Build It (Well) and They Will Come
© 2015, Brandon Wilson, all rights reserved
on a walking
pilgrimage, as I have ten times in the past,
always fills me with elation, then uncertainty, and finally the
ultimate thrill of letting go as I fling meteor-like into the
unknown. Leaving home is often the best way to find
St. Olav’s Way has intrigued me for
years. I first heard its clarion call from deep within my soul in
2004 when I made a fulfilling trek from Oslo to Trondheim. Now a
decade later and still filled with Viking wanderlust, I answered
once again. This time, I joined a fellow Explorers Club member,
Anders Stävhag, to trek the less-traveled 584-kilometer route from
Selånger, Sweden to Trondheim. It traces King Olav Haraldsson’s
route to reclaim Norway in 1030, after his exile in Kiev. On that
ill-fated journey, he was killed in battle at Stiklestad and
Our expedition promised to be less
arduous and dramatic, but as they say, “The best laid plans…”
Our August 6, 2014 departure from Selånger Pilgrim’s Church was filled with hope as we excitedly shared our plans with the Swedish media, then set off carrying flags representing my home in Hawaii, Anders’ Jämtland Republic, St. Olav’s striped flag, and the Explorers Club flag #162. Late that evening, after thirty-two kilometers, we eventually shuffled into the first lodging we’d encountered all afternoon.
This was a preview of the challenges facing us over the next three weeks. Among pilgrims, there is a tendency to compare routes, especially to the famed Camino de Santiago with its well-marked trails, cheap and abundant hostels (refugios) and legendary good food. So please indulge me as I briefly share my experience as a simple walking pilgrim—and not as a government bureaucrat promoting tourism.
Compared to the popular Camino, this St. Olav's Way is definitely the “road less traveled.” Most days we found ourselves the only hikers along that trail in August, encountering only six others in three weeks.
Although there’s no need to be in
marathon condition, you need to be in good shape, as this trail
will often push you to the limits. Unlike Spain’s reassuring yellow
arrows, here, poorly marked trails can easily lead you off in the
wrong direction if you’re not careful. One meditative moment or
immersion into the wild beauty of Scandinavian nature can add hours
to your daily walk. Believe me, I know.
Be prepared for anything. Improvisation is key. By day five, my companion, although hardened by military service and previous long-distance pilgrimages, fractured his foot and was on crutches. Though I now walked alone, providentially, he became my support team for the rest of our journey.
Anders spent hours each day on his laptop and cell phone tracking down places for us to sleep and eat. Many of those on an official list are inexplicably closed in August or pre-booked for hunters. Others are simply too far apart, off the path, non-existent, or beyond a typical pilgrim’s budget. Unlike Spain’s Camino, or St. Olav’s Norwegian Gudbrandsdalen Path, there are few pilgrim hostels or huts, and “villages” are often just farms (gårds) with no cafes, stores, or pilgrim facilities. So, plan to carry three days of food with you. Of course, you could bring a tent. However, the weather can be formidable even in August. While it was nearly 30+ degrees (C) when we left the eastern coast, I faced near-freezing winds while crossing the frosty summit between Sweden and Norway—with plenty of icy rain in between.
This route does have its bright
spots. Fields eerily echo with the sound of past pilgrims and the
passing army of King Olav. You encounter Iron Age ruins, rune
stones and rock carvings. Waterfalls and healing springs offer cool
respite. You can explore charming Östersund on the banks of the
Storsjön River. While in Stiklestad you’ll discover a new Pilgrim’s
Center with fine accommodations, a handsome church, National
Culture Centre, and amphitheatre to celebrate St. Olav’s life and
At last, just outside Trondheim, we were joined by two fellow pilgrims; one involved in the trail’s development and the other in its management. Walking those final kilometers together to Nidaros Cathedral, we humbly shared our first-hand experiences and suggestions with the hope our voices would be heard and this route might live up to its full potential for future pilgrims. For as well intentioned as this trail is, it’s not prepared for a massive influx of inexperienced pilgrims of all ages and physical conditions from around the world. Oh, how I truly wish it were.
As for me, although weary after
twenty-three days on the trail, nothing is still quite as
satisfying as pilgrim travel, one-step-at-a-time. Walking remains a
trampoline for my mind. You travel outside–while traveling within.
Today I find myself asking, “Where to next?”
About the author:
Brandon Wilson is the Lowell Thomas Award-winning author/photographer of Along the Templar Trail: Seven Million Steps for Peace, Yak Butter Blues: A Tibetan Trek of Faith, Over the Top & Back Again: Hiking X the Alps and Dead Men Don’t Leave Tips: Adventures X Africa.