Mastering the Art of the “Norwegian Sprawl”
In an excerpt from her new 2021 book, “Destination Wellness: Global Secrets for Better Living Wherever You Are,” writer Annie Daly reflects on the healing art of doing nothing outdoors on a camping trip to Alta, Norway.
We spent the morning and early afternoon alternating between hiking, eating, and taking nature photos. Unlike Bergen and Sogndal, the terrain in Alta was flat and squishy, not steep and rocky, which helped me keep my balance while wearing such a heavy backpack. Although I go camping quite often during the summer, I usually go car camping in the Catskills in New York, which, let’s be real, is the outdoorsy equivalent of training wheels. It’s much easier than remote backcountry camping, which requires you to carry all of your supplies on foot, sleeping bag and all, for hours on end—I wasn’t used to such manual labor in pursuit of relaxation!
By the time we reached our final camping destination, it was around 3 p.m., and I was exhausted. But I was also ecstatic. With no cell service to speak of, we were out there, man. And as anyone who has ever spent time in deep nature will tell you, there is an exhilarating sense of freedom that comes from being away from it all, from being unable to participate in society even if asked. People pay for digital-detox escapes now, where hotel staff members will quite literally hold your phone hostage for however long you pay them to, but I’ve always found those quite puzzling—why not just go somewhere where Mother Earth does the work for you?
We set up our three tents in a valley nestled between two mountains dotted with wildflowers, and there wasn’t another soul in sight for miles and miles. It was just us, the mountains, and the wide open sky. Since the sun wasn’t going to set until 9 p.m., though, I figured our group leader Per-Arne had some other activity planned for us, something we’d do to pass the time until we started looking for the Northern Lights. But nope. Max and some of the others got a fire going, and then, for the next few hours, we just . . . sat. There was occasional chatter, but not much. It was mostly deep fresh-air sighs.
At one point, around 7 p.m. or so, someone decided it was dinnertime, so everyone took their cold cheese sandwiches out of their Tupperware and held them over the fire on sticks, toasting them until they got crispy. Per-Arne had also brought a Ziploc bag of hot dogs and packaged tortillas to round out the meal. No one talked all that much during this cooking process, except to mutter the occasional “yessss” if they toasted their sandwich to utter perfection. And soon enough, it was back to sitting quietly. Even though we were a group of 15 people, the only recurring sound was the crackling of the fire and the occasional rustle of the wind. I mastered what I came to call the “Norwegian sprawl,” which is when you lie on your side with your head in one hand and just stare into the flames.
Sitting there watching the embers burn, I thought of all of the times I’d spent car camping with my American friends, when we busied ourselves with card games and set up fairly elaborate rigs, complete with chairs, coolers, cocktail mixers, and speakers for our tunes. Out in Alta, we didn’t have those extras. And Per-Arne had a rule: No music in nature. Music disrupts friluftsliv—the Norwegian concept that life is best lived outdoors—he told us, because we should be connecting with the sounds of Mother Earth.
As a huge music head, I didn’t fully agree with him on that one, because listening to music helps me relax. But he did have a point. If I’d had it my way, I likely would’ve been playing campfire DJ, throwing on Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” to honor the surrounding wildflowers, or Neil Young’s “Pocahontas,” which mentions the aurora borealis. But in the past few hours, I’d spent more time doing nothing and thinking about nothing than I had in a long while.
As a freelance writer, I have a very busy mind, with a general low-grade sense of worry that pulses through it at all times: Am I doing enough? What can I do better? Do I need to get more work? How can I make more money next month? Is this lifestyle sustainable over time? If it’s not, what can I do to make sure that it is? Though many of my worries turn out to be unfounded, the point is that they’re there.
But then, for the first time in a long time, they weren’t. I was completely and utterly unplugged, disconnected from all technology and the rest of society, the farthest north I’d ever been, with no Wi-Fi to speak of and nothing to do but sit.
While I spent the first hour or so thinking about practical things, like how I was going to organize my notes for this book and if my photos captured the spirit of Norway and did I have a clean hoodie for the hike home, I don’t know how long I zoned out for, or what broke me out of my reverie, exactly, but at one point my brain came back and it hit me: This is what we’re missing. We’ve gotten so disconnected from nature that we’ve lost the ability to just be—and Mother Earth can help us reconnect with that fundamental part of ourselves.
I felt deeply relaxed in a core sort of way, not because I’d gone to a yoga class but because I’d actually unplugged. Thanks in part to our lack of cell service, and in part to Per-Arne’s insistence that we listen to the sounds of nature, I’d taken the opportunity to stare into the flames and chill. And the mental clarity that followed confirmed what the friluftsliv devotees had been telling me all along: Nature is the best medicine.
We were all in some version of the Norwegian sprawl when the cold began to take hold. It was around 8 p.m., just as the sun was beginning to set, and I booked it to the tent to fetch my two merino-wool base layers and my second down jacket. But once I had on all the layers I’d brought, including my raincoat and rain pants to block the wind, I still couldn’t get warm. I was envious of all the Norwegians who’d brought their thick Norwegian wool sweaters, and wished I had one of my own.
“These wool sweaters are the only thing that will keep you warm out here,” one of the girls told me with a sympathetic smile. I got so cold that I had to go curl up in my sleeping bag in the tent while we waited for the Northern Lights, and I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to make it out of there to witness the potential magic at all.
Finally, around 11 p.m., Per-Arne let us know: They were here. The lights. We’d lucked out, and the sky was delivering. Though they weren’t visible to the naked eye, he could see them through his camera, trippy and green as ever, and it was time to shoot. I willed myself out of my sleeping bag, and set up my tripod with the others.
The photos themselves turned out pretty crappy, but I’m surprisingly OK joining Team Travel Memory on this one. The experience really was enough, one of those moments where it was just, wow, how do I actually live here on this Earth? In the past couple years, researchers have begun to study this sense of awe, and have found that it can help you feel lighter in spirit, more generous to other people, and more satisfied with your life. It can even make you feel as though you have more time to simply exist, all because the perspective shift helps put your worries in context. I co-sign that.
Despite the frigid temperatures, I felt so limitless in that moment, so free and open and receptive to new thoughts. While I was standing there, watching the green glow appear like magic through my lens, I realized that Mother Nature had come through with an especially timely message: Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. It was the ultimate reminder that there’s a deeper world lurking just beneath the surface if you make enough time to find it.
The next morning, I woke up before the others and unzipped the tent ever so quietly to take a walk to the bathroom (aka a clump of trees). The grass was wet with dew and a little bit crunchy from the cold, so I was careful to tiptoe away from our campsite so as not to wake the others with my shuffling. When I got back to the tent, I plopped my rain jacket down on a sunny patch of grass nearby, lay down on my back, took a deep breath, and stared up at the sky to continue processing the Northern Lights events from the night before.
Everyone I met in Norway had told me that friluftsliv was hard to define, that it’s slightly different for everyone, that finding your own definition is a personal journey—and I knew in that moment that I’d finally found mine. It’s about honoring Mother Nature’s ability to guide us through our days. She is constantly dishing out lessons, even when we are too trapped in our indoor lives to really hear them.
Many of the Norwegians I met seemed to understand this take intuitively, a result of growing up with so much accessible nature all around. And after spending two weeks almost exclusively outside, I finally got it, too: Friluftsliv is making a point to hang out with Mother Nature whenever and wherever and as often as we can, so we can actually hear what she has to say.
Excerpted from Destination Wellness: Global Secrets for Better Living Wherever You Are by Annie Daly. Published by Chronicle Prism, an imprint of Chronicle Books. Copyright © 2021 by Annie Daly.
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