Emily Johnsen's Norway Selfie
Credit: Courtesy of Emily Johnsen

While most women my age are concerned with finding “the one” and settling down, I’m hoping to perpetuate my search. But rather than seeking marriage, I’m looking to expand my horizons, quite literally. You see, I’m committed to travel, and for the past two years, I’ve been seeing Norway. From the cultural capital of Oslo to the arctic allure of Tromsø, I’ve entered into a long-distance love affair with my Scandinavian sweetheart. And I keep going back for more.

Years ago, I would have never imagined traveling alone, but in the weeks leading up to my 30th birthday, I found myself in the vague remains of a ghosting relationship. Fortunately, this disappearing act elicited a change of heart in me. I wished to live my 30s differently. Rather than focusing on my next dating prospect, putting all my hope and happiness into someone else’s hands, I wanted to get excited about something that I could do on my own. After all, I knew I wouldn’t disappoint; I was a sure thing.

To begin my relationship cleanse, I immediately cut out selfish guilt and debilitating doubt, reduced my intake of social expectations, and indulged in healthy soul-searching opportunities, which were often rich with no-see-ums and Vitamin D. I covered miles of hiking trails in New Jersey and upstate New York. My detox consisted of luscious greenery, alpine vistas, and major elevation gain. There was something so satisfying in navigating the trails without guidance. Of course, I had moments of sheer panic when I thought I’d lost my way, but it’s exhilarating to find you can survive (and thrive!) in those situations. It was a total confidence booster, and with each obstacle I overcame, I was curious to know what else I could endure.

While my solo travel regimen started local, it soon grew to include overnights in a Catskills camping cabin, weekends in artsy and culture-rich cities like Portland and Philadelphia, and treks on mountain ranges across the country, until eventually I started looking abroad.

Due to the rise of low-cost airline options and my growing desire to explore, a trip to Norway finally seemed within my reach. With a general itinerary of lodging and transportation, I had enough structure for peace of mind, and adequate leeway to let the days and nights unfold as they may. My plan was to seek new adventures, to embrace the unexpected, and to photograph the experience. I knew I’d be drawn to the landscape, the culture, and the people, but I also hoped to feel I belonged in the home of my ancestors.

After embarking on my customized Norway in a Nutshell tour, I traveled by ferry to the village of Geiranger. I had purposely booked my trip before the peak tourism season began to avoid any crowds. The timing was everything for the views were splendidly free of cruise ships and the trees had just started to bloom. Spring was omnipresent and I had Geirangerfjord all to myself, well, at least for the next two and a half hours.

As soon as we docked, I headed to a local shop where I was told I could purchase a map of hiking trails in the area. My goal was to make it to the Løstra viewpoint to take it all in from above, and be back in time to catch my bus to Ålesund. Equipped with wonderment, enthusiasm, and my sturdy Hunter boots, I set out to the trailhead. A little wooden gate marked the beginning of my journey. I recalled the Norwegian right of access (“allemannsretten”), which essentially permits people to hike through privately owned countryside. Sure enough, the trail had me traverse orchards and pastures in between the rocky, wooded ascents.

The trek up was fairly steep, but determined as I was I kept at it. After a while, I looked back and was relieved to find no one else from my tour had the same idea. I carried on at my swift pace. Eventually, the forest opened up to a sun-filled clearing. As I rounded the bend of a grassy knoll, I stopped dead in my tracks in amazement.

There on the pastoral mountainside was a sheep with her two playful lambs. Before I began my hike, I figured I might be crossing farmland of some kind, but it never occurred to me that I’d encounter any farm life. It was so picturesque, and much of my awe was in how stereotypically beautiful it was. I had clearly walked into a 19th century landscape painting. The scene was like a dream, and yet there was no one around to confirm that this was real.

The curious lambs played for a bit while the ewe kept a watchful eye on me. She herded her babies so they were just out of reach, but I was thankful to be as close as I was. Mindful of the time, I carried on over a few jagged hills. I had been watching my footing when something caught my attention in the distance. It took me a minute to pair the sounds of cowbells with the movement up ahead.

Coming my way down the path was a gathering of about 40 goats of various sizes and colors, some trotting briskly by the group as others enjoyed a leisurely stroll. They had been following along with a Norwegian couple (the only other hikers I would pass that day) coming down the mountain with an infant strapped to the father’s back.

Before I knew it, baby goats surrounded me, clamoring for my attention. No sooner than I pet and loved on one, I’d feel a tug on my jacket from behind. I didn’t think twice about how to proceed. I instinctively tossed my bag aside and dropped to join them on the ground. They couldn’t get enough of me, and I couldn’t stop fussing over them. I didn’t really care what the couple thought of my response as they passed by, for I was in utter bliss. But based on a few social lessons I picked up from my travels to Bergen, they likely assumed I was crazy, drunk, or American. I figured that was fair.

As the goats bleated their warm hellos, my face surely said it all. I was absolutely beaming, and my eyes filled with tears when I laughed. It was such a simple, yet entirely authentic encounter, and it was the most perfect welcome Norway could have delivered. I had discovered my sense of belonging in the fjords, and I knew at that moment that someday I’d have to make this lovely place my home, for this feeling of joy and rejuvenation was a common practice for the locals.

Friluftsliv, as the Norwegians say, is a philosophy or way of life that seeks a connection to the natural world. Emphasizing emotional ties and respect for the environment, this concept offers a deeper understanding and appreciation for nature.

I could totally relate to this lifestyle. Over the years, I have found that the more remote a place is, the more rewarding the experience. Atop my perch at Løstra, both the view and my perspective became all too clear. Here I had been traveling solo, purposefully dismissing the pursuit of a relationship to find solace and peace within myself, yet even in the middle of nowhere, I found that I am never truly alone. I don’t need another person to make me whole, for I have established a relationship with my natural surroundings, and this offers infinite kinds of love. But it’s up to me to continue nurturing this bond.

And so I’ve returned on a number of occasions to the western fjords, the Arctic Circle, and even to the international territory of Svalbard, each time seeking to understand my place in this world. Perhaps, someday I’ll venture on to chart new waters, but for now I’m still head over heels for my beloved Norway.