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Retracing their steps: Concordia professor recreates Norwegian ancestors' 66-mile trek to homestead for photo project

An image from the “Before My Feet Was Lain” exhibit by Christian Mortenson, assistant professor of photography at Concordia College.1 / 8
An image from the “Before My Feet Was Lain” exhibit by Christian Mortenson, assistant professor of photography at Concordia College.2 / 8
An image from the “Before My Feet Was Lain” exhibit by Christian Mortenson, assistant professor of photography at Concordia College.3 / 8
An image from the “Before My Feet Was Lain” exhibit by Christian Mortenson, assistant professor of photography at Concordia College.4 / 8
An image from the “Before My Feet Was Lain” exhibit by Christian Mortenson, assistant professor of photography at Concordia College.5 / 8
An image from the “Before My Feet Was Lain” exhibit by Christian Mortenson, assistant professor of photography at Concordia College.6 / 8
An image from the “Before My Feet Was Lain” exhibit by Christian Mortenson, assistant professor of photography at Concordia College.7 / 8
Christian Mortenson, assistant professor of photography at Concordia College, stands Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018, in his exhibit “Before My Feet Was Lain” which chronicles his 66-mile walk retracing one made by his great, great grandparents. It is part of a faculty exhibition in Olin Hall next week. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service8 / 8

MOORHEAD, Minn.—Chris Mortenson's great-great-grandparents came to South Dakota from Norway in 1882 in search of better economic opportunity. Mortensen hiked that 66-mile last leg of their journey last summer as a way to transcend time, connect to his roots and make art.

The assistant professor of photography at Concordia College in Moorhead is the descendent of Norwegian immigrants who walked from Pipestone, Minn., to Howard, S.D., a century and a half ago. That voyage inspired Mortenson's photography project, "Before My Feet was Lain," which features 64 of the more than 2,600 images he captured by taking a photo every 30 seconds during his version of the walk.

"It all started with my uncle sending me a bird's-eye photo of their homestead from Google Earth, and then I stewed with it for about 10 years," he said.

The walk that he did June 11-20 of 2017 took roughly six days to complete, with a break in between.

"I felt like I should put myself through what they went through, but as it came closer, the idea of camping by the open highway for six days just didn't seem necessary," Mortenson said. He spent his nights with family nearby.

"I would mark the spot I left on with a mile marker or photograph and then come back the next day and continue walking," he said.

He faced a few minor setbacks along the way, most notably a blister covering the bottom of his left foot that he had to tend to constantly, as well as a torrential downpour and hailstorm that cut one day short.

Mortenson would begin his walk at 7 a.m. and press on until early afternoon. His longest walk in a day was 16 miles long, lasting about eight hours.

He brought a mirrorless Fujifilm camera and a digital GoPro that he attached to his backpack.

For the final exhibition, which he'll discuss during an artist lecture at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 6, on the Concordia campus as part of the Centennial Scholars Lecture Series, he used the GoPro photos to create a wholesome representation of the walk. The camera was timed to take a photo every 30 seconds, amounting to roughly 2,600 images from his journey that he then narrowed down to 64 for the exhibit.

Along the way, he ran into his third cousin from Alaska who happened to be visiting the area. She ended up pulling off the highway and joining him for the remainder of the day.

"I like the pace of walking. I like the slowness of it, the way you are exposed and connected to everything around you. It's such a simple act, but has so much purpose," he said. "Movements are deliberate, even if you are on autopilot, so the idea of walking that distance made me believe that I would have an epiphany or connection of some sort to my ancestors, but it was just really boring for the most part."

The exhibit itself is nothing but boring, but viewers can imagine the tedious journey that walking Midwestern highways would entail. In some of the photos, he's seen adjusting his hair or wiping sweat from his face.

The photos also aim to depict his close proximity to cars zooming by at 65 mph and the monotony of the South Dakota and western Minnesota landscape.

But he didn't choose that specific stretch of land for the scenery. When his ancestors came from Norway, they got to Pipestone and walked all the way to Howard with others who had immigrated.

He has the typed-up account of the legend of their immigration. There were no paved roads when his ancestors were traveling, which sets his experience apart from theirs.

His essential supplies turned out to be plenty of water, a knife and bandages to tend to his gaping foot blister, not to mention extra batteries for his GoPro.

Because Mortenson predominantly walked the highway shoulder, he limited aural entertainment like music.

"I mostly entertained myself by experiencing the nuances that go unnoticed when you are flying past at 65 mph," he said. "Hearing the water of a creek is pretty great after hearing a string of semis blow past you."

If you go

What: "Before my Feet was Lain" artist lecture

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 6

Where: Olin Art and Communications Center Room 124, Concordia College, Moorhead

Info: Lecture is free and open to the public

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