Last summer my wife Amy and I took a trip to Norway. During part of our trip we camped at Lysefjord, famous for its sheer cliffs including Preikestolen, about which I wrote previously. Lots of Norwegians and visitors from other European countries car camp as their preferred mode of tourism, meaning those facilities see a brisk business.
Preikestolen is one of Norway’s most famous destinations, so we were glad to catch a spot at the nearby campground. It was well-run, with charming Dutch hosts, and we were quite happy with our stay. But by late morning of our departure our mood had changed to regret. That’s because twenty minutes after leaving we stumbled upon the most remarkable place for camping I’ve ever seen. It’s called Landa Park and its conception is brilliant. It left me thinking someone ought to try a similar thing here in the Adirondacks.
Landa Park is a modest campground that can accept tents or RVs, has electric taps, hot showers, a laundry, a common area with kitchen and wifi access. It also has a small café, refreshments and a souvenir shop. It has facilities for a variety of indoor and outdoor games and offers kayaking, horseback riding and bicycle rentals. It’s very clean and well-maintained. In all, it’s a typical modern Norwegian campground.
But here’s the remarkable thing: Landa is also a world-class archaeological site, the largest and oldest in Norway. Excavations spanning a twenty-acre area have uncovered hundreds of sites that have illuminated two thousand years of continuous occupation dating from the Bronze Age to 600 AD. The carefully-analyzed remains have been complete enough to allow reconstruction of several period buildings and a thorough understanding of the living conditions of three different eras, including agriculture, livestock, food production, tool making, pottery making, weaving and clothes making. In short, the accumulation of knowledge at Landa has allowed a detailed rendering of the lives people led there.
The brilliant concept? You can camp there – not near it, but in it. In fact, if you choose, you can stay in the same primitive manner in which people resided there centuries ago, right down to your clothing, bedding and food. At Landa you can have the experience of living in the Bronze and Iron Ages.
It’s very important to say that none of Landa’s reconstructions or offerings are kitchy, commercial or sensationalized. While no historic recreation can be entirely authentic, this one is scholarly, detailed and impeccably rendered. The buildings, the farms and the archaeological sites themselves, sufficient in layout and completeness to create the effect of a community, are already persuasive, but the staff’s creation of a living society, including demonstrations, makes it far more immersive. Wearing clothing, tending crops and animals, playing games and eating food in the manner these things were done two thousand years ago is a powerful idea.
For visitors, the effect is nothing like that of a theme park. Rather it manifests a living feel of long-lost history, which like all ancient places evokes in us a quiet thrill, a sobering sense of ground and gravity, and a feeling of mystery. Landa echoes with lives past, lives to which we feel a kinship even though we hardly understand them. But Landa gives visitors a chance to go beyond this kinship to a deeper, experiential bond with basic human values that span all ages.
This bond extends to the place in which Landa is situated: a dramatic, pristine glacial landscape of towering, brooding rock, cascading water and dense forest that feels more ageless than Landa itself, that connects us even more strongly to our primitive roots. For me, to spend a morning at Landa, in its magnificent setting, was to be transported far from the present.
I know a natural world very much like Norway: a wild swath of glaciated country with its own water, forests and rock, that calls to our primitive selves in the same way. But it has no Landa, not yet at least. Why not do it? After all, the Adirondack region has its own primeval history, a record of human habitation that goes back 13,000 years, predating even the forest itself. The trope of an unpopulated “dismal wilderness” predating Euro-American settlement is metaphorical mythology that leaves unacknowledged the vast majority of the Adirondacks’ human history. Wouldn’t the opportunity to learn about and experience the ways that our ancestors from the Late Archaic or Early Woodlands period lived in the forest thousands of years ago be a richer and more interesting experience than holding on to romantic notions of unexplored wilderness?
There is of course a significant impediment to creating an Adirondack Landa. We simply don’t have anywhere near as much archaeological evidence to work with, as relatively little professional archaeological work has been done in the Park, and structures were not as permanent as those of European Bronze age cultures. This superb article by Lynn Woods provides a good overview of the history of Native American habitation in the Adirondacks. It describes the continuous occupation from the retreat of the Wisconsin Ice Sheet to the present, and the fragmentary nature of the evidence discovered so far that would show how these communities lived. But we do know something of the migration of peoples to this region and their connection to other Native American populations whose cultures are better understood. I know relatively little of regional Native American history and would not want to underestimate the ability of experts in the field to create a reasonable facsimile of life in the Adirondacks in, say, 2,000 BC. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful experience to be able to have?
It should also be said that unlike Norway, the untold eras of Adirondack history extend until recent times and connect to the world of Mohawk and Abenaki people who live among us. Thus we have a wealth of sustained knowledge, art and craft, from which to benefit. The opportunity to experience life in a Mohawk settlement circa 1600 AD would be every bit as fulfilling and evocative as a stay at Landa and it would have the added advantage of connecting the to the present, to the living culture of Native Americans. Indeed there is one place in the Adirondack Park that reminds me of Landa: the tremendous Six Nations Museum in Onchiota, a vibrant exploration of Haudenosaunee life, with a traditional longhouse and examples of a range of fire-making techniques to go along with its extensive collection of artifacts and art. I’ve been there several times and every time I have imagined that longhouse and those fires come to life, connecting vividly to the contemporary art, culture and oral tradition that the museum offers its visitors.
It seems to me that in addition to being a valuable and educational experience in and of itself, an Adirondack version of Landa Park which offered a historically accurate, educational journey into the past could help to do justice to cultures we have at turns crassly misrepresented, exploited and ignored. That strikes me as something well worth doing. But it also is likely to make economic sense. Experiential travel is a soaring component of the tourism industry. Just ask the rebranded Adirondack Museum, now The Adirondack Experience. This is all the more true of attractions that are “immersive” and “authentic,” two hot buzzwords in tourism circles. An Adirondack Landa could be a big draw, and developed with integrity it could be an important cultural experience.
I have no idea whether anyone in a better position than me to conceive of such a campground would think it was a good idea. But I’m guessing that if they went for a stay in Landa, it would be impossible for their thoughts not to take flight, to dream of an Adirondack time and place deeply lodged in the mists of history and the echoes of our primeval imagination.
Photo: period habitations, Landa. Photo courtesy Fjord Norway.