Iceland: Turf and lava

Saw the annual community theater Shakespeare production last night, a Much Ado About Nothing set at a 1960s Southern California beach resort. The female Dogberry with her bimbo beach patrol was worth the price of admission by themselves. (Or would have been, had the production not been free.) And unlike Buttercup, Beatrice could totally hold her own among the women of the sagas. She even gets in a first-class goad, forcing Benedict, on grounds of honor, to set out to kill his best friend in order to avenge the wrong done to Beatrice’s cousin. (Only, this being a comedy, the slaying is never actually carried out.) (But one of the fascinating things about the play is how it really is only a step or two away from being a tragedy instead.)


June 13

(Photos here.)

At 9:00 last night, there was just one other tent in our campground. At 9:30, as I crawled into bed, two more was setting up, but the campground was still pretty quiet.

At 10:00, I woke to the sound of a soccer game–kids running and laughing, dogs barking, adults drinking and talking. As a soccer ball hit our tent, lnhammer rolled over, looked at me, and said, “Welcome to camping in Iceland.”

The sun was still out, after all. Quiet hours didn’t begin until midnight. And the other campers did make a good faith effort to keep the soccer ball from hitting our tent again, as well as to keep the dogs outside of our tent.

I realized then that I needed to readjust my notion of what constituted reasonable hours. Things change, when the sun doesn’t set until midnight.

I would realize later–after I’d shaken off the last of my jet lag and adjusted my sleeping hours to begin at midnight or so–that it’s actually easier to fall asleep if you wait for the sun to set. Even if that sun rises again a couple hours later, and the sky never gets truely dark.

The next morning when I stepped out of the tent to gray skies and light winds. Though as soon as I thought to myself that yesterday’s blue skies were gone, hints of blue began poking through. Not blue enough to keep my fingertips from getting chilly as I sat out and wrote, though.

I’d managed to get sunburned the day before, thanks to those endless blue skies. I only get sunburned when I leave Tucson, because while I wear sunscreen consistently at home, I tend to assume that other places, not being deserts, cannot burn me. This has never actually proved to be true, of course.

After another PB & J breakfast, we packed up our tent and headed out, toward the Þjórsárdalur valley. (Actually, saying Þjórsárdalur valley is redundant, as the ending dalur pretty much means valley.) We quickly left the lake behind, and the vertical walls of the rift valley, too. The land became a place of sweeping black and brown slopes, and of fields of wild green and yellow grasses stretching toward those slopes. Occasionally, we saw gray stone cairns along the roadside, once used to guide travelers, in the days before cars and bright orange road signs–an echo of the past, and a reminder that those travelers journeyed over many of the same paths we were traveling now.

Our first stop Þjóðveldisbærinn, the recreation of an 11th century turf farmhouse, built at the edge of a stunning bit of gray valley, with green grasses and mosses, wildflowers and butterflies, and a waterfall off in the distance. Dandelions grew on the roof; the grassy roof and turf walls were, in places, not so different in color from the land around them. We entered through a wood door, handed over our admission fee, and had the place to ourselves.

Well, at least until the building closed for lunch, which would be in about a half hour. That was just enough time to pace the place out: main hall with central hearth, low benches lining the walls, work spaces that were covered with sheep furs, which would have been used to transform them to sleeping spaces at night; along those benches, a single bed closet with doors that closed for the man and woman of the house, covered with polar bear fur, a sign of status.

Beyond the main hall were the woman’s quarters, loom and high seat at one end of the room, the benches that lined these walls higher than those in the main room, possibly because tables would be brought in and the room converted to a feast space when visitors came.

To one side of the woman’s quarters a low hall led to a storage room. To one side of the entry way, back on the other side of the house, was a group latrine, two long pits that could have been cleaned out through a hole leading outside. Having a latrine attached to the house, rather than separate from it, would have been a fairly recent development.

And through all these rooms, a sunken floor; hard packed dirt floor; and turf walls that felt oddly dry to the touch, just a little bit scratchy against the cheek. Those walls were made up of either flat stabs or angled bricks of turf, built on a foundation of stone. There was also stone beneath the building’s wooden supports. That wood would have been, by far, the most expensive part of the house, because it probably would have been imported from overseas.

At noon the museum was locked up, and we headed outside (noticing the polite sign asking us not to walk on the roof as we did), grabbed our picnic lunch (basic sub sandwiches, available at gas stations and grocery stores everywhere), found a sufficiently scenic spot (not hard; finding a not-scenic spot would have been more of a challenge), and stared out at that waterfall as we ate.

After lunch we headed out to Stöng, former home of one Gaukur Trandilsson, and the ruins from which the turf house had been reconstructed.

Stöng had been destroyed during the Hekla eruption of 1104–the reason the ruins were well preserved–and as we drove there, we felt the presence of Hekla in the volcanic landscape around us. We also learned that a gravel road can look very much like the gravelly lava fields around it, at times.

The original turf was mostly gone from Stöng, but the rock foundations remained, forming a stone outline of house and hearth. I paced out the dimensions of the ruins, and somehow doing so made the reconstruction of those ruins feel more real.

There were the ruins of some outbuildings, too, including the old horse stable, some of the slabs of large, flat stone that separated the stalls still standing.

When we were through here, we headed back to Þjóðveldisbærinn again–again we had the reconstructed farmhouse to ourselves–and we poked around, more slowly, for quite some time.

By the time we left–just as another set of visitors was heading in at last–my tactile-learner self was very happy. How often do you get to walk through the past that you hope to write about?

We headed toward Hekla, the hooded volcano once deemed by Europeans an entrance to hell, next. We could see its black slopes, thick with snow on the upper reaches, from quite some distance away, and the clouds even lifted for long enough to give us a few of the peak.

But even if we couldn’t have seen the mountain, we would have felt our approach. The land turned more and more barren as we drew near, black dirt, little growing there. At a pulloff that was as near as we got to the mountain’s base, rocks lay all around atop that dirt, clearly spewed out from some eruption.

But most of all, I noticed how baleful the land around us felt. I felt foreboding, uneasiness, the sense that I should turn back, go away. The deep sense of I do not belong here.

I recognized that feeling. I’d felt it on my last trip to Iceland, when I’d climbed partway up the slopes of new-born Eldfell, too. That feeling was part of the reason, when I lost the path to Eldfell’s peak, I’d turned back instead of search for it. I’d regretted that later, and thought myself silly, but now it didn’t seem silly now. For all that I find them deeply fascinating, it turns out volcanoes are not, for me, comfortable places.

Yet then we drove past the mountain, around a bend, and abruptly, between one eye blink and another, we found ourselves driving past a field filled neat green grasses, with purple lupines. A cultivated place, a people place. The grip of the mountain relaxed, and the warnings echoing in the back of my head fell silent, just like that.

We drove on, through a town called Hvolsvöllur, where a brief stop at the Saga Center (we had more time planned there the next day) to ask a couple questions revealed a sobering truth: compelling as I find some of the characters in the sagas? I cannot pronounce their names. Both because my Icelandic pronunciation was worse than I’d thought, and because the English translations translated the names to a greater degree than I’d thought.

I spent much of the rest of the trip working on that, though I still have a long ways to go.

We drove on, through a town called Hlíðarendi, past a lovely green hillside, and suddenly realized–it was that hillside. The hillside that Gunnar of Njál’s saga looked back at, as he was leaving home–exiled for three years–and said (according to one translation):

Lovely is the hillside–never has it seemed so lovely to me as now, with its pale fields and mown meadows, and I will ride back home and not leave.

So Gunnar stayed home, and died there, and we were looking at the hillside he had died for.

I glanced back at it, thinking that yes, it was a lovely hillside.

But thinking also that it was not, perhaps, worth dying for, even so.

We drove on, through the Fljótsdalur [Valley]. A tongue of glacier came into view, and soon after, we arrived at the turf-roofed hostel where we were spending the night. We climbed a steep rock driveway we dared not take our rental car up, deposited our sleeping bags up in the loft, beneath a sloped roof and beside a couple rows of mattresses, and settled in to the very pleasant common room downstairs–with a gloriously large English-language collection of books about Iceland, past and present–to read, and talk with our fellow travelers, and enjoy the valley and glacier views outside the window.

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