The Iceland Diaries, Part One
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
To be continued