After numerous weeks of vigorous being and doing around the clock, the cruel fierceness of summer had made life spin so fast underneath my feet that everything around me was turning into a greyish blur of suppressed anxiety, perpetual hangovers and stifling FOMO. My insides felt bruised and battered from too much socialising and too little sleep, and like a punctured balloon I was sinking slowly towards the ground.
One damp night in the middle of August, after spending an hour and a half listening to the incessant buzz buzz buzzing of my own thoughts, the high pitched whining from a distant car alarm and the snoring of my flatmate’s dog – I’d had enough. I grabbed my phone from under my pillow, squinted against the bright screen, and tapped my way to a train ticket. Destination? The realm of goats, moose and trolls – aka “Sætra”, my family’s cabin, deep in the mountains of Hedmark.
The next day I dug out my old backpack and filled it with some essentials: my notebook, a copy of Tor Ulven’s collected prose, comfy clothes and a selection of colourful woollen socks. Two trains, one bus, and a twenty minutes walk later, I was making it up the hillside of Sollia. The familiar landscape, together with the crisp air, filled me with calm euphoria. I was almost there.
I could finally see it. Atop the hill, resting on the edge of the forest, an old-fashioned cog joint with grass, buttercups and clover growing from the roof. It had been bought by my grand-parents several decades ago, and had been a mountain pasture where farmers would live during the summer while their stock grazed higher up. Still, for as long as I could remember, it had served as my safe haven, the one place that seemed earnest on this oddball called earth. I could hear the goats bleat in the distance while I went to get the key from the hiding place, and released the rusty padlock on the two-pieced door.
Entering the cabin, it was as if someone had pushed a pause button on time. Stacks of childhood memories were spilling out from every nook and every corner, from the rag rugs, the paraffin lamps, the wood burner, and the Donald Pockets on the shelf. Taking in the familiar smell, I felt like I had travelled fifteen years into the past. There still wasn’t any electricity, and I realised I should turn off my phone to save battery in case I needed it. This lost city girl was about to get a proper existential detox.
The rest of the day was spent removing fly corpses from the corners, and fetching water from the well a few hundred yards up the hill. The manual labour was a welcome chance to get out of my own head for a while, and I felt a strange combination of childlike excitement and solemn independence when heading out to chop firewood. Standing wide legged, I sent the axe gliding through the air, feeling the thrill as it came down on the log, and closed my eyes to the spatter of chippings that flew through the air like celebratory fireworks. The blade kept eating its way through the growth rings until the shadow of the woodshed had outgrown itself, and I had sweated out the tense knot in my chest.
When I finally went back inside the main room – a kitchen, living room and bedroom all-in-one – was both chilly and dusky, so after lighting a few candles and placing them around the room like well-trained glow flies, I started making a fire. Feeling a similar satisfaction as earlier, I crafted a small tower of lumpy logs, dried birch bark and old newspapers, and placed a lit match at the core. As the fire started to growl, I began looking through the dates on the papers, reaching back to the beginning of the century.
Time had accumulated in layers upon layers, folded together like the pages of the newspapers and the circles inside the tree trunks. All around me, moments from past years were squashed together; the blissful summer days spent there with my ex-boyfriend the week before the terrorist attacks of July 22.; the intense rounds of card games with my family that one spring it snowed on the 17th of May; the glee of eating mouthfuls of blueberries out of my grandfather’s hand in a fashion he had named “mumsing”. Memory after memory, piled into the detailed showreel playing to my inner eye, while I stared at the flames devouring the wood.
As I stood brushing my teeth by the stream behind the cabin the following morning, it occurred to me how somehow everything seemed just a little bit better in the mountains; waking up was more pleasant, the cold morning air was more charming, and the instant coffee I had just burnt my tongue on was one of the best I’d ever had.
Heading out, I found the goats chilling in the sun, hanging out by one of the still running summer farms. The herd looked up as I approached, getting in line to throw sceptical glances at me though their rectangular pupils, so I sat down a few feet away and started chatting the way I’d use to do as a kid. Reflecting on how a passing hiker might find me crazy for conversing with animals, I proceeded to tell the goats about this observation – I’d decided to take a break from caring about what others might think. The clove-footed rascals answered by sauntering over to nibble on my shoelaces and push their heads against my skin in an almost feline manner, giving me flashbacks from when I used to play with them for hours. Once, I tried to convince my mum that my long-haired friend “Billy” should be invited in for dinner.
The thick, earthy smell of goat lingered with me for a while, the greasy brown lines under my nails a token of our bond. A nameless song by Eddie Vedder – the one with the long pause in the middle – teased softly at the back of my mind, but as the evening grew to an end, the only sounds in the cabin were the growling from the fire and the scratching of my pen against the paper. Amongst soot stains and coffee spills, I scribbled down the lines “time = a quantum leap between memories” and “silence = the distance between clusters of thoughts”.
I stayed for several days, each as precious as the previous. My detox was carried out by searching for serenity in the simplest things, like bumblebees and baby birds, as well as stocking up on silence. I felt like a dewdrop, released into the beautiful landscapes around me, dispersed amongst the moss and the heath underneath the lichen-covered trees. I had no sharp edges, no corners, no beginning and no end – just an endless horizon. My thoughts poured out from my ear ducts and into the silence, mixing with the tripping of an ant’s tiny feet and the gentle sound of the grass growing. I felt with painful certainty that I was no one to anyone, but everyone to myself. Stripped down to this uncorrupted existence, all I was wearing was my skin and my past.
On the third day I went hiking up a mountaintop, and as I reached the top, and the Tolkienesque Mountain plateau folded out in front of me, it struck me how surreal it felt that all the places we know are alive simultaneously. That while I was listing to the fierce wind in the middle of a green eternity, someone might be lighting a fag outside the door I had entered at Oslo Central Station. At the very same time, someone might be running to catch a bus outside my home in London, drinking their Turkish coffee outside a café in Istanbul or hooking up on a beach in LA. It felt strange that all the places I’d ever been, existed at the same time, and were experienced continuously by people like me, getting lost in order to be found.
The stay at the cabin had started to make me feel like all of time existed simultaneously as well, as if just being there had given me an emotional understanding of the principles of quantum physics and space-time. Maybe time both was and wasn’t, the same ways our past selves both are and aren’t. After all, Einstein once said that: “The distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Although my past selves had all been versions of me, they felt more like people I once knew than people I once was. My old skins had been shredded while my cells continued to replace each other one by one. Yet, in the book I was reading, Tor Ulven wrote about the universe being concealed deep within every person, the one that cannot, and should not, be dissected or understood. I wondered if this could be the missing link, the one that allowed time to both exist and not exist, the element where all our layers are stored and all our selves merge.
My last night at the cabin was spent engulfed in the silence of dusk, and staring at the stars popping out on the darkened canvas above. The man in the moon grinned down at me, and every inch of time filled the space, lasted a tiny eternity. I felt myself turning into a sponge, soaking up everything, clinging to every moment. With my knees tucked into my woollen sweater and my cap pulled down to my eyebrows, I tried to list all the things that had happened since the last time I was there. But I rapidly lost count. Suddenly, I got that tingly feeling I get on New Year’s Eve, as I wondered what would have happened by the time I got back.
In a bittersweet way, I was slightly relived to be heading back to civilisation the next morning. Everything up in the mountain was starting to feel too pretty and too pure, and I knew it would inevitably overstrain my senses, leaving me numb if I stayed too long. Lost city girl had found herself, and what was next up on the list was a refill of madness, shenanigans, and the sound of noisy voices.
On the train ride back, I turned my phone back on, put on my earplugs, and tapped my way to the tune I’d been trying to remember for the last couple of days – it turned out to be the credits song from Into the Wild. I pressed play and leaned back, comforted by the thought that my magic place would stay where is was, on its hillside by the stream, no matter what went on any other place; it would stay my constant.
Before I left, I hung a poem by Lord Byron on the wall above my bed: “There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, There is rapture on the lonely shore, There is society, where none intrudes, By the deep Sea, and music in its roar: I love not Man the less, but Nature more, From these our interviews, in which I steal From all I may be, or have been before, To mingle with the Universe, and feel What I can never express, yet cannot all conceal.”