, it was curved).

The back of the village garage, which faces a defunct grocery store, and a crumbling, unusable bridge, has a mural, showing Murray & Welles, who began the village’s Memorial Day observances in 1866.

Then one day, by chance, I found out that one of the most successful American sculptors of the 19th Century was born here.

Not only is there no statue of him in Waterloo, but in all seriousness, I’ve never once heard his name mentioned in his birthplace.

It’s Randolph Rogers.  Born 6 July 1825.

You can see his works in parks, galleries, and the better sort of cemeteries in NYC, Hartford, Gettysburg, Cincinnati, Detroit, Richmond, Philadelphia, Washington, etc.

His “Columbus Doors,” all 20,000 pounds of them, are the main entrance to the U.S Capitol.  They’re an homage to Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance masterpiece, the “Gates of Paradise” in Florence.

Randolph Roger’s versions are 17′ tall, and depict everyday life in Columbus, Ohio, during a political convention.


One one door, a stylized border of venial sins surrounds panels with scenes of graft, extortion, lobbying, malfeasance, pettyfogging, etc. while the other door depicts the politicians’ torments in the afterlife.

Rogers created statues and busts of Adams, Lincoln, William Seward, General Lew Wallace (of “Ben Hur” fame), and allegorical figures like “The Genius of Connecticut” for the top of their statehouse.  (This last one was later re-named “We’re All Above Average” and then melted down for scrap during WWII.)

His Civil War monuments include the Soldiers’ National Monument at Gettysburg.

The Seward statue is in Madison Square Park, in NYC, and was the subject of a scurrilous rumor that Rogers re-purposed a leftover Lincoln body and stuck on a Seward head.  It’s simply not true.  The proportions are fine – Seward just had a small head, relative to his body and nose.

(Henry Adams wrote that he had “a head like a wise macaw.“)


And replicas of one of Roger’s statues are in almost every big art gallery in the country.

The work is called “Nydia

It was the most popular American sculpture of the 19th Century.

Nydia is based on a character in a book called “The Last Days of Pompeii” (1834).

The author, Bulwer-Lytton, was a politican-novelist, and poet-playwright.  It’s all about hyphens with this guy.

The book was a huge hit.

And it’s absolutely unreadable.  I know that, because I tried.  Really.  Cannot be done.

I mean, I have an exceptionally high tolerance for tedium.  I can show you my survivor badge for “One Thousand PowerPoint Presentations” and once, I stayed awake for 3 ½ minutes of “Twilight.”  But this book – –  I lasted one page.

Here’s the beginning:

’HO, Diomed, well met!  Do you sup with Glaucus to-night?’ said a young man of small stature, who wore his tunic in those loose and effeminate folds which proved him to be a gentleman and a coxcomb.”

Doesn’t that just make you long for a dark & stormy night, so you could kill the author before he writes anything else?

“Sup with Glaucus”??  Why no, I finally got a prescription for Amoxicillin and that cleared up that supping Glaucus, boy, I’m glad to be done with all that Mucus and Phlegma.

But it turns out, Glaucus is not a medical condition, it is the hero.  And he and Nydia live in Pompeii.

And also a type of sea gull, I looked it up in Wikipedia.  “The glaucous gull (Larus hyperboreus)…the second largest gull in the world. which breeds in Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere and winters south to shores of the Holarctic.”

I remember thinking that you might want to know that, but now I don’t know why.

(Didn’t you think for sure, Glaucus was a sinus or eye infection?)

One more sentence, and you’re done.

Well, you must sup with me some evening;  I have tolerable muraenae in my reservoir, and I ask Pansa the aedile to meet you.”

Well, sure, I’d love to sup, unless some clever blacksmith has invented tines, and then we could just eat with forks, like grownups, and stop all this supping crap.

Um, aedile is a type of Roman magistrate?  And I found, with a dawning sense of horror, that muraena is a type of Mediterranean moray.

So this idiot  is bragging that his reservoir is infested with eels ?? and no doubt we’re going to be supping up jellied eels for dinner??  and why is this paired with the magistrate??  Unless it’s the politician/slimy eel thing??


I misplaced my notes – – this is either a still from the 1913 silent film “Last Days of Pompeii,” or a current cabinet meeting in Washington.


It’s a long, convoluted lava flow of melodrama — Greeks, Romans, Christians, the Cult of Isis, love potions, a witch, and eels.

Most of the characters are wiped out by the volcano, but not nearly soon enough.

Pompeii is depicted as a warped and decadent place, and yet, not fun.  If anyone tried to get a good bacchanalia going, I’m sure Bulwer-Lytton threw a wet toga over it.  His artistic conceit was clearly to deep-fry every sentence into agonized contortions, to mirror the bodies found in the ashes of Pompeii.

Better to dig up roasted Romans than by buried in this book – I never made it past the first page.

So anyway.

The book was a huge hit.

It was 1834.  In three years, if you’d finished the book, Victoria would begin her reign, and you’d have 63 years, seven months, and two days of additional dullness ahead of you.

In the U.S., free from monarchies and elitist literature, we were celebrating Jacksonian Democracy and getting ready for bank failures, 25% unemployment, and a 7-year long recession.

Most of this wasn’t Bulwer-Lytton’s fault, but he didn’t help.

So…some years after all that, I was in the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, NY and ran across a statue of “The Toothache”.

(That was my guess, anyway.)

At her feet rests the broken capital of a Corinthian column, symbolizing an impacted wisdom tooth.



It turned out to be an 1861 work by Randolph Rogers, inspired by the book, depicting Nydia, as she guides Glaucus through the eruption and ash-storm that was engulfing Pompeii, towards the harbor.

There he would be safe, and have lots of lovely eels to eat.

Her mission accomplished, Nydia then continues on, into the Mediterranean.  I don’t remember why, unrequited love I think, but she drowns, or maybe the eels get her, but she definitely dies.

It’s all very tragic, because she didn’t drag Glaucus and Bulwer-Lytton with her.  Somebody should have tied them all together and dropped them off a pier, attached to a Corinthian column.

I think Nydia washes up again, in the epilogue.

So, somehow, Randolph Rogers was inspired to depict Nydia, pre-drowning, but already drippy.

The statue was a huge hit.

It’s displayed in the big galleries in NYC, Washington, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Portland, Providence, L.A., and a whole lot more places.

In fact, Rogers replicated it 167 times (seriously).

Rogers didn’t actually chisel all these himself, of course.  He had a workshop in Italy, where workmen cranked these out for Culture Tourists, in the days when a souvenir was a souvenir, and before snow globes were invented.

Here’s a mention in “A History of European and American Sculpture” by Chandler Rathon Post (1921):

“Randolph Rogers never found his vein.  He tried his hand with tolerable results at several kinds of sculpture, but all his many productions suffer from a blight of dullness…his portrait statues…are fairly respectable performances in stiff rhetoric.”

Well, quite likely, you think I’m all wet, and ignorant, and that Nydia is a lovely statue.  They have one in the Memorial Art Gallery, the National Art Gallery, the Met, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Chicago Institute of Art, I’m tripping over this thing where ever I go.

But to my uneducated, rustic eye, it looks awkward, and a bit odd.


Like someone you’d feel bad for, if you ran across her downtown, and probably kind of avoid, because she’s hunched and her dress is half-off, and then you’d feel terrible, when it dawned on you that she was blind, and you weren’t sure if she was trying to cross the street, or if she was aware of her wardrobe malfunction, and depending on the angle, she’s either suffering from toothache, or is listening for something, like maybe an oncoming bus, or chariot, so you’d have to go back and hesitantly ask if she would like assistance in crossing the street, and she says, no, thank you, I’m actually listening for a volcanic eruption.  And until Mount Vesuvius actually blows, you’d think she was delusional, and should you call social services or something, the whole thing is awkward.

Oh, I forgot to mention that.  The character was blind.  The full title is “Nydia, The Blind Flower-Girl of Pompeii”.


She’s not identified as such, but pretty sure this is Nydia, from the 1913 silent movie “The Last Days of Pompeii” (Library of Congress)


It’s an interesting example of how tastes change.  I don’t know if most people today, would be crazy for the statue, or the book.  I’ve yet to find anyone who’s actually read Bulwer-Lytton.  Because I’ve asked a lot of random people at airports, bus stops, restrooms, and bars, and only gotten funny looks.  Apparently he’s really not popular anymore.


(Do you know he added a third Lytton to his name?  Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton.  Because having it only twice, you might forget??  Or to distract people from “Bulwer”?)

(Today, “Bulwer-Lytton-Lytton-Lytton Disorder is better known as “Compulsive Redundancy Syndrome.”)

Most of us tend to remember and focus on the good stuff.  In the 1830’s, people were reading “Oliver Twist,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Lady of Shalott,” etc.  But just like our own time, people consumed lots of not-so-wonderful stuff.

Maybe that’s the value of looking at “Pompeii” and “Nydia”  – – for contrast, and to show just how wonderful the good writers and artists were.  To remind ourselves, just how exceptional Dickens, Poe, Shelley, Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Byron, Emerson, Delacroix, etc. were.  In 1861, when the statue was unveiled, there were other horrible things happening, like Fort Sumter and the Battle of Bull Run, but there was also Church’s “The Icebergs,” Whistler’s “Symphony in White, No. 1,”  Manet’s “Music in the Tuileries,” and Leutze’s “Westward Ho!” so Rogers can’t use the Civil War as an excuse.

Nydia is shown as she guides some Pompeii people through the blinding volcanic ash-cloud to safety – the man she loves, his girlfriend, and some really insistent people hawking postcards.  That’s admirable, and that’s why she’s holding her hand to her ear.

Although I still think, she could have had a toothache, too, right?  and that’s why she drowned herself, not the unrequited love thing.

The museum sign informs us, that the statue is evocative.  But would you have understood the situation, if I hadn’t told you? That she’s listening for which way an exploding volcano is located?  If she were a Labrador, would you guess that someone was blowing a dog whistle?  Or figure, poor doggy, has a toothache.

Well, we’re all learning a lot from these statues, aren’t we.

And anyway, Randolph Rogers was born in my hometown, he was knighted by King Umberto I, and Art is in the eye of the beholder.  So is glaucoma, I did look it up, and it’s related to Glaucus, but I forget how.  Something to do with seagulls.


Excavation of the Temple of Isis at Pompeii (Wellcome Library)


P.S.  Glaucus, glaucoma, and the seagull really are all related!  But this post is way too long already.


An earlier, and I think, much nicer work, “Ruth Gleaning” (1850).  As in the Book of Ruth in the Bible, and “gleaning” as in gathering up leftover barley.




And one final piece, “The Last Arrow” (1880) – – I wonder if his fellow Upstater, Frederic Remington, saw this, since it predates his bronzes by fifteen years.  These two pictures are from the Met website.
































“Carroña (Carrion)” by Javier Perez


There were old Monty Python sketches, that started with “Well, I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition…”

When we visited the new wing of the Corning Glass Museum, I didn’t expect crows.  But there were quite a few.

And this was my kind of ornithology – – indoors, out of the snow and sleet, and the subjects holding very still.

Among the creatures depicted on, and of glass, over the millennia, birds are clearly flying high, a perennial favorite.

The crows in the pictures above, are not glass.  They’re taxidermied  in the act of dismantling a ruby glass chandelier.

I’ve always kind of liked crows.

They’re a lot like some of my friends – – not outwardly colorful, but very smart, and horrible singers.

And some of them, easily distracted by shiny objects.

You’ve probably heard about the little girl in Seattle, who liked feeding the local crows.

The crows began to reciprocate by bringing her lots of interesting junk.  Including bits of glass, some beads and tiny lightbulbs.


Here’s a funny coincidence, not making this up.

While I’m writing this, I’m listening online to the Rochester NPR station (WXXI 91.5 FM).

They’re playing Schubert’s “Winterreise

It’s a song cycle in German, not really my kind of thing, but growing on me.  Parts of it are beautiful, but very formal, and sorry, just a bit somber.

And the commentator just mentioned the song was “Die Krähe” (“The Crow”)!

I looked it up:  “A crow has been following him. It has never left him, expecting to take his body as its prey.”

OK, then.

If Schubert had just been walking with a ruby glass chandelier, he could have tossed it on the path, and run for it!

One more installation, and let this be a warning, to any crows following me, and getting ideas.








13 Crows” by Michael Rogers. The description from the museum site: “Transparent light grey glass; cast, applied pigment; assembled, paper, glue, and wire. 13 cast glass crows. The bodies are wrapped and glued, mummy-like, with newsprint ripped from the front pages of a Japanese newspaper. The crows are hung upside down, suspended by their tails from a twisted wire.”


P.S.  I then looked at some of the blogs I follow, and look what Frenchapple 10 “Creartful Dodger” posted []

It was just Day of the Crows around here!!



Art, Finger Lakes, FLX, NY, Upstate New York

Pictures of Upstate New York. January. Corning Museum of Glass ~ The Bad Crows





My next few posts are going to be pictures from the Corning Glass Museum.

This is part of my series “Shameless Plugs for Upstate New York” – – my icy, crumbling, semi-medieval homeland.

The museum is a highlight of the “Southern Tier.”

This is the area along the Pennsylvania border, more often synonymous with job loss, aging population, and population loss.

Unless you’re making cheese, or meth, you’re often unemployed.

So Corning, NY, about four hours from New York City, seems a strange setting for a huge, rich treasure trove of ancient and modern glass – – that symbol of beauty, fragility, and civilization.

The explanation is the Corning Glass Company — operating here since 1868.

They’ve made glassware, windshields, Pyrex, Corelle, the telescope mirror for the Palomar Observatory, photochromatic lenses, and the glass for Edison’s light bulbs.

One of their offshoots, Steuben Glass, now defunct, made engraved pieces, for more than a century, that the White House used to present to foreign dignitaries, etc.

More recently, the company’s invented catalytic converters, touchscreens, and fiber optic cable.

But getting back to the museum.

Artists make pilgrimages here from around the world.

The bowl in the photograph has been on display, I think, since the 1980’s, and has always been one my favorites.

“Cityscape” is by Jay Munger, a California artist.

A Pyrex bowl, cut, sandblasted, and painted.




1980's, Art, Finger Lakes, FLX, NY, United States, Upstate New York

Pictures of Upstate New York. Corning Glass Museum.



Like so many sophisticated adventure-seekers before us, we were driving around Cattaraugus County, admiring the cows.

There’s a whole lot of ’em.

Restaurants, movie theaters, gas stations, people…not so much.

Eventually, a small sign told us we’d arrived in East Otto.

Apparently, we’d passed through West Otto, and Central Otto, without noticing.

Soon after, my cellphone found a signal again, and could pull up a map.

We discovered that we were southeast of Bagdad, Gowanda, and the Zoar Valley.

And due east of Persia.

Strangers in a strange land.

I hadn’t known our state had these outlandish places, in such a pastoral setting, but I liked the idea of eating cheese from such exotic locales.

Bagdad Brie, Persian Pecorino, Gowanda Gorgonzola.

And yes, as you may have guessed, we’d gotten off the interstate, decided to go home cross-country, no GPS, and were a bit lost.

The endless herds of Holsteins were the only familiar faces we’d seen.  It’s possible we’d seen some of them more than once, as we zigzagged around.

The roads wandered through pastures, woodlots, little hills. We passed an old guy cutting hay, wearing a wool plaid jacket in August, and as we went around the bend, and up a little hill, we realized there was something strange about our surroundings.

There were no cows to be seen.

No cows whatsoever.

Finding ourselves in a landscape totally vacant of cows made us uneasy.



And then, as we came over the rise, suddenly there were strange metal objects — tall, mysterious, like alien totems, as if we’d entered the territory of some weird cult.














There didn’t seem to be any roadblocks manned by the Children of the Corn, so we kept driving, and found we’d driven into the Griffis Sculpture Park.

A rusted but fantabulous remnant of an ancient but very groovy time, called “The Sixties”.




The wonderful man who created this place was named Larry Griffis, Jr.

He came back to Buffalo after serving in WWII, and started a business making nylon stockings.

During a visit to Italy, he fell in love with sculpture.

I saw a picture of him on the internet, and he reminded me a bit of Van Morrison.  His son, and now granddaughter, have kept his workshop in Buffalo going, and the park in East Otto is now hundreds of acres of fields, ponds, and woods, full of sculptures, by Griffis and other artists.




Some are pretty literal creations, like this giraffe, peering into the woods.











Or this giant mosquito.












The woods are full of meandering paths, with abstract creations scattered about.





A pond is surrounded by flying metal geese, and rusted obelisks, which resemble small cellphone towers, as woven from rebar by a cargo cult — some overgrown, some toppled over, and merging into the undergrowth.

A shrine-like creation, marked “Santana,” held an offering of a dozen half-eaten acorns.





What the world needs now…Peace, Love, Rust-Oleum.





Statues and shapes are cast in bronze and aluminum, but most seem to be weathered and rusted iron.

One group resembles chess pieces, another, industrial elements.










We’d arrived quite a distance from the main entrance, where a series of fields and woods harbors some hands-on creations, that you can climb on, and in.
















My favorite resembles the conning tower of a submarine, surfacing in a meadow.












My snapshots only show a fraction of the collection.  You could easily spend the better part of a day, hiking around and discovering things.
















Some of these creations, as the day got close to sundown, seemed a bit spooky, even foreboding.


















But the overwhelming vibe of the place is of whimsical creativity and happiness.






So long for now, from atop the conning tower, surfacing somewhere in the Summer of Love.











Pictures were taken with an iPhone 5s.  The Griffis Park really isn’t that remote, it’s less than an hour south of Buffalo, and half that driving north from Salamanca.  Take a GPS with you. Hugs to the cows.
















1960's, 1970's, Art, NY, Public Art, Sculpture, Upstate New York

Pictures of Upstate New York. August. A marvelous place for a moondance.

Norway, Telemark, travel

Driving in Norway-The Telemark and the Land of the Imagination




DSC07692For those unfamiliar with Norway and it’s scenery, descriptions of it may seem a bit “out there”.  People tend to use the word “magical.”



And after all, almost everywhere has been described as “magical” by someone, at some time.  Especially here, within the often-imaginary world of the internet.

Even North Koreans, impervious to ridicule, advertise their Land of Make Believe as a little slice of Nirvana.

Good PR just takes a bit of imagination (“The effusions off the waste-treatment plant, back lit by the glowing fumes from the refinery next door, created a misty effect that was almost magical…”)   



So when Norway is called a winter wonderland, you’ll only accept the truth of this when you witness it firsthand.



“Vinter” Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1902


DSC07509Well, I’m writing on the internet, you don’t know me, and you have no reason to trust me on this.  But, sorry, it really is kind of magical.  My pictures here don’t do it justice, and quite often, we just enjoyed it, and didn’t photograph it.



My father used to ridicule the trees and hills in landscapes by Asian artists.  He thought they looked absurd, like illustrations by an opium-addicted Dr. Seuss.  That is, he says, until he saw Japanese gardens and bonsai in real life, and photographs of the karst mountains in China’s Guangixi Zhuang region, and realized the Asians weren’t following some weird artistic license, but were painting these fantastical sights because that is simply how they actually look, misty and bizarre.

DSC07691There are mountains in Norway like this, in a way – illustrations from a storybook.




And that is how this outdoor story of Norwegian mountains begins — indoors, in the city of Oslo, with some storybook pictures. 


“Palace – Soria Moria Castle” Theodor Kittlesen, 1900


Oslo is a a very pleasant city, and very beautiful in parts, but it’s never been one of “The European Capitals” on the Grand Tour that draw flocks of fervent American tourists, like Amsterdam, Paris, or Rome.  These are cities with Romance in their names.

Or at least, Paris has the romance thing, and the other two have pot and pasta, close runners-up.  (Is it a bad sign that I think of pasta as a close runner-up to romance?)  London and Berlin may be Europe’s most important capitals, and Prague and Budapest have amazing architecture, but Oslo is undoubtedly in the most beautiful setting, nestled among mountains full of pine trees and beautiful water.


DSC07345The city’s harbor is clean and handsome, and the nation’s waters are among the purest in the world (tied with Finland, Sweden, and Iceland — no surprise, I think these are wise people).  You can see ski-slopes from downtown.





What prompted us to leave the city was a visit to the National Gallery.  It is much, much smaller than the Louvre or the Prado, the palatial, overwhelming showcases of Paris and Madrid.  Oslo’s collection is far more modest, and the building definitely not palatial.  When we walked up to it, it looked to be a disappointment — a dull, almost industrial-looking building– we could have been at a typical city museum in the U.S. rust belt.  It turned out to be well worth a visit.  Oslo displays a modest, but still excellent, collection of Impressionists.  And of course, a lot of works by Edvard Munch – some communicating dark moods, sadness, despair.  Hanging on the wall for a century, they should be harmless, but still seemed baleful and disturbing.

"And then they heard a noise..."

“Afraid of the Dark”  Gerhard Munthe, 1906

And then a real stroke of luck.  The current exhibition was “The Magic North” — Norwegian artists and illustrators, and it seemed to have drawn in a crowd not of tourists, but locals.  A fantastic showcase of fantasy, talent and imagination.


"It's Snowing" 1903

“It Snows, It Snows” Theodor Kittelsen, 1903.

Wonderful paintings of nature, Norse mythology, folk and fairy tales, legends of trolls… as well as a large picture of some lumpy and very bluish mountains, which seemed to keep drawing the attention of the natives. I was critical of this painting, thinking the lumps of mountain looked childishly drawn. As my father had felt about the trees and mountains in Asian paintings, I would come to feel about the blue mountains.


“Winter  Night in the Mountains” Harald Sohlberg, 1914

Having sworn to take only day-trips out of Oslo, on their excellent trains, we now decided to rent a car.  We had to go find the countryside depicted in those paintings.  Our rental was a Volkswagen, a model not sold in the U.S., called a “Polo.”  (It is tiny.  A sticker on the dash warned us against running the radio and headlights simultaneously.  Another notice suggested limiting passengers to one, and no baggage, when driving on roads with grades exceeding five percent.)

The car rental office had no maps available, and was staffed only by Swedes for some reason, who could tell us nothing about the Telemark, apparently did not drive, and thought it sounded like an odd idea for anyone to rent a car and drive there.  But we rented a GPS unit and off we went.


DSC07545The Telemark is a region known for it’s natural beauty and its lack of development — if you’re a New Yorker, it’s similar to the Adirondacks, except on a larger scale.  Norway’s total population is only five million, with 1 million concentrated in the Oslo area, so there’s a lot of fairly empty spaces in this country.




So, we set out in our tiny car, chosen in part because this oil-rich country has obscenely expensive gasoline, and not thinking to spring for something with four-wheel drive and snow tires.  We had a tiny map, also, from our guidebook, which lead us to believe, that if we got lost, we were sure to get our bearings by hitting either the Swedish border, or the Atlantic Ocean.



IMG_0839What struck me first was how well everyone drove.  Unlike Americans, the Norwegians seem to follow laws, and not use cars to express frustration or machismo, making driving there safe and pleasant.  Outside of the capitol district, a lot of the roads were small, and sometimes bumpy.  Very quickly the countryside reminded us of a largely unsettled frontier, with deep woods, unnamed (as far as we knew) lakes, and rapid shifts  in weather, which I thought made the region seem even more mystical.




DSC07545We stopped at a famous “stave” church, from 1204.   These stave churches are like no other church you’ve ever seen, not suggesting Christianity somehow, and a bit eerie and unearthly-looking, more suited for a mead hall for Odin and Thor.  So that was an almost unsettling starting place to begin our journey into the mountains.







DSC07680At first, we stopped along a dam where we walked in some beautiful woods, with little snow, although very icy trails.  The mountains were far off, so the natural element of Norway felt pristine but rather familiar and American, even if the trees were different. But as we neared the mountains, I knew I wasn’t home anymore.


Suddenly, before my eyes, were the same lumpish blue mountains that I had silently ridiculed in the art museum. They looked exactly the same, only much bigger. And colder.  Even though the mountains were only in the six to eight thousand foot range (which is still bigger than Mt Marcy in the Adirondacks), they were imposing and huge, with the countryside dominated by them.  I did not take a picture.  I don’t know why.



DSC07704I’ve been in the Adirondacks and Catskills (getting an impressive vibe from the former, and always feeling a bit uneasy in the latter, as if feeling haunted by the old Dutch spirits) and I’ve spent a bit of time in the Wasatch Range in Utah.  I have even had the good fortune to ride a narrow gauge railroad up to Silverton, Colorado, right through the most beautiful scenery I have ever laid eyes on, with pristine mountain lakes and dense evergreen forests, juxtaposed against impossibly clear mountain streams and cool temperatures, next to the giant Rocky Mountains. Still, the Rockies felt less imposing, and there was some sort of sensation generated by the Norse mountains that made them feel very ancient, far older than the rocks in Colorado.


At once, I felt like I was in a fairy tale, in an adventure story, one of the old Norse sagas perhaps. Danger, excitement and beauty and calm all descended on me. The drive was so gorgeous, with tiny winding,empty roads going by mountain lakes and forests.  Arriving at a pull off, we could see a large lake and hiked up the mountain overlooking it, in the very snowy woods. Up until that point, we’d seen no snow in Norway, making the mountains seem all the more magical.


Soon, we were walking in woods which apparently were full of moose.  We didn’t encounter any, but their hoof prints and droppings were everywhere.


Back down the mountain and we returned to driving, a bit unsure of where exactly we’d fetched up on the tiny map.  The GPS was switched on, but had become delusional, possibly treacherous in the cold, or perhaps, far from Oslo, had developed a death wish, trying for hundreds of kilometers to send us back farther and farther north.




It began to get darker, and we could see streams of ice crystals blowing over the mountain at the head of the valley.






The beautiful countryside, beautiful but starkly empty. faded as the light disappeared and the temperature dropped.  The roads had been clear, but were now drifting over in places, and we drove on packed ice.  Our tiny Volkswagen, not a rugged car and without snow tires, suddenly felt too small and scary as we drove by lakes frozen over, snow piled six feet high or higher and blowing towards us, as we passed buried trees, summer houses, cars, and bodies of water.  The engine seemed to be making a bit more of a high-pitched whine.  What appeared to be abandoned ski centers were the only marks on the map, which was  becoming less and less helpful.




“The Ash Lad and the Wolf” Theodor Kittelsen, 1900

The way back was the most terrifying, driving alongside dark lakes with no cabins or lights, through the same mountains where people died in an avalanche only the week or so before. I was feeling elated the entire time, my dad not so much.  I was pumped to be seeing this preternatural wintery and rocky landscape, that seemed straight out of Middle Earth. Had the varied and exotic locale of New Zealand not been used for the Hobbit movies, Norway could’ve done a fine job, at least for most of the scenes.  At some point, we took a turn into what appeared to be an alpine Christmas village, and saw welcome signs of human life, except the roads had only a few ski junkies roaring down the road in hulking four-wheel drives, and we began to feel hopelessly out of place and lost.


IMG_0401Taking the next turn took us back away from any other cars or lights, on a narrow, dark road through forests.  Passing the mountains, now just black shapes in the dark, and alongside dark bodies of water, I knew that we were in a fantasy realm, no place on earth is actually like this. Suddenly, I could understand the Norse monster stories.  In an earlier era of superstition, violence, and illuminated only by firelight casting eerie shadows, it was easy to imagine things that didn’t exist. Trolls living in the hills could seem very real.  And the very real creatures, moose and elk, also posed a danger. An enormous pair of moose waded out of the snow to cross right in front of us, and had we not slowed for a sharp turn and a narrow bridge, we’d have hit those massive beasts.  Who would probably have been fine, while we would have turned to raspberry jam in our little tin can.




DSC07516Magic is all based on perception of the audience. In this case, I was a true believer. There was life in these old hills and rocks; the dark  pristine lakes held secrets.  The Norse sagas materialized before my eyes. Even the quiet, intense austere nature of the local people supported the perception that we were in a storybook land and time. It was in Norway that I came to believe in the magic of travel. This trip  seemed to be more of an adventure than my other trips, even ones when I was alone, due to this drive into nowhere.


Every fantasy and mythology story I’ve read seems to describe Norway.  While I’ve not ridden a camel across the Arabian peninsula, or hiked in Tibet, motorcycled across Vietnam, or bungee-jumped off a TV tower,  I drove in mountains straight out of Narnia, on roads too narrow for more than one vehicle, bounded by massive drifts of snow, with moose in the hills and spirits in the crags and dales. This trip, already fantastic, and ending in equally stunning and interesting locales later on, was highlighted most by this adventure. By the end, after nearly falling asleep when supposed to be navigating, and then talking about a great deal of things, my Dad and I both started laughing. A close call, with death, fatigue, or just being lost in an alien landscape can turn into something humorous. It was. We laughed the rest of the way home (to Oslo) where we finally turned in, exhausted but satisfied.