I’ve taken too long to write about Iceland.
I visited there in the winter of 2018, when I was fortunate enough to view such things as the Sun rising at eleven, its low golden light kissing the honeycomb walls of the performing arts center called Harpa, and most of all the ghostly wraiths of the aurora borealis hanging from a thousand-star night, the green-white curtain dripping over the blisteringly cold, snowy plain where I stood in nearly as much awe as when I viewed my first eclipse. I also visited last month and once again put off any immediate documentation. But today I’ve decided it is past time to write, to process, at least concerning the more recent trip, which brought me many personal challenges but also helped to focus, slow, and realign my mind’s panicked, panting race through grief and fear for this planet. Iceland trembles, not only from earthquakes but from ripples of the past and future— a fragile, shaking thing, like a wildflower caught in a cold wind— and the trembling brings truth.
. . . .
For all the places I’d like to see before I die, many are very far away from me— thus a prohibitive prospect, particularly when I think about how much a single plane flight contributes to the greenhouse effect, or how much I hate flying in general, or how I could take a train or ship but would need to use much more precious vacation hours. It’s always the getting-there that makes me balk. Once I’ve arrived, I do well enough, although I’ve squarely resolved that this will have been my last time touring a place without knowing the primary language. Not that everyone owes it to each other, but that I don’t wish to impose English on too many people. In any case, I’ve been visiting Iceland lately thanks to my mother, by which I mean that she’s paid much of my and my husband’s way, but more correctly: she’s emigrated there in her retirement, and for various reasons it’s easier for those of us still in the US to visit her than for her to come back and visit us.
I’m going to include my mother in this narrative as little as possible for the sake of her privacy, but I wanted to mention both her and the fact that she has her own personal reasons for choosing to live on a sparsely populated volcanic island just south of the Arctic Circle; otherwise, I worry it would be too easy to confuse my time there with the country’s tourism boom. I’ve gathered that boom has plenty of advantages and disadvantages, but any tourism campaign must, in turn, sell a kind of dream to the traveler. While I haven’t yet figured out what is the dream version of Iceland, I’ve begun to sense certain things. With all of its hiking, camping, and hot spring bathing, I think some people go there for a dream of fitness, beauty, and going back to nature, the kind of Romantic wilderness myth that’s fueled nudist camps in continental Europe, a myth where the specifics of the idolized body share some connection with the political imagery of the 1936 Olympics.
And after all, doesn’t Iceland’s distinctive history offer an enticing fantasy for white minds? This is an island that was Euro-colonized without having any indigenous peoples to displace or massacre. Its timeline of local events can be traced only by raw geological analysis and the written traditions of its settlers’ direct descendants. If you’re merely neoliberal, here is a place whose “untamed wastelands” you may explore without an ounce of guilt. If you’re a reactionary or worse, here is your white paradise, cold and hard but surely what you imagine your ancestors would handle with aplomb.
It’s more complicated than that. It’s always more complicated. Indeed, Iceland had no indigenous population before Viking settlement, but it was settled as part of the same messy process that brought longboats to a further western continent, the establishment of ill-fated Vinland, the name Vinland itself now often a white nationalist signaling tool. Indeed, medieval Norse settlement projects were not purely violent in nature, and Iceland’s Alþingi rightly deserves recognition for its relatively democratic scope of government being established at a time when many other parts of the Nordic world were hardly so progressive; but amidst all this lies the preponderance of evidence that most of the women who originally joined the Norsemen on this island were Celtic thralls. No one can know how many of those women would rather not have been there, yet presumably the number was high. And beyond all this, isn’t the very notion of an “acceptable” colonization a kind of exception that proves the rule? Don’t think about Iceland’s exceptional qualities very hard, or other things may simply sting more.
I say all of this now as if I don’t enjoy the place. Actually I do, with almost painful fervor. The above is simply my caveat: the reasons I suggest would not be wise for embracing an Icelandic dream. If I were an Icelander myself, I would probably have plenty of other reasons. Visit carefully and with much thought. What follows are the thoughts I had on my last trip, and the events that caused them.
. . . .
Monday. Like so many eastbound flights, we had a redeye scheduled, my husband and I. Since moving out of the city, it was more complicated for us to reach the airport, but we managed it with time to spare, which I always prefer because on the one hand, it’s best to get through TSA bullshit as fast as possible, but on the other hand, trying to rush through that because of an impending gate closure has to be one of the worst nightmares devised by humanity. I hate flying. How very, very much do I hate flying.
The TSA agents acted friendly this time, as if letting you in on the fact that their presence is an eternal, theatrical joke, now laugh while you surrender all your most vital possessions and walk shoeless through the scanner. We ate an overpriced airport dinner. The flight itself— well, I’ll never endorse any particular airline here, but let me say it was an Icelandic carrier that hadn’t just abruptly gone out of business a couple months prior. We boarded smoothly, left promptly, and still I teared up like a child and clutched my husband’s hand during takeoff. Truly one of the more useless facets of my anxiety: to know that most plane disasters happen at this earliest stage of the flight, and fatalities are also higher compared to a crash landing. But then that was done, and they had a deal on Icelandic gin tastings on board, so we got high-altitude tipsy on a couple miniature bottles and this, miraculously, allowed us to properly sleep on a plane for the first time in ages, albeit only for a few hours.
We woke over pink, wispy clouds, deep blue ocean, the foam of the waves crashing on the igneous shore, the great lava fields around Keflavík. The lava was like frozen ash spread over a paper that was crumpled up and then spread out again, and in the shallow sunlight it burned orange and brown.
. . . .
Tuesday. It took some time to feel like Tuesday and not Monday: Extended Edition. But after managing to rendezvous with my mother in Keflavík airport, pick up a rental car, return to the Reykjavík apartment, and sleep a touch more, we could fathom venturing out into the world for a while. The first errand was mundane, taking us to the shopping mall known as Kringlan, which among some other things gave us a bite to eat at Hamborgarafabrikkan, “the Hamburger Factory.” I’ve only been to this one location, but it seems to be popular, although going there always highlights how the cost of food is considerable in Iceland. The exchange rate favors the US dollar, but a single burger could still work out to more than $20, and it doesn’t appear to be considered gourmet dining any more than Stateside. I called this mundane, but it will tie in to the rest of this story with a certain logic.
We hadn’t deliberately planned what to do after this late lunch, but by the time we were done eating, we had decided to see a tourist attraction that my mother hadn’t showed us last time: Perlan, the exhibition building crowning the top of Öskjuhlíð, one of Reykjavík’s highest hills. It houses many displays and interactive experiences pertaining to the landscapes and ecosystems of the island, and my inner scientist was instantly thrilled. A dark room with specially shaped and placed video screens helped to not only teach about Iceland’s volcanic activity but also to simulate being in a magma-filled cave. From fire to ice cave, too— the museum also contained a frigidly well-built replica of a glacier, the blue-white ice surrounding visitors on all sides, leaving me shivering by the end. Attached to the glacier imitation was also an extensive exhibit about where glaciers were located in Iceland, what shapes they could take, their effects on the landscape, but most of all the fate of glaciers amid the climate crisis, and this gave me some pause, as did many other exhibits about Icelandic wildlife. At Perlan, they were not hiding the truth or even trying to misdirect with false hopes; the curatorial choices confronted us at every turn with simple facts, neither bleak nor cruel but always clear. Iceland may become more habitable than some places in centuries to come, but if and when its glaciers disappear, vital geologic records will be lost, the land’s volcanism may be less suppressed, some life may need to adapt. And the changes on the island today are a potent reminder of the destruction of an ice-covered Arctic as we know it.
The entertainment of a museum thus proved sobering, and by the time we went up to Perlan’s observation deck for a panoramic view of the capital, I was distracted by ruminations. On all sides, Reykjavík and the sea were lovely, bathing in pale gold from the Sun that had started to lower. But the wind was cold, particularly for what I would expect of May. As warm as Iceland tends to stay for its latitude, I have been almost nowhere with wind so constant and so sharp. The world around me now was beautiful, broad, and pummeled by uncertainties.
I was able to put off many of my darker thoughts over dinner. I tried plokkfiskur, the traditional baked fish, potato, and cheese dish, finding the cheese flavor unusual but not unpleasant; my husband ate reindeer, which I’d eaten before but stole a bite regardless; we all drank fancy lemonades. Sensory inundation pulls my mind out of itself. I slept passably that night, though I also noticed that even after sunset, midnight was twilit. I’d seen nothing close to this before except Edinburgh in August, or St. Petersburg in June, and neither quite compared.
. . . .
Wednesday. Unlike our first visit, we were not going to stay confined to the island’s southwestern points this week. A full tour of the Ring Road would also have to wait, but my mother was going to show us some of the northwest, and I looked forward to not only seeing more of Iceland in daylight but also to see something rural. For all Reykjavík’s sturdy, unique, colorful architecture and bustling nightlife, it may contain a plurality of the country’s residents but it cannot possibly capture the landscape. Our destination for the day: Blönduós, a village tucked snugly into one of the island’s northern fjords.
By a straight route on the Ring Road, the driving estimate was about three hours, but we allowed a little extra for breaks, and we also had planned a detour to Þingvellir, so by the time we reached the village it would be getting decidedly close to dinner. However, picturesque though Blönduós was promised to be, we held just as much interest in the journey proper; a short overnight stint wouldn’t seem a waste. And indeed, what a drive it was.
As my husband and I usually tend to do, he handled the actual vehicle operation and I handled the navigation; but once we broke out of the one actual city, urban driving intricacies swiftly vanished and I had the luxury of mostly relaxing and taking in the scenery, talking sometimes with my mother in the backseat if she wasn’t napping. Our Þingvellir detour instantly fascinated me because when we saw the aurora on our last trip the Northern Lights tour bus supposedly brought us out to this area but we had seen it covered in snow on a moonless night. Now the sky was blue and the land was bare, and after a little while, we stopped at the gorge called Almannagjá, part of the fault line where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are split further every year. We didn’t get to experience an earthquake, but like other tourists that day we ventured a little way into the gorge, marveling not so much at the size— it isn’t the Grand Canyon— but at its raw beauty and the stunning sense of one’s own person being such a small cog in the Earth’s functioning. There were even smaller cogs, too: lovely little clusters of saxifrage growing right on the rocks, merrily photosynthesizing without a care for the geological significance of their home.
After taking our photos and departing, we reconnected with the Ring Road, which got onto a winding course along the western coastline, on the right passing by the mighty slopes of Mt. Esja— one of so many other dormant volcanoes but surely among the most impressive— and on the left showing off the basalt and pumice formations that were splashed by sea waves. For a while, any grass or other flora around us was surprisingly green and lush. But the further north we went, the more that this greenery grew patchier, paler, becoming the kind of blanched yellow that typifies so many popular images of Iceland.
We also did not make the entire trip above ground, either. Plummeting down, down into the almost harrowingly dark Hvalfjörður Tunnel, where everything was shadow-shrouded and some form of mist or dust scattered the rays of small red and gold industrial lights, we crossed to the next peninsula, and all the while I felt like I was being flown through the gutworks of some giant, sunken submarine. Nearly ten minutes of this passed before we emerged back into the blinding sunlit realm, and then we went on to the town of Borgarnes where the Ring Road turns further inland. By that point, we had already stopped twice for a leg stretch and a convenience store, but this next, longer portion proved a straight shot.
How empty it was. I would not use words like bleak or harsh. Not that sort of emptiness. Assuredly, I wouldn’t have wanted to be lost out in that wilderness in the thick of a winter storm, least of all if I had insufficient clothing, shelter, or food. That would not be a kind time. But aside from that basic consideration, I felt a serenity in this essentially volatile environment. I was looking at a young Earth, one of the youngest pieces of Earth, open and still finding itself despite how many human generations had been born and died on this landmass. The yellow-grass hills with their endless tussocks and tiny birds. The mountain peaks that still had snow. The thin streams and waterfalls trickling from far-off glaciers. So new, so empty. Waiting.
I ached at the houses set among these landmarks. They were large or tiny, historic or modern, and they seemed to have nothing around them for leagues, nothing except the view, a little dirt road leading to their door, and often a large paddock of sheep or horses. Horses most of all. On the last trip, we’d been warned about all the free-roaming sheep and I’d thus developed the impression that most Icelandic farm animals were sheep, but the horses vastly overnumbered them. I say horses because they’re the size of ponies but the convention is to say horses and so that’s what they are. I fell in love with these creatures from the instant I saw them at even a far distance; while not an avid or even practiced equestrian, I love horses for their beauty, their temperaments, their rich history as companions of humanity. But I did not simply ache for a little house with several dozen horses to care for. I ached for the scale of it all. I imagined waking up every day and being surrounded by the sublime, an endless rolling tundra out one window and an enormous mountain out the other.
Gradually, as the wind rattling the car grew stronger and stronger, we started to round the fjords. Here was the ocean again, and we saw new things: seals on a beach, huge unfamiliar goose-like birds, less isolated homes, more proper villages. My ears popped slightly as we descended from highlands to nearly sea level. One fjord, another, then another, and suddenly here we were, nothing ahead of us but Blönduós itself. GPS took us on a slightly roundabout route to reach the actual hotel, but I felt a small glee at how close it was to the water: perhaps fifty yards or so from the short, lava-littered edge of what felt like the whole world. The building was not glamorous on the outside, and could not be, under such circumstances. A grey, corrugated metal affair meant to withstand gales and, I suppose, storm surges.
Inside, it was very calm and quiet. You could easily call it a bed & breakfast, not a hotel. Each bedroom was unique, while half the building consisted of a gorgeous, high-ceilinged kitchen and common area. All the décor was a master class in how to successfully glorify utilitarian Scandinavian-style design, using IKEA furniture to beat the corporation’s own catalogues. I felt spoiled; this may not actually have cost much, I’m not sure, but even though we had to share the two communal bathrooms with the other guests, that would be a small price to pay for staying somewhere with a gigantic bay window overlooking the sea.
This place did not serve dinner, so it took us some time to sort out a warm meal, and by then it may have been past eight in the evening. But of course, the Sun still hung rather high in the sky, only just beginning to meander down toward the northwest horizon. We ate at another nearby guest house that had an evening menu, and I might have had some of the most delicious salmon of my entire life. This spot had a TV; we caught most of the upset victory of Tottenham Hotspur over AFC Ajax in the UEFA Championship semifinal; I think we were the only ones cheering for Tottenham, although it didn’t really matter.
Sunset was expected after ten that night. Expected, as if it might not happen. It would, but the golden hour was so prolonged that you could nearly have told me we were at an even higher latitude. In fact, as the three of us assembled in the common area of our hotel to watch the Sun sink into a thick bank of clouds over the sea, I finally realized that on this side of the island, I was not looking at the Atlantic Ocean, but the Arctic— for the very first time. If I set sail from here on a clear course, I would reach the land of the Kalaallit, or beyond.
The Arctic sea ice is melting, of course, and we may well lose it. I fell into more reflections. Extinct polar bears, a watery North Pole clogged with microplastics. I pictured myself as an observer some thousands of years from now, standing in the ruins of this building, or further back, whatever the sea level would allow. Then I considered that the physical structure of this coastal point would be only a little changed, shaped by erosion yet still here. There was a permanence to here. For a very, very long time, anyone could stand here and watch a nearly identical sunset over the same patch of water. Iceland is new enough to think about all the time this planet has to age. One day here would be devoid of even the yellow grass, perhaps, unable to support more than bare volcanic rock again, with no sea birds in the air; even then, the Sun would appear as I saw it now. One day the Earth’s precession, plate tectonics, and other factors would change the view; even then, a similar sight could be found at a close angle. One day the Sun would be huge and red and swallow here, a last joke, eating the last wolf if there were any wolves left to see. If there were any humans left to remember the old legends.
I thought of standing somewhere utterly boiled and blasted, the remains of an Iceland so far gone that it had become an unremembered fiction, with even the volcanoes cold and the continents stopped in their courses. I thought of a dying planet whose lifeforms had cancelled themselves out with their own cleverness. An alien traveler passes by for a recording opportunity, to learn what they can before flying away to watch the Earth’s very last encounter with the Sun from the stillness of deep space. Their recording is nothing, only a hot wind blowing poisonous air over piles of minerals so dead they lack even the smallest hint of bacteria.
But the hot wind might sound like the ghost of the sea.
It occurred to me in that mesmerizing dusk that whatever was to come, however the look of the Sun would change or not change, time moves in a straight line, or so physicists are forced to agree. So although we are pushed ever forward to the entropic future, the past cannot be denied. Things that have occurred will always have been things that occurred; they are not merely figments of our collective memory, in that they are, but for some time, they were real. They were here. In the aeons to come I would not be watching the pink and saffron blaze over the Arctic waves. In the past, I will have done this. I will have existed. The Earth will have existed. And if it is not enough to say as much, it should still be said.
Once twilight was gathering, I took a long, peaceful shower that naturally smelled of sulfur; I slept well.
. . . .
Thursday. The breakfast spread was delicious, and we had a better chance to meet and learn about the few other people who were staying at the hotel. Four friends, perhaps my age, maybe a little younger, who were from various parts of Europe and South America and essentially backpacking around Iceland together. I’ve never gotten to do something like that before in my few travels, not as a general social endeavor. I was envious, though not paralyzingly so. They seemed like good hearts, and between last night’s revelations and the morning’s food and conversation, I felt ready to face the rest of this trip with less depression.
Ironically, of course, I teared up and silently cried when we drove away from Blönduós, and then this itself was a silly cliché; what had I just turned on from my music library but a Sigur Rós album? But even knowing I was in some state beyond parody, I let the tears flow for several songs while I watched the scenery again, as our car climbed back into the highlands. For the record, I think there is a lot that can be fairly stereotyped about Sigur Rós— a deeper Icelandic idol for me is lady Björk— but I also won’t waste energy pretending I am too cool to enjoy the occasional jingly, soothing soundscape, whether you call it “post-rock” or not. At the time, anyway, I must have needed the catharsis.
By the time the album was halfway through, I had calmed, and although wireless signals were intermittent I entertained myself a little by learning online about some of the peaks we were passing. Some of them were these wonderful, highly pointed cinder cones, the most alien to my eyes, the most thoroughly broadcasting that beneath them had once dwelt great pools of magma. Whenever I go back, I think I must confront my deep-seated anxiety about volcanoes and visit some of the active sites where they let tourists go. I would also like to see the geysers and strange formations like the Dimmuborgir.
We took our lunch break in Borgarnes, stopping at one outlet of a restaurant chain that felt vaguely equivalent to the sit-down options that proliferate at rest areas and truck stops in the US. Large portions, a diner-esque menu, an atmosphere that tries to be cozy without forcing you to stay too long, knowing you’re only passing through, you’ll be gone soon. I expected the food to be good but not memorable, a liminal mass of ingredients that satisfied without rewarding. As it happened, this place had the edge: the food was really very good, or at least what I had, which was a huge platter of not too crunchy, not too moist fish & chips.
After this, Reykjavík wasn’t so far, but we had another stop planned en route. My husband and I had both looked forward to hiking in Iceland’s May, since January was a prohibitive joke; although we had originally been thinking of somewhere relatively flat, logistics had worked out such that we had a mountain climb ahead of us, namely Mt. Esja herself. Neither time nor our leg muscles would allow us to reach the summit, but we may have gone a quarter of the way, enough to turn around for a marvelous look at the vale to our south. My mother waited in the car while we climbed. For the first time on the trip, I was stunned to find myself wearing too many layers and even stripped down to just my shirt and leggings, despite the ever-present wind.
The slope was open and very green, with a few trees— it’s a myth that Iceland has no trees or can’t grow them. But the myth has real origins, given that the island was once full of boreal woodland that was cut down, and the arable land was destroyed by gradual topsoil erosion. As I hiked, I thought again on the empty wilderness I’d seen over the past two days, and on the prospect of eternity I’d considered at the seaside hotel. Some probably say Iceland presents a true sign of hope for the Anthropocene. Its populace has lived for hundreds of years through the direct effects of human-wrought deforestation and lost farmland; they have learned their lessons well, and in addition to the country’s contemporary focus on geothermal or other renewable energies, many forest nurseries can be seen growing today, usually stands of beautiful birches or little baby pines. There are also rigorous legislative protections for protecting the soil and wildlife from further damage. I certainly believe Iceland’s environmental history presents a useful teaching tool. I do not think the country has found a perfect solution, as among other problems it is still capitalist. But I looked around me on great Esja and counted myself lucky to see this place during the island’s decades of recovery, regardless of what setbacks are elsewhere in the world or of what the future may bring.
Our own future that day was humble, familial, and domestic; once my husband and I had come down from our stopping point on the mountain, it didn’t take us long to finish the drive back to my mother’s dwelling, and the two of us cooked for her. Macaroni & cheese, with three cheeses we could never have found at home.
. . . .
Friday. This was nearly a very bad day. I had summoned the funds to pay for my husband and I to go on a one-hour Icelandic horse tour just southeast of Reykjavík at one in the afternoon; and we arrived quite early. So early, in fact, that we should have taken the opportunity to pick up lunch on the way. The horse farm did offer lunch on the premises, but only to people who had booked it, so after confirming that we couldn’t be squeezed in, we backtracked a few miles to the center of this little suburb, bought some ready-made items from a supermarket, and ferried them back to the farm to eat in our rental car. Because I hate entitled customer behavior, I feel obligated to state that all of this was well and good, a simple mishap on our own part that we rectified without any fuss. What was not well and good was what I selected to eat in this process.
I ate a tuna sandwich, which was fine, and then I started in on some chips dipped in something labeled in English as avocado & jalapeño hummus. It was indeed hummus containing avocado and jalapeño, but the more that I ate of it, the less that the tingle in my mouth and throat felt like it had anything to do with capsaicin. By the time I’d eaten at least a couple tablespoons of it, I couldn’t bring myself to panic my husband or mother right away, but I was silently looking up a few listed words from the Icelandic-written ingredients on my phone. At last, of course, hnetusmjör: peanut butter. I have a terrible peanut allergy, nominally life-threatening even though I’ve yet to experience full anaphylaxis.
I don’t usually swear in front of my mother, but I let go a very loud fuck at this revelation, and what follows after that is slightly blurred in my memory; there were some antihistamines in her purse, non-drowsy in theory, so I think that I popped three while someone else ran into the horse farm’s office to let them know there was an emergency. I was put on a phone call with the local EMT dispatch, though I don’t know what I said to them, just that by the end it was clear an ambulance would be coming for me. This was a decidedly bad reaction— my throat didn’t just itch, it outright hurt, I felt like I couldn’t talk properly, and while it didn’t feel like any hives were breaking out under my clothes, I felt myself breaking into a cold sweat, and I was lightheaded. Instant misery, of course, because while I sensed I would pull through, I couldn’t fathom dealing with a foreign medical system if I had to go to the hospital, and most of all I couldn’t bear the thought of missing the horseback ride. After looking at so many beautiful horses for two days of driving, I was so in love, and there was almost no time remaining to reschedule.
The EMTs arrived in about ten minutes, by which point I had been escorted to the farm’s back offices and sat down in a chair with a tall glass of water. While the lead EMT mostly spoke Icelandic, his assistants could interpret, though this experience above all is why I don’t want to go back again without learning some of the language. One assistant in particular was a dashingly handsome fellow and I do remember ludicrously thinking to myself that now was not the time to develop some kind of EMT fetish. In any case, luckily the antihistamines were strong enough that they had started to kick in after my vitals were checked, and because the latter were all-clear and I was more cogent, I was given the choice of whether to go in the ambulance or not, and I said no.
I had indeed missed the time to join the tour we’d registered for, however, so even with physical improvement, I felt despondent until being told we could join another tour in an hour, which even happened to be a longer one. The farm would not even charge more. I’m still overwhelmed by thinking of how generous this was, especially considering how none of this was remotely the farm’s fault. The only tradeoff was that the original tour would have wound up just being for my husband and I, whereas the later, longer one was for about twenty people. But I didn’t mind; as the medicine took fuller effect and my throat went back to normal, I readied myself for the fact that I was going to make friends with a horse.
Which is precisely what I did, more or less. I hadn’t mounted an equine in more than a decade, and before that I had probably done brief pony rides perhaps twice; so I felt some trepidation about whether I would be able to hold the right stance and whether my assigned horse would like me. But although my stature made it slightly difficult to haul myself up onto even a horse as small as the Icelandic breed, I did manage it, and this specific horse seemed fairly keen to go on a ride with me and all of his horse friends— keen without being rambunctious. Gormur was his name: a middle-aged gelding, once a grey whose dappling had mostly turned white by now. He was shedding his summer coat and got it all over my leggings.
Also, he was hungry. As our tour set off in a queue from the paddock, I was pleased to discover that I could carry myself the right way for our slow walking gait— relaxed in the pelvis, feet pressed well in the stirrups, shoulders slightly hunched— and I quickly picked up how much pressure to apply to the bit for steering or halting, how much to squeeze with my legs if I needed him to pick up the pace. Nevertheless, every time that we stopped anywhere near a patch of grass or shrubbery, Gormur would insistently tread in that direction, dip his head, and start munching away. One of the tour guides informed me that many horses had ways of “testing” new riders to see what they could get away with, so I should gently but firmly tug on the reins to make him lift his head and give up. This was easier said than done, and the worst part was that although I soon realized I wouldn’t fall forward just because Gormur was leaning that way, I’d developed a fantastically full bladder, and something in this one eating movement would compress my abdomen in the worst place imaginable.
I got by, distracted at times but coming to like the challenge of cooperating with Gormur’s needs and nudging him to cooperate with mine. It helped that we weren’t simply pacing around the farm; we went on a trail ride out to a small ridge overlooking a vast lava field. Another encounter with Iceland’s mixed desolation and youth. I could write an entire essay just about the little moments I shared with this horse, and how joyful I felt to be traveling in such an ancient symbiosis. At one point the group split and my husband was inadvertently separated from me, a shame because he’s a more experienced rider and I could have used his input; but because this left me with my thoughts, I whiled away many quiet, reflective minutes wondering what hope might lie for humans and horses living together in the decades and centuries to come.
The ride ended just about when it ought. Gormur was growing impatient to return to the paddock, once he knew we were near it, and my bladder was screaming. As I somewhat clumsily dismounted, I also found that saddle stiffness was a very real thing, with some of my groin and leg muscles all but refusing to work for my first few steps back on solid ground. My true regret about needing to urinate so badly is that it prevented me from giving Gormur a proper goodbye, so if I ever get back to this one horse farm, I at least owe him a hello in turn. I was still able to thank one of the farm’s staff indoors for their courtesy and help.
But then I was reunited with my husband and my mother, and the afternoon was starting to fall behind us, and we drove away from this nearly sidelined but ultimately peaceful, primal experience. It happened that my mother needed to take a trip to Reykjavík’s IKEA, so dinnertime proved a distinct change in pace as I had my first encounter with the iconic chain’s cafeteria, Icelandic-style. Some of it was about the same as you find Stateside, but the gravy on the meatballs was different.
. . . .
Saturday. After staying up late— talking about movies and enjoying the seemingly endless twilight— we also woke up late, even though my husband and I had our flight home to catch. This was deliberate, given that the two of us would be landing at Logan around quarter to seven at night but our brains would still think it was closer to eleven, and then we’d still have a couple of hours to spend shuttling and driving back to our new home on Massachusetts’ northern border. All this notwithstanding, we did have time here in Iceland to make sure that our drive back out to Keflavík could be leisurely and scenic. Following breakfast, we packed up our things without rushing, and we said goodbye to my mother in the parking lot of her apartment building, the whipping wind being the only thing that pushed us finally into the rental car.
We drove back down the island’s southwest peninsula, the route familiar to us both from when my mother drove us up from the airport and from some of the other driving we had needed to do during the week. A little ways from the rental car return, we stopped at the much-publicized museum called Viking World, decidedly a tourist trap but not an intolerable one. I’m almost as fascinated by tourist traps in some metanarrative way as I am by genuinely appealing attractions.
The car we then returned with few hassles, though we had braced ourselves because of how many forms of weather, road hazard, and general disaster insurance one seems typically expected to buy for all the things that can go wrong when driving in Iceland; maybe somehow all that insurance still wasn’t enough for the dust we’d gotten all over the little black Renault. But since it was, all payments had been processed in advance, and the gas had been filled up, we were ferried over to the airport proper in a matter of minutes.
I only have so much else worth telling about the journey home. The main thing coming to mind is that while flying into Keflavík has generally gone smoothly, we’ve yet to have a smooth departure. On our first trip, I was randomly selected for an additional security screening complete with bag search at a secondary checkpoint; much as I dislike the TSA, this had never happened to me in the States, not simply because I’m a white-privileged citizen but also because I’ve never used an international airport there where such a checkpoint seemed to exist. That holdup had almost made us late for our flight home. In this case, we dodged a repeat delay but had to deal with an inexplicably inefficient boarding process where we were forced to check one of our carry-on items even though it had always been accepted for carry-on in the past and people with larger luggage weren’t asked to do the same thing. I have no particular conclusions to draw from this run of bad luck, except naturally that I hope the third time is the charm.
Once on board, my husband and I didn’t have the luxury of sitting together, which I say with some facetiousness because the people who wound up seated next to each of us were such that we didn’t particularly need to have been split up— another mysterious, inscrutable chapter of air travel theatre. I kept it together for takeoff, then spent most of the flight snacking, trying to avoid catching glimpses of the three people around me watching A Star Is Born on their seat screens, ultimately watching Blade Runner 2049 myself, having grotesquely mixed feelings, and so on. Suddenly the plane was safely back on the Logan tarmac and I was looking out at an all too familiar skyline, which made Iceland feel like a dream. I started this writing with the note that Iceland is a dream to so many people, and just now I’m confronted by my own dream, which is to say that what I saw and felt there was simultaneously ordinary and transcendent, but either way it’s fallen beyond my senses, all impressions filtered through my imperfect mind. When I woke up the next morning in my own bed and shuffled into the bathroom to perform my ablutions, I looked at myself in the mirror and couldn’t believe where I had been just the day before.
. . . .
Where do I leave these thoughts? What is a proper ending? I’ve come to accept that I love recording my travels, even feel compelled to do so, but I’m also still learning the real point of it. What I’ve put here is one part grandiose musings, one part mundane recitation, and I only ever remember about half the things that I could bother to say. But like more and more people I know who write, I’ve taken to calling many essays “dispatches from late capitalism,” and in this instance I might say it counts although a “dispatch from the climate crisis” would work just as well, or better. This has been my documentation of a very particular place in a very particular time, of what wisdom was imparted to me by the end. I hope this wisdom will stay with me, and that it will keep me humming, vibrating, trembling just like the island itself, vital rather than defeated, sworn to the service of a world where one day new, fresh flowers can emerge in a springtime untainted by plastic, smoke, and acid. Where the petals shake in a good, cool wind.