My view of Iceland in the fog
Pertaining also to the several classes of elves; the production of herring oil; soccer and dentistry; and the lately outlawed uses of white magic.
It was raining and there was fog when I drove up into the Westfjords, the gravel roads pocked and soggy, winding around the cliffs above the black volcanic sand. I squinted through the beaded windshield and slowed around the corners and wondered if I might die. Below, Siberian driftwood on the beaches. What is this place; how is this real. Is my rented Sixt hybrid going to slide off the cliff and into the sea.
I got to Krossneslaug around 10 p.m. and there were a few people there still. I swam to the side of the pool and put my arms over the side and watched the North Atlantic wash over the rocks. Loud. It was cold out but the water from the springs was warm. A faint scent of sulfur. The pool a bare, pale blue rectangle, a chain link fence and then the ocean.
A kid was swimming there with his parents. At one point a woman bumped into me by accident in the pool and apologized a million times and I said it was quite all right. Then the man asked if I was American, and where I was from. Wisconsin. He said he had heard of it but could not have found it on a map. I said it was nice, a northern state, green in the summer, a little like Iceland in a way.
He was from Reykjavik and had never visited the Westfjords. We agreed about the Westfjords. He told me about some places in Iceland that I would not have time to visit.
His son, I guess about 7, started chanting “Ice-land, Ice-land.”
The son asked his dad to ask me if I had watched the Icelandic soccer team in the Euro Cup. I had, a little. They were both proud. “Our coach is a dentist!” the man said. I asked who the best players were and what teams they played for when not playing on the national team.
“Ice-land! Ice-land” the boy chanted again, and then, for some reason, “Pe-nis! Pe-nis!”
“It’s the only English word he knows,” the man said.
“It’s a good one,” I said.
“I know,” the man said.
A plaque outside the pool at Krossnes:
“In the 17th century, a self-taught magician, poet, carpenter and philanthropist by the name of Jon Gudmundsson had signed a contract with the Devil to channel the water from the springs to the farm, but it did not work.”
To me it seems like there would be more to the story than this, but the plaque leaves it at that. Imagine Jon Gudmundsson appealing to the devil, “But Devil, I have here a signed contract! This is your signature, is it not?”
Gudmundsson, called “Jon the Learned,” is mentioned in the 1866 book “Icelandic Legends” as one of the first Icelanders to have written a taxonomy of elves — those who live underground; the mermen and mermaid elves who live in the sea; the elves who live in rocks and hills. In 1627, a priest wrote a treatise attacking Jon the Learned as a sorcerer, denouncing his views on elves and accusing him of defying the Danish king’s decree outlawing magic. Ten years later, Jon the Learned would be banished from Iceland for practicing white magic. The king then took pity on him and sent him, instead, to eastern Iceland, far from the site of his failure of a Satanic irrigation deal.
I was in Iceland the week of the Republican National Convention. Donald J. Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president and I listened to his words in a podcast while I drove.
“The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end,” he said. “On January 21st of 2017, the day after I take the oath of office, Americans will finally wake up in a country where the laws of the United States are enforced.”
I slowed for sheep crossing the road. I made eye contact with a straw-colored horse in a field.
At the time, most people did not think Trump would be elected President of the United States.
Trump employed the slogan “America First,” which someone on the podcast noted was also used by Charles Lindbergh, who wanted to keep the United States out of World War II.
“As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America First,” Trump said, “then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with respect. This will all change in 2017.”
“Beginning on January 20, 2017,” Trump also said, “safety will be restored.”
As I write this, it is Jan. 9.
Waterfalls. Moss. Tectonic plates. The geyser. The guy I rented the Airbnb room from did not want to talk to me. I walked and walked.
Here is how I came to go to Iceland: I cried for an afternoon and a night without quite understanding why, and then my wife convinced me I should do a thing I had dreamed of, and then she bought me a plane ticket. I had trouble explaining to people I knew how it happened that I was going to Iceland by myself, but that is how.
I got sad one day. I hid from my wife and son and cried into my pillow for a long time. I woke up at night and did more of that. I felt myself in the grip of something; I suspected I had no good reason for feeling this way. On my phone I made a list of things it might be that were making me upset, and I thumbed up and down the list trying to see whether my reasons seemed crazy. Some did and some didn’t.
The next day I told my wife what had happened, because I was worried, and because I would need to see a doctor if I did not start to feel better. But soon I did feel better. That is the truth. She helped me, my son helped me. Having the trip to look forward to, the promise of an expanded horizon, it helped me. I am not a depressive in the clinical sense and I know and appreciate that as an unearned good fortune. (As, for that matter, is having been able to purchase the ticket.) Still, I did go for a reason. I am fortunate to have the type of demons that can be exorcised by a solo trip, a long hike, a swim in a weird pool. White magic.
The herring factory ran all day and all night until all the herring were gone, some time in the 1950s, and then the owner walked away and the building sits there as it did then.
It was a modern facility, the largest concrete building in Iceland. The women worked outside on salted herring. The men worked inside on herring oil. It was a good business for a time. Now the abandoned herring factory at Djupavik is a weird tourist spot for Icelanders and backpackers. I toured the factory with a couple of 50ish Belgian lesbians who had amazing cameras.
The driftwood, this is literally true, comes from Siberia, and by the weird complexity of ocean currents comes ashore in the Westfjords. It is a regulated commodity, an income source for farmers in the region. I saw it with my own eyes. Telephone-pole-sized timber stacked on the shore. I want to know why Siberia has so much trouble hanging onto its trees.
I am not sure what I wanted out of the herring factory. It was big. It seemed old. The floor was gritty. The week before I got there the Icelandic press reported that it will be a set for the Justice League movie.
On the second floor of the factory, on a beam, a worker in the 1940s drew a swastika. Iceland in World War II was occupied territory. Adolph Hitler had his generals draw up an invasion plan. In the early days of the war much of the action was at sea; Iceland could launch and house U-boats.
But the Nazis never invaded. It was too far away, and Hitler always cared most about contiguous lands. It was the British who invaded and occupied Iceland, later the Americans. They built roads and bridges, airfields and mines. Thousands of British men stationed there, literally about as many British on the island as there were Icelandic men.
Imagine the young Icelander at work in the herring factory at Djupavik, full of hatred of these English-speakers stomping across his homeland. The man grasps his pen to draw the Nazi symbol at his work station. His moral calculus is terrible. But he is a human and human things bother him and take hold in his mind.
Or maybe he was fully taken in by Hitler’s dumb promises. A thousand-year Reich, a world purified by war and a racial caste system that deified people with his color of hair.
Imagine him at work. Outside his factory the waterfall rages, churning the power generators at the crook of the deep bay. In the cold North Atlantic, herring fishermen dodge German and British ships of war.
The man in the pool had recently returned from several months in Germany on business.
“In Germany,” he said, “all you see is trees. I was so happy to be back in Iceland, where you can see the,” — he brought his hands above water, stretching them apart — “the landscape.”
In the misty rain I climbed up to the top of the cliff over the fjord. I rested on mossy rocks on the side of the hill, possessed of a vertiginous sense that I might lean forward too far and topple to the bottom. I felt I might not make it to the top. I felt my body might fail me. So I stood up and walked what felt like straight up and I felt the rain on my cheeks and the ache of my lungs. I saw the outline of a cairn at the lip of the cliff, near the waterfall. How old might that cairn be. I reached the top. By stepping on stones I made my way across the stream that fell over the cliff. My shoes were wet from rain and soggy moss. The fog was thicker now and there was no view of the water.
The trail was marked with thin wooden posts, distant from one another, and I strained my eyes to find the next marker. They were very far apart and hard to see in the fog. Each time I spotted one emerging from the mist in the distance I felt as if I had solved a problem, passed a small test. The rocks, the springy moss, the tiny white flowers underfoot. My feet hurt. My socks squished. I felt okay. I felt like I had done something ridiculous. The elves who live in rocks laughed at me. I had come all this way for no view at all. Of all the great things I saw there, the wall of white-gray fog on the cliff over the fjord was best. I followed the trail down the hill and walked back to the hotel on the muddy road.
At midnight I would stand in front of the hotel where I could get wifi and I would FaceTime with my wife and son. I would tell them I’d gone for a hike and then had a swim in a pool where Jon Gudmundsson once had a contract with the devil. How to explain my day. On Facebook I wrote that at the top of the mountain I scooped up water with my hands and drank from the stream like Leif Erikson, and the people on Facebook all promised me I would get sick, but I didn’t get sick. I did drink from the stream, but it was only a tiny taste.
— Robert Mentzer, Wausau, Wis.