I am talking to a hippie crone with Swedish-blonde bangs, a straw fedora and a woven poncho. Her eyes are squinty from wine and weed, and she is telling me about authors she’s loved and thinks I should read: Oscar Wilde, Kurt Vonnegut. She rummages around in her huge bag looking for tobacco for what seems like a long time, rubbing and licking her thumb and forefinger, rolling a cigarette.
Everything has been fuzzy for the last few months. It is the last day of April in Minnesota and I am at a bonfire on an island on the Mississippi River, hidden between the dry brush of late winter and the freight train bridge. We are celebrating Valborgsmässoafton, the end of winter (though it will come to snow heavily in the next few days), and people have brought things to burn to welcome spring back into our world. A dry Christmas tree, wooden skis, an old chair, drum sticks go into the fire. I’ve brought a little prayer-on-a-post-it and I poke it into the embers, closing my eyes and holding my breath. A tiny yellow request for happiness, for a sign on what direction I should turn in the coming months.
After a long silence this woman tells me about an author traveling to a wild and barren frozen land in the late 1800s. Iceland. She says something about his observations on the human condition, about his use of language or cultural notes, but I am not listening anymore because I am only hearing the echoing clang of this country calling out to me again. Why does it keep coming up?
Iceland, Iceland, Iceland.
I have never traveled alone before, and I was drawn to the alone-ness of a country whose population is less than the city of Minneapolis, whose wild open roads offer waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes and roaming sheep. The air is cold and there are long stretches of road with no other people for miles in any direction. I decided to drive the perimeter highway, to make a full circle around the country moving clockwise. There’s something clear about that, about coming full circle, about coming back to where you started with a lot of road behind you; completion, wholeness, something final and real and absolute.
Planning the trip, thinking about what I wanted it to mean for me, was a bit of worrying it was frivolous fun balanced with hoping that it would be soul-crunching and raw and scary and life changing. Healing, maybe. The single lady pilgrimage trip. I am afraid to be alone. I am excited to be alone. Suddenly, I am alone.
The reality of alone-ness hitting me in the tiny rental car. I sat and laughed with the key in the ignition, the kind of crazy, bubbling-up laugh that surprises you when it comes out of your mouth sounding more hysterical than happy. I was scared to leave the comfort of Reykjavik with its art museums and flea markets and bars, scared to leave the newborn familiarity of sitting in the municipal hot spring baths; the creamy lilt of the Icelandic language; heavy smoky clouds over the harbor.
The first day’s drive was rainy, as many of them would be.
I passed lakes in isolation, simple churches and paint-peeling farmhouses with white sides and red roofs, horses with shy teenager hair and sheep with matted locks, slopes of hill that ached up into low cloud cover. Beauty building up on that path, slow burn like the black lava boulders cloaked in the tendril clutch of creeping moss.
Reaching my first trail in pouring rain, berating myself for not having rain pants, for being under-prepared to hike in bad weather. The wind threatened outside the car like a hungry hound. I will eat you alive.
I cried. What the hell am I doing?
I waited in the car as the windows fogged up, more because I didn’t know what else to do or where I was even planning to sleep that night. Eventually though, the rain stopped and I walked the coastal trail, muck sucking my boots, slipping in the rain’s aftermath, black cliffs plunging into the ocean crash.
The light like perpetual dusk, even clouds and a pregnant sky. The feeling that something was about to happen was always present: pressure change, a storm, a break in the clouds or maybe the sun would fall straight into the ocean, slipping over the verge of the horizon. When the the clouds cleared from half of the sky, plaits of rainbow crashed down while sheep drank rainwater from potholes in the gravel road.
(The car’s seatbelt sensor is going off. My seatbelt is on. It starts out as a present beepbeepbeep and works itself up to a deep breath and BEEPBEEPBEEPBEEP and I’m yelling at the car, I know, I’m wearing it! Shut up, I’m wearing it!!! and I’m barreling down this gravel road in a tiny toy car and it sounds like being thrown down the stairs in a crackerjack box during the apocalypse and I think to myself, this is not the peaceful quest I’d imagined.)
Further North in Hofsós I soaked in a steamy pool almost level with the ocean, bitter snowy wind blowing at my neck, my face, my wet hair, watching the shadowy clouds snag on the mountain across the inlet. School age boys played the international game of steal-the-tube-and-drown-your-friends, laughing brightly under all the gray.
A little boy in arm floats and an around-the-chest jetpack floatie sat in the shallow part of the pool until his young dad, ruddy cheeks and wet-straight hair, picked him up and carried him gently into the main pool. Hands cupped over the boy’s ears, he tilted his head back into the water. In the moment I think I might be witnessing a baptism of sorts, and I realize I’ve barely spoken a word for days.