The Right to Roam

A fjord in Norway.

Autumn is falling toward winter, which means it’s time to start planning next summer’s trip abroad.

Planning in earnest, that is. This will be a big one, celebrating 50 years on this planet, and I’ve had guidebooks and maps for months already. I’ll pick one up with a glass of wine later in the evening, when I’ve had enough of the droning cable news and it’s too late to start a movie.

In grade school geology, I learned about fjords. The textbook had a picture of the most stunning example of a fjord, in Norway. I knew I had to see it for myself one day.

So next summer, in honor of the big 5-0, I will.

Even now, at the most preliminary of planning stages, I can tell the logistics of this trip will prove more daunting than my other travels in Europe. While slightly smaller than California, Norway has only 5.3 million people, a narrow shape and 18,000 miles of coastline. It’s not necessary for Norwegians to have an advanced network of high-speed rail lines crisscrossing the country – in fact, it’s impractical and, judging from a map of Norway, possibly impossible.

Most of my previous trips to the continent involved riding the rails from place to place, which I love to do. Quickly realizing that won’t be practical or an efficient use of my vacation time in Norway, I thumbed through guidebooks looking for alternatives. While doing so, I noticed the authors hammered home often that Norway is not a cheap place to visit. Restaurants and hotels, they all agreed, cost much more than we’re used to in the United States and more even than Europe’s most expensive countries.

And then it caught my eye: Allemannsretten. The right to roam.

And friluftsliv, which loosely translated means “living one’s best life in the great outdoors.”

Maybe it’s the hours of darkness in winter – and the hours of daylight in summer – but Scandinavians are passionate about nature. They have codified that love in law and philosophy.

The right to roam may seem radical to Americans, who are all about private property and putting up fences and building walls. But for centuries and perhaps longer in Nordic countries, the right to enjoy nature includes the right to hike or camp on someone else’s property, boat or swim on private waters and pick wildflowers, mushrooms or wild berries nearly anywhere one’s heart desires.

Which is not to say there aren’t rules. Hunting and fishing rights typically belong to landowners. Campfires are forbidden in the summer months. One cannot sell or profit from the berries he or she picks. Noise should be kept to a minimum. Pitching a tent for a night or two is fine but squatting in a travel trailer is not. And the right to roam does not extend to private property that’s been developed.

In short, allemannsretten hinges on friluftsliv. Be your best you outdoors and you can keep enjoying your right to nature. That the right has been recognized for so long – and added to Sweden’s constitution – is proof that it can work. People can roam on private property without ruining it.

Which leads me to wonder about us here in the United States. If our recent record on how we treat our public property is any indication, we’re not mature enough for a constitutional right to roam wherever we please.

This past December and January, the longest government shutdown in the history of this nation left our precious national parks and monuments ungated and unsupervised for over a month. Trash went uncollected and restrooms weren’t maintained, and if those were the worst things that happened to our national treasures that would be bad enough.

Trash and overflowing pit toilets, it turns out, were nothing.

During the 35 days of the shutdown, Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California saw damage and vandalism that a former park superintendent said will take 200 to 300 years to repair. Furloughed park staff returned to work to find graffiti on rocks, trees and buildings. Visitors spent the shutdown creating their own roads through the park. When they found a Joshua tree in the way of their new road, rather than driving around it they simply cut it down.

Sadly, acts of wanton vandalism and stupidity aren’t limited to government shutdowns. The National Park Service says 9,000 landmarks have been intentionally damaged by vandals since 2009. The idiot who used a permanent marker to tag an ancient rock formation in Utah with his Instagram handle. Another who thought rocks arranged by glaciers millennia ago would look better kicked to the ground.

And that’s saying nothing of the people who have died on public land this year alone due to their unquenchable thirst for (pardon the pun) a breathtaking selfie.

We’re a young nation, and it shows. For Scandinavians, the right to roam goes back to ancient times, won through practice over hundreds if not thousands of years. No doubt there have been some who tried to wreck it for everyone, but they must have been few and far between since many – Swedes in particular – see allemannsretten as a basic human right.

And a great way to save a few thousand krona on hotel rooms.

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