#28 Iceland Part 2: The Kind of French Angels and the Reindeer Boys

Here is a delayed Part 2 to my Iceland trip. For Part 1, read here. I’m back to work (in schools), my son has started kindergarten, I brought home two 8-week-old kittens (a short or long story depending on your preference), started gigging again, and I am having a hard time keeping up (typical). Also, frankly, I don’t feel much like writing these days. So, this delayed Part 2 will be followed by a delayed Part 3, and likely a delayed Part 4 after that, and then we’ll all be 100 years old and/or dead.

After 3 days in Reykjavik, I rented a car and drove. I sat alone in a car for days and hours with the radio off. No music, no conversation (except the ones I had with myself), no nothing. I do this a lot, everywhere. As a musician, I think I’m supposed to listen to music all the time. But I don’t. I like silence on the outside, partly because it’s loud enough on the inside (in my head). But also, as fruity as it might sound, I feel closer to the Divine that way.

I have a long-standing (and totally unoriginal) belief that the purest, most unaffected voice in our heads is that of the Divine (whatever you want to call it/him/her/they). When we are stripped of our distractions, comforts, conveniences, and pride, we are better able to hear the Divine, feel the Divine, and follow the Divine. The more we follow the Divine (which I mean in a completely non-dogmatic way), the less we fuck things up.

[Sorry about the f-bombs, Mom.]

Back in 2010, I ran a marathon. I trained using the Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer. I don’t remember if it was actually in the book or something I heard someone else say (and I have a strict policy about under-researching for blog posts—I must always under-research.), but there is the concept of “marathon angels.” Through the course of your 26.2 miles, when you are most reduced, a “marathon angel” (typically another runner) will appear and give you exactly what you need in order to keep running.

Along the Iceland hike, particularly in the desolate middle, I thought a lot about that marathon.

When I ran the marathon, somewhere around mile 22, I fell in step with a woman named Pam. She had the first name of one of my sisters, and the last name of my other sister. Coincidence? I don’t think so. She told me that she had been focusing on my ponytail for the last several miles. She said that as long as she could see it, she knew she was okay. We finished the run more or less side by side chatting about our families and training regimens, etc. We’d found each other at our weakest point in the race, and empowered each other to the end—not by chanting motivational quotes at one another, but simply by being there. We kept each other company.

Fast forward 7 years from then to a rocky pass through the land of fire and ice. In the glorious beginnings of the hike through Fimmvörðuháls, I came upon a group of 4 young hikers – 2 men and 2 women. Their language sounded kind of French and kind of not French, so I’m going to call them the Kind of French hikers. Wherever they were from, they were confident, quick, and sure-footed, laughing and talking with one another as if this were no big deal.

I kept up with the Kind of French hikers for a while, because they looked like they knew what they were doing. Somewhere around hour 3, one of them, a tall, young man with an easy smile, broke away from their group and jogged back to me. In our complicated English exchange he asked if I was doing the same hike as them – to Þórsmörk to catch the last evening bus back.

Yes, I said. “And now I think that as long as I can see your group, I’ll know I’m okay.”

He smiled and wished me a good hike.

Soon after, they broke away to sit by a waterfall and eat lunch. They waved, I waved, and then I worried about losing them. The Kind of French hikers had become my security blanket. I briefly considered sitting down and waiting for them to finish their lunch, but decided that was psychotic stalker behavior. Even in the rugged middle terrain of Iceland, I have a fine sense of manners. I comforted myself with the belief that my Kind of French friends were so quick they’d likely catch up to me soon.

I kept going and in little time reached the snow and lava fields.

This is where things changed. For one thing, it started to rain/hail. Everything began to feel desolate. Host B had told me that a lot of tourists just hike in for a couple of hours (where the trail is lush and green and littered with waterfalls and sheep) and then turn around and go back to Skógar before it gets rough. I found this to be true. Just before the snow and lava fields, the hiking parties thinned out considerably, because many had turned back. Often in the middle 3-4 hours, I saw no one ahead of me and no one behind me.

In these bare parts, there was no sound but the wind past my ears or rain and tiny ice pellets hitting my poncho. Passes became more steep and precarious. I got nervous and thought many times about my Kind of French security blanket. Where were they? I had last seen them around Hour 3. Was I following the wrong trail markers?

As it turns out, I did not see the Kind of French again until just past Hour 8.

I had crossed the snow and lava fields, bear-crawled sideways on all fours up muddy passes because I could not get a firm step, peed in a lava field (oddly delightful), gripped the sides of mountains with a death drop a shoulder shrug to my left (I may be exaggerating, but that’s what it felt like to me.), and finally, I saw in the distance, tents. Beautiful, glorious, wonderful, god-sent tents. Þórsmörk: The end was near.

My step lightened. My heart lifted. I was almost there.

Please note that Iceland air is crisp and pure and clear and wonderful. You can see the ocean for days away. This means: Just because you see the campsite, it doesn’t mean you’re almost there.

I walked on and on and on. Finally, I came to a point where I could not see the next trail marker. This had happened plenty of times before, so I did as I had done: Went high, looked around for the next marker, and connected the dots.

What I saw when I went high was…a narrow pass (shoulder width) with steep drops on BOTH sides and nothing to hold on to. There was no other way.

“Fuck, no!” I said out loud to God and everybody.

Review: I. do. not. do. heights. No! No heights! And at this particular pass there was nothing to hold onto, no chain, no railing, no tree limbs, no nothing. Just climb up, walk across, don’t die, and walk back down.

“Jesus,” I said. “JESUS!” I squatted to all 4’s to calm myself. I had gotten this far, so close to the end, only to find the impassable thing. Wait: Not impassable. Of course not. Don’t be dramatic, P. People pass this every day. But. Jesus God. Now what?

And then… boots appeared beside me. I looked up and saw… the tall, Kind of French hiker who had stopped and talked to me over 5 hours before when I had thought, “As long as I can see them, I’ll know I’m okay.”

“Oh, hey!” I said from my crouched position.

“Hey!” he said and smiled. Then he bounded up, across, and down, like it was nothing. A woman followed.

Then the 2nd man in the Kind of French group paused and asked me, “Are you okay?”

“Oh, yeah” I said. “I just get a little nervous with heights.” L. O. L. No biggie. Whatever. Oy. (Lord.)

“Okay!” He smiled and scooted across, followed by the last woman of the group.

All four of them jogged across cheerfully like it was a crosswalk at a 4-way stop on Main Street and not… INEVITABLE DEATH ON BOTH SIDES. It was nothing to them. If it was nothing to them, why was it so much something to me? Why was I freaking out? What is wrong with you, Child?

“Just go, P,” I said. And before I could argue with myself, I went up and over and down… and I lived.

Interesting timing, no? These four Kind of French hikers were my hiking angels, I am certain. At the point that I felt stuck and stripped, they appeared. These are the kinds of things that only happen (or the kinds of things I only notice) when I’m silent, small, and “stripped” – of shallow distractions, self-importance, pride, and self-consciousness.

(Incidentally, I would later learn in conversation with Host B, that particular pass in the trail has an Icelandic name that loosely translates to “Cat’s Spine.”)

The day after the hike, I wandered Reykjavik feeling very off. I felt restless, misplaced, all the wrong kinds of alone, and disconnected. That happens on occasion no matter where I am. I wander and wander but cannot settle on a place to be. It was PRIDE week in Reykjavik, and I spent a little time at the parade. But I can only take so much glitter and electronic dance music before I implode. I lingered at a coffee shop with my journal where I reached out to a friend in Iowa who was so busy and disinterested that I actually felt more alone then I did before. Eventually, I took a bus back to the Airbnb where Host B took me to their local gym/spa. There, I spent a couple of hours in an out of saunas and hot tubs. There is something amusing and charming about the seeming love of swimming pools in Iceland—so cold, so many bodies squished into so many swimsuits, hustling from one dip to the next. It was nice, but even that couldn’t get me sorted.

I left the spa and caught the wrong bus back downtown. Standing at the bus stop waiting for Bus #12, I repeated “12, 12, 12, 12, 12…” in my head. When #14 came around the corner, I thought, “Ah, there it is. #14” and got on. Once seated, I realized my mistake, but it was too late. Fine. Well, this will end up somewhere, I thought. So I sat in my seat on Bus #14 and looked out the window. Eventually, I saw what looked like Lake Tjörnin, a small lake in central Reykjavik I’d noticed on a tourist map. I pushed the STOP button and got off.

This didn’t feel right, either. I didn’t want to sit and gaze at the water. I didn’t even want to people watch. I just wanted to keep moving.

After more wandering, I landed in a tourist-heavy restaurant by the boats where I was seated next to two young American boys (I’m going to call them boys, because they were ridiculous, and I wanted to knock their heads together.) and then promptly ignored. I eventually squeezed a glass of wine out of one person and placed an actual food order from another. I think they all wished I was dead. I was not entirely in disagreement.

The loud, dumb, American boys sat between me and the window overlooking the harbor. Every time I wanted to look out the window (which was all of the time), I had to look through their big, loud dumb faces. They flirted awkwardly and relentlessly with the pretty blonde waitress, Katja, who was playing them for a big tip, although they were too dumb to know it. Tipping isn’t customary in Iceland, but this was a tourist restaurant, and they were American boys. Katja has bills to pay, too.

“So… like, you have reindeer on the menu,” said Blaine (because I’m sure that was his name). “I have, like, one question… Is it, like Rudolph? Or Dasher? Or, like Prancer? I mean…”

God, Blaine. You’re such an idiot.

I eventually escaped.

I thought about lingering in a bar. A solo acoustic player sat on a bench and crooned just inside the door of one. A fine voice. A fine guitar. But: Covers. I can hear that anywhere. And also, if you want to know the truth, I was trying to lay off the sauce while in Iceland—clean myself out a bit. No. I didn't want to be in a bar. I decided I’d had enough of people and grabbed a bus (the correct one) back to the Airbnb where I sat in the kitchen and talked with Host S about my off day and The Reindeer Boys.

Reykjavik is lovely. But what I learn and re-learn across multiple contexts is that when I follow the people—when I go where they’re going--I’m never quite as happy as I am when I turn around and go the opposite direction. I don’t do tourist attractions well. I don’t herd comfortably. I don’t care for museums. I rarely read plaques. I don’t site see. My favorite things in Reykjavik were my Airbnb hosts and riding the bus; and I don't mean that in a flippant, sarcastic way. These were the things I genuinely enjoyed.

The next morning, I rented a car and left the people behind.

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