I couldn't believe what confronted me as I crested the rise. Two moose, a mother and her calf, blocked my path. Slowly I lowered my pack and attempted to free my camera. But before I could capture them on film, they loped away into the surrounding pine forest.
That incident was typical of the super natural surprises I discovered on my 643-kilometer (400-mile) trek along St Olav's Way in Norway.
Stretching northwest from Oslo, Norway's capital, to Trondheim on the Norwegian Sea, St Olav's Way offers an intriguing way to discover this country of natural superlatives.
Originating in 1031AD, the trail traces the early Norse pilgrims' route as they traveled to Nidaros to pay homage and pray for miracles at the grave of King Olav who was granted sainthood for spreading Christianity in the country.
For nearly 500 years, the faithful followed this same rugged route until the Reformation in 1603 when pilgrimages were banned and the trail fell into disuse. In 1997, the Norwegian government spent millions to map and clear the pathway and reclaim a unique chapter of the country's heritage.
Today this trail, or pilgrimsleden as it is called, is being rediscovered by modern Norwegians, adventurous world trekkers, pilgrims, and those simply seeking solitude and peaceful contemplation.
I was surprised to find myself the only "pilgrim" along that path in August, Europe's most popular travel month. In fact, during my 25 days on the trail, I passed perhaps only seven others, mostly local hikers out for the afternoon.
The terrain varies. For several days, beginning not far outside Oslo, you trace the edge of crystalline Lake Mjøsa. After passing Lillehammer, site of the 1994 winter Olympics, you spend several days in the picturesque Gudbrandsdal Valley.
Lodging was never a problem for me. I just phoned ahead at least a day in advance for reservations. The Overnattingsguiden, a lodging guide available from the Pilgrim-skontoret (Pilgrim's Office) in Oslo, is an invaluable source for listings of free rustic pilgrim's huts, camping cabins (averaging $25), bed and breakfasts, excellent youth hostels, and lodgings in historic sites.
One interesting place to sleep is the Jørundgard Middelaltersenter, near Sel. This reconstructed 12th century farm offers live stage performances in summer, and it has an impressive outdoor museum.
Leaving Sel, the trail continues to wend through fields of wheat, barley and rye, down ancient King's trails, through primeval pine forests dotted with wild mushrooms and holy healing wells.
Up and down and up again I climbed, all the while surrounded by abundant wildlife, from the tiniest wildflower to wild raspberries the size of strawberries, to wayward sheep, to elusive deer, elk, or moose.
The Dovre plateau, or Dovrefjell, at nearly 1,000 meters (3,280 feet), is a stark contrast to the bucolic valley below. Suddenly I was walking across a tundra-like landscape of delicate wildflowers, spongy lichen, even seeing the occasional musk ox.
If the trail maddeningly disappeared, I either created my own way across fields, thickets, bogs, or over fences, or I simply found a local to set me right. Thankfully, most speak very good English.
In Norway, a village is typically a collection of farms, or gårds. So besides the few mid-sized cities along the way, like Otta or Oppdal, it can be a long hike between stores. I learned to carry about three days of provisions with me at all times.
Even then, I ran out. On several occasions, locals were kind enough to give me food or water. All I had to do was ask.
The weather was unpredictable. In early August, I was surprised to have three blistering days of nearly 30ºC (90ºF) then, two weeks later, I was face-to-face with sleet and near-freezing winds.
From Dovrefjell and Hjerkinnhø, the highest point at 1,200 meters (3,900 feet), it's nearly all downhill to the fjord and King Olav's resting place at Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim.
Weary after 25 days on the trail, I headed straight to the nearby pilgrim's office where I received a certificate for completing the trek. Then the Archbishop personally led me to the pilgrim's room for complimentary stew, hot coffee, and a pastry – a warm, hearty welcome on a chilly Norwegian day at the end of an inspirational solo journey.
This was the fourth such pilgrimage trek for Brandon Wilson, author of the award-winning book Yak Butter Blues: A Tibetan Trek of Faith. For a sample chapter, photos, music, links, and pilgrimage trek information, visit www.PilgrimsTales.com.