Halvorsen Gatlin: Where the fireweed grows

Memories of trip arise with flower every year

Wilson Rawls’ 1961 novel, “Where the Red Fern Grows,” is a heart-gripping story of a boy and his two redbone coonhounds, Old Dan and Little Ann. The youngest of my three boys, Tony, loved that book about the adventurous trio.

I’ve come to dearly love something, too, that not only prompted a moving story in my own life, but became a part of a fantastic adventure. Though it’s not an animal, it is very much alive, especially in early summer.

My story in which it figured began in late June 2003. Eastbound from Aberdeen, where I was living then, I passed through Central Park on my way to Sea-Tac Airport for a flight to a far-away land I’d hardly dreamed visiting. Passing by dazzling pink blossoms of fireweed plants on my right, I noted their splendor.

Ironically, for years I didn’t care for fireweed. It seems laughable now, but I had the idea the plant with the brilliant bluish-pink blooms topped with a spire of darker pink blossoms that never seemed to open, were deformed.

I’d never even questioned that from year to year. I guess I thought there was something intrinsically wrong with them. Perky color aside, those spiked tops that seemed never able to fill out spoiled the overall effect. That day, though, I just noted the brilliant color as I passed.

I was elated about the trip — I was going to walk in the footsteps in the homeland of my father’s Norwegian forebears.

My great-grandparents, Hans Martin Halvorsen and Gurine Halvorsdatter, and most of their 10 children left there in the late 1800s. Some came two or three at a time. But the first, their teen daughter, Oline — pronounced “Oleena” — was unaccompanied. Someday, I’d like to learn why.

My grandfather, Thomas, a “tween” in today’s vernacular, traveled with two siblings, also sans parents. I’ve often questioned how an adventurous young lad could come all that way from Oslo (known long ago as “Christiania”), probably by way of Germany and across “the pond” without falling overboard or something else equally risky.


Though I never knew Grandfather (he died before I was born), I know he had to have been a lively boy. I think it was my cousin, Walt, who knew him and whom I found in 2001 when researching my family — who told me Thomas had been a “motorcycle man.”

Also thanks to Walt, a decorated Battle of the Bulge hero who died a couple years ago in his 90s, I have a picture of Thomas on a 1917 Harley-Davidson, which even sported a sidecar.

I’m sure the “hog” was my grandfather’s as a number of photos clearly show his leg gaiters, likely leather, reaching nearly from ankles to knees. He also wore what was called an Ivy League cap when I was growing up.

I spent two weeks in Norway, six days in the quaint town of Drammen, southwest of Oslo, touring Stromso parish’s 1667 wooden cruciform (cross-shaped) church, where my great-grandparents — Hans Martin and Gurine — were married, and walking at least one street the whole family had lived on together.

In both Oslo and Drammen, I was fascinated to find the gorgeous fireweed growing more prolifically than I’d ever seen it here. In fact there were so many in those southern parts of Norway that folks lined their drives with them. I was awestruck to find our Washington wildflower obviously thriving – and being appreciated — so far away. (Or a Norway wildflower that grows here, too.)


I also flew to the northern-most point of Europe, North Cape (Nordcapp to Norskies) … way north of the Arctic Circle. Now I have pictures of the midnight sun.

The next day, I traveled down the west coast to Bergen, for three fascinating days in museums and strolling the old wharf where the Hanseatic League operated its trade empire in the 14th-16th centuries.

Heading east to return to Oslo, I savored a fjord cruise on a small mail boat that ended at the Flam Railway, where I caught a train over breathtakingly steep, magnificent mountains so exquisite they defy description.

Later, boarding a plane at Oslo’s Gardermoen Airport, I left with much more than some photos and “vacation” memories.

I not only carry the feminized version of the name of both Thomases, my father and grandfather, I now have a connection with my grandfather’s birthplace and that of many other family members.

That exquisite land has become to me sort of second, and treasured home. I think Grandfather would have liked that.

And I do hope the fireweed bloomed while he was still there.

To reach columnist Tommi Halvorsen Gatlin, send an email to rhoda1946@yahoo.com.