There's a hill behind our house with a good view of our valley, topped with six or more cairns, one of which I built this spring. Behind it stretches hills and rivers that go on for as far as the eye can see, unbroken by road or home.
The view over Hvítársíða from the hill behind our house. Our family dog, Krummi models for us. Photo taken by Joakim Reynisson
It's now been eight months since I've come to Iceland. I was brought straight to this cabin upon arrival, considering COVID and quarantine. It was snowing and cold then too. Now that a summer with an unending sun has, in fact, ended and we head into a winter with oppressive darkness, it serves as an appropriate bookmark to the beginning of a Spring into which I first arrived.
Time is passing. The view from the hill into the inhabited valley is nearly identical today to the valley I retreated into this March. A light layer of snow blankets the ground, thin enough to reveal the rocky surface underneath. If you held up two photos, one taken today and one taken in mid-March, you wouldn't be able to tell one apart from the other.
But it's an entirely different view to me.
Back then, the trail up to the cairns was tangled and difficult to ascend. The branches hadn't been cut back and the trail was overgrown and laborious in the snow. In fact, I had to double-check with my wife after failing to find the trail the first time I tried it.
I spent two or three days making it passable. I was so proud when I heard our two-year-old niece walked on it. It was a lot of work, but grounding. I was leaving some mark or improvement.
The view I saw in March was stunning but unfamiliar. The peaks foreign and the river nameless. The various farms just buildings, picturesque but anonymous.
I can tell you now that the farm is named Bjarnestadir, the slight rise to the right is called Bjarnastadahnappur. You can see the tip of Baula, a steep, sharp pyramid-like mountain that juts into the horizon like a stubby knife from it on a clear day. Ok (It's named Ok, as in Och when pronouncing Ochre) is a plateau mountain that I see every day. Unmovable, strong, and rigid. No longer a glacier, an actual funeral was held for it in 2015. Langjokull wraps around all the other features and hills of the valley. Porisjokull is behind that. I know what it feels like to stand on Langjokull, lucky enough to have gotten a tour of the ice cave on it. "Jokull" means glacier in Icelandic.
Eirikjokull got its name from a bandit that escaped an ambush of farmers, determined to rid their valley of this band of miscreants that were subsisting within Surtshellir, Stefanshellir and Vidgelmir. These are lava caves, kilometers long and once believed to have been connected. I worked as a guide in Vidgelmir and explored Surtshellir and Stefanshellir, beautiful and haunting. The legend goes that 20 bandits were living together in Surtshellir, you can see the remains of firepits and low walls there today, when the farmers attacked. Only two got away, Stefan, who the other cave is named after and Eirik. He was supposedly so strong that he climbed to a prominent ridge of Eiriksjokull (then called nothing, I suppose?) with one leg chopped off. Injured, yet living, he shouted down a poem composed on the spot about his might and prowess. The farmers, so taken with his strength, graciously named the glacier after him. I know that Eiriksjokull is a shield glacier, formed on tops of flat mountains. Langjokull is an Ice Cap Glacier, far "stronger" and more durable. I know that two "ll´s" together make a slight T sound.
I know now that next door is Gilsbakki, a storied farm, serving as the backdrops for the sagas of Iceland´s settlement. Gudmundur, the son of the family that owned Gilsbakk fell in love with Helga from Borgarnes. Their ill-fated love spelled tragedy for all.
I know the faces of several farmers, their names and their cars. Rocks are no longer just pretty protusions, rising so suddenly from the ground. They are part of Hallmundarhraun, a 50 km or so lava field that originated from Hallmundargyrga, which is now buried under Langjokull. It ends at Barnafoss, or "children's waterfall." Local lore has it that a grief-stricken mother ordered the demolition of a natural land bridge after her two children slipped and drowned in the raging rapids below.
I know the names of the peaks now. I´ve even climbed some of them. I know the view from them and the intricacies of the trails that weave in and around these pinnacles.
It´s a nearly identical image, the view from the hill behind our house from March and November. But it's not the same at all. And acquiring all this knowledge and experience from this land, even planting some trees here, building a cairn, helping construct a small building all tie me to the land. Every stone lain, every nail driven in, every path travelled and waterfall that dipped in. I feel happy and accepted when it is just the land that I have to be in. But I feel so alone when I´m surrounded by family (as loving as they are) that speak in a foreign tongue. I feel so odd when I find myself lost in a conversation that I can only understand one word out of every five in.
I'm adjusting, yet I'm lonely and out of place. My greatest treasures are here, in this valley through which the White river has carved a gentle landscape. Time has come and brought us many rich memories and feelings, but where do I go from here? Well, nowhere. Not with COVID anyway. It could be so much worse. It's just Ok (Och).