My legs trembled and I wasn't sure if it was from exhaustion or fear. The loud roar was disorienting. Just inside a freeway tunnel high in the mountains of western Norway, I awkwardly climbed off my bicycle and held it as a shield between me and passing cars. They slowed to a crawl and nosed by me; it was like swimming with whales. My husband's taillight blinked in the distance, a red dot moving uphill in blackness.
It was day two of retracing my grandparents' World War II bike ride across Norway. In the summer of 1940, just a few months into the German occupation, Asta and Kristoffer Ladstein caught a ferry boat from Finnøy, their small island near Stavanger, and pedaled 200 miles into eastern Norway on their single-speed bicycles. Their 2-year-old daughter rode in the handlebar basket. We would do the trip in six days, 18 speeds, plenty of lycra and no toddlers.
When my grandmother told me about her ride, I was impressed with her athleticism. To her American grandchildren, life under German occupation was as mysterious as the flashlight my grandfather kept in the shed. It ground out a weak ribbon of light when we pumped a little lever with our thumbs. "This is what we had during the war," he said.
When I asked my grandmother why they made the bike trip she shrugged and said, "There wasn't anything else to do."
More than a decade after their deaths, I wanted to understand people like this. People who biked up mountains when life got tough.
My trip had gotten off to a rough start the moment my husband, Leif, and I got off the ferry in Sauda and began pedaling in the rain. The road was slick with sheep pellets from herds enjoying their end-of-summer alpine grazing. The rain grew colder as we climbed out of verdant river valleys. Snow encroached on grazing sheep when we reached the stony, wind-swept high plateau.
I inched my bike along a stone shelf cut over waterfalls. Leif carefully asked if we needed to turn back. I couldn't. For a year I had been e-mailing my Norwegian relatives about this dream of mine. At first, there was silence. "They're a little worried about your trip," my mother explained.
Biking the Paul Bunyan Trail in Pequot Lakes hadn't exactly prepared me for this.
At the mouth of the tunnel, Leif waited, pedaling out into the rain when he saw me. There was nothing to say and it was too cold to stop. It had been 30 uphill kilometers since we had seen the last human convenience.
Suddenly, Leif's bicycle zigzagged across the road to a small red house with a grass roof and curlicued wood trim. It was out of a Scandinavian folktale.
"Lefse Waffler Kafe" read the homemade sign. Three old people, possibly the last non-English speakers in Norway, answered the door. We stepped into the last century.
They ushered us into a tidy room in one half of the little wooden house. There was a bed in the corner, a wood stove, and a long wooden table with two benches. We dripped everywhere with our raincoats and bike shoes and helmets; they waved off our apologies. Out came plates of lefse, heart-shaped waffles with strawberry jam, and cups of strong, hot coffee. Our hostess closed the door, leaving us to eat. I opened the guest book and saw only Norwegian writing inside.
Sunny skies and tail winds
America was a dream my family chased. My grandmother would mail pictures of the new cars they were driving and send boxes of hand-me-down clothes to family back "in the old country," as she called it. Today Norway is rich with oil money and the prosperity is staggering. Leif and I watched the dollar plummet to 5 Norwegian Kroner. A beer cost $16. I celebrated finding an $80 cabin the first night in Røldal, nestled in a dramatic mountain valley, until I discovered sheets and hot water were extra.
The lefse lady returned and we discussed the weather. It had rained for three days. She pantomimed that we'd made it to the top of the mountain pass and the road would be flat going forward. "No more of this," she said, raising her forearm to the sharp slant we had battled all day.
She shook my hand goodbye and clucked at how cold my skin was. We struggled to get moving quickly and, just as she said, we coasted into an alpine valley, the sun appeared and a tail wind pushed us past intense blue lakes and white waterfalls. We saw no other bicyclists for two days, and few cars. A few R.V.s chugged past with bicycles lashed to the back, leaving the splendor to us. For a few minutes, flying downhill, I thought my grandparents must have felt free like this.
Norwegians don't really ride bikes like this anymore. No wonder it had been so difficult to find any information on the Internet. During the war, there was no other way to move around the country. Now they use their vacations to sun in the Mediterranean or Thailand. But Norwegians do love their outdoors, and have laws to promote sharing it. It's legal to camp on private property as long as you're not right next to a home or cabin. Drivers were exceedingly polite. One trucker I flagged down for directions suddenly made a cupping and spooning motion with his hands, gesturing that I needed to be sure and try rømmegrøt, a local Telemark specialty of sour cream pudding. Hearty fill for bicyclists.
Cousins join the ride
Pleased at how our luck had changed since we found the lefse house, I reached for my cell phone and called a cousin who invited us to his family's mountain cabin for the night. Ten kilometers until a warm bath and the embrace of family. We spent the next day with them on their folding bicycles, coasting 30 miles downhill. It was like childbirth; I had already forgotten the pain of the previous day.
Two more days of epic descents out of the mountains took their toll on the bikes. When we arrived in Seljord -- a Telemark town known for its own version of the Loch Ness monster, Selma, the sea serpent -- two spokes on Leif's rear wheel gave out. We found Arne Langesæter, a bike mechanic in Seljord who spent his lunch hour helping us and refused all payment. "Just greet my Aunt Gerd for me in Minneapolis," he said with a big smile.
Another relative, worried about us spending the night in a town where we knew no one, called up the wife of a cousin she hadn't seen in 10 years; the good woman came home from work to cook dinner for two rumpled Americans riding through town.
This is what family means to Norwegians. And that's partly why I came. The trip gave me a reason to ask about the past. Relatives offered up photographs, recalled names and told stories to help us piece together the trip.
My grandparents' grand destination back in 1940 was a farm. They were visiting my grandmother's oldest sister and her husband who rented land in Heddal during the war. It was difficult to make a living on the small rocky island they were from. The Nazis built a fort there overlooking the North Atlantic. Life under enemy occupation was confining, and without radios they were cut off from news of the rest of the country. How happy the two sisters must have been to see each other again.
We reached Heddal's famous Stave Church in the evening. It's an 800-year-old wooden church that's one of a few dozen left in Norway. Think of a Viking ship sticking out of the earth, tall with vaulted angles. It's a miracle this tinder has survived the ages.
I leaned my bicycle against the cemetery wall and stepped around the bumpy gravestones. Leif moved ahead and found the church guide who understood our mission at once. She remembered the island people coming to work there so many years ago and she didn't seem to think we were crazy for pedaling six days to visit.
She rushed to the edge of the cemetery in her long black guide costume and pointed to the valley across the river. "See that red barn? It's there! The family will be happy to talk with you. The grandmother, she will remember."
I made a not-so-triumphant arrival, pushing my bike up an incredibly steep gravel driveway. Farmer Jon Mælansmo's blue eyes crinkled as he remembered my grandmother's sister and husband, who rented his family's farm for five years. Jon's son, wife and elderly mother took turns examining our black-and-white photographs of their farmhouse and granary. The grandchildren stared and stared at the two Americans who arrived by bicycle with old photographs and bad Norwegian.
We were invited inside for cakes and coffee, as if they had been waiting for us. The grandmother said she often wondered what had happened to the Finnøy folk. Hard times linked these families for a time; the island people provided the war-time labor to help the Mælansmos hold onto a farm that has been in their family since 1700. Our arrival reminded them of the long-ago arrangement and the friendship that developed during those difficult years.
Fittingly, Jon's son works for the bus company that hauled us back to Oslo. My grandparents probably spent a few weeks there filling up on good food rationed in wartime and then turned their bicycles around for home. They smiled into the sunshine, she in her blouse, he in his argyle socks and matching sweater. Gunbjorg, their toddler daughter -- my now 70-year-old aunt -- covered her face from the sun.
They didn't know the war would last five more years, that they would eventually make it to the United States, and that someday an American granddaughter would put her bicycle on an airplane so she could make their trip again.
Sasha Aslanian produces Minnesota Public Radio's Youth Radio series. Her Weekend America radio feature about the bike trip earned her second place in the audio category of the 2009 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition.