I had money. The projects I started were brilliant, many of them continue to this day, but I’m a not a young man full of vigor and hope with vistas to master. Senility is far from the door, but somewhere along the way I misplaced the maps for living and then aimless detours took me to dead-ends. I don’t know what I’m to do.
From time there in my youth, I knew the forces of Iceland served to scrub an encrusted soul and restore vitality. Isolated places on the Icelandic coast and hinterlands were not hard to find. I needed a place where my capacity for dancing long, slow waltzes with drink were restricted; a world that emptied out a cluttered life and freed me from stalled relationships that held promise but ran short of fuel.
Iceland is normally a balm for my restless energy. I’ve been here quite a few times, mostly in transit, stopping for a time to play musical chairs at the Keflavik airport where hundreds of travelers sort themselves out, moving like livestock down the causeways to the next gate before boarding flights to other places. But there have been times when I’ve stayed longer and become immersed in the country, a setting that is both elemental and primordial.
There are few luxuries here to get in the way when trying to restore an agitated soul. In Reykjavik, the Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral has drawn me back repeatedly to its simplicity and beauty. Light, no matter the day, is drawn in through the tall windows and rebounds off the white granite interior. Organ music is embraced by the stone that soothes an overwrought heart. There is nothing to divert from the fundamentals. It was here, staring at the statue of Leiv Eiriksson in the plaza before the church, that I first met Karl.
I did a double take, looking back and forth between the statue in front of me and the man standing to my right, the resemblance overwhelming. My mouth hung ajar. He smiled and greeted me with, “God Morgon, Herr.”
I fumbled out a “Good morning,” to him, and embarrassed by my lack of social grace, turned back to stare at the sculpture.
“That gentleman standing there is no doubt an ancestor. Thus, my appearance,” he said.
I turned to look at him and imagined the figure up on top of the pedestal could very well be him, minus the Viking armor.
“There is a striking resemblance,” I commented, nodding my head toward him.
His laughed filled the plaza. “Yah, but I’m not as good looking as him. He may have been more handsome than me, but he’s dead. That’s what you get for eating salted Cod and Rye bread. By the way, what’s your name, sir?”
“Will McGraw, Mr. Eriksson.”
“Honest to god, Mr. McGraw,” and he looked over his shoulder to see if anyone was standing nearby, “My last name is Eiriksson. Karl, the other Eiriksson.”
I laughed and we shook hands. It was getting near lunch, and my stomach was making discontented announcements. “Would you join me for a midday repast?” I asked.
“Only if you promise me you won’t eat puffin.”
“Never touch the stuff,” I replied.
We walked down Skolavordustiur Street to a restaurant that had, what else . . . fish. We were fortunate enough to get an outside table. A waiter came, took our orders and we enjoyed a glass of Viking beer. As the sun broke through the clouds, we saluted it with a toast and I asked him, “So, tell me Karl, what brings you to the nearest place next to Greenland?”
“I see you are a man of inquiry, a characteristic of a questing mind.”
I nodded and said, “Indeed, I am.”
“Well,” he replied, “as things go in an aging person who sees the end of the stick through the fog of a lifespan, I’m not interested in finding more things to do, win or conquer. I just don’t want to lose myself. As my old friend Soren Kierkegaard used to say, ‘The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all.” He raised his glass for another draught of the amber ale.
“Very true, very true,” I replied, raising my glass in response, before taking a long pull from the mug.
“What about you, Mr. McGraw?”
“Oh, I have stumbled around a lot, both from too much of this,” nodding to the beer, “and in my associations. I fear I have worn out too many welcomes and don’t quite know what to do about it. I’ve had too many fingers in a lot of pies, and after the baking, make a mess before the eating.”
“You never finish anything,” he said.
“Yes, but I have spectacular beginnings.”
He laughed. “You are a genius, yes?”
“At the risk of sounding arrogant, yes, I suppose I am – in my own way.”
“That’s what counts,” Eiriksson replied, pointing a finger at me and leaning backward in his chair, almost colliding with our orders of fish and chips.
The meal was placed before us and we set to it, devouring and swilling down another brew. At the end of our dinner, he pulled out some old looking coins, slapped them on the table, stood, shook my hand and said, “I must go. I will see you again.”
He nodded, turned, and walked down the street and around the corner toward Faxa Bay.
I stood to leave as the waiter came out. “My companion left these. I have no idea what they’re worth, do you? I’d like to settle up.”
He shrugged and said, “I’ll go ask my boss.”
He returned shortly with an older man in tow, who, after examining the money asked, “Where did you get these coins, sir?”
“The person I was dining with left them in payment. I have no idea what their worth.”
“Well, I’d say they’re worth a lot. You could order a lot of fish and chips with these. I’m an amateur nusmatist and your friend paid us very well. In fact, I can’t take it all.”
“Consider it a large gratuity.”
He smiled, said thanks, and I left.
I returned to my B and B for a nap. Even in my most rushed periods, I always set aside an hour for an afternoon siesta. I was never employed by anyone where I had to account for my time. Work diverted me from liquor and a bending arm. It was the unfilled hours that were a curse.
That evening I went to the Harpa Concert Hall. Sibelius, as befits this country, was on the bill, along with Widor’s Toccata, the capstone piece, wrapping up an evening of Nordic power with the French composer’s bluster and drama. The performance made me itchy to secure a vehicle and get on the Ring Road, especially before the weather turned against me on the northern shore.
I returned to my accommodations and slept well, the strains of the Toccata rattling around in my head. The next morning I picked up a Land Cruiser and set out for the eastern fjords.
I had no intention of going off-road to explore the interior. There is plenty of raw beauty woven into the dominant leaden and somber terrain. It does not take much to find a range of greens and blues attached to the cascading waters tumbling down from the glaciers. If one is lucky enough to be here for the northern lights, the palette is even more stunning. Finding a place for rumination requires only the patience to watch and wait for the right spot. An occasional detour off the Ring where others have driven before is enough. I am not a full-blow idiot at this age, close, but not there yet, who would attempt a back-country adventure.
My first stop was at Hof, just south of the Vatnajokull National Park, a four-hour drive east from Reykjavik, where many houses have turf roofs, including the iconic church. I started midday and after four hours of driving was arrived. The next day I continued on past the eastern fjords where I had spent time before and ended up in Siglufjordur, the most northern population center of any size in Iceland.
I found accommodations and wandered the small fishing town tucked on the side of the Siglufjordur Fjord, its most noteworthy attraction the Saga Photographic and Herring Era museums. There was also a brewery I hoped to avoid.
The next morning, I had a scone with coffee and wandered around the town. The day stretched before me and after looking at a brochure describing a walk from the mainland along a narrow spit of land at Cape Thordarhofdi out to an island, I loaded a backpack with cheese, herring, bread and a bottle of water and drove the Ring Road to the turn off to the cape.
I made the trek to the island in a stiff breeze from the north that swept spray across the grey volcanic bridge of sand and small rocks. At its widest it was maybe a hundred yards. A blue sky peeked sporadically from behind lean, withered clouds as if it wasn’t too sure it wanted to hang around. I trudged forward, glad to be challenged in this small way.
After crossing, I climbed a path to the heights and found a spot on a rocky ledge that overlooked the Hofdavatn Lagoon below and ate some of the cheese and bread. The pickled herring I’d savor later. I wasn’t there long before a fog slipped up the hill and cloaked me in a cold, penetrating shroud. I sensed a presence, and before I could look around, Erik Eiriksson plopped down abruptly next to me with a decisive exhalation of breath.
“Well, hello their wayfarer!” he said.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, dumbfounded.
“Above all else, Iceland is a free country my friend. I am given to wandering also. If you need solitude, I can leave.”
“No, no. I just didn’t expect to see anyone out here, let alone you!”
“I have my responsibilities,” he said, staring off into the fog and brushing some moisture off his beard.
“Whatever do you have to do? Seems like you go your own way,” I said, perplexed.
“That is true, but I make it my business to converse with those who like me, are consigned to reflection, whatever way it comes.”
“I don’t think I get your meaning,” I said.
He replied, “I get around but you are a person who spends too much time meandering in his head. Things fit together well for you there, but your translation to the outside world lacks. I came to add a little spice to deep thinking.” He stood and stretched, the mist eddying about him, turned around, looked down at me and said, “You drink a bit. It does not serve you well,” and turned his face into the wind.
I stared at him as he stood there, coming in and out of focus in the fog as it swirled around, my resentments mounting bit by bit. My most recent departure from Ireland looped around in front of me with images of an angry brother and his upset spouse yelling at me to leave and not come back. I knew what I had to do, but I didn’t need to be told.
“I’ve heard this too often. What I do should make no difference to you. Your presence is unwelcome.” I gathered my provisions and stuffed them in my pack. “Good-bye.” I turned and walked back on the path I’d come. The trail cleared as I tread downward.
I made the trip down to the spit in what must have been record time for a person of any age and walked the distance to my vehicle in a shrieking headwind that felt like it would blow what little brains I had into the waters of the lagoon. By the time I made it to the Land Cruiser I had cooled off a bit. “Freaking Viking, my ass.” I shoved the car in gear, tires spinning and spewing rocks as I drove, and returned to my hotel in Siglufjordur, where I had a night of fitful sleep. The next morning I left early for Reykjavik, a half days drive. I had intended to wander the northern coast a little longer, but was fed up.
Upon reaching Reykjavik I was able to secure a hotel room and call Icelandair for a flight the next day to Seattle. Going back to my office there seemed like a way to pull out of a downward spiral.
I was not excited about a fourteen-hour flight and two transfers, but pissed off enough to endure the safety lessons with demonstrations of how to fasten a seatbelt and horse crap food. I went down to the hotel pub and ran into an American at the bar who bought me drinks.
“Thanks for the drink, my friend,” I said.
“My pleasure. Nice to run into someone here who doesn’t mind speaking the language the way it’s supposed to be – fucking Icelandic. The pussy’s nice here though. Very accommodating.”
I saluted him with my Jameson double and offered to buy another round. He insisted on buying, and told me he was on a very generous expense account. He had extended his business trip to Sweden to consult with another pharmaceutical company here.
As he took his second Martini, he told me, “I try to make some of these god-awful trips a little easier by sampling the local working girls.”
I nodded my head and he continued, “Like to do a little sampling?”
“No thanks, I’m too tired. I’d rather drink.”
He laughed heartily, clapped me on the back and said, “How about we go to a town south of here? I know a good place there. After a few more, maybe you’ll change your mind about some entertainment. You game?”
I shrugged, “Why not, as long as you’re on the company dole.”
“I like your style, McGuff,” and he slapped me on the back again as we downed the cocktails.
“Name’s McGraw,” I said.
“What the hell ever.” We left, found his SUV and drove south.
We spent close to three hours in the bar. He disappeared with a young woman for an hour or so and returned about closing time to pick me up. I was pretty far gone by then. He was doing fine from all appearances.
As we drove back to Reykjavik he regaled me with stories of his sexual exploits, recent and over time. I nodded in time to the bumps on the road, figuring he’d take it as interest and assent. All the time I kept thinking in more lucid moments, “What an asshole. And I’m getting a ride from him?”
We made it back to the city without getting stopped and he asked me where I wanted to be dropped off. On impulse, I replied, “Hallgrimskirkja.”
“It’s too late for church, Bud.”
“Just drop me off there,” I told him, irritated.
“You’re a weird bastard. Suit yourself.”
We topped the hill by the cathedral, I opened the door and half fell out. He didn’t wait for me to close it, but accelerated down the hill. Good riddance.
I half walked, half staggered up to the plaza in front of the church and dumped myself on a brick wall adjacent to Leiv. The wind picked up out of the west and a fog bank rolled in, the temperature dropping. I stared up at Leiv before he was obscured by the mist.
“Yah, I’m not as good looking as him. He’s more handsome than me.”
Confused, I looked at a man who resembled Karl Eriksson sitting next to me dressed in Viking attire, leaning on his sword looking up at the statue.
“Sober up my friend. Just to let you know, I take no offense at your abrupt leave-taking yesterday. God-speed.”
The fog rolled in with a vengeance, making it impossible to see. After a minute it cleared, the stars shone above between a patchy cloud cover.
I shrugged. Enough of assholes giving me rides. I’d had too many free trips that cost. From now on I’d take care of myself. I had to be at the airport early in the morning. I walked to the edge of the plaza, turned and looked up one last time at Leiv. I could have sworn there was a hint of a smile on the weathered, bronze face, a last hallucination?