The Vertical

Iceland

Anonymous

I did not feel like myself in those first weeks back in the States. I could not immediately process the martian lava fields where our flight touched down, the cold breath of a glacier beneath crampons, the brightness of the rain when it falls in the capital, the yawn of the earth where it rises straight up in green cliffs. Iceland seemed a world away then, and it does still. In a coffeeshop down the street from my new apartment, I look out at the layer of snow draped over medians and grassy knolls and realize it’s the first snow I’ve seen since my trip north. All I am able to do is flip through the slew of pictures I took; listen to Bon Iver, my soundtrack on the trip; and reach back through the months gone by in an effort to return, somehow.

Indeed, there is a pull and push of space, time, and kind on that little island. It is hard to say whether this tension favors fortitude and inertia, as with age-old rocks or the Icelandic language itself, or volatility and change, as with volcanic peaks or the movement of humans around, into, and out of the island. June in Iceland meant we could stay up late, wake up early—the sun would be there always, ready and waiting. Days spent traipsing up mountains felt hourless, as no one dared break the magic with a glance at the time on a smartphone.

One evening toward the end of our stay, fog began to roll in from the fjord until it formed a wall just steps from the front door of our hostel’s main house. I knew that beyond the fog was the sea, and tall, craggy peaks, but the fog obscured all this. Within a few hours the air cleared, only thin strips of mist remaining to skirt the horizon. Waves which catch on obstacles unseen; gritty outwash plains which mimic bulldozed, wasted expanses; glaciers, slipping tens of meters a year under their own weight, which elude in their heft and scale: Iceland, in all its wonder, deceives. One afternoon in Berunes, three of us made the trip from the hostel to a vegan café we were told was ‘just over the hill,’ following what turned out to be a nonexistent trail through the fields. Half an hour later, wet and muddy after deciding to forge our own path through sheep pasture rather than walk along the side of Route 1, we sat down in a hollow barn-turned-café to share a pot of tea while our socks and shoes warmed by the radiator.

My own heart deceived me as well, over the course of those three weeks. A new friend and I chatted over French press coffee in the parlor of the third hostel’s main house for what felt like forever. In reality, it was for two hours that I sat there with this friend, increasingly thankful for all we came to learn we hold in common. I fell for this girl seated across from me as I had fallen for the island. Even now I can hardly tell the two falls apart. Eventually, fellow travelers began to fill our periphery as they hunkered down with laptops and reading assignments, or sat down to a slice of homemade rhubarb pie. Like the crack of ice as it calves from a glacier, the spell was broken; time briefly snapped back into place as we joined the others and moved on to our own coursework. In early September we met up for coffee back in New England, our first time seeing each other since a teary goodbye at the airport two months prior. A cold drizzle outside and the shelter of a café—it felt strangely familiar, but autumn loomed on the horizon.

We talk less and less now. Snow piles up along the street on this November afternoon as the earth insulates itself against the coming seasonal shift. Farther north in Iceland, the persistence of light has given way to the constancy of dark and the occasional blip of the aurora borealis, electrifying the winter sky.