I AM MARJORIE THE FAR-TRAVELER, direct descendant of those bold Viking women of yore. Gudrid, the original Far-Traveler, sailing her wide world between Iceland, Greenland, Vinland and Norway is my new hero. I recently met Gudrid in Nancy Marie Brown’s The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman; I hope she will forgive me for stealing part of her name as an inspiration for my future journeys. Given the thousand years of transportation advances since Gudrid sailed forth, her pseudo namesake, Marjorie the Far-Traveler should be able to reach every country in the world. And that is my goal.
Gudrid’s life comes to us through Icelandic sagas written by stern old men some time after the fact. I want to reiterate some of those old stories to preface my own travels; then to share my small adventures as they have taken place so far; and finally offer anecdotes from the road as I continue on my way to every country in the world, one passport stamp at a time. A trilogy, designed to prove a streak of restlessness can live on in an elder Viking heir, will be the result.
I am describing a memoir of movement in three parts. The first, Up North, is a book about my family’s first thousand years and their travels from the Arctic north of Europe to a near-Arctic place called Minnesota. The second (The First Hundred are the Hardest) is a compilation of vignettes from my travels to date. The third (And Miles to Go Before I Die…) is planned as a blog that accompanies me as I try to reach the final 95 or so countries on The List.
I HAVE ALWAYS FELT FOREIGN AND RESTLESS. Maybe that was inevitable given my early life. Growing up in Minnesota made it easy to identify myself as Norwegian—in spite of birth, home, school and early life in Koochiching County, Minnesota, USA. Dual nationality can be a mental state as well as a legal condition and being a Norwegian seemed to supersede being an American, not the other way around, even though logic might dictate otherwise. That state of mind can be attributed to my dad, a naturalized U.S. citizen, Norwegian by birth, arriving in America when he was seven, and also to my immediate northern Minnesota environment. We always lived next door to Grandma, Grandpa and Uncle Ilif, not too far from the Olsons and Gundersons who had arrived in northern Minnesota from Byglandsfiord, Norway along with my family. The Norwegian language was the common means of communication; our food was plain and buttery, our small houses and barns tucked back in the forest were wood-heated with barrel stoves and cook stoves, and our animals were much loved. It all reflected lives as lived on the little farms of ‘the ‘old country’ and made it seem quite natural for us kids to feel more Norwegian than American.
Thanks to AncestryDNA I could verify my Norwegian bona fides by sending my spit away with the mailman. The results are in and I am almost fully (93%) Scandinavian. I wanted to be that—but also to have a few DNA strands of something a little different. And, it turns out; I do have a modicum of more exotic blood, probably Saami (formerly known as Laplanders). That makes sense because, according to family legend, one of mom’s grandfathers was a reindeer herder in the Arctic north that encompasses Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. This territory is home to the Saami, a people that have occupied that land since before the last great ice age, and whom I will now claim as very distant relatives. My ethnicity chart just says I’m 3% Finnish/Northwestern Russian but you can see why that, juxtaposed with a reindeer herd, spells Saami family ties to me. That I find this very exciting is probably some indication that I was destined to be Marjorie the Far-Traveler from birth.
Then there’s the 2% Irish which is quite natural since the Vikings were the primary settlers of Ireland for some time and brought their possibly reluctant Irish brides back to Norway.
And finally 1% British (you do remember the Vikings overran, ruled and populated that lovely British region called Yorkshire don’t you—and surely some nice English girls wound up in Scandinavia) and 1% general northern European, which could be (AncestryDNA says) from Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxembourg or Liechtenstein. I’m claiming France, both because I love Paris and because Normandy like Yorkshire is a creation of the Vikings and vouches for our long and complicated relationship with the Frankish people. Going for a slightly more unusual heritage story though is appealing. Suppose great-to-the-nth-degree grandpa kidnapped a Liechtensteinian princess and brought her back to Byglandsfiord. Since Liechtenstein is one of the very few European countries remaining on my to-go list I’ll have a chance to check out my affinity for the place in the near future.
UP NORTH IS PART-MEMOIR AND PART-TRAVEL LITERATURE, genres that seem to demand certain things, none of which I am planning to provide in quantity. “Memoir?” a teacher once said to me, “For memoir you need fear and misery or sex and violence or, at the very least, big drama and shocking discovery. Travel writing, some say, must have exoticism, romance or, at the other end of the spectrum, luxury resort recommendations and chirpy restaurant reviews.
The weight of those concepts nearly defeated me. My stories are more prosaic, about the Nesets and Stroms and later the Klotzbacks, Magalongs and Brininstools—about how they went about their daily lives in different locations, in different eras. The narrative is more historical than melodramatic; more geographical than intimate; more traveler’s anecdotes than tourist’s self-gratification.
The first book in this Memoir of Movement trilogy is called Up North. It is about my family, from that ancestor back in 1000 AD who may have been Gudrid’s cousin, to my Minnesota family and the house in the woods that I still visit every summer. There is surely enough movement between the Vikings and the immigrants for one big story.
The plan is to follow Up North with a second book titled The First Hundred are the Hardest which will cover my personal travels to 100 of the world’s 195+ countries. Unfortunately there are no tales of shooting Amazonian rapids, trekking across the Gobi Desert or meeting up with Somali pirates. My days or weeks in each country, however, have their own small, sometimes magical, experiences to share. The bus to Bujumbura and the Russian spy. Painted Monasteries in Bucovina. Avant-garde dance in Helsinki and Tokyo and Johannesburg and Dakar. Small boys playing in the sun of Angeles, Pampanga, the Philippines. A lover offering sweet oranges among the Mexican ruins. Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island.
Finally, Miles to Go Before I … Die? will likely be a blog describing my adventures trying to realize this unlikely goal of setting foot in every country in the world. I will be far too old to write another book as I finally enter Afghanistan, South Sudan and Somalia but blogging from my Droid as the pirates approach could lend spice to my elder years and wanderings. I also have faith that, if I make it to every other country in the world, Saudi Arabia will finally issue me a visa to cross some corner of their land, just far enough to warrant that last stamp in my passport. I see an amusing, but nevertheless insightful in a mature sort of way, travel blog as a fine way to wrap up a life that has been more than good enough.
Or, maybe this whole project will become a series of blogs or, more likely, tweets…simply reporting ‘crossed border, sun shining, shots fired, fleeing, cell cold, mush for breakfast, taxis on strike, airport surrounded by soldiers, okay, passport stamped.’
TO BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING. Welcome to Up North which takes place in Scandinavia, especially Norway and Iceland, and in Minnesota between 1000 and 1958 AD. I have all manner of books about the Vikings, Scandinavia, South Dakota (my mother’s home) and Minnesota stacked around me as I begin writing—initially immersing myself in Vikingdom.
The Scandinavian Viking heritage has always been of interest to me but previously it only took me as far as writing a massive college paper on the subject. When the idea of the trilogy took hold, it was obvious I had to revisit the most sensational of my ancestors, those fierce Viking seafarers. Since the relatives I know of have mostly been farmers, lumberjacks, workers and teachers, it was exciting to hark back to the wild and crazy-brave adventurers of yesteryear (or, as they were known by the conquered, plundering heathen murderers).
Neil Oliver’s The Vikings: A New History, Robert Ferguson’s The Vikings: A History and Nancy Marie Brown’s The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman have been my main guides to the far distant past. I must admit to having especially enjoyed the latter—a woman’s perspective on and about a people that seem to have been brimming over with fierce, independent, sexy and powerful women. Their sister descendants are both impressive in government and inveterate crime solvers in today’s real and fictional Scandinavia.
Finally, here’s a favorite line from one of the books in my stacks. Peter Freuchen dedicates the “Vagrant Viking” to “To the memory of my mother, one of a long line of seafarers, who taught me at an early age that staying at home is no way to get on in the world.” My mother, on the other hand, talked a being-settled game but in reality she was a brave explorer in her own right. Her journeys were modest in distance but they crossed the U.S in search of that better life somewhere out there for herself and then for her family. She is my idol too, a person whose life was partly a story of forays into the unknown, taken with equal amounts trepidation, bravery and hope. Which is also the story of the Vikings.