The Iceland Diaries, Part One
For the next few blogs, I’ll be writing about Iceland, which is, to me, the most fascinating country on earth. I hope you will agree.
In June of 1969, when I was twenty years old, I traveled to Iceland and found work on a farm called Frodastadir (Froe-tha-stah-theer) herding sheep on horseback, milking cows, shoveling manure, scrubbing floors, bringing in the hay, painting the silo, whatever needed doing. I traded my work for room and board, a room in the dormer of the farmhouse, looking out on the wide and green Hvitarsidu (Kvee-tar-see-thu) valley, divided by the Hvita (Hvita means white in Icelandic) River, a glacial river that ran off from Langjokull, Iceland’s second largest glacier. On rare clear days, I would pause in the driveway on my way from the house to the barn, to admire the glacier, a long white line that rose with a slight crest above the horizon. Meals were taken in the narrow dining room, just big enough to fit a table and benches — enough to accommodate a big family or many farmhands but at that point in the farm’s long history, it was just the four of us. We ate mostly fish (pulled from the Hvita — it was called white because of the run-off from the glacier, which gave it a milky look) and potatoes and rhubarb, the two crops grown in the garden that grew beneath my window. At each meal, mysterious things such as blood pudding and mysingur appeared on the table.
Conditions were simple: no bathtub or shower, I bathed with a washcloth at the tiny bathroom sink. We flushed the toilet with a bucket. I washed the dishes in cold water, swishing a scrap of bar soap housed in a small screened basket to provide suds. Each day, I wrote in my journal and at the end of each entry, I recorded the temperature and conditions. Many of my entries ended with “40 degrees F. Rain.” Twice during that summer, I was blown over by the wind, which hardly ever stopped. In spite of these conditions, I loved it there and did not want to go home. I stayed until October, when I decided to return home and finish college. My plan then was to return to Iceland right after graduation, get an apartment in Reykjavik, and write a book about this harsh yet fascinating country. Life, as they say, got in the way of that plan. But I have never stopped wanting to return to Iceland.
Last March, I was sitting at my desk, writing, when, out of the blue, friends called to say they were planning a trip to Iceland in June and wondered if I would like to go too. I didn’t even stop to think, I simply said “Yes!” I thought of the green cliffs, the black sand beaches, the shaggy sheep that roamed at will, the glaciers flowing through the valleys and the steep headlands that rose up off the flatness of vast deserts. And the people from whom I’d been separated for so long.
We booked our flight and soon after I wrote to Imba, who had been fifteen when I lived with her and her parents, Unnur and Daniel at Frodastadir, to tell her I was coming. We had kept in touch, loosely, all these years, Christmas cards, occasional letters and now, even more randomly, e-mail. I was always promising to come back. The closest I came was in 1986 when my husband, Paul, and I decided to go together. He came from a farming family and was intrigued to experience this country I spoke about so often. I asked for and received a two-month leave of absence from Yankee and we bought our tickets, for June, for the solstice. We outfitted ourselves and read guide books. However, in April of that year, Paul was diagnosed with cancer and all plans were scrapped. The next four years were spent on a completely different journey. And, further, his resultant death sent me on what became a relentless quest to earn a living, one which became harder rather than easier as I aged. This trip was to last only eight days, not the return I had dreamed of for so long but it was a return, nonetheless.
Because I knew the country and had contacts there, I was given the task of mapping out our journey and booking the accommodations. We wanted to drive the circumference of Iceland, which I knew was do-able but I was uncertain about much of the rest. When I was there, the only pavement in the entire country was in Reykjavik. At the city limits, the tar road ended, making for a rough transition onto a lava road, which ringed the country. Well, almost. In order to complete the circle, you had to pass beneath the glacier. The area below Vatnajokull, the biggest glacier in all of Europe, was striated with multiple streams and rivers running through the sands of past eruptions. In the time I had spent in Iceland I had also worked for a while at the Hotel Kirkjubaejarklaustur, which mostly accommodated climbers who were either waiting to go up onto the glacier or those who had just returned from expeditions. I had hitchhiked to the hotel and wished dearly to continue on to the east side of the country but there was no road through that area under the glacier, notorious for quicksand. Only skilled horsemen could navigate these treacherous sands. If you wanted to go from, say, Kirkjubaejarklaustur to Hofn, which is about ninety miles east, you had to reverse direction and go hundreds of miles, all the way round the entire country, to get back to that near point. I had heard the road, known as the “ring road,” had been paved. And that a bridge had been built over the quicksand. Other than that, I didn’t know what conditions were like. I remembered only the dirt (lava) roads which were sometimes death-defying in the way in which they wrapped themselves around mountains and crossed raging rivers, sans guard rails. The only gas stations I remembered were in Reykjavik and Akureyri. And would there be any rest stops? In the treeless landscape of 1969, it seemed immodest to simply squat on the roadside but there was so little traffic and so little alternative, this was how it went. But now, surely there was more traffic. As I planned our route, these were some of the things I worried about.
More than that, I realized, I worried about returning. Forty-one years is a long time, a time during which memories can be reshaped into fantasy. I recall that when I left Iceland, I regarded the place as something of a utopia, where houses are heated with the hot springs that run beneath the ground; where there was so little crime, the only prison in the country sat empty; where a kind of socialism existed that meant that neighbors helped neighbors, with an eye on the overall welfare of the whole, rather than the bottom line for the individual; where residents enjoyed the highest standard of living in the world and where, as well, literacy was the highest in the world; and, finally, a place with a well-functioning democracy, the oldest in the world, where women were equal to men. During the 1970s, my first husband and I lived back to the land and I often proselytized about Iceland, suggesting not only to my husband but to our neighbors that this would be the most logical place to buy a farm and live. Yes, it was a cold climate with long dark winters but, aside from all the assets already listed, Iceland did not have an army and did not engage in warfare, with anyone. Taxes went not to support wars but to schools, social security, and the roads and bridges, the infrastructure of the country as a whole. In my view, this beat Canada as the alternative.
But now, as I researched hotels and routes, I realized I had spent so much time in my past heralding Iceland’s virtues, I suspected I was sadly out of touch with its reality. I had seen a few movies recently (“101 Reykjavik,” and “Reykjavik-Rotterdam”) which gave me pause. And there was this economic backslide they’d been plunged into. I didn’t know what was what, had no way of really knowing but, right or wrong, I was convinced that Icelanders, relative newcomers to the world of finance, had been caught in the trap of wily investors who drained them. I read an article in Vanity Fair wherein the author noted that, since the crash, many of the nouveau riche in Reykjavik had driven their expensive Range Rovers out onto the tundra and blown them up, unable to make payments or restitution. This filled me with sadness. Maybe the updated Iceland was not something I wanted to encounter, perhaps I was better off with my memories.
As March turned to April, there was something else: Eyafjallajokull, the word no broadcast announcer seemed able to pronounce but the consequences of which soon enough brought all of Europe and beyond to a sudden standstill. My response, when I first heard about this volcanic eruption heard round the world was: “They heard I was coming!” It seemed funny to me, and, beyond, profound, that little Iceland, a place I knew very well was much more sophisticated than the world leaders appeared to understand, was able to bring the world to a halt. Surely the great writers of the Icelandic sagas, and, especially, the great Icelandic novelist, Halldor Laxness, would have made hay from this truly earth-shattering event. My traveling companions got cold feet and suggested perhaps we should travel to Iceland another time. I told them that my friends in Iceland had assured me that Iceland was not affected, only European air traffic. They had misgivings but time marched on, the flight had been booked and I had already secured several of our overnight accommodations. June loomed.
In June of 1969, the Icelandic Airlines prop jet droned its way across the North Atlantic all night long. Shortly after take-off from New York at midnight, the stewardesses served us an elegant Icelandic meal of salmon, potatoes, and peas, accompanied by a small bottle of wine. I savored what I expected might be the last bit of civilization. Most everyone on board was on their way to Luxembourg. Back then Icelandic had the cheapest flights to Europe. They stopped in Iceland to refuel and passengers were free to get off and stay a day or two in Reykjavik before continuing on. If anyone had ever been to Iceland, that was how. Even the ticket agents had expressed surprise when I told them my final destination was Iceland.
I have never been able to come up with a very good answer to the question people still ask me: Why Iceland? I was finishing my junior year in college and was going through an extended period of confusion. I felt like there must be more to be experienced than the staid all-girls college where I was enrolled. My cousin Mac had served six years in the Peace Corps in Nepal. I posed the question to him: where would be a good place to go, if I could? He suggested Iceland. I had hardly heard of it and thought perhaps he was joking with me. But he explained that it was a beautiful country, green pastures and fine people. “You could get a job in Reykjavik,” he assured me. “Everyone in Reykjavik speaks English so you wouldn’t have to worry about the language.” I followed that up with some research of my own, mostly how much the plane would cost. I would have to earn enough money not only for the plane fare but for whatever needs I might have once I got there. Once I settled on Iceland, I suggested to a college friend, Jane, that she might like to come with me. She did not immediately embrace the idea. I didn’t want to push too hard because I didn’t really know what I was selling but I did want to have a traveling companion. She eventually decided to come, though we left at different times, on different flights.
My parents had driven me to the new airport, JFK, on Long Island for the flight. They were apprehensive about my trip, to say the least. I was wearing a dark blue dress that my sister had made for me for the trip, stockings, and low heeled pumps. I had no idea, really, what my circumstances would be once I got there. But I was prepared, or so I thought.
In the cargo hold was my new frame backpack, which I had purchased again on the advice of my Peace Corps-seasoned cousin. The pack was carefully layered with what I thought I might need: two pairs of jeans, two sweaters, two t-shirts, socks, three sets of underwear, a Primus (a tiny gasoline campstove), a folding cup, a folding fry pan that could also serve as a plate, utensils, and a jackknife. In my toiletries kit, aside from toothbrush and paste, I had a small sewing kit and all-purpose remedies such as aspirin, antibiotics, antacids, moleskin (to cushion blisters), and alcohol. In the bottom of the bag were matches, six packs of cigarettes (I was a smoker in college and brought a week’s supply, assuming of course there would be cigarettes to be purchased once I arrived, one more thing about which I was wrong), a black, nicely bound blank book that I would use for a journal, writing paper, airmail envelopes, and several pens. In the side pocket, I had a Brownie camera and three rolls of film, one color and two black and white. On top, I had stuffed a brand new, ripstop nylon sleeping bag filled with 3 pounds of goose down, which would keep me warm even in temps of 20 below zero. After much research, I’d purchased this from a little place in Seattle called Eddie Bauer, a boutique that catered to mountaineers. This item was recommended to me by Bob Bates, an early mountaineer, cold weather outfitter, and friend of Mac’s from Nepal. (He had also asked me to bring him an Icelandic hat, which he claimed were “the best.”) I was not expecting to climb any mountains but the question of staying warm was one that was much discussed. The dress I was wearing pleased my mother and seemed proper to wear aboard a plane. It also might be handy for any occasions where jeans might not be suitable. I was also carrying, in a special money belt, $450 in cash and, since I was expecting to find work right away, I hoped, very much, that I would return home with most, if not all, of that amount. I turned out that two of the most important items I would need were not on my list: rain slicker and hiking boots. These had to be purchased very soon after my arrival. Onto the front flap of the olive drab backpack, I had stitched an American flag.
The plane set down on the rough runway to the Keflavik military base. It was eight o’clock in the morning and rain was falling. With the exception of the runway, everything I could see, near and far, was just a big pile of rocks. I had been told Iceland was green and beautiful. This looked anything but. “What have I done?” I thought. We deplaned onto the tarmac and, shouldering my forty pounds of self-sufficiency, I walked into the Quonset hut that served as an airport. A polite Icelandic officer, dressed in a crisp uniform, greeted me: “Welcome to Iceland,” he said, as I handed him my passport