On a recent wintery evening I had the opportunity to watch the movie version of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” In case you have not seen it, I can tell you that it has little to do with the short story of the same name by James Thurber that was required reading when I was in high school fifty years ago. In case you have neither seen the movie, nor read the short story, I am not spoiling anything if I tell you that the character Walter Mitty was a man who had a very active imagination, and his imagined life was chock full of excitement and adventure of all kinds. It comes to mind right now because of a conversation I had with my pal Casper this morning.

First we talked about the almost spring-like weather of late, which quickly led to speculation about the local cross-country skiing prospects for the next few days. Not so good, we agreed. And that, for some reason, led to us recalling another day a few years back,

That day, maybe eight or ten years ago, had started innocently when Casper and I began to talk about how our ski-touring equipment had changed over the years. We were in the parking lot at the Lolo Pass Visitor Center getting ready to take a turn on the ski trails up there.

We commented on each other’s sporty equipment and remembered back to our first forays into the cross-country ski business. It turned out that both of us had bought our first pair of cross-country skis sometime in the early or mid-’70s, right here in Missoula. Those skis were long, beautiful, dark, shiny, wood things made in Norway. They required a coat of pine tar to be laid on before applying one of a confusing array of waxes necessary for smooth operation.

“Do you remember how much time it used to take screwing around trying to get the right wax? And when you finally had a good one, the temperature would change and you would have to start all over again?” I asked.

“Yeah. It was a pain, all right. But I still have those skis,” Casper said.

“So do I. They’re just too pretty to get rid of.”

Soon, we were sliding along the trail, side-by-side, getting the feel of things on our up-to-date, light, waxless, composite skis. A light dusting of new snow squeaked and squished beneath our skis.

Since Casper and I have developed a habit over the years of engaging in a bit of good-natured one upmanship, I took the opportunity to get in a few last words.

“I suppose you know that I am genetically well-suited for cross-country skiing since my people in Norway more or less invented it,” I announced in an authoritative tone.

Mom Was Way Ahead of the Rest of Us.

Mom Was Way Ahead of the Rest of Us.

“No, I don’t know that,” he replied.

Some Norwegians I Know, and One Who  Is Not

Some Norwegians I Know, and One Who Is Not

“They all came over from Telemark, you know. That’s a province in Norway. That’s where this whole business got its official start. Sure, people have been skiing forever wherever they had to travel over snow, but someone from Telemark gets credit for perfecting the Telemark turn, and that led to downhill skiing and the whole recreational skiing end of things. We wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for my people,” I said.

Then I explained to him that my son Sander had been doing some research on the whole thing for a school project, and I had learned all of this from him.

“And of course you remember the movie, “The Heroes of Telemark,” don’t you?” I asked.

“Not really.”

So I proceeded to tell him about the 1965 film starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris as Norwegian resistance fighters in World War II who skied down from the almost inaccessable mountains and glaciers of Telemark to sabotage a hydroelectric plant where the occupying Nazis were manufacturing the heavy water they hoped to use to produce a nuclear weapon.

“I don’t know how the science part works, but I do know it was a race against time, and the Norwegians were able to do it because they could get around those mountains on skis. It really happened,” I explained.

The next thing I knew, I was telling Casper that he could be “Knut” – that’s Richard Harris – and I would be “Rolf” – that’s Kirk Douglas – and our lap around the big loop on the ski trail would be the race to save western civilization.

“Why do you get to be Kirk Douglas?” he asked.

“He was just a short little guy with a weird dimple in his chin. Richard Harris is much better,” I explained.

Sister Sally Shows How It's Done

Sister Sally Shows How It’s Done

It wasn’t long before Casper, now Knut, was moving out ahead. Soon, he disappeared around a bend and it was 10 or 15 minutes before I again caught sight of him, waiting patiently on the side of the track.

“You’ll make it, Ole. I mean Kirk, or Rolf, or whoever you are. But aren’t you the one who knows how to blow this thing up?” he asked in a serious voice, without a trace of smile.

“I think I must have explained it all to you, just in case I didn’t make it through,” I responded.

Casper was into this now, and he didn’t wait for me to catch my breath before he took off again.

Tollefson Boys Get Early Ski Resistance Training at Marshal Mountain, 1953

Tollefson Boys Get Early Ski Resistance Training at Marshal Mountain, 1953

“Come on, Rolf! We have no time to waste!”

When I next caught up with him, he was standing at one of the trail markers with a map and a “You are here” arrow on it, trying to ascertain exactly where “here” was. Two young women skiers were standing there, also looking at it.

I pulled to a stop beside the three of them. Since I didn’t have my glasses, I couldn’t spot the location arrow, so I asked one of the women to point it out for me. But Casper was impatient.

“I know it’s tough, Rolf, but we have a heavy water plant to blow up. Let’s go!”

And he was on his way again with me in hot pursuit. The two women were left standing by the sign wondering, we presumed, what that was all about.

“Knut! Wait! I forgot, I’ve got all the explosives with me,” I shouted after him.

But he didn’t wait.

“I’ll do it with my bare hands if I have to!” he shouted back.

On we went until we had completed the loop and the warming hut and visitor center buildings had come into sight.

“Well, Rolf, we did it. It would have been bad for the world in general if we weren’t such top-notch skiers, and fearless to boot,” Casper said with a grin.

“We’re not quite done, Knut. In the real story, they had to ski another 400 kilometers to Sweden to get away from the Nazis.” I made that up on the spot.

Knut, As He LooksToday

Knut, As He LooksToday

“Well, that’s nice, Rolf, but I think we’ve done enough for one day. I know this skiing is in your blood and all of that, but the escape to Sweden will keep. Right now, I want to get out of these skis and get something to drink,” he said.

On the way home, we decided that one of these days it might be fun to break out those old wooden skis and save the world one more time, the good old-fashioned way.

It was not until later that old friend Noah dropped by my place to give me a book he thought I might be interested in.

“I think this book is about your people. I thought you might find it interesting.”

The book, “Skis Against the Atom,” by Knut Haukelid, told the whole story straight from the horse’s mouth. He was the very Knut who Richard Harris played in the movie. You bet I found it interesting! And when I had a chance to visit Norway and see some of the country where this story took place, it only served to fuel my imagination all the more.

No, I do not spend all my time imagining I am someone I am not, involved in some daring adventure somewhere else. I am not particularly dissatisfied with who I am, how I got here, and what life has to offer. But, from time to time, I find it to be invigorating to slip away into that other world just for a little while like Walter Mitty.

And sometimes it’s nice to have a comrade in arms, just like Casper, if only to provide a little assurance that I am not completely bazoots.

Oh, the family pictures are only marginally connected to the text, but they were fun to include.








  1. Thanks for the laugh! Pictures were also fun.

  2. That was great thanks! Just don’t go trying to do that kind of thing next time you are flying out of Missoula.

  3. Love the combination of fantasy and history. I think we should all be kids play acting from time to time. Was glad you mentioned “Skis Against the Atom.” Maybe your blog posting will get more people to read it!

  4. That was fun! The little guy, head to toe in plaid, leaning against his big brother was you, es verdad??

  5. Wonderful story, Greg. Hard to remember that I was once taller than you.


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