Some 300 people populate Vrensted, an unindustrialized, all-but-forgotten outpost in northern Denmark, and it appears each and every one of them is watching the bright blue 2015 Range Rover Sport SVR drive through the doleful town, backfiring and trumpeting the arrival of the heir to Denmark’s throne—me.
I adored my dad, Steve Nelson, who would often tell friends, co-workers, and strangers at the bar that he was an illegitimate prince of Denmark. Here’s how he said it: “I’m sitting with my mother [after] my father had died, and we’re talking and … I never liked [my dad’s] father, ‘Bumpy.’ He was kind of a crabby old Danish guy, and he was married to the most sainted woman in the world, my grandmother [Christine]. My mom says, ‘Well, you know, Bumpy’s not really your father’s father.’ And I go, ‘What do you mean?’ And she says, ‘Well, you know, Christine worked in a big house in Denmark for a rich family and the son got her pregnant. They paid Bumpy to marry her and bring her to America.’ So my goal in life is to go back to Denmark and find out and prove that I am a prince of Denmark.”
My old man died before he could realize that goal, but he’d gathered birth certificates, marriage certificates, and the like, and started putting meat on the bones of a pretty unbelievable story. My grandpa, Richard Nelson, was born Richard Dick Nielsen in Vrensted on October 9, 1912, to Christine Jensen and Joachim “Bumpy” Nielsen. Within a year, the two would take their newborn son on a boat to Ellis Island. Nothing about the Nelson family genesis seemed strange—both Bumpy and Christine are listed as my grandpa’s parents on the birth certificate—until my grandma threw my dad that curveball. And when he found out that Bumpy and Christine weren’t married until November 26, 1912, about six weeks after Christine gave birth to my grandpa, he badly wanted to uncover the truth.
The road to Vrensted
As I drive out of Aalborg, Denmark’s fourth most populous city and home to the only semi-habitable hotels anywhere near Vrensted, I see smoke billowing out of the top of small, white brick building with big windows that are flooding the sleepy streets with bright, warm light. I bring the SVR to a stop in front of the adorable bakery, go inside, and devour the flakiest, most delicious Danish I’ve ever had. I lick my fingers clean before plugging V-R-E-N-S-T-E-D into the SVR’s shabby navigation system.
It’s a short, quiet drive on backroads winding through small towns with thatched-roof houses and alongside wide-open fields with both old-fashioned, wooden windmills and modern metal wind generators. I see no posted speed limit but decide not to see what the high-performance Range Rover Sport SVR can do, opting instead to listen to Sam Cooke through the SUV’s 19-speaker Meridian audio system and sink into its oh-so-comfortable sport driver’s seat.
I look at the firefly tattoo on my right hand, wrapped tightly around the SVR’s heated steering wheel, and think, “Maybe I would be a fitting king for Denmark.” Danish royals have flaunted their ink since King Frederik IX took the throne in 1947. But would the fact hand tattoos are illegal in Denmark keep me from ascending the throne? I hear they passed the law in 1966 because the king enjoyed two things: getting epically hammered and getting tattooed, which don’t mix well. And since some thought the leader of a country shouldn’t have tattoos showing when wearing formalwear, lawmakers banned hand tattoos, as well as head and foot tattoos. All of sudden, I see the sign that marks the far edge of Vrensted’s border shrinking in the rearview mirror, so I slam on the brakes as the six-piston front Brembo brake calipers bring the SVR to a stop.
A small town, an old church
It’s hard to believe I overshot the town until I turn around, drive back toward it, and find Vrensted to be much smaller than predicted. I find a building that has that generic “town hall” look, park, walk in, and discover a doctor’s office. (It was once the town hall, but there are so few people in Vrensted that the centrally located space made more sense as a doctor’s office, I guess.) I get back into the Range Rover, which is attracting a lot of attention from the locals, and drive a loop around town, which takes less than five minutes. Basically there’s a school, which is closed, a grocery store, which looks like it’s restocked every month or so, and a church, which is looking like the best place around here to get some answers. I park the Rover and walk through a small cemetery toward the main entrance, remembering that this is where Bumpy’s ashes were scattered. I notice the names on the tombstones: “Nielsen.” “Jensen.” “Nielsen.” “Nielsen.” “Jensen.” “Nielsen.” “Jensen.”
I enter the 800-year-old church, find no one, and immediately forget what brought me here. I’m overwhelmed by how incredibly gorgeous and well maintained this place is—its perfectly plastered vaulted ceiling, its clean brick floors, its ornate artwork, its small, warm, welcoming pews. I’m poking around when I hear the big wooden doors open. I turn to see a big, burly man with blue eyes and a bushy, reddish beard, who gives me a firm handshake and introduces himself as Henry—Henry Klagh Nielsen (above, left).
He tells me he looks after the church and was out to the store, picking up parts for a new pipe organ he’s installing, and then asks how he can help me. I start telling him the story of Joachim Nielsen and Christina Jensen, using the forms and certificates my dad collected to fill in the holes our language barrier creates. Henry laughs and says, “I, too, have a Jensen in my family.” Looking at Bumpy and Christina’s marriage certificate, his face lights up as he points to the priest’s name and says, “This man was my neighbor.” He ushers me across the dirt floor, where the organ will soon sit, and shows me a black-and-white portrait of the priest, which is hanging on the wall.
I, again, forget what brought me here, now taken aback by how much Henry looks like an uncle I never met. His light-blue eyes are just like my dad’s were. His nose has a slight uptick, just like my dad’s did, and that ginger beard? It’s a trait all Nelson men inherited. Henry asks if he can take a copy of each document so he can show his friend, the self-proclaimed town historian. “Sure, but there’s more to this story,” I say, diving into the dirty details of my great-grandmother’s supposed indiscretion. My curiosity now makes much more sense to Henry, who says, “Back then, you either married her or ran. Or if you had enough money, you could pay for her to run.” I ask Henry to show me on a map where Christina grew up. He does, and I ask if there were any prosperous farms nearby. He points to one, just on the edge of town. “There are no other big farms near here?” I ask, and Henry shakes his head. “So this is almost certainly where Christina worked, right?” Henry nods his head and says, “I believe so, yes.” I ask if they had royal blood, and he says he thinks they did.
The trail turns north
After an unexpectedly heartfelt goodbye with Henry, I get back in the SVR and drive a few minutes to the believed workplace of my great-grandmother, the hypothetical home of my real great-grandfather. It’s nothing special—a long driveway leading to a big barn with a cute house. Relative to everything else in Vrensted, though, it’s a palace. I impetuously drive up to the house and park near the front door before realizing what I’m doing. “What are you going to say?” I ask myself. “Uh, I think someone who used to live here might’ve banged my great-grandmother, so could you tell me if I’m royalty or not?” I spin the Range Rover’s circular gear selector toward reverse, roll back down to the road, and drive until the farm is out of view.
I came here because my dad wanted to come here, not because I needed to know if this fable is true or not. That there seems to be some validity to this is exciting, but I don’t need to blow this whole thing wide open. Maybe someday, but not today. This is the birthplace of my grandfather, somewhere my father always wanted to visit, and spending the little time I have here chasing some specter seems wrong. I say farvel to Vrensted and head for Lokken, a town 3 miles north that has a beach you can drive on, or so a local in Aalborg told me. The quaint seaside village is hibernating through winter, and the SVR’s burly exhaust echoes along the narrow streets that lead me to a small, sandy trail heading toward the water. I end up parked on a beach that looks like the Bonneville Salt Flats, but in place of the salt is a thin layer of white ice sitting atop of soft, white sand. Behind me are beautiful, rolling sand dunes, and in front of me is the North Sea.
The prince and the sea
The SVR’s aluminum-intensive body barely moves as the air suspension soaks up the small dips and rises in the ice-covered sand. The supercharger whines and the eight-speed automatic transmission shows little hesitation as I click the upshift paddle once, twice, three times. Riding high up but still feeling hugged against the ground—it’s a strange disconnect that sets the Range Rover SVR apart from all other high-performance vehicles on the market.
I slow only when I come to a creek, running from somewhere in the sand dunes out to sea. The SVR creeps down its sandy bank before plunging hood first into the icy water, needing every inch of its 33.5-inch wading depth to keep running. The Range Rover trundles through the creek before clawing up the other side on to the beach. The pools of water collecting near the gloss black hood louvers turn to steam as I come to a stop near the base of a dune. I decide to climb on foot, sure the SVR could use a breather, and discover a majestic dreamscape unlike anything I’ve seen before. A tall tale brought me to Denmark, but my love for my dad, and his love for his dad, brought me here. One of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. My alleged kingdom.