[Editor’s note: To celebrate Matador Network’s acquisition of Glimpse.org, we’ll be republishing some of our favorite Glimpse articles over the next few weeks. This story originally appeared on Glimpse.org in April of 2004.]
ONE NIGHT OVER dinner, my Danish host father surprised me with some wonderful news.
“Next weekend, there is an orienteering race just north of Helsingør,” he said.
“Wow, Peter. That sounds like fun,” I said. “I hope you’ll do well. Can you pass the salt?”
“Of course it shall be fun,” he answered, with a devious smile. “We have entered you as well.”
I immediately forgot about the salt. “You entered me… to race?” My host parents, Peter and Karen-Margrethe Nielsen, had often told me about their adventures with the Skærmen Værløse Kommune orienteering team, and as I listened to their tales about eternal treks, drenched clothing, and upside-down maps, I always tried to restrain a smirk. But apparently Peter and Karen-Margrethe had interpreted my quiet, patronizing grins as wild enthusiasm for their favorite pastime.
“Yes. We will practice this Wednesday,” Peter continued. “The race is on Sunday.”
And that was that. I had a week to prepare.
In an orienteering competition, participants run through a wooded area, using a map and a compass to match topographical map icons with the terrain that surrounds them. As they navigate the course, they must locate a series of hidden checkpoints and insert a hand-held chip into an electronic data-recorder at each point. The person who finds all the checkpoints in the least amount of time claims victory.
I was a decent runner, but I was not accustomed to running and thinking at the same time. Wednesday arrived, and Peter and Karen-Margrethe escorted me into the woods behind their neighborhood to practice my skills. Peter gave me a compass and an old orienteering map and explained what each map symbol represented. At checkpoint seven, Karen-Margrethe decided to go home and start dinner because it was getting dark. Peter, on the other hand, insisted that we finish. In the semi-darkness, I located checkpoints 10 and 11, and he appeared satisfied.
“Good. You should do fine on Sunday. Just try not to miss checkpoint nine during the race.”
“I missed checkpoint nine?” I asked.
“Yes. You missed checkpoint nine. Let’s go home and eat.”
Sunday morning arrived sooner than I had hoped. I sat in our kitchen, my New Balance trainers tapping the floor as I anxiously bounced my knee. Peter and Karen-Margrethe entered the room and my expectations for the day suddenly entered a new strata of bizarre: They looked like a pair of sprightly spacemen from a low-budget 1970s sci-fi movie. Their suits—long-sleeved tops and tapered trousers—were made of a forest green lycra-nylon blend, offset by electric blue flames on the arms, legs, and collar.
My facial expression must have betrayed my utter astonishment. Karen-Margrethe asked, “Oh, you like our clown outfits?”
We loaded up the camper van and drove to the race. All around, hundreds of competitors were setting up tents to protect themselves from the gathering rain. Much to my delight, everyone was outfitted like Peter and Karen-Margrethe, all in different shades of neon.
My name was called, and Peter led me to the starting line to give me some final words of encouragement. I joined the four fellow runners in my heat, each of whom would be following a different course. They were staring at their maps like a quartet of bloodthirsty high-schoolers hungry to begin the SATs. The starting clock sounded with a loud beep, and I saw four vivid streaks of color cross the starting line and disappear into the woods. I looked at my map one more time, noting a bright “this is where you are” dot. Gripping my compass for dear life, I scurried into Aggebo Hegn.
Before I knew it, I was talking to myself: “OK, path on right, path on right, path on right. There. OK, next: ravine. Ravine… ravine… there. All right. That means a checkpoint should be right… over… there?”
I picked my way through the damp forest for what seemed like ages. Eventually, I stumbled across a dense patch of ferns and spotted it—my first checkpoint! I timidly inserted my electric chip into the box and heard a beep beep as the machine relayed my data to the judges. Alone, with no one to share my joy, I pressed on.
The points were scattered across my map in a colorful array of dots, set against orange and green backdrops (fields and tree groves). There were also wavy red lines indicating elevation. At the map’s northern extreme was a paved roadway, and on the western extreme, a pasture that Peter had warned me about. “Do not climb the fence surrounding the pasture,” he had said.
“Because there are bulls in there. It is very dangerous.”
Amazingly, I eventually found the next checkpoint. To my further amazement, one by one, I proceeded to find the rest. They were sunk in gullies, concealed in gnarled roots and thick underbrush, tucked at the edges of clearings, and buried in vegetation at the banks of marshes. My chip beeped harmoniously in each metal box. Finally, I passed my chip through the receiver at point 14 and headed for the finish line. My shoes were soaked and my shirt was ripped, but as I crossed the line, I was thoroughly, utterly exhilarated.
I handed my time card to the judges and was unceremoniously given my final time: 53 minutes, one second. Fifty-three minutes, one second! I had finished in under an hour! I soon found Peter, covered in sweat and wiping the rain from his glasses, and proudly displayed my time: “Ohhh,” he said. “Fifty-three minutes. Well, it was a rather difficult course.”
As times were collected and posted on a large bulletin board nearby, I understood his lack of enthusiasm. My finger slid from the top times—just above 20 minutes—down and down until I reached the very bottom. There I was: third to last place in the “children, seniors, and newcomers” group. I had beaten a 12-year-old, and someone named Bjarke who never showed.
With that, as quickly as it had begun, my orienteering career came to a close. Ever since that fateful weekend, my fellow Americans enjoy harassing me when we get lost on the streets of Copenhagen, nudging me and proclaiming, “Let the Orienteering King lead the way!” But I just smile. Because deep down, I know that I spent my finest hour here in Denmark—no, strike that, my finest 53 minutes and one second, thank you very much—utterly lost in the woods of Aggebo Hegn.
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