In 2010 Iceland was a mess. They had, in succession: a financial meltdown caused by three men who absconded with the country’s money (Reykjavik was full of scaffolding and dangling cranes hanging off unfinished buildings); the volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajokull that stopped air traffic for weeks, halting tourism and causing more financial loss; and worst of all in my view, a horse flu that had been brought into the country by a German trainer (yes, they could track it down to the very person!), leaving most of the horse population incapacitated.
In June 2010, our group of women visiting Iceland for the sixth time were a mess, too. That spring I had broken my elbow; Esther had been thrown from a horse– titanium helmet cracked– and was nervous riding; and Kat was having her own financial crisis due to the U.S. economic downturn—she was losing her business and because of that, she had to put her beautiful farm up for sale. Kat’s farm was like a collective, friend and strangers alike stayed there, ate there, and rode the horses. Part of the problem, I suppose. She and her husband, Mark, were generous to a fault, and they shouldered all the costs alone. So anyone close to them, meaning all of us, grieved the impending loss of their farm. Esther was losing Kat’s farm, too. She and Beth ran their therapeutic riding program there, which meant the program would have to close. By the time we landed in Iceland, we were falling apart.
Outside of Reykjavik, the roads still had a white wispy layer of volcanic ash that rose and disappeared like smoke as we drove down them. Before heading to Helga’s farm, we met up with Sibba and Ljotur as we often do. They are old friends of Kat and when their teenage son was wild and exasperating, they didn’t know what to do with him. Kat took him in on her farm for half a year. He rode and trained the horses, fell for a local girl, and returned to Iceland a changed kid. It was more than just a farm Kat had: it was a place where kids and adults were given a time out. And as Kat, Esther, Beth, Bev, and Robin are fond of saying, “Horses save people. They heal the soul.”
So we spent the first day and a half in Iceland caravanning north with Sibba and Ljotur. Sibba is cheerful, petite, and stylish like a Parisian woman, always wearing beautiful shoes, Hermes scarves, coats made of unusual leather or wool. Ljotur is healthy looking, ruddy-faced, and playful. They have both traveled to every corner of the earth, having worked for Icelandair most of their lives (she as a flight attendant, he as an engineer). And probably because of that, their camper van was packed up like a plane. At Stykkisholmur, from little cupboards and overheads, they brought forth a picnic: reindeer meat pate, smoked salmon, gravlax, cheese and flatbread served with a jam made from local currants, and the ubiquitous hothouse cucumbers and tomatoes. They provided plastic cups of tea with sugar cubes or Nescafe instant coffee with milk—all utterly, indescribably delicious. They brought us to towns we had never been to before: Olafsvik, Rif, and Arnarstapi, where we stopped in a tiny one room restaurant for the house specialty, a fish stew. We went off the beaten path to stop at Eirikstaddir, to see a reconstruction of the original longhouse of Erik the Red, complete with out-of-work actors looking primitive (and sort of artsy) giving tours.
We parted company with them on the night of the summer solstice, as Ljotur told us his plans for the night: it was an Icelandic tradition on the solstice for the man of the house, in this case a camper’s van, to run around his home naked at midnight. We, regrettably, missed that.
We left them laughing, but once we were at Helga’s farm all was not right. Most of the horses were sick and couldn’t stand up in their stalls. The worst was Thorka, a beloved old dependable white mare, who was in the throes of the flu. Lying in her stall, covered with her own muck, her white coat dirtied to a matted brown, she struggled for breath, wheezing and coughing. She looked to be near death. Helga reassured us that the flu hadn’t killed any horse on the island. They got terribly sick, but recovered.
We rode other horses from the nearby farm, horses that had gotten the flu earlier and had recovered. But our hearts just weren’t in it. Fear and doubt permeated our thoughts. “My horse just tripped,” Esther said, “it’s still sick.” Kat said, “My horse coughed, we should turn back.” Kat was often the most adventurous rider, but that day she rode pitched awkwardly in her saddle with her shoulders tight and hunched forward. Esther whispered to me afterward, “She is half the person she normally is.”
We couldn’t ride much so we spent a lot of the week driving around. We didn’t talk about plans for our trip the following year. We didn’t talk much at all. We didn’t even find any sweaters to buy. I kept thinking of the Otis Redding song: The Thrill is Gone. We were disassembling as a group. I only remember Alison remaining her upbeat, stalwart self. It didn’t help that Bev wasn’t on the trip that year. I missed her. But she was had gone to Texas to spend time with her son who was on furlough after serving his tour in Iraq.
One night at dinner we succumbed to my least favorite conversation, especially on vacation —our country’s problems. We wallowed in the general complaint that things were awful in the States. This and that, terrible and broken, we despaired. Referring to her country, Helga said, “Young people nowadays whine a lot about how hard their lives have become, but I tell them, ‘yeah it will be tough for a few years, we’ll have to work harder and do without, but that’s the way it is. So just shut up and suck it up.’”
We laughed at this, repeated it like a mantra. For the remainder of the trip, we reminded each other of Helga’s advice– “shut up and suck it up.” It helped.
On the next to last day, Helga drove us to the perimeters of her property. “I want to show you this, because I don’t think you’ve seen all the farmland.” She drove her Jeep out to a point on the bay we had never ridden to, where the beach was gray sand and windblown heather. Then she drove us due east to another point, telling us that the farm extended from one point to the other. 8,000 acres. On one spit of land, Helga told us that last summer she had a big birthday party for herself. Everyone came on their horses; it was an eight hour ride each way. Gunnar had driven out and pitched a big tent and dance floor. He built a paddock for the horses to stay in. Everyone camped overnight.
Finally something sparked in us. “Can we do that next year?” Esther asked. “And camp out overnight on the beach?” Alison added. “I’d be up for that,” I said. Still a little timid, Kat said, “maybe we could do half the trip; we could ride out and Gunnar could pick us up in the truck on the way back.”
But it was a plan; we had a plan for the next year, a goal, a destination. We would return. Iceland would recover. The thrill was not gone after all. Our mantra switched from “shut up and suck it up,” to “next year, same place.”