Arizona and Iceland

susanwrites asks: Arizona and Iceland. You live in one of the hottest places in the US and appear to love it there and yet I know that Iceland also holds a giant piece of your heart. Can you connect the dots for me?

Heh. The short answer is, I’ve been trying to figure this one out myself. One could argue I wrote an entire book to figure out how two such different places could be among the most compelling places on earth for me, and wound up no closer to an answer at the end than when I started.

I do know that the warm weather was never part of the appeal of the Sonoran Desert for me–I fell in love with the mountains and the huge sky and the deep desert silences, and the heat was more like the price I had to pay in order to be near the desert things I did love. I’ve come to find the heat compelling too, in a strange way, but that took more time, and it’s still not one of my favorite things about living here–and every winter, I still hold out hope for desert snow. So I love the desert, but I don’t hate cold weather, the way many who move here do. (Though of course, I’ve only been to Iceland in summer–I can’t know for sure how I would feel if I went there in winter–though given that the winters actually aren’t all that cold, I suspect the long hours of darkness would be the real challenge for me–especially since the desert light is part of what I love about Tucson, too.)

I think part of finding both places compelling has to do with both the Southern Arizona and Iceland being edge environments–too harsh for lush forests (though actually, Iceland did have forests once),both the sorts of places where if the environment were just a little bit harsher, maybe things wouldn’t manage to live and grow there after all. There’s something about edge environments that pulls on me … something about the way the land is laid a little more bare that makes me just a little more aware of it, maybe. (Looking back, it turns out I talked a bit about both places being edge environments here, too.) Southern Arizona and Iceland are both places where the environment is very present.

I do remember the specific moments I felt both Southern Arizona and Iceland’s landscapes get a hold on me. In both places, my first instinct was to feel a little like I’d landed in an alien place that, while objectively beautiful, wasn’t a place where I could ever feel at ease. In Tucson, that changed the first time I left the city and went hiking in Bear Canyon–in a couple hours, with the trail beneath my feet and the rocks all around me, Southern Arizona went from being a place I was trying to convince myself I could live if I had to being a place I very actively wanted to live. On that hike I got my desert eyes, and the desert went from seeming brown and dead (I can’t even understand how I saw it that way now) to being … stunning.

By the time I visited Iceland the first time, I no longer required lush green trees for a place to be beautiful, partly because of living in Tucson. I found the land beautiful from the start, but even so something shifted for me when I visited Þingvellir, the rift valley where Iceland’s Alþingi, or parliament, used to meet. Walking between rock walls that looked like you could almost see how they’d fit together once, before the land pulled apart; seeing cracks beneath my feet where the land was shifting still–I knew, beyond doubting, that I walked in a place of power. Until this time, I didn’t even really believe in places of power (though later, I would think of my visits to the Cahokia Mounds, and know I’d felt that sort of power once before). Even then, I don’t know that I fully realized that the land had gotten a hold on me until after I’d left, and found myself literally having (sleeping) dreams about going back.

Fortunately, I also came away from Þingvellir with the opening paragraphs of Thief Eyes, so I had a reason I had to go back–though I think I would have anyway, sooner or later. And I hope, even with the book nearly done, to return again, possibly in a different season. Both my Iceland visits have been in summer, when the sun doesn’t set and the days are mild. Among the many things my time in Tucson has taught me is that if you only visit a place during it’s gentle season (as the snowbirds who come to Tucson for the winter and leave before the heat sets in do), you don’t really know a place–to understand and care for it fully, you need to know it in its harsh seasons as well as its gentle ones.

A happy Þjóðhátíðardagurinn–Icelandic National Day–to those who are celebrating. 🙂

Two years ago we spent National Day in Ísafjörður. I’m wishing I was back there now, with the sun up late into the night, listening to music and consuming too much sugar … Working on Thief Eyes is reminding me just how much I want to go back, really. Though–much as I miss the midnight sun–I think the next trip needs to be in a season other than summer, so I can get a feel for what life is like when the sun doesn’t stay up past midnight, too.

Iceland: Into the Fog

I’m delighted and honored to have an article on my travels in Iceland in the farewell issue of the Journal of the Mythic Arts.

To go with it, here’s a much overdue index of Iceland trip reports (all dates are 2007):

Iceland photos
June 9-10
June 11
June 12
June 13
June 14
June 15
June 16
June 17
June 18, Part 1
June 18, Part 2
June 19, Part 1
June 19, Part 2
June 20
June 21
June 22
June 23
June 24
June 25

Rereading the article and skimming the reports has me longing to go back. That island in the north Atlantic continues to tug on this desert girl–I know we’ll return again someday, though I don’t yet know when.

Iceland: Atlantic crossing

June 25

(No new photos this time–my camera battery really did die on the 24th!)

(Earlier photos here.)

(Earlier Iceland trip reports here.) (This is the last installment, so I’ll index everything all properly sometime soon. Meanwhile, thanks to everyone who’s stayed with me for the year it took me to get this all down!)

After two weeks of unnaturally good weather, we woke to find our final night’s rain still with us– the hills across the harbor seemed hooded and faint, all the world muted with gray. We had breakfast in the hostel, surrounded by participants in the international youth sports festival, and their nervous energy seemed somehow at odds with that quiet mutedness.

As we headed to our shuttle bus and made our way to the airport, I still had the nagging feeling of something left undone. My journal is filled again with notes on things I wanted to remember, hang on to, take home with me:

– Green fields of yellow flowers
– The purple haze of lupines on a hillside
– The steel gray of the sea
– Black rocks, coarse sands
– The feel of cold, wet air against my arms
– The yellow sunsets, the long pink evenings
– The Icelandic language, to my American ears, full of swishes and whispers, of wind sounds

I also have a note I’d forgotten to write down before, about an American we met earlier in the trip, telling us how her Icelandic father, who left the country young and spoke only English, had a head injury during a visit, and suddenly was able to speak fluent Icelandic to his doctors. Fascinating, that.

And another note, from one of the books we brought home with us and started reading in the airport: In The Book Of Settlements, there’s another Hallgerður mentioned, also with hair long enough to touch the floor. When this Hallgerður refused to accompany her husband (my notes don’t say to where), he grabbed her by the hair and chopped off her head.

Given than, one can sort of see why the better-known Hallgerður might have been just a little possessive of her own hair.

In the airport gift shop, waiting for our flight, I found a black stone that seemed to be obsidian, and discovered that the Icelandic word for obsidian (if it is obsidian) is hrafntinna, which translates to … Raven stone? Raven flint? … which sets of interesting thoughts about the links between ravens and rocks.

A stray note a little further on says, “Sorcerers understand the language of ravens.” I can’t remember where I read this now.

We lifted off on schedule–I still wasn’t sure I was ready to go, though I was no longer quite sure I was not-ready, either. The island below us disappeared beneath a layer of low foggy cloud–for a few moments we were surrounded by misty gray, then brighter gray, and then we were flying through blue sky, with the gray stretched out beneath us.

At some point I dozed off, woke from a nap, looked out the window, and saw a strange patchwork of rivers, lakes, and cultivated fields below–no hint of black stone or green moss. We’d crossed the Atlantic, I was looking down over a different land, and after two weeks, that land seemed just a little strange.

It seemed to me, just then, that it wasn’t so long ago that this same crossing had been made in a one-sailed boat. And the seas might be rough, and you might fear for your life, and returning home safe again was by no means guaranteed. You hoped for a safe journey, a good landing, not knowing whether you would get them.

We had a safe crossing–light winds, no turbulence. Our landing, a short time later, was gentle as well. I found it harder to take these things for granted, after two weeks of reading stories, and learning about ships, and seeing all those memorials to drowned sailors–one man pulling another man from the sea.

As we taxied down the runway I saw that the runes for protection, on the stone Sigurður gave me back in Strandir, had faded. Perhaps magic can’t cross the waters–or perhaps it simply takes a great deal of protection–a great deal of sorcery–to see one safely across them.

We emerged into the hot, humid Boston air, caught a short flight to Newark, and then caught a longer one–across the country and away from the sea–to Tucson, which is nearly as far away from the northeastern United States as Reykjavík is.

On that last flight, as the sun set, I slept my best airplane sleep yet, waking occasionally to see the sky moving through deepening grays to black. I woke in the dark–the first true dark in more than two weeks–with my dreams forgotten, but with the deep sense that they’d been about Iceland and sorcery.

I thought then: Maybe I get to keep something of these travels, after all. Maybe it doesn’t all disappear when I leave the Atlantic behind.

Tucson was hotter than Boston–39C, 102F–but dryer. We caught a ride home with a friend we met, by chance, in the airport–an unexpected welcome home.

No midnight sun as we left the airport, but a bright, bright silver desert moon.

The habit of observing small details stayed with me for a time after I returned to Tucson, turning the details of my own home new and sharp, a sort of second journey that lasted through much of the rest of the summer.

At one point I wrote in my journal:

In Tucson, a sorcerer would not send fog, but wind or fire.
It’s too hot to leave a baby out by a boulder here, unless you did so for the shade.
But one might still decide the land was too lovely to leave.

But that was later, after a couple summer months during which Tucson and Iceland swam around together in my head. The morning after I returned I wrote simply this:

The hot desert air caresses my arms.
I blink in the brightness.
It is good to travel.
It is good to be home.

Iceland: Lingering day

June 24

(June 24 photos here.)

(Earlier photos here.)

(Earlier Iceland trip reports here.)

Our last day full day in Iceland, we found ourselves lingering and moving slowly, perhaps because we’d be in the country another full week and needed another do-nothing day. I swam in the city pool near the hostel, which was crowded with teens from around the world, participants in an international sports festival taking place in the city that week.

Every town in Iceland, however small, has a pool. The best thing about those pools is that they’re all geothermally heated–feeling the cool air on your skin while swimming through warm water feels lovely, and outdoor swimming takes place year-round. Most of the pools also have at least one hot pot for soaking in. The city pool, being pretty large, had four, and they were great places for striking up conversations with strangers, both locals and folks in town for the festival. (I remember the Kenyan coaches going on and on about the high cost of Icelandic beer. Apparently they were particularly struck by this. :-))

One other thing I like about Iceland’s pools is the lack of self-consciousness in the changing rooms. Americans (and apparently many others, judging from the sports festival participants) tend to be awkward changing clothes around one another–we carefully avoid eye contact, often keep our faces to the lockers and our towels wrapped tightly around us. But while it’s possible I was missing things simply because I don’t have the language, both trips to Iceland I’ve gotten no sense of that embarrassment–no sense of shame in one’s own body, whatever shape it happens to be–something that (once I got over my own American self-consciousness) I very much liked.

Maybe it’s just self-defense–I’m told the Icelandic pool ladies get very angry with you if you don’t shower down sans suit before getting into the pool, as required. 🙂

I wandered to the Reykjavík zoo near our campground as well. I was particularly interested in seeing the arctic foxes, but the refir declined to put in an appearance that day, reminding me of a little of a certain sorcerer’s mountain. Still, the seals and sheep and horses were pleasant enough, as were the ducks and gulls outside the park.

Come early afternoon, we packed up our tent and moved our gear into the hostel room we’d reserved for our final night, then headed into town to continue lingering there. We wandered through the local bookstores one more time, took a walk through the University of Iceland campus (pretty quiet on a summer Sunday), then found a coffeeshop–filled comfy chairs and folks writing in journals and reading books and working on laptops–and holed up there. (And wrote in our journals and read our books.)

A note in my journal from one of those books reads “það reddast” = “it’ll work out.” A useful phrase to remember.

Looking at my other journal notes now, I see I was still trying to remember small details, as if, if I noted enough of them, I could hang on to them all once I left:

– The quick change from cold to warm to cold again with a cloud and a bit of wind
– Stone walls topped with turf in a park
– Flowers growing through the gray brick sidewalks
– A nod, rather than a smile, as the typical greeting when walking past strangers
– The sound of birds at 22:00. At midnight
– The low soaring of gulls overhead
– The difference between gray and blue, and how fast it can shift, within an hour
– All the different shapes of clouds against the sky
– My breath coming out in puffs, sometimes even on warm days
– The way the cold can slip beneath the skin, causing shivers
– The wind changes everything

Another note says: “I’m slowly accepting that tomorrow it is time to go home, to let the vacation end, to return to my own place, whether I’ve done all I need to here or not.”

And another: “This time I’ve enjoyed the midnight sun, the long evenings. I will miss them.”

For dinner we moved on to a restaurant where folks smoked and nursed coffees and played cards. I went with the seafood this time–specifically, the lobster pizza. 🙂 Apparently I’ve been away from New York and in Arizona long enough that while I may be dogmatic about my Mexican food, I’m no longer dogmatic about my pizza–I liked this one just fine. Heavy on the cheese, light on the sauce (as a cheese addict I approve), served unsliced with a knife and fork.

While there, I stumbled upon an Scrabble game, got up my nerve and said hello to the players. (I was sometimes shy of saying hello to strangers, because I felt awkward about having to ask people I don’t know to use my language instead of theirs, though I was always glad when I overcame that shyness.) I admitted to being a fellow Scrabble addict. As always, that shared addiction was good for creating an instant bond, and we chatted for a few moments. For the record, B and Þ are worth only a point apiece because they’re so easy to play, Æ is worth 5 points, and X is worth ten points because “in Icelandic, playing X is like a joke.”

“When you’re hung over, the only thing to do is drink coffee and play Scrabble,” one of the players also said. Makes sense to me.

When we got back to the hostel there was rain, filling the air with a rich grass-and dirt scent. A note in my journal from that evening says:

My camera battery has died.
It has begun to rain.
I’m listening to music brought from home and finding it feels right.
It just might be time.

I sat shivering in my fleece out behind the hostel for a long time after the rain stopped, soaking in the feel of my ears and nose and fingers and feet all getting cold, storing up the cold against the Tucson summer back home.

Eventually I headed back inside, made sure our spot on the airport shuttle was reserved, and headed into our room to sleep one last night beneath the midnight sun.

One more note from my journal: “I need to see winter, the other side of this strange equation. And autumn too.”

When we decided to return to Iceland, I sort of thought I’d visit again, get the yearning I’d felt to return the past five years out of my system, and somehow be done. How I thought this when I was planning to write a book set there I don’t know, but looking at that last note, I think I must have already realized what I know now–that I’ll be back again, though I don’t yet know when. Probably I’ll be back more than once.

And probably I have one more day of entries here, maybe two at most.

Iceland: Waters tame and wild

June 23

(June 23 photos here.)

(Earlier Iceland photos here.)

(Earlier Iceland trip reports here.)

Our campsite was a couple miles beyond the city center, and this morning we decided to walk rather than take the bus into town. We followed the path along the harbor, walking beside a seawall of huge gray rocks. Later we’d learn that in winter, the storms are sometimes fierce enough to toss rocks right up over that seawall and onto the path. But in spite of the wind that blew and blew and blew as we walked, those storms seemed far away today–a clear bright summer day that turned the water a deep deep blue.

In the city we met up with sarah_create and her family, and spent a lovely day wandering the city with them. We headed to the lighthouse out at Grótta first, where the sheltered waters of the harbor gave way to the open Atlantic. It was nesting season, so we couldn’t visit the lighthouse, but we could walk along the ocean–a much wilder ocean than the sheltered harbors and fjords we’d been visiting all week, the scent of salt in the air, the wind whipping our hair. The same ocean (literally and in feel) that I grew up alongside, for all that here the sands were black instead of yellow, and the rocks worn smooth by the water were also still pocked by their volcanic past.

sarah_create pointed out small details she’d discovered during her two years living in Reykjavík: drying racks for fish by the sea (because a few fishermen still catch and dry fish in the old ways), a statue of a whale’s tail (a gift from Latvia, a country whose independence Iceland was the first to recognize), another statue of a man pulling another man out of the sea (startlingly moving, especially after seeing all those memorials to drowned sailors in the towns we’d passed through the past couple weeks).

We also visited Kolaportið, Reykjavík’s flea market, which sold all the typical sorts of flea market items one might find at our local swap meet here in the States–used clothing, classic novels and Harlequin romances (I wonder just how many languages Harlequins get translated into), trinket boxes and other bric-a-brac–alongside food items of all sorts that you definitely can’t find at the swap meet here, from fresh fish to frozen raven and horse meat.

Those food items included hákarl–fermented shark that’s buried in the sand for a few months to cure (and to give neurotoxins within time to break down), then eaten raw. Google searches on hákarl turn up hits like “seven foods for the fearless eater” and “the worst meals on this earth.”

Obviously, I was eager to give it a try. 🙂

Samples were available. “It helps if you think of it as a strong, overripe cheese,” the man behind the counter said as he handed us small fishy-looking cubes of hákarl on toothpicks. He was right–it did help. Eating my sample of hákarl was sort of almost okay, whiff of ammonia scent and all, so long as I didn’t think too hard about what I was tasting as I was tasting it. Afterwards, the hákarl selle told us that we’d sampled a mild variety. I believe him, seeing as how I was able–just–to keep from feeling ill as I ate it.

I was glad to have tried it. And now that I have, I’ll have no need to ever try it again.

I wandered on, sampling salmon, haddock, and herring, lovely fresh fish tastes that wiped that hákarl taste out of my mouth quite nicely. Then I can to a booth with samples I didn’t recognize. Feeling brave–surely having eaten fermented shark I could eat anything–I asked, “What’s that?”

“Minke whale,” the woman said.

I hesitated, just for a moment, my moral concerns warring with my curiosity. The moral concerns won out, but it was a near thing.

“Would you like to try it?” the woman asked.

“Not today, thanks,” I said, and moved on.

Later, after stops at a hot dog stand rumored to be Iceland’s best (the hot dogs were pretty tasty, though I was undecided about whether they were tastier than all the other hot dogs I’d eaten the past two weeks), the National Museum (which I’d also visited the day we arrived), and the Perlan (with its 360-degree arial view of the city), sarah_create and her family treated us to home-cooked fresh salmon from the flea market–melt-in-your mouth fish which second only (maybe) to our French-chef-prepared meal at Laugarhóll. The company was even better, of course; we lingered and talked, and learned, too, how to play the Settlers of Zarahemla (an alternate Settlers of Catan) from sarah_create‘s daughters. They (her daughters) slaughtered us both, of course.

Back in the campground we lingered some more, and proved ourselves thoroughly acclimated to the late sunsets by waking up one of the just-landed tourists in a nearby campsite. Oops. Not his fault if he didn’t know, yet, that the soccer game begins at 10.

Soon we’d have to return to a world in which 10 p.m. was long past sunset, though–tomorrow would be our last full day in the country. I was trying not to think about that, though, because I still didn’t really feel ready to leave.

Iceland: Old manuscripts, new land

June 22

(June 22 photos here.)

(Earlier photos here.)

(Earlier Iceland trip reports here.)

We dropped the car off early (okay, around 9 or 10–but we’d adjusted to the late sunsets well enough that it felt early) and headed into Reykjavík for a city/museum day.

We started at the Þjóðmenningarhúsið/Culture House, winding our way through history displays to make our way to an exhibit of old Icelandic manuscripts.

Only to say “old manuscripts” makes them sound trivial, when in fact Iceland’s medieval manuscripts are national treasures, taken to Copenhagen centuries ago during Danish rule, and only returned–after a fair amount of effort–in the later decades of the 20th century.

The moment we entered the dim rooms where the manuscripts were displayed, we could feel the reverence in which these calfskin pages–encased in glass, some more than 800 years old–were held. Among other things, I remember copies of the Codex Regius (containing the Poetic Edda), Flateyjarbók (containing assorted sagas), Grágás (the Gray Goose, Iceland’s saga-era law code), Jónsbók (later laws), a bound miniature 8-page grimoire, and a page from one of the earliest copies of Njál’s Saga, holes wearing their way through the browning paper, but lovingly preserved, nonetheless.

I didn’t take any pictures here, and not only because I suspected it wasn’t allowed. This was clearly sacred ground, too, though this time the sense of the sacred came from words set to paper and the way the people who wrote those words treasured them afterwards, rather than from the ground we walked on.

Beyond the manuscripts, there was an exhibit on bookbinding and ink making. Looking at my notes now, I have this interesting note: that from the 11th century to around 1400, the Roman alphabet and the runic one existed side by side.

The Culture House also had an exhibit on Surtsey, one of the world’s newest islands, formed by an underwater volcanic eruption from 1963-1967. We’d caught a glimpse of Surtsey a week before, from Bergþórshvöll, where Njáll once lived.

As we entered the exhibit, a huge screen showed footage of the eruption, multiplied fourfold. It was impossible not to stop and watch the yellow/orange/red lava, sometimes crusting, sometimes swelling, sometimes bubbling, sometimes flaring. Watching those flares–far from the overwhelming heat that would have gone with them–I found that whenever that orange fire leapt up, my heart somehow leapt up too, in much the way it might on a roller coaster, just beginning its drop.

Beyond the screen, the rest of the exhibit documented Surtsey’s history since that eruption, along with more general information on Iceland’s volcanic natural history.

I don’t know whether Surtsey is sacred ground, because if all goes well, I’ll never set foot there. When Surtsey was formed, the decision was made to keep it as a nature preserve, with only the most limited human contact–giving us all a chance to study just how life gets started on brand new land.

The answer seems to be–surprisingly fast. The island was still erupting when lyme grass began growing in 1966. By 1968, just a year after the eruption ended, there were more than 100 species of algae. By 1970, fulmar and guillemot were nesting there, and spiders and lichens had settled in, too.

By 1985 that lyme grass had formed sand dunes. By 1991 there were dandelions. The first woody plants showed up in 1998, and in 2004 (to much general excitement, we gathered) the first puffins showed up. By 2006, just over 40 years after the eruption began, there were 65 species of higher plants on Surtsey; 90 species of birds (13 of which nested there); snails, moths, wasps; and even an earthworm.

It’s enough to make one believe that the whole planet must have a deep instinct toward life and growth.


For lunch, having eaten fabulous local seafood and pretty decent local hot dogs we decided it was clearly time to try … Mexican food. We were curious, when we saw the Red Chili restaurant, just how Iceland would interpret our own local cuisine.

The burritos were pretty much as expected, if a little heavy on the rice and light on the chicken, only with nacho cheese sauce on top. The veggie enchiladas were a little stranger, more like veggie tacos, thoroughly doused with more nacho cheese sauce, inside and out. But there was, as there should be, guacamole and sour cream and (admittedly mild) salsa and cheesy Mexican pop music coming through the speakers, so it almost worked, except for one thing: along with that salsa, there was ketchup on the tables.

I will now make the only dogmatic statement I plan to make this entire trip report: Mexican food should never, ever be served with ketchup.

Not even ketchup with illustrations of red chili peppers on the label.

From the Red Chili we headed on to Reykjavík 871±2, another settlement exhibit, and yet another excavation of another turf house–this one a Reykjavík farmhouse that was occupied from around 930-1000, but whose oldest walls date to 871, plus or minus two years, based on the age of the volcanic layer they were found in. The ruins were found when ground was being broken for a Reykjavík office building, and so were left intact, and a museum was built around them (and the office, as planned, was still built above).

What this meant was that one had ruins in the center of the room–an outline in stone and dirt, turf and timbers mostly long gone–and around it, 360 degree views of what Reykjavík might have looked like from that spot, at the time of settlement. Walking around, one saw images of forest and bay, and over them, ghostly white images out of the past would appear–a man hunting a bird, women milking a sheep, a boat approaching over the ocean–all giving a sense of the ghosts over whose past we stood now, and from whose time the excavated house comes.

The exhibition was also packed full of practical, daily life and other details–the shape of keys, the ways of lighting fires (jasper and flint, sparked on steel), the materials for making rope (horsehair and hides), that glass was rare but present (especially in beads), how long after settlement it took for Iceland’s forests to disappear (less than 100 years), that the Icelandic horse is related to the Shetland pony, that homespun was indeed dyed, that there was folklore claiming that putting animal bones in walls brings good fortune (though I can’t remember now whether such bones had been found at the exhibition site). We spent a couple hours there, and could have easily spent more, if our brains weren’t full and our legs tired by then.

We wandered a while, eventually making our way to the Eymundsson for some book browsing (in self-defense, we’d made a rule: we could only buy books printed locally–imported British books or–especially–U.S. and Canadian ones, we could wait until we were home to buy), then to a cafe for tea and mushroom soup bowls before catching the bus back to our campground.

Iceland: Returning to Reykjavík

June 21 (2007)

(June 21 photos here.)

(Earlier photos here.)

(Earlier Iceland trip reports here.)

The long summer days have been pulling my thoughts back to Iceland. The first time we visited, I found the constant June daylight hard to deal with–I especially remember waking up at 3 a.m. one morning, seeing the sun shining brightly through the curtains, and hating the world as I tried to fall back asleep. But our second visit, I just sort of went with the rhythm of the long days–and waited for the sun to at least dip below the horizon before even trying to sleep–and found I loved them. I miss those days; some part of me feels, back in Tucson this June, like the sun sets way too soon. (And then some saner part of me remembers that if the sun didn’t fully set here, the temperature would never dip below 100 F/40 C, and I come to my senses.)

Anyway, I know I left off my trip reports ages ago–I got caught up in revising Bones last fall, and somehow couldn’t be in the world of that story and in Iceland at the same time. But opening my journal today, I see that I left off just over a year ago, on year’s long day–and the shortest night of the year.

That morning we made our way south, back toward Reykjavík. We still had a few days left in Iceland left, but heading back toward the city reminded me that soon we would be heading home, and I still wasn’t feeling ready to leave.

I find my journal at this point filled with countless small details that I wanted to remember. Like what went on Icelandic hot dogs. (Crunchy and fresh onions. Ketchup. Brown and yellow sauces.) The way the weather can change in an instant when the sun comes out, or when clouds cover the sun, or–especially–whenever the wind either kicks up or dies. (That stillness, when the wind dies down in Iceland, is it’s own special sort of magic.) The feel of the cool, damp air against my arms. (I think I was storing up that memory to get me through the rest of the Tucson summer.) The way the land’s colors grow muted beneath gray skies, but turn vivid and green beneath blue ones.

The varieties of alpine wildflowers: lupines, dandelions, cecily, rhubarb. (Dandelions especially–swathes of bright yellow against the green hills.) The rivers that everywhere cut through the land. The varieties of birds: swans with goslings, mallards, eider ducks, gulls, ravens. (I left out the terns in my notes. But there were arctic terns, too, small aggressive birds.) The concrete houses (in the south) and the corrugated aluminum siding (in the north). All the pale houses with their bright trim.

The cairns at the roadside, reminding us of the older paths that used to cross the land, leading to the Alþing.

As we drove past low green hills and steep black peaks patched snow, we began to see occasional areas of steam rising from the ground again, too–evidence we were moving back toward the rift along which Þingvellir lies, and where we started our journey. The rocks around us became more clearly volcanic (not the rocks ever stopped seeming volcanic there), and we saw more fissures and gaps among those rocks.

We stopped in Borgarnes, home of Egill Skallagrímsson. Who isn’t the saga character officially known as “the troublesome poet”–that would be Hallfreðr Óttarsson, whose saga I’ve not yet read–but who I always thing of as a troublesome poet anyway.

All through our journey, people had been recommending Borgarnes Settlement Centre, telling us the exhibits there were a must-see.

Maybe they would have been, if we’d started there. But after all the history we’d absorbed at other museums and exhibits as we traveled through saga country, this one felt like too shallow, somehow–some cool touch-and-feel exhibits, but they didn’t cover all that much new ground for us. Still, we spent a pleasant enough couple hours making our way through narrated exhibits about Iceland’s settlement and about Egil’s Saga, and I did take some notes, especially on settlement era ships. One of which claims that the journey from Norway to Iceland may have taken as little as 72 hours, which impressed me then and impressed me now.

I also came upon an interesting discrepancy I need to research further: the settlement museum claimed the settlers didn’t have compasses (making their impressive navigational skills even more so); but the folks at Eiríksstaðir were just as convinced they did have compasses. Either way, navigation by the stars was little use this far north; settlement-era sailors relied on the sun, as well as (for signs of land) the presence of birds. They may have had sextants, too; the museum was undecided on that.

And the lurid (in a gothic sort of way) retelling of Egill’s Saga was kind of fun, too.

From Borgarnes it was a pretty quick drive to Reykjavík. We checked into the city campground behind the hostel, set up our tent, and headed over to Cafe Flóra, in the botanical garden behind the campsite, to meet hildigunnur for dinner.

Much good conversation followed–about everything from the weirdness of American television to politics to whether Gunnar wasn’t just a little bit stupid in Njal’s Saga. We wandered through the gardens after, and then hildigunnur gave us a terrific tour that wound through Reykjavík’s many neighborhoods, beyond where tourists limited by how far they want to walk from the bus generally get to go.

She also told us her grandmother’s take on the long summer days, which I find myself thinking of as the days grow long again: “This is no time for sleeping.” 🙂

A lovely evening, and a lovely way to return to the city.

After we got back, I stood out in the campground and watched the year’s-short-night set, sometime after midnight.

Words written upon waking

Still working on getting back to transcribing the rest of my Iceland journals (there are four days left, most of them in Reykjavík)–revising Bones sort of brought me to a halt. It’s really part of the larger process of learning how to continue writing one book while going through the production process on another. (Could I have kept working on TE while revising Bones? I don’t know–I’m an immersion sort of writer, and tend to focus on one project at a time–but I’m going to try to at least put in some time on TE when the copyedits for Bones arrive.)

In the meantime, these rough, unpolished words were written in my journal while we were in the West Fjords, though I didn’t include them in my trip reports at the time (not unlocked, anyway–I may have posted them locked while in Iceland)–on a morning a little more than a week into the trip, when I was feeling awash in story and folklore and fog.


There was a man
His name’s not written down
But it happened right here
No, not there
This rock
This pool
This stream
In these hills where babies must not be left unguarded
And a homeless priest blessed the hidden waters
And elves hide under rocks
And trolls within stones
These green and gray hills
Where the fog moves over the valley
Though the sky above is blue
In these hills
In this place
There was a man
There was a story


Gulls circle the
Fog-cloaked mountain
Of the missing sorcerer


Up here at the end of the world
The children play with old bones
Eat too much sugar
Stay up until midnight

Iceland: Doomed lovers and doomed warlords

June 20

(Photos here.)

(Earlier Iceland trip reports here.)

Last night, at Laugar, I swam in a pool fed by the same spring that fed the pool where Guðrún and Kjartan, of Laxdæla Saga, used to soak and talk together when they were young and in love. As I swam I stared out at the green hills, thinking this was a lovely place to swim–and a lovely place to be young and in love.

Before heading to sleep I walked in the valley those hills surrounded for a while, following the road a bit, watching a stream trickle through the green and yellow wildflowers; watching some stray sheep make their way down a hillside; watching the sun and a sliver of just-past-new moon set sometime around midnight. There were a few other tents in our campground, but not many.

In the morning, we went looking for the actual pool Guðrún and Kjartan would have soaked in. The most likely spot wasn’t very far from the campground: a chalky spot in the rocks near a waterfall.

lnhammer and I stared out at that spot for a while, trying to picture Guðrún and Kjartan talking together there and finding each other clever.

What did they talk about, we wondered? Law cases being argued at the Alþing? Who was going to Norway that year? Esoteric theoretical philosophical and legal debates, the sort that keep college students up well into the night even today? How annoying they found the older generation?

Or did Guðrún and Kjartan spend more time looking at one another than talking? Making out, perhaps, if no one else was there? (Only, was there ever no one else there?)

Later in the day, as I wrote these thoughts down, I also wondered: Did they laugh much together?

Later still, getting reading to share these thoughts, I find myself thinking: I hope they laughed. They deserved some laughter, given all that would happen later.

Eventually we packed up camp and left Laugar. We had time to explore Laxdæla saga country just a little more before leaving it behind.

We headed along the south toward Hvammsfjörður [Hvamm Fjord]. As we drove, we saw a cross at the top of a hill. At the hotel near our campground, there’d been mention of an “elf church.” We couldn’t tell, back at the hotel, whether this was a legitimate bit of folklore or just something of a tourist trap; if it was a tourist trap, it wasn’t a very good one, as I couldn’t get a clear answer as to just where it was. 🙂 I had no idea whether this was the place the hotel brochure meant, but we pulled over to check it out, and I climbed up the hill to the cross.

The gray rocks made a distinctive clinky sound beneath my feet as I climbed. The hill, I thought, was the right kind of hill to have hidden folk beneath it, at least based on what I’d learned back at Lauharhóll; though another hill, beside the first, seemed even more likely. I took some of the clinky rocks back with me and showed them to Larry. He had no more idea what sort of stone they were than I did.

I almost took those rocks home with me. But then I thought, well, if this was actually an elf church, well, I knew nothing good ever came of stealing from the elves, in any folklore. So I walked the rocks back to the hill, and I left them there.

Only here is the danger in trying to guess at a place’s lore without anything much to base those guesses on. Much later, back in the States, I looked at the picture I’d taken of that cross, and set about trying to interpret the words inscribed upon them. After a bit of dictionary work and a bit of googling, I realized the words on the cross were more or less taken right out of Landnámabók, which is an account of the settlement of Iceland, and that they read something like, “Auður the deep-minded lived at Hvamm. She prayed at Cross-Knolls; there she had them raise crossed because she was baptized and a true believer.”

Auður the deep-minded was the ancestor of many of the characters in Laxdæla Saga, and of the characters in other sagas as well. The cross must have been some sort of a memorial or tribute, though whether that was the specific place where she prayed, I don’t know.

Just as well I left those clinky stones behind, though. Auður was yet another strong saga woman–one of the first strong saga women. Perhaps she wouldn’t have appreciated my taking stones away from her prayer station any more than the elves would have.

In fact, we were heading toward Hvammsfjörður in part so that we could stop at Hvammur, Auður’s home after she settled in Iceland. A couple centuries later this would also be home, for a time, to Snorri Sturluson, poet and scholar and chieftan and lawspeaker.

Hvammur wasn’t very far from the cross on the hill. Auður’s farm–and Snorri’s farm, later sold to cover his bride-price when he married–was in a deep valley with good access to the fjord. Here, as at Höskuldsstaðir, I had the feeling I stood on good rich farmland.

We headed drove on, west along the Hvammsfjörður northern coast. Some stretch of that shore–we were never quite sure which–was labeled Fellsströnd on our map; and somewhere along Fellsströnd, Hallgerður (one of Auður’s many descendants) lived with her first husband, Þorvaldur.

The further west we drove, the more the stretch of flat land we drove along narrowed, pressed between the hills and the fjord. Þorvaldur’s farm, I realized, would also have been pressed between hills and fjord. It would, I guessed, have been a much smaller, leaner farm than Höskuldsstaðir, Hallgerður’s childhood home, had been.

In Njál’s Saga, when Hallgerður’s father tells her she’s to marry Þorvaldur, Hallgerður complains, among other things, that this marriage is beneath her. Driving along Fellsströnd, I began to understand why.

I began to understand, too, why Hallgerður so quickly ran through her new husband’s household provisions, which was one of the things they fought over. She wouldn’t have been used to living in a place with limited resources; she probably really didn’t know how to manage those resources properly, having had no experience doing so. She was a young wife, inexperienced– Þorvaldur may not have been wrong, exactly, when he accused her of being extravagant, but that also may not have been the whole story.

One could see how she would have been furious at Þorvaldur, too, when he gave her a hard time. More, one could see how she would have been furious, years later as Gunnar’s wife, when in spite of all she’d learned provisions ran short again–this time because of a famine, and Gunnar’s generosity, and a neighbor who wasn’t nearly so generous when they were wanting in turn.

I’ve lost track of all the ways in which the land has deepened my understanding of these stories.

We followed the fjord a while, then drove back toward Láxardalur (the Lax River Valley Laxdæla Saga is named for) and stopped at Hjarðarholt, home to Hallgerður’s half-brother Ólafur the Peacock, as well as to his son Kjartan. From here we could see Höskuldsstaðir clearly. We could also see out toward Kambsnes, the place where Bolli–Ólafur’s foster son, and the man Guðrun married instead of Kjartan–lived. As in Njál’s Saga country to the south, the lives in Laxdæla Saga here to the west were messily intertwined in large part because they lived so close to each other.

Laugar was about 8 km away from Hjarðarholt, or less than a two-hour ride by horse. Would that have been considered a bit far to go to soak in a hot spring? Perhaps not, especially if you knew that a pretty girl waited for you when you got there.

We continued south, toward Reykholt, which was home to Snorri Sturluson later in life.
The land grew broad in feel, surrounded by hillsides, but no longer bounded by bays and fjord. We began to once more see places where random bits of steam rose from the ground; we once more found ourselves driving past random fields of lava–both reminders that we were, indeed, making our way not only south, but back toward the geologically active rift that Þingvellir is a part of.

We came to another unexpected roadside pulloff, this one with a sign. Grábrókargígar (Grábrók crater) the sign read, and beyond it a trail led up to a caldera created by a volcanic eruption some 3000 years ago.

It only took a few moments–and a look at the map on the sign–to decide to climb the couple kilometers to the rim. Lava rocks clinked and crunched beneath our feet. Those rocks provided good purchase for our steps, and were as nearly as grippy as the pillow-lava we walked over in the south; in a few places the trail grew a little steep, but otherwise, it was an easy hike.

The lava rocks were gray and black and brown and rust red and mustard yellow. They felt incredibly light in the hand, filled with air holes and air as they were. In some of the darker rocks I saw hidden holes, small caves.

It was a fun hike. This mountain did not feel at all alive to me, not the way Hekla had. I could easily believe it had been over 3000 years since it had erupted, and that the hill was now tame–or as tame as any land can be, in so geologically active a place. I felt no unease, no sense that I didn’t belong here or ought to go away–none of the sense of dread I had at Hekla, which still erupts every ten years or so.

Finally we made our way to Reykholt, and to Snorrastofa, the history museum focused on Snorri Sturluson’s life and the history of the era he lived in.

Snorri Sturluson is 13th century figure, a part of Iceland’s Sturlung era. I still know a lot less about the Sturlung era than I do about the settlement (9th to 10th century) and saga (10th to 12th century) eras before it. In the saga era, the power of chieftains and other landholders was relatively limited, and each of them was more or less responsible for their own lands and a relatively small household. By the Sturlung era, power had become consolidated into fewer hands. Chieftains were more powerful, more like warlords. They had armies; they had fortresses. The feuding of the saga era was no longer a one-on-one affair, or even a matter for small groups. When a hundred men descended on Njál’s home to burn it in Njál’s Saga, that was considered a huge force; but by the Sturlung era, there were chieftans with forces of 500 or 1000 men at their command.

The Sturlung era is also when the sagas were written down, however, and while he may have been a chieftain, Snorri Sturluson is more better-known as a writer and scholar. He’s the author of the Prose Edda, from which much of our present-day understanding of Norse mythology comes. He’s also the author of the Heimskringla, a history of the Norwegian kings; and he may or may not be the author of Egil’s Saga. He also served as law speaker to the Alþing twice. He may well have been a better scholar than chieftain; in the end, he was assassinated by his political enemies at Reykholt.

The exhibits at Snorrastofa were packed full of historical information, and my journal is filled with random Sturlung-era historical notes.

Like that skrud (skrúð?) was a fabric that was not only costly in and of itself, but that you weren’t even allowed to wear unless you first met the financial prerequisites.

Or that most battles began with a flurry of stone-throwing.

Or that lamps consisted of a wick of bog cotton in a fuel of sea-oil, shark oil, or cod-liver oil. While candles were more expensive, and mostly only used in churches and cloisters.

Or that the small bound saga of St. Margaret, patron saint of women in childbirth, was often placed in bed with women, beneath their clothes, while they were giving birth.

Or that one of the oldest (the oldest?) surviving documents in Old Norse is the deed to Reykholt’s church. “To the church in Reykholt belongs the home farm with all it’s produce. Along with that go twenty cows, a two-year-old bull, and one hundred and thirty ewes…”

And so on. It was a good place for historical geekery, and the staff at the museum were more than willing to answer questions, too. “It’s not just the academics interested in these stories,” one woman explained to me as we discussed the sagas. “It’s the farmers, too.” Which may be one of the things I love most about Iceland: that the sagas, and literature in general, have never been assumed to be of interest only to a few intellectuals.

The bookshop was filled with a wonderful array of history books, too. I picked up a book on various historical takes on Njála, and a volume of the series of graphic novels based on the saga hildigunnur had recommended as well, and jotted down many other titles to seek out once I returned to the States. (In order to keep from going utterly broke, lnhammer and I had a rule: if it was published in the U.S., we could buy it later. If it was published in Iceland, we bought it there. If it was published in England … well, then we had to think about it. :-))

We camped that night in Húsafell, a resort campground designed for locals rather than tourists, where we pitched our tend amid a small planted grove of birch trees. Again, the hills we saw in the distance were clearly volcanic.

It was a pleasant campground with a pleasant pool, and if it had any historical significance we didn’t know it.

The next night we would be camping in Reykjavík once more. I felt a bit of a twinge at the thought. Back at Eiríksstaðir, returning to the present had felt very right; but now, I wasn’t sure I was quite ready to return.

I have one more note in my journal from this day. It says, simply, “The mistery of past time.” I have no idea anymore whether that came from Snorrastofa or a typo on a sign or whether we made it up, but I like it.