In my new Viking novel, "Odin’s Child", young Odd Tangle-Hair follows his half-crazed father, Black Thorvald, up the slope of Mount Hekla, which looms above their Iceland farm. Thorvald is seeking peace from the demons that haunt him by communing with his dead ancestors, who live in the volcano’s fiery depths.
Two summers ago I and my wife and sons visited Iceland—a country that I have been studying and fantasizing about as I worked on Odd Tangle-Hair’s Saga—and I resolved to confront this mountain of my imagination.
I am not an outdoorsman, not a hiker, and I was, at the time, seventy-three years old. Now, with my son Anthony I embarked on a day trip organized by the tour company, Arctic Adventures. Though I was more than twice the age of anyone else in our group, I am happy to say that our guides—all of them young, slim, blond Icelanders—did not try to discourage me, as they might well have done. For that, I am grateful.
Mt. Hekla is about five thousand feet high. It is still very much a live volcano, and in the Middle Ages was believed to be a gateway to Hell.
I’d made it about half way up, after two exhausting hours of slipping on loose pumice stone, sliding into shallow snow banks, and lagging farther and farther behind the group. Finally, my guide, a very sweet young woman, whose name I no longer remember, gently suggested that maybe I’d gone as far as I could. Reluctantly, I agreed. Anthony and the others went on ahead, while she guided me back down the slope—gripping my hand the whole way and chatting to me in excellent English.
The others would not be back for hours. In the meantime, she took me in their little tour van over miles of washboard roads to the site of a reconstructed Viking long house: something I would have missed otherwise. So all ended well.
Anthony told me later that I hadn’t really missed much. There was no pit of bubbling lava at the top, as far as he could tell, and visibility was poor, so there wasn’t much to be seen from the summit. Nevertheless, I am grateful for the experience, although the Hekla I describe in my novel is still mostly the Hekla of my imagination.
And I now own a pair of mountaineering pants from L. L. Bean made of wool about a quarter of an inch thick. I wore them again for the first time this February, during our brutal Massachusetts winter.
So, no experience is ever wasted.
[For more on Iceland and Vikings, visit my website and blog at www.brucemacbain.com ]