I'm in the midst of the longest stretch of not traveling I've had in maybe 10 years. My last real trip was almost two years ago, to Sweden, ostensibly for guidebook research but also to complete a certain family-related mission. Or you could just call it a road trip. My mom, who was born and raised in Uppsala, Sweden, had been coming back several times a year to visit her parents, an increasingly demanding job. She hadn't had a chance to really travel in Sweden in a long time. So she and I decided to combine one of my guidebook research trips with a long-delayed quest. We met at Stockholm's Arlanda Airport, rented a tiny car, and headed off into the heart of the country. Our goal: to find her father's old cabin.
We knew only vaguely where to look: near Arådalen, a scattering of summer cottages in the wilderness that barely qualifies as a village, in the wild, sparsely populated province of Jämtland. My grandfather, an artist and journalist, had recently died; he'd given the cabin to friends we didn't know, decades earlier. We had no detailed map, no address that made any sense, but Mom and I decided it would be fun to track the place down by instinct and memory. If we couldn't find it, well, at least we'd made the trip.
We had a great time. We drove north, into Norrland, whose deep forests and wide-open landscapes have more reindeer than residents. (On that note, my favorite book about Norrland is Hash, a novel by the very odd and wonderful Swedish writer Torgny Lindgren. If I'd thought of it I would've put him in yesterday's list of writers I constantly push on other people.)
We spent most of our nights on the road in adorable Swedish camping huts. (I might have a bit of an obsession with these little huts; they're just the cutest things, and they're all over the Swedish countryside. I stay in them as often as possible.) We had picnics, took long leisurely walks, visited Carl Larsson's house, drove all the scenic byways. Mostly we just rolled along, hanging out. Mom said this was the first time in ages that she'd come to Sweden and not desperately longed to get back home.
And we did find her father's cabin. Nobody was there, but we hiked around the surrounding hillsides, took photos, and met an old Sami reindeer herder who'd known my grandfather.
I've been daydreaming a lot about that kind of travel lately: relaxed, unscripted. Having a mission gave us a theme, but it didn't dictate our every minute. We were on a schedule, but we had time to wander. The best places we stayed were places we found by accident (tiny cabins). It took me a few days to settle into this pace, to stop feeling anxious when Mom would get into a long conversation with the supermarket checkout girl or when it was getting dark and we didn't know where we'd be sleeping that night. But these are the best parts: the unexpected things. And the conversations people have on long road trips are not like other conversations. It's a different rhythm.
This, to me, is why people travel. Sure, you want to see the world, learn what life is like for other people. But travel also lets you spend time with yourself, and each other, in ways your daily routine doesn't allow. It probably makes no difference where you go. It's all in the approach.
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Becky Ohlsen is a freelance writer and critic living in Portland, Oregon. She has written guidebooks to Sweden and the Pacific Northwest as well as reviewed books, film, food, and drink for various publications. Walking Portland is her latest book.
Books mentioned in this post
Becky Ohlsen is the author of Walking Portland: 30 Tours of Stumptown's Funky Neighborhoods, Historic Landmarks, Park Trails, Farmers Markets, and Brewpubs (Walking)