07 January 2007

Ist das ein Eisberg?

Saturday I found myself in the company of a posse of exploratory Germans, heading northwest to Snæfellsnes on a day trip. We started in the dark, braved the swirling snows north of Borgarnes, and were out on Snæfellsnes by the time it was bright enough to see the ghost of the mountain spine down the center. The moon hung overhead, still fat and nearly full, and the air had that fresh Icelandic country flavor I adore so much.

By the time we reached Arnarstapi at the south of the tip, the sun was properly up, creating window-glow and turning the clouds above the mountains pink. There´s a tiny harbor there, among improbable turrents of moss-topped basalt. On that quiet Saturday morning, the only other activity was a trio of fishermen at work on their little boat. The faint sounds of the radio announcer drifted out from the open car door on the dock, and there were muffled clunks and engine noises coming from inside the ship. Down there at the edge of the country the rocks contort themselves into fantastic curves, cliffs, and parapets, the castle walls that protect Iceland. It's a place I want to visit more, wander on those little paths that disappear over the undulations of the landscape. It's always been just a day trip though, and the plans of the day snatch me away before I'm able to go around that next corner.

We stopped for lunch at the turf-roofed kaffistofa there, where the low wood-framed room inside was cozy and the coffee was plentiful. The lone attendant there, a woman d'un certain age, was resolutely non-English speaking in spite of the foreign crowd, but pressed the coffee refills on us, and brought us our fish-flavored french fries quickly. By the time we departed, the weather was looking a bit lower but we continued on to the famous rock formations at the end. These frozen lava-splashes look like sentinels keeping watch at the end of the peninsula, and are accompanied by a wide beach composed entirely of black lava pebbles that have been tumbled and smoothed by the busy sea there. It's the perfect place to find a pocket-rock, a smooth hand-held memory of other places that you find when you tuck your hand into your winter coat pocket. I selected a promising one and tucked it into my mitten, where it grew warm as the seawater dried off.

There's an old shed near the beach there that's gradually being consumed by the landscape that surrounds it. The windows and doors are missing, the bolts holding it together are rusting brilliantly, and detritus from fishermen clutter the more solid corners. It's the kind of place that's crowded with ghosts of other times, and I always wonder if those who constructed it enjoyed the astounding location, or was it just a nuisance to be there in that relentless wind, with waves the height of two men roaring against the coastline? I see these places after arriving comfortably in a car, full of hot coffee and sandwiches, knowing that I don't rely on this tormented sea beyond for my very life.

By then the light was beginning to look murky and we'd planned to get a bit closer to Snæfellsjökull before going, so we all got back in the cars and headed for the road that goes into the mountains. After assessing the experience and the vehicles, we decided to change the plan, and instead hiked the kilometer up to Sönghellir, the singing cave. It had started to snow in earnest by then, so we followed the tire tracks up into almost complete whiteness, the snowflakes plastering our backs and the wind swirling around our heads.

The cave is a very tiny entrance that opens into a dry ante-chamber, and beyond that I don't really know, since nobody had planned to come here, and we were flashlightless. I managed a few dazzling looks at the tiny area we were in by taking flash pictures, which illuminated the walls briefly, but brilliantly enough that I could make out the scrawled initials from the centuries of visitors in the past. Must come back with better light!

When we came out, the snow had blown away, displaying the view below, a wide arc of seacoast and mountains, so monochromatically perfect and cloud-swathed that they looked painted. How can I ever doubt that this is the place I should live when the views are like this? Still, the darkness was closing in, as was another snow squall, so we traipsed back down the hill and made our way into the gloom back to Borgarnes.

In Borgarnes, the flames from the elf-fire were swirling brightly on the opposite side of the causeway, and the tail-lights there indicated something exciting was going to happen, so we pulled in just in time to witness a dazzling fireworks display and the last burning of sparklers and little rockets. We stayed by the warmth of the fire for a few minutes, watching as the last sparklers were lit and the final New Year greetings were exchanged. By the time we also departed, only one vigilant fire-watcher remained.

The trip back was dominated by the distant city-glow of Reykjavik behind the mountains, and by the time we rounded the edge of Esja, we could see the fireworks blooming over the spread-out stretch of city like tropical flowers, their jagged explosions a testament to the wind coming off the sea. Somehow, returning to the city here is always one of the most surreal parts of journeys here. Is this really my home, and what is this apparently huge city doing here so close to empty mountain passes?

8 comments:

Britt said...

You are amazing. I have made you compliments before, but this post is something special. I'm a writer by profession and an Iceland lover since the moment I first visited the highlands. I have tried to capture some of the beauty more than once and I know it's not easy to grasp. I like the way you involve the senses. Sounds, colours, the light. I will be visiting Iceland soon I hope and reading your post makes me want to leave right now. It gives such a vivid image. That's what writing is about.

Daniel said...

You write very well, feels like being there! /Daniel

Sarah said...

Beautiful post (as usual). Philip and I went to Songhellir purely by accident on our journey and found it to be exquisite... you'll have to go back with more lights someday!

Keep writing, E, and maybe someday you'll come the realization that all of your readers have already come to... that you're in the wrong profession!

-Sarah :O)

tsduff said...

Might you imagine applying to the Icelandic Review? They'd be lucky to have you, pictures AND prose... You make the closest day trips sound like tourist spots... and I relive my own visits anew with each of your posts.

ECS said...

britt: it comes with practice, I think. I've now had over a year of weekly practice in Iceland-describing, but thanks for the wonderful compliment!

daniel: Welcome to the comments section! I don't think I've seen your name before. All these nice compliments are definitely encouragement to write more.

sarah: I think I'm in the right profession, since I don't think I'd want to rely on the writing :-) I like that I can do it as I please without the financial pressure. It comes when it likes, this writing muse.

terry: You're part of an increasing chorus of people who keep telling me I should do something more "real" with the writing. For now though, I'm happy with it where it is. Thanks for the encouragement though!

britt said...

Yes. Practice is important, but so is talent. And you seem to have plenty of that. Without talent you can practice for ages but nothing like your posts will come out.
But I do appreciate your modesty. In fact modesty and talent make the ideal combination. You should have a look in my writing class: the most talented students seldom brag. They enjoy the proces of writing more than te compliments they get.
I'm sure you could achieve a lot with your writing. But I agree, it's important to be happy with were it is.

Daniel said...

Thanks! As I think of it, I have actually been there; we cycled the road going past Sönghellir to come to Ólafsvík at the north side of the Snæfellsnes peninsula... mostly walked, to be true ;-) /Daniel, at flickr known as glymur.

ECS said...

thanks for the intro daniel! I checked out your website and thought the photo looked familiar on it. I'm jealous that you've spent that much time out there. I've only been twice, in the winter, on day trips. I hear it's paradise in better weather and later in the year!