When We Were Vikings
The sun doesn’t set in the summer there, so we played cards for hours in the ceaseless twilight; during the daytime, we hiked an old Viking trail. We carried our backpacks through the wilderness and set up camp each night by rivers and waterfalls. We found a fragment of whalebone on the seashore, curved and large as a giant’s tooth. It was porous, but as heavy as the stones surrounding it. We foraged for horsetail reeds and rose root to make a tea Icelandic legend claims brings prophetic dreams—we wanted to learn our futures as we slept in the skin-thin tents perched precariously atop moss and lava rock. Sometimes some of us would satellite away from main camp to lie down side by side in mossy hollows and share chocolate bars and smuggled whiskey. One woman wove a crown of seaweed she wore every day; another woman fell in a river and watched her hat sail gaily away towards the Arctic Ocean. The man none of us liked capsized his kayak in the fjord, so we rowed to shore, pulling him, as the vessel filled with water and sank behind us.
On the cliffs, we scaled glacial ice and leapt from stone to stone across rivers at the crest just before the water cascaded down the slope in torrents. On the coastline, we slogged through knee-deep kelp, and I told the sculptor that I felt like I was wading through a giant birth canal because the seaweed was wet and thick and dark red as placenta. Sometimes the trail was a dirt road and once—very briefly—we had the luxury of pavement; often there wasn’t a trail, so when we continued with the road, we walked blindly across loose stones in the direction lion-haired Henry pointed. On the easy days, we followed paths the sheep left when their hooves crushed the moss into an indentation like a ribbon that wound around thickets of teeth-shorn bilberry bushes. On the hardest day, we grabbed sparse handfuls of bracken to help hoist ourselves up the slope because the scree field footing was too uncertain. When the wind snagged my backpack, yanking me sideways, and part of the bracken roots pulled loose, I looked down and thought, I could die here.
In the middle of one endless afternoon, we found an abandoned house in an empty valley. There was a broken bed inside (rusty coils protruding like strange flowers from the stained mattress fabric) and a sign in Icelandic that our guides refused to decipher.
The Irish painter picked up a mostly-full bottle of red wine from the floor and took a swig.
And then when she told us, “Have some. You can’t refuse gifts from the trail gods,” we did what she said and then kept walking.
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According to the principles of journalism, I need to answer the following questions:
Where [did this happen]?
In the Westfjords in northwestern Iceland. On a peninsula full of fjords and sharp cliffs—when you look at it on a map, it looks as if its coastline was made by someone anxious who loves scissors and calmed herself by cutting dozens of tiny incisions into the paper where the land meets water.
How [did you get there]?
By seeing a listing on an international artists’ residency website and, insomnia-ridden, applying late at night. By culling a collection of personal essays and poems. By writing an artist’s statement full of eloquent lies stating I was experienced in outdoors activities like foraging. By having aesthetic overlap with the residency committee or maybe someone just didn’t want to decide, so he threw darts at the stacks of paper he’d been sent to evaluate and one dart landed on my application. By then entering a process of borrowing (a sleeping bag from Suzie, my dad’s backpack) and buying (hiking boots I broke in running errands in Manhattan). Through gifts and stipend and debt. By riding one airplane over the cold blue sea to Reykjavik and another one across volcanic fields to Isafjordur.
Who [was with you]?
Three writers and nine artists. Seven of us were from the United States (mostly Brooklyn), but there was also