I’ve been dwelling a lot lately on journeys. A year ago, I was departing from Fiji, walking away from my Peace Corps service on a small island in the South Pacific. It therefore seems fitting that the first international trip I take after my Peace Corps service was to another island, although one that could not be more different in custom and climate. I went to Iceland to visit my friend Sophie, whom I’ve known since studying at Vassar College. She too spent 2013-2014 in an isolated, tropical environment interning at a study abroad program at the Turks and Caicos. She too had difficult experiences with island life, complicated by institutional grievances and professional obstacles. There is this certain juncture that come after finishing your undergraduate career, where you realize that you cannot always control how the professional world will perceive you—we are intellectually qualified but practically under qualified, penalized for our young age and supposed naïveté, yet finally given a critical lens with which to see the world and understand our position within it. That liberal arts degree which trained us in critical thinking, analytic writing, rhetoric and creative problem solving suddenly isn’t applicable. Though Sophie and I both worked in grassroots, informal communities, we both learned quickly that negotiations of place and space also begin with how you orient yourself in the world, acknowledging that others’ values may run askew of yours. In these moments, it is easy to feel rudderless, even in the most beautiful of places. So we reconnected in the loveably frigid land of fire and ice over beer, adventures, and plenty of licorice candy.
I have found that the best kind of travels occur when you don’t go in with too many expectation. This is not to say that you shouldn’t be excited about a vacation, but rather that if you have an open mind about your journey, it makes it easier to be flexible with how you get there and remain open to new possibilities you couldn’t have initially planned for. Traveling used to scare me. I always wanted to travel, but I grew up in a family that bred travel anxiety into me from an early age. Every trip was planned down to the minute and there were few opportunities to stray from the path. Part of the reason why I joined Peace Corps was to become a better traveler, which I believe I accomplished to a certain extent. You can’t really plan in Fiji—there are too many contingencies to control for. The rainy season may unleash a flood you cannot ford and eliminate any possibilities of taking a bus into town. The minibus may break down halfway up the mountain. Roads may deteriorate or rocks collapse or phones malfunction and you just have to learn to sega na lega your way through. I still stressed out a lot about it, but I also learned to live out of a backpack and be appreciative for the small things—an offer of ivi nuts on the bus or a free ride from a distant cousin. I packed the warmest clothes I could find (a necessity), did some preliminary research on Lonely Planet, and flew across the Atlantic simply hoping to explore a part of the world I’d never seen before, get in touch with a culture whose infrastructure is built around their folklore, and be outside.
I was greeted with a sunny, windy day that ended up being one of the warmest of the trip. At the beginning of May, winter is still clinging to the landscape, which has a quiet, almost desolate beauty about it. For the fields that aren’t populated with lava, basalt columns or spiny rocks, mosses and dried grasses sprawl across the landscape between rushing rivers and waterfalls. It truly felt like a Martian landscape, were it not for the random herds of sheep and ponies along the highway. You can drive for miles without seeing another car. You get the sense that Icelanders respect the ferocity of the climate—they have not tried to colonize the landscape so much as carve out small niches here and there where the cold is tolerable and the community close-knit enough to abide the harsh winters. It is hard not to be in awe of the profusion of delicate, dangerous natural formations—the bubbling hot springs, the geysers, the barely dormant volcanoes. It’s no wonder myths about trolls and faeries persist—it is a land still latent with potent magic, strength shapes scattered across the horizon that could easily be mistaken for crabbed, humanoid shapes hunkered against the sun’s rays.
One of the things I was most moved by was the seeming lack of ownership of the land. As we turned and twisted along the highway lined with glaciers and mountains, we could pull off to the side of the road wherever we wanted to explore or stretch our legs. There was little concern about private property, apart from the errant signs warning walkers to be conscientious of the ecosystem, the delicacy and importance of their mosses. On any given stretch of the road, you could pull over to follow a river to a miniature waterfall or discover archaeological ruins, the outlines of a great hearth still piled with the shells of mussels. In the distance, you could always vaguely see the outline of a church, but the architecture was surprising and vaguely alien, bowed against the weather yet spiraling toward the clouds like a space age spiritual spine. As long as you respected the natural landscape, it was yours to explore and discover. In the process, you are constantly dwarfed by the sheer scale of things, as well as the tenacity of the farms that barely exist on the fringes of wilderness, alone for hundreds of miles with nothing bug a herd of shaggy ponies and the patient promise of spring.
I was struck by the dogged determination a person and a culture must have to persist and remain under such conditions, as well as the kindness and care Icelanders showed to us as we traveled. Though it is a Christian nation, you can still feel the Old Gods rippling beneath the surface, nestled like barnacles into the spiritual lives of its people. I’ve always found it interesting to examine the kinds of stories and art that a culture produces and how much these narratives are shaped by the environment. In the old days of Iceland history, the composition of a poem could save a person from the gallows. Now, visitors throw Kroner into the aquamarine waters of Alþingi, the Viking Parliament, where they drowned women condemned as criminals.
The water sparkles and glitters, as if some spirit still remains. There is both the old and the new, a combination embodied by the capital of Reykjavik. There is a certain fierceness and comfort to the land, the way that the wool clothing knitted for warmth and survival is so beautifully and delicately made, to the point where you almost forget the garment is a necessity the majority of the year. The capital is full of cozy coffee shops bursting with old portraits, idiosyncratic African masks, and tchotchkes, making even the most “commercial” café feel homey and familiar. The horrific images of Ragnarok are balanced out by diminutive cartoons like Moomin. Iceland is an enchanting land fortified by their fascinating history, incredible vistas and unique charm. And their dogs are pretty friendly too.
Perhaps the most enchanting part of my trip was our expedition to Helgafell, or “Holy Mountain”. En route to Snæfellsnes Peninsula, where we would spend one night at an adorable guesthouse called Sundabakki (try the wedding bars), we stopped at a small hill called Helgafell. The hill, like many parts of Iceland’s natural landscape, is haunted. As a portal to the afterlife, moribund Icelanders would travel to the hill on their final journey into death. A small white church and a graveyard sit at the base of the hill, where Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir is buried, a woman made famous from the Laxdæla Saga. As the folklore goes, a visitor to the hill must follow very strict instructions if you want to tap into the magical reservoir. Above all, you must not speak the moment you begin your trek. In mythology and folklore around the world, silence is often associated with gravesites, either out of respect or to keep the dead from awakening. Some have said that you cannot defile the hill with bloodshed, which made me wonder whether menstruating women were forbidden from visiting. First you must visit the lone gravesite of Guðrún surrounded by her own fence, before beginning the climb up the hill. Like the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, you cannot look behind you as you walk up the hill—otherwise the journey will have been made in vain. When you reach the top of the hill (about a ten minute walk), there is a sundial. You must face due east and only then can you make a wish, which may be granted by the spirits. The trip down the hill must be conducted in a similarly sedate manner.
As a lover of folklore and ghost stories, I was excited to follow the rules and make the trek myself. We arrived at Helgafell around 4:30 pm, when the sun is still high but shadows scuttle across the crenellations of the landscape. As soon as we stepped out of the car, however, fingers to our lips, we heard the bleating of baby lambs. Huddled against the larger sheep, black and white lambs were crying out, shivering in the wind surrounding the Church at the base of the holy mountain. They looked like they had only been bore days, if not hours ago. They were all standing by the graveyard, but as we approached, the mothers shuffled the babies away. Most of the livestock in Iceland are free range and permitted to wander wherever they want within the vast expanses of open farmland. But one little black lamb got separated from the tiny flock in the tall grasses. Clearly confused and scared, he scrambled over to us from a wary distance. Unable to speak, we tried to chivvy him towards the nursing mothers scattered along the graveyard’s fence. As we did so, we heard a more piercing, plaintive cry from the small grave we had driving to visit. Upon approaching the ramshackle gravesite, a small white lamb ambled out, having been hiding behind the gravestone. Having paid our respects to the grave, we began to walk toward the hill for the climb, yet the white lamb followed us, crying out and walking just a few paces behind. His cry was so sad and desperate I almost turned around, but my friend grabbed my arm. We could not look back. It felt as though the lamb was tempting us, coaxing us to look away from our destination at the top of the hill. A shiver rolled up my spine, realizing, in that moment, how easily an urban legend can slide into reality, the small indications the world gives us that there are still some elements of magic, especially in spaces where we have already populated the landscape with ghosts.