My Small Saga
July 1-July 17, 2015
I was on my fourth day just below the Arctic when it started raining heavily for the first time. It was just after 7 pm and my sleep cycle was all wrong. As I got going, a cyclist was on the side of the road. Luckily, I had a spare tube, thinking of biking some of the island myself. The wind was relentless, and I was happy I wasn’t biking in it. It wasn’t a perfect fit, but he’d be fine to limp it into a bike shop in Akureyri, the hip city where I’d just decamped. The cyclist wanted to give me a bone pin, but I said it was no big deal. It was an uncommon artifact he carried, and he insisted. They are good fixtures. They come from Settlement, and you may not know when you need it, he said.
I accepted, and followed him for a bit, but I had to go on farther and reach my destination, which was nowhere. For a few days, I’d been pulling over on endless stretches of road in the West Fjords, the most beautiful and harrowing drive of my life.
I needed a Coke, so I stopped at an inn on a cliff face. Icelanders on the radio were debating the debt crisis, afflicting Southeast Europe. After a mile listening, I picked up two foreigners walking straight into a strong headwind. Would they be needing a ride? Yes, the man indicated. He and his wife were headed up to the uncommonly lush Ásbyrgi canyon. I told them I could take them all the way to the Mývatn Nature Baths, but they only needed a lift to the nearby fox refuge.
Truthfully, this wasn’t bad. I liked the convenience of being able to pull off to hike and set up camp as needed. I’d already spent the first two days without much sleep, wandering the streets of Reykjavik. In an art park, I’d heard about its legendary Saturday evenings, but on that almost wintry spell of midnight in mid-July I headed out too early, so I drove toward the harbor and got a rest in by the Harpa, the glimmering music hall. Watching the clouds race overhead put me in good spirits.
At the renowned bar, Kaffibarinn, I sat down next to a woman studying art history. She was there early, celebrating her birthday with a drink. What was her last name, I wanted to know. She found it a slightly invasive question, but I love the patronymic naming system. I’d be Dennisson, she told me. The bar starting filling in. We lost each other in the crowd, so I left and found a basement show, having wanted to experience a live Icelandic band. Well, there she was, with someone who appeared to be her boyfriend. Dejected, I headed to the über-hip Kex Hostel for a nightcap, and finally, a stroll back to the harbor for sunrise.
I got lost hiking around the West Fjords the next day. Driving on, I finally emerged from a mountain tunnel, and landed in the stunning fjord of Ísafjörður. The weather was perfect. I had a campsite next to horses and falls, but that night, a fast-
moving storm snuck in, making me take my tent down. The storm passed, and, wide awake, I drove a little out of town. Within a few miles, I found a magma blowout. As I hiked up, I turned to see the landscape, in the perfect light of dawn. It was flowing pure water down its sides. A few chapels were dotting the villages.
I got to Dettifoss the next day, Europe’s largest waterfall. After photographing it, I followed a trail. Out past the tourists I was suddenly all alone in a canyon from Mars. I hiked about two miles of it, and to get going faster, began sliding down dunes into dried-up ravines. Deeper in the canyon, I was surrounded by boulders that could break a grid system, hurled out of the sky at unimaginable speeds in what may have been centuries of cumulative eruptions in the past millions of years.
It began to thunderclap down on me, so I raced upstream. By the time I got to Gullfoss, the feeder fall, I could have sworn I was on a different planet, with different laws of physics. It was still raining, but it was impossible to tell if it was from the falls swirling up, or the rain from the sky. Hundreds of streams acting as steam vents were shooting up, producing tiny rainbows of smoke rings.
To keep schedule, I drove on to the East Fjords, where I spent a day hiking to a wind chime installation in the funky Scandinavian-tinged Seyðisfjörður. On my way south, I started listening to the Gísli Súrsson Saga on an audiobook I downloaded. Its themes of struggle and revenge kept me focused on the turbulent Atlantic landscape, becoming the perfect companion to my own small saga.
It was a point of pride that I was becoming a rarer species as I drove. After the island-circling Ring Road stretches out of Reykjavik, Iceland becomes a weather- beaten Euro-zone. Right off the Ring, I stopped at a geothermal pool in Vík in the southeast, unable to drive longer. I paid about 10 dollars, showered, and got in next to a group of locals. I began by introducing myself as Chris Michael Dennisson. We immediately began talking about my dad, as they took to the introduction.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a beauty in a stellar swimming suit. It was the colder end, but I figured why not. I swam over and introduced myself as Dennisson, again. After a while talking, she suggested we get some food. I was agreeable, to say the least. Where to? I wondered, when, out of the blue, she suggested back at her place. When we arrived to her house, I politely told her father, who had been cooking, that I wasn’t very hungry. But, would they by chance have any fermented shark. They did, and it was just above awful, but the vodka was not.
Her young son was a winning Viking, and he took us down to the cliffs where he surfs. There was no way I was getting into that water, crashing at not more than 55 degrees. But sure enough, the three of us ended up into our necks, shielding ourselves in a small cove. We raced to a beachhead where some friends had a fire going. After some time, we swam back through, miles shorter than walking.
I was in Vik to get a photo of a downed US Navy plane stranded on the edge of a plateau. On my way to the crash site, I picked up an American hitchhiker, who
needed a ride to Keflavík, a few hours away. As we drove, I looked out. Blue light from glaciers cut the sky into steely silver. Nearly endless wafts of steam could be seen in the distant mountains, swirling around like the barrier to a hinterland.
That next day we hiked it in, soaking for a few hours in the geothermal river at Hveragerði. On our way out, we filled our packs with volcanic rocks. I had wondered why she was taking so many; I’d only taken a few, in fact, and she answered that her mom had cancer. On our way back to the capital, we stopped for a walk in the parliamentary cemetery, on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in Alþingi. We were overlooking one of the graves. Are you OK, she asked. I’m fine, I told her. I’d been thinking of my dad though. I had promised him we would go to Iceland together, I answered her, down into the headstone.
I started to tear up, thinking of the scene from a thousand years go, with first and second generation Icelanders hiking it in, ready to make deals with highest powers. I asked a further power if I’d ever have the chance again, in his planet or ours, to make good on his powers, but there was silence. I took my only snap that day with the Law Council in the background.
The traffic picked up as we rounded the Reykjanes with the sun just down. Vents shot steam up out of the ground. Neither of us had slept in a while, but we knew we’d have to say goodbye. As I left her in Keflavík, I passed on the bone pin the cyclist had given me. It’s for settlement, I told her. She gave me a piece of soapstone, and then, a friendly kiss goodbye.
Two weeks had gone by since I left Reykjavík to travel the country, and even though it was only 10 pm, I’d noticed a strikingly darker light while photographing the streets of the city. Suddenly, it was only hours before my flight. I became melancholic, having to leave such a perfect place, and knowing I’d be flying back to a a country where I had no job or permanent home.
I followed a group of kids playing hide and seek for a bit before taking a turn up on the hill, by the looming Lutheran church Hallgrímskirkja. Walking on, I found myself standing in the Settlement Layer, high ground that was spared the worst of a 10th century eruption. It was one of the first really sunny days in a week, and at this high layer I looked down on the island, rising up, distant, and then, before I knew it, I was flying over Greenland, and back into the the territorial expanse of North America.
When I got back in the US, I texted the hitchhiker I had spent my final days with. She was still awake, even though it would have been about 2 am there. And, good news, her mother had been cleared and put in remission. I was on a hike in Soapstone Prairie in Northern Colorado, of all places, when I got the message. I noticed a mountain lake nearby. I took out the soapstone she gave me, skipping it a few times, and headed home, finally and somehow settled.
My Small Saga