written by Marc Peruzzi | photographs by Boris Dufour
Thou still unracis'd bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time.
The very winds have names. Better to leave Iceland to the poets. But the poets are pulling espressos. Their stanzas lost in Twitter.
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Mere men is the reply. And maidens rare. The driving rain and sleet, proof of human flesh. As we begin our expedition a couple from Reykjavík drive out to get a view of the erupting volcano Eyjafjallajökull. Their vehicle sinks in the melting permafrost and they die of exposure. Outside of our van, it's like standing on Mount Washington in a wet winter gale. Our madness is to ski an adjacent volcano so we can arc glorious turns with lava and a mile-high plume of ash as backdrop. But the ground has gone viscous and it all but consumes our party; miles from snow. We eat fish-paste and listen to the percussion of the rain on our hoods. Time to heave on the truck. Wild ecstasy postponed, we flee to the northern fjords as Eyjafjallajökull closes Europe.
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd.
Skiing volcanoes reeks of tourism anyway. So we leave our axes, harnesses, and crampons in the farmstead we've inhabited and move fast and light as skiers. Ever panting in pursuit of the big German and the wiry Montanan. The snowpack above the inky Arctic Ocean has gone isothermic. It's one solid mass. But a driving wet blizzard from the north—the wind known as Kaldi—drops a chum-like snow that doesn't bond. We meander in the storm following a lone compass point before descending a fresh slide path to find one of our Viking guides—the quiet one—half buried in his own sluff. He frees himself in the Berserker fashion and we scramble over barbed wire and through pony shit until we find ourselves in a sorrowful bath of communal man soup known as a hot spring. That night we devour many a lamb.
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel.
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.
A six-hour flight from Boston, Iceland is the Chugach and 19th century Gloucester. Tolkien's Middle Earth and Swift's Ireland. Mainland Europe and the Mongolian steppe. Vermont and Antarctica.
The valleys are thick with grassy hummocks and thatchy peat. Summits disappear into the mist all around. And one is immediately overwhelmed by the stark, patient quietude of the landscape—the vast majority of which is void of humanity. The people, the Icelanders—direct descendants of the Vikings who still speak an aged tongue long ago lost in Norway—have been described as gruff and impersonal. This is true for a breath, no more. In fact, sheltering travelers is a long-ingrained ethos in Iceland. Every village has its cautionary tale of the farmer who refused hospice to a wanderer only to be haunted by trolls for an eternity upon that lost soul's death.
And if the guy handing out towels at the spa seems a little cold, try to remember that his great-grandfather spent his days bludgeoning enemies, courting beautiful she-Icelanders, riding sure-footed Icelandic horses through glacial runoff, scaling vertical ocean cliffs to gather Puffin eggs, and vomiting mead into his rival's mouth.
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
The weather breaks and our raiding party moves uphill with strength. There is no lack of protein in this country. In addition to the wee herd of lambies we've consumed, so too have we vaporized cod (salted and dried into chips and slathered in butter, or poached in a potato stew) and salmon (broiled for dinner, smoked and slabbed thickly on summit sandwiches for lunch). The Kaldi wind has also changed us. We are a harder lot now. Marble and overwrought. Isothermic. The cold night has pulled the moisture out of the snowpack and it's third-buckle deep and creamy under pale blue skies and feathery clouds. Whitecaps spot the Arctic. We've found our cold ecstasy. Our mad pursuit over.
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
From the Spring 2011 issue