Becoming a Viking: The Magic of Not Being in Control
Come to the edge, he said.
They said, we are afraid.
Come to the edge, he said.
And so they came.
And he pushed them.
And they flew…
The edge I was standing on that morning was the coast of Denmark. I could just barely make out the silhouette of Sweden across the dark waters.
Be not afraid, I thought to myself. Then, in the midst of a small gathering of people, I took off all my clothes and jumped into the water.
Ohmygod … this … is … cold.
A few long moments later, I emerged from the water.
My skin felt astonishing, like it was lit from within by a thousand fairy lights. A Scandinavian mermaid.
According to Karen (my Danish cousin who does this all the time), I can now say that I am a Viking – and not just genetically – but by virtue of having experienced the polar opposite of Danish hygge (roughly translated as coziness) when I jumped into an icy cold sea completely naked.
Why naked, you might ask? Because, as Karen explains, it is so cold here in the winter that if you wore a bathing suit, it would freeze to your skin the moment you immerse in the frigid waters, and the only way to remove your suit would be to have it cut off. Being the egalitarian and practical people they are, the Danes therefore decided to do away with bathing suits altogether.
The day I became a Viking began innocently enough with cups of hot, dark coffee and fresh bread with cheese and jam in the kitchen of Karen’s cosy farmhouse, one of my favorite places in the world. Karen looked at me and said – Okay, is this the morning you become a Viking?
I have been coming to this beautiful old family farmhouse since I was a kid. The first time, my mother left me there for several days on my own. I didn’t know more than a few words of Danish, other than the basics: chocolade (chocolate), kransekage (a delicious almond cake), farvel (goodbye) and tak (thanks).
Karen taught me a few more Danish words – farm, cat, rock, house. Each morning we rode bicycles across the countryside to attend Karen’s school – a completely bewildering experience for me, isolated as I was by the language. At night, I lay in bed in a tiny bedroom up under the thatched eaves of the farmhouse, warm under a Danish dyne (down comforter), listening in the dark to hushed voices murmuring in the kitchen below. I felt like a Danish version of Heidi.
Much to my surprise, I was out-hiked each and every day not by twenty-somethings (there were none on the trip) but by three sixty-somethings.
That was my first experience ‘soloing’ – on my own, immersed in another culture where I didn’t speak or understand the language. I was hooked by the exhilaration of the new; by the mysteries and strangeness of it all, and (most importantly) by coming out okay at the end. Ever since, I have looked for opportunities to travel beyond the complacent zone of my normal everyday existence.
The year before I officially became “a Viking,” I had soloed to Ethiopia on a somewhat innocently radical quest to track down some stories for a book I was writing. It was an experience that initially scared me to pieces (especially the first night, which involved unexpected encounters with a monkey, a leper and a prostitute.) But I survived and came back changed in many ways.
So jumping into the cold sea in Denmark – uden toj, as they say over there – shouldn’t have been something I would hesitate to do. But I did – at least until I remembered the mantra I had adopted back home in the mountains of Appalachia.
Be not afraid.
And so, when Karen repeated, Kristin – is this the morning you become a Viking?
I said yes.
Off we went to the edge of the sea. It was a small challenge, but I did it, surprising myself in the process.
After it was over and I was reveling in the skin tingling loveliness and the high that accompanies an unexpected flirtation with dare devilishness, it occurred to me that perhaps the magic is really in not feeling in control.
I let that intriguing thought – the relationship between the fear of not being able to control things versus the magic of unexpected outcomes – ruminate in my head for a while before challenging myself again.
A few years later I tested this idea by signing up for ten days of hiking in Iceland – an adventure just extreme enough to feel I was testing my limits without a reasonable expectation of dying in the process. I didn’t know a soul in the country, or on the trip, and I don’t speak Icelandic. I would definitely not be in control. Of anything.
That was my first experience ‘soloing’ – on my own, immersed in another culture where I didn’t speak or understand the language. I was hooked by the exhilaration of the new; by the mysteries and strangeness of it all, and (most importantly) by coming out okay at the end.
I booked onto an REI trip, and then spent a ridiculous amount of time worrying that I might not be able to keep up with the others. Visions of twenty-somethings scaling the landscape in athletic leaps and bounds with me slowly trudging through ice and volcanic ash, some distance behind, haunted and taunted me. Rather than face this humiliation, I nearly backed out of the trip. But just in time, I remembered – Be not afraid.
Inside my head, an interesting dialog unfolded as the logical, rational part of me was able to calm the emotional, irrational part of me by framing the trip as a photography assignment. And for some reason, the ruse worked. Which is a good thing, for had I succumbed to my fears, I would have missed ten days of astonishing adventures and new friendships.
Much to my surprise, I was out-hiked each and every day not by twenty-somethings (there were none on the trip) but by three sixty-somethings. There was also the flat out exhilaration of being a part of a group of intrepid souls hiking an active volcano – each of us hoping we would be able to make a 2.5 hour descent through fields of snow and razor sharp lava rocks in a breathtakingly inadequate half hour window, should it happen to erupt. These Icelandic experiences, and others, turned many of my fears and concerns on their heads. My pre-trip jitters had been total rubbish.
A recent post from The North Face outerwear company reminded me of what I had gained from hiking in Iceland: the truest version of ourselves stands well beyond comfort’s perimeter. Thanks to the encouragement I received from a winter’s night message in Appalachia to be not afraid, I have been pushed at the edge, in the words of poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and found that I am able to fly.
(This post originally appeared on the author’s blog, Dating Appalachia. It is the sequel to ‘How a Winter Night in Appalachia Inspired Me to Live Fearlessly’.)